So, it seems unfair, somehow, to write about life out here with the In-Laws staying while they’re actually still here. Instead, I thought I’d raid my archives for my favourite short story. By that I mean one that I wrote and actually like. It’s been a long time since I wrote any short stories, but it’s something I like to think I’ll go back to when the right idea arrives. This one came out exactly as I wanted, and I think it was published somewhere in some format. One day I may try to find out what happened before or after.
And then he woke up and found it had all been a dream. The sunlight yellowed the aging curtains and flung arms of shadow across the cluttered floor. Lying unmoving, he struggled to retain the fractured, fleeing images. A bad way to begin the day, losing memories of joy.
By the time the back door thudded shut behind him the sunlight had already slunk away. Grey skies stretched overhead now, promising rain. Nice to have a promise kept, he thought. His pace lengthened, though he had no real destination in mind. Since she’d gone his days had become time to be filled, an unwelcome interruption in his sleep pattern. The rain fell and he let it come down, wishing someone would see how it fell on him in particular, soaking into his clothes, washing down his face. But what’s the point of suffering in silence? Lights beckoned in the grey distance and he hastened on.
It was a café. Plastic seats, badly written menus scrawled on painted blackboards advertising unremarkable specials. He bought a cup of coffee for the heat it offered, which was just as well since it seemed to have lost all flavour on the short walk to a seat. He watched the steam rise from the orange brown liquid and felt a similar steam lifting from his sodden trousers. The steam rose like the cigarette smoke from the next table and he felt a sudden unreasoning desire to smoke. He couldn’t remember when he’d last had a cigarette, couldn’t remember why he’d quit or even if he’d liked smoking, but he wanted one now. Wanted the occupation of unwrapping the pack, the anticipation of sliding out that smooth cylinder from nineteen identical brothers. A wonder of design, the brown filter actually a patchwork of tans, ochres, stone, taupe. He stared at the stream of smoke, licking his lips and remembering the lightheadedness that accompanied his first drag in days. What would that be like now? A year or more, surely, since his last one. His heart quickened with a junkie’s desire and he felt a rush of heat at the knowledge that he was going to give in to this need, whatever else he did that day, he was going to buy the cigarettes and smoke the whole damn pack. Maybe he would do just that, buy a pack in the shop round the corner, come back here for another coffee and smoke all twenty, one after another. So what if the buzz is gone after the first, hell, what else did he have to do today?
“You look like a man who’s given up.”
The voice was low, amused. It took him a second to come out of his fugue and locate it. The woman who was smoking regarded him with dark eyes. He felt them on his face, felt their passage, heard the vibrant cry of her carmine lipstick, lost himself in the maze of lazy looping black hair that tumbled out of sight behind her shoulders.
She waved the lit cigarette and he was entranced by her smooth wrist, the tension of the tendons in her hand. The glow of the cigarette’s tip shone in her eyes.
“It’s a hard habit to break – you’re never a non-smoker, you’re a smoker who isn’t smoking. Right?”
“It’s been a while.”
They traded stares, his open and unguarded, beguiled and frank. Hers was curious, suspicious and a touch defiant. She nodded, as if agreeing with something he hadn’t said. Her cuticles were a translucent white, the nails uncoloured, and he followed their path as she raised the cigarette to her lips. Her eyes, those fabulous eyes, squinted half shut against the smoke curling up and he was so distracted he didn’t see what she was doing until she held the new, untouched cigarette out to him. He looked at it, the effort of refocusing causing him to lean back a little. She laughed at him, the cigarette shaking in her outstretched fingers and he suddenly snatched at it. Fearful, lest it should fall, angry that she found him laughable. He examined the gift, hoping he had not creased the perfect tube in his haste. Some tobacco was protruding from the end and he pushed at it with his fingertip. It loosened further and he left it, not wanting to lose any. Looking up, he found the eyes of his donor.
“It has been a while, hasn’t it, Quitter?”
“Can I have a light?”
She pulled her chair round to join him at his table, reaching back for a bag and coffee cup, then one more time for a silver lighter. The bag went on the floor. The coffee cup, already half empty, was pushed to the edge of the table. She slid the lighter across to him and it arrived spinning. He watched the lights glinting on it, catching in the design etched on the surface. A skull and crossbones? No, some other thing, a skull with a dagger through it, a military emblem of some sort. He flicked his eyes up, tapping the design.
“Should I salute? Or run for cover?”
“Stole it off an old boyfriend. Only thing he had I wanted.”
A million replies sprang to mind, funny quips, sharp questions, worldly wise throwaways, but he left them ashes in the pit of his mind. He’d used them all once, when he was someone else, with someone else. He picked up the lighter, opening the cover and thumbing the wheel. The flame was orange and flushed the scent of paraffin before it.
“Do you want me to hold that for you?”
She was sounding amused again. He raised the cigarette to his lips, felt the heat from the lighter as he brought it close. The cigarette was fresh, he heard no crackle as the flame kissed the tip. A deep breath, his eyes on hers as the smoke rushed down. A second’s hesitation, heighten the anticipation, wait, wait. Now breathing out, through the nose, an old friend’s wisdom recalled in the moment
“You pass the smoke out through your nose, the nicotine reaches your brain quicker.”
And there it was, like a punch to the back of his head. The room retreats a pace, the vision of dark-haired beauty before him wavers slightly and his eyes water.
He can smell the smoke on his breath as he speaks. He’s taking another drag, adding another layer to the fog he’s in and she’s reaching for his hand, her fingers cool on his wrist.
“Steady, Quitter, they’re strong enough.”
Was it the touch making him giddy now? He couldn’t move the wrist she held and he watched the cigarette burning down. The waste, after all this time, the drug he suddenly wanted being released into the uncaring air!
“You didn’t come out today looking for cigarettes.”
“But I found them.”
“Maybe I found you.”
“Was I what you were looking for?”
He was answering by rote, watching the dissolution of the cigarette he held, feeling the electricity of her fingertips. One finger slowly moved, tracing a circle on his wrist bone. In a sudden movement he swept his left hand over the table. He let the cigarette drop from his right, scooping it out of the air and into his mouth. Her grip tightened and her mouth dropped open. He heard her gasp, surprise rushing out of her, carrying the tang of smoke to him. Gently now he took the cigarette from his mouth with his left hand, moved his captive right to her chin and drew her forward across the table to him. Their lips met and he filled her mouth with his smoke. She pressed her lips to his, never releasing his wrist but pressing with her fingers too. He felt a circuit being completed, the flow from her fingertips down his arm, through his mouth and back into her, the smoke his returning of her gift.
They broke apart and she smiled, exhaling smoke through her nose and sliding her fingers up his hand to his fingertips. He caught her hand before she could withdraw it completely. She muttered something he didn’t catch.
“My heart will be the bridge that you walk over.”
“What does that mean?”
“You’ll use me to get over her, whoever she was.”
“Maybe I just did.”
She pulled her hand free and reached into the bag. Dropping the pack of cigarettes, two remaining, onto the table, she met his gaze.
“I have another pack at home.”
Thanks to Natalie Imbruglia for supplying a vital line in this narrative.