John threw a log into the fire pit and I pulled my bare feet up to the edge of my chair, bringing my knees up to my chin and stroking my smooth, bare calves. Yellow and orange flames curled skywards, momentary daggers of light, dancing in the indigo twilight. “I’m not going through with it!”
He laughed, not speaking.
I heard a clock chime and looked up the lawn to the house. Ten o’clock. A faint light showed through an upstairs window but it otherwise lay in darkness. Beyond, a car door slammed and an engine started up. Our last guests leaving.
John got up and walked over to the barbecue, returning with a sausage and a chicken leg.
“Haven’t you eaten enough? And did you hear what I said?”
It was suddenly silent. I looked up at the twilight sky with the searchlight of Venus rising over a distant roof. I imagined I could feel and smell the encroaching darkness, reach out and caress it. A cricket chirruped in the distance.
“You’ll be letting everybody down, especially Paula.”
“How does that work, exactly?”
“Everyone else will go along with it, they’ll all get publicity, except Paula.”
One of our guests ran a tattoo parlour. “It’ll hardly be front page news. Anyway, it’s alright for you, you won a haircut. Not exactly life-changing!”
“You don’t need to have KILL across your forehead.” John laughed. “You can have a nice little butterfly in the small of your back.”
“Yes, for whose benefit!” I had to laugh, despite the bizarreness of the situation. We’d hosted a charity barbecue to raise funds for a local animal shelter, fortunately just out of barking range. Each guest had contributed a prize in the form of a service voucher, which had been drawn between us. So, there’d been vouchers for manicures, hairdressing, massage, car servicing, meals at restaurants and so on. There’d been general hilarity as Alice McMahon had drawn a free work-out at a gym. “Oh, I think she could do with a week at a health farm first!” exclaimed her husband, Fred.
We all laughed. Alice, although attractive, could definitely do to lose a few stone.
The wood crackled and a warm breeze changed direction and blew the smell of soot and smoke into my face, making me cough. I felt indignant. “But I don’t want a tattoo, ‘free’ or otherwise!”
It was growing dark now, just the flickering flames playing on John’s handsome face. A light went on up at the house and I saw a torch bobbing towards us. My daughter, Heather.
“I know where you can have a tattoo,” said John. “Just above your sweet little ….”
“Shh! It’s Heather.”
She had her long blonde hair in a pony tail and was wearing a nightie and dressing gown. She plumped herself down on one of the deck chairs, gazing around at tables covered with empty beer and wine bottles, plates with grease and chicken bones, ash trays with cigarette butts, crumpled napkins. “There’s a lot to clear up.”
“Yes, you can help us tidy up in a minute, or the foxes will come in the night. Guess what, Mum won a free tattoo!”
Heather smiled, showing perfect teeth in the firelight. Kids were so lucky nowadays, orthodontists weren’t on the radar when we were growing up. “Oh, you lucky thing! What’ll you have? You could have dad’s name tattooed on your arm!”
I smiled. “OK, that’s a good idea, sweetheart, I’ll do it if he has my name put on his!”
I looked at John and John looked at me. His face wore an inscrutable expression and he sat, staring at the flames, not saying a word.
The cracks in our marriage had been showing for a long time. Maybe, just maybe, winning that particular prize was a blessing in disguise. It was time to face up to reality.
Featured in the book, Flash Friction: To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. III: 72 Little Stories
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