‘Does that look cooked to you?’ Sophie rotated her plate to reveal the wet pink interior of her chicken breast. ‘What should I do? Can we send it back?’
Jack’s dark eyes widened. Sophie froze: they were in public, this was a nice place – surely he wouldn’t raise his voice here? Should she just eat the chicken?
He reached into the air and clicked his fingers for the waiter. Sophie sank into her chair.
‘Sir, is everything alright with your meals?’
Jack was looking at Sophie. She reddened.
‘Oh, um, it’s just….’
She would hear about this later. She let her fringe fall in front of her eyes and mumbled.
‘I’m sorry, madam, I didn’t catch that.’
‘Oh, s-sorry.’ Sophie took a deep breath and tried not to look at Jack. ‘It’s just it’s a bit….’ Hot tears pricked the back of her eyes. ‘It’s a bit… pink,’ she squeaked at last.
‘I see, I’m dreadfully sorry, let me take care of it.’ The waiter whisked her plate away and she slumped in her seat, exhausted by the effort, glad it was over. She had passed Jack’s little test.
‘That wasn’t so hard was it?’ (She’d never said it was, she thought indignantly, she just wished she’d had time to gather her thoughts.) Jack held her hand across the tablecloth, his big paw squeezing a little too tight. ‘Oh, you’re not crying?’ He leaned forward to peer at her face.
Sophie hadn’t been crying, but the suggestion reminded her that she might, and she felt tears welling once more.
‘Oh, you are!’ he said, almost smiling.
Sophie opened her mouth, but couldn’t find words. Besides, he was already saying, ‘But that’s not how we behave in public, is it?’ and shaking his head. ‘And after I’ve brought you to a nice place too: fancy charging £18 for a chicken breast. You’d better enjoy it after all this fuss.’
Sophie pulled her hand back and pretended to fuss with her hair, blinking hard all the while. Her confusion wasn’t about Jack, it was about herself, and her behaviour. It wasn’t his fault she was crying, he didn’t make her do it. Why was she crying? It didn’t make sense, when this dinner was meant to be a treat.
‘You’re just a silly little girl, aren’t you,’ Jack said. His tone was almost affectionate, but to her each word compounded the meaning of the last, so that she wasn’t only silly and little, but a sillylittlegirl, her ineptitude multiplied: each word to the power of the next.
Jack reached for her hand again, but she kept hers in her lap. ‘There’s no need to be like that,’ he said grumpily.
The waiter returned and put a new plate in front of Sophie. ‘Here you are, madam, please accept our apologies,’ he said.
She sat up to speak, keen to make up for her earlier inarticulateness.
‘Thank you so much,’ Jack leapt in. ‘No bother at all. And look,’ – he dropped his volume, casting a glance at Sophie – ‘I’m sorry about her.’
The waiter smiled without meeting Sophie’s eye, then slid off back to the kitchen.
Humiliated, Sophie looked down at her plate. She’d been so looking forward to this meal just twenty minutes before, but now she wasn’t sure she could even eat it, this £18 chicken breast. Her throat felt tight, her eyes were hot. She would wash her face and then she’d feel better.
‘I’m just going to the bathroom.’
Jack grabbed her wrist as she passed. ‘Don’t be like that.’
‘Like what?’ What was she missing? ‘I’m just going to the bathroom.’ People on neighbouring tables were staring. She gave a little laugh. Jack let go of her wrist.
Returning a few minutes later, she saw their table had been cleared and Jack was paying the bill on the card machine.
‘Was there a problem?’ she asked, sitting down.
Jack said nothing till the waiter left them, then looked at her. ‘I thought we’d better leave,’ he said, ‘before you cause a scene.’
Sophie stared at him. ‘But–’
‘Come on, you’ve embarrassed me enough.’
Sophie put on her coat and followed Jack to the door, keeping her eyes to the ground while feeling those of the other diners burning into her back.
Alice Little is an author of flash fiction and short stories. Her work has been published online and also in print by publishers including Retreat West and Pure Slush. Her writing often explores themes of relationships and moral dilemmas. Find out more at alicelittle.co.uk/fiction, and follow Alice on Instagram and Twitter at @littleamiss.