'A Matter of Taste' by Susan Howe
Guy leaned back in his chair, watching through narrowed eyes as the women moved round. His latest three-minute partner stood and stretched the scrap of skirt over her skinny rump. He brushed an imaginary fleck from his sleeve. She scowled and hurried away. It was less than a week until Christmas and stress darkened every face.
Guy shared their panic. He understood the urgency of finding someone to deflect questions from anxious parents, the mockery of siblings, the misery of another solitary New Year's Eve. And yet he despised them. Scratching around on the surface, their dreams lacked any trace of grandeur.
He tapped a manicured fingernail on the paper cloth as his next date swayed towards him. Rising slightly while she shuffled into place, Guy summed her up in the second it took to exchange names. Gaunt and hollow-eyed, there was nothing real about her from the unlikely fan of lashes to the cold gleam of bleached teeth. Despair blocked his attempt at a smile long before it reached his lips. He sipped his drink and allowed her shrill chatter to wash over him.
Piped sleigh bells marked the end of his torture and he rose with a nod, intending to slip away. Head down, he risked a quick peek into the adjacent booth - and froze - afraid the flickering candlelight had deceived him. Holding his breath, he looked again.
Softly bulging flesh creased at elbow and wrist. Dimpled hands played with a lock of auburn hair. A gentle flight of chins flowed into a ripe, freckled bosom. Guy swallowed. This was more like it.
He held out his hand, trembling slightly as it closed on the warmth of hers.
“Paloma. But my friends call me Plum.”
“Plum.” He savoured the richness of the word. “How delightful.”
He inspected his table, cloth in hand, ready to whisk away any blemish that marred its perfection. Reflected lights twinkled in antique crystal and silverware, solid against white damask. A sumptuous garland of cones, berries and fruit adorned the mantle. Flames leapt in the hearth and tempting aromas wafted through from the kitchen.
Guy glanced at the clock, hoping she would be ready on time. He needed to impress his father; to gain his approval at last. No more raised eyebrows, no more nostrils flared in contempt. Above all, no more doubts about his inheritance.
He studied himself in the mirror, shoulders back, chin raised, grateful the gaudy SpeedFreak logo had caught his attention. Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back.It was going to be worth every penny.
Guy blinked away tears of joy and relief as the pressure of the hand on his shoulder increased. His father's eyes shone.
“She's a beauty, son. Congratulations.”
They gazed at the face before them. Tiny beads of sweat glistened on Plum's brow, as though she understood the stakes and was straining to please. Raising his glass, Guy smiled, reached forwards, and plucked the apple from her mouth.