Short story by Michael Botur
Wayne returns to the table from the bathroom wiping his fingers in a careful motion, slip-slurp, slip-slurp, trying to get people in the restaurant to notice how skux he is. His shirt collar’s up, covering his neck tats, and he keeps stroking his own chest as he comes back to our table. He pulls back his seat real elegant and plops his bum onto the wood, pulling himself up against the table in a perfect little tug.
‘Madame,’ he says, with a black slit of a grin cutting open his little lizard-face, letting teeth leak out. ‘Let us begin.’
I’m trying to see if I can sneak something from the lunch menu, we really should’ve come here between 11.30-1.30 on Thursdays when everything’s massively discounted, instead of tonight, but Wayne yanks the lunch menu out of my hands and tells me to stop panicking about money. He adjusts the single candle yellowing our table til it’s positioned just right. He forces the wine list into my fingers and tells me to order anything.
‘ANYthing,’ he goes, then leans back tapping his fingertips together like a fatcat. Wayne must’ve scored some money somehow but he’s being all espionage about it. I wanna escape the upper class cunts and crack a box of Cody’s on the couch and watch Worldstar on my phone and snuggle but Wayne told me on the bus here that me and him are moving up in the world, starting tonight.
The waiter – a student, one of the good ones, without tattoos on his neck – arrives and looms over us. He doesn’t even look down my tits. Ducasse is a swanky joint.
‘Scuse me, um, what’s a… a… can of apès?’ I ask him, ‘Canned apes?’
‘It’s can-a-paize,’ he explains. ‘Close cousin of the vol-au-vent. We’re talking pastry-bread with a morsel of savoury filling.’
A woman in pearls at the table opposite us turns her head to listen. I blush beetroot red. Everyone else’s table’s got an electric light on it. Wayne demanded our candle specially.
The waiter begins talking us through the specials but Wayne interrupts him with an ‘Ub-ub-ub-ub-UB!’ and five fingers jammed against the waiter’s mouth and it’s Wayne, the king of cultures, the man-who-got-a-massive-promotion-today, who’s in charge.
Wayne adjusts the cuffs and shirtsleeves of his brand new $199 Hallenstein Brothers suit and snaps his fingers. ‘You’d better get cooking…. .’ Wayne looks at the waiter’s nametag, ‘…Better get cooking, Marcel. Here we go: Beef tart thingy for our canapé. Then first course we’ll have that fancy cauliflower shit.’
‘The velouté dubarry, sir?’
‘Obviously. The artichoke sourdough next, then the… how to do I say this? Folie a deux?’
‘Foie de volaille paté por deux. It means paté for two. It’s chicken liver. I’m not sure you’re going to like– ’
‘Garçon, write this down: we’ll take the degustation.’ Wayne yanks my menu out of my hands and snaps it closed, discarding it over his shoulder so the waiter is forced to stoop for it. My cheeks burn.
‘Four courses, sir, or six?’
Wayne makes a Can you belieeeeve this prick? gesture, sighing real loud. ‘Bro, do we look like we’re short on money? Ten courses. Starting with the amuse bouche.’
Wayne reaches inside his breast and produces a Diner’s Club card. Its silver shines in the candle light.
‘They gave you this at work?’ I go.
‘So to speak.’
He’s supposed to be rooted to a job selling water purification filters with Love Springs Eternal, letting silver customers know the council’s poisonously high levels of calcite won’t come into their glass of water so long as they invest in the right purification system, with a basic setup starting at $4999. I thought Wayne was doing alright at his job, going around the retirement villages knocking on doors, asking for a glass of water, spitting it out cause it’s poison, the whole song and dance, but it seems like Wayne’s got a new business venture he’s brought me here to announce.
‘Did you have to pay for the card thing or…?’
‘It’s the opposite, babe. They pay ME.’
Wayne slides a pamphlet across the table for me and drums his fingers on the tabletop to indicate I oughta hurry the fuck up. The pamphlet says Diner’s Club gives us free access to over 800 airport lounges worldwide, plus exclusive offers, advance notifications of concert tickets, exclusive discounts on spas and makeovers, plus we can withdraw cash advances at any Westpac money machine.
The club card makes me fall backward off my chair into a fluffy cloud of relaxed safety. They don’t just give out credit cards to anyone. For once in my life I can chill about the bills while I chew the first thing on the degustation which apparently are Saint Jacque scallops with garlic from Java.
