A Serve of Ambrosia

 

Helen loved online shopping. It was so much more relaxing than going to the Mall. Buying whatever she wanted was just a click away. Only yesterday she’d bought a beautiful little tuxedo for Maxwell; today, a damask tablecloth for her upcoming dinner party. Hopefully both would arrive tomorrow.

She got up from her computer to prepare lunch. At the fridge she removed pastrami, cheese and pickle for her sandwich and milk for her tea. Earl Grey. She placed the teabag in her favourite Royal Albert cup and poured in the boiling water. Helen had received this cup and others like it from her mother every Christmas for about six years. The Royal Albert slogan at the time had been “one piece leads to another,” encouraging a mix-and-match situation.

When her mother stopped giving her the china cups, Helen continued the tradition herself and now had a substantial collection of not just cups but tea pots, milk jugs and plates. She had also recently acquired on eBay a delightful set of cups from the Sweetheart Roses collection, which were named Anne, Elizabeth, Helen, Margaret, Patricia, and Rosemary. Naturally, she was particularly enamoured of the Helen cup.

Her thoughts returned to the dinner party. She had almost settled on the guest list but couldn’t decide whether to invite her old school friend Delia. She so desperately wanted it to be a success and the mix of attendees was of vital importance.

She had already invited Patty from across the road. Over time, Helen was hopeful that she and Patty would become dear friends, discussing everyday dramas over cups of tea. If things went well, Helen would even allow her to sip from the Patricia cup.

Not that Helen had hours on end to sit around drinking tea with the neighbours. She had her job at the Club and her cottage garden to attend to, with its ever-spreading weeds creeping up to her back door. And of course there was Maxwell to look after.  His bi-daily walks took a considerable amount of time, in part because the little Pug insisted on spending a good deal of time consorting with the Llamas up on Greenleigh Ridge. Their first walk usually commenced around nine o’clock, just after breakfast; the second, no later than four o’clock, to ensure a return home by five, in time for Deal or No Deal.

How she loved the Deal or No Deal host, Andrew O’Keefe. He was so funny and knew so many interesting facts.  And, she was always asking people, did you know that he is also the nephew of Johnny O’Keefe, the musician? But more exciting was the fact that he had gone to school with Helen’s brother, Peter.  Peter had always made promises to introduce Helen to her TV idol, but had never come through with the goods. So after many years of frustration, Helen had decided to take matters into her own hands. She didn’t think it mattered that she and Andrew hadn’t met yet. The special note she placed in the envelope with the invitation explained not only that she was Peter’s sister but also that she was a huge fan. She felt sure he would accept her dinner party invitation.

The third person on the guest list was Randall. Helen and Randall. It sounded so good together, even after all these years. Helen could still see those two names enclosed in a love heart on the inside cover of her college year book. This month marked the twenty year anniversary of when they first got together.

Randall and his parents had just moved to Greenleigh Waters and he was due to start school the next week. Helen first spotted him at the Mall, with his brother.  They were looking at the magazines in Tina’s shop and she had gone in to buy some Fruit Tingles. She remembered with shame how their meeting had been so awkward; for though she’d meant to sashay stylishly past him, she ended up knocking him over and falling on top of him.

So that was four people coming, including herself. The last person to receive an invitation was Solomon. Sol. He would give the party some life, though Helen.  Sol worked the dinner shift at the Club. He looked after the west side tables and Helen the south. Helen preferred it that way, as the south windows provided a good view of the park, and she liked to watch the people while she worked. She spent a good deal of time speculating as to whether they’d come in for a meal at the conclusion of their outdoor pursuits and she felt rewarded when they did just that.

Rogue that he was, Sol often abandoned his post and popped into the adjacent gaming area for a quick flutter. While Helen found this extremely unprofessional, she said nothing, as she didn’t want him turning his attention to her shortcomings in the workplace (though to be honest, these were few and far between). Her only vice was her daily ritual of sampling the Dessert of the Day. The slight guilt Helen felt whenever she did this related more to the sneaky calories involved than the fact that she hadn’t paid for it.

Helen started to panic about not having an even number of people at the dinner party. It was possibly too late now, she thought.  To invite someone at the last minute was impolite. Besides, she would never be able to decide between Delia from school and her own brother Peter.  Delia was probably a better choice, in order to balance the sexes. Not that she was planning any match making.  Good heavens, no.  She could just imagine what the happily married Andrew O’Keefe would think of that. She’d ring Delia momentarily.

A knock at the door brought her back to the present. As usual, she checked at the side window to identify her visitor before opening the door. It was neighbour Patty.

“Helen, Hi.” She twisted her hands awkwardly. “Um, I got your invitation thanks.”

“Oh, good” Helen replied nervously.

“I’ve just come over to let you know that I won’t be able to come, I’m afraid.” Patty looked embarrassed. “You see my boyfriend is coming up from Melbourne that weekend and we, well we want to spend as much time together as we can and we might be, well, otherwise engaged, if you know what I mean.”

