Werther’s and Smoked Tomatoes

By Hannah Goldswain

It had been a long day for Philip. His budgie Peter hadn’t been very talkative for the past six days and the silence was starting to eat away at him, but then Philip hadn’t particularly had much to say these past six days either, so maybe he was leading by example. Not to mention it had also been raining for the sixth day in a row, which, although in England certainly wasn’t uncommon, was a bit of a dampener nonetheless. Maybe there was some kind of correlation there. Or maybe it was a coincidence; Philip had bigger things to worry about. Like the fact that he was all out of cornflakes, which led to the third problem of the day: what on earth was supposed to provide him with the incentive to actually get up?

It was so far shaping up to be a pretty hideous 24 hours, and 8 o’clock hadn’t even struck the world yet, so Philip wasn’t expecting a whole lot to be achieved that Wednesday. And although he set his expectations low, when half past four dawned he was still fairly gutted to receive the news that his football team had had an astounding loss against their rivals in a match where, really, they should have come out on top. That’s right, a 4-0 loss for Tottenham, their fourth in a row, and what made the already splitting headache worse was that that match was Arsenal’s fourth win in a row. Bloody Gunners, Philip thought as he ploughed through the street in the rain, at least his father would be chuffed, as a supporter of the enemy. Philip shook his head. Some people.

It was 5 o’clock now and Philip had let himself out of the office a whole 6 minutes early, justified by the need to reflect on Spurs’ outrageous defeat. Which wasn’t entirely a lie if he was honest. His mind was so focussed on the many opportunities missed by Harry Kane to put an end to Tottenham’s misery, that he almost splattered right past his first stop on the way home.     

Jerry’s newsagents wasn’t the classiest of places, but it was familiar, and like all familiar places, things are just better when they’re bought from there. Even if they’re sometimes a month out of date. Upon entry, Philip sidestepped a group of layabouts decked out in the latest Adidas stripes with their hoods pulled over their eyes, deep in conversation about something sketchy Philip would probably rather stay out of. He then nodded good evening to Ivy, the four-foot old lady from around the corner with silvery hair always piled into a bun on her head. She was so frail and weathered Philip was worried the next gust of wind might finish her off. Nevertheless, she was a regular and Philip could count on her being there at the same time tomorrow regardless of the winds’ ferocity, she was a tough little nut he had come to find out.

Philip barely had to look as he picked up his staple food; a packet or two of Werther’s originals could be counted on getting you through any kind of atrocities documented by BBC’s ten o’clock news, be it the ridiculous Brexit idea or the even more nail-biting US election. Philip had barely dared to get involved in that minefield, fearing that should it come to picking sides the worst would happen. The Werther’s addiction was something he had developed from his father, who was partial to a pack or five of the sweets a day, it was a necessity that would never run out in their house, and should it, it would be the day the world would rue forever. So far, that day was quite out of reach with the pool of Werther’s stagnating back at his father’s house, sitting untouched in their dish by his chair.

Philip tried his hardest not to do a double take by the stacks of cigarettes behind the counter, forcing his eyes to focus on Jerry himself who was grinning from ear to ear as if running the newsagents really did make his day all day every day. Sometimes it hurt to look at just how happy his face was, if only everyone could be that happy, the world would sort out its conflict in seconds. Cigarettes was another thing the gene pool had insisted on passing onto Philip, his father had smoked a pack a day alternating sometimes with a pipe or cigar. He wouldn’t be stopped by a glaring wife or even the posters that Philip’s sisters papered the walls with all those years ago, brandishing the words that told of smoking killing and all that carry on. It had taken a small army of no smoking posters churned out over a year or two for his father to sigh heavily and part with the cigarettes, only to be banished to the garden with his pipe. Philip’s house was the only one with a greenhouse resembling a small active volcano and smoked tomatoes for tea, on the whole of Inkerman road. With that in mind, Philip stuck to his Werther’s, smiled half-heartedly (even the most genuine smile was half-hearted in comparison to Jerry’s) and squeezed out past the youths sponsored by Adidas, back into the sheets of rain.

It seemed that rush hour was a thing for pavements and not just roads, with people thundering around him, regardless of umbrellas poking unwary stragglers in the eye, or dog leads taking down oblivious wanderers, garrotting them below the knee. Philip was about to open the Werther’s when something that felt like a large boulder tried to gouge a hole in his shin. The large boulder it turned out was just a briefcase, but all the same, the bruises were there. A rather short and stout woman with hair the colour of fire on the other end of the briefcase gasped and threw her arms into the air as if she had just run over a small child.

‘Oh, I’m terribly sorry pet!’ She bellowed through the rain, an anguished look on her face at the undisguised pain echoed on Philips.

‘No no,’ he grunted, ‘I’m fine- don’t worry, all… is good.’

 The woman looked sceptical, but glanced at her watch and decided that her destination was taking priority over his pain. He would get over it. So, with another sorry, she righted herself and stalked off down the street, this time avoiding clueless men as she went.

Luck with the female counterparts of the world was one thing it seemed his father had been reluctant to pass down to Philip, and Philip was finding it hard not to be resentful. Whilst his father had not only found a girlfriend but had then tied the knot at the youthful age of 21, Philip was yet to fully look another female directly in the eye without feeling, at the very least, slightly uncomfortable, even at the ripe old age of 41. Still, he told himself, that left him just over half his life to find his one and only (he just hoped she’d hurry up and come along already, the clock was ticking).

