“That’ll tempt them,” Señor Alvarez said to nobody in particular, as nobody in particular was there to hear him. “They won’t be able to resist that lot.” Placing a box brimming with juicy red tomatoes by the shop door he pronounced: “They’ll be gone in no time.”
The store empty, he carried on talking out loud to himself, as he so often did.
“They must be the biggest, reddest and ripest tomatoes in Santa Catalina. So juicy.” He began to arrange them delicately, so as not to bruise them, putting their best sides to the top. Then, straightening his back, before resting his palms on his weary haunches, he stood back to admire them.
“What a useless, old mug Sanchez is. A complete waste of space.” The words slipped out with such exuberant malevolence even to catch him by surprise. He sneaked a quick look to make sure no-one had overheard. Of course, they hadn’t. Blowing out a breath of relief, he revelled in the knowledge he was alone. No need to feign shame. No need to grovel.
Freed from needless self-censorship, the grocer continued his derogatory monologue to himself, but a lttle more under his breath. Just in case. “Comes in here, thinking he can pull the wool over my eyes. Stupid idiot has the brain of half a donkey.”
After spending some moments polishing and arranging each tomato to its best advantage, he gazed out the door and into the world beyond his emporium. What a beautiful day. Sun shining, skies as blue as blue. The simplest pleasures are always the best.
Sniffing the clear bright air, he let escape a breath of sheer contentment and rubbed his hands. Life was good, very good. Didn’t know what he had, Old Sanchez, drunken old blockhead. Must be getting senile. Nobody could resist tomatoes like those. Especially when they were the first things they saw coming into the shop. There were few more exquisite feelings than getting the better of an old fool. Still as sharp as a tack, he had the pensioner over a barrel, telling him there was no demand for tomatoes with a face as straight as metal rule. No demand? People were crying out for them. Knowing Sanchez was only looking for enough to get sozzled, the grocer bought the lot for a pittance. You had to get up early to catch Señor Alvarez out. He smiled, allowing himself a moment to savour his accomplishment.
In such triumphant frame of mind he was glancing up the street, when his countenance darkened somewhat. His eye had been caught by two familiar silhouettes on the brow of the hill. One sauntering, the other scampering, they appeared not to have a care between them. Señor Alvarez’s eyes narrowed to slits as he grinned maliciously. Second snare of the morning. It was going to be a very good day indeed.
Hands in pockets, straw hat tipped back, Pedro was whistling his way towards the grocer’s shop, his scruffy dog in tow. Señor Alvarez looked down at his delicious red fruits and pondered. Though the fisherman couldn’t fail to be transported by the sight of such juicy red tomatoes he still owed him for four slices of ham and a loaf. Probably thought the grocer had forgotten all about them. Well, he hadn’t. But Pedro never had any money with him. And even if he had, getting him to part with it was an entirely different matter.
Still, Señor Alvarez would have to look on the bright side. See it as a challenge. Life was full of challenges. There was always the chance Pedro could’ve come into a packet. He might have won the lottery. Señor Alvarez swiftly banished the ridiculous fancy with a shake of his head. Not a chance in hell. Yet he had to think positive. He steeled his mind with positivity. It would take the skill of a brain surgeon to prise a few coins from Pedro’s pocket. He had that skill. He pictured the fisherman being drawn inexorably towards the tomatoes. Like an innocent fawn caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck, the instant their splendour caught his eye he would freeze in his tracks. Held in their trance, he would extend a hand to pluck one up and put it to his mouth. That’s when Señor Alvarez would pounce.
“Hola,” Pedro greeted cheerfully, raising the brim of his battered straw hat. Through the door and into the shop, he walked straight past the box brimming with juicy red tomatoes without sparing them so much as a glance. Señor Alvarez’s mouth gaped open, ready to say something. He cleared his throat noisily instead.
“What’s up with you?” asked Pedro. “I already said hola, do you want me to say buenos dias too? Buenos dias.” Señor Alvarez cleared his throat again.