Helen had not expected this. What boyfriend? She tried to maintain her composure but she could feel the sweat beginning to form on her brow.

“Oh, well, I’m sure I don’t know what you mean” she chided “but of course I can’t force you to come.”

“Oh, listen, Helen, I’m sorry” she elaborated “but I haven’t seen Lou for six months and we just want some time together”

“As you wish” replied Helen, curtly.

“We’ll get together another time, yeah?” said Patty, walking off.

“Perhaps” sulked Helen. “Perhaps not,” she muttered sotto voce.

Helen felt a little ill. Her dinner party plans were unravelling. She couldn’t quite believe that Patty had just done that.  It was plain rude.

She went back to her lunch and now-tepid tea. Afterwards, she decided that a nap was in order. Her encounter with Patty had given her a slight migraine and she knew from experience that it was best to nip it in the bud before it morphed into full-blown torture.

She awoke to the sound of the phone ringing. She reached over to her side table and snatched the handpiece from its cradle at lightning speed.

“Hello?  Helen Anderson speaking.”

“Yeah, hi, Helen, it’s Sol,” he uttered in his usual gruff manner.

“Oh, hi Sol. I just ran in from the garden” Helen lied. “Doing a spot of pruning, I was.” She couldn’t bear for people to know about her little nanna naps.

“Yeah, good thanks. Anyway, thanks for the invitation.”

“Oh, you’re very welcome” she gushed. “It should be a great night, but no gambling, I’m afraid Sol!” she said, laughing at her own humour.

“Yeah, righto. Anyway, I should be able to make it. I’ve got my niece’s birthday party that afternoon but I should be right.” His afternoon plans were of no interest to Helen, but she showed interest all the same.

“Oh, very well. As long as you can be here by seven, that’s fine with me” she lilted.

“Alright, Helen. I’ll do my best.  See you then.”

“Bye Bye.”

Talk about over-scheduling. Some people really do try to jam too much into their lives, Helen thought. Still, it would be good to have Sol at her party, sharing his raucous tales with the group.

Next, she checked the mailbox. One letter. She went back inside and tore into it with her paisley letter opener. Maxwell started barking at the telly. The whistling in this particular ad always made the little guy’s blood boil.

She read the letter:

Dear Helen

Well, it’s been a while. I was surprised to hear from you after all these years. I hope you are well. Peter told me that you were out of the clinic, now, and back in Greenleigh Waters. In fact, you may not know this, but Peter tells me a lot about you, as I see him quite often.We are – how shall I put this? – partners.  

He was unsure as to whether I should tell you. He has your best interests at heart and didn’t want to upset you. But since I will be bringing Peter to your dinner party (assuming that’s ok with you), I thought it best you know.

Thank you for the invitation. We’re looking forward to it!

Yours,

Randall.

She sat on the sofa and stroked Maxwell. “Well, Puggy, what do you make of all this, eh?” She was finding it difficult to breathe. What did Randall mean that he and Peter were partners? Peter hadn’t told her that he’d gone into business with anyone. And why would Peter tell Randall about the clinic? That business was done and dusted and Helen felt quite well now. This was too much. How could she face Randall now? She took two of her migraine tablets and went back to bed.  She even skipped Deal or No Deal, an extreme turn of events in itself.

Later that night, after her shift at the Club, Helen was feeling more positive. Whatever Peter’s relationship with Randall, it was really rather fortunate, as it had surely secured her beloved’s attendance at the dinner party. Peter might even be able to help her win Randall back.

The day of the party arrived. Helen woke earlier than usual, excitement building in her veins. She had been to the market yesterday, so a quick trip to the bakery for some dinner rolls was to be her only outing today. Her Royal Albert plates had been rinsed and dried and the crystal wine glasses that Auntie Jan had given her for the glory box were making their second journey ever from their dusty old home to the dining table.

After a quick breakfast of Bircher muesli and a nectarine, Helen went straight to the fridge and began assembling the pile of vegetables that she would need for her Minestrone.  Next, on to dessert: her favourite, Ambrosia – a beautiful creamy, yogurty treat. Helen was trying out a new version of the dessert called ‘Classy Ambrosia,’ on account of its grated chocolate topping. She was also going to use pineapple instead of berries, which she felt were too messy and uncontrollable.  They bled everywhere and couldn’t be relied upon to hold their shape. Back in the clinic, Helen had often felt like a one berry or another; sometimes a blueberry, ready to burst with anxiety; other times, a squashed raspberry whose seeds had been strewn far and wide and could no longer be contained.

By lunchtime, everything was ready. The place cards had been arranged. Helen was seated next to Randall (no surprise there), Delia and Peter were opposite and Sol and Andrew were at either end of the table.

First to arrive, right on seven o’clock was Sol. Never one to miss out on free food and drinks, thought Helen.

“Harvey Wallbanger, Sol?” asked Helen, proud of the fancy concoction she had prepared for the evening.

“A what-banger?  Nah, mate, but I could murder a beer” replied Sol.

