And the Days Grow Shorter
by James Meek
Gordon hadn't been to the garden
centre on foot before. It was a fair haul across the car park to the entrance and coming
on to rain too. What was he doing letting Smithie go off with the car like that, it was
his, he'd paid for it. These wee laddies with their fancy motors, red Jap Dinky
boxes-on-wheels for folk who never learned to tie their laces and wore slip-ons, there
should be a law that they had to stop for their elders and let them take the wheel. I'm
sorry son, I'm going to have to take this vehicle off you for a few days, looks like we're
in for a wet spell. I understand, sir, you've earned the right, here are the keys. Spot
on, son. Cheerio!
He went in, released a trolley and
cruised the aisles. He put in a power drill, a baseball cap saying Team Bosch and a shiny
steel tool in a fold-out case with forty different attachments. He didn't know what it was
for but it looked like you could have fun with it. Christ, look at that fountain. You just
plugged in the hose and it started burbling away. Classy. Could have it in the front room,
run the pipe under the rug. Marble-effect plastic. An absolute miracle, a gem. Probably
from China right enough but who was it bought it, eh? Who had the taste and the spending
power? Not old Charlie Chan, that was for sure.
Could buy one for Smithie. Ach, not Smithie, the other
one, with the breasts. How did she know Smithie was dead? They never told you anything.
One thing was sure: Smithie would've wanted his pal Gordon to have the shotgun. That was
agenda item number one at the next meeting.
Past the sun loungers again, that was the third time.
There was a boy in a white shirt and black breeks and a badge with his name on in case he
forgot who he was in the midst of a transaction. They had it easy, there'd been times when
Gordon could have done with one of them, quick glance in the window to get the reflection
and read it off, but he'd always had to wing it.
I'm looking for autumn leaves, said Gordon.
Eh? said the boy, pushing his face into Gordon's.
Autumn leaves, said Gordon, you know, for scattering
round the garden, and bonfires.
Aw we don't do them mate, sorry. Need to try somewhere
else. He was turning away.
You always used to do them. There were big wooden
barrels and you'd lift them out with tongs and sell them by the pound.
The boy narrowed his eyes and scratched his head. His
name was Mr Campbell Ferrier. No, he said. I've worked here two years and we've never done
autumn leaves. He was beginning to have his doubts though.
I've been coming here all my life and you could always
get autumn leaves, said Gordon. Heaps of them. They're in season just now. It's autumn.
I think most folk just gather their own, sir, really,
said Mr Campbell Ferrier. I'm sure you'd get some from the council. Anyhow this place only
opened two years ago.
You should ask your supervisor, said Gordon.
Honestly sir, he'd say the same as me.
You'll be telling me next you don't do twigs.
No, we don't do twigs. What kind of twigs? Plastic
What would I want with plastic twigs? Real twigs! The
kind that snap when someone steps on them.
Campbell! Another man came up. He looked exactly like
Mr Campbell Ferrier except his moustache looked real and his badge said Mr Fairlie
Cochrane. They're needing more shrubs in area 10.
Do we do autumn leaves and twigs? said Mr Campbell
What kind of twigs? said Mr Fairlie Cochrane.
The kind that snap when you step on them.
So you can hear when someone's coming, said Gordon.
You used to sell them in packs of ten.
Mr Fairlie Cochrane gazed at Gordon and his trolley
for a while with his jaw jutting out and his mouth just slightly open. He put his hand on
Gordon's shoulder and pointed to the far end of the warehouse. See up there where it says
Home Security? he said softly. You can try up there for the twigs. I can't promise, mind
you. If you've no luck there try going through that wee door at the back. OK?
Home security had a ring to it right enough, but no
twigs. Gordon went up the back and rammed the door open with his trolley. Raw November air
rushed in. Gordon passed through. There was a stretch of tarmac, some rolls of green
twine, a van and sacks of fertiliser. The tarmac was surrounded by a high barbed wire
fence and the open gate had a fibreglass bothy watching over it. Beyond the gate there was
a road and fields and farm buildings.
Gordon pushed the trolley up to the gate and peered
through the window of the bothy. It was empty. He went out the gate and up the road
towards the farm buildings. The racket the trolley made on the road, you'd think they'd
have got round to tiling it and roofing it over by now. That was a grand smell of dung,
though. Gordon breathed in the damp grey air with the sweet smell of cow shite. He'd been
shopping here a long time.
He found the place after about fifteen minutes. There
was no sign hung over it. Nothing to hang a sign from except the sky and the trees
themselves. The trees were the same trees. What were they beech trees, aye? After all this
time you'd think they would have got more modern trees, in keeping with the rest of the
garden centre. A fire would be good. The smell of burning leaves and the smell of dung.
The corbies looked like flakes of charred paper coming off a bonfire just started, the way
they rose and fell like that. The trees came down both sides of the road, an avenue, and a
little way into the fields on one side. Between the copse and the field was a stone dyke.
There were cows in the field.
