Juicy Red Tomatoes

Peñon Street WP
Illustration – Angelica Westerhoff

SEÑOR ALVAREZ HEAVED a box brimming with juicy red tomatoes up from the floor with a grunt. “This lot will have them through the door quicker than a gang of armed vampires raiding a blood bank,” he said to nobody in particular, as nobody in particular was there to hear. Humping it towards the front of the shop he dumped it on an upended crate by the door. “They won’t be able to resist these.” The grocer blew a sigh of satisfaction. “They’ll be gone in next to no time.”

His mini-supermarket bereft of customers, Señor Alvarez carried on wittering to himself, as he so often did when alone, which he so often was.

“They must be the biggest, reddest and ripest tomatoes in the whole of Santa Catalina. So juicy.” Picking one up he examined it for blemishes, taking care not to bruise it before sorting out the best to put on top. “And they’re all mine.” He placed it back among the others. “Not for long though. Not these.”

Having spent some time polishing and arranging each tomato to its best advantage, he straightened his back and rested his palms on his haunches. “Not bad at all, not bad at all.” With that he went back into the shop.

“What a prize chump that Sanchez is,” he said, “thinking he can get the better of an old hand like me. Take more than a half-baked nincompoop for that. We’ll see who the biggest idiot is when this lot starts flying out.” But something about his voice suggested he wasn’t quite so sure of himself as he was trying to make out. The tomatoes had been cheap. Suspiciously cheap. Sanchez had folded far too willingly in accepting the very first offer the grocer made. Normally, he’d quibble over every centimo.

“I don’t like it; I don’t like it at all.” Taken aback by the loudness of his own voice, Luis Alvarez glanced over his shoulder to make sure nobody had slipped in through the door to hear him. Of course, they hadn’t. He sighed with relief, secure in the knowledge he was alone.

He felt the sudden urge to scurry to the door and take another look at the tomatoes, as though half-expecting them to have perished. Once there, they looked just as good as before, if not better. Yet, magnificent as they were, something niggled. He couldn’t help thinking they were too good to be true.

In an effort to moving his musings away from his growing doubts about the tomatoes, he gazed out the door and into the world beyond his little emporium. A cheerful sun shone out of skies blue as blue. What a beautiful day. The simplest pleasures are always the best.

Sniffing the clear bright air, Señor Alvarez let escape a breath of contentment. Life was good, in the main, very good. Fact was, Sanchez didn’t know what he’d got. The old fool must be getting senile. Nobody could resist tomatoes like those. Especially when they were the first things they saw on entering the shop. There were few more exquisite feelings than getting the better of someone less intelligent than oneself. Still as sharp as a tack, and with a face as hard and straight as a metal rule, the grocer had told the pensioner there was no demand for tomatoes. The market was as flat as a pancake. No demand? People were crying out for them, yet the grocer had snaffled the lot for a pittance. You had to get up early to catch Señor Alvarez out. He smiled, allowing himself a few moments more to savour his accomplishment.

In this chirpy frame of mind he glanced up the street to the brow of the hill, when the skies appeared to darken all of a sudden. His eyes narrowed to slits. On the horizon he spied two familiar silhouettes heading his way. One sauntering, the other scampering, they appeared not to share a care between them. There being no time to shutter the windows and lock the doors, a grimace took hold of the grocer’s face. As the silhouettes approached even closer he raised an eyebrow. If he could best old Sanchez, he could best anybody. Gradually his grimace was displaced by a grin; this could be his chance to turn a bad omen into a golden opportunity. Clapping his hands he rubbed them together. It promised 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 had it. 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 strolled straight past the box brimming with juicy red tomatoes without sparing them as much as a glance. Señor Alvarez’s mouth gaped open, ready to say something. He cleared his throat noisily instead.

“Ahem!”

“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?”

“Not a doubt about it,” Pedro said.

“Well?”

“Well, what?”

“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 so much as 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.”

“Very organic.”

“No chemical fertilisers. Natural, organic fertiliser. Everything natural as natural can be.”

“And very rich in nutrients, I shouldn’t wonder,” Pedro threw that one 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 towards the brimming box. 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. The grocer ignored him.

“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 in its own special way.”

“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 glistening buttons on his tunic. Emphasised by the fact he had yet to develop the deaf ear years of practice brought to veteran officers. Let alone the ability to 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 said. Bending down, he picked out a prize specimen to examine. “More than fine, I’d say.” He rolled it between fingers and thumb. “They must be the biggest and ripest tomatoes in the whole of Santa Catalina, by the look of them. So red. And so juicy looking.”

“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 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. “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 some by, especially 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 aghast.

“You know what a bribe is, don’t you?” Pedro said.

