Stop looking for something different in all the normal places. The thought swirled around in Jake’s head, as it had done on several occasions before, but here he was again. He watched his date struggle through the crowded bar, her slight frame squeezing between heaving bodies. Jake had forgot football was on, so plans for a quiet drink lay in tatters. Well, he thought they were, until he had found the snug.
It was perfect. A small room round the back, comfy seats and a few tables dotted around an ornate fireplace, with a real log fire crackling away, flickering the room with warmth and atmosphere. A couple sat in the corner, deep in whispered conversation. Perhaps it was their first date too.
Heather. Different from the pictures, but not alarmingly so. Delicate pale skin contrasting nicely with unkempt auburn hair, and a few shy freckles spattered across her face. She reminded Jake of autumn, the beautiful part, where a walk is transformed into an array of golden colours and crunchy leaves.
They sat near the fire. Cosy. Wine was poured and conversation flowed. She’d had a good day. Didn’t like her boss. Was going away to Machu Picchu in a month. This was her second internet date. Predictably, the first guy was nice, but no chemistry, no spark. The usual, humdrum stuff.
Yeah, right thought Jake, thinking of all the times he’d heard that. He’d even come out with most of that stuff himself at some point. He found himself zoning out and staring into the flickering fire, watching the flames jump and dance. He’d already decided there wasn’t going to be another date with Heather. Too normal. Too ordinary. Maybe he was never going to find the right girl. Fuck you Cupid. He wished just once, something interesting, something different would happen.
There was a sudden noisy commotion. Jake and Heather both snapped their heads round to see, as three people stumbled into the room. Clearly drunk.
‘Hello. Hello. Well this is very……damn…..what’s the word, damn it, come along, I had it and now it’s gone.’
Two guys and one girl. They were an odd looking group, eccentric. The speaker with a neatly trimmed goat beard was dressed in a sharp black suit, and a deep red shirt, that reminded Jake of roses. The man was holding a black cane, topped with a silver figurine of Cupid. He banged the cane hard on the floor.
‘Snug, that’s the word. It’s very snug in here. Isn’t it dear?’ His accent was clipped and precise, served with a dramatic flourish.
The other two applauded. They were dressed in meticulously white outfits, hers a figure hugging dress and his a well cut suit. The speaker took a deep bow in acceptance. ‘Sit on a chair, over there.’ he commanded, pointing his cane towards Jake and Heathers table. They quickly scrambled some chairs around the table, taking one each, and leaving a chair empty, for the speaker.
‘Do you like games? I like games, come on don’t be lame, let’s play a game’ he said taking his position on the seat. He stared at them, in silence, waiting.
Heather looked at them, then at Jake, ‘why not, at least it might actually make this date a bit more fun.’ It caught Jake by surprise, the hint of sarcasm in her voice. Was she implying he’d been boring her?
‘Good. We shall play,’ the eccentric man said, standing sharply. ‘What’s this?’ Placing his right hand under his left armpit, he began to waft his arm, making a weird combination of noises from his armpit and mouth. ‘Guess the tune. Guess the tune’
Heather gently kicked Jake under the table. She mouthed, ‘What the fuck? Do you know these people?’ Jake didn’t. He didn’t know the tune either, it was just a collection of noises with no rhythm or reason.
Jake stared at the eccentric man, ‘You’re going to have to give us a clue.’
He stopped. ‘A clue?’ A clue. They want a clue? Haha they are clueless. Well we can’t have that! But first. Drink. There is a price to pay for having a clue. And today’s price is that you drink with us.’ He said, banging the cane on the floor. ‘If you can’t think. Drink. Haha’
The white suited man proceeded to place three shot glasses on the table, and produced a bottle, opaque and black, no writing on the label, just the outline of a silver cupid.
‘What is it?’ Jake asked.
‘Oh, well. It’s the price of a clue of course’
‘What do you mean price?’ said Heather, her eyes widening,
‘Oh simply that you are bound to guess more correctly, our childish game, if you have drunk the same. It’s just a little tipple from home. A family vintage. Nothing too horrible I assure, and there’s nothing it won’t cure.’
A jet black liquid poured from the bottle, filling the glasses. The speaker picked up a glass and drank the contents, straight back. ‘See. Nothing to worry about’ he said, ‘just a drink. To help you think. Haha’
Jake smiled at Heather, unable to resist a dig of his own, ‘look, if this is too much excitement for you, we can just say no?’
She picked up a shot glass. Her eyes burned, betraying a flash of anger, she knocked the drink straight back. ‘Oh I can handle it. Can you?’ her anger replaced by a mischievous glint, challenging Jake.
Jake stared for a moment. Damn, that was hot. Maybe, he’d judged her too soon and got it wrong. He wondered if she liked him. She must do if she was getting angry, right? He hoped so. Jake downed his shot and slammed the glass down on the table.
