When I walked into the restaurant that day, I had no idea what I was in for. Life, for me, had become a dull blur. Always the next thing to do, then the next thing, then the next thing. Life had become dead. It had even become normal, so that I was used to a certain numbness, a certain postponing of death until it was finally all over.
I was with my wife, who I had gradually been growing further and further away from. I could remember that she had been telling me that she was worried about me, but all her calls and warnings were distant. She always seemed far away, and as we sat down at the table, it seemed as if the table between us was enormous.
I could barely hear her, but she was saying something.
“Are you hungry?”
The killer of life is no longer appreciating things, becoming so used to good things that they become normal, overlooked, uninteresting. I had a fantastic wife, one with enormous love and patience and wisdom, and I had just forgotten about it. Perhaps it was complacency, perhaps it was arrogance, or perhaps it was just depression. Whatever it was, I took her for granted.
“Do you know what you fancy?”
I used to fancy her. I remember when we first met, and the energy between us was so high, that when I was around her it was like I had taken some kind of wonderful drug. But now it was gone.
“I think I’ll just get the burger,” I said.
A burger was always a safe bet. I didn’t think of it as a cow’s arse in between bread. It was a burger.
She was looking at the menu, and I had a flash of something, just as I noticed a curl of her hair fall over her ear. I loved her. Then I was back in my head.
All restaurants seemed the same, all places seemed the same, everything had a cloudiness about it that I couldn’t dispel from my view.
The waiter came up. He was too bright for me. I felt like I had stepped outside in a foreign country, and my eyes seemed to want some protection from the shock of the sun. I had the reflex to squint, pull away, and reach for my sunglasses.
“Hello!” he said. He did not shout, but he was enthused. “How are you guys?”
“Fine, thanks,” my wife said. She smiled and looked at him. She was drawn to his light, away from my darkness.
“How are you?” she added. She wanted to know. It was not politeness. She cared.
“Oh, I’m fine, thank you,” the waiter replied. Sometimes people who work jobs like that become accustomed to being treated as if they are not quite human. Their role in the place seems to come before their humanity. They are a waiter or a waitress before they are a person who was born, will die, has a family, has wants and desires and loves and hates all inside them, a piece of life that wants to keep experiencing itself.
He got out his notepad.
“Can I offer you any drinks?”
I had a voice in my head that would criticise people. I thought the voice was me. It was criticising him for not phrasing the question correctly.
“Yes, please,” my wife said. “I’ll have a lemonade.”
“Just water,” I said. He raised his eyebrows slightly.
“Is it too early to ask about food?” he said.
I looked at my wife and she nodded very slightly at me.
“No, we’re ready,” I said. “I’ll have the Emperor Burger.”
“Very good, sir,” he said, scribbling.
“I’ll have the salmon,” my wife said.
“Oh, and could we also have a side of your trademark sauce?”
When my wife asked him that, he stopped scribbling.
“Your trademark sauce.”
He shuffled his feet and his face went from a clean pale to a slightly freckled red. He looked like he was holding words in his throat.
“Madam, I’m not sure…”
“You know what I mean,” she said, looking at him, smiling slightly. “I know what it is. Please, just one.”
“You are aware of the price?”
“You are aware of the disclaimer?”
“You’ll have to sign.”
He tore off a piece of paper from behind him, as if it was attached to his belt, and he handed it to her. It had some writing on it.
“Martha,” I said, “what’s all this?”
“I’ll tell you in a minute.” She signed the paper, handed it to him, and he nodded and walked off.
“Coming up,” he said as he left us.
I looked at her, waiting.
“It’s just something one of my friends told me about. You know Jane? Yes, well she told me you have to ask specifically, but they have this sauce here that comes in a little cup, and it is supposed to be extremely hot. So hot that once someone sued the place because they had too much in one go. So they have to get people to sign disclaimers now, saying you are at most to have half a teaspoon at once.”
“Can’t be that hot. What do they make it from?”
“Not sure, some kind of South American pepper."
“Hmm,” I said. She had my interest. I always found that when people said food was hot, I could barely taste it. I didn’t like spicy food, particularly, because it was as if my taste buds would not register it. People would be sweating, and I would just be eating.
We spoke for a while. She told me about her day. She loved her work, her days, her life. I used to be like that, but now it seemed as if that enthusiasm, that zest, had died in me, and it was still living in her.
"Here you are." The food came very quickly, in about ten minutes.
"That was quick,” I said.
"Yes, sir." He put the plate of food in front of me. A big burger and chips. I was satisfied. Hers looked nice, salmon on a bed of rice.
And then he put this little pot of red sauce between us. The pot was clean and white and shining, and the sauce looked thick. The pot was tiny.
"Is that it? How much is that?" I asked.
“I’ll tell you later.”
“How much, Martha?”
“I’ll tell you later.”
It was so small, I doubted it could cost more than ten pounds, ten pounds at the most, as a novelty, a high margin item at the restaurant. When her voice turned firm and constant like it was beginning to, I knew it was time to back off. Otherwise she would dig her heels in even more, and I would never win.