Gordon dragged the trolley on to the verge and walked
in among the trees. He picked up handfuls of wet beech leaves and put them in the trolley.
Sure enough, some of them slipped through the mesh. It was a bad business and a hard life.
Gordon wandered away towards the dyke. Snap! Christ, there you were. Would you have to pay
for the twigs you used? They shouldn't leave them lying in the dirt like that. He bent
down and picked up a few lengths of twig. A crow called and the tops of the trees rustled.
Gordon looked up. The trees were so much bigger than he was. Supposing they fell? It was a
cold, wild, unloving place. Gordon looked over his shoulder. A feeling like waking up from
a nightmare in the darkness touched him. If anyone had been there to ask him what it was,
he would have held on to them and asked them if he wasn't a burglar who'd broken into his
own mind and found it was a terrible fearful place but that he couldn't get out or do
anything about it.
Gordon reached the dyke and stood with his hands in
his pockets looking at the half-dozen cows in the field. One of them was lying on the
ground, not like they usually did, but on its side, like it was drunk. While he watched,
another one started to keel over, just as there was the sound of a shotgun going off. The
cow tottered forward a few paces, shook its head from side to side, and buckled. The
remaining animals shifted their ground and made faint mooing sounds and looked at the
woods nervously out of the corners of their eyes.
Gordon walked along the wall and saw a farmer slotting
cartridges into a broken shotgun. The farmer snapped it shut, took aim with his elbows
resting on the top of the dyke and fired. A third cow toppled. Gordon broke into a trot
and called out: Give's a shot, eh!
The farmer looked round, shook his head, and let off
the second barrel.
Ach, now look what you've away gone and done, he said.
Blown its flicking nose off He began to reload as the cow galloped around the meadow,
screaming. Gordon had never heard a cow scream before. It was a bad sound.
Sorry, he said. Let us do it, eh. Go on.
Ever used one of these before? said the farmer,
locking the gun shut.
The farmer hesitated and frowned. No, he said. It's my
gun and they're my cows. He let loose with both barrels and the screaming stopped.
Ah, I remember you, said Gordon. Mind how we used to
come and build dens here and kick seven kinds of shite out of the teuchters?
Aye, I mind very well. I was one of the teuchters. You were
one of the snotty heathens from Heriot's.
It wasn't Heriot's, said Gordon. Give's a shot, eh.
No. The farmer broke the gun and crooked it in his
arm. He leaned on the dyke with his free hand. As far as I remember it was us used to do
How come you're shooting all your cows?
What, are they all mad, then?
I don't really know, said the farmer. I get
Give's a shot, go on.
No. You might be from the cruelty people for all I
Fair point, said Gordon. I'm not though.
Mad farmer's disease, that's what it is, said the
farmer. I was daft not to have got rid of the livestock years ago and move on to setaside.
You know what the clever money is in these days? Ostriches. That's where they say the
Ostriches? said Gordon. For the feathers?
The meat. The meat's very tasty, they say.
Aye but how could you even get one in the oven.
That's a good question, said the farmer. Another point
is precipitation. If you compare African scrubland and Central Scotland bogland, there's a
world of difference.
You're right there.
The ostrich is going to notice, isn't he?
Uhuh. They stopped talking for a while. The ostrich in
the rain. And the snow, and the wind. Blinking. Greeting. Unable even to complain.
If it's ostriches they're wanting, said Gordon, why
not pandas? They're always saying how short they are of pandas.
The farmer wrinkled his nose. They can never get them
to breed, he said.
That's because they never give the pandas enough
choice, said Gordon. Put yourself in the panda's situation. You're sitting in some wee
room and suddenly this door opens and you go scampering through because there's nothing
else to do and there's this naked female sitting there eating bamboo shoots. And you're
expected to jump on her and give her a poke. Only she's not some dolly bird, she's old and
fat and horrible and besides she's not into it. And they don't give you any choice, it's
her or nothing. And they're surprised when nothing happens.
Bollocks, said the farmer. They deserve to be extinct
if they take that kind of an attitude towards breeding. I'm telling you, I'd give her one,
if there was no-one else, whatever she looked like. You think the way the youngsters do
I do not!
Aye you do. If you can't have a skinny young lassie,
you'd be better not having a hump at all, or abusing yourself That's what everyone thinks.
That's why the sperm count's going down, if you ask me. They blame farmers. They blame
fertilisers. You know what it's really all about? Too many pictures of perfect skinny
lassies all over the place, in TV and the magazines and the adverts. If it goes on like
this we'll all die out like pandas cause we're too flicking choosy.
Gordon leaned back against the wall. The wind was
getting up and the great black bare trees waved like kelp in a spring tide, hissing.
Are they set to roof this area over, then? he said.
It's a bit rough on the trolleys out here.
Haven't heard anything, said the farmer.
I mind when that garden centre wasn't roofed over
either, said Gordon. They didn't have trolleys or checkouts. There was just stuff growing
in a field. You helped yourself There was dirt and thistles and sometimes they got
hedgehogs in, and eggs.
