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Forty-one short stories
by Holly Gramazio

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11 across

What do they have that we don't?

"What do they have that we don't?", Carol says, nodding her head sideways at the street where a man in a suit is bent over flowers: poppies, lilies, and then roses. "Somewhere to sit down. That's the difference. It isn't how much you make, it isn't how clever you are, the thing that matters is whether you sit down for your job or whether you don't."

Brett's a bit uncomfortable, but it's his first day and he's trying to remember how the cash register works, so he just nods. Carol's gone anyway, stepping sideways between the racks of fruit and out to the footpath.

"They for your wife?" she says as the man leans down to touch white roses.

"Oh. Um, yes," he says, looking up at her.

"They're pretty," she says, motherly and helpful, "but they've been sitting around a few days. They won't last long, not in this heat. You'd be better off with something like these," and she pulls a bundle of anemones from a bucket. "Tell her to trim the ends when she puts them in water and they'll look just as good in a week, easy."

Brett sells a punnet of strawberries and loses track of the rest of the conversation, but he sees the man walking away with something pink. "They're not for his wife," Carol says sourly as she leans against a cupboard inside the booth. "He gets a bottle of water here every week for years, then suddenly he wants roses at half past nine in the morning? He was through last Thursday with some girl who bought him a mango. You know what white roses mean? Innocence. Happiness. I'm not bloody selling him those."

Brett nods politely again. "What do anemones mean?" he asks.

"Truth will out." She picks something from under her pointed thumbnail. "And it will. You're laughing at me. D'you have a girlfriend?"

"Yes."

"You can take some daffodils for her if you want. Or some of those striped carnations."

"Oh. Thanks." He looks out at the buckets. "What do those mean?"

She leans over a rack of fruit and pulls a banana free of its hand, then pushes her just-cleared thumbnail into the stem. "Unrequited love and break-ups," she says, pulling the peel free in two long strokes. "Want them?"

He hesitates. "I don't think she really likes carnations anyway. Or yellow."

"We've got white daffodils too."

"Mm, I don't think I will."

Carol grins. "Yeah, better not."

Brett remembers setting up early that morning: the man in the fluorescent jacket who'd passed through, trying to buy daffodils until Carol offered him yellow poppies for half-price; the girl with a bundle of placards who'd got handfuls of past-their-best tulips for free.

"What are yellow poppies?" he asks.

"Success and wealth."

"What about tulips?"

"Fame and passion."

Brett looks over the rest of the buckets. "Proteas?"

"Proteas don't mean anything. None of the native stuff does. Doesn't matter who you sell those to."

He watches her as she watches over the flowers. Discounts to girls with nametags, to anyone in a uniform. Daffodils and hyacinths to anyone in a suit.

"That one," he says after an unexpected sale. "What was wrong with her?"

"She had sit-down-job shoes. Shoes are the way you judge it. Sometimes you'll be wrong, but anyone with a stand-up job wearing sit-down shoes is stupid enough to deserve whatever they get." Carol wears sneakers, white with hot pink toes, scuffed but clean, and there's a packet of inner soles tucked away in one of the cupboards, just in case. Brett glances at his feet, wondering what sit-down-job shoes are, and up again, and Carol's smiling as the girl who's wearing them stumbles in the distance.

He takes his break half an hour later, and as he walks down Rundle Mall he looks at violas in the planters, purple and yellow and dark red, and he wonders what they mean, and what would happen if he picked one. The sunlight slants off with a threat or a promise. He doesn't know whether his girlfriend wears sit-down shoes, or whether she's ever bought flowers from Carol, or what it'll be like to spend his days watching snap judgement and sabotage. In a nearby Go-Lo, he pushes his way past bargain-priced DVDs and chocolate bars, looking for a solution.

When he gets back to the stall, Carol's standing just outside, away from the fruit, blowing smoke out of her nose and watching for customers. "What's that?" she says when she sees him, nodding at the tangle of metal and fabric he's clutching to his chest, dropping her cigarette into a bucket of water and orange petals: they've sold out of poppies.

"I found it in the alley behind Woolies, next to the bins," he lies, leaning it against a cupboard. He'd torn the plastic off outside Go-Lo and stuffed it in a bin, shiftily.

"Yeah?" She follows him in and reaches down to unfold it, kicking its legs straight with her pink toes. "Not bad for garbage. Some people'll throw anything out."

There's a streak of discoloration across the back where he scooped a handful of dirt from one of the planters and rubbed it across. Carol brushes at the mark.

"I suppose," he says carefully. "There's nowhere to keep it at my uncle's place, though. I don't know why I bothered."

She sits on it and bounces appraisingly, then stands up again. "Better than letting it end up at the dump."

He shrugs. "There's no way I'll be able to get it back on the bus tonight, anyway. Is there space to leave it here for a while?"

"Dunno," she says, running her fingers over the seat: pale canvas with a messily lopsided vegetable pattern, corn and potatoes and something that's maybe capsicum. She stops on a cluster of olives, and then touches another on the far side. Brett waits.

She straightens again. "I suppose," she says. "For a few days, anyway."

A woman in high heels clacks up with a bunch of roses and a twenty-dollar note.

"Those're pretty," Carol calls over to her, walking slowly to the counter, and Brett notices her look at the woman's shoes.

"Yes, they are, aren't they?"

Carol hesitates for a moment. "Good scent to them as well," she says, then, and fetches change.

Brett is silent and careful as she sits down.

"Yeah, well don't get too smug," Carol says, grumpy or grinning, looking up at him reprovingly through eyelashes. "I didn't wrap them up for her. They'll be dripping all the way home."