by Alex Reece Abbott
Lee hasn’t met her father’s latest girlfriend yet.
He says this time, it’s the real thing, and he can’t wait to introduce Trina.
Driving down to stay with them for Christmas, Lee pulls into the gas station to top up the tank. She yawns. In the eerie, cold fluorescent light of the complex, the display of potted poinsettias shout for her attention. Christmas Poinsettias. The pots are only black plastic, but the shrubs are vibrant, perky, in far better condition than the usual service station fare.
The foliage isn’t bruised, or torn. And, every plant is smothered with blooms. Retina-searing, belly-achingly jolly-holly-ho-ho, red blooms.
They sing festive.
They carol Christmas.
They say: I will impress you with my good manners.
They say: I pay my respects to you, oh kind hostess and latest girlfriend of my father.
And: I am sincerely making an effort.
Nothing says that like a flowering houseplant.
She can’t remember her father mentioning Trina having asthma or allergies, but Lee thinks he said she likes gardening. Or something. Anyhow, who doesn’t like poinsettias?
Convenient, fast, festive poinsettias.
Lee ignores the pyramid of tacky Christmas baubles, and when she pays for her petrol, she buys a plant and a packet of mints.
‘Aren’t they gorgeous?’ The cashier slides the poinsettia into a carrier bag. ‘Fantastic value too. You’ll get a lot of wear out of those.’
Lee wedges the flowerpot in the footwell of the passenger seat, leaning it against her rucksack to keep it stable.
She pops a mint in her mouth and drives on. The misty December drizzle softens the sodium street lights, making it more romantic.
She glances at her new passenger. Getting wear out of her plants; she hasn’t considered this before. Does nipping and pounding rose stems count? Maybe the poinsettias have been genetically modified for long life. Fed special formula plant-food. Or something.
The mint is hot, clean on her fuzzy, stale taste-buds. It’s not real mint, of course. Even the sugar is an unnatural concoction, synthesized in a lab somewhere. Eat too many of the mints in a row and the artificial sweetener makes your bowels erupt like Mount Etna. Lee flinches. Not ideal when meeting your father’s new English girlfriend for the first time.
Strange, they can send a man to the moon, but they can’t manufacture a mint that actually tastes like mint. Really, they should call them mint-flavoured. The advertising standards police ought to get onto them. She brakes just in time to take the exit to her father’s apartment.
Before she brings in her luggage, Lee takes the poinsettia to the door. Trina answers, wearing jeans and a natural cotton top. She has nice jewellery.
Thank God I got her the plant, thinks Lee.
‘Ooooh, aren’t they lovely?’ Trina takes the pot from Lee. She’s the model of good grace and enthusiasm as she inspects the poinsettia. ‘Perfect for Christmas – they’ll certainly last well.’
Lee grins. Suitably grateful.
When Lee drags herself downstairs for coffee the next morning, the kitchen is decorated with poinsettia petals.
Trina is perched at the Formica breakfast bar. Beaming, she gestures to a crimson border of flowers lining the top of the kitchen cabinets. ‘I hope you don’t mind. I don’t have a lot of space, so I took it apart.’
‘Very…decorative.’ Lee nods and emits a smile through gritted teeth.
The woman is practically a stranger, she won’t notice how she’s seething at the disrespect. Took it apart. Filleted her gift. Those beautiful flowers – not even twenty-four hours old. Thirteen ninety-nine.
Lee winces at the phony, variegated ivy Trina has draped as filler around the base of the blooms. ‘Nice arrangement.’
‘Thanks, I used to be a florist.’ Trina pours her a coffee.
‘Won’t the flowers…um…wilt really quickly?’ says Lee.
Trina laughs. A real belly-laugh. ‘You’re so funny,’ she splutters. ‘I love your sense of humour.’
Lee feels the blush flaring across her cheeks. Please God…Earth, swallow me up. Her father’s latest girlfriend doesn’t know how she was tired from driving for seven hours, and in a rush. Trina probably thinks her boyfriend’s daughter is cheap – and tasteless. Tacky. Thinks she’d deliberately choose to give someone synthetic plants over the real thing.
Fake fucking flowers for a former florist.
Yes, of course she should have read the damn label.
That damn service station and their false advertising.
Lee lets out a strangled chuckle. ‘Yup, I thought they were fun. I thought you’d… get a lot of wear out of them. Merry Christmas.’
An Irish Novel Fair winner, and finalist in the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award, Alex Reece Abbott is widely published and anthologised. Her stories have won the Arvon, Crediton and Northern Crime prizes and feature in the Word Factory’s Citizen season. Among others, her work has shortlisted for the Bridport, Tillie Olsen, Lorian Hemingway, HG Wells, and Sunday Business Post Penguin short story prizes.
Learn more at www.alexreeceabbott.info and Twitter @AlexReeceAbbott.