Flash fiction competition: the shortlisted stories (1)

Comfortable Discomfort

by Emma Robertson

The silence between us bites harder than the local white wine on my tastebuds. I’m drinking far too quickly, not knowing what else to do with my hands. Joe shifts in his chair for the third time in less than a minute and looks out at the serenity of Lake Bled, a stunning vista that is, frankly, wasted on us tonight. The powdered sugar dusting on the mountains can’t sweeten the unpalatable truth: we have absolutely nothing to say to one another.

Joe pats his pocket; we’d promised to go without phones tonight. He retracts his hand quickly when he sees me looking, reaching for the bottle instead. The rattle from the ice bucket earns him some sharp side-eye from the hovering waitress for topping me up before she’d had chance to.

Before, we’d have shared a conspiratorial smile at that, back when we were a team; us against the world. Now, strangers within our own marriage, we’ve become the cliched sitting silently in restaurant types that we used to laugh at and vow to never become.

“What are you having?” Joe asks eventually.

“The fish platter.” I point at it on the menu.

“That’s for two people.”

“Oh.”

Joe pauses. “I don’t mind sharing the platter.”

“Do you even want fish?” I look at him, thinking don’t do me any favours. He half nods, half shrugs and we revert to silence.

We’d vowed to try and reconnect after the incident, using the conservatory savings to take a break somewhere peaceful. So far, Slovenia has been even more picturesque than I expected but the wonder of our surroundings only magnifies the distance between us.

“The hotel is charming,” I offer, seeing Joe fidget yet again.

He nods. “It really is.”

“Wonderful views.”

He opens his mouth to say something, then shuts it again.

When we’d checked into our cosy room in the eaves of the hotel, I’d felt the urge to jump up onto the bed and see the view from our tiny window in the sloping roof but I’d felt silly; I’m not myself with him anymore. It’s as if we have forgotten how to show any joy or spontaneity in front of one another. We’re on our best behaviour, polite and distant.

It’s awful.

I see Joe pat his pocket again and I sigh. “Just get your phone out, for God’s sake.”

His forehead creases. “What do you mean by that?”

“You clearly want to check your phone and you might as well.” I take another stinging swig of chilled wine. “It’s not like anything fun is happening here.”

He hesitates. “This isn’t… it’s not about her,” he says, avoiding my eyes. “I told you I wouldn’t contact her again.”

I freeze, inhaling sharply. “Don’t. Mention. Her.”

“Sorry.”

The waitress approaches and we order the fish platter for two. “Good choice,” she smiles, making a show of topping up the wine again.

Silence returns as she departs. Joe takes out his phone and I reach for my glass.

Emma Robertson is an inclusive dance tutor and writer from London, UK. Her first fiction pieces were published in late 2020 in the Pure Slush anthology Wrong Way Go Back and in Eastern Iowa Review’s Water issue. She has previously written articles connected with her teaching work for dance industry publications. She can be found on Twitter as @emmadancetrain

Sprats’ heads. Photo copyright Cath Barton

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