She took a teaspoon and scooped a tiny amount up for me.
The waiter was standing next to us, with the tray held flat on the front of his legs. She was smiling, and he was occasionally looking at my wife. He looked nervous and excited, and I could see his teeth beginning to show.
“Just what is this all about?” I said.
He looked like he was about to burst. My wife looked as if she was trying to hold something back inside her.
“Just try it," she said. She was trying to sound calm, but there was an energy in her voice that sounded excited and high.
I put my mouth around the spoon, and pulled the sauce into my mouth with my lips. It was like strawberries. It was not hot. It was cool, very cool. It was as if the world, for a moment, was a dream, a beautiful one, one that I was no longer a victim of…
“It's happening, madam, it's happening…” the waiter sounded disturbed. I felt him approach me and hold me. My body limped off to the side, and I wasn’t sure where I was. My limbs were no longer mine, I didn’t have any limbs. The room was moving in ways that it should not, my head felt like it was beneath me, my legs were to the side, my arms were coming out of my head, and where I was, exactly where I was located, I wasn’t sure…”
“Nope, he can’t handle it. Geoff! Geoff he’s not taken it well!”
The waiter was calling someone called Geoff. I couldn’t see. I didn’t know if my wife was there. She had poisoned me. That bitch had poisoned me! I was outraged, realising that this was what it was like to be dead, to be nowhere, but to be everywhere, and for what seemed like days, I cursed her for the trickery, I cursed myself for the gullibility, I cursed the waiter for serving me. I should have just stayed at home, I should have never gotten myself involved with any kind of strange sauce that costs ten pounds per teaspoon. No!
And then after those long days, I realised my resentments were getting me nowhere, and I gave up. And when I gave up, I entered a void inside myself that gave me everything I ever wanted - peace, joy and freedom.
When I woke up I was in hospital. Immediately I was happy. It was not like a normal happiness, one that could be taken from me at any moment by something changing in the world. This was different. I was keenly aware that this thing was inside me, or it WAS me, and it wasn’t anything to do with what was happening in the world.
My wife was sitting beside me, and she gasped.
“Oh, yes!” she said. “Thank goodness!”
The whole room around me was alive. I don’t mean it looked bright and vibrant. I mean the room itself was conscious. It knew me. I knew it. It responded to me. It knew I was here. It was as alive and as conscious as a person. It was a friendly room.
My wife looked like God. Whatever that was. She was perfect. Every flaw of hers was my own invention; it was always in my own mind.
She took my hand, and the joy inside me that was so full was so inexplicable that it grabbed my throat and did not let me spoil it by saying anything.
I just laughed, without my voice. I kept exhaling quickly, like I was on the gas and air that they gave me once when I dislocated my shoulder.
The doctor walked in. I would have described him as a thin, balding old man with a certain grace in his walk. He was the kind of man that did not leach energy throughout the day. He was at rest. But as he walked in, I didn’t describe him to myself.
He looked over his glasses at me, and smiled.
“You see, Mrs Thompson, we told you he was fine.”
“Yes,” she said. Her eyes were shining with tears as she was looking at me. I felt flooded with good, tingling feelings.
"Where are we?“ I said. The doctor looked at me.
“You are at your local hospital. We deal with people who have taken a turn for the worse after ingesting the happiness sauce. It is a risky business, because there are plenty of people who do not actually want to be happy, because they think something bad will happen, or they think they will lose their motivation in life, or they think some other terrible thing might result from being happy without a reason. But it seemed you were just about ready.”
“The happiness sauce. It shows you the happiness source. But it is not safe. For most people, when they take it, it is happiness or death.”
I looked at my wife.
“So I could have died? You could have killed me?”
“Yes,” she said. “Maybe. But you were ready for it all to end, weren’t you? Did you actually want to live another day?”
I tried to cast my mind back to the darker place.
“No, I didn’t." I said.
“And that’s why I did it. I didn’t want to see you hurting yourself anymore. I didn’t like to see you like so many other people, wasting time being unhappy, thinking they are never going to die. So when Jane told me about it, I knew I had to consider it. She told me that she had given it to her own husband who was talking about killing himself. He took it, and now it is like he has fresh life in him again."
“That’s how I feel.”
The doctor was writing something down, he tore it off and gave it to me.
“Here is your release form. Hand that in at reception, and you are free to go.”
“Free,” I said. “Thank you.”
When I was dressed and ready, I put my arm around my wife. She leaned into me and put her arm around my waist. We walked out of the room and made our way slowly over to the reception desk. It seemed like there was no one else in the hospital. Everything was immaculate and empty, like no one had even walked through the corridor. There was no smell, no history, no fear in this place. It was clean. I felt like I did when I first met her. Fresh and alive.
The woman behind the desk had her eyes closed, and her eyes popped opened just as I arrived. She smiled. I handed her the paper, she took it and she tore it up and threw it in the bin beside her.
"Free to go," she said, holding her arm up towards the door.
"Thank you," I said, and as I turned to face the door, still holding my wife, I walked out of that hospital a free man.