‘Hello my love,’ he said, as the shop bell announced his arrival. He placed his arms around Jools as she leaned forward to arrange the window display and, to Josh’s annoyance, kissed her un-offered cheek.
Kenny was wearing his usual outfit, a running vest and perilously short shorts; his long unwashed sandy hair spilling out from behind a headband that was once white, but now grey with age and dirt. Rather than the accompanying running shoes one might expect, however, he instead wore sandals sans socks, showcasing his toenails, long and yellow. Josh could smell the fresh odour of sweat emanating out of Kenny’s unclad armpits from his position behind the counter, several meters away. God knows what it must be like for Jools, he thought, having him wrapped round her like that. He had said to Jools he’d have a word to him about it, but she’d told him, no, not to bother; Kenny was harmless.
‘Hello, Kenny,’ said Jools, her accent betraying origins perhaps less genteel than her current surroundings. ‘How’s it going?’
‘Very well actually,’ said Kenny, spit flying out between unwashed teeth, green with scum, as he did so. ‘The universe has spoken.’
‘Oh really, that’s good,’ said Jools.
‘Yes, very shortly, I shall find love.’
‘That’s brilliant, Kenny.’
‘Specifically, I am going to meet Rose, a lovely lady, who lives round here.’
‘Really?’ asked Jools. ‘What’s she like?’
‘I’m not sure. I haven’t met her yet. Like I say, she lives round here, so I’m bound to bump into her.’
‘Well, good luck with that.’
‘Thank you Jools! Anyway, I just have to check something. Won’t be a minute.’ Kenny hugged and kissed her again, inhaling her scent, or so it seemed to Josh, and walked purposefully into the shop. The ritual had begun.
He first trod a loose circle in the middle of the floor next to the sale table, looking at the bookcases and mouthing words to himself as he did so, a pointed finger striking each one off some imaginary list, at least three times each. Three times, he passed Josh at the counter.
‘Hi Kenny,’ said Josh.
Kenny just waved and smiled, still silently speaking his secret words, following his beaklike nose round an invisible path through the shop, and leaving his odour behind him, until he stood in front of a bookcase at the back wall. He crouched down and touched the base, and counted the shelves with his finger, starting at the bottom. He did this several times, down and up, raising himself and lowering again, before settling on a shelf slightly below midway.
‘One, two, three, four, five, six…’
Josh could hear him now, each poke in the spine of a book accompanied by its own number. When he got to the end of the shelf, he went back again over the same books in reverse, the numbers still rising, until he stopped on book sixty-three. He pulled the book out, checked the final page number, and counted the amount of blank pages at the beginning and end. After some more calculation, he turned to a page about two-thirds of the way through. Down and up, his finger skimmed the lines. Only one of them seemed to be of interest to him. He started to add the number of words in that line, from left to right, and back again several times, the count going ever upwards, before settling on one word in particular. His word for the day. He mouthed it to himself. He closed the book.
Then, without saying goodbye to either of them, he hurriedly skipped out of the shop, his eyes focussed on some invisible destination.
Josh shook his head in disbelief.
‘How come he never speaks to me?’ he asked.
‘Because you’re always behind the till, and by the time he sees you, he’s already started,’ she replied, walking over to the counter.
‘What was he going on about anyway?’ said Josh.
‘Oh, the universe has spoken to him again.’
‘Good, it’s always fun when the universe speaks to him. What did it have to say for itself this time?’
‘Just that he’s going to find love again. This time it’s with someone he hasn’t even met yet: some woman called Rose.’
‘Well I hope for her sake he never does.’
‘Don’t be cruel. He’s harmless.’
‘Hmm, I’m not so sure about that. He’s virtually a stalker.’
‘Yeah, well, he doesn’t mean any harm.’
‘I guess, although I’m not sure the women he follows see it that way. I just wish he’d buy something, really.’
Jools smiled and went back to her window display. Josh admired her bottom as she bent over. Cute as a button, he thought to himself. That’s my girl. A flash of pride hit him as he gazed upon her. Then he thought of Kenny, with his unearned kisses and touches, and his contentment passed.
