Jory took a deep breath and rearranged the daffodil in his lapels with a deliberate care. Correctly categorized, this would be one of those now-or-never situations. They happened from time to time. And always to him.
Jory checked his watch: fifteen minutes until impact; fifteen minutes until she arrived; fifteen minutes until the date would begin.
He took a long steadying breath. He reached out. His fingertips just short of the door. And he paused. A quality establishment like this would not take kindly to his fingerprints interfering with their diligently shined veneer. Jory pictured the kerfuffle: him confronted mid-meal by an angry proprietor, a duster and polish being waved in his face, the repeated demands he get up and remove his vulgar sweatiness from the door. Such a fuss would (he presumed) interfere with any prospective post-date shenanigans, whatever they might be. His uncle had posted him a magazine cutting entitled ‘Five First Date Tips’. His uncle had also given him a kit for after dinner, labeled ‘For your safety and her pleasure’. Jory had no idea that blind dates could be so perilous. But he'd definitely read somewhere (on the internet, he thought) that women liked danger, and he certainly did want her to enjoy herself.
So, one quick scrub of hands on scrawny thighs, a quick sleevey buff of the doors, and another deep sigh later, well, then he was just about almost ready to enter.
Upgrading his status to tally-ho, Jory engaged hold-on-tight protocols, switched outward appearance to show-no-fear, and … oh bloody hell—
The damn door just wouldn't budge. No matter how hard he glared, begged, or pleaded, the thing wasn't going to open without his direct intervention. He'd tried negotiation, even a small bribe, but it just wouldn't listen.
Jory knew this would happen. That's why he'd arrived an hour early. Jory checked in with his watch. Buzz Lightyear's hands ticked relentlessly round. He had just over ten minutes of his precious buffer remaining.
A cough from behind sent Jory's terror alert from remain vigilant, to duck-and-cover! Duck-and-bloody-cover! The resulting trilogy of movements went thus: Jory spun, performed a miniature Riverdance, and almost died. He came to a rest clutching his chest, the world fuzzy, defocused.
There, just above a flashing bowtie, grinning at him, were a set of industrially-white teeth, a bulbous nose, a pair of squirrel-tail eyebrows. Jory blinked and the blur condensed into a face, into a Tuxedoed man-mountain. Then the mountain spoke:
“Impressive skill young man. I dare say that even in the glory days of my youth, I wouldn't have been able to … well, whatever that was.” He patted Jory on his shoulder as he pushed past, negotiating the doors with an enviable expertise.
The polished mahogany doors clicked shut once again.
A polite chirp from his wrist told him that his buffer was down to its last sixty seconds.
Okay: just a door, a maître d', a menu, one waiter (possibly two, depending on whether you counted the sommelier), roughly one hour of polite conversation and then lifelong happiness.From everything he'd read (oh, how he'd read and researched, books, movies, magazines) that was how these situations traditionally progressed.
Jory steeled himself and gave the door a push. And found it shoulder-cripplingly heavy – but then it would be, the Foodatorium was that kind of place: ostentatiously heavy manly-man doors only real men could open, expressionless waiters who somehow managed to sneer without changing their faces a twitch, wine glasses so tall that they required special training to handle, and patrons so wealthy that their combined eccentricities had both their own gravitational pull and their own bank account.
Jory sub-consciously tapped the voucher nestled inside his blazer pocket and gave the doors his manliest shove. It opened, swinging wide, and Jory stumbled through. Behind him, the doors snickered.
The maître d' gave him a head-to-toe. “May I help you? You are perhaps lost?”
“Voucher!” Jory burst out, loud enough to attract the attention of the nearest tables. He blushed at the soft chorus of mumbled “oh dears” and tuts. The maître d's eyebrow rose, just a smidge. His tight, flat smile didn't shift one millimeter.
“Very good, sir. May I see the aforementioned golden ticket?”
Jory handed over the rumpled slip of paper his uncle had given him for his thirty-first birthday, three years previous. The maître d' held the voucher in a white-gloved pinch as though it were a particularly offensive undergarment, studied it for less than a second, and summoned one of his accomplices.
“Please, show this … person, over to table five.” He made a show of dropping the offending undergarment into a waste paper basket. “He has the special privilege voucher.”
The waiter's face lit up. This, in cunning combination with his slicked-back hair and pencil-thin moustache gave him the look of some cross between an Italian mobster and a vampire. The effect was not lost on Jory, in spite of his being busy, so very busy, marveling at the decor, the guests, the food. True, he didn't have a penny to his name, but he'd worn his best suit – the one with the silky ruffles and elbow patches – and considered it rather dapper, the sort of get-up fantastically wealthy patrons might don before engaging in exactly this kind of fancy, erm, banquetification. Yes, that.
Jory followed the Mafioso to his table without further incident, or mention of his financial disability (a fact for which he was eternally grateful) and sat down.
There was a mild vibration in his buttocks as the chair moulded itself to his behind before a speaker in the chair's armrest chirped into life, asking him if he was happy with the comfort it was supplying. Jory confirmed that, yes, he was indeed very happy with whatever had just happened, to which the chair thanked him for his kind words and told him that a tip would be added to his bill. Jory made a quick mental calculation of how much money was in his wallet and prayed to God that his 'special privilege' covered gratuities.
Jory checked his watch again. Buzz confirmed that his date was four minutes overdue. Well, a lady of sophistication couldn't be expected to arrive on time. It was well known that there was a direct relationship between the length of time a lady waited before announcing her arrival and her supposed social standing. He'd read that somewhere. Definitely.
Jory wondered, briefly, whether she might be having problems with the door, too, but discarded the idea after realizing that the only way of finding out would be to either ask a waiter to check on his behalf, or to risk the door himself. Neither was a viable option, obviously, so he contented himself with looking out of the window, and waiting.
In stark contrast to the padded crimson velour walls, pristine white tablecloths, and antique mahogany furniture of the interior, the Foodatorium's exterior was an effortless lesson in tastelessness. He could just see the tip of one of the stabilizing wings: yellow and red stripes made the dirigible's hull look like a massive floating big-top, while amber and blue carnival bulbs flashed in dizzying sequence all along its length. Jory couldn't quite see the ship's massive jewel-encrusted balloon itself, but he could see the light from the neon strip-lights that spelt out the owner's name as it illuminated passing clouds. The flashing glow was hypnotic.
A tiny triple-chime from the table top pulled his attention back to the room.
Jory looked around. Nobody was close to his table. In fact, everyone remotely nearby was deeply involved with their dishes of exotic whatevers. The only possible candidate was the man-mountain from the entrance hall, but he was busy emphasizing whatever point he was making by jabbing his meatball-topped (still rotating) spaghetti-fork at the poor girl sitting opposite him. And she smiled back with insipid enthusiasm. A woman of class, clearly. That was how women were supposed to behave.
He'd read that somewhere. In a dentists’ waiting room, if he remembered correctly.
Again the triple chime followed by the tiny, piping: “Excuse me—”
“Chair?” Jory asked, perplexed.
He felt a chuckle vibrate through the seat beneath him. Okay, not the chair.
“Down here, Rat-Face.”
Jory looked down and saw his napkin quiver. He leant in close and whispered. “Napkin, is that you?”
“First, of course it's me. Second, not so close, Breathy. Damn. You need a mint, mister.”
Jory blinked and retreated back into a normal sitting position. “Sorry, I—”
“Sorry, whatever, Rat-Face.”
“Want a waft?”
“A waft, dippy. It's what we do before we nestle ourselves onto your lap. The waiters used to do it. Haven't you ever been wafted before?”
“Yeah-okay, so dippy doesn't eat out a lot 'cause he's got a rat's face. Brilliant. I always get stuck with the virgins. Okay, let me explain. Before you use a napkin it’s folded neatly on the table. Right? So before you can use it, it needs shaking out. You still with me?”
“Didn't think so. Anyway, you can always tell the quality of an establishment by how good the waft is. The best waiters can pick up, shake out, and caress the napkin onto your lap in a single motion. The really classy venues have napkins like me. Auto-wafters. We’re the pinnacle of mechanical design. My name's Five and, just for the record, I’m the best there is. Latest model, see.”
Jory found himself nodding along mutely.
“You don't eat anything at all do you, mister?”
“Erm, no, not really, wait, I—”
“Yeah-yeah, life story. Now, you want a waft or not.”
“Yes, thanks, that would be nice.”
“Don't look so scared, this one's a freebee. Now, stay very still.”
Suddenly the napkin unfolded, flicked itself into the air, rumpled, snapped taught, and drifted gently onto his lap.
