Sunday, August 29, 2010

Holy Tomatoes and a Dog Named Floyd

[A story inspired by a newspaper article about a religious message found in a tomato...]

"The muslims are flocking to Bradford," he says.
     She looks up from the ironing board. "You what?"
     He flattens the paper onto the kitchen table and stabs at a passage with his finger. "They've got this    tomato they reckon has a message from Allah."
     She slams the hissing iron onto the collar of his best shirt. "I'd settle for bloody Bradford if someone would run me there," she says. Steam billows upwards, the iron slams down again. He folds the paper to the crossword puzzle and gets up from his chair. "And don't you be so long in there," she calls after him as he leaves the room. "Tom and Nancy will be here in half an hour."
     Swish, swish, the iron goes from side to side. She's looking forward to Tom's birthday lunch but that doesn't make it alright. One swallow doesn't make a summer, she thinks. She can't remember when they last had a day out, let alone a holiday. Since Pat retired their lives seemed to have shrunk. To the point where even Bradford sounded tempting.
     I suppose what we're all looking for is a sign, she thinks. Something to confirm that we're on the right tracks. She turns the shirt over to do the back. Down the seam, up to the yoke. Just suppose, she muses, just suppose as I'm ironing this shirt, the face of Jesus was to materialize. Would I recognize him? Or would I think it was a dirty mark? A weird stain caused by the fabric conditioner reacting with the heat of the iron. She lifts the iron and peers at the shirt. Nothing. The pattern from the ironing board cover shows through a bit and she tries concentrating on this. Willing it into a recognizable shape. A figure, a word, a sign of some sort. Nothing. She turns the shirt over and looks at the instructions on the washing label. A symbol, that's what she needs. A symbol of hope. A sign that life might brighten up a bit. Nothing too dramatic. What might a symbol of hope look like? The best have probably been used up, she decides. A circle in a square, a triangle with a cross through it, a hand hovering over a wavy line. They all hold a message. How will she recognize hope? What will it's all going to be alright look like?

     The restaurant is packed. Tom and Nancy sit with their backs to the window. Pat and Marilyn face it. They can see out across the front drive and the car park. They order the set meal because it's such good value and a roast is a roast after all.
     Tom and Nancy have a camper van and go everywhere. Pat and Marilyn have a Vauxhall Vectra that hardly ever comes out of the garage. It's a sore point. Pat's excuse is his allotment and what would they do with the dog. Tom and Nancy haven't got a dog for that very reason. They're free spirits, they say. Pat likes roots. It's amazing we all get on so well, Marilyn says when she writes to her daughter in Australia, because really we're as different as chalk and cheese.
     "Why don't you make an effort and come with us next week," Tom says between courses. "There's room in the van and, go on, bring the dog as well." Nancy looks at him sideways. "I wouldn't have said that before," he adds, "but we're thinking of upgrading so the dog won't hurt, just this once."
     And that was how they found themselves on a campsite near Dunwich, with the north sea pounding away at the beach and the wind whipping through the sand dunes making any attempt to watch Who Wants to be a Millionaire impossible. A woman has just got to 16,000 and is stuck on One of these dogs is the title of a film starring Dustin Hoffman. Is it... A. Borzoi... B. Papillon... C. Groendahl... D. Shitzui? Marilyn is beside herself because Floyd is a Papillon so she knows the answer. Then the picture goes all zig zaggy for the umpteenth time so they give up and settle for an early night. Of course at that stage Marilyn hasn't found her sign and it's only when they are in their beds at the back end of the van, Tom and Nancy having the double bed at the front, that she thinks to ask Pat, "This tomato in Bradford, what did it actually say?"
     Next morning Pat takes Floyd out early to do his business. He comes back saying that there's nothing to be seen but dunes. Not a house in sight. The beach is deserted and goes for miles in each direction. He had to carry the dog most of the way because the wind was that strong. While they were having a fry up he told them he'd met a man who'd said there was a sunken city right opposite their campsite and that sometimes, after a storm, bits of houses and what not got washed ashore.
     Marilyn said, "Is that right?"
     Tom said, "I've heard of that."
     Nancy said, "Would you like more bacon Pat?"