At ten past ten the next morning, the bell told the shop that Kenny was here. As usual, Jools was out on the shop floor, tidying the shelves for the first and not the last time that day. And as usual, Josh was behind the counter, pretending not to see him.
‘Hello Kenny,’ said Jools.
‘Hello, my darling,’ he said, leaning over the counter for his morning hug and unreturned kiss.
‘How are you today, alright?’ asked Jools.
‘Wonderful,’ said Kenny, his grey, staring eyes pushing their way out of their sockets, ‘absolutely wonderful.’
‘Really, why’s that then?’
‘The universe has been speaking to me in all sorts of ways about Rose.’
‘Oh yeah,’ said Jools.
‘Yes,’ said Kenny. ‘Firstly, this morning, I turned on my television, and I don’t even watch it very much because it’s all so negative, but the very second or third thing I saw was an American programme, where a man was giving his wife presents for their anniversary. And guess what he gave her?’
‘He gave her, well I can’t remember the main thing he gave her, but he also gave her… a rose.’
‘And then, I remembered, last night, I was walking home and - are you familiar with that lovely song, “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes”?’ Kenny sang a few bars, loudly and tunelessly, in demonstration.
‘I went past a builder’s van, and they had the radio on, and guess what was playing?’
‘I dunno, Kenny.’
‘That song. That very song.’
‘Really? That’s quite spooky actually.’
‘But that’s not all.’
‘And just now, I was walking down this street and, do you know that flower shop that’s on the corner?’
‘Just as I walked past, at the very precise second, the man came out and put some fresh roses in a bucket outside.’
‘Jesus, Kenny, that’s incredible.’
‘And then, and this is the truly amazing thing, the universe spoke to me through you, Jools.’
‘Yes, through you, one of my dearest friends. Which means it’s really trying to tell me something about my future with Rose.’
‘How’s that then, ’cos I don’t remember the universe speaking through me recently.’
‘In the window, this morning, there, right in the centre, was a book.’
‘Well, to be fair, Kenny, this is a bookshop, know what I mean? I’m kidding, Kenny, I’m kidding. What was so special about this one?’
‘It’s name. It was called, The Name of the Rose.’
‘Yeah, that’s quite a popular book, Kenny. We get it in a lot.’
‘Yes, but you only put it out for display yesterday, which obviously means I was meant to see it today. It’s the universe, Jools, acting through you, sending me in the right direction. To find Rose.’
‘Maybe it is, Kenny. Maybe it is.’
‘Anyway,’ said Kenny, closing in for his second hug and kiss, ‘I just have to check something. Won’t be a minute.’
With that, as always, he entered into his counting ritual, carried out with the same precision as the day before, and every day for the past three years and more, eventually leading him to that day’s shelf: a bookcase to the left and down from the one arrived at precisely twenty-four hours before. And as always, the process then drew him to one particular book; then a page, and finally a word. He mouthed it to himself, before leaving in haste, the usual visionary look in his eyes.
‘Mmmm…’ said Josh, ‘there’s nothing quite like the smell of Kenny in the morning.’
‘Oh, leave him alone,’ said Jools, ‘he can’t help it.’
‘He can. He just needs to wash.’
‘It’s not quite as simple as that and you know it. He’s obviously got some disorder. Mind you, I do have to say he was doing my head in with all that stuff about the universe telling him about Rose. I mean, if you look out for things like that, you’re going to find them, aren’t you?’
‘Of course you are. Did you feel the universe possess you when you put that book out?’
‘No,’ she said, laughing. ‘But when you think about it, he’d just come in and gone on about Rose. And then I’ve got to find a book to put in the middle of the display…’
‘And so you choose a book with ‘rose’ in the title…’
‘Yeah, so it’s… what do you call it, a self-fulfilling prophecy. He’s going to make something happen just by going on about it all the time.’
