The taste of Heaven
9 July 2016
She had a way with the city’s streets, always choosing those which were less crowded yet where she could find things that people left out of their apartments for lack of space as they bought newer and trendier things. She never could understand how people could throw away such useful and sometimes even beautiful items. She even once found a lovely mother-of-pearl comb with only two broken teeth and it amused her as she touched the matching empty spaces in between her own. She cackled to herself at this amazing coincidence while she pocketed the comb. “You were made for me dearie” she said her shoulders still shaking with mirth as she made her way through the rest of the contents of the bin where she had found it. Nothing more which she could use she thought to herself and moved on to the next doorstep.
A man opened the door suddenly and started yelling at her to go away so they would not have such bad luck any more in those streets. “It’s all your fault old hag with your evil eye and brooding ways” he yelled at her disappearing figure. She walked hurriedly on thinking that it was not so much bad luck as bad blood. “Those youngsters in the neighbourhood, pff”, she muttered to herself. Somebody should have set them right long ago when the first ones started slinging mud on houses and pulling girls skirts if they ventured out alone, she thought. If someone had had the courage to do so when they were first trying their luck, it would never have come to this.
She did not care much as she was always safe in her hiding place when the gang boys came out at night looking for a fight. Sometimes she would watch from the roof of a neighbouring building as they taunted people and stole money from street vendors. Most vendors had given up trying to sell anything during the night but the busy streets of the city were always bustling with tourists and the cops were there so they could make so much more than during the day where they would have to bear the heat and barely have 5 customers in a day. It was when they went back home through the badly lit streets of the suburbs where no policemen dared to venture during the night that they risked the most, yet some were daring enough to attempt it. Some wise enough to know how to find their way like her would stay and sleep in secluded spots throughout the city during the night and only venture back home during daytime. If they were lucky, the police patrols did not catch them and lock them in for the day. Not that they cared about going to jail but they were sure that what they had saved from the gang boys would definitely be split amongst the cops at the jail and they would not be any better. It would come as no surprise that most of them always slept with one eye open, ready to spring to their feet and run if any policemen were to spot them.
She suddenly stopped in the middle of her thoughts that trailed away when she realised that she had reached a part of the suburbs that she should not be in at this time of the day. Stupid old hag, she muttered to herself disparagingly. She could not believe how she had let her thoughts run wild to the extent that she was now in this mess. With all those thoughts about the city, her legs had automatically adapted to her mind and she had actually walked out of the suburbs and to the edge of the tourist zone. It was almost sunset and it would take her almost two hours to get back to her hiding place even if she walked quickly and she knew she could no longer maintain that pace at her age. She looked around instantly identifying all the alternate hiding places but she knew she would not really be safe there as the gang boys used them too when they sat lurking waiting for the adventurous vendors returning home with their treasures after a good day’s work.
She realised she did not have a choice now anyway and made her way to the first of the hiding places. Her stomach was growling as she had not found any food nor had she met any vendor kind enough to offer her some of the leftovers from the day’s work. Most vendors knew her as she had been the local teacher for years before she retired and many who had been her pupils were grateful and would offer her some food. Not the choice morsels of course but those remaining at the end of the day that no customer would have wanted. She never complained anyway and was grateful for their kindness. When her only son had married, he had continued staying with her but after his death his widow had chased her out of the house and she had taken to the streets. The widow was known to have been making merry with one of the local policemen even before her husband had died so the old lady knew it would be pointless to complain.
The streetlights fluttered before lighting casting a long shadow of her solitary figure. She slunk back into the darkness and made her way through the rubble of a torn-down building to where the first hiding place was. As she opened the gate of a run-down building behind the one fallen, she realised that she was not the only one who had chosen this spot. A cigarette glowed in the dark and the smell of tobacco filled the air. “What you doing here, oldie pants, you has a death wish tonight” quizzed a voice and a few others snickered. She recognized the voice of the leader of the gang boys. She knew him well as she had observed him many times from afar while he led his gang. She had known his parents too as they had both attended her school and been childhood sweethearts. She had witnessed them going from childish love to ecstatic adult love and they had eloped when the girl was pregnant as they could not afford a marriage. After their son was born, things had changed drastically as she had become an occasional hooker to pay for their expenses and he resented it but was not able to find enough money through his vendor job. To compensate for their dire circumstances they both smoked extensively and were high almost all the time but ultimately died of lead poisoning as they had been buying altered weed from an unscrupulous vendor who cut his weed with lead powder to make it heavier. The young boy had been placed in an orphanage before making it to a juvenile detention facility from which he escaped and then started the gang boys with a few pranksters who had left school and were loafing in the streets all day and terrorising the neighbourhood in the night.