Wayne tells me a bit about Love Springs in like a past-tense sorta way, as if his job is in the past and he’s moved onto something else, which I don’t quite get, since that’s where he’s been telling me he’s been going every morning. What Wayne reveals, chewing a forkful of lamb saddle with handmade ratatouille and mouthgasming, is he’s undergoing the R&D phase of a vapourless vaporiser he’s been building out in the garage. Wayne says he expects Elon Musk or maybe Sean Parker to get some angel investors hopefully this year to put in some serious seed money and I nod and chew and nod and swallow and nod and sip and I’m in heaven, honestly, but heaven tinged with some serious worry about the bill.
We eat til we’re in agony. When Wayne’s stuffed, he fills my handbag with sachets of sugar and breathmints. My heart stops when Wayne sticks his Diner’s Club card into the machine, but the purchase goes through. I fall asleep on the bus home and dream about a posh house with a white picket fence and a little boy hurling himself down a slip and slide on our big green lawn.
It’s two months later when Wayne brings me back to Ducasse and he’s pointing his fingertips at the maitre d’ and saying some nickname for her, even though I’m pretty sure he’s never met the maitre d’ before.
I’m nervous and I don’t want to take my jacket off, at first, but Wayne says the secret to getting ahead in life is looking the part. I shrug out of my Swanndri and a waiter wrestles me for it, hanging it on a coat tree. Our table is warm and glowing cause Wayne’s demanded they put a candle on it. Once again, people stare at my boy’s swagger.
When Marcel the waiter asks what kind of wine we want, I’m about to cringe and slide under the table and admit I don’t know any kinds of wine, but Wayne’s thought of literally EVERYthing. ‘We’ll take the Bourgogne Chanson Pinot Noir first. I’ll click my fingers at you when we’re ready for a Jaboulet syrah. And, oi.’ Wayne produces a rolled-up note which looks purple – purple! A fifty! – and tucks it deep into Marcel the waiter’s pocket. ‘I want some SERIOUS service, you understand me? I’m talkin the BEST.’
I spot Marcel the waiter pausing on the lip of the kitchen and unfurling the note to check if it’s real. If it is, it can only mean….
‘MASSIVE progress,’ Wayne goes, swirling his sparkling water, adjusting his Diner’s Club card so it’s perfectly positioned on the table. ‘That’s why I wanted to celebrate.’ His ankle caresses my calf.
‘Wayyyney,’ I whisper, glancing from side to side, ‘Are you sure there’s room on the credit cards… ?’
‘Diner’s Club isn’t a credit card. Does it SOUND like a credit card? It’s a CLUB. That’s why they call it a club. I’m in the club. WE’RE in the club. And it’s for entrepreneurs, so just chill, would you?’ Wayne makes himself laugh. ‘I read in Forbes – that’s a magazine – I read that worrying takes ten years off your life, baby.’
‘I just don’t know how we’re gonna pay for –
‘Stop. Just stop. Did Steve Jobs listen to his worried wife when Microsoft told Apple to turn back? I think not. And you know where Steve Jobs is now? Exactly.’
Wayne’s not supposed to be an entrepreneur. The bank rung us up and said unless he took that job with Kirby getting refugees to sign direct debit forms for vacuum cleaners, he’d have to consolidate all his credit card debt and it would get deducted out of our bank every week. With every slurp and every story tonight, though, it becomes more and more obvious Wayne’s outgrown the things holding him back.
My man: he’s unstoppable.
Marcel plops down some creamy saucy stuff with ham and a chunk of parmesan cheese on it. I try to get three bites out of mine but Wayne tells me there’s plenty more coming and I ought to hurry up.
‘So my big man’s bringing home the bacon?’ I ask, all hopeful.
‘That reminds me.’ Wayney flops out his phone and writes a sticky note saying Phone bacon.
‘So the reason I called you here tonight,’ Wayne goes, sees no one around us is eavesdropping, and starts again, louder. ‘SO THE REASON I CALLED US HERE IS TO CELEBRATE. Ever heard of a little company called HRV? Yeah? And every heard of a little job position called REGIONAL SALES REP?’
I’m so excited for my Wayney I sob into my napkin for a moment then flutter my fingertips til I’m chill again and he can tell me his big news, leaning through the yellowy blackness of our candle, the light shining on his ferrety cheekbones, his fangs peeking out of his lips.
Wayne is destined to flourish in his new role as regional sales rep for HRV – the home ventilation system that’s proven to save lives purifying the air in the households of our most vulnerable citizens – because all he has to do is hit daily sales targets, and Wayne’s sales experience at Love Spring and Kirby is unparalleled, he says. His words start to melt and swirl as I get drunk on cold Chablis and hot excitement. I can feel the anxiety drain down my legs and exit my toes and I make a note to myself that Wayne’s definitely getting head tonight. As I’m biting into charred cauliflower and swishing the sweet wine on my tongue, I realise we actually do fit in here. Know why? Cause my man is actually pretty damn successful. I’d been suspecting Wayne just buys an all stages pass for the bus and rides it around town each day but now that he’s explained himself, I know I was just being para. I’ve just been stressed out cause I’m studying early childhood education and it seems so predictable. I wish I had Wayney’s courage. He makes courageous business decisions every day.
