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This is not a submission for this upcoming anthology, but instead its first-ever (so far as I know) piece of fan-fiction. You should read the Prologue Story for ‘The Lane of Unusual Traders’ first.


“We don’t have any fruit anymore,” said Len. “Sorry.”

Len wasn’t short for Leonard, but for Lenrek, or Lonroo, or Lanjavian – some first name that I had never heard of anyone else having. He could have been from anywhere in Southern Europe or the Middle East, and looked to be in his early forties, with an unruly mustache and black hair shot through with streaks of silver. His shop was in the sort of suburban shopping centre that used to be everywhere in the seventies, just a row of shops with a parking lot in front, in a sort of backwater a few blocks back from the roar of Woodville Road.

On one side of Len’s shop was one of those franchises that sell exactly the same range of delicious yet soulless cakes everywhere from Cairns to Perth – and maybe from Edinburgh to Cape Town, as far as I know. On the other side was a drycleaner’s, run by a terrifying woman who seemed to have stepped straight out of a Manchurian winter. You felt cold in her presence, even if it was the middle of summer. I could well imagine her in some previous life, following behind Genghis Khan’s army hacking fingers off the wounded to get their rings. Further down the row of shops was a vet; the office of an obscure government agency somehow involved in funding ethnic sporting groups; and an empty florist’s, windows thick with dust. Notices were always stuck up on those windows: lost cats, motorbikes for sale, offers to write essays on economics, glossy posters for Laotian or Arabic pop singers. These things would build up, discolour, begin to disintegrate, and once every six months or so would be stripped off. No new shop ever opened up there, so presumably the rent was still paid.

“That’s too bad,” I said, when Len said he didn’t have fruit anymore. The fruit had always been one of the most interesting things about Len’s shop. “Did Veronica get in trouble?”

Len shook his head. Veronica wasn’t her real name, but the one she had chosen to go by, when she came to Australia from whatever country Len had come from. She worked at some centre for traumatised victims of wars in faraway places, and the fruit she brought in was grown in their garden: it had never been entirely clear to me whether this was something she was allowed to do or not.

“She’s gone back,” Len said. He was looking at nothing, and there was a kind of longing in his voice that I had never heard before. He was looking at nothing that was there in the shop, but I knew he was looking at something only he could see – some distant snow-capped mountain or dusty farm or crowded narrow street.

“For a holiday?” I asked. “Or for good?”

Len shook his head again. “Not for a holiday,” he said. “For good, though? For evil? I don’t know. Nobody knows. So. No more fruit.”

Veronica had brought in some little hard fig-like fruit once, and Len had put up a cardboard sign saying they were the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. That’s what Veronica had said they were, he had said, and he had almost become angry when I said she must have been having a go at him.

“I hope she’ll be alright,” I said.

Len shook his head one last time, not in response to anything I had said, but to shake himself free of whatever homesickness or unrequited love was making him act sentimental. It worked, because suddenly his eyes were focussing on me properly, and his manner became brusque and businesslike. He nodded at the bottle of soft drink in my hand. “Four dollars.”

Len’s shop was the sort of place you go early in the morning or late at night when you have an urge for a packet of smokes or a copy of the Telegraph or an overpriced 600 ml bottle of coke. It sold toilet paper and cat food and matches and chocolate and chips, and like every shop of its kind in the suburbs had a shelf of products from the old country. There were jars of pickled vegetables, pastes and oozes that I supposed were sorts of condiment , and tins in the various sizes tuna comes in, with pictures of goats or horses on them. A stack of little red tins of the same kind with silhouettes of lizards on them, which never seemed to grown any less or more, while the other goods were intermittently replenished. Dried leaves like holly in fragile-seeming cellophane packets. Things like nutmeg tied up in string bags. Hard bright sweets in the shape of scarabs, like tiny obsidian ornaments. There was no English text on any of these things, except for the ‘Imported by L. Ohrenk’ labels with the shop’s address on them. Otherwise they were labelled in a script I didn’t recognise, something like Armenian or Ethiopic, even the things that had to be numbers. Len sold newspapers in the same script – they were kept on the shelf above the Telegraph, in a place that was always in shadow , and if you were just popping by quickly to get a pack of smokes at 11 pm you would never know they were there. Len sometimes used to have one of these papers open in front of him when he stood at the counter of the shop, never reading them with any apparent interest, just letting his eyes graze slowly along the lines of words from the old country. There were four or five different kinds of these papers, never more than half a dozen copies of each, and they always had pictures of the same man on the front – grainy images of a mustachioed man in a suit or military uniform, making speeches, shaking the hands of awed looking youths, or laying wreaths at monuments. In three or four of the papers this man always looks grainily forbidding, but in a rather splendid way: you would be awed yourself to shake the hand of such a man, and honoured, without knowing exactly who he was. On the front of the last of the papers the images of the same man – often the exact same pictures – conveyed an impression of odious brutality. You would shrink away from the hand of this man, with his piggish eyes and expression of venal cunning. You would feel soiled after shaking his hand.

