Friendship, fear and fighting: A love letter from a postmaster
Charlie Sihota thought a life in the Post Office was all 'licking stamps'. It turned out to be rather more than that
By Kirsty Bosley
Charlie Sihota is rifling through a drawer and shouting to me from another room of the house that’s attached to his Halesowen Post Office. He’s in search of something precious that he wants to show me, sparked by my question:
What exactly is a postmaster?
He’s been here in Hawne for 14 years and took control of the franchise when he was just 24. He was fresh-faced, arriving just as news of the British Post Office Scandal had begun to seep into public recognition. Sub-postmasters around the country were falling victim to what would go down in history as one of the most widespread miscarriages of justice in our history; their reputations and community standing shattered by false accusations of theft and wrongdoing. At this point, Charlie thought running a Post Office would be as simple as licking stamps.
The son of Indian immigrants who settled in Britain in the 1970s, grafting is in his DNA. His dad Jasvir once ran a trouser-making factory on Smethwick’s Rolfe Street with his brother before the family took on a shop on the high street and later in Malvern, where his mom Rani was the backbone of their business.
Hawne is something of a half-way point between the two. It has a village feel like Malvern — a barber, funeral directors, boozer and bike shop are all Charlie’s neighbours — though it's less polished. Like most areas, the cost of living crisis is biting. “People have been a bit ratty lately, which is to be expected,” Charlie says. “Instead of putting a tenner on their gas or electric key, they’re putting £3 on instead... We’re seeing that a lot.”
As he continues his search, Charlie’s daughter Lily, 14, scratches one of their sleek, exotic-looking cats behind the ear. Charlie’s only child, she could be off TikToking as I’m interviewing her single dad. Instead, she’s sitting quietly and listening as he answers, balancing delicately the teenage air of indifference with a clear undercurrent of fascination.
Charlie hands over the treasure, an order of service from a funeral of a man called Rocky, born in 1966, whose picture smiles up from the front. “It crushed me when he died...” Charlie said. “I loved him, man. He was a fireball.”
Rocky was a customer, but he’d become so much more over the years. Let’s say it takes 20 minutes a day to get your small business batch of parcels labelled up and shipped, add an extra ten on for catching up on the boxing, family and life, and then multiply that by 14 years and you’ve got the foundations of a friendship. The pair travelled the Black Country, watching local fighters walloping each other’s earholes and sharing the joy of seeing Rocky’s son fight his way to a British championship. His old mate’s death hit Charlie harder than any punch ever could.
“All my friends are older than me...” he tells me. There are more funeral service booklets in his drawer of memories — those who came each day to get their pensions, to buy their life insurance, to return their parcels, and send gifts to grandchildren. Charlie remembers them all.
“One lady comes in to buy second-class stamps,” he says. “I’ll say ‘give the letter here and I’ll post it for you’ but then there is no letter. When she opens her purse to put the stamp away, I see there’s plenty of stamps in there already...it’s nice to have a chat.”
His parents run the shop adjacent to the Post Office and they’re just as beloved. “Rani translates to ‘Queen’ and that says it all,” Charlie explains. “The customers call her Queenie. That or ‘mom’. She’s that sort of person. Without her, nothing happens.”
And a lot does happen in the Post Office. Over the years, Charlie has kept the lifeblood of the community pumping — his role makes him the vital ventricle in a properly connected local life. In some ways, it’s a job that feels like the vestige of a world that has otherwise mostly disappeared; a world of local physical connection via busy pubs, picking up the paper and queuing for pension cheques.
We live more private lives now than when he started this job — we do more things at home and order more things online. But Charlie is still taking deliveries in, moving stock for sellers, banking, breaking change for shops, helping with credit cards, loans, mortgages. “A postmaster is the heart of things,” he says.
Our conversation is easy — he’s practised in passing the time with friendly nattering. It becomes harder, though, when I ask what the worst parts of the job are.
“The armed robbery...” Charlie begins. I ask him to explain but the words get lost in his throat. Charlie has built a boxing gym behind the ‘fortress’ of the Post Office. Over the years, he’s held the pads for customers-turned-friends, sharing a love of sport and wellness with those he’s come to know it will help. He was working out in the gym in the summer of 2017 when his employee walked in and told him that a man brandishing a gun was demanding cash. Rani was in the shop calling the police, a customer calmly standing in the corner while the perpetrator smashed his way in. Charlie came face-to-face with him as he was leaving.
“The customers were amazing,” Charlie tells me. “They really banded together bringing gifts, giving hugs, and making sure we were all OK.” The family had a day off to fix the damage, reinforce and adapt their security system and steel their nerve before getting back to work.
His first response in the days after the attack was to put the Post Office on the market. But then, after just one viewing, he backtracked. He realised he didn’t want to sell.
The attack had shocked him, but it hadn’t shaken his love for what he does. “My customers don’t feel like customers,” he says. They’re part of our extended family. They buy my daughter Christmas presents, they’ve watched her grow. A guy who used to come in the shop as a little boy is now a grown man, fitting my kitchen! The people of Halesowen know they can rely on us, with a smile before anything else.”
He gives me one of his best, and a special delivery hug, before he locks the fortress door behind me and I set off back to the city.
Want to read more from Kirsty? Try her recent feature about the Express and Star, a beloved local newspaper with a big past and an uncertain future.