Making a Clean Breast of It

Men like breasts. Women know men like breasts. They buy clothes that show off their breasts. But they don’t like men to look.

            His head span as he tried to unpick the closed circle of this thwarted little syllogism. He took another gulp of wine and tried to remember how things had been before the evening went so wrong. The game plan, discussed at length with a female colleague, had seemed so simple. What a woman wanted, it seemed, was straightforward enough. Be friendly. Be attentive. Be interested. Be suave. Not arrogant, but suave. Like James Bond. Only not so sexist. And don't look at her breasts. Or not too much. No matter what she's wearing. Even if it's that halter-top again. Or the one with the tiny, butterfly-shaped bow that nestles so tantalisingly in her cleavage.

            He had not needed the helpful colleague at work to tell him this last point: the one about the breasts. He had come up with it all by himself. He was, after all, a new man. Not like James Bond. He had once read the back of a book by Germaine Greer and knew who Sylvia Plath was.

            But the plan, for all its admirable simplicity, had proved too much. The first part had been easy. Be friendly: he had smiled a warm, winning smile and put her at her ease, talking about her plans for a beauty therapy business. Be attentive: he had held her coat as she slipped her smooth, bare shoulders from out of the heavy wool. Be interested: he had nodded his head and hummed his approval as she explained how she planned to aim at the top end of the market, focusing on TV companies, football teams, posh estates, and the kind of celebrities who emerge, still smouldering from their sun-beds, to sit on sofas on breakfast telly.  He smiled what he hoped was a wry, urbane, little smile— friendly yet sophisticated—and concentrated on not looking at her breasts.

            "You're looking at my breasts!' she hissed suddenly.

            “No, I'm not.” 

            “Yes, you are,” she insisted, throwing a hand across her outraged bosom. “You were looking down my top.”

            He stared into the table linen, blushing to the roots of his hair. 

            There was a long silence, in which he waited for her to speak. Then, pulling himself up slowly, and speaking with painful precision, he concluded: "I can assure you I was not." 

            "That's only because you were thinking about them," she said, bridling slightly, her breasts moving provocatively inside the tight plunge-neck top.

            He stared deeper still into the weave of the tablecloth, trying to regain his poise. He smarted at the injustice of it: heads I win, tails you lose. But the truth was he had been rumbled.  It was one of those moments – increasingly frequent of late – when he felt most acutely the pain of not being James Bond. He rummaged through his mind, looking for a suave little quip he could whip out from his pocket like a Beretta. Car keys, a handful of shrapnel, a dirty hanky, a crumpled Tube ticket... No Beretta. Just silence, the tablecloth, the angry flashing eyes and the breasts, lying in wait for him, smirking up at him like two bald arch-enemies. So, we meet again, Mr Bond.

            “I suppose,” he started, “I suppose operating from your own home allows you to keep your overheads down?”

            Keep your overheads down? You, old dog, you! With repartee like that… Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter. Just defend. Stonewall. Keep a straight bat and treat each ball on its merits. Don’t try anything flashy and keep your wickets covered. “I mean to say, if you don't rent your own premises, you can get a decent return from day one.”

            He raised his eyes to meet her bold, frank stare. She arched an eyebrow at him ironically, a smile lingered playfully around her lips. Perhaps things were not going as badly as all that. Perhaps she had forgiven him. Perhaps it was flattering, up to a point. Why wear the top, if she had not wanted him to look?  The important thing was not to get flustered. Keep a straight bat. 

            She had hazel eyes with flecks of green and amber woven into the brown – he had noticed in the foyer before they had sat down. But now her pupils were huge, black, shiny pools. Was it because it was dark? Or was she still angry? Or maybe she fancied him? Don’t be ridiculous. Just keep calm, breathe deeply, and don’t let her see she’s got you rattled. Forward defensive.

            “And how many,” he fiddled with his cuff, “how many regular clients do you have? Fifty? Sounds good. Oh, fifteen. Early days. And you say – you say you do the make-up for Dr Hilary and that girl who used to be on Blue Peter?”

            Her lips were full and round – bee-stung, that's what they were: bee-stung. He had read about bee-stung lips in books before and had thought it fanciful, but there could be no mistake. These lips were bee-stung: flushed and swollen, aching to be kissed. She licked them with the tip of her tongue, and his eyes flicked back to her eyes.

            “Diane Louise Jordan? I did her make-up on Thursday, when I was at GMTV, but we got along and she said she wanted my card.”

            When she smiled, the cheekbones formed an inverted arc around her eyes, and he liked the smooth, sleek curve of her throat swept down to her collarbones. He liked the lightness of the bone structure and the smooth, full curve of her…

            “You’re doing it again!”

            “What?” He jerked upright, spilling his wine.

            “You know.”

            He said nothing – he had a right to remain silent – he just looked down at the table where the wine was seeping across the white linen like a wound. He looked up. 

            “What?”

            Again the dark, flashing eyes, the eyebrow teetering between anger and disdain.

            “All right, all right. So, what if I was? Why did you being them along if you didn't want anyone to talk to them?"

            It was not, it seemed, as compelling an argument as it had appeared to him. She tossed back her head and snorted, and made as if to leave. A wave of shame surged through him, making his face feel hot and his heart race. The sound of the restaurant seemed to fade away and he could hear the pounding of blood in his ears. She was even now pushing her chair back from the table, she was folding her napkin, she was rising out of her chair (as she leant forward, he got a guilty flash of cleavage), and in seconds she would be walking to the door.

            Say something. Say anything. Straight bat. Don’t let her see she's got you rattled. Keep a straight bat. Suave, but not arrogant. Like James Bond. “Don’t go!” he cried out, as if in pain.

            “If you think that I…”

            “Please no. Don’t go.”

            “Don’t you know how rude it is to…”

            “Please don’t. Please let me explain.”

            But how could he explain? What could he say? He hung his head for a long moment. Not James Bond at all, but a red-faced boy hauled up in front of the teacher. How could he explain?

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