     Marilyn's started reading cups. As of a week ago this is. So when everyone's finished their tea she insists they pass her their cup. Nancy only buys bags, less mess, so there's not much to see.
     Pat says, "I wish you'd drop this 'sign' business. There's nothing in it, you know."
     "Well if Allah can turn up in a tomato, there's no telling what you might find in a cup of tea," Marilyn argues. "At least tea is eastern... tomatoes grow anywhere."
     Nancy looks over her spectacles, all superior like. "And why," she asks, "would somebody eastern have a message for you?"
     "No, no, it doesn't have to be eastern. It's just that they're more, well, spiritual aren't they," says Marilyn.
     "How do you make that out then?" Nancy points a yellow, rubbery finger towards a drawer beside the sink. "There's a tea towel in there."
     "Well, it stands to reason doesn't it," Marilyn persists, "all the great religious leaders were from the east."
     "The Pope's not." That's quick for Nancy.
     "But he's not a leader is he. He's just a follower like the rest of us, but higher up," counters Marilyn.
     "Oh, so it has to be somebody dead, who died a long time ago. Somebody like Jesus, or Buddha, or the Dalai Lama," says Nancy.
     "No, not the Dalai Lama. He was in London last year. It was on the news. Walking around in streets and parks and things. He's not dead yet."
     "Well one of them is. This must be a new one."
     "It could be my mother, or Pat's Aunty Joyce," continues Marilyn. "Do you believe in spiritual guides?"
     "Oh Marilyn," says Nancy, attacking the frying pan with a Brillo pad.
     "Well Maureen Duffy never does anything without consulting her spiritual guide. He's a Red Indian."
     "They always are aren't they." Nancy runs more water. "I can never understand how they all manage to speak English. No, leave that. That's my prop."
     Marilyn puts back the mug and picks up a handful of cutlery. "He doesn't speak to her, he leaves messages and signs. She's learnt to interpret the signs. She trusts him."
     "That's just intuition. We've all got that," Nancy argues.
     "But she's got more because she's fine tuned it. Where do these cups live?"

     Tom has discovered there's a Monkey Sanctuary a few miles away and do the girls fancy going? Marilyn is thrilled but Nancy's not too keen. They go anyway and Nancy is quite surprised at how interesting she finds it.
     "Just goes to show," says Marilyn as they're dividing up the fish and chips later on.
     "Show what?" Nancy asks.
     "Oh never mind," says Marilyn.
     "Who wants my batter?" asks Tom.
     It's been a long day and Floyd had to stay in the van so Pat says he'll take him out before it goes dark. The others get out the Cluedo. Tom is just about to accuse Miss Scarlet of doing it in the study with the candlestick when they hear a scratching at the door and it dawns on them that Pat has been gone a long time and missed most of the game.
     "It's not locked," says Tom. "Why doesn't he open it?"
     "It's not locked," calls Marilyn.
     "I don't think it was the candlestick because I've got it down here on my pad," says Nancy. "I've seen it."
     Tom peers over her shoulder. "You're not supposed to tell," he says.
     The scratching continues and Marilyn slides out from behind the table to go to the door. "That's Floyd," she says, looking at her watch. "My God, look at the time!"

