Your surroundings are lavish; marble pillars and balustrades, antique parquet flooring, luxurious velvet drapes that are the crushed blue-black of sin. Crystal that dazzles the eye. A ceiling painted by Michelangelo.
There is too much to take in with just one sweep around the room.
Your host for the night is tall and thin. And, although he is so very, very pale against the midnight of his hair and clothing, yes, he is undoubtedly handsome.
All the women are beautiful and have hourglass figures; as if they’d been sketched by artists from the golden age of pulp-magazines … or by the imaginations of teenage boys on hormone overload.
Generally, you would admit, you are jaded. Life is wealth and position, gained with no merit. And you are always tired, or, maybe, just plain bored. After all, you gave up your three previous partners because they were hugely successful … and hugely monotonous.
But this is different; this promises to be fun.
Early on, you make two mistakes about the evening’s entertainment. Firstly, you discount the female trio, singing in the corner, as paid performers. Then – as men old enough to know better dash good sense against the rocks of their allure – you re-appraise the quality of the dresses they wear, and the jewelry they display. And you conclude that the women are invitees; and that the thrall they cast with their song is not forged for fiscal reward, but for their own empowerment, enjoyment, and desire.
Secondly, you realize that the harlequin you’d assumed to be cabaret is not performing his antics for some master. In fact, he is a house guest. Yes, he cavorts, and he tumbles. Yes, he magics, and pranks, and dances. But, it turns out, it is all for the heart of his Colombina. A heart which he carries everywhere, and which he will proudly show to anyone who asks.
The room, you now establish, is far bigger than it first seemed. Toward the far end, you focus on what you believed was an aquarium, and determine that it is more of a glass-contained ocean. And the fish within it is whiskered. And human-like. And carries a trident. And its malevolent gaze follows you hungrily.
You sense an oasis, and there, alone and undisturbed in the corner, is a bearded old man. He holds an hour glass, his head rests upon the handle of a scythe, and he sleeps. Very much like he has seen all of this – and more – many times before.
Disorientated, you draw your focus back to the dining table.
Timid? A coward? You find it too hard to engage with the seeming burns victim, who is swathed in bandages and sporting sunglasses. So, you just act like you can’t see him.
Initially, you cannot make sense of the seating plan diagonally across from you. One moment you’re exchanging words with an urbane, well-attired gentleman, who is both eloquent and informed about all issues scientific. Then he leaves the room, to be replaced by some rough-looking fellow; brutish and almost incoherent, who does nothing but stare at you with a lascivious look in his eyes. Only after several substitutions, do you realize they’re the same person. And all you can think is, what the hell is he snorting out there?
Earlier, the – admittedly hirsute – gent to your left had engaged you in articulate exchange. He was assured and confident (apart from a seeming aversion to the candlesticks; which he shied away from, as if their metal touch might brand him). He told you he was a student of zoology, and that he had travelled extensively across Europe and North America. Now, as the night has lengthened – if your imagination is not playing tricks – so too have his hair and fingernails. Upon his cravat, he sports spots that you took first for bolognaise. In truth, the source was a Milanese sauce – a temptress to tempt the beast in men, and headstrong enough to walk home alone. For a little way, at least.
You sip another champagne. And it is now (I think it is now, isn’t it?) that you have your gestalt; your lucidity; your Damascene moment. Amidst the madness and monstrosity; the feast of potential; the smorgasbord of saturnalia, sadism, and seduction; you ask yourself – what price ordinariness? And you name yourself near-fool, when you recall how you almost sent a rather impolite RSVP: “Thank you, but I find costume parties boring.”
As the evening draws to a close, your aristocratic host asks you to dance. And, like all the other women here, when you gaze into those eyes, you find it impossible to say nay.
Steve Pease lives in Northern England, with a long-suffering, but awesome wife, two beautiful Labradors, some graying hair, and a Tanglewood guitar that wishes he could play it better.
He once had a ‘real’ job drafting stuff for British politicians, and argues – rather convincingly – that this was the perfect apprenticeship for crafting fiction.