Something special from the Big Issue Fiction Edition to start the new year with a jolt of class.
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By Laura Elvery
Repackaging a grain of wisdom.
The office is buzzing. Michael just returned from the United States, but Customs quarantined him at home. Apparently, there was an Ebola scare on the plane, and we won’t see him for weeks. I have visions where I’m stretched out on the couch, napping while Game of Thrones downloads. I want an Ebola scare.
“Suits him, doesn’t it?” Margot says. “Lazy bugger.”
We conference-call Dahlia in the boardroom. Someone from downstairs delivers a dozen green smoothies in tiny milk bottles, along with a jar of pink-and-white striped straws. Carrot muffins sweat beside them, untouched. No one wants Dahlia to see them eat.
Margot sidles up, takes my arm in her fingers. I can smell the deep paste of her fake tan.
“What do you think it’ll be?” I ask.
Margot shrugs. “Must be big.”
She plucks a phone from her pocket, holding it aloft over the smoothies. Margot heads social media for Dahlia. After a second, she separates one bottle from the rest, shifts it to the corner of the frame like Tasmania, lays a striped paper straw across its mouth, taps her phone. She hashtags it while walking, passing Cheryl, who fingers Pantone swatches. With Michael out of the picture, Cheryl’s in charge.
“Maybe it’s a Christmas appeal?” I suggest to Margot. “A new flavour?”
“What are Christmas flavours in Australia anyway?”
“They’re the same everywhere. Cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger.”
“Cinnamon?” Margot winces. “No one wants carbs.”
Someone shushes us as the Skype logo bubbles on the big screen. Dahlia is smile-ready, dressed in a white business shirt and pink-framed glasses. I recognise a new colour in her hair. She is framed by a shelf of books: Juice your way to Happiness. Ancient Grains, Modern Wisdom. Success through Self-Love.
Dahlia holds her hands in prayer, nodding them on the final word. “Good morning, everyone.”
“Morning!” trills Margot.
“Let’s start with a Proof, shall we?” Dahlia adjusts her glasses.
Margot’s ready. “There’s a woman, @fitchickforlyfe2, who’s been posting some really inspirational pics about her weight-loss journey, her battle with hypothyroidism and her goal to adopt a kid from Malawi by 2016.”
Dahlia raises an eyebrow. “Malawi? Bump it up to Proof.”
Proof is Dahlia’s blog. Each post is signed, Health and Happiness, Dahlia xx. Margot writes one to three posts per day. She has a degree in Creative Writing.
“Or, maybe it’s Mauritius,” Margot whispers to me. “One of those.”
Freddie talks quarterly earnings. Will crowds the conference cam with a notepad sketch for a flagship smoo-boutique in Bluestone Mall. Dahlia is ruffled.
“Why am I seeing this on paper? Surely you can send it to me.”
Cheryl shakes her head at Will, and he sits down.
“Well, we should get started on today’s agenda. Christmas.” Dahlia says the word like Dachau.
Freddie eyes off a smoothie. He creeps towards the centre table, bypasses the straws, trying to fit his top lip inside the glass rim of the bottle. A slug of blended kale and celery drips down his shirt.
“Shit,” Cheryl hisses. “Here.”
Dahlia raises her eyebrows while Freddie swats at his shirt front with Cheryl’s tissue. “The thing about Christmas,” Dahlia begins, “is that it’s the perfect time of year to spend with your family.”
A tiny curl of curious laughter moves through the boardroom. Dahlia and her husband are mindfully withdrawing from their sixteen-year marriage. If it gets out – and then that’s Cheryl’s problem – Dahlia and her husband are most definitely not separating.
Our boss continues. “It’s also a time for helping others. One of Dahlia’s central tenets of faith is that we have a responsibility to give back to the global community.”
Cheryl starts nodding. Margot too, tweeting.
“Absolutely,” I say. “It’s what sets us apart.”
“So from tomorrow, hidden in the base of five Dahlia cups across the country will be a token. A lucky patron at any Dahlia smoo-boutique has a chance to find one.” She counts on her fingers. “They could be in a juice, smoothie, pudding or protein-ball cup.”
Will flips his notepad. His pen flits down the page.
Dahlia loves questions that she can answer. “And these tokens,” I say. “What do people win?”
“Erin. Great question.” She shoots a forefinger at me, then fixes her hands in prayer mode again. At my interview three years ago, Dahlia nodded at the tattoo on the inside of her wrist. Had I seen one like it before? Of course I hadn’t, she purred, because it was the flower of a newly discovered pseudocereal from Bolivia that was going to be big. Huge. Just looking at it gave her strength, she said. She was going to change the world. Dahlia asked me if I wanted to change my life by drinking green juice every day for breakfast. I promised that I did, and I got the job. Every year, on my birthday, Dahlia gets Cheryl to wrap a copy of her autobiography, Dahlia It Up, and place it on my desk.
Skype buffers for a moment, and the room stills. Twenty storeys below us, the office crowds on their lunch breaks are tucking into Dahlia FruiTango Nut Balls and Dahlia MissBliss No-Choco-Choco Smoothies.
When Dahlia’s back on, her voice is chopped up and stalling from the wi-fi, before exploding in a rush of phonemes and syllables. “It’s called trickle-down economics. It helps our most vulnerable reach their full potential,” she says. “A lot of countries are getting on board. Even Scandinavia.”
“That’s good,” Will says, ripping out a page. He finished high-school five years ago. Cheryl’s had him on probation for fourteen months.
“So. The Christmas prizes. Picture this: five gorgeous Dahlia smoo-boutique patrons brushing their hands through golden stalks. Selfies with local old men wearing those straw hats. Burnished by the sun. Laughing. Dancing in a hacienda. Sipping on Dahlia Sun BerrySol.”
Cheryl’s thumb hovers over her iPhone. She drawls optimistically. “The prize is a trip to Bolivia?”
“The prize,” Dahlia says, “is to become – for thirty healthful, spiritual and nourishing days – a plantation owner.”
Will half raises a hand. “What’s a—?”
“Not just any plantation – and this is the special part. Fields and fields of amarillo, an ancient Bolivian pseudocereal. Zero gluten, but full of zinc, amino acids and healing properties. And Dahlia smoo-boutiques will be the first in Australia to sell it.”
Heads bob. Excitement radiates. Amarillo.
“Five farms we can help.” Dahlia holds a palm to the camera. “Five winners, five plantation owners. Freddie assures me he can make it happen. Just a few calls to the embassy, apparently.”
“The consulate,” Freddie corrects.
“Whatever.” Dahlia smiles. “The consulate.”
Cheryl’s delight falters. She’s worried about insurance.
“Winners won’t do any of the hard stuff,” Dahlia assures her, “like, you know, ploughing. Instead there’ll be stories on the blog of winners eating rustically at a farmer’s table, a photo of another winner waving at a cute kid working.” Dahlia churns her hands through the air of her refurbished office.
Cheryl is back on board. She jabs the air with a straw. “Maybe there’s a jungle nearby—”
“A ride on the back of a donkey,” I offer. “Trekking up a mountain, fuelled by Dahlia-branded amarillo.”
“You got it. Helpful stuff. Global citizens.” Dahlia checks her watch, and I glimpse the tattoo on her inner wrist. “Write them all down, Erin. Give them to Margot.”
Dahlia tells Margot to start dropping competition hints on Instagram and Twitter. She tells Cheryl to give me the new deadline for the website, and then she is gone, her face momentarily dark and frozen before the call cuts off.
Margot tucks in close to me. “Is amarillo trademarked?” She calls out, “Cheryl, do we own amarillo?”
Will looks up from his notepad. “Bolivia’s in South America, right?”
Freddie is at Cheryl’s elbow, offering the carrot muffins. She gives him an awful smile –No, thanks, you’re a dickhead – so he asks me.
“Erin? Want one?”
I’m starving. “No, thanks,” I say.
