Fiction

Lunch at the dream house

SUSAN SENT US an invitation to lunch via email, and we accepted. At the appropriate time on the designated Sunday I put on a newish cotton dress and Paul cut the tag off an unworn polo shirt. As we got in the car I realised I’d forgotten the bottle of champagne I bought as a house-warming gift. I went back into the house for it, shoved it into an insulated cooler bag and returned to the car. Paul drove.

I knew of the suburb where Greg and Susan had spent the past three years constructing their dream house. It was north of the city, where the beaches were white and the ocean glittered with seafood and sharks. The beachside cafés were always packed with tanned, morning ocean-swimmer types, sipping their almond-milk flat whites and devouring locally made yoghurt sprinkled with açai berries or flaxseed or chia or whatever superfood was trending that particular second.

I didn’t say anything to Paul on the way, until we arrived at the apex of the hill with its postcard-picture view of the beach. I let my guard down, sighing involuntarily, expressing my adoration for its stunning beauty. Even I had to admit living this close to the ocean would be something special. I would never do it but I understood the attraction.

‘I know you’re not excited about catching up with them,’ Paul said, mistaking my sigh for something else. ‘But she’s your friend. We haven’t seen them since Stella’s wedding. Plus, Greg always cooks such a beautiful lunch for us.’

‘That’s because he’s a chef and he likes showing off,’ I said. ‘Paul, you know me. I just can’t handle the dream house. And I definitely can’t handle Susan in her dream house. It will just be so perfect and we’ll have to say how perfect everything is and participate in the act of it being perfect.’

‘You said you didn’t want to build a nice house,’ said Paul, frowning.

‘I don’t. You know I don’t want the dream house. I don’t want everything to be perfect,’ I said.

‘Well, things might not be perfect, but they aren’t bad,’ Paul said.

‘I’m not talking about us or our house. I think there are enough houses in the world already. I don’t think the world needs more new, perfect houses,’ I said, trying to move my feet, which were boxed in by the champagne in its padding.

‘We can build a new house if you want to. Or renovate,’ said Paul.

‘I don’t want to, Paul. It’s bad for the environment. Our house is fine the way it is. Look, we’re nearly there,’ I said, glancing at my phone and checking the street numbers.

‘What number is it?’ Paul asked.

‘Number four. Coming up on the right,’ I said. ‘Oh my–’

There were columns. It was white. Palatial.

‘Just smile and nod,’ Paul said, as he drove towards the fountain where a replica of Michelangelo’s Bacchus stood in all his glory.

 

‘BEC! PAUL! WE’RE so glad that you could come today. So excited to see you both. We haven’t seen you since Stella’s wedding,’ said Susan, hugging me with her Michelle Obama arms. She spent most weekdays at gym classes with names like ‘Body Blitz’ and ‘More For Your Core’. I went with her to a class once. It did not end well.

‘Congratulations on the new house,’ I said, handing over the bottle of champagne.

‘Oh, Bec,’ said Susan. ‘You shouldn’t have.’

I shrugged and watched Susan take the bottle out of its cooler bag and examine the label. ‘Oh, Greg is going to love this. Greg! He’s out the back. Follow me, you two.’

I followed Susan through the front doors that looked like they had been designed for a giant, not two regular-sized people. The distinctive new paint smell. As we stepped into the grand foyer my eyes involuntary followed the winding Guggenheim staircase.

Susan turned around, her eyes lighting up as she saw where I was looking.

‘I’ll give you the grand tour later. This way.’

I nodded, and we walked through a tunnel of contemporary art and closed doors to another zone. The smell of fresh paint faded, replaced by the fumes of fire-grilled meat.

‘So, this is the entertaining area,’ said Susan, as if she were a desperate real estate agent. ‘Isn’t it lovely?’

‘It’s amazing, Susan,’ said Paul, looking around.

Through floor-to-ceiling windows the white entertaining area surveyed the swimming pool and cabana outside. From this angle it appeared as though the Indian Ocean had been painted on purpose, a brushstroke between the aquamarine of the pool and the clear blue of the sky.

