I couldn't guess what the parcel might contain so was keen to get it delivered. I'd not heard of the Home Delivery Network before but hoped it would be as straightforward as collecting a parcel through Royal Mail: wait 24 hours and then pick it up after queuing for a few minutes at the local depot. First, I went to the website which Firefox warned me was dodgy and that I shouldn't visit. Then the site insisted my postcode was invalid, so I couldn't access the system there. While the call centre – which I called to have the delivery rescheduled – had a record of the parcel, it had no delivery address and no tracking data. I put the phone down with the mystery unresolved.
Yesterday, having no more news, no more notes through the door, I decided to cycle to the nearest depot in Newhaven, the continental ferry port nine miles east of Brighton (Royal Mail's is within walking distance). Although it would be the furthest I'd cycled since my accident nearly three years ago and, worse, along a busy, severely undulating clifftop road, I wanted to guarantee taking possession of the parcel. By now I had guessed it was Mathias Énard's Zone and was even more keen. However, the call centre said it could be picked up only between eight and twelve midday on Saturday. So, today instead, I set off in hope and a bright orange rain jacket. Waves were crashing over the marina cobb as I passed and, as the cliffs began, a new sign offering counselling to potential suicides blocked the view over the supermarket car park below. I could tell it wasn't going to be easy.
Newhaven is an English town familiar to those born and raised outside London: low-rise, run down and apparently uninhabited. It is parasitic of the mouth of the river in which Virginia Woolf drowned and, where I crossed on the swing bridge, the thick paste of mud on the banks held in place a rusty, delapidated fishing boat covered in torn and flapping tarpaulin. The best thing about the town is the shell of the Conservative Club gutted by fire.
When I found the depot down a concrete road on an industrial estate, I became part of a small crowd of fellow parcel collectors. We queued in a narrow hall outside a window in a wall with décor from the 1970s except for the digital clock. One woman couldn't stay there because the flickering flourescent light threatened an epileptic fit. The receptionist called for our tickets and we handed them over with proof of identity. "We don't have your address", I was told, so I handed over an envelope addressed to me.
– Don't you know it?
– Yes. It's there, on the paper.
– But you don't seem to know your address.
– You had to get a piece of paper to show your address.
– Yes, you asked for proof of address, so I brought some.
– What's your postcode?
I spoke my full address and postcode without looking at the paper and the person left to descend into the bowels of the building. In the twenty or thirty minutes we waited for our parcels there was unanimous criticism of HDN's customer service. "I work long hours so how can I be at home all day waiting for a delivery?"; "Why don't they deliver on a Saturday - we could guarantee being in"; "The website says my postcode is invalid"; "You can't blame the staff but they don't have to be rude."
Miraculously, my parcel was found. Only it wasn't Mathias Énard's Zone. However, given all that went before, it seems appropriate that it was this beautiful book instead.