Mum’s Secret Tomato Soup Recipe
Meg Vertigan (University of Newcastle, Australia)
The chenille bedspread was heavy. Jack pushed it roughly aside and went to open the curtain. The new day pushed into the room, making Betty squint. She cupped her arm over her face as if the daylight had woken her, but Jack knew she had also been awake long before the sun. He had felt the stiffness of her body next to his like a child pretending to be asleep, devoid of the natural movement and sighs of true dreamers.
Jack watched from the window as she rolled about and yawned a little, then headed for the bathroom, her bed-coat held so tightly closed that her knuckles were white. He went outside and picked the last of the season’s tomatoes: a sorry looking bowl of misshapen fruit, scabby skinned and blotched with green. He could hear the water meter clicking over as Betty bathed.
Leaving the bowl of tomatoes on the front porch, Jack went around to the side of the house and picked through the junk there. A broken bucket, discarded stakes. A rusted swing set that even the grandchildren had outgrown propped up the fence. From a pile of plastic pots he found an old terracotta one, half-buried by the weeds. Jack pulled at it but the grass had grown through its drainage hole like an anchor.
His back creaked and his hip clicked as he bent down and tore the grass away. He pulled with both hands until the grass broke away and gave up the pot. The water meter whirred on as Jack put the pot in position outside his bedroom window and took the tomatoes inside.
By the time Betty came out of the bathroom wearing the violet dress that matched her eyes, Jack was in the kitchen eating dry toast and hacking the tomatoes into chunks. Silently Betty took up her position beside him. Her long fingers moved deftly, cutting onions and garlic into evenly sized pieces. Jack’s cutting was slower, less rhythmical, the tomatoes as much crushed as cut. Watery juice dripped over the edges of his chopping board onto the table.
They stood close together in the small kitchen, her sleeve occasionally brushing his arm as she threw the slices into the cauldron. Jack went over his plan for the morning, trying to silence the words playing over in his mind. They repeated endlessly, so he started to hum to himself, concentrating on the ticklish buzzing that came from between his lips. But the words didn’t go away; they sung at him as he hummed and cut the tomatoes. He hummed louder and his hands shook as he thought about the way her mouth twisted whenever his name was mentioned in conversation, as if she was trying to restrain a smile. Betty finished her cutting and handed him the sharper knife.
He watched her as she moved around the kitchen in the ritual he’d seen a thousand times. Pulling out a teabag from the canister for them to share, examining the insides of the cups to see if they were clean, then rinsing them anyway. She watered the African violets in the middle of the table with the cold water from the kettle before she filled it up and boiled it again.
Jack’s knees felt weak. He pulled out a chair and sat down, watching the water as it seeped up from the saucer under the violets. Soon Betty handed him his mug, the scratched face of their first grandchild looking up at him as he took a sip.
‘Golf today?’ asked Betty.
She took the board from in front of him and tipped the tomatoes into the black cauldron.
‘Can you do anything with that lot?’ asked Jack, gesturing to the stove.
‘You know me,’ Betty replied and Jack knew that the soup she made would be red and delicious despite the inferior tomatoes. He knew that Betty could turn his over-ripe marrow into lovely cakes and his slug-infested strawberries into prize winning jam.
Jack had always been a jealous man. For years after they’d married he had slept with his wrist through the side of his wife’s underwear, as if he were afraid she might run away into the night. He’d listened in on her telephone conversations, imagining lovers on the other end, and then asked her questions, endless questions. Until he was tired, so tired of it all. And they’d had children who’d had children who had grown up and had lives and jealousies of their own.
But his wife was resting her hip against the pantry, sipping her tea like a teenager, and she looked so beautiful and unattainable that the words repeated themselves again through his head as they had since the funeral of Betty’s sister just before Christmas.
They were all sitting in the kitchen next to a platter of unwanted sandwiches. Mike had drunk too many malt whiskeys, his voice growing louder and his tearless blue eyes brighter as he said what Jack had always known.
‘You got the best sister, you know.’
And everyone had stopped breathing and looked at Betty as her mouth quivered like a child trying not to giggle and then everyone went back to commenting on the food and the weather and talking about their jobs as if nothing had happened.
Jack finished his tea and stood up, his hip bumping the table. He went into the bedroom to change into his golf clothes. He paused at the window and opened the curtains just a crack. Outside he could see the lopsided flower pot upended amongst the dahlias, and his stomach felt like jelly.
Back in the kitchen he kissed his wife’s powdery cheek.