The farmer followed his eyes to the corrugated hangar,
painted grey and scarlet. it's an eyesore, right enough, he said. It's a shame. And they
paid me almost nothing for the land.
How much do you want for the gun?
The farmer held out the gun and spun it slowly in his
hands, pursing his lip. Not for sale, he murmured.
I'll give you 200 for it.
Uhuh. With the cartridges, that is.
Gordon gave the farmer the money and clasped the heavy
gun in his hands. He placed it in the trolley and stuffed the cartridges the farmer gave
him into his pocket.
You'll need the cover, said the farmer.
It's OK, said Gordon. I'll come and fetch it later.
They'll give me a bag at the checkout. He shook the farmer's hand and forced the trolley
back onto the tarmac. The castors squealed and shook down the road back to the building.
Gordon went through the same back door and rolled up to the till.
The lassie at the checkout held the laser poised in
the air in her right hand and pulled the mesh of the trolley towards her with her slender
white fingers, shiny crimson nails like blades. She peered down into the layers of damp
leaves and twigs. Her name was Miss Caitlin Fernie.
Where's the packaging? she said.
There's no packaging. They're sold by the pound, said
They've got to have a barcode on them, else they won't
go through. What is it?
There's autumn leaves, and twigs.
The girl leaned into a microphone and her voice
calling for help echoed through the building.
I'll just take this for you in the meantime, she said,
reaching for the gun. She gripped the barrel and lifted it out of the trolley, frowning
and wrinkling her nose with the effort. She held it with the butt resting on the conveyor
and swivelled it, stroking it with the laser.
I paid for it already, said Gordon.
Oh right, said Miss Caitlin Fernie. What department?
Back there where the trees are.
I'll just need to check She swung the weapon back into
the trolley and rang up his other items. She clasped her hands with the laser on her lap
and looked around impatiently. Gordon started packing his purchases into plastic bags. He
found a good big bag for the gun and wrapped it up while the girl was looking the other
way. A supervisor called Mr Forbes Cameron sloped up.
There's no barcode on these assorted leaves and twigs,
said the girl.
Ach, they're selling them loose again, said Mr Forbes
Cameron in disgust. Just enter it like compost.
How much though? The customer says they're selling it
by the pound.
They never tell us anything. Enter it like a two-kilo
bag. I'm sorry, sir, it's the reorganisation, it's just chaos.
Chaos, said Gordon. He nodded. Mr Forbes Cameron
walked away and Miss Caitlin Fernie rang up a two-kilo bag of compost while Gordon stuffed
the twigs and leaves into a bag. He put it on Visa and strolled out through the automatic
doors. The sky had darkened and the storm was throwing rain horizontally across the car
All right Gordon, said Charlie Sturrock, coming out
the garden centre after him with two petrol canisters and a coil of thin clear plastic
tubing. How you doing? Good, eh? Fine with me too. Couldn't be better, aye. Turnover aye,
got to watch the turnover, don't want to be in a cash negative situation, no worries, no
worries. Aye terrible weather, eh, terrible weather. No, it's fine, really, great. You eh,
you eh, haven't seen you down the club house for a wee while, you eh, everything all
right? All right? Aye? Good 'cause you don't want to let these things get you down do you,
no, they happen, and they say his books were in a terrible state.
All right Charlie, said Gordon. How's it going with
Oh, it's great, fantastic, cash positive, cash
positive. In the black every time. Up on every deal, uhuh. Uhuh. It's a shame to take
their money from them but it's their lookout if they don't know what to do with it. No
we're feeling really good about it, expanding soon, got to put some of the profits back,
We? said Gordon. I thought it was just you.
Just me? Oh there's a massive payroll, there's Liz and
the office manager and the accountant and the bar staff and the bouncers. It's a big
operation, Gordon, and the spondulicks keep rolling in, you can't stop them. It's like,
you've heard of these cash mountains, that's what it's like. A cash mountain.
I'd like to get to the top of that mountain, said
Gordon. Any chance of a lift?
Not got the car? No problem. The company limo's
Got a new car?
Only a Jag.
You always had a Jag.
It's not the car, it's the running costs, said
Charlie. Any flash arsehole can buy a new Jaguar but you need to be loaded to run a
Gordon put his goods in the boot and settled down in
the worn leather seats. The rain slashed across the windows and drummed on the roof. The
car even creaked a little in the wind. Vintage. Another word for old. Vintage wine.
Vintage fish heads. Vintage men. Gordon and Charlie and the farmer, vintage men. Vintage
bastards. Vintage fools.
Look at that poor lassie from the garden centre
running out into the rain, said Charlie, watching in the rear mirror as the Jag moved
away. Some poor bastard must have gone off without paying. Bad news for the boss, eh? The
cash flow is paramount.
Weather, said Gordon, shaking his head. Never get a
fire going for the leaves at this rate.
I don't know, said Charlie. Depends where you light
it. He cleared his throat and put his foot down.