Know what? Things are gonna change for the better. No more repayments on our accommodation allowance. No more putting bits of plastic in our half-eaten Big Macs to get refunds.
We’ve got a bit of room on the Diner’s Club and, oh, here’s the cherry on the night, a slice of real Dutch truffle, drizzled with truffle butter, on a TART, yippee! That’s definitely going on Insta.
I unlock my phone and take a perfect photo, choose the Cuisine filter and upload it so all my jealous friends can drool. I close my eyes and savour the taste. I feel Wayne’s ankle sliding up my calf like a serpent. It’s when the bill comes and Wayne’s Club card isn’t declined that I get really seriously happy.
Forget the bus. We take an Uber home.
It’s winter and as soon as we enter the restaurant, we unload our scarves and puffer jackets on some new waiter they’ve got. Wayne even kicks off his basketball shoes, the real puffy limited edition OKC Thunder ones, his favourites.
Wayne asks for our usual table and unfurls a wad of five dollar notes and tips the waiter and I bite my fingertips. Wayne must have some MASSIVE news tonight.
Before we’ve even sat down, Wayne has whistled the waiter over like a sheepdog and tells the little Brazilian kid that we’ll be having the Stable To Table tasting menu, complemented by a bottle of Chianti to start with.
‘Sir, we have a new rule, I have to take your credit card and –
‘Not for preferred customers you don’t.’
‘Sir – ‘
Wayne reaches inside his breast pocket and splats the Diner’s Club on the table. The waiter leaves without a word. Diner’s Club makes everyone shut up.
Our starter arrives pretty soon, these perfect mini Spanish pancakes that you dip in truffle chutney. After the starter, Wayne slides his plate aside so he has space on the tablecloth to draw a diagram with his fingertip.
‘You were a bit naïve, honey, for thinking that HRV bullshit was gonna go anywhere,’ Wayne begins, ‘But I won’t hold it against you.’ As he leans towards the candle, the light glints on his eyebrow ring. He’s moved it from the left eyebrow to the right since it got ripped out when those hoodrats jumped him and the left eyebrow got too infected and puffy. It’s a real classy ring, this new one, it’s gold.
‘Listen, have you heard of macroeconomics? Muhammud Yunus? Cryptomining? Look, normally what I’m about to tell you’s limited to my exclusive seminars, but I’ll give it to you for free since you’re a preferred client.’ He looks over his shoulder and seems to tilt his head towards us, as if to let the elderly Koreans at the table behind us know they are missing out. ‘HERE’S what’s the next big thing with the economy, babe: the human body. Final frontier for investors, I’m tellin ya. Bricks and mortar? Derivatives? Fuck that shit. You: your body, there, sucking down that lobster tail. What if I told you there was a miracle product that could literally melt the fat off you. Well, not literally… .’
‘Not, FAT-fat, I didn’t say that… not, like… look, you’ve got the good fat on you. Unsaturated or whatever. You’re making me lose my point. What if I told you there are dietetic milkshakes designed by actual former NASA scientists, expertly calibrated to synthesise with the body’s nutritional rhythms, and in this city, I could be the exCLUSive representative. I’m talking maximum commission.’
Wayne tears his paper napkin in half and tosses the scraps towards a young African couple on a date so they’ll look over at us. ‘Legally, technically…. Y’know what? No. NOT milkshakes. That’s obtuse thinking right there, angel. Herbalife is listed on the NASDAQ, baby. Is Mr Whippy on the NASDAQ? I don’t think so. And I’ve got 400 Herbalife shares with our name on ‘em, like, I mean, well technically it’s your name cause of bankruptcy rules and all that, y’know, I’m not allowed to trade for seven … MARCEL! Yo! That escargot ready, huh? Got enough parsley butter on it? Plonk it down, attaboy.’
‘My name is Faroukh, sir,’ the new waiter says, but from like metres away, as if he can’t be stuffed coming to our table.
‘What happened to Marce…ANYway: actually, I have a rule we should never talk business at the table?’
‘Oh,’ I say, re-folding my napkin, ‘I didn’t know that was a rule, Wayney.’
‘I got us invited into the Diner’s Club cause we deserve the BEST, you unnerstand?’ Wayne pushes green cash inside Faroukh’s palm and presses Faroukh’s fingers closed. It’s only a twenty, this time, the bank note. ‘Escargo time. Now, please.’ Wayne clicks his fingers. ‘You like that, hon, that little pun there? Like Go-Time, but ES-car-GO time. Huh?’
