Edinburgh

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Peter's back was sore, maybe from lifting potatoes - not the big sacks, you prepared yourself for them and bent your knees the way you should, did what the Health and Safety poster told you. But there were little sacks, too - heritage varieties with comforting names and credentials from the Soil Association - and you'd take them in your stride, not thinking: two or three to either hand so you could fill up your display, and you'd be careless and you'd wreck yourself. That's what always harmed you, lack of foresight.

Only it wasn't the potatoes.

It was the dream that hurt him first.

He'd been down by a seashore far away - far away from where, he didn't know - and there were green pebbles underfoot, very glassy and quite treacherous. He'd glanced down and found a shotgun in his hands and had perfectly understood how he should work it, had broken it open and let the spent cartridge cases spring up and out, had inhaled their smoke which was slightly sweet and made his head light, started him laughing. Then he'd reloaded and fired and fired.

He was shooting penguins for the greater good. That's what he'd had to tell someone who came up and complained - "I'm shooting penguins for the greater good. They'll bring in the whales." And a part of him felt this was dreadful and another part felt it was necessary fun.

Either way, it was definitely true. In Peter's dream, the more he killed penguins, the better it was for the whales and he liked whales. Everybody liked whales. Even whalers - couldn't get enough of them. Then again, watching himself with the gun and hearing the oddly tinkling fall of what he supposed must be shot, he was certain he also liked penguins.

And his inquisitor remained upset. Peter couldn't exactly see the person's face, or anything else - that whole area was a mainly brownish haze - but the anger and the questions were quite well defined: "Why are you doing this?" or something close to that, some kind of accusation. Peter didn't answer, just carried on with his shooting, aware now of the twitching flippers and the bodies mounting up and the dangerous slither and grind of the stones beneath him.

That was more than enough to stay with you when you woke, Pete thought, just the thing to worry at your spine.

Then he dodged behind the counter and rang up three sharon fruit and a packet of energising tea for a man he vaguely recognised.

Doesn't even say "Hello" though, or "Good morning" or "Thanks for not shoving your thumb into one of my sharon fruit while I'm distracted by fishing out a ten pound note". Fat wallet and a very crisp tenner - as if someone's starched it for him - good haircut, nice jacket - not really a shopper: more like a man who is pissing about in a break away from work. The sharon fruit will rot in the bag and he'll never drink the tea, because he's not healthy at heart. Bet his wife buys the food and keeps house, irons all his money. His wife, or his girlfriend. Maybe both.

Peter gave his customer a plastic bag that wouldn't be recycled, because said customer was a cunt, the sort of cunt who's barely aware of you, because you do not matter, and who does not say goodbye.

Cunt.

Really.

It's a harsh word, but the only one that fits.

And meanwhile the rest of Pete's dream was in him and waiting, stuck at the back of his neck and, once his customer had left him, it nipped out.

After the penguin culling, everything vanished, the way it can in sleep: the scene just wiped away and gone with no explanation. Then he was kneeling inside a salt breeze, possibly on the wiry, seafront type of grass, and he was cradling this penguin. Its soft little head lolled, hot in the palm of his hand.

It looked up at him and started giving fragile coughs, the way a wounded cowboy might in the second last scene of a movie, or the way a wounded soldier might in the second last scene of a movie, or the way a wounded child might in the second last scene of a movie - dying in a loved one's arms and spurring them on to vengeance, or despair, whichever might be appropriate to the previous storyline.

Except that he'd shot the penguin and it was not a loved one. Nevertheless, its eyes were an especially liquid brown and it pleaded at him, beak clattering softly, as if it would like to speak now, but being a bird, was unable.

Although some birds can - they just don't understand what they're saying. Not as far as we can tell.

There had been two wounds, he could see them, both the very brightest red in the black of its coat - wet and pouting bullet wounds, although he hadn't been firing bullets - and the coat seemed more black than it should do and really more like a person's coat with pockets, lapels and then sleeves. And Peter gripped the penguin's neck and thought he should finish it, snap the spinal cord - however you did that - but its eyes watched him and were so deep, so aching, that he couldn't try. In fact, he had now decided that he should nurse it back to health. He was hoping to redeem himself by saving it and becoming its closest friend, but the creature's coughing was weaker by this time, uneven, and its body was also growing lighter, as if it were ceasing to be in some especially disturbing sort of way.

Which was when Peter had rolled to the left in his bed, the penguin fading in his grip, this beautiful thing that he'd murdered.

Meaning what exactly? That I've killed my Inner Penguin? I don't even believe I've got an Inner Child, let alone some kind of interior bloody zoo. Or is this supposed to be my Spirit Guide - an especially graceless bird on life support?

At the back of his shop there was a cork board shaggy with leaflets that advertised books about Spirit Guides and retreats that would heal you with horses and every other sort of shite. Sell organic food and imitation bacon and suddenly folk thought you'd tolerate anything. Poorly-looking lunatics would rush at you from miles around with news of whatever had saved them from themselves.

But hypnotic trance would not bring me interior calm and T'ai Chi would not make me happy and nobody learns to see angels - not even on a weekend workshop - not even in an atmosphere of loving fellowship and with a former Buddhist monk on hand.

Plus, I don't want to see angels - how fucking terrified would you be, if you ever did.

Not that he'd object to being healthy, not at all. He'd lost weight lately, for example - was looking scrawny, sparse. But that was to do with boredom, or tiredness, or something else - it certainly wasn't a sign of disease.

He didn't really eat much, that was the problem. Trapped with fruit and vegetables for hours every working day, it wasn't fair to expect he should then go home and cook them. All of that cutting and fussing and boiling, it was too much. So now he just bought this powdered stuff and drank it.

