Melinda Salisbury is the winner of Litro‘s #ThisIsNotLove flash fiction competition. Deftly written, fast-paced and funny, ‘Parthian Shot’ demonstrates that clearly not all is fair in love and war.
He’s tapping the pen on the table again, three strikes to every second that the kitchen clock measures. I’d expected this, and my coup de main is prepared. The plate containing his breakfast obscures the crossword, but he smiles at me anyway.
I watch with visceral pleasure as he cracks the top of his egg, revealing a pale, flaking centre too hard for him to dip his soldiers into. I used to find the soldiers charming, but we’ve been at war for two thousand, two hundred and twenty six days now. There is no room left for sentiment.
He battles through it, trying to smear the yolk on a thin sliver of toast.
“This is great, Emma, thank you.”
I wait until it’s halfway to his mouth before I unleash the second wave of my counter strike; my own perfectly soft-boiled egg. I eat the yolk with a spoon, relishing the silent disappointment that radiates my way.
“The post came,’ he says, nodding at the pile of letters beside my plate. ‘There’s one for you.”
“Probably a bill.”
“I’ll read it later.”
“It might be something nice.”
“I don’t have time now, Matt, I’m late for work.” I put my spoon down with a clatter, the aftershock ringing through the room, deafening us for a moment.
Matt, when I first met him, would have raised his eyebrows at me, pursed his lips and mocked my outburst before folding me into his arms. Before we’d moved in together he’d lived with his mother; it seems she was more forgiving of sharp, gingery-brown hairs left in the sink. I watched them make a slow, captivating journey towards the plughole on a tide of my spat-out toothpaste and declared war.
I thought I was doing us both a favour by helping him to adapt to a new regime. A few covert tactics to teach him compromise and the art of give and take, to help him navigate the tricky ground of cohabitation.
He would leave used socks on the floor and I refused to pick them up, even though it disgusted me to have to pick my way through the minefield of them each morning and night. When he’d run out of shirts and boxers too, he innocently asked me why I hadn’t washed them. I told him I thought we were taking it in turns to do the washing, I hadn’t known he’d run out of clean clothes. I was thrilled when he didn’t argue, setting about the task with acceptance.
Of course, it was perfidy. He began to retaliate, dragging me around musty shops selling vinyl, lingering over the selections as I huffed and puffed behind him. Each time I fidgeted, or paced, or sighed, he flipped back to the start of a row and began to look through it again. Eventually I made the connection my actions and his and I stayed still, silent as he selected what he wanted and smiled beatifically at me.
The bed was neutral territory. For seven hours we’d find a temporary peace, or stage battles of a different kind, our very own Christmas 1914 in the trenches. In these he was always the winner and I was happy to concede the victories to him. At night he fought dirty, and well.
As time passed these minor skirmishes became all-out melees and we began to exchange blows with biological weapons, chemical weapons. He’d shower every three or four days, I’d drown myself in perfume he hated. He started to leave the toilet door open, I stopped shaving my legs. We used to engage in week long battles of wills, wars of attrition that drove us almost to breaking point. And then, without any warning, the fight went out of him. He was thoughtful, attentive and industrious with the household tasks, no longer needing a prompt to put the dishwasher on, or to rinse the sink after he’d used it. I’d won, my prize: the perfect man.
“You’re such a lovely couple,” everyone said. “He’s so good. I wish I could find The One, I’d love to settle down.”
We’d smile, he’d put an arm around me and I’d lean into him, even as I planned a new line of attack, hoping to goad him into a response.
I rise and make myself another coffee, even as the clock tells me I don’t have time.
“Emma, open your letter.” He comes up behind me, his hand on my elbow as he guides me back to the table. He pushes it towards me and I see messy handwriting I know as well as my own.
‘Why have you written me a letter?’
“Just open it.” He’s firm, in no mood to negotiate and I feel a spark of excitement, finally something I can work with.
I rip the top of the envelope, pulling out the sheet of paper ungraciously. Something small and heavy falls in to my lap as I open the note.
I had no idea he was amassing nuclear weaponry. I knew things were coming to a head, I knew the final battle, the last stand, was upon us, but this…
“Will you marry me?” He kneels beside me, fishing the ring out of my skirt and holding it up as he smiles the smile of the victorious.
He’s defeated me, finally. He’s successfully crossed my carefully-manned killing field and breached the lines. There will be no counter attack; he has disarmed me so thoroughly that my only option is to allow him his conquest.
“Yes. I will. I do.”