‘You know what,’ said Josh, ‘we could really mess with his head. Stick a different rose-themed book in the window each day, or have a big gardening book display and have them all open on a page with a rose on it.’
‘Oh, that would be evil, Josh.’
‘Yeah, I guess it would.’
That night, Josh and Jools lay in bed. While Jools read a book from the shop downstairs, Josh just stared at the ceiling, waiting for tiredness.
‘You know,’ said Josh,’ ‘I wonder what Kenny’s system is for counting
‘Bloody hell,’ said Jools, ‘you’re not still thinking about sodding Kenny are you?’
‘It’s interesting!’ said Josh.
‘Well, he kind of told me once. There are good numbers and bad numbers apparently. When he comes in the shop, he counts the number of bookcases until he hits one of his good numbers. Then he goes up and down the shelves in the bookcase until he hits another one. And he does the same thing with the books, and the pages, and the lines, until he finds the word in that line which has the good number. And that word is a message to him from the universe.’
‘Wow. You’ve never told me that before.’
‘You’ve never been interested before. You’ve always left me to deal with Kenny while you hide behind the counter.’
‘But what if the word for the day is ‘and’, or something?’ said Josh. ‘How’s that a message from the universe?’
‘You’d have to ask him that.’
‘Yeah, s’pose. I wonder what he does all day.’
‘I’m really too tired to care.’
Jools put her book down and turned out the light. Josh didn’t sleep for hours.
‘Do you want a cup of coffee?’ asked Jools, as Josh unbolted the door and flipped the sign from ‘Closed’ to ‘Open’.
‘Yes, please,’ he said.
‘Just one problem,’ she shouted from the kitchen behind the shop.
‘We’re out of milk. I thought we still had some left after breakfast, but we don’t.’
Josh knew this to be true, as he had poured what remained, about enough for two cups of coffee, down the sink not half an hour before.
‘Oh well,’ he said as Jools stepped through the door marked ‘Staff Only’, and into the shop. ‘If you want to pop out for some I’ll keep watch here and tidy up the window display as well if you like.’
‘No, it’s ok. I’ll pick some up during my lunch break.’ Lunchtime. The only part of the day that Josh felt allowed out from behind the counter unsupervised. Jools would take half an hour. Then he would take his. For half an hour, she had resigned herself to trusting him not to mess up the shop.
‘Ah, I could really do with some,’ said Josh.
‘I know,’ said Jools, ‘but –’
‘But what? Can’t you trust me for a few minutes?’
‘Yeah, course,’ said Jools, biting her lip, her fingers drumming. ‘Just don’t touch the window display, ok? Oh, and you do know Kenny’ll probably be in here in about five minutes.’
‘Of course he will,’ said Josh, ‘but it’ll be fine. He won’t want to talk to me.’
‘Right. But he will be here.’ she said, taking money from her pocket and counting it twice, passing it from left hand to right and back again.
‘Yeah,’ said Josh.
‘Ok, back in a little bit,’ she said, a smile straining. She kissed him on the cheek, and checked the pocket of her jeans for change again as she left.
Josh looked at the shop. It was beautiful, to him. It seemed so perfect: an old-fashioned bookshop that didn’t feel old. It wasn’t musty, with layers of dust coating old stock, like so many. It was clean and hygienic, but still warm and rich with atmosphere, the way a bookshop should be. He’d painted it cream to suggest the presence of a coffee shop extension, without the trouble of actually running one. And the name, ‘Josh & Jools’s Book Emporium’, stencilled on the windows in large imperial letters. For some reason, the shop made him think of the city of Boston, although he had never been there. The cleanliness was all down to Jools of course, but the general feeling of the place, that was his, he knew.
It had become clear six years ago, when their university courses ended and their relationship didn’t, that they would at least be attempting to spend the rest of their lives together. That was when he had let her in on his dream, harboured since puberty. It had become their dream. And the dream became real, here in this quiet cathedral city, where Jools once holidayed as a child, away from her bookless broken home, and had fantasised about living ever since. The reality was as beautiful as the dream had been, almost.