“Who is that guy?” I asked Len once.

“The Kraken,” said Len. He closed the paper and put it to one side, not really looking either at it or at me. He nodded at the bottle of soft drink in my hand. “Four dollars.”

Another time the paper open in front of Len had shown a picture of some procession, with a whole line of people in robes with masks that made them look like cats.

“Freaky,” I said. “Who are those people?”

Len had just grunted and closed the paper.


Sometimes Len was more talkative. I took a chance and bought one of the red tins once.

“You like this?” he said, smiling broadly and turning the tin over in his hand.

“I thought I would try it,” I said. “It looked interesting.”

“Hrm,” said Len.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Fire lizard meat, it is called,” said Len. “You probably won’t like it. You should get salmon instead.” He pointed to where the tins of ordinary Australian food sat.

“I thought I’d see what this was like,” I said.

Len shrugged. “Fair enough,” he said. “Just spread a little, on a bit of bread. Or you could mix it with noodles. Don’t eat it out of the tin, you won’t like it.”

“Does this really have lizards in it?” I asked. “Or is it just a name?”

Len laughed. “Three dollars,” he said.

Len had predicted correctly, and I didn’t like the stuff in the red tin particularly. I think it really did have lizards in it. They were like large sardines, with soft bones that crumbled at the touch of a spoon, and packed into a congealed fat that seemed animal rather than vegetable. The fire lizard meat was also painfully hot: the kind of peppery hot that is not so bad to begin with, but hangs around stubbornly for five minutes, no matter how much water you drink or yoghurt you eat.


Len’s shop had a little bin for fruit and vegetables tucked away at the back – no bigger than what you might have for one kind of apple or mandarin at a supermarket, but divided up into four compartments, and Veronica used always to bring in things that were grown in the garden of the place where she worked. She was a woman about the same age as Len, with the pugnacious no-nonsense manner of the very short, and I only ever saw her smile once. People say smiles are ‘dazzling’ all the time, but it was only ever Veronica’s smile that I ever felt that was really true. It was like being a small animal caught in the headlights of a car. I would have handed her my own car keys to her without thinking if she’d asked me then.

Sometimes I would hear Veronica talking at the counter with Len in a language full of the nasal vowels of French or Farsi. They would talk softly and rapidly, not at all like either of them spoke English, and they would stop suddenly when they noticed I was there, and talk slowly and awkwardly in English about nothing in particular.

“You don’t have to stop on my account,” I said, the second or third time I came in and they fell silent like this.

“It would not be polite,” said Veronica. “Anyhow, it is time for to go.” She gave a little bow to me, and then to Len, addressing him by his proper name – Lenrek, or Lonroo, or Lanjavian, whatever it was – and left the shop.


Both Len and Veronica had tattoos on their forearms, I had noticed. Not exactly the same, but very similar, an arc of symbols making about a third of a circle in the same letters or numbers that were on the tins that came from the old country.

“What does that mean?” I asked him one summer morning when he seemed to be in a mellow mood and was wearing short sleeves.

“It means I was unlucky,” he said, and tugged at his sleeve as if it could stretch to cover the tattoo, which it had no hope at all of doing. “Prisoner of war.”

“Wow,” I said. “That must have sucked.” I tried and failed to imagine Len with a Kalashnikov somewhere in the Balkans or the Caucasus.

“It was not so very long,” he said. “There was an amnesty. But yes, it sucked.”

“Was Veronica a prisoner of war too?” I asked.