The drink wasn’t unpleasant, nor was it pleasant. The taste hard to place, but it sent a brief burning sensation from his stomach, up past his heart and into his throat.
‘Good. Now, we are all the same, we can continue the game!’ said the speaker, with a manic laugh. Pointing his cane at the girl in the white dress, he snapped ‘Dear, be a dear and give the clueless a clue, won’t you?’ Ahem! Begin!’
At once he returned to his peculiar arm wafting and emittance of seemingly random noises. The girl in the white dress rose and walked to the centre of the small room, followed by the white suited man. They stood facing each other, staring into each other’s eyes. Moving closer the man placed his left hand on the small of her back, bringing her closer still, till their bodies caressed. Her arms around him, they swayed slowly, the tender dance of lovers.
As they danced, the girl in the white dress looked towards Jake and Heather. A darkened tear trickled from her eye, snaking down across her cheek, leaving a blood red trail in its wake. Under the weight of itself, the tear drop fell from her cheek and onto the dress, making a circle of red on the perfect white. The circle began to grow, expanding outwards, like ink dabbed onto tissue paper, in a relentless march, until the entire dress was blood red.
And they swayed, to music only they could hear, embracing, dancing, cheek to cheek. Not quite believing what he was seeing, it hit Jake. ‘That’s it. Cheek to cheek. Chris De-Burgh, Lady in Red.’
‘Yes. Yes, what fun, the game is won.’ The man proclaimed excitedly. Banging his cane on the floor, the two dancers stopped, released their embrace and returned to their seats, once again, fully resplendent in white.
Jake wasn’t sure what had just happened. ‘What the hell was in that drink?’ He looked at Heather, her pale skin now flushed hot crimson. ‘Did you see that?’
She leant over and whispered in panic ‘I think we really need to go.’
Laughter. Manic laughter. ‘Go where?’ said the man with the cane, holding his arms aloft, encouraging them to look around the room. ‘Where do you go? When there is nowhere to go? Haha, nowhere!’
The couple in the corner were gone. The man and woman in white were gone. The door was gone. Just the fire, and the man with the cane remained in the room. Heather shrieked in fear, grabbing Jake’s hand. ‘What’s going on? I don’t like it, do something, I want to leave.’
‘What’s going on? Where is the door? Who the hell are you?’ Jake shouted at the man.
‘Who I am is not important. Nor whether I am sane. All that matters is the game.’
‘I won your stupid game, where is the door?’
‘Patience. That was just a silly frivolous game. Now, we are going to play a real game. What game shall we play? There is only one game that matters. Love. Let’s play for love.’
‘We aren’t playing any more games,’ Jake shouted, ‘we just want to go.’
‘I see’ said the man ‘if you want a door, better not be such a bore. Now, game. Let’s play the game. If you win then you can have a door, you can have as many doors as you like haha!’
Heather was clenching Jake’s hand tight, their palms hot and sweaty. He looked at her. Eyes wide and alert. She looked even more beautiful than before. In that moment Jake just wanted to lean across and kiss her.
‘Enough,’ the madman banged his cane on the floor. ‘Love. Do you love each other?’
‘What?’ Heather shouted, ‘I don’t know what sort of weirdo you are, or what on earth is going on? I just want to go. Do we love each other?…What?… It’s our first date!’
‘And one you’re not likely to forget. Haha. I’m Cupid, stupid. And you should be giving me your thanks. You were bored at the start, and now you have a beating heart.’
He rapped the table with his cane, the silver cupid figure making a loud thud against the wood. ‘Oh my! How the tables have turned,’ he said. ‘So many times have my offerings of love been spurned. No one is ever good enough! Date after date, but it’s not too late. You two are both as bad, you’ve been driving me mad! I’m giving you one last chance, by making a stance. Haha. A game of love. Choose now, a life together or apart, only one answer will save your heart.’
Jake looked at Heather. Together or apart. That pale skin, unkempt auburn hair and spattering of freckles, she was like a beautiful autumn day. Did he love her? She was, feisty, exciting, everything he wanted. Jake stared into Heathers eyes, reflecting back at him their future life together. She was the one. He could see that now.
Jake and Heather spoke at the same time. Him together. Her apart. Heather’s hand relaxed its grip on his.
Cupid brought the cane down on the table with a loud crash, everything went white, and there were leaves, lots of golden coloured leaves. A big cheer. The football, someone had scored. Jake opened his eyes and Cupid was gone. The couple in the corner were snuggling up close. The door where it was before. He looked to the side, to find a chair, empty. Heather wasn’t there.
A leaf, crunchy, and golden brown, floated slowly, gracefully through the air, landing where she had been sat. A leaf, that looked like a beautiful autumn day.