(Iris, our heroine, has had an accident in which she almost killed a cyclist, Soren. Who turned up in the next bed in hospital. Weakened by shock and possibly a mild concussion, Iris finds herself agreeing to repay the cylist by leading an Awakened Life from now on. Back home, she is alarmed to receive what appears to be midnight life coaching from the Deity. But the next morning she takes her injuries off to the supermarket, just like she always did.)
* * * *
The next morning, Iris staggered out of the minicab into the random human eddy outside the supermarket, wondering how she was going to tell Malcolm that she’d just abandoned a perfectly good living, for no reason other than that every one of her clients was wantonly hastening the end of the world. The supper last night had been a masterstroke in terms of family harmony, and though Malcolm had seemed a bit distant afterwards, Iris could see it could be alarming to share a bed with somebody who yelps every time you turn over. In most respects, she couldn’t have hoped for a happier return to normality.
Except it wasn’t, and it couldn’t be. Much as she might long not to have met Soren, it wasn’t about to un-happen. In hospital, with the soothing voice, and the confident fingers kneading ineluctable realities into Iris’ head and heart, Soren’s message had sounded not just simple and obvious, but thrilling. So why did the prospect of sharing it with her family now fill Iris with dread?
Maybe God would reappear and give her a few hints. After all, it was hardly the first time he’d charged somebody with delivering revealed truths to a potentially hostile audience. Surely a bit of preparatory coaching wasn’t too much to ask?
She hobbled towards the automatic doors, and suddenly stopped dead, causing several hungry sandwich-hunters to crash into her.
‘Automatic doors! They use energy, don’t they? But then, pushing the other kind uses my energy, and that has to be replaced by food. Maybe I ought to have used the escalator instead of the stairs, too. After all, the escalator is running anyway, isn’t it? How many calories will I have to replace now?’
She stood, pole-axed by her dilemma, until a weirdo alert in the eye of a passing security guard sent her scurrying through the automatic door in somebody else’s slipstream.
Inside was the usual drift of stray plastic, doughnuts abandoned half-eaten before the checkout, and squashed grapes. There was the usual old lady at Customer Service, with a two for one voucher on wafer-thin ham. Normally this would have cheered Iris – the trivial exchange of ham for scraps of paper providing a little moment of human warmth in the lonely pensioner’s day – but for some reason, today Iris only noticed that the checkout girl couldn’t even be bothered to meet the old lady’s eye, and the old lady had nothing else in her basket. Behind them stretched an endless line of blank-faced recruits from the remedial classes of the local failing comprehensives, marooned behind their electronic prison gates, longing to be anywhere else but here.
Oh dear. Iris pushed her trolley into Fruit and Veg, looked around for Organics, which had once again been moved in accordance with Head Office’s latest computer model of the local demographic’s buying whims, and stopped in front of the strawberries.
Her hand reached for the nearest box – and froze. In tiny writing on the top she read: ‘Country of origin: USA’. Hidden at the back were some Spanish ones. She picked them up instead and dropped them in the basket.
But – wait a minute – Spanish strawberries, there’s no way they can grow outdoors at this time of year. Which takes more energy, flying them from America, or growing them under heat in Spain? What had been the outcome of that wrangle about whether air freighted stuff could still be organic?
She couldn’t remember, and the Spanish ones were cheaper, so Iris let that decide her, and moved on to the grapes.
Where are these from? Italy! That’s all right. Except – oh look, there are some Fair Trade grapes right next to them. But the fair trade grapes are from South Africa. And how unfairly traded are those Italian ones anyway? If something isn’t marked Fair, does that necessarily mean the farmer is being ground down into penury and an early death?
Iris thought back to her last Tuscan mini-break, and the huge family parties in top-to-toe cashmere, piling into the restaurants for Sunday lunch. They hadn’t looked especially oppressed.
On the other hand – it might still be better to put money in the pocket of a hungry baby in the townships, even if it did mean pumping carbon into the upper atmosphere…
‘You all right there darling?’ Iris turned to meet the bemused eye of a shelf-stacker wheeling another vast load of American strawberries. He thinks I can’t afford them! He thinks I’m a saddo with nothing to do all day but wander the aisles of Sainsbury’s! Oh no! He thinks I’m on the pull! And he’s about fifteen!
Panicked, Iris left the fruit, threw a bag of organic carrots and another of potatoes into her basket and skidded off down the aisle. How, on the basis of her pathetically inadequate knowledge of combustion, physics, mechanics, machine tool production technologies, refrigeration indices, anaerobic digestion and the petrol consumption of delivery trucks – leaving aside the possibility that some of these trucks in fact run on biodiesel or LPG – how on earth was she supposed to decide?