“Of course, I know what a bribe is!” the grocer snapped.

“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 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 said. “You know the law is, don’t you?”

“Of course I know what the law is!” Señor Alvarez shouted. “And there’s no need to explain what breaking it is either.”

“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 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 we’ll all be on our way. I think you owe the gentleman here an apology.”

“An apology?”

“An apology,” said Pedro. “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 said. “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 be more than willing to do 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.

***

“He only went and dragged Alvarez down to headquarters,” Pedro told Antolin   over a beer in Juani’s bar later in the afternoon. “Banged him up in a cell for a couple of hours of to cool off. You should’ve heard the language.” The fisherman laughed. “When I saw old skinflint’s eyes peering through bars, 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.”

“Neither do I, I’ve been trying to puzzle that one out for the past forty years. It’s something my uncle used to say.”

Copyright © 2016 Bryan Hemming

 

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Washed Up and Smoked Out

Little changes in Santa Catalina. But when so little changes, little changes are not hard to spot.

The first sign things weren’t quite as normal came with the exceptionally jolly faces that greeted me as I entered Manolo’s, the fishermen’s bar. Walls of irrational smiles always produce a frisson of paranoia that has me checking my flies. I hadn’t seen so much yellowing ivory since the time the circus came to town.

News was that a Guardia Civil cutter had intercepted a Moroccan fishing boat riding out a storm in the waters beyond the harbour earlier in the week. Not an unusual event for these parts. Most clear days you can see the hazy blue smudge of North Africa hugging the horizon.

Before the commander and his men had a chance to board, a suspected illegal catch of fish disappeared over the side. With no hard evidence of serious misdemeanour, three thankful-looking Moroccan fishermen were released without charge after four hours questioning and a stern warning.

Some time later, heavy seas yielded up an unexpected harvest on the long stretch of deserted beach between Santa Catalina and Los Pinos. By the time Officer Lopez drove out to investigate it had mysteriously disappeared.

Antolin wore an uncharacteristic stupid grin while recounting the event in Manolo’s. At the end of which, Pedro collapsed from his stool in a helpless heap of giggles that sent his scruffy dog scurrying out the door. Though vaguely amusing, the news wasn’t so funny. However, on a recent stroll past the narrow alley, winding from Plaza de Republica, towards Manolo’s, my nostrils caught the illicit aromas of the Maghreb wafting by. It’s an ill wind.

Once, while walking that same stretch of shore, I spotted a giant turtle beached after a particularly violent gale. As I approached the stench of putrid flesh became so overwhelming I couldn’t get near. Bleached white by sun and salt, the shell stood three feet high and measured more than five feet in length. When I told Juani she immediately wanted to hang it beside her paintings in the small bar she runs in Plaza de Republica. Despite telling her how morbid the idea sounded, she persuaded Pedro to drive us out there in his old van. All the way I tried to convince her of the folly of the scheme. Even could we bear to get close, it would take far more than three of us to lift it. Juani was not to be put off. With a silk scarf held over her mouth and nose she strode right up and poked a stick at it. The stick went straight through the shell, which had softened to mush in seawater. She made us promise to go back in a few days, assuring us, having dried out by that time; the stench would’ve gone. In her excitement, she said she would bring her boys to lend a hand. I reminded her they were only three and seven years old. Thankfully, on our return, she was right; the smell had gone. So had the giant turtle, both washed away by another storm.

For centuries, Santa Catalinians have reaped the rewards of others’ misfortunes on their beach. The Battle of Trafalgar is still recalled as being particularly bountiful, though nobody in the town can possibly be so old.

Antolin’s grandfather once showed me an ancient naval tunic with tarnished gold braiding and epaulettes. He told me it had been handed down through the generations. Family history had it; a distant forebear had found it in a sea chest near the remains of a shipwreck washed up on the beach over two hundred years ago. Next to it, a convenient piece of driftwood bore faint letters spelling ‘Victory’. Just in case I hadn’t pieced things together by that time, the coffer had yielded up several other interesting clues, including a black eyepatch, and a brass telescope. Wearing a face as straight as a Roman road, Antolin’s grandfather asked me what they might signify. I knew where things were leading. Before he got round to it, I pointed out Admiral Nelson’s flagship was never sunk, and can be visited in Portsmouth harbour to this day.

Later, Antolin confided his grandfather had bought the tunic in a lot of a dozen at the Sunday morning flea market in Cádiz. They came from the properties department of a film company. So far, he has managed to sell seven of them to unsuspecting English tourists.

What one tide brings in, another can take away, Antolin told me.

Not after you’ve smoked it, I said.

 

© 2009 Bryan Hemming