“Ahem!” he said, tapping a foot on the floor. “I can’t believe you haven’t noticed my tomatoes. Don’t you think they’re the biggest and ripest in town?”
“No doubt about it,” Pedro said.
“Well, I bet you’d like to try one.”
“How much would you like to bet?”
“Not bet like that, I mean you can have one, on the house. Gratis. For free. Just to try.”
“I wouldn’t take a free lick of those tomatoes. Even if you paid me.”
Señor Alvarez stared in disbelief.
“Are you sick?” he inquired.
“No, and I don’t want to be sick,” Pedro answered.
Señor Alvarez waggled a doubting finger in his left ear. He couldn’t have heard right. It was impossible.
“Then you must’ve developed an allergy to tomatoes,” he said.
“Not that either. I love them. I eat them all the time. I had some for breakfast this morning. Though not half as good as yours look.”
“Fresh-picked at dawn. They’re home-grown.” Senor Alvarez said.
“I can see that.”
“Perfect soil. They’re organic.”
“No chemical fertilisers. Natural, organic fertiliser. Everything natural as natural can be.”
“And very rich in nutrients, I shouldn’t wonder.” Pedro threw in for nothing. “As well as other stuff.”
“Absolutely. They’re chock full of vitamins and minerals,” Señor Alvarez added. “Nature’s very best.” He liked this sort of talk. Eyes darting from fisherman to juicy red tomatoes, he flicked his head sideways. Twice he flicked it. “Go on, take one,” he nodded in invitation. “You know you want to.” Señor Alvarez flicked again. “Go on.”
“Have you got an affliction?” Pedro asked.
“And don’t forget the natural organic fertiliser when you’re taking that first bite,” the grocer reminded him. “Makes them really tasty.”
“You already mentioned how organic they are. A couple of times,” said Pedro.
“It can’t be mentioned enough.”
“True, very true. Neither can used toilet paper. That’s very organic.”
“Used toilet paper? What’s used toilet paper got to do with it?”
“The used toilet paper that comes along with the natural organic fertiliser spilling out that broken drain next to old Sanchez’s garden. It’s a sewage pipe.”
“But you’re not supposed to throw toilet paper down toilets. It causes blockages. ”
“And you’re not supposed to grow vegetables in raw sewage either, but that doesn’t stop some people doing it. And it doesn’t stop other people selling them.”
“What are you saying?”
“He’s saying people shouldn’t sell farm produce contaminated with human waste,” Officer Lopez announced. His arrival unnoticed by either man, neither could know exactly how long he’d been there. That he was new to the Santa Catalina Guardia Civil was made blatantly obvious by the shining brass buttons on his tunic. And the fact he had yet to develop a deaf ear. Let alone cock one. “Surely, you must agree with that?” he said, directly into Señor Alvarez’s face. Señor Alvarez winced.
“Si,” he said. “Of course, I do.” The two men held each other’s gaze momentarily before Señor Alvarez jerked an index finger out towards the box brimming with juicy red tomatoes. “Funny you should say that,” he said. “Take these tomatoes, for instance. There’s something about them I don’t like. Something not quite right. So I’ve put them by the door to throw away. In fact I was just about to take them down to the rubbish container when you walked in.” Officer Lopez glanced down at the box brimming with juicy red tomatoes.
“They seem fine enough to me,” he remarked. Bending down, he picked one out to examine. “More than fine, I’d say. They must be the biggest and ripest tomatoes in the whole of Santa Catalina, by the look of them. So red. And so juicy.”
“They may seem fine to you,” Señor Alvarez said. “But you don’t possess the practised eye of a professional purveyor of comestibles. Trust me, you have to look closer.” The policeman drew the tomato so near it almost touched his nose. He sniffed.
“What a fragrance. Fresh off the vine as far as I can smell. I can’t see anything wrong with them.”
“Exactly my point. It’s what you can’t see I’m talking about. You’re guardia civil, you should know about that. A bit too innocent-looking, eh? A bit too good to be true, don’t you think?” Señor Alvarez leaned an eager face towards him.
