At eleven the liquor shop where I worked in Edinburgh was going through its late morning lull, but things would pick up again at lunchtime and continue through most of the day. I was busy stacking the shelves with whisky, vodka and gin, and Mike was out on "despatches", as my manager Geoff called them, buying our sandwiches for lunch.
Geoff was mid-story and in Kenya.
"So part of our job was to patrol these fields where women from a village were working and a big family of vicious baboons lived in some rocks nearby. They wore these things like dinner plates strapped to their arses - the women I mean - to stop them getting bitten, and it was our job to go round shooting them - the baboons...not the women… you following me?"
The door opened, there was a brief, jangling cacophony of traffic from outside and an elderly, patrician gent with a shock of white hair and a florid face entered.
"Good morning Geoffrey," he said without looking over, walking directly to the Spanish and Italian wines. It was Lord Melrose, one of Scotland's High Court judges, and a favourite client of Geoff's.
"Morning to you my Lord." Geoff straightened his tie, drew himself to attention and then scuttled smartly round the counter to the front. He was wearing his hideous smile again.
"How's business with you these days sir? We haven't seen you for a while."
Lord Melrose had already found his way to the cheapest Italian imports and was examining a bottle still in its case. He was big and despite his age and weight, was robust - the mark of a retired Edinburgh rugger man who carries his weight well and knows where to lean it.
"I've been very busy lately. Yesterday I sent a couple of characters on a very deserved long holiday at Her Majesty's expense."
"Read about it sir. They deserved every day and a lot more. If you ask me, you gentlemen should be given a greater hand to deal with the real criminals. It's the meddling government that always leaves people like yourself to walk in empty handed, sir."
Lord Melrose was not about to bandy opinions with a shopkeeper on the deficiencies of the Scottish legal system, and he changed the subject summarily. "The Portuguese Amontillado you have here, is it drinkable?"
Geoff's face dropped a little. This was cheap, but cheap stuff.
"Well, it's... umm, drinkable m'Lord."
Lord Melrose not only had no taste, but no shame either. He had nothing to prove after all. His position, high above Geoff's, was unassailable and beyond even criticism of his horrible taste in wines.
"Good, give me a case. I have my son coming up from London this weekend with a collection of his solicitor friends, and knowing how London solicitors drink these days I should really have something in for them in case they become desperate and try to break into my supply of Glenmorangie.“
"Very wise of you m'Lord. I'll get one of the boys to pop it into your Volvo. Out front is it?" Geoff nodded to me and I readied myself, waiting for him to make up his mind. That, I knew, could take up to half an hour. I'd known Lord Melrose take half an hour and spend less than five pounds.
"And what do you have that's modestly priced but drinkable in red wine? Perhaps something light and Italian - for lady Melrose. She has a few of her lady Rotarian friends coming round. How about this two litre Bardolino? is it half decent? It's a little on the thin side, isn't it? But maybe it's supposed to be, I imagine. I suppose we could always decant it so they'll never know the price."
"Absolutely m'Lord. Can't go wrong with Bardolino, thin and fruity and they'll never even think of price."
The door opened again and a young woman burst into the shop in a profusion of outside noise, red hair and coloured clothing. It was as though someone had fired one of those exploding canisters of party streamers into the shop.
"Hi there!" she said in an American accent, grinning and gawking at us with alarming familiarity, as if she'd just paid someone at the door so she could come in and be entertained.
"I need some wine, gents. Two litre Bardolino on special? Alright!" She'd made straight for the Italian section where Geoff and lord Melrose were standing, and was between them in an instant like a well drilled flying wedge formation carving up a numerically superior army. I heard a sudden groan of pain.
"Oh sweetie! I'm so sorry! Was that your foot?" She was in front of Lord Melrose who was grimacing. "God! these heels of mine have a life of their own, I'm telling you!"
Geoff was looking at her with an expression of appalled disbelief.
"Look...," he said waving his hands at her as though she were a large fluttering moth or an exotically coloured bat, "if you want..."
"Mmmm," she said.
"I don't think you..." Lord Melrose glanced at her chest, which was not small and was touching the lower part of his own. He seemed to have no air in his body now and he looked like he might fall backwards over the stacked wine cases.
"Here! Here!" Geoff's hands were tracing elipses in the air. "If you want help... ask him!" He pointed to me finally as a last resort. She followed the direction of his outstretched hand. Her eyes now lit on me and widened.
"I can help you," I said.
She spun round. "You work here? Really?" She was wearing baggy candy striped dungarees over a bright green tee-shirt. Her red hair was held up and pinned at the back, and long silky ochre strands hung about her neck and ears. Her face was very white and freckly and seemed even whiter through the striking contrast with her very smoky red lipsticked lips. She looked like a face in a painting I couldn’t quite remember.
She had huge green eyes that seemed to have come adrift from the rest of her as they stared with intense curiosity into my own which flitted nervously about the shop - anywhere but into hers. I took a step backwards.
