Nothing says I love you like smoked salmon.
The smooth pink flesh striped its way across the plate, hiding the pastel fruit pattern below it. Would a plain white plate be better? Did the blue edge really bring out the colour of the fish, or did it detract from it?
The guests would be arriving in no time and it had to be perfect. If the salad was a little wilted, then they would cope. If the egg mayonaise he had whisked together himself had started to form a slight skin, all would not be lost. If some of the green Sicilian olives had started to wrinkle, it would not be the end of the world. But the salmon had to be perfect.
She would be there: watching; taking note; subconsciously noting each aroma in the room and honing in on the atoms lifting off that neon-orange flesh. It had to be perfect.
He lifted it too his nose. It was fresh, sweet, not yet pungent or heady like a three day dead fish should be. The wonders of the smoke-makers art! He put the plate back on the table and stepped back. And back again. Once more. He stood in the doorway where she would enter the room and surveyed the table. Panning left to right and back again, each time pausing over the soft layers of pink.
The harsh ring of the doorbell behind him spun him on his heels. The door! They were here. He looked back over his shoulder at the plate waiting patiently in the centre of the table, surrounded on all sides by a supporting cast of smaller, less well-known or past-their-prime dishes.
“It’s all up to you now. You’re on your own.”
He pulled the door back and a flood of bodies spilled into the room, arms waving, lifting bottles, clasping him on the back and reaching for his hand.
And in the middle was her. Carried through the front hall in the wash of friends and vague acquaintances, the star in the middle; just like the salmon.
He stepped ahead of them, tentatively, wanting only her to follow, but knowing that to take her, he must take them all. They followed, drawn along as he led slowly, then more confidently, towards the doorway where she would see his creation.
He stepped through and turned, not daring to look. Not wanting to know if a stray bug, or a speck, or roving band of wolverines had destroyed what he had made perfect only minutes ago. They followed, moving into the room with cheers, gasps, words of praise and chuckles. Meaningless background noise. The tuning of the orchestra when what you want to hear is the opening note. The roar of the crowd when you want the slog of racquet and ball. The rustle of clothing when you want the scream of climax.
And then, amongst the wash of worthless noise, movement, shuffling and jostling, he heard it.
“Smoked salmon! That’s my favourite.”
It had begun.