‘Hey Bec, hey Paul,’ said Greg, walking over holding a glass of beer and greeting us with hugs and handshakes. ‘Great to see you both. I’m just finishing off the lamb. I’ve got a treat for you today. But first, have some crab croquettes and watermelon infusion. I got the blue swimmer crabs fresh off the boat this morning.’

Greg indicated a white square platter on the kitchen countertop displaying said croquettes, condiments and shot glasses half-filled with a flamingo-pink liquid.

‘Gosh, you must have been up early. Thank you, Greg,’ I said, tipping a thick sludge of watermelon, mint and sugar into my mouth. Then I took a crab cake, dipped it in aioli and squeezed a lemon wedge over it. I devoured its creamy, oceany almost-sweetness and addictive thin crispy coating.

‘They’re delicious, aren’t they?’ said Susan, head tilted, as if she wanted to believe it.

I nodded and wiped my mouth with a serviette.

Paul followed Greg outside and I was left alone with her.

Bec, how are you?’ Susan asked me. I always loved how Susan asked how I was, each syllable emphasised as if it were a question of life or death.

‘Fine,’ I said with a toothy smile, taking another crab croquette.

‘Oh, good, good,’ said Susan. ‘So, do you want to join me at Body Blitz next week?’

I paused chewing.

‘I’m just kidding, Bec. Relax,’ she said, squeezing the flab of my untoned arm. ‘The wedding’s over now anyway. I don’t have to worry about looking so mother of the brideish, you know. Did you love our daughter’s totally vegan wedding? I don’t think we’ve seen you since then. They’re all so strange, the young ones. It’s like we’re at a turning point, you know? But tell me Bec, did you honestly like the vegan food? I mean, it was vegan, but everyone’s vegan these days. Except for us oldies of course. Gosh, what a thing. Braised miso tofu as the main course, who would have thought?’

‘It was lovely,’ I said. ‘And all those fresh salads – they were delicious.’

‘Oh yes, the apple and almond salad. The pomegranate and orange salad.’

‘The avocado and hazelnut salad was my favourite,’ I said. ‘Paul loved the fennel and strawberry salad.’

‘Well, it was all Greg. Greg designed the menu. He didn’t cook it of course. He would have though. He would have,’ Susan said, her voice trailing off.

I nodded.

‘Oh, Bec. Here I am going on and on and I haven’t even offered you a drink yet.’

‘Shall we open the champagne?’ I asked.

‘Of course,’ said Susan. ‘But really, Bec. You shouldn’t have. I’ll give it to Greg to do. Hold on just a sec.’

As Susan sashayed through the sliding glass doors I surveyed the kitchen. To describe it as anything other than exquisite wouldn’t be doing it justice. There was a striking slab of luminous, opaline marble that formed the kitchen countertop. I rested my right hand on the marble. It was cold and soothing, reminding me of the smooth grey trunk of the eucalyptus tree in my mother’s garden.

‘Oh! The marble bench top! Isn’t it amazing?’ asked Susan, walking in. ‘We got it from Italy.’

‘Yes, we got a great deal from Susan’s friend Leonardo,’ said Greg.

‘Susan’s friend Leonardo? You mean–’

‘Yes, Bec. You remember Leonardo?’ Susan interrupted me, eyebrows up. ‘Our friend from uni?’

The only Leonardo I remembered from uni was a two-week boyfriend that Susan acquired while we were backpacking in Europe another lifetime ago. Susan had picked him up a seedy bar in Rome and then he was suddenly part of our trip, although he never paid for anything. The two of them shacked up together in a private room in the youth hostel and the only way to contact them was to slide notes under the door. Nobody else in our group was allowed to speak to Leonardo, even at mealtimes when we devoured silky spaghetti with anchovies, or when we were out drinking prosecco and giggling all night. All communication with Leonardo had to be through Susan (who was self-declared fluent in Italian overnight).

‘It’s love, Bec,’ Susan had said to me at the time. ‘You wouldn’t understand.’

The day we farewelled Leonardo was the worst day of Susan’s life. She sobbed hysterically and the rest of us had to drag her through the departure gate at Fiumicino. 

Tiamo,’ Leonardo called out as she bawled, holding her hand as we pulled her away. ‘Tiamo, Susannah.’