She was wiping at the water that had escaped from the saucer in the middle of the table. She wasn’t fast enough and it started to drip onto the floor. Jack rushed the offending violets to the sink.
‘Look at this Jack,’ she said as she sponged at the spot where the flowers had been. Mum is nice had been scratched into the table in irregular, jagged letters.
‘Remember that?’ she laughed. He laughed too, remembering half-heartedly punishing his son for ruining the table with such sweet vandalism.
Betty walked him to the car then and reminded him to wear his hat. He watched in his rear vision mirror as she waved him down the street.
Jack turned left at the end of their street and then he turned right, pulling the car into the McDonald’s on the highway. He ordered a Happy Meal through the drive-through. In the car park he swallowed the lukewarm burger, surprised at how tasty it was. He read the health blurb on its casing as it sat on the bottom of his stomach like a handful of wet gravel.
He wondered how long he should wait, but the time he took to eat his Happy Meal was long enough, because when he drove back past his house Mike’s ute was parked in the driveway as if it belonged there.
Jack sucked air in through his mouth but his lungs remained empty. He parked his car around the corner and walked back to the house, his left hip clicking in time with his steps. He almost abandoned his plan then. He almost walked back to his car and drove to the golf course to take advantage of the beautiful day. He almost stomped up the gravel driveway, clearing his throat and clattering the loose stones in warning, ready to swallow any stories that were offered to him.
But his Happy Meal seemed to have expanded in his stomach, leaving no room for stories, and his legs took him across the lawn and stepped painfully onto the flower pot, peering through the crack into his own bedroom window.
Balancing on one foot, Jack pressed his weight against the weatherboards, his chin resting on the windowsill. Just centimeters in front of him was Mike’s hairy torso, then a flash as his wife crossed the room and stood facing him, almost, but not, looking in Jack’s direction.
She was looking at him. Jack watched as she stood before him, proudly naked, her right nipple pointing optimistically upwards from its softened breast while on her left side a scar cut from her heart, across her chest to a deep valley under her armpit. She stood, waiting for Mike, wanting him.
Jack slowly traced the scar with his eyes. He stepped off the pot and raced back across the lawn and the next thing he knew he was back at his car, retching on the ground. Great gobs of saliva hung from his mouth as the burger clung to the insides of his throat. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and tried to retrieve his keys from his pocket. His shaking hand couldn’t get into his pocket opening, so Jack started walking blindly back towards his house.
But he wasn’t ready to go in yet. His hip clicked as he walked straight past the house. He walked and walked until he was sure Mike must have gone but Jack kept walking, click, click, click. He wanted to walk until he felt the anger that he deserved. As he walked he traced Betty’s scar in his memory across her chest and under her arm, across her chest and under her arm.
He’d seen fleeting glimpses of it before: when the bandages came off and she was high on painkillers and the line was a map marking the site like a disused mine. Then she’d recovered and hidden in the bathroom, and behind prosthetic bras and high cut bathing suits. Jack had granted her that privacy and he realised now that must have been when he stopped sleeping with his hand clutching her underwear out of fear he would wake up and she’d be gone.
‘That was my mistake,’ he thought now as he waited for the anger, the need for revenge; but all he could see was his wife standing before his brother-in-law with her one breast. She was strong, she was proud; he kept walking, his hip clicking and the sweat showing in dank patches on his chest. And he wished he didn’t know. Wished he never saw.
His pace was slower on the way back and Jack crunched gently up the gravel path. He clicked up the five front steps, raised his hand to open the front door then let it fall limply down again. The hot water meter whirred. Jack thought about ringing the bell, about walking away, about tearing the door from its hinges and roaring into the bathroom and dragging his wife to the still steaming bed where he’d kiss every inch of her body and run his rough tongue along her scar like a cat so that she’d know she never had to hide from him again.
But he just stood there until his sweat dried and he was shivering and finally the whirring stopped and then Betty came and opened the door. She took him by the arm then and led him into the kitchen and pushed him into his chair at the head of the table.
His head flopped and cracked on the table. She lifted it back up. His dry eyes didn’t blur the edges of the long ago carved letters. He read them again and again, Mum is nice, and slurped the hot soup from the spoon as Betty held it to his lips, enjoying the feeling as it burned his insides. And the kitchen smelled like home.
Meg Vertigan wrote “Mum’s Secret Tomato Soup Recipe” after an interesting conversation at a bus stop. She has published several short stories including “Counting Buttons” and “The Bride.” Meg works in Learning Development at Newcastle University. Meg’s home-grown tomatoes are not much better than Jack’s, and her cooking cannot tame them.