"Tomato Soup"

by Eric Carwardine

for hossie

Hossie and I seemed to share similar shopping patterns. On Thursdays we would both have enough things to fill a trolley. On other days of the week we would meet at the checkout with only a single item in our hands. At first, I didn't know her name was 'hossie'. I had seen the word 'hossie' on a canvas bag she carried, but had assumed it was the name of the manufacturer.

The supermarket which we both favoured was now staying open until 8 O'Clock on each evening, in a desperate struggle to compete with the larger chains of stores. I now did all my shopping there, since our local delicatessen had ben forced out of business. I even purchased my daily paper at the supermarket, at a time when I was often the only customer in the store.

So I was surprised to see hossie there, one wet morning in April. And I was also surprised at having to queue at the checkout. For some reason, the day had brought forth a large number of shoppers. The delay meant that I noticed hossie. And something about her seemed different. She was standing perfectly still in front of the Canned Soup section, with her head down, and her right hand resting on the shelf. Her left arm hung limply at her side, with her canvas shopping-bag dangling from two fingers.

Suddenly, the bag slipped from her fingers and sprawled on the floor. But she made no move to retrieve it. Deciding that something was very wrong, I took the few steps necessary to bring me alongside her. I could see that she had her thumb and forefinger around a can of Tomato Soup. Although I was now very close to her, she seemed unaware of my presence. Slightly embarrassed, I took an intense interest in the can of soup she was touching. It was a new brand, one I hadn't seen before. The label flaunted a huge ripe plump tomato, draped with green sprigs. 'Tomato with Rosemary', proclaimed the caption. Rosemary. How appropriate, in this month of Anzac. I was about to murmur something about Rosemary being the Flower of Remembrance when she turned her face toward me, and a single shuddering sob shook her shoulders.

Scooping up her fallen shopping-bag, I guided her gently toward the crowded checkout. She offered no resistance, and I smiled gratefully as other shoppers made way for us, politely ignoring her distress. And I had never taken much notice before of the coffee lounge opposite the supermarket. But on this dark, rainy morning its warm glow and coffee aromas were like a beacon in a storm.

'Coffee for two' I declared brightly, hoping she wouldn't mind me making the decision for her. She nodded, and smiled. It was the first time I had ever seen her smile. She tried to say something, but her composure had deserted her. I rose to my feet, to visit the counter. As I looked back, she screwed her eyes tight-shut, and lowered her head.

'Tomato soup. With Rosemary. Amazing what they can do these days'. Hossie kept her head lowered, but her arms now rested on the table and she had wrapped her hands around the coffee cup, warming them. 'Reminds me of how I met Heather. I'd been helping her do up this big old house she'd bought. Place must have been a hundred years old. Anyway, we'd been working so hard all that day we forgot to do any shopping. Must have been nearly 8 O'Clock when we realised we were both starving and nothing in the house to eat. Didn't feel like going out, and the weather report said there was this huge thunderstorm brewing. So we scratched around in the cupboards and found this tin of Tomato soup. Just plain old Tomato soup - nothing fancy, like you can get now. And there were some stale bread rolls there too, and some butter in the 'fridge'.

I paused for a sip of my coffee. I wanted an excuse to just sit there and look at hossie. She seemed so unhappy. I gently stroked the back of her wrist with my fingertips, and I was thrilled to see her lips move into a faint smile. She did not move her arm, as I continued my story.

'So we opened the can and thought some hot soup would be nice, so we stuck it on the stove and put the rolls in the oven and we were waiting for everything to get hot when you know what Heather said to me? Said she'd like to spend the night in a cubby-house in the backyard, like when she was a kid. What, on your own? I said. Be darn cold and lonely. Not if you were with me, she says. Well, that certainly sparked me up. Then I had to do some serious planning. There's an old rain-water tank in your backyard. On its side. Big hole in the top, I said. We could get in there. I had a look in it this afternoon. It's quite clean, and no spiders. We'd need to find some old blankets and a mattress, though. Got anything like that in the house?'

'Another cuppa?' I asked gently, noticing that hossie had drained her cup. 'Yes, please' she murmured. They were the first words I had heard her speak, and her voice sounded beautiful. I was back inside two minutes, to place before her a fresh cup of coffee.

'Who is Heather?' asked hossie. 'Heather is my wife' I replied. 'When she was growing up, every kid had a cubby-house. Did you have one?' Hossie smiled at me, but did not answer 'Anyway, while things were heating-up on the stove, we dragged all this stuff out into the backyard and stuck it in the tank. Pitch-dark, it was, and we could see lightning and hear thunder. I reckoned we were going to get drowned when that storm hit. Heather had a thermos-flask, so we poured the soup in that, and put some butter on the hot rolls, and wrapped them up in alfoil. Then we both put our pyjamas on and dressing-gowns and dashed out into the backyard and got inside that old tank quick-smart. Like a couple of crazy kids, we were'

I leant back in my chair, enjoying the memories. For the first time that morning, hossie had her head up, and was looking at me. I was a little embarrassed as I realised that she looked disturbingly attractive. 'We weren't a moment too soon. We'd just got inside that tank when the storm hit. You should have heard the noise. The thunder, and the rain on that tin tank. We couldn't hear each other speak. We had a torch with us, so we put the soup in some plastic cups, and sat there together, eating the hot buns with butter on. While the rain pelted down, and the lightning nearly blinded us. We still both remember that night, all those years ago'

Somehow, as I had talked and hossie had listened, our fingers had entwined between our coffee cups. We just sat there, looking at each other. Suddenly, I broke into a smile, and said 'Hang on, I think you were going to buy a can of that Tomato and Rosemary soup in the shop, weren't you? Wait here, and I'll get you a can. Be right back'

The queue at the checkout had disappeared, and I was soon back with hossie in the coffee lounge. 'For you' I said, slipping the can of soup into her shopping bag 'How much do I owe you for it?' queried hossie. 'Nothing' I responded 'It's a gift. Have it for your lunch or dinner' Hossie carefully moved her chair backwards and stood up 'I feel much better now. Thankyou for being there' Her face looked much brighter now, as she wiped her cheeks with a tissue 'Perhaps we can have coffee together again, sometime' I said 'We both seem to like this shopping-centre'.

Out of the bright, warm glow of the coffee lounge the air was colder and darker. I watched as she wrapped her coat tightly around her, and she smiled as she felt the bulge of the can of soup in her shopping bag. 'Thankyou' as she squeezed my hand. And then she was walking away.

I'm not sure what caused me to continue watching her, as she walked away. And she never looked back, not even a glance. But I saw her pause at the last shop before the exit. She must have gazed at that shop window for a full minute, before suddenly entering the shop. I watched her emerge, carrying a small parcel wrapped in white tissue paper. And I could feel the blazing sting of tears behind my own eyes. The shop she had gone into was a baker's shop. And in their window were bread rolls.

To hossie, from Eric. With all the love that one human being has for another.