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by Bee Lewis

We ate richly. We ate well. A meal from the sea. Creamy lobster bisque followed by an unctuous fish stew, packed with mussels, clams, and chunky bites of cod. The bistro was busy, even though it was a Monday night. Locals chattering away, pinching the cheeks of passing children and greeting new arrivals with the joy of the long-separated. Three, maybe four, generations sat at the largest table in the corner, enjoying the attention of the waiters. It was hard not to get caught up in the familial atmosphere. Hard not to believe we were also, for the briefest time, locals enjoying an evening out.

In truth, the decor was a little cutesy-folksy for my taste. All woven baskets, chequerboard tablecloths, and painted tiles. If you looked closer, you could see where the wood cladding on the serving counter was lifting. If you looked even closer, you could see dark shadows circling the owner’s eyes. It was the end of the season, and his own brief holiday beckoned. But you liked it here and I had to admit, the food was good.

We both reached for the last piece of bread at the same time, my fingers brushing your knuckles. You laughed and tore the bread into two pieces, offering the largest bit to me. I took it and then watched as you mopped up the last of the fish stew, leaving a clean bowl. You need a haircut, I thought. And there was something else about you, hard to put my finger on. It was a kind of softness, a flabbiness, in your demeanour. Yes, you’d put on a little weight — but then, so had I. Perhaps it was simply that you’d relaxed now our first holiday together was over.

You topped our glasses up and then I saw it — the future — yawning out in front of us. Holidays like this, little trips to the coast, perhaps a National Trust membership with days out to formal gardens and stately homes. Polite sex. A cup of tea in the mornings. And I wanted to run. To stand up with such force that my chair tipped over. To push the door off its hinges in my attempt to escape. To race into the sea and be consumed by the cold water and eaten by the fish. Now that would be an unexpected irony. I giggled to myself.

But I stayed put. We would return here many times. It would be our bistro, the place where you proposed. We would make memories here and with those memories would come a kind of comfort, a safety. It would be unextraordinary. And that was appealing.

So I was unprepared when you told me you’d had a great time, but when we got back home, we should just be friends. I hadn’t considered that you weren’t prepared to settle for me.

Bee Lewis lives on the south coast near Eastbourne and has a number of publishing credits including Best British Short Stories 2015 (Salt), Flash Fiction Magazine, and Rattle Tales. In 2016, Bee won the Sussex Prize for a short story, and her debut novel, Liminal, was published by Salt in 2018.