One tomato, and the scare is rolling

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"Did you see Delia Smith on television this week? It was absolutely revolting. But I saw it with my own eyes. Dear old Delia came on the screen, picked up a tomato and said to the TV audience, 'What you do is cut the top out of the tomato, like this', and then she cut the top out of the tomato, and then she said, 'What you do next is put it on your nose' - and she put it on her nose, and grinned! I couldn't believe my eyes. It was quite awful."

The speaker is Ernest Druce, head of the National Health Scare Bureau. But what was so very wrong with what she was doing?

"Wrong? Wrong?! Can't you see the dangerous message she was spelling out?"

You mean, she was wrong to tell us to put a tomato on our nose because in real life it will fall straight off again? And perhaps cause a serious accident if it rolls under a police horse's feet?

"No, no, no, no," says Ernest Druce, as if he were talking to an unintelligent child or, of course, a journalist who was not very quick on the uptake. "I am talking health hazards here. I am talking nasal infections. I am talking respiratory disease. I am saying that if we all went around putting tomatoes on our noses, we could be looking down the barrel of a major epidemic."

An epidemic of what? What have epidemics got to do with a good cause?

"It may be Comic Relief Day's job to raise money through laughter," says Ernest Druce, "but it is my job to start health scares. And when I saw Delia Smith putting a tomato on her schnozzle, a 100-watt light bulb came on in my head and I thought to myself, 'Health scare!'"

Why should anyone want to start a health scare?

"There will always be health scares," says Ernest Druce. "Rumours will always spread. Can't stop it. But we can at least channel them and invent them. That's why the National Health Scare Bureau was set up. To make sure that health scares are always about something we can cure or control."

So you are spreading a rumour about Comic Relief Day?

"Oh, yes," says Ernest. "It's a natural. Everyone is a bit fed up with the whole thing anyway and is only looking for an excuse to avoid it. So immediately I put our staff on red alert, spreading rumours that nasal infections can be spread if people share the same tomato on Comic Relief Day. There are still some dangerous strains of flu around, at least there are if you believe our last-but-one health scare, and we are going out there to tell people not to put their nose in any tomato which may conceivably have been used by Delia Smith or anyone else. They just don't know what they are picking up. Plus the dangers of inhaling tomato pips. Plus the genetically engineered dangers!"

The what?

"Oh come on, you must have read the scares we put out last year about genetically altered fruit and veg. About how tampering with soya bean genes can endanger the whole species."

Oh, yes, I do remember reading something ...

"Well, our message to people now is this: Don't put a tomato up your nose, for fear of acquiring a genetically altered gene or chromosome from an American lab and altering your DNA for ever!"

That couldn't happen, surely?

"No, of course it couldn't. But the public don't know that. People will believe anything. The great advantage of working for the National Health Scare Bureau is that we don't have to prove anything. All we have to do is spread rumours. So this week we are working on the rumour that Comic Relief is actually bad for people. Not just because of tomatoes. Because of putting anything on your nose. Those little red ping-pong balls strapped to your conk can cause interference to the breathing patterns which over only an hour can have serious effects. Asthma attacks. Sinus trouble. Epilepsy ..."

Comic Relief Day can cause epilepsy?

"I'm glad you think so. Comic Relief Day can also cause tragic motor accidents."

Through people being unable to see the road properly on account of tomatoes on their noses?

"No, through fixing those dreadful red tomatoes and red splodges to the front of their cars. Did you know that a dozen people at least have been run over while in the act of fastening red noses to their front bonnets? Did you know that dozens more have needed first aid after getting their fingers trapped in their bonnets or radiators while wiring these tomatoes on?"

Is that true?

"I haven't the faintest idea," says Ernest Druce. "Not my job to check facts. But it sounds plausible. My only job now is to start leaking this scare about killer tomatoes into the media. 'Major killer disease traced back to Delia Smith' - that sort of thing. Care to help?"

I'll do my best.