The first time I heard a tomato talk was in the summer afternoon over lunch. It had been such a lovely morning that I’d decided to eschew the cramped, stifling confines of the office and eat outside in the park.
Whilst picking through the contents of a pre-packed salad, I became aware of a quiet voice. A casual glance at the neighbouring tables didn’t reveal the source; everyone was absorbed in conversations of their own and paid me no attention.
Puzzled, I turned back to my lunch.
It came again, louder this time and with more urgency. I was certain it was coming from beneath the table, but a quick peek, again, revealed nothing.
I stared at the plastic container. Sitting on a wilted rocket leaf was a lone cherry tomato.
‘Hi!’ its fleshy, red skin parted and I saw a tiny, perfectly formed, mouth. The corners twitched and turned up into a smile.
I said hello in a hushed voice, not wanting the couple at the next table to think I was mad. At least until I knew for certain myself.
‘It’s about time. You noticed me then?’ it asked. ‘I’ve been shouting a while now. D’you know how many times you nearly stuck me with that fork?’
I apologised; it seemed appropriate in the circumstances.
It occurred to me that someone could have slipped something into my drink. I scrutinised the bottle of water. No evidence of tampering (had I broken the seal? I can’t remember. Surely, I would have noticed if I had. Wouldn’t I?). It just seemed like regular water.
‘What are you doing?’ the tomato chided. I frowned in response. ‘You’re being very rude,’ it continued, ‘here I am trying to have a conversation and you’re staring at your drink like a lunatic.’
I was now certain I’d gone completely insane. None-the-less, I was still a little put out by a piece of fruit calling attention to it. I told it so in no uncertain terms.
‘I’m sorry. I think we may have gotten off on the wrong foot,’ it hopped up onto the plastic rim and introduced itself as: ‘Garry, with two r’s.’
Garry explained that there he’d not found much in the way of conversation from the rest of the salad, ‘especially the cucumbers,’ and was glad of the relief from the boredom. He didn’t seem to mind when I told him that I was only on my lunch break and would be expected back shortly.
I introduced myself.
‘Sorry if I seemed rude,’ I said, ‘I was a little startled. It’s the first time I’ve ever spoken to a tomato.’
He told me it was quite alright – an understandable reaction, if he was being honest. He suggested that the reason I’d probably never spoken to one before was that most tomatoes are very shy and prone to blushing when addressed. They never initiate conversation either.
I remarked that he didn’t come across as all that shy, which made him smile.
‘Oh, I’ve always spoken to people. Me and my family regularly chatted with the farmer and his wife when we were growing up. My dad was the worst of all. He’d keep going day and night, if you let him. I suppose I just got used to it.’
I told him that I’d a problem with shyness and confessed this to be one of the longest conversations I’d ever had in a social context. He was sympathetic: his brother was just the same. We talked about family for a while. He came from a large one; over a thousand of them crammed onto a single vine.
‘Not much room to yourself,’ he muttered. And then there were the ladybirds as well.
I tried to empathise, but I only have one sister and my parents hadn’t allowed us to keep pets. I avoided his questions about a significant other, still a particularly sore subject.
‘There was a girl back on the farm,’ he recalled when I turned the interrogation around, ‘she left a long time ago and I haven’t seen her since. I heard she was modelling though. Not sure if there’s any truth in that.’ He told me his mother claimed to have seen her on an advert for a large sandwich chain “showing more flesh than was appropriate”. Apparently, his mother had disapproved of their relationship.
We continued to make small talk on the usual subjects: work (I confessed to being in advertising, but hadn’t crossed paths with his childhood sweetheart); Hobbies (he had a passion for singing and insisted on serenading me with the latest hit – it wasn’t bad); even plans for the future (he wants to travel when he’s made enough money for the trip – somewhere hot).
‘I read an article somewhere about how tomatoes give natural protection against the sun and can even protect against some forms of skin cancer, is that true?’
‘I’m not sure,’ he said, ‘but I’ve never seen one with a tan so there might be something to it.’ That made me laugh.
I sat with him, enjoying the sun. A young girl raced by trying to get lift to a red kite, despite the lack of any discernible breeze, and we marvelled on the innocence of youth. He said that he wished he’d learned how to fly a kite. Now that I think about it, so do I.
By the time my lunch break was over, I was beginning to regret having to return to work, but as they say, all good things must come to an end. We said our goodbyes and I wished him luck with his travels. I made him promise to dedicate his first platinum record to me and in return, I would pass on his well wishes to the girl he lost, if we ever worked together.
I left him there in the sun to enjoy the kites and the energy of the park, and made my way back to my office.
Next time, I thought, I’ll just get a soup.