The pack says it's delicious and can be enjoyed at many different times. I have certainly tried it at many different times. I'm not sure I could pinpoint the truly enjoyable ones. I would allow that the range of flavours is impressive - but normal human beings could only be expected to tolerate three: Strawberry, Nothing and Chicken. I think Nothing's my favourite.

His powders did the job. And they contained chromium chloride and sodium molybdate, phosphorous, iodine, biotin: numerous complicated things he was meant to need.

I may have been undernourished previously.

At lunchtime Peter whisked up his lunch in his personal mug with his personal fork and then drank it in the basement, because if you own the shop you can choose not to man the till at busy times and you should be able to stay undisturbed and chilly for the whole of your break if you want. It always was chilly in here - that was its disadvantage as a hiding place.

Fintan gangled down the steps at 20 past one. His jeans, emerging before him, were even more paint-stained than usual which would mean that he'd been creating all night - probably some kind of sci-fi tableau - his descriptions of them generally sounded ghastly. He was laughing.

"What?"

"What?" Fintan seeming slightly alarmed when Peter stood up from among the boxes and pallets of stock.

"I said what. What are you laughing at?"

"Oh, yes . . ." Fintan paused and it was clear that he'd come down intending to talk to someone, anyone - anyone but Peter.

"You were looking for Tim."

"Yes." He scratched under his two T-shirts, giving a glimpse of gingerish belly fur.

"He's not on yet. What were you laughing about?"

Fintan surrendered, because presumably any audience would do. "I was out straightening up the display outside?"

Peter hated this - the way people made statements now as if they were questions, as if there was nothing definitive any more. It was an American habit, or Australian.

It's bloody stupid, is what it is.

"Yes, you were out with the display . . ."

Fintan rubbed the grubby-looking area within which he was growing a retro moustache. "Right . . . and this old lady comes along? And she picks up a box of strawberries and she's tugging my sleeve and I'm wanting her to let me alone, because I thought she was complaining, but she wasn't." Fintan grinned.

"And what was she? Having a heart attack? Propositioning you?"

"She wanted to know what to do with strawberries?"

"What?"

"She wanted to know what to do with strawberries. I mean, she was 400 years old and she didn't know what to do with them and there's not much you can, like - is there? - add cream and sugar, or you make jam? So I'm listing stuff . . . strawberry crumble, strawberry pie, strawberry gravy, strawberry pudding, fricassee of strawberry risotto. Just this big fucking list and she's, like, just listening to it? Absolutely."

This was Fintan who interfered with sharon fruit. Which was to say that all the assistants did and had and quite probably would - once one of them discovered it, you couldn't contain it. The knowledge that pressing your finger, pushing it in through the skin of a sharon fruit, felt so much and so plainly, exactly like fingering something else that no young, hairy, grubby fruiterer could resist it - that wisdom could not be suppressed.

They used to be called persimmons, not sharon. Give them a chav name, this is what happens - they're easy - they'll let anyone have them, any time.

Fintan was still talking. "Why do they pick me? There was another one earlier - which of these oranges will be the sweetest?" He stretched. "That's . . . and, anyway, how could you live that long and not know what to do with a strawberry for Christ's sake?"

"Maybe she was senile."

"Yeah . . . I fucking hate them all." Fintan hiccoughed a final giggle and then ducked and scrambled back up to the shop.

Peter went and put on the kettle, washed out his mug at the sink in what was supposed to be their earth-free area.

Jesus, I employ savages.

Because they don't bother me and they're cheap.

It occurred to him that the woman might simply have wanted company, a chat. If you were lonely enough, you might do that.

This being a subject we should change.

I should change.

And, talking of change, my wallet has to go: I've had enough of it. You can't have a brown wallet - it's not right - and mine isn't even brown, it's beige. Why would anyone make beige leather? Can't have respect for yourself when you're dealing with that every day.

It was badly designed, in any case, I should have noticed when I bought it. Not enough places for all of the cards you're meant to carry so that you can drive your car and borrow books and rent out videos and pay by cheque and leave your parts to strangers when you're dead.

But it does give you this stupid little pocket that wouldn't fit anything useful - when they designed it, what did they think? "We'll have to provide them with somewhere to store three pence in coppers, or a lock of hair, some toenails." And there's space for a photograph, only it's fronted with mesh, a black mesh, so if you put a picture in there, your sweetheart, or whoever, would be staring at you through a fog. She would be like a prisoner, like someone who couldn't see you at all.

But by 2.30 it was raining viciously and Pete couldn't bring himself to leave the shop, never mind search out purveyors of quality wallets. So he replenished the mangoes and the navel oranges and gave someone young a student discount, although she had no identification to hand.

Probably has a cheap wallet - no room for her student card.

And they all come here for discounts, anyway: pensioner discount, staff discount, pal of staff discount, fancied by staff discount.

Not that it mattered. Flowers were what made the money. He could give the rest of it away, if he wanted - as long as Moira was lurking and tying bouquets and getting the love-sick to pay through the nose for carnations, or orchids, or roses: the floral cliché of their choice.

It's the thought that counts.

But people like thoughts demonstrated.

A twinge kicked in about his kidneys, perhaps a muscle out of sorts, but he felt he should keep on working at the till, because it formed a good distraction and there was nothing worse for pain than brooding.

Love-sick.

Love-sickened.

Love-sickness.

There's bound to be a workshop you can take for that.

Or you could simply stand in your shop and hear yourself dying and do the job that is supposed to pass your time - and then see her.

Other customers were about because it was lunchtime, but they were just the usual. She wasn't. She was made of something different.

Silly, the way you went home and you thought about her, having nothing else to occupy you beyond television programmes about Hitler and sharks, anything else being really too much of a risk.

"Edinburgh" is an extract from a new short story by A Kennedy