Jools was beautiful as well, of course, from the day he had met her until now, with her Louise Brooks fringe, delightfully flared nostrils and eyebrows arched on demand; her petite figure kept trim by her constant movement, straightening the already straightened books, rearranging the already perfect table and window displays. Sometimes Josh would deliberately mess up a shelf behind her back, just to give her tidying some point. The only time she seemed to stand still was to price new stock - a job she would do quickly, Josh surmised, so that she could get on with putting it all on the shelves where it could be tidied as soon as possible.
His hair grown long over the years since they opened, but still stubbornly maintaining a side-parting, Josh had gone to fat stuck behind the counter. It wasn’t his fault, he’d tell himself. He wasn’t allowed to move. No wonder he’d got chubby. If only she trusted him with the shop, they could both have so much more free time. But she didn’t trust him, so there they were. Stuck inside, day in day out. Her tidying, him turning toadlike as he sat, hidden behind thick glasses: his eyesight ruined by the books he read waiting for customers or collectors to turn up with out-of-fashion collectables to haggle over. He didn’t mind really, he’d say silently to the empty space. Not when his shop and his girl were so beautiful. Not counting him, everything in the shop was beautiful. And Kenny, of course. Kenny wasn’t beautiful.
It wasn’t long after the shop first opened that he had made his first appearance. He didn’t seem that odd at first, other than the way he looked, of course. But soon it became clear that he was turning up in the shop every day. And not just every day, but at the same time. Gradually the counting became apparent. Then Jools thought it would be a good idea to say hello, in a friendly way. And that led to the kissing and the hugging. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, though Josh, if, once, just once, Kenny actually bought something.
It was nearly time. Josh got himself in position in front of the window display, counted the number of empty spaces, and quickly picked the matching number of desirable books from the nearby shelves. He started placing them in the spaces slowly, making sure the simple task would be only half finished by ten past ten.
He could see Kenny coming up the street now. He was looking at his watch as he walked. About ten metres from the shop he stopped, concentrating still more on his watch-face for nearly a minute, before walking briskly and entering the shop at what Josh saw on the clock on the wall to be ten past ten precisely.
Kenny looked left and right as the bell reverberated behind him: scanning the shop, searching for Jools, no doubt, and showing evident surprise to find her not there.
‘Hello Kenny,’ said Josh, straightening the book he had been slowly placing for a minute and a half.
‘Oh, hello Josh,’ said Kenny, ‘didn’t expect to you see there. Jools not in today?’
‘Yeah, she’s just popped out for milk.’
‘Ah, I see.’
‘So… Kenny. The, ah, universe said anything more about Rose?’
‘Oh yes,’ said Kenny, ‘many, many things.’
Josh straightened himself up. He knew now that this was the last chance to back out of the action he had decided upon in the early hours of the morning. The final opportunity for kindness was passing. Then it was gone. Now Josh knew he had to be ruthless, and he had to be smart, remembering every detail he was about to wring out of his troublesome visitor.
‘What was the word Kenny?’ shouted Josh over the noise of the bell, eleven minutes later. Kenny did not seem to hear as he strode out the shop, and only gave Jools the most perfunctory of nods as he passed her stepping in the door. Jools watched him for a second stride down the street as if fixing the fact of his visit in her mind.
‘Sorry I took so long,’ she said, the door swinging shut behind her and clanging the bell for a second time. ‘There was a really big queue and it was the new girl. She doesn’t know what she’s doing.’
‘That’s ok,’ said Josh, clutching the book in which Kenny had found his message for the day moments before.
‘Was Kenny all right with you?’ asked Jools.
‘Yes, actually,’ said Josh, ‘we had a nice chat.’
‘Oh, nothing much. Just his usual gibberish.’
‘You’ve touched the window display.’ Frantically she started taking out the books Josh had inserted and replaced them with choices of her own. ‘Why couldn’t you leave it? I told you not to touch it.’