My face is cool, suddenly, as tears roll down my burning cheeks. I flap my fingers and dab my face with my giant white serviette. ‘The power bill’s… it’s bad. We owe, like fourteen hundred, Wayne.’
‘You mean we have fourteen hundred CREDIT. You’re thinking about money all wrong.’ Wayne snaps a lamb bone open, searching for marrow to suck.
‘My credit’s just….. I don’t think we have enough money, I’m going to apologise to the maitre d, tell her– ’
‘YOU NEED TO STOP BEFORE YOU EMBARRASS YOURSELF.’ Wayne has leapt around the table and he’s squeezing my wrist. ‘DON’T. MAKE. A SCENE. Now, as I was saying, we have CREDIT becauuuuse, drumroll please, you ready, this is why I brought you here: our bacon’s been saved.’
All I can do is shrug and wait for the smartest man I know to tell me what lies for us lightyears ahead.
‘Question: who has two thumbs and got start-up capital from a certain company by the name of Save My Bacon Little Loans?’ He points his thumbs back towards himself. ‘THIS GUYYYYYY.’
I…. just… GRADUATEDDDDD!!!
I can barely believe it myself. Of course we go to Ducasse to celebrate.
We had to leave our flat in the middle of the night last week cause Wane says there was some accounting error with the rent which made us look bad even though it totally wasn’t our fault, and we had to walk tonight to get here, with a quick detour to Warehouse Stationery to pick up some printing, cause Wane reckons it’s more environmental but secretly we both know it’s cause our car got repo’d.
But, like, hooray for me!!! Early childhood care’s always been my dream. It took me three years to complete my diploma cause we moved around, then I couldn’t get my student loan for a while cause Wane’d got us to both change our names so we could open fresh bank accounts with new overdrafts (he took the Y out of his name but he said mostly it was a branding decision because his investors never have to ask why.)
Tonight, FINALLY we get our chill on with our favourite waitstaff serving us (even though the maitre d’s given Wane a reeeeal concerned look as we came in.)
A new waiter, a girl whose nametag says Emma, takes Wane’s Diner’s Club card away BEFORE we’ve had our meal, which is weird, and in the corner I see the maitre d getting out these big shiny scissors and snipping it in half and the beetroot burn starts stinging my face.
This new waitress Emma comes back over to us, apologising, explaining she’ll be happy to take cash for our order, but only in advance. Wane gets out his wad and gives her what looks like a hundy and Emma-the-waitress puts the money in her bumbag and works out the change before they process our order. He tries to give her a two dollar tip but she tells him to keep it. It’s soooooo cringe, but soon enough we’re nibbling baguettes and sipping drinks and trying to have a good time, keeping our relationship strong, gazing at each other through the candle.
That is until Wane changes the subject.
‘So I’ve done the math and you can’t start work,’ Wane says. ‘Early childhood, you only start on 17 an hour. Factor in commuting costs, new car, depreciation, lunch, makeup and whatnot, I don’t think you’ll be bringing in enough.’
‘But… but the Herbalife thing? You had the exclusive franchise for our region?’
Wane waves my words away, looks around at the other tables, chewing grumpily.
‘Listen, I’m going to need you to re-enrol for a couple more years to get the student loan. We can’t afford not to have Studylink coming in every week. It’s easy money. You’ll have to go do another course. Bachelors. Masters afterward.’
The waitstaff begin a commotion and Emma holds up her hand and it’s got ink on it as if she’s been given a freshly-printed bit of paper.
Wane reaches across the table, grabs my hand and squeezes.
‘Babe: most of sales is about thinking on your feet.’
‘And if we want a good financial outcome, we’re both going to have to think on our feet right now, y’understand?’
I don’t, not really, but I nod. Date night’s all about serious nodding while your lover lays down some deep truths. ‘That baby you always wanted? Start having it right now.’
I suppose my tummy has been getting a bit bulgy, mostly from drinking Cody’s, but eating haute cuisine thanks to Diner’s Club has chubbed me up a bit too.
I push my seat back from the table as Wane comes around, lifts up my dress, puts his ear against my tummy and starts making a big commotion.
‘For the love of God, we need an ambulance,’ Wane is yelling, ‘THIS WOMAN IS HAVING A BABY!’
Pretty soon an ambulance is pulling into the parking lot, its lights turning the restaurant rose-red, and all in all tonight is – what was that thing Waney used to spend all our money on at the trots? – a trifecta. Yeah, tonight’s a trifecta of three wins, cause the first win is they forget to bill us as we scream and wince and stumble to the door, me clutching my lower back, and we’ve had another divine degustation, so that’s the second win, and thirdly, best of all, thanks to the ambo we don’t have to take the bus home.