The Taste Tester
By Susan Browne © Susan Browne 2017/2019
Callum has taken up an unusual job opportunity, keeping a paranoid elderly author safe from poison.
I’m lying here, curled around my dream girl like a c-shape. My lips rest on the crown of her head. We fit together perfectly. Me, a clumsy six foot three, and she a dainty five foot five. I nearly lost her, then I won her back again. When I close my eyes and feel the rise and fall of her breath, my mind wanders back to Elena, and her house in the mountains. It’ll be minus ten up there tonight.
Elena and I found one another, wretched and vulnerable. Her furious ex-lover had dumped her in the city, knowing that would leave her distraught. I was looking into the hurriedness of the Liffey. Wondering how it might be to sleep with the fishes. All that mattered to me then was Ailsa. She had dumped me for my best friend, Darcy. I didn’t care about life.
Then I heard crying under the bridge. I went to investigate. Birdlike, in a fur coat and hat and long boots she lay crumpled in the mud. She looked about sixty. A sad, thin scarved face of bright lipstick and rouge and dark eyes.
We didn’t say much at first. She shook my hand, shivering.
Her accent was foreign. She wanted to go home, is all. We walked to my car, and I drove her to her place. It was over an hour’s drive outside the city. I would have travelled anywhere, for the distraction and for having anything at all to do.
I had never seen such a beautiful house. It was enormous, and yet she lived alone. It had a pool in a room with a peel-top roof, so it could also be open air. At the top; a viewing dome. A gym, pool and outdoor jacuzzi. She fixed us tea, and then, before drinking hers she said:
‘Would you mind tasting this for me, just to see if it’s safe?’
I laughed at first. Her eyes never flickered. She wasn’t joking.
I honestly wouldn’t have cared that day if it was laced with arsenic and so I agreed. Out of politeness, I used my teaspoon to ladle some out. I was aware of her watching me intently for a few minutes, and I tried to shrug away the prickly feeling around my neck.
Then we drank our tea, and she began to tell me about herself.
‘I am an author. I write fiction. Originally, I come from Russia, but I moved to Ireland in 1997.’
It turned out she wasn’t just any author. She was an international bestseller and one of her books was currently being made into a movie with some of my favourite actors.
‘I need someone to work for me up here. Would you be interested?’
‘What sort of work?’ I asked her.
‘I need a taste tester. My other boy has gone travelling and I need someone who could start right away.’
‘What even is that?’ I asked her.
‘Someone to test my food before I eat, and drink before I drink.’
There was a long pause here. What do you even say to that?
‘I work in an office,’ I told her.
She waited for me to say more.
‘..And it’s incredibly boring.’
It was regular money, but it was not what I had envisaged for myself at twenty-two. My dad couldn’t afford to keep me in college and I couldn’t afford it either.
She smiled and regarded me carefully. ‘Then you would be perfect for me. I will pay you well, but the hours are long.’
‘We’ll give it a go,’ I said.
My employment began immediately. I worked right up until 9pm. I emailed my boss to let him know I was resigning. This gave me an enormous sense of satisfaction.
She had saved me. And I had saved her.
‘Why do you have a taste tester anyway? Is someone out to get you or what?’ I wondered about her other boy who had gone travelling.
She became still and stared at me. ‘I cannot say. I’m sorry.’
‘Alright then.’ And that was that. I hoped he wasn’t buried here somewhere.
Elena was queen of the mountain. She could do what she liked, including hiring a taste tester. She could hire whatever she wanted up there.
‘Were you always like this?’ I asked one day. ‘Y’know. Suspicious and all.’
‘Not always. Only since the character of Dina.’
I had searched for her books and seen that the character of Dina was part of the fantasy thriller she had written in 2015 that was being made into a movie. Dina was a paranoid but very powerful witch. Turns out my Ailsa had the very book too. I didn’t tell Ailsa who I worked for. Confidentiality was part of the deal.
‘What are you writing since?’
Then she looked at the floor, her shoulders slumped. ‘Every day my agent calls; ‘what are you writing?’ I can’t write. Dina has sucked all of the words out of me. Now I am empty.’ She suddenly looked even older, like a crumpled plant shrinking down to the earth.
‘Well, maybe you have enough writing done. Maybe it’s time to take a rest.’
She scoffed, and I felt silly.
Here I lie in Ailsa’s bed. Her father’s apartment. He is upstairs with his big, black moustache and disapproving stare. Big tattoos on his big Popeye arms. He doesn’t even know I’m here. He never liked me. Give him time, he’ll be grand about us.
I am still inside my head thinking about a paranoid old lady. Her ability to write those incredibly popular books. It didn’t make much sense. The fact I could lie here with The Goddess of Happiness in my arms and still have her on my mind. I watch her red lipstick smile inside my head, at the thought of that.
