THE FOOD OF FANTASY

I wrote this light hearted story four years ago. The main character was inspired by a Mike Leigh television show character from the early 70s. It was awarded a High Commendation in the CJ Dennis Literary Award 2009 (Aus)

Thursday evening, Susanna’s heart sank as she walked from the bus stop home. She loved Keith but sometimes things got a bit ordinary, pedestrian even. In their little house, with their little jobs, their little lives. What did it all mean? What was the bigger picture? She’d once heard a fable, when the world began humans were created with no idea what they were doing on earth. They decided to divide into two groups. One group would go off looking for the meaning of life and the other group would hold the fort waiting for the other group to return. The first group never came back with the answers but still we get up each morning and distract ourselves with jobs and pay rises, weekend barbecues and visits to Bunning’s, the latest metallic nail varnish colour and flavoured waffles that go in the toaster.

“Bugger!” Distracted as always Susanna had stepped in a puddle. “Bloody expensive Italian leather too!”

Her key turned in the lock, she pushed the door and before she had even retrieved her key she heard him. “Is that you love?”

“Who did you think it was? The Pope?”

“Aw you! Come and give’ us a hug.” Keith came towards her arms outstretched.

“Let me get me put my bag down please, Keith.”

Ordinary looking with a gorgeous smile. He could be a bit wet sometimes but lovely all the same. Dressed in his smart casual attire, beige pants with his blue shirt tucked in.

“I’ve made you a mug of tea. Sit down and have a breather, love.”

Susanna dropped her bag to the floor and plonked herself in the nearest chair. Her mind ran with the theme of the people who got left behind. There had to be a plan didn’t there? She sipped her tea and thought about where she wanted to be, her plans for the future. The question they ask at job interviews floated in her head. “Susanna, where do you see yourself in five years time?” She imagined an earnest man in a sharp suit sitting in the spare armchair leaning forward with a notepad balanced on his knee. Perhaps with his elbows on the pad and two fingers resting on his chin.

“What’s up cherub, off with the clouds again?” Keith, ever perky, looked over at her with raised eyebrows.

“Nothing.” She looked up. “Do we have to go tonight?”

“But we always go to mum’s on Thursday.”

“Exactly. Can’t we do something wild and reckless and go to see her on Wednesday?” Her bottom lip stuck out and Susanna knew she looked childish.

“Silly.” Keith got up, folded his newspaper twice and laid it carefully on the coffee table then ruffled his wife’s hair.

“Hullo Keith love. Susanna.” A smaller, slightly more feminine version of Keith greeted them at the front door.

“Hello Ruby.” Susanna still couldn’t bring herself to call Ruby mum, after four years of marriage.

“You look thin love.” Ruby stared at Susanna’s middle. What she meant, Susanna knew, was that she didn’t look pregnant.

“Oh, Mam! Smashing dress!” Ruby beamed.

“Thank you Keith. I got it down the market.” Ruby did a twirl but the over bright turquoise polyester creation didn’t twirl with her as it was firmly stuck to her tights. Ruby was the only woman Susanna knew who still wore American Tan. She ushered them through to the good room while she put the finishing touches to dinner, which usually meant chopping a sprig of parsley to adorn the savoury mince. They always had savoury mince because it had been Keith’s dad’s favourite. Odd really as Keith’s dad hadn’t so much died as scarpered when Keith was born.

“Sit down you two. I’ll be through in a minute.” Ruby would never let either of them help in the kitchen. Keith was a man so she couldn’t possibly let him in, I mean, he bought home the bacon. Susanna wasn’t allowed in because of her incompetence, completely overlooking the fact that she earned a good salary. Anyway the time she threw the oven gloves on top of the grill and set fire to them was ages ago.

“Ta-da!” Ruby walked through holding aloft a serving dish of savoury mince, topped with a sprig of parsley. Ruby passed around dishes of mash and over boiled carrots, Keith tucked his napkin into his shirt and got stuck in. Ruby beamed proudly at her only son. “Hard day, love?”

“Same as usual, Mam.” Keith worked as a foreman for a building company, in charge of a building a servo on the other side of town. Good at his job, everybody liked him. Keith was hard not to like.

