Kate sunk back into the passenger seat. The radio was playing spangly pop with jangling guitars, which suited her excitement. She grinned to herself as she thought about what today held, that it would go down in her own personal history. She fought the urge to wriggle with impatience and instead entertained herself with combing fingers through her long auburn hair, teasing out knots and thinking teasing thoughts of tying them.
Next to her Jeff drove, attention on the road and sometimes, with a crooked curve of his sweet lips, on his fidgeting girlfriend. With their route charted by the machinations of the speaking box stuck to the windscreen, they made their way to Kate’s childhood home.
The closer they got, the more excited Kate became. She even bounced in her seat at the thought that in twenty – fifteen – ten minutes she would be introducing this man, whom she adored, to her parents.
As far as she was concerned, Jeff was everything a boyfriend and potential husband should be. He was sweet, charming and kept his body trim. He was not old and stale like one ex, nor too young and green like another. He brought spice to Kate’s life, in the kitchen and the bedroom, with the warm gold of his body. Kate was utterly satisfied and sure that this was the man for her. He had but one minor flaw.
As they pulled into Baker Road, Kate fished out her keys – her parents said they would be setting up a barbeque when they arrived. She would be careful to keep Jeff away from the flames as he tended to burn in the heat and that would be most inconvenient – she felt sure her parents would not approve of that.
They parked and Jeff carried the cool box of food Kate had prepared – garden salad, bulgur salad, Waldorf salad, potato salad, bean salad, crab salad, pasta salad, tuna salad, chef salad, ham salad, egg salad, Caesar salad, couscous salad, slaw salad, prawn salad and, for afters, fruit salad. Kate might have gone a little overboard, but salad and baking were her specialities and biscuits would have been an inappropriate, unapproved choice.
She opened the front door and led Jeff through the house. It was not and exciting home – an average four-bedroom semi newly decorated in a style that was around a decade out of date – but it was immaculately kept with everything in its prescribed place. Royal Doulton figures danced a static dance on a shelf; puppies watched Kate and Jeff pass with wide, gleaming eyes, each leashed to their specific spot; horses grazed in a glass cabinet somehow existing on a diet of mahogany veneer and lemon-scented furniture polish.
With an encouraging smile, Kate pulled open a patio door and stepped out into the garden, Jeff close behind.
Her mother hurried forward. “Oh darling, it’s so wonderful to–” she stopped stock-still. She gaped. She blinked. She gaped some more.
“Whatever is the matter, June?” Kate’s father asked, his attention on the glowing coals of the brick barbeque. “Don’t be rude, dear, speak to the poor fellow.”
“Roger, I think,” June drew a deep breath and looked Jeff up and down, “I think you’d better have a look at this.”
“Good grief, woman, what the Devil are you-” but Roger did look and what he saw dried up the words in his throat.
Kate took Jeff’s hand – clearly her parents had been rendered speechless by her boyfriend’s handsome features (she thought he could be a model if only he could find clothes in the right cut) and his eccentric dress sense (he only wore buttons, though he chose them with the utmost care and stylish flair).
“Mum, Dad, this is Jeff,” she put her hand on his shoulder and propelled him forward. “Jeff, honey, these are my parents, June and Roger.”
Jeff’s mouth was a half-moon smile.
June and Roger’s mouths were not.
“But –” said June.
“He’s –” said Roger.
They stared. Jeff stared. Kate worried. This was not going well. In fact, it was not going half as well as she had hoped. She wrung her hands. Jeff only had one tiny flaw – which to Kate was not even a flaw, it was something she loved – but it seemed that flaw was all her parents could see. Maybe she could show them what was underneath, she thought.
“Mum, Dad?” she waved her hands in front of their intent eyes. “I know Jeff’s a bit different from other boyfriends, but he is truly wonderful. He’s a real character, full of flavour and warmth, and he’s always smiling. He built his own house in Market Drayton, where he’s from, and the local community love him,” she gave his hand a squeeze, “and so do I.”
“You what? You love him?” her father spat, making wild gestures and hysterical spluttering sounds.
Kate’s mother, however, was looking at Jeff differently now. She eyed him from his bare feet, up his firm legs, his button-decorated torso and finally to his round face. Kate watched with horror as her mother wiped drool from her chin. Jeff must have seen the same thing, because he was backing away from June, his eyes wild wide white circles.
“Run, run, as fast as you can,” he muttered under his breath.
June advanced, her hungry grey eyes fixed on Jeff and his buttons. “Mum,” Kate said in a low warning tone, trying to position herself between them, “what are you doing? Leave Jeff alone. He’s my boyfriend.”
“How can he be your boyfriend?” Kate’s father ran his hands over his balding head and a vein spasmed in his temple. Kate stared at him, unsure of what to say. “He’s – he’s–” Roger opened and closed his mouth noiselessly like a dummy whose ventriloquist has lost their voice.
“Delectable,” finished June, advancing.
“You can’t catch me!” yelped Jeff, struggling with the handle of the patio doors and making fragile frightened sounds.
“Mum, get off him!” Kate shrieked, lunging forward just as her mother sunk her teeth into Jeff’s shoulder, but June was already chewing and munching, morsels piling on the floor, collecting in the corners of her mouth and catching on the knit of her cardigan. Jeff fell to the floor in a faint, as Kate came crumbling after. She bent over him, tears in her lashes. “Jeff?” She shook him, but the icing in his eyes stayed frozen still. “Honey?” She pressed her lips to his and they tasted sweet but there was no Jeff, just sugar.
“Mum, how could you?” she wailed.
June bit her lip and brushed crumbs away.
“He’s – he’s –” Kate’s voice faded and she looked at Jeff lying on the ground. Only now it wasn’t Jeff, it was just a six foot tall biscuit with chocolate buttons and a face of icing. It lay there, a large chunk taken out of the shoulder, crumbs trailing along the floor, the spell of life broken and silent. She looked from her dad to her mum and back again. “We were going to get married,” She sniffed.
At this, Roger roared, his speech finally snapping into place. “Married! Are you mad? You can’t catch him, he’s the bloody gingerbread man!”
© Clare S, 2008