"So what can you recommend for my party, sweetie, hmm?" She smiled a gleaming white-toothed American smile. "Come on down here and show me around."
Sighing inwardly I complied.
I had hoped in a pathetic sort of way that the Saturday of my birthday would be less busy than usual. There was little point in mentioning "birthday" to Geoff in the hope of favours. I would receive, I knew, a stiff congratulations and an extra eye on my work around the till to make sure Birthday Boy wasn't awarding himself some sort of treat from the day's takings.
By 5:30 that afternoon the lines of people were eight deep and would remain so until we closed; on Saturdays we attracted everybody, the regulars and the casual customers who would stop by for their odd bottle of wine or the usual cans of beer and half bottles of whisky. Geoff despised them even though they were the real bread and butter of the business. Nothing however, not even his prejudices, would stop him from taking their money. A tubby young woman pushing a wheelchair with a slumbering infant beckoned for attention to Geoff with a forefinger. Shuddering, he approached her. She was holding a half priced bottle of Beaujolais that probably had enough sulphide in it to preserve a corpse for a year. There was a staff promotion on it and a bonus to anyone who could sell more than a case in a day.
"Iz is any good?" asked the woman.
"What is it for?" asked Geoff, looking impatiently around him
"Whi'? It's fur drinkin' of course," she said, looking at him as if he were stupid.
My arms worked liked tentacles and seemed to stretch and move everywhere to pluck bottles and receive money from all around me while the till zinged with hellish glee. With that uncanny prescience I possess for such things, I looked over at the very moment the lush tottered in and lingered at the champagne shelf by the door. Geoff was on the phone with one finger in his ear and that look on his face of incredulous contempt for the banal question. Mike was at the other end of the counter working grimly.
The lush was dressed in a filthy woolen sweater shrunk half up his back, and his filthier jeans had ridden down over his hips so that the top of the two white moons of his arse were showing. I watched with one eye as I served. With the jiggling deliberateness of a string puppet he steadied himself facing the shelf with his back to the counter. His left arm lifted limply at the elbow, hovering at the non vintage, passing upwards one section to the vintage Krugs and Moets, lingering a tremulous moment before launching further on, as though from a sudden retro-thrust of decision, settling finally at the very top on the solitary vintage Dom Perignon which looked like the tip of a pyramid, a proud spearpoint - the most expensive bottle in the shop. Dark purple fingernails closed round the aristocratic neck; no-one seemed to have noticed a thing - all are too intent on concentrating on the serious business of bargain booze suddenly - and as he gripped it I half expected the Dom Perignon to give an outraged sqwauk. The lush muttered and smiled to himself as he brought it down, and next with a vaudevillian ham he stuffed the bottle up his sweater muttering and giggling to himself. Having successfully accomplished that he made a bumbling pirouette to face the door, and releasing one hand from his swag to open it, the bottle slid down and out into his hand in full view. He gaped at it amazed for a moment, and then gave a great grin and a weary theatrical shrug, as if he were ablaze with footlights and bathed in hilarious applause. Wrestling with the heavy glass door he stumbled back onto the street completely unobserved by everyone except me. I watched him juggling the expensive Jeroboam with two hands as he passed the window. I was supposed to go after him. Let him go, I said to myself. Let him go. Dom Perignon, the worlds finest champagne, and a Jeroboam! to be passed around (assuming he didn't drop it), among a Cabal of winos down some alley. And the way he went about it! as though he knew what he was after! And left handed too.
My vision mists suddenly, and I am in a grocers shop in Shipley Yorkshire watching my uncle Harry juggle an empty whisky bottles in the air with his left hand.
"Hey! Wee man! you servin or what?" There is a young guy about my age with green hair, very yellow teeth and a stud through one nostril looking at me.
"Sorry," I said lifting his six cans of export onto the counter in front of me to put them into a bag. Geoff came over while I was fishing for a half bottle of Bells whisky.
"Got a little job for you, Idris, when you finish tonight on your way home. It was that daft loud-mouthed American cow from the morning on the phone. She wants you to drop off the bottles and glasses she left here for collection. Says she'll pay your taxi fare there and to your house. Asked for the one who served her. Wouldn't take Mike. Probably a good tip in it too and maybe even more if you can shut her up long enough. Her address and telephone number are taped onto the box, O.K?"
No point in arguing; while Geoff hated passionately all clients who were not his social superiors, he retained the soldier's meticulous sense of duty, and clients, whether he hated them or not, always received the best service. If she wanted them delivered and was prepared to pay the fare...then an Oddbins employee would deliver them- i.e. me, whether I wanted to do it or not.
Geoff was peering at the wall nearest the door. "Marvelous!" he said suddenly, clapping his hands and rubbing them together. "We finally sold that Jeroboam of Dom Perignon! Well done, Idris,” he said to me, “well done”.
* * *
(This excerpt is from Dunnet's forthcoming novel Almost Perfect.)