‘You seem to be making rather heavy weather of this.’ The itch in her ear was back. It was almost a relief, though Iris was still rather suspicious of all this special attention. ‘Are you sure you can spare the time? What about all those kangaroos dying in Australia? I’d hate to keep you from them.’
‘You can’t be an effective deity without a bit of multitasking, you know. There are bags on those.’
‘On the vegetables. More petroleum by-products. Put them back.’
Okay, back they go. Who needs fruit and veg? Ted doesn’t eat them, Molly doesn’t eat anything I put in front of her on principle, just because I’m her mother, and Malcolm only really likes sausages. Ah, Sausages. Well, I’ll pick up a box of those veggie sausages. If they’re good enough for Sir Macca, they’ll have to be good enough for Malcolm.
She had been intending to buy fish for supper, but on being required to choose between trout, lake-farmed but not organic; sea-bass, organic but flown in from Chile; local cod, but from the endangered shoals of the North Sea, and sardines that Malcolm had vetoed on the grounds of smell, she was positively relieved to remember that none of them really liked fish.
It was not entirely relaxing, having to make choices that had previously been routine, in the knowledge that one wrong move might trigger divine retribution. Or at least a telling-off to which she had no way of responding, without attracting a lot of the wrong sort of attention. Warily, Iris moved on to Dairy, and reached for a cardboard litre of organic semi-skimmed. No evil plastic bottle for her. She could manage fine without an ineffable school prefect hanging out on her shoulder. ‘I don’t need you any more, look. You can go off and comfort an old man’s last moments, or something.’
‘Not so fast! You haven’t read the small print, have you? Those cardboard thingies come all the way from Scotland. I watched those filthy old trucks all the way down the M1. That’s a boring, stinky job for you. People think it’s a piece of cake being God, but there’s a lot of dreary, monotonous box-ticking in between the earthquakes and miracles, I can tell you.’
‘And your point was?’ Iris wasn’t sure of the penalties for answering back to God, but her knee was hurting and there was still nothing in her basket. A faint, long-suffering sigh tickled her earlobe. ‘You need to take a closer look at that other milk, it only comes from down the road. You can send the bottles for recycling, they’re turning them into trousers these days. The uses to which you people put your uinque intelligence never cease to amaze me.’
‘Oh, but in any case…’ Iris watched her own hand, weighed down by conscience, return the milk to its shelf. ‘…we can’t have milk at all, because of the grieving mother cows.’
And so it went on throughout the shop. Everywhere she went, God had some reason or another to stay her hand. Vast areas were out of bounds altogether, mostly those where Iris had previously lingered happily, toying between Wagon Wheels and Tunnocks Wafers, or wondering whether Ted would like freeze-dried strawberries or plump, juicy raisins in his cereal. Today, for some reason, all she saw were whiny children dragging on trolleys, and grey-faced office girls clutching Treat Yourself single serve dinners in nervous, scraggy hands. And there was the solitary old lady again, hovering over the chopped-up samples of Caramel Swirls at the bakery counter, as though anybody cared if she had three. Probably she was hoping to get arrested. That way at least somebody would have to talk to her.
By the time Iris reached Wines and Spirits, she was ready to break the neck of the nearest bottle against its metal shelf. She hovered experimentally, for a moment. European wine had to be all right, didn’t it? Surely no killjoy deity could begrudge her a medicinal chug or two alongside the veggie sausages.
So far so good – no crackling. She reached out her hand…
‘Not so fast.’
‘I thought you’d gone.’
‘Gone? I’m God. I don’t go. You’ll go, when I decide, but I’m here until the Knell of Doom. And sometimes, I’m telling you, it can’t come soon enough.’
‘So, what’s the problem with the wine? It’s… no, I give up, what is it?’
‘Let me give you a little visual aid.’
The aisle in front of Iris went misty for a moment, and then cleared to reveal a gorgeous, mossy forest. Adorable baby wild boar snuffled among fallen acorns, and in the dappled shade in the distance… ‘It’s something to do with that wild cat thing, isn’t it?’
‘That animal is the European Lynx. It’s one of my finest, I have to say, but extremely fussy about where it lives, and for some reason it’s decided that cork oak forests are the only place it feels at home. Now look at that bottle.’
Iris did so. At that moment it looked liked her best friend in the world. But it had a plastic cork.
‘Remember those strawberries?’
‘What about them?’
‘All the Spanish cork oak forests are being dug up to grow them. You won’t find anything with a proper cork that hasn’t come thousands of miles.’