Josh did not reply. He was staring at a page in a book on railway engineering that Kenny had just been looking at, immediately after being only too happy to explain his system to Josh. A line. ‘where production rose steeply by 27%. Following the development of’. Third word along. ‘Rose’.
It’s just a coincidence, thought Josh to himself. If you have a system of choosing words at random, and you become obsessed with a very common word like ‘rose’, then by the law of averages, at some point you’re very likely to come across it. It’s unusual, yes, for it to come up so soon, but it’s just as likely to appear on the third or fourth day of your obsession than it is the twenty-third or fifty-fourth. That’s randomness for you. It’s so meaningless it can sometimes take on the appearance of significance, because all possibilities contained within the parameters of a system are equally likely. After all, human beings are pattern-seeking animals. It’s part of our evolutionary heritage to see significance in things. It’s what helped us hunt and predict the seasons, but also what gave rise to superstition and religion.
But this was a bookshop. It was a place of reason, ‘Occult’ section notwithstanding, and there was no room for someone like Kenny. At least, not until he bought something.
Josh sat behind the counter again while Jools finished making the coffee, hurriedly noting down all that Kenny had told him, and hoping he had remembered it all correctly. He suspected that some of the notation wasn’t quite correct, as he hadn’t done any proper maths since school other than the basics he needed to do the accounts, but what he wrote made sense to him.
Good numbers = 3 and 5 and all multiples.
Bad numbers = all numbers not multiples of above.
Day of month x 3 ÷ 16 (no. of bookcases in shop). R (remainder) = Today’s Bookcase. Start from left of door.
Month of year x 5 ÷ 6 (no. of shelves in a bookcase). R = Today’s Shelf. Start from bottom!
Year (i.e. ’07) x 3 - no. of books on shelf. R = Book. Left to right, then back again!
No. of pages (ALL) ÷ 5 (forget R!) = Page no.
No. of lines ÷ 3 (remember R!) = Line no.
No. of words ÷ (5 + R from above!) + R = THE WORD.
He was pretty sure that was it. That was Kenny’s system. He tapped his pencil on the counter as he thought how best to use it.
The shop had gotten quite busy by lunchtime, and Jools seemed always to be hovering, getting especially close whenever Josh tried to surreptitiously scribble something on a Post-It. Or else, a customer would appear before him requiring service, and by the time he returned to his secret note-making, his idea no longer seemed good. At about half-two, however, the shop began to thin out, and he suggested that Jools take her lunch. She told him not to touch anything, and went upstairs to the flat. Now was the moment.
Josh hurriedly wrote his latest idea down on the Post-It, concluding that it was as good as any, and slid from his pocket the torn piece of notepaper that contained Kenny’s formula. He began to do the sums in his head.
Tomorrow would be the Twentieth. That’s 3 x 20 = 60. So that would be 60 ÷ 16 = 3, with 12 left over. He approached the identified bookcase. Next, it’s the month x 5, divided by six. It’ll be the same as this morning. Bottom shelf.
7 x 3. 21.
19 books on shelf, so, one, two back.
307 pages, divided by five.
42 lines. Divided by… No, he’d made a mistake. He hadn’t counted the unnumbered pages, the contents page and the rest. He had to go back.
324 actual pages.
Divided by five, leads to...
42 lines. Divided by three. No remainder.
Nine words, divided by five. One, with four left over.
At least it wasn’t…
Over this he attached the Post-It, it’s message clear in capital letters.
‘Meet me by the fountain at midnight.
He closed the book and placed it back on the shelf. His whole body tingling with the thrill of the subterfuge, Josh walked back to the till.
He’d worked it all out correctly – the bookcase, the shelf, the book, the page, the line. The word. Kenny had not only read the note the next morning, but carefully removed it, folded the sticky strip over, and placed it between the waistband of his shorts and his underpants. He nearly forgot to look at his word for the day in his haste to leave, while the visionary stare in his eyes was even more intense than normal.
