Tuesday, July 19, 2005
The tomato sat in the palm of my hand. The young lady had handed it to me shortly after I had helped her change her tyre. Her ice blue Peugeot 206 had lain by the roadside for an hour or so before I’d arrived. The rain had stopped by now and a light breeze had blown back the mists and cloud and the hills and open bare country blended into a desolate yet moving backdrop for my few minutes of recovery work. “There are no mobile signals here” was the first thing she said as I leaned across my passenger seat to ask her if she needed help. It was the usual problem, wheel nuts a bit too tight, torqued on by some spotty fitter and the palms of her hand a little too soft. I exchanged her flat tyre for the space-saver spare and with little or no fuss she was on her way, an hour behind whatever schedule she may have had. During my gallant act there was little or no conversation made, she stood at the front of the car staring into the distance and hardly seemed interested in my few minutes of repair work. I rubbed my hands together, tidied the tools and the jack and dumped the old tyre in the boot. “Should be fine now, but don’t go over fifty on that tyre.” Saying nothing but nodding a blank thanks she reached into the car door, into a brown paper bag and handed me a ripe red tomato. I was surprised by this odd gesture, I wondered if she was foreign and had I missed her accent or had I missed some other indicator. She pressed the tomato into my fingers and said, “For you, thanks!” She got into the car and drove of down the road without looking back or giving a wave.
I stood there holding the tomato and chuckling to myself. I had a mind to throw the tomato at something, in to the distance, splatter it against a road sign or squash it, but I didn’t. I held it and looked at its red and shiny skin, its shape and soft feel. It was a nice looking tomato. I could just bite it and eat it like an apple, swallow it up and get on my way but I held it.
By now her car had disappeared into the distance and the weather seemed to be determined to turn nasty again. A large bank of cloud was swooping in a drowned droplet procession of flying liquid down the side of a hill to the west, the sun had lost the will to resist and I could taste the damp passage of the oncoming rain shower. I got back in my car as a fresh rainstorm beat down upon the passenger windows and the windscreen. Relentless drumming and spattering, rivers and drops and all visibility of the road and hills gone once again, though I was safe in the dry and warm (with the engine now on) car.
I put the tomato in a door pocket, turned on the wipers and drove the rain from the windscreen and resumed my journey. Despite the poor weather I failed to concentrate on the road and thought about the lady again. She was probably about twenty four, slim, pretty, long brown hair and dark eyes, turquoise polo neck sweater, boots and jeans, black handbag (I’d noticed), it didn’t go with the rest of her outfit. She was dressed to travel but I guessed she was touring, she didn’t seem like a local or someone returning home after working away. No she was a tourist and who knows I might catch up with her at the next town, after all I was a tourist to and it would be fun to perhaps have drink together in the evening. Then I thought again about the tomato, my speechless reaction, her non-engagement but her still determined handing over of the soft fruit from a bag of more soft fruit. That was really just plain strange, was she embarrassed? Was she afraid perhaps and acted out some kind of mild panic, not being sure how to thank and then leave a stranger who had come to her assistance. Had I said anything about being hungry? Had I moaned, so why oh why the tomato?
The rain eased, I followed the green and white signs and motored down into the next town, Thurso. The high street was clearing with the last few local shoppers and a few travellers; it was by now about twenty past five. I had decided I should eat soon and pulled over into a small car park that was handy for the few bars and restaurants that made up the town centre. As I left the car I looked back down into the other parking bays and saw the blue tailgate of her Peugeot and the slim space-saver tyre, nearside rear. She was here.
Immediately I experienced the brief dilemma of whether or not to look for her, to trust to chance or providence, to not bother or to look in every likely spot until I found her. I decided to remain true to myself and the spirit of accidental adventure that has both ruined and made my life, so I began to look for her. After all I thought, she is the only person I know in this town and what else is there to do?
Two pubs, a café (a coffee and a brownie for me) an Indian and a Chinese restaurant later I found the refuge she had chosen to recover from her bad afternoon in. It was unfortunately an Italian restaurant. Firstly let me say I like Italy, Italians, their cars and most Italian foods. What I’m not so keen on however is the type of food that tends to be served in UK based Italian eateries. I always feel a sense of disappointment when leaving after an Italian meal, pasta is nice but it somehow doesn’t quite deliver. Whilst on this track I also must add that I fail to understand the almost religious fervour and ritual that seems to follow eating pizza. Pizza is ok, but it’s a piece of doughy bread smeared with tomato, herbs and cheese, that’s all. Some varieties have meat or fish or chicken attached also and that’s fine. I just don’t really understand it’s enormous popularity, now a burger or a Chinese, mmmm.
She was on her own at a table by he window. I made a stupid face through the glass and tapped on it. She got a fright and jumped but smiled. I then made a series of ridiculous hand signals in a silly attempt to tell her that I was intending joining her in the restaurant if that was ok. This was accompanied by some other stupid faces, which probably detracted somewhat from my main message. Two minutes later I was in the place sitting opposite her and apologising for joining her. “It’s fine, ok, I am happy that you came by”. She told me her name was Harriet Marigold and that she was from Suffolk and was in the area to visit friends who unfortunately were out tonight. I told her that I was a brain surgeon currently between jobs who was running away from his mad wife and her madder lesbian lover. Then I told her that I was a systems analyst taking a few days off to explore the far corners of my country. She preferred to believe this.