“The best I’ve ever seen,” Officer Lopez said. And was just about to bite a chunk when Señor Alvarez snatched it from his hand.
“They’re not for sale,” he said, putting it back in the box.
“You must be joking. Weigh me up a couple of kilos,” Lopez said.
“Not at any price,” the grocer insisted. And with all the might of all his teeth, he forced a friendly smile on the policeman. “No amount of money in the world could buy those tomatoes. And I certainly wouldn’t take any from you. Come back this afternoon, and I promise I’ll have some even better ones I’ll keep by specially for you.” he said. Officer Lopez smiled back.
“I hope you’re not trying to bribe me,” he said with a wink. Señor Alvarez’s eyebrows jumped.
“Bribe you?” he asked with an air of perplexity.
“You know what a bribe is, don’t you?” Pedro said.
“Of course, I know what a bribe is!” the grocer snapped back.
“He says he’s familiar with bribery, officer.”
“I’m not familiar with it. Not in that way. I just know what the word means.”
“Come on,” Officer Lopez said. “I know they must be expensive. First class tomatoes always are. But I want to pay the going rate. I don’t expect any favours, and I don’t give any.” He stared suspiciously at the grocer’s sweating brow. “I hope I’ve not got you wrong here, Señor Alvarez. Because I’d come down on you like a ton of bricks if I thought you were breaking the law by refusing to sell me some of your best tomatoes just because I’m a member of the guardia civil.”
“Breaking the law?” Señor Alvarez exclaimed.
“The law,” Pedro explained helpfully. “You know what breaking the law is, don’t you?”
“Of course I know what breaking the law is!” Señor Alvarez shouted.
“He knows all about breaking the law, officer.”
“For chrissakes! Shut up! Will you?” Alvarez said to Pedro.
“Now, now, there’s no need to raise your voice,” Officer Lopez said. “The gentleman is only trying to help.” Then turning to Pedro: “It’s all right, señor, I can handle things on my own. Thank you, very much.”
“He’s not trying to help. Can’t you see what he’s doing? He’s mixing you all up. And what things are you talking about? There are no things to handle.”
Officer Lopez took the grocer gently by the crook of his arm.
“Let me be the judge of that. As I said, Señor Alvarez, the gentleman was just trying to help. I’m quite sure you know what breaking the law is, but there’s no need to lose your temper. It can only provoke people unnecessarily. Just tell me how much your tomatoes are, weigh some out, and I think we’ll all agree no further action need be taken. The matter will be at a close. And I think you owe this gentleman an apology.”
“An apology,” Pedro said. “You know what an apology is, don’t you?”
“Of course I know what an apology is!” Señor Alvarez yelled at the fisherman.
“I’ve had to warn you once about that nasty temper of yours,” Officer Lopez interrupted. “I don’t want to have to do it again.”
“But it’s him! It’s him you want to be warning and arresting and stuff. He’s saying things deliberately!”
“I never said anything about arresting anyone,” Officer Lopez said. “But I will do my duty if I have to.”
“I’m a witness to that,” Pedro said. “The officer didn’t say anything about arresting anybody. But he’ll only be doing his duty if he has to.”
“For what?” Señor Alvarez asked pitifully. Pedro turned to Officer Lopez.
“For what?” he asked.
“For what?” Officer Lopez repeated slowly, and looked to the ceiling for assistance. “For causing a public disturbance,” he pronounced after a few seconds cogitation.
“Lopez only went and dragged Alvarez down to the station after that.” Pedro told Antolin in Juani’s bar later that afternoon. “Banged him up in a cell for a couple of hours of to cool off. You should’ve heard the language,” he laughed. “It was all I could do to keep a straight face.”
“Well, he can’t complain,” Antolin chuckled. “He’s lucky it’s the only thing he was arrested for. If you paint your grandmother’s donkey before trying to sell it back to her, you ought to keep an eye out for rain.”
“I don’t get your drift.”
“Nor do I. It’s just something my uncle used to say.”
Copyright © 2014 Bryan Hemming