At five to twelve that night, Josh stood in the living room of the flat, by the open window, looking out onto the high street. Jools was in bed already, reading. There had been an explosion of boisterous noise about ten minutes ago when the pub on the corner had emptied, the drinkers heading for the takeaways that lay in wait for them on the way home, but now all was quiet.
Josh looked up the high street. There, in the distance, was the town fountain, dating back well over a hundred years. It sat at a crossroads in the centre of the pedestrianised shopping centre, the ancient cathedral looming behind. Although the water did not jet at night, it was nevertheless lit, as was the cathedral, by pastel hued beams; unbecoming the historic nature of the place, Josh had often thought. But he was glad of those unnecessary shafts of coloured light now. For without them he would not have seen Kenny, approaching from the direction of the cathedral, still wearing nothing but his vest, shorts and sandals in the cool night air, checking his watch.
Kenny was not just on time, but early. For nearly four minutes he stood there, on the periphery of the illuminated area, looking at his watch. Then, at precisely twelve o’clock, he stepped forward, going up to the edge of the fountain. He started checking all four directions of the crossroads. After exactly ten minutes of this, and no appearance from Rose, Kenny did something unexpected. He climbed right over the side of the basin of the fountain, stepped into it, strode across, and pulled himself up onto the fountainhead itself. He then continued to cling from it awkwardly, while still keeping his multidirectional lookout. Josh found himself marvelling at the potential leaps of logic that would lead Kenny to do this, all the while praying that any CCTV camera that may be pointing in Kenny’s direction had long been vandalised by the city’s legendarily bored youth. He didn’t want to get Kenny in trouble. That wasn’t what this was about.
Finally, after a full and precise further ten minutes, Kenny shimmied down off the fountainhead, and out of the basin. He checked each street of the crossroads one last time, before disappearing into the dark, his shorts visibly slipping into the crevice of his backside as he went.
Jools was standing in the doorway of the bedroom.
‘Are you coming to bed, hon?’ she asked. ‘How come the window’s open, anyway? It’s cold. I can feel it in bed.’
‘Yeah,’ said Josh. ‘Just felt like some air, sorry.’
He kissed her and she smiled. He closed the window as she went back to bed.
Kenny did not seem as happy with his customary word of the day the next morning. There was as an air of disappointment as he shuffled out of the shop, noteless, the usual spring in his step unavoidably absent.
At first Josh thought he might have beaten him with that one simple act, and he would not return. But there he was the next morning, sprightly as ever, kissing and hugging Jools as usual, full of the joys of his own delusion. Whatever regrets Josh had over his act of mischief left him as he observed his nemesis back on form, dirty and inappropriate and mad. Another note was required.
Over the next couple of weeks, Josh could often be found at his living room window, round about twelve. Jools was initially suspicious, but soon came to expect it, even seeming slightly anxious if he came straight to bed without standing there for a while beforehand.
At first, Josh kept things simple, a note instructing attendance at the fountain at midnight, followed by a dispiriting day of non-communication, followed by another note. Soon though, he could see that his victim was getting used to this pattern, and was going to have to shake things up a bit.
Kenny was visibly disturbed on his third day without contact with Rose, only to be overjoyed by its reestablishment on the next. There was a twist though. He had to take flowers. Sure enough, at midnight, Josh could see him by the fountain, looking every way, his puny bunch of stolen flowers wilting in his hand. The very next day another note would be found, instructing him to wear a hat.
As the game went on, Kenny seemed more and more excited by the morning ritual, no longer bothering to slobber over Jools on the way in, and even the ten past ten rule proved a trial. Now he could be found standing outside the shop doorway at ten, shuffling by the window, desperately waiting to be let in.
Josh began to have more fun with his instructions. He surprised himself with his capacity for thinking of silly things for Kenny to do, and how little it troubled his conscience to do so. Each note to Kenny became a succinct demand for his humiliation. ‘Circle the fountain six times and lie down on the ground.’ ‘Touch the top of the fountainhead and shout “zip-a-dee-doo-dah!”’ ‘Stand on one leg for five minutes, change leg, then run up the high street as fast as you can.’ Always, to prove his love to ‘Rose’.