She did not answer but thought the better of attempting to run as they would catch up with her in no time so just moved into the room where they were all sitting together huddled. She felt the young man rise to his feet. “I saying you has a death wish tonight”, he repeated inching closer to her. She could feel his stale breath and menacing stance and as her eyes grew accustomed to the darkness she could see that he was flexing his muscles, showing off to the pack that he was a true leader. “You mean to say you have a death wish tonight” she corrected almost automatically. He froze and she could now sense the pure anger in his body as he curled up his fist and looked like he was going to hit her. Instead he just pushed her on the floor and as she fell with a thud he started laughing hysterically pointing at her and looking back at his friends chanting repeatedly “granny’s be all mum, sitting on her bum”. She could feel the searing pain in her hip and thought she must have cracked it when she fell down. Tears welled in her eyes but she continued “you mean granny will be all mum”. The young man’s jaw dropped open and although she knew this was going to get her a beating if not worse, she simply could not feel any fear any longer. Her hip was throbbing painfully but that was all she felt.
The young man rushed to her and yanked her to her feet yelling at her that he was going to f… kill her now as she could not just stay down and stay quiet like grannies were meant to. She looked at him calmly her face inches from his and told him that his granny had never been quiet. In fact, she and her had been good friends and very talkative ones, she said, so it was sad that her friend’s grandson was doing this. He recoiled at this as if she had been a cobra who struck him. “You lying grannie pants” he said with attempted sneering but his voice was shaking. He had no memories of a grandmother and even those memories of his parents were so distant he was not sure whether it was real or just a dream. “I am not lying, it is the truth, she said, and I knew your parents too”. One of the boys from the gang yelled out “She telling the truth DH, she been a teacher and all. The whole town gone to school with her”. “Shut ya trap”, DH yelled back. He seemed to calm down though and then realised that she seemed to be standing crookedly. “What you got now” he snarled at her. “I think my hip is broken” she said wincing as she attempted to stand on her other foot to relieve the side of her hip where the pain was searing. He made a sign to the other boys and all of a sudden she found herself lifted in the airs. They carried her out to DH’s car and took her to the city’s hospital where they left her in the waiting room. Before the nurse could ask them anything they had taken off as quickly as they had rushed her in.
The next day, she was resting in the ward with a dozen other patients who were too poor to afford private rooms when she heard the door creak open. She wondered who it was as all the day staff was still sleeping and the night shift had not bothered much about them after their first two rounds. It was DH and he was carrying a small plastic bag. She sized him up and realised that he looked so young and forlorn in the early daylight, not at all the menacing thug of the night before. She felt sad as she thought back to her days with his grandmother who had been a good friend of hers and yet was glad that she was no more so she would not see what had become of her only grandson.
DH slunk into the room shiftily looking around and making sure nobody from the staff was around. She wondered what had brought him here again. When the gang boys had first brought her to the hospital she had realised that DH felt some remorse at having broken her hip and wanted to make amends but she was not sure why he had come back. She looked at him blankly as he reached into the plastic bag. Slowly he took out with a hardly suppressed pride a few red juicy tomatoes and presented them to her. “Eat” he said. She almost snatched the first one from his hands and as her remaining teeth sunk into it, a smile lighted her face. He grinned a crooked grin and she realised that he was actually handsome under all that dirt. “What’s it tasting like” he asked? “The taste of Heaven” she answered with another smile as she took the remaining tomatoes from his hands and rested them on her lap. He grinned again sheepishly and said “I ain’t gonna push you no more grannie pants”. “I know” she said. He nodded and quickly left the room as he heard the hospital personnel slowly start their day. One patient next to her asked her if it was her grandson. She looked at her and thought to herself “well it could have been” and then nodded smilingly at her neighbour. She slowly stretched back on her side thinking it was nice to have a real bed to sleep in for once and drifted into slumber.
When the nurse came to check on all the patients, she found her in the same position. “You need to lay on your back again grannie” she told her but to no avail. On attempting to move her so she would lie flat on her back again the nurse realised that she was cold and rigid. She slowly turned her on her back and as she did so, she sensed before she saw small red items rolling on the floor from the grannie’s bed but she could not focus on them for she was mesmerised by the look on the old lady’s face. She seemed to have died in something close to an ecstatic moment and even death could not make her smile look ugly as it continued to light her face. She bent down and gathered the tomatoes muttering “must have been some tomatoes for you to be so happy grannie”. “Sure were” yelled the old lady’s neighbour, “she said they tasted like heaven”.
When DH came to know of grannie’s death, he was guilt-ridden thinking it was the broken hip that had caused it but the gang boys found out from the cops that she had actually died of a natural death. He attended her funeral from far and that night, all the gang boys were busy with the earth on grannie’s grave. The graveyard keeper who was watching to see whether they were gravediggers was astounded to see them actually pack soil on the grave and throw something into the soil. He watched as night after night they watered the soil and decided he would find out what they were up to but was bed-ridden for a week and could not follow their antics anymore. When he finally resumed his graveyard shifts, he realised to his surprise that they had been growing tomatoes on the old lady’s grave. One night, he even saw the leader of the gang boys crouching over the grave and as he moved closer within earshot, he heard him say “I hope you tasting them grannie and they be still like heaven”.
You Say ‘Tomato’, I say ‘Tomato’ – Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers