The doorbell chimed and my heart fluttered. I shifted my weight from foot to foot. Perhaps they had all gone out for a walk, and they wouldn’t answer. It wasn’t too late to turn back.
The door opened. Alice’s father stood there – untidy hair, asymmetric glasses, stubble, badly fitting clothes – everything about him was chaotic, animated. He broke into a broad smile.
“Eddie! How lovely to see you!”
“Hello Mister Stride.”
“What brings you out here to the boonies? Life treating you well? How’s Alice?”
I didn’t know which question to answer first. He stared at me expectantly, sizing me up. Moving, always moving, as if his clothes itched. A flush of warmth crawled down my spine.
“Sorry! Come in, come in, of course. Don’t call me Mister Stride, that’s what my research students call me.”
“Thank you… Tom.” Even with his encouragement, saying his name felt presumptuous. Which I suppose said more about me than him.
The dimly lit kitchen was full of plants; it smelled of ferns and pine. I touched a frond, which instantly curled away from me. Beyond the plants, a large lounge lit by an open fire. In the middle of the lounge was a low table surrounded by cushions, and on the cushions, two women, craning their necks towards me in a mirror of each other.
“Do we have a guest?” said one of the women, getting up.
“Ah, yes, forgot to tell you, Eddie called to say he’s in the area this evening and can he drop in?” said Mr Stride, busy with the kettle.
“Hello Missus Stride,” I said as the woman walked into the kitchen. Cropped hair, a gentle smile and sparkling chestnut eyes just like Alice’s.
“Forgive my husband,” she said. “You haven’t met Julia, have you?”
I waved at Alice’s sister through the ferns, and she waved tentatively back. She was maybe sixteen, gawky but blooming, almost as pretty as Alice.
“Would you like to stay for supper?” said Mrs Stride.
Mr Stride chipped in: “We were just about to start a family game of Monopoly.”
“I didn’t mean to interrupt,” I said. “I… It’s just that… Sorry. I’m a bit nervous.”
“No need to be nervous here,” said Mr Stride, arms wide open, “our house is yours.”
I came right out with it. “I’ve come to ask your permission to marry Alice.”
Both of them, all three of them, looked at me as if I had turned into a moose.
“I mean, um,” I said, “to ask her to marry me. If that’s ok.”
Mrs Stride started to say something, but Mr Stride stilled her with a gesture of his hand. He stared at me; my heartbeat thudded in my skull.
Mrs Stride slapped her husband hard on the arm. “Tom, don’t play with him.”
“No, Pam, if he thinks it’s important to ask us, we’ve got to take that seriously. We’ve got to test him!” He grinned, teeth exposed, pointing a finger up in the air. Then he hunched over for a moment, as if deep in thought, and turned to me with a wicked gleam in his eye. “Tell you what, beat us at Monopoly and you can have our blessing.”
“Oh that’s a spectacular idea,” said Mrs Stride sarcastically, a hand against her forehead. Her expression sublimated into amused resignation. “You’ll be staying for food, then.”
Even before the game started I could see that underestimating Mr Stride would be dangerous. The first decision was which playing piece to pick, and as I looked down at the cluster of pewter tokens I realized that Mr Stride was watching me.
Julia, to my left, had chosen the car; Mrs Stride the old boot; and Mr Stride, directly across the board from me, was fondling the tiny top hat. The fire spat and crackled behind me. It smelled like Christmas.
I hovered over the Scottie dog, then the battleship, before settling on the iron. Mr Stride’s expression lifted into a cunning half-smile. We put our pieces on the Go square. I hoped Alice wouldn’t feel like I was gambling for her affections. No, she would understand, this wasn’t a game; it was a trial.
“Roll to see who goes first,” said Julia, her big eyes shining as she expertly dealt out the tiny bills to each of us.
“There’ll be no mercy,” said Mr Stride.
“I’ll play hard,” I said.
“Ha! A bit of spirit!” He rubbed his hands together like a Bond villain.
“You gonna have babies right away?” asked Julia, doling out the ones.
“Julia,” scolded Mrs Stride. “They’re not even married yet.”
Mr Stride shot in. “And they won’t get married at all if he can’t prove his worth on the Monopoly board.”
We played a few turns. I made small talk with Julia and Mrs Stride; Mr Stride stayed silent and watchful. I had to win the game of course, it was a matter of pride. I knew the basic tactics; stay out of jail for the first few rounds, buy up lots of property, then consolidate a set or two and start building. Easy.
“I’ve landed on Go,” said Mr Stride, “four hundred please.”
“Four hundred?” I asked. “It’s two hundred.”
“Yeah,” said Julia, counting out the money. “But you get double when you land on the Go square.”
“No you don’t,” I protested, frowning.
“Ha! Stride family rules!” said Mr Stride.
“Hang on,” I said, waving my hands above the board, “I signed up to Parker Brothers rules.”
“Not in this house. Should’ve thought of that before you started,” he teased.
“Okay, okay, but I need to know what I’m getting myself in for.”
“No kidding,” smirked Julia with a sideways glance.
“So what other rules do you use?” I asked. “Free Parking?”
Mr Stride put on a pompous tone. “When you land on Free Parking you get all the tax that’s been put in the middle.”
“That’s not how tax works!” I complained.
“And if no-one wants a property we auction it off,” said Julia, “and if you roll three doubles you go to jail, and you can’t collect rent when you’re in jail, and –”
“That’s not right either,” I said, “you can collect rent in jail.”
“That rule doesn’t really send out the right message,” explained Mrs Stride.
“Ever been in jail?” asked Mr Stride.
“Me?” I asked.
Mrs Stride hit her husband on the arm.
Mr Stride laughed. “We should know in case he wins and we have to let him marry Alice.”
“I have actually,” I said. All three of them stopped and looked up at me. “Well, a police cell, for busking without a licence.”
“What do you play?” asked Julia.
“Harmonica. I wasn’t even busking really.”
“No sense of humour, some policemen,” said Mr Stride, rolling the dice.
Julia’s eyes were even wider than normal. “I can’t believe they put you in prison for playing the harmonica!”
“You haven’t heard him play, maybe he deserved it,” said Mr Stride, and he braced himself for an arm-slap.
When I bought one of the green plastic houses he asked me where Alice and I would live. When I had to pay £50 in doctor’s fees he asked me about my health. When I won second prize at a beauty contest he commented on my looks. By the time the last properties were being bought, he had interrogated me about almost everything.
I landed on Free Parking and collected a few hundred pounds from the middle, without saying a word. Mr Stride pursed his lips as if holding back a snide comment. I bought more houses, and couldn’t resist a peek at Mr Stride’s scant money pile.
“Don’t get cocky now,” he said. He moved his top hat and landed on Mayfair. He couldn’t afford to buy it.
Julia conducted the auction as if she was selling cattle. “Do I hear twohundredtwohundred wehaveabidder twofifty themanintheblueshirt…”
I was bidding against Mr Stride. I priced him out, but he mortgaged Electric Company and bid £80 more. I mortgaged Park Lane to outbid him again. He looked annoyed.
“Look, let me have it and I’ll pay for the wedding,” he said. I think I must have flinched, because he forced a laugh and said quickly, “assuming you win my permission to marry at all, of course.”
There was a momentary silence during which I tried not to make eye contact with Mr Stride.
“I bid five hundred pounds,” said Mrs Stride.
“Sold!” said Julia, banking Mrs Stride’s money with admirable speed. She rolled the dice and tried to pretend that there had been no awkward moment.
On my next turn I traded with Mrs Stride to complete the red set. I was doing ok, but I felt tense, as if a spring was coiled inside my belly.
“That’s not fair,” said Mr Stride. “You gave him an easy trade. You want him to win.”
“We got a set each. It’s –” I cut myself short before I said anything stupid.
Mr Stride growled. “You’ll be sore when you lose and you can’t marry Alice. It’ll be such a tragedy.”
I stayed quiet, fiddling with one of my orange property cards.
He snorted and rolled a double one. Chance: “Make general repairs on all your property.” When he saw how many houses he would have to sell, he leapt up and looked like he might flip the table.
“Tom, sit down,” ordered Mrs Stride.
“He’s an even worse winner,” whispered Julia in my direction.
Grumbling, he settled his debt and rolled again. As he moved his token, I could see where he was going to end up. Vine Street, my star property, with three houses. My back went clammy.
“That’s terrible luck,” said Mrs Stride.
“That’s six hundred pounds,” said Julia. “You’re bankrupt.”
Mr Stride slapped the table hard, scattering the pieces, and stormed out of the room. There was a lingering silence, the three remaining players not sure where to look.
With a tight smile, Mrs Stride said, “Still want to marry Alice?”
At the mention of her name, my heart swelled with longing. I nodded.
Her shoulders relaxed. “Then, Eddie, I donate all my assets to you. Julia?”
Julia’s wide eyes flicked back and forth. “What? Oh… yeah,” she said, and gave me her stack of bills too.
Mrs Stride grinned. “Anyone who can survive a Stride family game of Monopoly is certainly worthy of Alice.”
Mr Stride marched back in. He paced for a moment, then his eyes sparked with mischief. He clapped a hand on Julia’s shoulders, puffed up his chest and said, “Double or nothing!”
# # #
Charlie Fish is a popular short story writer and screenwriter. His short stories have been published in several countries and inspired dozens of short film adaptations. Since 1996, he has edited www.fictionontheweb.co.uk, the longest-running short story site on the web. He was born in Mount Kisco, New York in 1980; and now lives in south London with his wife and daughters.