It was not until Josh found himself writing a note instructing Kenny to turn up in top hat and tails wearing a bowtie, but no trousers, that he knew it had gone far enough. I may as well write ‘yellow stockinged and cross-gartered’ he thought. But I am no Feste. The game was over. It was time to reveal all.
To this end, Josh wrote a near repetition of his first note, requesting Kenny’s presence at the fountain at midnight, yet feeling too guilty to sign it ‘Rose’. He placed it over the appropriate word, running his finger over the opposing side of the sticky strip on the Post-It to fix it down, and closed the book.
Five past midnight at the fountain, Kenny extended his neck, looking this way and that. The simplicity of the command that day had encouraged him. Maybe the test was over. Maybe tonight he would at last get to meet Rose.
All the while, multiplications of three and five burbled away at the back of his brain as, even without fully realising it, he counted the street lights, the paving stones, the windows above each shop: putting them through his system, neutralising the bad with the good. A voice in his head repeated a simple mathematical pattern, constantly, as it did all day, every day, and had done so since it first interrupted his thoughts in the foggy, far-off confused days of his youth. At first it frightened him, until he finally obeyed its command and found that the numbers arranged the whole universe into an orderly pattern, and it all suddenly made perfect sense.
A figure was approaching. Could this be… no, it was a man: longhaired, squat and chubby. He knew this man. It was… yes, Josh, from the bookshop. What was he doing out this late?
Kenny waved at Josh. Josh nodded back. Soon, he was by the fountain, walking round, it seemed, to talk to Kenny. Kenny thought this was unusual. People tended to always edge away from him when he approached, as he made his rounds throughout the day of his various special places, looking for the messages that the universe had left him. He never thought of it as a bad thing, but still, the experience of someone walking towards him, apparently with the express purpose of speaking to him was unnerving.
‘Hi Kenny,’ said Josh, shuffling up to him with his hands in pockets, looking down at the ground through his oval glasses and hair.
‘Hello Josh,’ said Kenny, searching his mind for the distant memory of the days before the universe started talking to him, when he had casual conversations with people, and how they went. ‘Out for a stroll?’
‘Ah, not really, no,’ said Josh. ‘Actually, I’ve sort of come to speak to you, really.’
‘Ah, yeah, listen, you know you’ve been getting… notes, um, in the books recently.’
‘Yes, notes from Rose, yes.’
‘Yeah, ah, that’s the thing, you see Kenny. They’re not really from Rose, they’re… the thing is Kenny, they’re from me.’
‘Yeah, I just kind of wanted to, well, make a point, really. About, you know, how if you look for patterns and things you’ll find them, and it doesn’t mean anything, it’s all just random, and I wanted to get you to realise that.’
‘Yeah, I just kind of wanted to shock you into seeing… actually you don’t seem that shocked.’
‘No, not at all. I mean it’s just the universe leading me to Rose, through you.’
‘No Kenny, it wasn’t the universe, and it wasn’t Rose. Rose didn’t want you to turn up here and do all these weird things. Look, there is no Rose. It was all just me, trying to get you to see that you’ve built up this whole thing in your head about the universe and Rose, but you’ve got so caught up in it you can’t tell what’s real anymore. Can’t you see, Kenny, I tricked you. I took it too far and I’m sorry, but it’s all a hoax. Don’t you get it?’
Kenny shook his head. ‘Well, I can see what you’re saying, but I mean, it’s obvious to me that it’s all a test to see if I’m worthy of Rose’s love. It doesn’t really change anything.’
‘So you’ll be back in the shop tomorrow?’
‘Oh, yes, most definitely. There might be another note.’
‘There won’t be any more notes, Kenny.’
‘Oh, you never know…’
‘No, there won’t be because I won’t write them. And… look, basically Kenny, I don’t want you coming in the shop any more.’
‘Yeah, I mean you never buy anything, and well, I just don’t want you in the shop any more, sorry.’
‘You’re not upset?’