“You notice a lot,” said Len. “Yes. We fought together, in the old country.”

“Did you win?” I asked.

“You think we would be here, if we won?” said Len, a little scorn in his voice. He nodded at the fruit in my hand. “Two dollars.”


Except for the ladyfinger bananas, I never saw any of the kinds of fruit Veronica brought to Len’s shop for sale anywhere else. There were those fig-like things I mentioned before that were called the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. I have never figured out how to describe how they tasted. They tasted like themselves. There was a kind of pomegranate that was a corpsey translucent white inside and out, with a faint flavour of cardamom and a faint smell of the sea. There were mangoes- I am sure they were mangoes, they tasted like mangoes, but at the same time I am pretty sure it is too cold in Sydney to grow any sort of mango, and I can’t imagine a whole mango tree in the garden of a centre for traumatised refugees, so maybe they weren’t mangoes – labelled ‘Executioner’s Fich’. I don’t know if this was a misspelling of ‘fish’ or not. Their skin was the same brown colour as human skin, which was not disturbing, but inside they were the red of arterial blood, which was. If you ate one you ended up looking like a zombie who has been feasting on the flesh of the living. It was only the ladyfinger bananas that ever sold very well. Everything else would sit in the bin until it grew wrinkled or spotty, and had to be thrown away. But I made a point of trying at least one of everything Veronica brought in, and they were always worth it. Even the mottled greyish melons that smelled like baby shit were pretty good on the inside.

Then there were the other melons: Veronica only brought those melons once. They were the size of rockmelons, and covered with a tangled arabesque of patterns in cream and dark-green.

“Hey, Len, you could be famous,” I had said, taking one to the counter. ‘”This is amazing.”

“What do you mean?” he said.

“Look,” I pointed. “It’s Arabic. ‘There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His Prophet’. It’s a miracle.”

“It’s painted,” he said suspiciously, taking the melon from me. He scratched at the writing with a fingernail.

“You’ll wreck it,” I protested.

“It’s only a melon,” he said. He put it down on the counter and hurried over to the fruit bin. I followed.

“How about this one?” he picked up another melon and turned it over and over, then stabbed at a squiggle with his finger.

“That’s just a squiggle,” I said.

But the next melon had most of the Surah that starts: ‘Recite: In the name of He who creates man from a clot’ on it, and Len swore fiercely in his own language.

“You say anything about this to anyone, you are not to come into my shop again, you understand?” said Len, glowering at me.

“Okay,” I said. “But you-”

“Don’t say anything,” Len growled.

There turned out to be four melons, all up, with phrases from the Qur’an on them, and Len took them all away and hid them behind the counter.

“What does it mean?” I asked him. “I promise, I won’t tell anyone.”

“It means Veronica should be more careful,” he said angrily. “Don’t say anything.”

“I won’t,” I promised.

It was so much like a dream that sometimes I still think to myself that it must have been a dream. I had gotten sick the next day and had spent most of the next week at home with a fever.

It was about a month after that, when I caught up with Veronica on the footpath outside the florist’s and asked her about the melons, that she smiled at me.

“Magic,” she had said, when I asked her how the writing got on the melons. Then she smiled at me that one time, and I had just stood there dazzled by her smile, unable to say anything else, until she had gone.


I know I promised I wouldn’t say anything about those melons, but I guess I lied, because I’ve just told you. This is a crappy thing to do, I know, but Len has gone and I don’t think he’s coming back. He left about two months after Veronica. He didn’t say anything. He had been less and less talkative, and had read his newspapers from the old country more intently, and the stock on the shelves had gotten sparser, and then one day he wasn’t there. There was a clean-shaven fellow in his twenties behind the counter who greeted me cheerfully as I came in. The shelf where the things from Len’s old country had been was filled with typical Lebanese things: pickled turnips, thyme powder, Turkish delight. Where the papers in the unknown language of Len’s country had been, there were copies of El-Telegraph and Al-Furat.

“What happened to Len?” I asked, bringing my soft drink to the counter.

The man shrugged. “You mean the man who had the shop before? He sold it to my uncle. I think he has gone back to his own country, habibi.”

“That’s too bad,” I said.

“I guess,” said Samir. He nodded at the bottle in my hand. “That’ll be four dollars, habibi.”


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