     The police are sympathetic and try to sound hopeful. They've got teams of men scouring the beach and the woodland that separates the campsite from the dunes. They tell Marilyn to ignore the rumours of alien lights seen in the sky. They get a lot of that along this strip of coast, they say, and it usually turns out to be aeroplanes. Usually, but perhaps not always, thinks Marilyn. She's already seen the front page of the local paper which says that UFO spotters were out in droves last night because a sighting had been expected. Predicted it says. There are several descriptions by eye witnesses who claim to have seen similar phenomena. Cigar shaped lights hovering, then swooping about. The RAF station confirm that they've had no night exercises for months. All their planes were grounded and accounted for. Sightings were experienced across the channel and UFO followers on both sides had been in touch with each other on this one, thanks to mobile phones. There's a photograph of a patch of grass in a clearing. What looks like scorched areas have appeared and someone's paced it out and found that they are equidistant from each other and form a pattern when viewed from above; though no one's actually viewed it from above as yet so they're just speculating.
     Marilyn finds it hard to believe that all this was going on while they were playing Cluedo, and her Pat a party to it. And Floyd. If the grass is burnt that might explain why Floyd's paws are so sore. The front pads are red raw and he cries to be picked up rather than walk on them. Marilyn's not mentioned this to anyone. She doesn't want reporters upsetting him. He's not stopped shaking since she let him into the van last night.
     Tom and Nancy are a tower of strength. The campsite manager's not sure whether the publicity is good or bad for business but he lets them stay on at half rates. Five miles away at the Frog and Rhubarb a clutch of elderly locals sup their ale and nod knowingly to each other. They've no time for outsiders. All them birdwatchers and what not tramping all over the place.
     Every day Marilyn paces up and down the beach near the campsite looking for signs in the sand. Looking out to sea. Listening for voices from the submerged streets of Dunwich. Every now and then between the crashing waves, she thinks she hears something. But it turns out to be a bird, or the squidgy sound of sodden seaweed as the water kisses the toe of her wellies, then retreats to join ranks for another surge. Every night she lies in bed with Floyd curled up beside her, wishing he could talk. She tries placing a hand on his head and closing her eyes to concentrate. Willing his twitchy dreams to enter her consciousness. She's read about this somewhere. But that was man to man.

     She's been to see the burnt grass in the woods. She's paced it out and tried to imagine the pattern. There's a picture of her in the paper on the Wednesday morning beside an artist's impression of a space craft. The UFO supporters treat her like a celebrity. The police just shake their heads. Marilyn doesn't know what to think.
     A week passes and there's no sign of Pat. Marilyn is distraught and blames herself for complaining about him never taking her anywhere. If they'd stayed at home he'd be out on his allotment now tending his brassicas. She's phoned Barbara in Brisbane who arrives at Heathrow tomorrow. The police have called off the search and the UFO supporters have another notch in their belts. Then, just as they are packing up the camper van to head home, two policemen knock on the door with a piece of evidence that throws a whole new light on the situation. They found it under some undergrowth on the camp side of the dunes. It's been lying around for a long time and is quite weathered and faded. But you can still make out faint lettering on the sodden wood. Some of the letters are missing but there's no doubt that it is a sign of some sort. And you don't have to be a champion at Scrabble to see that it's meant to say Beware Quicksand.

     Sitting on a log, gazing out at the vast expanse of blue that is the Pacific Ocean, Marilyn thinks of Pat and wonders what he would have made of Barbara’s wooden house in the Brisbane suburbs. She always thinks of him as she digs her feet dig into warm sand. His would have been cold. Cold, North Sea sand. She thinks of him when, with her finger, she traces the shape of the Southern Cross in the clear, antipodean, night sky. Where is the bugger? she thinks. Up or down?
     Every week she attends a seance and her guide comes through. He's not what she expected. Coalbright, he's called. Says he's a banker from Birmingham. Alabama that is. USA. Had his brains blown out in a robbery. 1864.
     Marilyn says, "Is that right?"
     Mr Coalbright says, "Yes ma'am."
     Marilyn says, "I'm looking for my husband."
     Mr Coalbright says, "Ma'am, there are as many stars in the sky as there are grains of sand in the ocean. Does that mean anything to you?"
     Marilyn says, "Oooh."


Copyright: Christine Stanley
First published in Peninsular Magazine

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