Helen retrieved Sol’s requested beverage from the fridge, a little annoyed that he couldn’t find it within himself to adhere to the more formal standard of etiquette that her dinner party demanded.

The doorbell rang again and through the side window, Helen could see her brother Peter with his arm around Randall. Letting the pair in, Helen was all nerves.  Would Randall be pleased to see her? Was this, as she hoped, a chance for love to reignite between childhood sweethearts?

“Brother Dear!” cried Helen dramatically as she opened the door.

“Hey, Sis, long time no see” said Peter lovingly.

Helen’s eyes shot straight to Randall.  “Hi, Randall”. And after a pause, “You came.”

“Sure thing, Marg. Pete was keen to see you, too. It was great to hear from you.”

The two men made their way inside and headed for the kitchen. Peter removed the bottle of champagne from under his arm and proceeded to open it.

“Here’s to you, sis, and you’re beautiful new home.”

“And here’s to us, Peter” added Randall with a grin, turning to Helen to gauge her reaction. Helen couldn’t fathom what was going on between Randall and her brother but she didn’t like it. They were carrying on like her Uncle Gavin used to with his friend Roy, showing more affection for each other than was necessary, in her opinion.

Delia arrived next and when she rang the doorbell and let herself in, Helen concluded that the world had altogether lost its manners. Honestly, did people just think they could please themselves and pay no heed to what the hostess had planned for the evening?  She supposed Delia would also refuse her cocktail.  Perhaps she had brought her own food, too, in these times of Rafferty’s rules. We’ll see about that, thought Helen.

Delia propped herself next to Sol at the breakfast bar, despite Helen’s repeated calls for people to move into the lounge room. Maxwell sat beneath Sol and happily shared his nasty halitosis.

The group sat around drinking and sharing stories, unaware that the meal would not commence until the final guest, Andrew O’keefe, had arrived. Helen was not concerned that an hour had passed. She knew that celebrities were busy people and that Andrew was probably just on his way.

“Peter, you haven’t heard from Andrew have you? I’m assuming he’ll be here soon.”

“Oh, Marg darling, you didn’t! Look, how can I break this to you? I don’t think Mr O’keefe will be coming. God love ya, Helen, but why on earth would he stoop to set foot in Greenleigh Waters? Besides, you don’t even know him. I, who went to school with him, don’t even know him.”

Helen was crestfallen. How stupid she was. Of course Andrew O’keefe wouldn’t be coming. May as well get on with serving the food. She buoyed herself with the fact that Randall had come and would soon taste her wonderful minestrone. Sitting next to him in just a few short moments, Helen would attempt a reconnection with her beloved.

As Helen returned from the kitchen, carrying bowls of soup, she saw that Peter had switched places with Delia, presumably so he could sit next to Randall. Delia didn’t seem to mind, as she was now deeply entrenched in conversation with Sol, who was talking animatedly about the desperados who spend all their money on the poker machines at the club and how they “couldn’t pour piss out of a boot even if the directions were on the heel”. So crass, that Sol.

Helen had no choice but to sit and watch what now seemed like two couples — Peter and Randall, Jenny and Sol — enjoy the evening. Talk about being left out.  By the time the Minestrone was eaten and the Beef Wellington was about to hit the table, Helen had had enough. Something had to give.

What was that mantra she’d learnt at the clinic? Express or suppress. But Helen couldn’t find the words to express how she was feeling, so she would suppress; focus on something else. Go and give Maxwell a cuddle while these fiends sit in your home and ignore you, she thought. But the Pug was nowhere to be found.  Helen started running through the house, calling for her pet. “Maxwell, where are you, darling?”

She ran out into the garden and there was Maxwell, eating grass. She leant down and picked up the Pug before sitting herself down between the bushes. What a disaster her life was. No real friends, only people who knew her; tolerated her, but didn’t want to connect with her.

Helen heard the oven bell sound. On her way back to the kitchen, she thought about the ingredients she had used to make the Beef Wellington. She thought particularly about the mushroom duxelles she had smeared on the beef; how instead of porcini mushrooms she had used the wild fungi she and Maxwell had found up on Greenleigh Ridge. A fortuitous turn of events, it now seemed.

Helen understood that somewhere deep inside she must have realised that it would come to this. She knew these people were not worthy of her company. After all the effort she had put in, how dare they treat her so badly? How dare they come to her lovely new home and be anything short of impressed.

They would not feel the effects of the poison until hours later; days maybe. But they would come to realise that Helen had been the one to trigger their death.

Once they had all left, Helen sat herself down with her dog and a serve of Ambrosia.

 

 

About Sonia Bowditch

Writer on society and culture in Australia. And short stories.

One Response to “A Serve of Ambrosia”

  1. Well that was a twist!

    I kept thinking how you had crafted a truly unplesant and ignorant character – then right at the end I start feeling sorry for her with the talk about being friendless and clearly lonely – but then she has to go and break out the poison.

    Enjoyed it, nice job.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: