GF_Fiction

 

Wombat Juice

by D.A. Cairns

 

“I can’t tell you what’s in it. It’s a secret recipe,” said Hartley Gregg to an appreciative and curious customer. “Why do you think people come here? The exotic and mysterious food we make, that’s why.”

The customer slowly shook his head, disappointed but understanding, and returned his attention to the daily Chef’s Special, Boomerang Stew.

“Enjoy,” said Hartley smiling and bowing slightly before moving away to pander to his other customers.

All his competitors used digital waitresses to take orders and automatons to deliver the meals to the tables because it was the most cost effective method, but Hartley liked to give people a choice. So from the three dimensional interactive menu displayed above the table at eye level, they could chose a real waitperson to come and serve them or just place their order electronically. Despite these necessary concessions to the modern restaurant business, Hartley ran an old fashioned establishment where the people who served contributed as much to the ambience of the restaurant as those being served.  He liked to get around to the tables himself whenever possible to talk to people and make sure they were enjoying their dining experience at Sanctuary.

At the bar, Hartley ordered a Wombat Juice for table three and smiled as he watched the barman prepare it. When he finished, he placed the glass in Hartley’s hand and said, “First one, eh Boss?”

“Yep.”

“How do you think it will go down?”

“We’ll soon find out.”

As part of his drive and determination to be on the cutting edge of Australian cuisine, Hartley was always experimenting with new recipes. His father from whom he inherited the business would not have approved at all of all his son’s innovations. He was a traditionalist. A straight up and down, meat and three vegetables, football loving, beer swilling Aussie bloke who reckoned he knew what people wanted and gave them exactly that. That attitude might have worked in his father’s time, but now the competition was so fierce that to be successful, one had to have an edge. Hartley’s was food that one could not find anywhere else.

When the Red Centre opened up to major development, including the construction and establishment of three entirely self-contained satellite cities surrounding Alice Springs, many entrepreneurs were excited by the possibilities offered by a twenty first century gold rush. Hartley Gregg was one of these, but he came to his fortune via an unexpected route.

 Long a fan of kangaroo meat, especially barbecued steaks, Hartley had an idea that perhaps some of Australia’s other native animals would also make exotic and sumptuous fare. The problem was, all but the kangaroo, which was considered a pest by most of the nation’s farmers, were protected by conservation laws. They could not be captured or hurt let alone killed and eaten by hungry or curious humans.

In the southernmost of these new satellite cities, the imaginatively titled Sandtown, was a native wildlife sanctuary maintained by private sponsorships and grants. Befriending the chief zoologist there, Hartley learned of the development of a new drug designed to improve the breeding success of endangered native species. The engineers of this pill had in mind the repopulation of large sections of Australia with native animals. Hartley, however, saw another use for a possible excess production of native animals.

“What do you think of that?” asked Hartley as he placed the tall glass of Wombat Juice on the table in front of a wide businessman who sat straining at the seams of his dark suit.

“It looks like fruit juice.”

“What did you expect? A frothy brown liquid with hair in it?”

An equally rotund lady sitting opposite the man snorted her disapproval. “Mr Gregg, please, I’m trying to eat.”

The fat man dismissed his partner with a wave of his fat hand and laughed heartily.

“You kill me, Hartley,” he said.

“Go on and try it.”

He lifted the glass slowly to his lips and sniffed at it as though it were fine wine, then sipped and swallowed some. A look of bewildered satisfaction came over his fat face, and he smiled and said, “Damn that’s a peculiar flavor.” He lifted the glass to eye level and stared at its contents. “I’ve never tasted anything like it.”

“Do you like it?”

“I do, Hartley, I do,” said the man. Pointing his glass at his partner, he added, “Better get another one over here for my lady.”

Hartley nodded, smiling then turned and walked away.

Success!

Winning the approval of the fat man, whom he had hoped would be the first to sample his new creation, was a coup for Hartley. The man was not simply another valued regular customer: he was the Chief Magistrate for the satellite cities. His opinion counted, and those he favored were truly favored. His patronage had helped Hartley establish The Sanctuary Restaurant in the first place and thereafter forge for himself the reputation of being the finest restauranter in the country.

Winking to the barman as he passed by on his way to the kitchen, Hartley congratulated himself. The initial results of the trials of the new breeding drug were very positive, and so, ignoring opossums and koalas due to their cute and cuddly factor, he started to talk up the likelihood of a plague of hairy-nosed wombats.

Although eventually the wonder breeding drug failed on all species, Hartley wanted to do something with wombats. So before the results of the trial of the breeding drug were announced, he fabricated a story and released it through his media contacts.

The spin was that for some completely bemusing reason the breeding program had been hyper productive with wombats, and now the tubby native beasts, verging on extinction at the beginning of the twenty first century, were proliferating like rabbits. The problem was how to use the surplus of wombats. Zoos all over the world wanted them, intending to populate their own nations with these distinctive Australian citizens, and there was significant interest in them for scientific testing and research, but still there were too many. Having to cull a creature once so close to extinction was a bizarre twist of fate.

What about serving them up on the dinner tables of The Sanctuary’s patrons? Hartley cleverly ruled that out on the grounds that it was theoretically good but highly problematic. Wombat meat was tough, foul smelling, and very high in fat. Good for pet food maybe, but not for people. These facts avoided the reality of not having any wombats. Still, the idea persisted that some product may be attained and marketed as being made from wombats.

Wombat Juice was his brainchild, and now its inevitable popularity would ensure he stayed on top, and that was exactly where Hartley Gregg wanted to be.

The next night everyone demanded Wombat Juice. Hartley was stuck behind the bar helping to prepare the hottest new drink on the menu when a film crew arrived at Sanctuary wanting to do a story for the evening news. Hartley quickly ordered his security automatons to refuse them entry.

Despite the obvious word of mouth success, Hartley wanted to get the word out about Wombat Juice to as many people in as short a time as possible, so he consented to an interview with a journalist he knew personally. She and her photographer were instructed to remain seated at the table during the interview and asked to keep it brief.

Passing table four on his way back to the bar, Hartley took another order for Wombat Juice which he delivered to the overworked barman.

“Boss, I need a hand here.”

“Right,” said Hartley graciously, “I’ll do this one myself, no problem.”  To the empty drink shaker he added sliced mango and pineapple, then a teaspoon of salt, and a cup of fresh strawberries followed by one shot of white rum and another of vodka.

“Don’t forget the Wombat, Boss.”

Hartley smiled at his cheeky barman as he reached under the bar for a bottle of thick brown liquid labeled Wombat. He popped the lid and poured it in. “Milo milk and Vegemite. Ridgey didge, my friend,” he said as he switched on the blender and watched his secret concoction evolve before his eyes.  “Truly an Australian product.”

“How long do you reckon it will take someone to figure it out?”

“I don’t know,”  said Hartley,  “but we’ll make a packet of money and have some fun while we’re waiting, won’t we?”

“Yeah. Hey, what about all the real wombats?”

Hartley smiled.  “So you believed the story about the hairy-nosed wombat population explosion did you?”

The barman shook his head and laughed. “You got me there, Boss. You got me there.”