A gaggle of young footballers were trundling along next to Philip, slowly overtaking him in single lined fashion, each one talking excitedly about their win and the other team’s own goal and just how biased that referee had been (I swear he played for them!) and just how angry that parent had been (I only tapped him, and he had shin pads on anyway!). He didn’t even have to look at them to know they were the Eton Wick Juniors, the village was very proud of their little football team, they were in the top two at the moment! How the years had passed since those football filled days on the fields. Philip prided himself on his lightbulb moment where he had pestered his dad to create a football team for him and his friends. The most exciting day of his life had been picking up Eton Wick Juniors’ official kit for the first time ever, that season they came third, and they hadn’t stopped since in those royal blue beauties. It almost caught Philip off guard remembering his father at every match and training session, living his football dreams through his two sons who tore up and down the pitch, each as giddy as the other to be in a real proper team. One that was more than half decent too.

With a Werther in his mouth and memories of football in his mind, Philip was verging on content for the first time that day as he pushed open the hefty black door leading into the flower shop, Patty’s Pansies. Patty was a dear old woman, who bustled around the shop talking to anything that would listen, whether it would talk back or not. Apparently, conversations with pansies are underrated. Currently, the latest village gossip was being offloaded onto the yellow roses in the corner.

“… and then Sheila said to me, ‘I didn’t even enjoy the fudge Beryl made, it’s not a patch on Jen’s-“ Patty was nodding with authority as if she’d just delivered some front page news to the flowers and was expecting a big response.

Unsure quite how to handle this situation without setting an army of flowers against him, Philip wandered around hunting for something that his father wouldn’t immediately hate. It ended up being the yellow roses in the corner that caught Philip’s eye, so he shuffled over, trying to avoid looking as though he was eavesdropping on the conversation that hadn’t moved past Jen’s amazing fudge yet.

“… Oh yes and it’s ever so crumbly- but not too crumbly, oh no, just the right amount,” Patty nodded as though she was doing Jen’s fudge a huge favour and it would owe her one in the future, and she started as she saw Philip behind her.

“Oh dear, how long have you been there, duck? Honestly,” she clucked, “What can I do for you, some pretty pansies?”

She nodded and continued, “We have some lovely pink ones, or purple if that takes your fancy, no?”

A whole thirty-three minutes later Philip exited the shop with a sigh of exasperation, how could shopping for some flowers be quite so energy draining? He was also a good £20 down, quite a substantial amount more than he anticipated; it turns out Patty’s pansies had been hard to refuse. At least the sky was clearing now, the clouds were bumbling this way and that trying to get out of the way of planes and trees, attempting to let the sun glimpse the people below.

Despite the lack of rain, and ever so slightly warmer air, it seemed that Philip’s feet were hindering him. They were dragging along the pavement with something that resembled an air of reluctance. Eventually, Philip turned the corner and wandered down the cobbled path, taking care to avoid the loose cobbles he had learnt to skirt around. He took his time picking his way over the mossy stones in the quiet. If he took much longer he might as well not be moving at all. He knew the route as though he had been born to walk it, so even if his mind was unsure his feet carried him. He moved past the big oak tree where the squirrels would run up and down as though they had ingested too many E-numbers that day, past the little water fountain with its stone gargoyles hurling water at each other, past the cluster of rhododendrons, up row 43, all the way along to the end and there he was.

Philip gathered up the yellow roses and the pink and purples pansies Patty had thrown at him, he cut off the ends, opened the packet of plant food his father would be disgusted at him using and placed them next to the stone in the chipped vase leaning at a rather alarming angle. Philip’s father had been rather into his gardening, he was never quite on the conversing with plants level, but the riot of colour that decorated the back garden had been his pride and joy. Philip had known secretly that his father couldn’t wait to rid himself of the outdoor pool that had invaded his garden at his children’s request all those years ago so that he could bring back the jungle of flowers he so dearly loved. Once the pool parties had quietened down, (admittedly that wasn’t the quickest of processes) Philip’s father didn’t even try to hide his delight at its departure.

To which Philip smiled and shook his head. He placed a hand on the six-day-old gravestone and told his father about the dismal football, and how awful the weather had been of late, he even told him how he had been buying his own Werther’s and that his father’s collection had most certainly remained untouched for the past six days. He told him about how Peter was a bit on the silent side these days and how Jerry was still smiling and Patty still fussing about her pansies. He also told him how Eton Wick hadn’t quite been the same this week, but that he shouldn’t worry because even though there was a Roy shaped hole in the world, soon the family would knit it together. Philip added that the tomatoes were also suffering without him and that the runner beans were looking a bit worse for wear too. He thought about mentioning how his grandson, Sam, was living the life away in Cyprus (who knew business trips could be so lavish?) or how his globetrotter granddaughters were floating around in Switzerland and Sri Lanka and how his youngest grandchild had just won another hurling match in Ireland. But the words stuck in his throat. Instead, he told his father how much everyone was missing him. And how much they wished his chair in front of the TV, on either Sky Sports News or BBC 1 and nothing else, wasn’t empty. And how no one wanted to see his walking stick collection gather dust. Especially not the one with the gold ducks head on.

After a while, Philip ran out of words and as the sun crept below the sky, he felt maybe it was time to go and collect another day’s stories that he could whisper to his father tomorrow. So, he patted the cold, unforgiving stone awkwardly as though it was a small dog, and meandered back through the rows of dead people, all lying still under their ceiling of soil, hoping that his father was in a better place. And knowing that sometimes things get a bit worse before they get better.

When Philip reached the street again, he stretched, he massaged his bruising shin and for a fleeting second, he paused. Then he shrugged and wondered if Peter would be a bit more lively when he got back.

Photograph: Anna Gibbs

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