‘Oh, Leonardo, sure I remember,’ I said, back in the dream-house kitchen. ‘I didn’t know you two had stayed in touch.’

‘We got in touch on Facebook,’ said Susan, putting a loose strand of hair behind her ear.

‘Right,’ I said.

‘Yeah, Susan went over to Italy to get a few things sorted for the house. Leonardo runs a marble business. He gave us a great price on this countertop. It’s exquisite quality,’ said Greg.

The four of us ran our hands over the countertop and then everyone stopped at the same time and looked up.

There was a definite crack in the marble. A fissure running all the way through.

‘Wait a second. Is that meant to be there?’ asked Greg, rubbing his hand back and forth over it.

‘Definitely,’ said Paul. ‘It’s probably there on purpose. To add character.’

‘I don’t think it’s meant to have a crack in it,’ said Greg, spreading out his fingers and smoothing his hands over the marble. ‘We have marble bench tops in our restaurants. I’ve never seen a crack. We’ve had them for years.’

‘I like it,’ I said. ‘It gives it character.’

‘Leonardo wouldn’t have given me a dud piece of marble,’ said Susan, rolling her eyes. ‘He just wouldn’t have. Maybe it cracked when it was shipped over here. Maybe those brutes who constructed the house ruined it and didn’t tell us.’

‘I don’t think so, Susan,’ said Greg, rubbing his forehead. ‘I don’t think so.’

‘Just open the champagne, Greg. Come on,’ Susan said, sighing.

‘What about the rest of the house?’ I asked. ‘I can’t wait to see it.’

‘I’ll take you,’ said Susan.

‘Suze, this crack should not be here.’

‘Don’t worry about the marble, Greg,’ said Paul. ‘Look at this place. It’s amazing. The view. Everything.’

‘I think we should call Leonardo,’ said Greg. ‘Susan, call him now. What time is it in Europe?’

‘Greg, I’ll call him tomorrow. Just open the champagne, will you? Come on, we have lunch guests. Rebecca and Paul don’t want to hear about this,’ said Susan. ‘Can’t you just let it go, open the champagne and serve the food so we can all tell you how fantastic you are and how lucky I am to have you?’

Paul coughed. Susan and Greg stared at each other over the cracked marble, both of them gripping it hard. Eventually Greg relented and released his grip. He popped open the champagne, sending the cork into the tricolour blue horizon outside. Greg distributed the champagne equally into tall crystal flutes. With the lemon-and-oregano-scented lamb sizzling on the barbecue and the champagne hissing in the glasses, I knew this meal in the dream house would be our first and last.

And it was a beautiful summer lunch, just like eating in one of Greg’s restaurants, apart from the soundtrack. Susan and Greg were silent while Paul gave an overview of every series we’d watched on Netflix over the past year, just in case they were interested in watching them. I volunteered a few thoughtful comments, here and there, but I was focused on the food.

As well as the lamb, there was a potato gratin, golden crisp from the oven. Asparagus with lemon butter, beetroot with goat’s cheese and a fresh salad that Greg cut from a pot plant and assembled, just as we sat down, with a mustard vinaigrette. For dessert, Greg had made a pavlova, topped with coconut curls and decorated with fresh passionfruit and mango. He made us espressos from a machine that looked like it could have performed brain surgery and served us handmade chocolate truffles dusted in gold. I savoured every taste, every mouthful, every ocean glimpse, as if it were a luxurious dream. While Paul talked about Netflix.

 

NOT LONG AFTER that day Greg called Paul in tears. Susan was in Italy with Leonardo. Greg hadn’t seen it coming. He wished he’d shut up about the crack in the marble.

I haven’t heard from Susan since she left and I’m not sure when I will, but most mornings as I unpack the dishwasher I imagine her and the twenty-year-old Leonardo of my memory. They’re sitting in the courtyard of his crumbling Tuscan villa in the golden, ethereal light of late afternoon, sipping prosecco and feeding each other strawberries. Susan wears a straw hat and a long, white dress showing off her arms. She is beaming with delight at her new life.

Tiamo,’ says Leonardo, raising his glass in her direction. ‘Tiamo, Susannah.’

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