I breathe in the smell of Ailsa. Her silky dark hair, tangerine body lotion. I know it’s strange, but I can tell that she loves me now and that she didn’t used to. I feel safe.
One day Elena had me swim in the pool. I didn’t see how that was part of the job, but I did as I was told. It gave me the creeps at first. That this old lady wanted to perve over me or something. Images of a terrible scene from ‘The Shining’ flooded my mind and I tried to shrug them off.
But that wasn’t how it went. It turned out she wanted me to swim in the water to see if it was poisoned. She herself got in exactly twenty minutes after me when she was satisfied that it was safe.
‘You can go now,’ she said, thank God.
Sometimes it felt as though I was part of a game she was playing. I was a pawn on her chess board. I couldn’t very well argue. I didn’t want to get the sack. And I wished to please her. Strange and cantankerous as she was, I got satisfaction out of getting things right. I was her circus monkey.
She knew all about Ailsa and the bother I was in. So, she asked me more and more questions. Personal ones. And, out of loneliness, I told her.
‘You are an idiot. Of course, the girl won’t want you then. You need to wake up and play the game.’
‘What game? I don’t want to play any games. I just want her back.’
She taught me things. And as though by magic – as soon as I let go, Ailsa came to me. I made a mistake. There was only us. Of course, there was. I knew it all along, and so did my moronic mate, Darcy. Ex-mate now.
There were long periods of time where there was nothing to be done. She needed quietness and solitude, but still, I must remain on the premises. I started using the gym. I began to get fit and enjoy it. I started to like myself. I learned the different trails on that freezing cold mountain, I took her two blue-eyed huskies for walks and they showed me the way. It didn’t feel like Ireland there. It was as though she brought her own climate with her and placed it there.
In this bedroom now, I feel her vaporous presence. She lingers, watching me holding Ailsa. I feel the sense of unease as the air stirs and the nets move. Outside a train passes and the house shakes a little.
‘Would you die for me? Like the president’s bodyguard?’ she asked one day.
I considered this carefully. ‘Isn’t that what I do every day? Risk my life by tasting your potentially poisoned food and drink?’
To this, she snorted. ‘You were a dead man that day, down by the river, if I had not saved you.’
I looked at her incredulously. ‘And yourself?’
She only laughed. Funny Irish boy.
It’s no good. I can’t sleep, so I peel myself away from Ailsa’s warm body. She moans softly in her sleep. I reach for her tablet and I find myself reading about Dina. I’ve read most of it already. Dina is just like Elena. The appearance, the mannerisms.
I reach the final chapter and still a goddess and a contemptuous Scotsman sleep.
“He searched everywhere for her on the cold mountain. Afraid of what he would find. Down by the lake, he fell to his knees. The ice sparkled, and then he saw her. Frozen under the ice looking up. He beat and bashed the ice…”
I snap it shut and realise that I am holding my breath. I get dressed as quick as I can, and I am out the door.
‘Is that you, Hen?’ her father shouts.
I’m gone. Into the car and headed for the mountain. February’s dawn creeps over the iced valley, and the road is slippery. I know the complex code to get through the gates. The blue-eyed dogs are whining; agitated. I park the car and run down the trail to the lake. They are leading the way. She is there beside the water’s edge.
‘Callum? You came.’
‘Are you alright?’
She turns to face me. ‘I just had my tea,’ she says. Her eyes are full of a tenderness that I haven’t seen before.
‘But it’s alright, Callum. It must be this way. You see I am Dina.’
‘You’re not Dina. No, no. You are Elena. The author. The author can’t die.’ I lift her little frame in my arms and bring her back up the trail. The dogs are crying. She gets limper and limper, and hot tears are coming down my face.
‘Help. Somebody.’ My phone is in the car. I lay her on the back seat and call an ambulance. By the time it arrives, she is unconscious.
‘Come on, Son,’ the paramedic says to me. ‘We need to get her out of the car, alright?’
‘Alright. Hey, I think she might have taken cyanide.’
‘Why would you think that?’
‘I could be wrong, but it’s what the character in her book took.’ I realise how crazy that makes her sound and how someone else couldn’t understand.
‘You may be right too. Leave it to us now.’
She seems even tinier now, as they lay her out on the gurney. She’s slipping away from me. The quiet snowy mountain is suddenly awash with blue lights. I drive slowly home. We’ll be in touch again; the Gardaí had told me.
Months after I often go up to the mountain. Always alone. Never telling anyone. It’s not cold anymore. Spring flowers and birdsong annihilate her further. I wonder if I could have saved her, had I arrived just a little earlier. And sometimes I question if it really was she that poisoned herself. I find myself colluding with the story. This is how I keep her alive. Just a little. And in my head, she smiles about it.