I had forgotten the tomato until the menu arrived. “Why the tomato?” I blurted. “You’ll see!” she retorted, smiling a quick little smile and then returning to her study of the menu. We ordered food and wine and water. It all arrived, it was hot and we ate it and talked about travels, tyres, Suffolk and the meal. The meal over we agreed to share the bill and together fumbled the correct amount of notes onto the dish the waiter had left. She said that she had to resume her visit to her friends who must be home by now so would be on her way. “Tip?” I said, “I’ll take care of it, watch!” She reached into her handbag and pulled out a tomato; very similar to the one she had given me earlier. She placed it on the table, twirled round and walked out straight out of the door calling “Bye bye, thanks again!”. I didn’t want to see the face of the waiter when he found his tip so I wheeled out pretty quickly following in her wake.
Next moment I’m blinking on the pavement, looking in all directions but she’s gone. I ran back to the car park but her car is also gone by now. This has been a strange afternoon and evening and I need to find a B&B for the night. I click the key fob, unlock the car and get in. The tomato is still in the door pocket; I pick it up and study it for a moment. It feels heavy and healthy, it looks succulent. Even though I’m not hungry I decide now is the time to eat it. She gave it to me today; it’s fresh and what else can you do with a tomato other than eat it? I bite into the tomato, the skin gives way and breaks, the fluid and seeds inside ooze, I push my tongue in and catch the goodness and enjoy the taste, it is a very good tomato. In a moment it is gone and is now resting on top of the lasagne, salad and garlic bread I just consumed in the restaurant. I feel a bit bloated but the thought of an hours snooze in some comfy B&B bed and then out for a brief nightcap prompts me to drive on. 300yds round the corner and up a side street I find McCarran’s B& B and they have a vacancy. The landlady is friendly, we have brief chat and then she quickly shows me to my room on the third floor. I throw down my bag and kicking off my shoes flop onto the bed for forty winks in the hope that I will enjoy a rejuvenating snooze and that my digestive processes will speed up.
The bed is as soft and welcoming as I’d hoped and no sooner am I lying on it, stretched out on my back than I am quickly fast asleep. Sleep however does not come alone. I am asleep but conscious of a churning and a pounding in my stomach, I moan about Italian food and then realise that I am dreaming / feeling far more than mere indigestion, I am experiencing a swelling inside, a pain and a bright red band across my sleeping vision that screams “TOMATO”. My insides feel like a tomato, pulpy, seedy, largely made of water, dripping, inside I am a tomato, outside I am a tomato, inside I am numb, a red numbness descends and then all feeling is gone as sleep engulfs me.
The next morning at about nine thirty Mrs Ellie McCarran was up on the landing and tapping on the bedroom door, “Sir! Breakfast is past, are you no getting up yet?” There was no reply so she returned to her kitchen tutting to herself as she looked at her watch. At ten twenty she was back tapping on the door again and again without response. She tapped a little more and then reached into her pinny pocket for the pass key. As she unlocked the door a loud click came for the lock mechanism, she opened the door a few inches calling gently, “Hello? Breakfast? Hello?” The ongoing silence encouraged her to open the door wider and stick her head into the room for a proper look. She looked and saw the empty bed, the closed window, a backpack and nothing in the room particularly out of place. Then she noticed on the bed, square in the middle of the duvet, in a man sized indentation, a single red tomato.
Over in the flat above La Bella Palma restaurant the brothers Jim and Paul Macari would normally be up and preparing the menus, dining area and kitchen for lunchtime. Jim had gotten up at the usual time, showered and had coffee, he had called to Paul a few times but no sound came from his room. At ten twenty Jim peered round the bedroom door, scanned the untidy room for Paul and turned away thinking he had got up and gone out early or something, not Paul’s normal behaviour. He turned back around a looked again when a bright red object lying on the bed caught his eye, a ripe red tomato.
Harriet is a witch, a witch from the great school of diabolism and ancient sorcery that sits in Suffolk. She is out on tour trying out spells, hexes and incantations. Innocent victims abound and the information and experience she will gather is very valuable not only for herself but for all her colleagues and customers back down south. Try before you buy, do a little market research, carry out a straw poll, test the water, experiment and observe and finally report back. So by lunchtime when neither Paul nor I had been seen outside of our respective resting places Harriet had felt she had observed enough and drove carefully out of town grinning to herself and gently rubbing the ripe tomato that sat in her lap.
The screen on Jim Macari’s PC was about to go to star field as he tapped the space bar. He still hadn’t seen his brother that day and had forgotten about the tomato that had lain on the bed. Lunch had been difficult without Paul but as the restaurant wasn’t so busy today he had managed with the help of Gillian who did the waitressing for them. Paul sat at the PC and began checking his emails and footering around between his favourite web pages. It was about three thirty. It was strange that Paul had vanished or gone AWOL though, knowing him as he did Jim assumed he had gone of on a small bender, this had happened once or twice and usually ended with a call from Paul asking for a lift back home at some ungodly hour. Jim was irritated but not yet angry, just as long as Paul was back for work the next day.
What is the conscious state of a tomato? Does it have feelings? Does it think, dream, feel emotion or react? Has it an awareness of self? Paul knows and so do I.