by FC Malby

The corner table is round and gently battered. The bar is quiet this evening. John listens while Mark talks about the new job, watches the froth resting on his pint, the dark nectar, tantalising against the glass. It is cold to the touch. It feels better in the summer when you need something sharp at your fingertips; not here in the middle of January. He clutches his scarf, almost for comfort, and remembers his wife telling him this morning to feed the cat, put the rubbish out, shut the front door. She had a way of making him feel that closed his world into a tiny box, took pieces off him and shrunk his mind.

‘It all helps,’ says Mark, ‘the missus likes it.’

John nods, contemplates saying something, instead takes a swig of his pint and plants it back down on to the beer mat. It covers one of the rings left from a previous pint.

‘Says she likes it, the lean look. How’s your lady?’ Mark asks, looking up. He grabs his t-shirt at the neckline, shakes it out, straightens it up. The yellow logo unfurls against a blue background. The fabric is mottled. He flips his wallet open and leafs through the notes like a magician shuffling cards.

‘Not bad,’ John says. ‘Bit busy, you know, the usual.’ He draws in a breath and looks up at Mark who has closed his wallet and slid it into the back pocket of his jeans. He wants to tell him he is thinking of moving out but he can’t bring himself to say the words, feels like a failure.

‘Want another pint?’ Mark asks, getting up as though he already knows the answer.

John nods, watches the queue building up, looks up at the old wood beams stretched out across the ceiling, He stares at the curves and the splits in the beams where they have failed to withstand the pressure of time, showing all their imperfections and fractures. Modern beams look perfect: clean cut lines, unblemished. He pulls pieces of debris out from under his fingernails; notices the lines on his skin, wonders how it has lost its elasticity, wonders where time has gone. Age is cruel, marriage can be crueller. He had begun with high expectations, hopes of something different; lighter, easier.

‘There you go, mate.’ Mark plants another pint down. ‘Isn’t it your anniversary soon? What is it? Fifteen, sixteen?’

‘Sixteen,’ says John, but he can’t remember whether it is sixteen, or maybe seventeen. He doesn’t count any more, no longer wants to remember.

‘Nice, when is it?’

John is unable to remember the exact day, wants to say something honest, that he cannot go on like this, stuffing his feelings down deeper and deeper, trapped in a life he does not want.

‘She’s not like the others,’ says Mark.

‘What do you mean?’ John leans back.

‘Well, she’s…’

‘Go on.’

‘Don’t get me wrong. She’s a nice enough lass. It’s just that she seems a bit too much, for you I mean.’

John puts down his pint, rubs his forehead, squints. ‘I can’t see a way ahead. She wants things from me that I can’t give her.’

‘They always do.’ Mark laughs. He drops his gaze. ‘Go on.’

‘She says she never sees me, that she wants kids, wants a bigger house, wants a holiday, wants to go out, learn to dance. I can’t do it, any of it. I don’t want kids, never did. I like the house, I don’t like holidays and I hate dancing.’

‘You have to lay it on the line,’ Mark says, then he stops, looks up at the door then back at John.

John feels a hand stroking the back of his head. His wife sits down next to him, puts her other hand on his knee. ‘When are you coming home, honey?’ she asks.

John pulls back, freezes almost. ‘I can’t,’ he says, turning his face away from her.

‘What do you mean you can’t?’

‘I mean I can’t come back. I’m not coming back.’

Mark stands up. ‘Well, I’ll leave you two alone. Take care, mate. Speak soon.’ He pats John on the shoulder. He avoids her gaze and walks towards the door.

She shakes her head then turns her gaze back towards him. Her eyes are cold, unemotional. She has a look he has only seen once before.

‘OK,’ she says, ‘I’ll pack your bags and leave them with your sister. I guess you’ll stay there.’

He nods, wonders how she is taking it so calmly. He expected a scene. She stands up and leaves the bar without turning back. He hears the door close and goes to the bar to order another pint. The barman looks up with an expression that says he has seen it before. He holds a glass at forty-five degrees, pulls the tap and sets a full glass down on the bar.

‘It’s on the house,’ he says.

John waves his hand and starts to pull a note out of his pocket, then he looks through the window and sees two figures walking across the car park. It is drizzling and the sun is low, almost blinding. He squints and sees Mark holding her hand and opening the car door for her. She looks at him before stepping in. John looks back at the barman, who is also watching, puts the note down next to the glass and leaves.

FC Malby is a contributor to Unthology 8 by Unthank Books, and Hearing Voices: The Litro Anthology of New Fiction. Her debut short story collection, My Brother Was a Kangaroo includes award-winning stories, and her debut novel, Take Me to the Castle, won The People’s Book Awards. Her short fiction has been longlisted in The New Writer Magazine Annual Prose and Poetry Prizes, and won the Litro Magazine Environmental Disaster fiction competition. Her stories have also been published online in Litro Magazine, Ether Books, Spontaneity Magazine, 1000 Words, Flash Fiction Magazine, Paragraph Planet, Flash Flood Journal, The Puffin Review, Vending Machine Press, Friday Flash Fiction and Ellipsis Zine.