“Karen rang this morning. Those kids keep her on her toes.” Karen was Keith’s big sister. She had three children and lived near the sea. Her husband, Dave, worked in IT.

“Are you still enjoying your little job, Susanna love?” Ruby sipped from her beer glass. Here we go thought Susanna.

“Yes, thank you, Ruby. They’re installing new software so we’re all having training this week.” She answered knowing full well that Ruby would think software was cushions.

“That’s nice. ‘Course, looking after three kiddies, that’s real work!”

“Mam.” Keith shot his mother a warning glance. “We’ll have kids in our own time. We need two incomes with the mortgage and everything at the moment.” Ruby continued to sip her beer and eye them both like a maternal toad with glassy, blinking eyes.

Once the plates and glasses were cleared Ruby shooed them through to watch the telly and came through with dessert, an oversized packet of Jaffa’s, to devour in front of Wheel of Fortune. Susanna sat amongst the cat calls and crunching of Jaffa’s and felt, not for the first time that week, stuck. It seemed like they had got married and hit an oil slick which had brought them up smartly to the present, with no memory of what went before, save for three square meals a day and a pile of ironing. She used to feel glamorous, special, her and Keith’s lives would be different from all the rest.

They had met at that posh bar in town, the one that went bust shortly afterwards, both there on works do’s. He was celebrating the birth of one of his labourer’s first child and she was there for a 21st. She’d managed to spill three glasses of wine down his shirt, she was carrying a tray back from the bar. There was a reason she worked in a bank and not as a waitress. Keith, so gracious about it, said it didn’t matter as he always carried a spare shirt in his briefcase. And his smile! Even now it did things to her.

But his face used to stop her panicking only now the fear was so big nothing made a difference. She was scared to have children, not to have children, to move house, to not move house but the biggest fear of all – the fear of the ordinary. Life went on and on … Ruby’s on Thursday, fish on Fridays, Bunning’s on Saturdays, roast on Sundays, and so on and forever into the black of infinity.

“Where’s my fish?”

“I thought I’d try something a bit different.”

“What is it?” Keith gingerly put his fork into the unidentified meal, as if it might still be alive.

“It’s Thai beef salad.”

“Salad. For dinner?”

“Yes. Lots of people have it for dinner. It’s Asian.” Susanna smiled. “

Asian?”

“I thought it would be nice to have something other than fish on Friday.” A scream gathered in Susanna’s chest. It felt like unwanted furniture sitting on top of her lungs.

The next morning Keith brought up their identical mugs of tea to bed. He had made them at pottery classes and was very proud of them. Susanna hadn’t the heart to tell him how ugly they were. And heavy. Your arm got a workout just lifting the sodding things.

“Are you happy Keith?” Susanna turned to face her husband. He had such a kind face. She knew she should be grateful to have a caring husband. Some of the girls at the bank, their husbands were rough and treated them badly. Keith treated her with respect and love. Wasn’t that enough?

“Yeah, course I am. I’ve got you and this lovely house. And sooner or later we’ll have little Keith’s and Susanna’s running around.” Susanna didn’t answer. She was imagining her fairy godmother at the end of the bed, dressed in electric purple with arms crossed. She had a cigarette instead of a wand and on closer inspection appeared to be a man in drag. He winked a sparkly eye and dared her to make a silent wish. Susanna closed her eyes and wished to be anywhere but where she was. “You’re not going back to sleep are ya?” Keith looked over at her with a soppy grin pasted across his face. “We’re going into town to buy paint for the spare room.”

“Do I have to go, Keith? I’m not feeling too great.”

“Course you do! I’m colour blind. Remember what happened last time I picked paint for the lounge room?”

“Yes, Keith.”

“You wanted eau de nil and I got beige!”

Susanna threw her bag across her shoulder as she pushed the glass door of the bank as she left work for the day.

“Hey, hang on a minute.” Donna teetered on her stilettos as she made a grab for the door. “Sorry to make you wait. I had to go for a wee. Given up on me had ya?” Susanna could see Donna had reapplied Magenta Dream to her lips. Somehow she got away with it. It made Susanna look like an extra from a disco movie, probably one on roller skates.