Jory debated for a second whether or not it was safe to move again before looking down at his crotch. “Are you done?” he asked.
“'Course I’m done, you ain't getting a double waft for free, this isn't a charity. Besides, what would all the other linens say? I'd get a reputation.” His crotch rippled indignantly.
“Sorry, Five, I didn't mean—”
“Just eat your bread, cheapo.”
Jory looked up to see the breadbasket shuffling its way across the table towards him. Obediently, he reached out to take a piece of bread.
“Not zat one,” the basket said, rotating slightly, “zis one.”
Jory tried again. The basket jerked back just out of reach. “No, no, no, are you not listens?”
“No crumb shall pass,” Five chuckled.
“I said … forget it, Rat-Face. So, what brings you here tonight?”
Jory smiled, checking Buzz as he replied. “Date, it's a … I'm on a date.” His arm darted out, grabbing a piece of bread. He smiled, victorious. The breadbasket huffed back across the table.
“Really? You're on a date? Oh, wait, I see: daffodil, ill-fitting suit, look of panic. You're on a blind date. Who set you up?”
Jory sighed. “That obvious?”
“My uncle.” Jory eye-balled the butter as he spoke. Thus far it seemed pretty immobile, but he decided not to risk it. Probably too hard, or worse, too soft. You never knew where soft butter had been. Or if it had been reused. Jory suffered a nauseous moment at the thought of double-dippingwith some salivating stranger's recycled butter.
“So, you're on a date with your cousin?”
He was about to reply that, no, his date was just someone his uncle worked with, when the table-mafia interrupted.
“Would sir like to see the wine list?” The waiter's greasy smile never touched his eyes.
“Do you do milkshakes?” Jory asked.
The waiter looked at him, eyes bulging, mouth agape, for a few seconds, before whispering the word milkshake to himself and collapsing to the floor.
The napkin on Jory's lap went stock still. Another waiter came rushing over. Crouching beside his fallen comrade he looked up at Jory. “What did you do to him?” he demanded.
“I only asked if instead of wine, that maybe, if it's not too much bother, I could have a milkshake.”
“Milksha—” the second waiter clutched his heart and fell limply on top of the first.
Then the screaming started.
One woman jumped from her seat loudly proclaiming her expertise in the area of unconscious waiters, and waddled over, with the maître d' not far behind.
“Give them air! Give them air!” she cried, her voice deep and throaty. Jory secretly bet that she didn't have any trouble with the doors. She fussed over the bodies for only a moment before declaring the pair dead. The dining room gasped as one.
“Now you've done it!” Five chirruped.
The maître d' waggled a white gloved finger right in Jory's face. “What have you done? You …” he paused, his face scrunching in distaste, “you, Voucher, you!”
“He's possessed,” came the voice from his lap, “he told me, he's full of the devil, he's here to kill us all!”
“I only wanted a milkshake!” Jory protested, his panic rising.
“See, told you: Devil,” Five said matter of factly. He tightened around Jory's crotch, pinning his legs together.
Jory struggled to rise. The napkin was incredibly tight, cutting off the blood supply to some of the most important parts of his body. He grabbed the edge of the table, tried to pull himself upright. “Please! No, I only—” He lost the end of his sentence as the tablecloth came loose.
“Don't panic, boss. I got 'im,” Five crowed triumphantly. Jory thudded to the floor, still clutching the tablecloth. The impact forced the air from his lungs. Above the din of excited customers, Jory heard someone call for an exorcist. He tugged at the napkin. It wouldn't budge. Instead it tightened, a subtle crotchety threat. And it grumbled – something about double-wafts.
“I'm an exorcist!” boomed a familiar voice. The mountain-man came clumping through the crowd. He looked down at Jory. “Ah, the door dancer, I thought you looked fishy. Real men don't lurk in corridors. Yes, lurking, a decidedly daemony trait if ever there was one.” He fished around in his pocket as he spoke. And from his pocket he produced two things: an easy-clip dog collar and a leather-bound book. The title, in gold lettering down its spine: Fifty Shades of Grey. He shrugged. “Close enough.”
The mountain-man placed a meaty hand on the maître d's shoulder. “I'm going to need some water. Holy if you have it. If not, sparkling will do.”
Jory felt something nudging his back.
“Yah! Take zat, Devil scum! And zat, haha!”