The new website launches, Michael doesn’t have Ebola and Cheryl ends Will’s probation by sacking him. Margot’s social media blitz is working. At smoo-boutiques all over the country, Dahlia patrons line up in their dozens, caught up in a manic pudding-buying spree, frantic to see a token at the bottom telling them: “¡Ganaste!” Some patrons don’t even wait till they’ve swallowed their Pina-Cleanada Super Sips, but tip the dregs into city garden beds to be swept up before the ibises come. Couriers deliver the cups in locked boxes.
In the lunch room, Margot is pleased. She shows me a new photo: tanned, pedicured feet rest on a freshly painted verandah balustrade, a pink sunset in the distance. “245 likes already.”
I look closely. “Perhaps we should avoid the hashtag plantation owner?”
“It might be a bit problematic.”
I don’t know. What about non-Spanish speakers moving onto Bolivian farms? What about taking the family donkey for a spin? What about five, 18 to 39-year-olds asking Abuela where the tequila is kept? I don’t know.
“I’m sure it’s fine,” I say.
Margot taps her phone screen. “Look. Over 300 likes.”
“You want lunch?” I say. “I’m heading out.”
Margot motions towards her desk. “Better not. I have to write a piece about Dahlia’s charity work. She’s getting interviewed tomorrow.”
At the food-court table beside me, two friends in their early twenties – students with navy nail polish, cut-off denim shorts and whip-thin ponytails – share a Dahlia CocoVerde Chia Pudding in our new Pantone 7487U cups. When I was at uni, thirteen dollars paid for a week’s worth of petrol. If Margot were here and saw our newly branded green cups offset by the escalators and the food-court fronds, and the smiling, bronzed girls licking our biodegradable bamboo cutlery, she’d take their photo. Christmas carols ripple above our heads.
The blonde girl flips her spoon onto her tongue, sucking it from downside-up. “Dahlia’s the best.”
The brunette raises the cup to eye-level. “‘Five per cent of all Dahlia smoo-boutique profits go to underprivileged schoolgirl orphans in Swaziland.’ That’s cool,” she says.
“Did you know Dahlia went to a public school?”
Her friend frowns. “Which one? A good one?”
“Nah, I don’t know. But it’s true.”
You can do anything if you put your mind to it, Dahlia says. Surround yourself with positivity and the world is your oyster. One obstacle + one smile = one new winner in the world. It’s right there on the side of the girls’ cup, in Pantone 197U, the same as Dahlia’s glasses.
I notice movement behind a pot plant. A teenager wearing a baseball cap. She adjusts the straps of her singlet. She pushes a flimsy red stroller with a small boy folded up inside, his knees near his chin.
She puts one hand on her stands between our tables and puts one hand on her hip. “You got any money for the bus? I’ve got to get my son home.”
The uni students don’t move. Chia pudding drops from their spoons, pooling on the laminate.
The mum holds out her hand. Coins jingle. “It’s just for the bus.”
I should have stayed in the office and napped under my desk. A burst of ‘Feliz Navidad’ comes over a speaker.
“No, thanks,” I say. “Sorry.”
It’s nothing she hasn’t heard before. The boy opens his mouth and lays it on his knee.
“Yep,” his mum says, wheeling around towards the escalators.
Beside me, the brunette stares. Suddenly she seizes up, flapping her hand at her friend. She pushes her spoon away from the pudding. “Wait, let me Instagram it before we get to the bottom. Maybe we’ll win.”
First published in The Big Issue Fiction edition, 2015
Last year we published our 11th Fiction Edition – featuring 14 delightfully diverse short-stories, 10 of which arrived through our open submission process, and judged ‘blind’ (with no hint of whom the author may be, until the final selection was made). The edition, selling close to 30,000 copies nationally, is one of the widest circulated fiction publications in Australia. And our stories are often selected for republication in ‘best of’ collections. Now we have the chance to share the work of another of the talented writers we published: the hilarious ‘Pudding’ by Laura Elvery – a biting and painfully plausible satire. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
Associate Editor, The Big Issue
Laura Elvery is a PhD candidate and tutor at QUT. In 2013, she won the Josephine Ulrick Literature Award. Her work has appeared in Rex, Bide, Kill Your Darlings, Yen Mag, Award Winning Australian Writing, and will feature soon in Griffith Review.