‘No,’ said Kenny, ‘it’s just the universe telling me that I should look for its messages in another place, that’s all.’
Josh nodded. He held his hand out. Kenny realised he was meant to shake it and did so. Josh smiled at him awkwardly. ‘Well, good luck,’ he said.
Josh walked away, quickly and with larger strides than his normal gait, in the direction of the bookshop. Kenny watched him for a minute, looked in all directions for Rose one last time, turned, and went.
Ten o’clock the next morning, Josh and Jools opened up the shop as usual. Josh unlocked the door and turned on the electric till, while Jools began her first sweep of fixing the displays and tidying the already immaculately ordered shelves. Josh looked at the clock, counting the minutes until, what was to be, even taking into account the now-shameful personal failings on his part that brought it about, a beautiful moment: their first Kenny-less morning in years.
Or so he thought. At eight minutes past ten, Josh, to his horror, saw through the window, walking towards the shop from his usual direction, the stringy, barely-clad form of Kenny. Why couldn’t it be simple? Was he going to hover for two minutes, then attempt entry at ten past? Would Josh have to physically restrain him from entering? But Kenny kept on walking. He didn’t even glance in the shop window.
Nine minutes past. Ten minutes. The second hand passed the number twelve on the clock. And nothing happened. They were alone, the two of them, just as it was meant to be, in their beautiful shop.
At thirteen minutes past, Jools was pricing new stock when she looked up at the clock.
‘Where’s Kenny?’ she said. ‘He should be here by now.’
‘I dunno,’ said Josh, ‘maybe he’s running late.’
‘Kenny’s never late,’ said Jools, ‘something must have happened.’
‘I’m sure he’s fine,’ said Josh.
Jools finished pricing the books at speed and placed them in their appropriate places on the shelves. Then she began tidying. Again. The very same shelves she had checked not ten minutes before were given another going-over. As she ran her hand over every book in every row of the ‘Military History’ section, she seemed to be mumbling something to herself. And she got faster, and faster as she went, a panicked look in her eyes telling Josh that something was wrong.
He softly stood up from behind the till and walked towards her. He could hear what she was saying now, over and over again. ‘Kenny wasn’t here. Kenny wasn’t here. Ten past ten but Kenny wasn’t here. Kenny wasn’t here. Kenny wasn’t here…’
Josh seized her by the shoulders. She tried to continue with her tidying, but found she could not move.
‘Jools,’ said Josh, gently. ‘Kenny won’t be coming in the shop any more. I told him not to.’
‘You did what?’ she gasped.
‘I told him not to come in here any more. See, I wanted to show him that all this stuff about the universe telling him stuff through our books was silly, so I played a kind of trick on him. I left notes, pretending they were –’
‘You don’t know what you’ve done!’ screamed Jools. She broke free from Josh’s grip. She pulled the bookcase in front of her over. Josh jumped out of the way as the books hit the floor with an awful thud, a second before the bookcase did. By the time he had regained his balance, Jools had pulled down a second bookcase, and he had to wrestle her away from a third, both of them falling into the spill of hardbacks as they fought.
‘Jools, calm down please!’ said Josh. ‘It’s ok, everything’s fine. It’s just that Kenny won’t be coming in anymore. You never did like him kissing you, and it’s not like he ever bought anything…’
Jools was not listening. She just lay there beside him, trying to escape his grip, repeating, ‘What have you done? What have you done?’
‘Shhh…’ said Josh. ‘It’s ok. Everything’s fine. I’m here…’
Jools looked at him with flaming eyes. ‘I don’t want you,’ she cried, ‘I need Kenny!’ The last word came out a horrible, primal bark.
Josh sensed that she had stopped struggling. He let her arms go. As he stood up, she lay there, sobbing, among the books.
Josh watched her awhile, not sure whether it was ok to leave her. Then, without her noticing, he grabbed his jacket from behind the staff door, and left the shop, beginning his search of the high street: going up and down it, in and out of every place, hoping desperately to find Kenny. Find him, so that everything in the shop could be beautiful again.