The Ingredient of Happiness

  • 13 Jan - 19 Jan, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

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?”

I nodded.

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.

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, and 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.

“Very good…”

“Oh, and could we also have a side of your trademark sauce?”

When my wife asked him that, he stopped scribbling.

“Sorry, madam?”

“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.”

“Very well.”

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 10 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 10 pounds, 10 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 dress.