Jory lashed out with his elbow, sending the breadbasket flying. There was a rumble of disapproval from the audience.
“See, he's evil,” his crotch said. “Whoever would treat a poor defenseless breadbasket so! He even asked me for a double waft!” This brought a fresh round of gasps from the crowd. Jory took a breath to protest his innocence, but the napkin became impossibly tight and all he could manage was a squeak.
“Quiet you!” Five hissed.
The maître d' returned bearing a glass of champagne atop silver tray. “Mr. Brillio, this champagne is an exceptional vintage and was delivered in a vehicle manufactured by the same company that builds the Pope-mobile …”
“Ah, holy by proxy – the best kind of holy! And a vintage too, perfectulous. Pour me a glass my good man, and empty the rest of the bottle into a bowl.”
“Soup or dessert, sir?”
The mountain considered this for a second, his nostrils twitching in thought. “Soup bowl I think. Definitely a soup bowl. It's what Jesus would do.” He nodded as he spoke.
A soup bowl was hurriedly supplied and, with a practised efficiency, Brillio started dipping and flicking. “The power of Christ compels you, be gone evil one!” he chanted as he flicked, slurping his champagne between verses.
“For the love of Chri—”
“Right,” bellowed the mountain, “he's taken the Lord's name in vain. Clearly this pitiful wretch is too far gone for us to help.”
From somewhere behind the man's bulk, the maître d' sniveled. “What do we do now, Mr. Brillio, sir?”
“Only one thing for it, my dedicatedly mustachioed friend … we cast him, devil and all, piratically over the side!”
Jory was about to attempt another objection, but was cut off – being dragged as he was by the back of his collar – by a lack of oxygen. “Stop,” he tried to croak as they manhandled him across the restaurant towards the emergency exit. His feet bounced and bobbled. His heels dug divots in the richly thick carpets. The audience, ever practical, ever eager for a spot of light entertainment, shuffled along a respectful distance behind.
The emergency exit opened with a rush of air.
“Wait!” Jory managed through his strangulation. “You can't do this … surely …”
The maître d' cleared his throat. “Actually, Mr. Brillio, he's right.”
“Whatever do you mean, my good man?”
The maître d' held out Jory's crumpled voucher.
“Ah, yes,” Brillio said as he read, “includes complimentary parachute. Very well.”
One of the table mafia scurried away. Rushing air filled Jory’s ears. He wished he’d just ordered a Coke. The waiter returned. He held, at arm’s length, a large rucksack emblazoned with a colourful umbrella. And with (what Jory considered) an unfair degree of expertise, the maître d' and the mountain had him strapped in, and dangled over the edge.
And then the floor was gone.
The rushing air filled his ears. Five cackled down by his crotch. Jory pulled the cord. Open damn you!
“Your flower is nice,” came a reedy voice from over his shoulder.
Open! He tugged the chord again. And Again.
“And that's a lovely napkin you've got there.”
“Those shoes are just to die for!”
Jory squeezed his eyes shut. “Please open, please open, please . . .”
He felt a tug on his shoulders and his whole body ragdolled, limbs dangling of their own accord. Jory opened his eyes. Five was drifting alongside him, still cackling away.
Far overhead, the Foodatorium would be getting back to the heady business of pretension.
As he drifted, Jory wondered about his date. Hopefully, she wouldn't ask for milkshake. But of course she wouldn't. She was a lady of sophistication and breeding, a fact made clear by how late she had been. In fact, were she to arrive now, she might, because of his unplanned absence, presume he was terrifically, wonderfully late – and therefore of tremendous breeding. Probably. He'd read that somewhere, he was sure.
This unexpected side trip might even be to his advantage. Such was the pantomime of etiquette and upperclassedness. In fact, all he had to do was sneak back aboard at the dirigible's next stop.
His gentle downward progress was halted as the 'chute snagged on the corner of a billboard advertising the Foodatorium.
He dangled, smiling blithely as Buzz's hands ticked on, safe in the knowledge that every passing second merely enhanced his social magnificence. Jory's only doubt was that his date might not have read the same magazines as he, and therefore not realize how socially adept his lateness was. Not to worry, he could always explain; his dentist might even let him borrow a few of the less tatty editions.
Behind him, in letters three times his height, the billboard's tag line boasted: A dining experience like no other.