In German, Gift means poison. Be careful what you wish for.
This is a short story from Appearances Greeting a Point of View.
*not for the squeamish*
The waiter takes the napkin from the plate, unfolds it and places it across my lap. I stiffen. It’s an oddly intrusive gesture and he doesn’t smile. My companion pre-empts this courtesy by flipping out the linen and tucking it beneath the tablecloth with a flourish. The waiter bows and leaves us to face each other in the saffron glow of an art deco lamp.
My eyes are drawn across the room to a mural of slave girls bathing each other. The scene, less graphic than others which surround us, nonetheless holds a charge. Somehow you know those girls are preparing themselves for the next course.
“It’s quite something, don’t you think?” My companion turns his head to the doorway, where we came in. The entire wall depicts an orgy which, due to the trembling candlelight and shadows cast by passing waiters, convinces me the figures are actually moving; arching, rocking, shuddering.
“Yes, it is.”
I should be impressed, but I’m embarrassed and intimidated by the other diners, who reek of privilege, radiate confidence. Tables of young men in suits, couples gazing at each other, an elderly group of aristocratic ladies wearing so much jewellery their movements appear weighted. Everyone is dressed as if for an awards ceremony, with the same air of sophisticated anticipation.
“How did you get a table?” I ask, to demonstrate I am not ignorant of the prestige he has afforded me.
He smiles. “I thought you might enjoy it. I could hardly take such an elegant creature to a tea shop, now could I? Shall I order for both of us? I’ve been here several times and I think I know the perfect dishes for you.”
I watch over his shoulder as another waiter spreads a napkin across the lap of a black-clad woman, who wears long satin gloves. She looks up at him and parts her lips. I turn away.
“Please.” I hand back the unopened menu. The door opens to admit more guests. Heads turn, as they do for each new arrival, but on this occasion, they don’t turn back. All eyes follow the party to their table while mouths mutter into nearby ears.
An older man, with silver-grey hair to match his suit, leads the way. On his arm, a distinguished lady with an upswept coiffure. Her makeup is immaculate and her dress catches the light. She turns one way, it’s green. Another, it’s blue. On their heels come a younger pair. I barely notice him as I cannot stop staring at the siren on his arm. Her dress, silver lamé, spotlights her hips, her breasts, the curve of her shoulder. Very little flesh is on show, but her shapely figure is evident, crowned with a perfect blonde chignon. Her escort nods to acquaintances around the room. He is polished, with a pleasant, rather one-sided smile.
Their table is directly to our left, against the wall. The younger woman exudes delight. She gasps at the murals, laughs at herself, clutches her man’s arm, smiles at the waiter and giggles with anticipation as she sits opposite her mother. Mother-in-law?
I stop myself from staring and wonder if that is how I should comport myself. My companion is giving the waiter our order. I listen but it makes no sense. Carpaccio, blini, mille-feuille, Roederer … my attention wanders over his shoulder, back to the woman in satin gloves. A waiter stands beside her, taking the order from her gentleman friend, while she absently caresses the waiter’s buttock and thigh.
I look down at my place setting, using my hands as blinkers. If I look neither left nor right, perhaps I can pass this evening enjoyably.
“Is something wrong? Do you have a headache?” my companion enquires.
An intake of breath makes us both turn. The waiter attending to the glamorous party has summoned the maitre d’. The atmosphere changes, anticipation charges the air like that of a courtroom when the foreman of the jury rises to his feet. People stare openly as the maitre d’ tilts his head, first listening to the waiter and then bending to hear the younger man.
I notice the rest of the table. The older gentleman is beaming, hands on his thighs. Both women’s eyes shine, their excitement visible. The whole restaurant seems to hold its breath.
The maitre d’ straightens with a nod and gives a brief instruction to the attendant waiter. Conversations break out at every table, heads swivelling to either end of the room, checking the doors as if awaiting the star performer. The thrill pulsing around the room affects me too, although I have not the faintest idea why.
“What is it?” I ask my companion, noticing the fresh pink patches on his cheeks. His complexion reminds me of my mother’s best tea-set.