“Yeah. Concentrating on what I was gonna do Keith for his dinner.”

“Sod Keith. Come for a drink with me.” Donna stopped and got her compact out to study her lips again. She flicked her hair, closed the compact and faced Susanna. “Well?”

“No. I can’t.”

“Yes you can. You’ve been right miserable all week. A G&T will cheer you up.” Susanna hesitated. “Oh, come on. It won’t kill you!”

They went to Pepe’s Bar on Central and sat on the high velvet covered stools with chrome legs. Susanna felt glamorous, gin and tonic in one hand, dangling her own legs. “So what did you get up to at the weekend?”

“Oh, decorating. The spare room wanted doing.”

“Decorating! Whoop de do!”

Susanna smiled. “You know Keith; he likes things done. He’s very steady.”

“You mean dull.”

“Oh, Donna, he’s not that bad. We just need a bit of a shake-up. Change our habits. We’ll be fine.” Susanna used the plastic stirrer in her glass to dash the ice cubes together noisily.

“Oh bugger it, Suse. It’s time to move on.” Donna retrieved her phone from her bag to check for messages then continued. “The way I see it, one of you is going to be miserable. Might as well be him.”

“What’s this then?”

“You know what it is, Keith.”

“Looks like fish fingers.”

“Then that’s what it is then. You don’t find fillet steak going around masquerading as fish fingers, do ya?” One gin and tonic had soon turned into three. The shops had closed and Susanna had had to be creative with the freezer compartment. Keith eyed her warily.

“Leave the dishes. I’ll make us a cup of tea. We should talk.” Susanna sank into her armchair and accepted the homemade mug of tea. “This is hard for me, Suse. Talking’s not my strong point.” Susanna checked her clothes for bits of fluff. “I know you’re not happy. Even a bloke as daft as me could work that out.” Keith’s face looked concerned. “The thing is, what do we do about it?”

“Oh, Keith, what can we do about it?” Suddenly a phantom judge appeared on the spare armchair, full wig and gown stuff. He took out a black cloth as if from nowhere just like those old court room dramas. Susanna was sure that she had to keep talking or he was going to put it on his head. And she didn’t want that. “It’s not you. I just feel life has got a little staid. I don’t expect you to understand.”

“But I do.”

“I didn’t want to upset you with all this, it might blow over. What? You do understand?”

“Don’t be daft, love. Of course I do. This is our life, how could I not understand?” Keith’s voice caught as if snagged in a zipper. “If you still want me?” Susanna felt that whatever she said next could change her life beyond recognition. A big sign shot out of the ground, the kind you have at t-junctions and crossroads. One way said ‘Keith’ and the other ‘No Keith’. She imagined the judge with the black cloth, the fairy godmother and the interviewer all awaiting her reply. Keith with his pale, sad face waited for her to speak. “Suse?” He sat on the arm of her chair. “I didn’t want to say anything to you but I’ve been mulling over things for a while and I know you think I’m careful and a bit boring and not very adventurous…”

“No, Keith, I…”

“Its okay, Suse. Instead of getting you the sort of anniversary present I usually get, flowers and chocs and the like, I got this.” Bugger. So wrapped up in herself she’d forgotten their wedding anniversary. Keith handed her a blue envelope. She tore it open mumbling excuses to Keith about forgetting. “Shhh. Tell me what you think?” Inside the envelope was a voucher. Surely not a book token, that would be the limit. No. In the middle of a large white card were two words – tandem skydive.

“This was your idea?”

Keith smiled happily. “Completely. You interested?”

“Bloody oath!”

“Now I know this won’t sort everything out but I thought it would be a start. The beginning of a new life together. The adventures of Keith and Susanna.” Keith grabbed Susanna with one hand and swept the other majestically across the space in front on their eyes. Susanna saw in her mind’s eye the pair of them, undies over tights in primary colours with great big grins splashed across their faces. The judge put away his cloth and the interviewer and her fairy godmother exchanged smiles. Keith nudged his wife. “And with your imagination, I’m sure we’ll work out the rest.”

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