the language of vegetables: constancy, abiding affection…

My friend Taffy wrote the following story for my (now defunct) romantic web site
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The dry dead leaves that hadn’t had the decency to fall off the mutilated plane trees reminded her of Greg. Greg had promised (trust-me smile, two fingers in the air, scouts’ honour) to water her potplants while she was visiting her mother up north.

The BritRail poster reminded her of Greg. Greg always drank his coffee from a stolen British Rail cup that was never properly washed.

The Gillette poster reminded her of Greg. Greg’s chin had that same deep shadow under his bottom lip, a suggestion of vulnerability, a permanent pout.

A pox on it all, bad enough chewing over his worst features without remembering that he had attractive sides as well!

Greg, the name felt like phlegm in her mouth and she felt the urge to spit, but wouldn’t have, couldn’t have, unthinkable. Though it hadn’t been unthinkable to a very large number of people who had passed down the steps to the underground before her. The concrete steps were covered in a pattern of round, black flattened blobs of chewing-gum. The warm air, which rose up out of the underground to taunt the chilly, overcast April afternoon with a mockery of summer winds, smelt of drab people and drunken misery.

She walked down the steps, stood to one side on the downward escalator and let those with more urgency flow past her. Carried down, deep down, at the pace of a slow shuffle, the descent to the platform at the bottom was a wearying travail, the people at the bottom tiny and distant.

Images flowed upwards on the wall in front of her interrupted by sequences of hats, hair, shoulders as people walked past. Lingerie, dreadlocks, Lucosade, cloth cap, gleaming cars, Sikh turban, polished children, blue rinse. The clatter of the old escalator machinery bounced off the yellow, yellowed, tile walls, but halfway down she started to hear breathy notes from a flute punctuating the white noise.

At first, only occasional notes reached her, then two or three together, then whole phrases. The unseen flute player was not particularly skilled, but good enough to put some feeling into the well-known Irish ballad he was playing. Suddenly, in the middle of the ballad, he started on a different Irish folk-song, a rousing rebel song which had no doubt been dangerous to sing when it was first written, and which was perhaps still dangerous.

It was cut off as suddenly as the ballad, but it was replaced only by the clatter of the escalators and the shuffle of shoes and boots on concrete.

As she reached the platform and stepped off the escalator she saw a young man being led off towards the exit by two security guards. She hoped he had at least had time to pick up any coins he might have earned with his playing. She felt the sequence of events like a slide show in her head, click, romantic music, click, defiance, click, defeat.

She was walking down the platform towards the empty end of a train which wasn’t there, when behind her a different flute, purer, less breathy, took advantage of the absence of the guards and picked up the ballad where the evicted young man had interrupted it. She smiled, it felt like the first time in years, and she re-ran the slide show. Click, romantic music, click, defiance, click, defeat, click, romantic music as defiance.

She was still smiling when the train came in and she got on. She sat down on an empty bench, pleased not to have to sit pressed up against some uninvited fellow human. The carriage was almost empty, but diagonally opposite her, next to the exit, sat a young man with a strange looking vegetable on his lap. The vegetable caught her eye, so that she didn’t realise he was looking at her, until the train had pulled out from the platform and the lights outside had been replaced by reflections of the interior.

Afterwards, she would have been much better able to describe the vegetable than the man. It was a glossy light green like a cabbage-leaf, and a bit bigger than a grapefruit. It had a slightly flattened rubber ball shape, and on the top hemisphere (she assumed it was the top), an array of round stalks all cut off to the same length. Standing on its stalks it would have looked like a flying saucer on a dozen landing legs.

The man on the other hand, looked quite down to earth. Brown leather jacket, brown, wavy hair, brown corduroy trousers, brown, smiling eyes.

She blushed and looked away when she realised he was smiling at her. As the train rattled on through the dark she carefully avoided looking at him. (Wouldn’t, couldn’t, unthinkable.) She smoothed her hair, pulled down the sleeves of her thick jersey and started chewing on her cracked thumbnail. And accidentally, unintentionally looked across at the earth brown man, who caught her eye and quickly slapped his left hand with his right, a quick rebuke to a naughty child, and then caught his vegetable before it rolled off his lap.

She blushed again, and put more effort into not looking at him, so much effort that she didn’t notice where he got off.

At her station she realised he was gone. A woman, with a pale, tired boy in army fatigues on her lap, sat where the earth brown man had been. She felt as if she had lost something. The counter had closed just before she got there. The last chicken was past its sell by date. The last pair of shoes were a size too big. Nothing major, just enough to take the polish off the rest of the day.

She walked slowly to the escalator, stood to one side for those in a hurry, let the man in the cubicle see her commuter ticket, walked up the smelly, gum-patterned steps into the April afternoon. Which, while she had been in the underworld, had turned into a brief, bright April sunset, where the sun had discovered a crack between the bottom of the clouds and the tops of the buildings, and played it to full advantage.

There was even a little shaving of evening sun still coming in through her sitting room window. She fed the cat and shared its contentment on the sofa. Like the smile for defiance, the first in a long time.

The next day was Saturday, and in a sudden flush of boldness she decided to go in search of the peculiar vegetable. She checked her map for a vegetable market down-line from her station, and made a big effort not to think about the earth brown man. She travelled down the line to a station where a young woman with a violin was playing romantic music. The bottom of the violin-case was covered by a pleasing quantity of coins and she tossed the change out of her jacket pocket into it as she passed.

The market was crowded and cheerful. A deep purple mound of glossy grapes made the rich golden oranges vibrate in counterpoint. Flapping canopies sounded like flags and banners and the sellers called out to passers by.

Try this exotic babaco, try these imported strawberries, cheapest bananas, and haven’t been over-chilled, look, look.

She drifted between the stalls, learning the looks and smells of new fruits and vegetables at every stall. It didn’t take her long to find her peculiar vegetable. The sign proclaimed it a Kohlrabi, its price a little more than a cabbage.

She picked a smooth, even one, with a good number of stalks and paid for it. She stood and weighed it in her hand, enjoying its heft and the sweet fresh cabbage smell of it. As she turned around to leave she walked straight into the earth brown man. She looked at him (could, would, thinkable) and held the kohlrabi up to show him her prize.

“What do I do with it,” she said.

Brown eyes. Smiling. At her.

“Well,” he said, “the possibilities are endless.”

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