“I don’t know.” He shakes his head but his eyes drop from mine in less than a second. “I mean, I’ve heard rumours, but I can’t believe … ah! Here’s our first course.”
We eat something, thinly sliced, highly priced. It’s not unpleasant. We comment on the fineness of the flavour although I doubt he tastes any more than I. We make the smallest talk imaginable.
While we consume this nothing in particular, two waiters bring a pair of Japanese screens to our neighbouring table. Unfolding them, they place a wall around three sides of the party, the fourth provided by the blacked-out window.
I check my companion in enquiry, but can see his curiosity is equally aroused. And it appears that is not all. His pupils, dark and intent, fix upon my lips.
The door to the kitchen opens and a man in a pale green overall enters, carrying a black box resembling something a magician might use. Two waiters in his wake hold trays covered with white cloths. They make their way behind the screens and the chatter from the rest of the room erupts, accompanied by the percussion of tines on china.
I want to stand up and call out. “Hush! How can I possibly hear what is going on with all this racket!” But my attention is caught once more by the gloved woman, who, with great ostentation, drops her knife. Their waiter kneels to retrieve it and she kicks him with a high-heeled foot. He crawls under the tablecloth and she slides down in her chair. Her escort stares at her, chewing on a toothpick.
I realise my mouth is open. Fine features and noble expressions on every table now seem flushed and lascivious. One couple are feeding each other with their fingers. Several parties are calling for champagne.
Seconds later, the hush descends once more as one of the waiters slips out from behind the screens. In his hand is a kidney-shaped stainless-steel bowl. He drapes a cloth over it and strides towards the kitchen. The green-clad man emerges with his peculiar black box along with the second waiter and follows. The maitre d’ gives a signal and busboys remove the screens.
The party revealed has changed. The older of the two women has lost her upright posture and her make-up is smudged. Some of the shimmering blonde’s hair has escaped and hangs loose across her face. The senior gentleman, florid and sweaty, pours red wine into their glasses and claps the young man on the back. It is this latter who is the most materially altered. His wholesome colour is entirely gone, leaving his skin grey and lips bloodless. His left hand, in a brilliant white bandage, is held to his chest by a sling.
They raise their glasses in a toast and I notice much of the clientele silently doing the same. I start as my companion’s leather brogue rubs my foot. He is breathing heavily.
“The staff here are remarkable. Personalised service.”
Behind him, the waiter emerges from beneath the table and rises to his feet. I cannot see the gloved woman’s face. Her companion beckons the waiter, who bends down to him. It looks for a second as if the two men will kiss, but instead the man palms him a tip, which is swiftly pocketed.
Voices rise, laughter bounces off the walls and the businessmen have discarded their ties. One bejewelled aristocrat lifts her dessert bowl and licks out the last chocolately traces. Heat rises from my knees as if I have been drinking gin. My companion’s gaze now moves to my chest. I pick up my beaded bag and inform him I need the ladies’ room.
My voice rings out as all others fall silent. The kitchen door opens and four waiters emerge, carrying covered platters. I cannot get to my feet while everyone is watching. The platters are placed in front of the beautiful foursome, but everyone is staring at the one in front of the young man. The maitre d’ gives a signal and the burnished silver cloches are lifted.
I see quite clearly what is on that plate. Carrots, calabrese, potatoes and green beans surround a small triangular white bowl, containing what appears to be a small chipolata, covered in breadcrumbs and herbs. No one speaks. No one moves. The young man, unable to use his left hand, reaches for his fork. He spears his chipolata, says, ‘Bon appétit,’ and places it in his mouth.
His eyes close as he chews and he releases a long moan of ecstasy as he rocks back and forth.
Applause thunders around the room. I join in, smiling at such vicarious satisfaction. The older man applauds wildly and stands to shake hands with the maitre d’. His left hand is missing two fingers. The distinguished woman has her hands clasped together, but I notice a gap between her first and third knuckle. The gloved woman is no longer gloved. And she has no more than three fingers on either hand.
I stare around the room, spotting more and more missing digits as the room retreats to the end of a telescope.
His voice comes from far away. “It’s quite all right, you know. It’s perfectly legal to eat your own.”