This story, which was written before the ban on smoking in public places came into effect, won a minor award in 2001.
It appears in a September 2003 anthology of ghost stories, Queer Haunts.
Smokers may experience a particular shiver as they read...
Friday. Half past seven on an autumn evening. A bar in the city, one of a chain, pine floors, Irish script and bar staff in white and black.
Words and laughter echoing, multiplying, ricocheting.
Couples and groups, mostly young and employed. Clothing from quiet to fashionable, accents from gentle to anonymous.
Men and women lean towards each other, eyes locked. Friends and workmates get drunk, mock bosses, judge popstars and sportsmen. Into any silence questions are thrown: what to do now, where to go, what to eat. Drinks pass from hand to hand, bottles and glasses are emptied. Cigarettes burn slowly. Smoke wafts in the air.
At a table by the window chairs and benches are pushed back, coats pulled on and bags collected. The conversation moves towards the door and the night.
Around the table silence gathers.
A waiter, twenty-four, blue-eyed and dark-haired, with an admirer at the bar and broken hearts all over town, removes stained glasses and crumpled crisp packets. A half-fulll cigarette packet remains. He wipes the table, picks up the pack, looks round, sees no claimant, drops it back onto the glistening surface and returns to anonymity.
The chairs and benches slumber.
The table, ashtray and cigarettes wait.
The door opens. Three men, three women all in their twenties. Four settle at the table, two offer drinks.
Names emerge, attach themselves to faces. Duncan is short, scruffy-haired and almost handsome. Ellen is petite, blonde, pretty, uncertain. Tom is tall, sharp-featured and piercing-eyed, a should-be model. Shona, the oldest, close to thirty, is statuesque and calm, a welcoming port in any storm. Rick, returning from the bar with designer lager, vodka and stimulant, is the gay man recently separated from his lover but beginning to think life is worth living again. Clara, bringing the last of the drinks, is the cynic.
"Thank God for this." "Cheers." "Ta." Glasses raised.
"I've had a hell of week." Clara.
Expressions commiserate at orders not delivered, phone calls not answered, burdens that no-one should have to bear. Shona rummages in her bag, puts it down, disappointed. With relief she reaches for the cigarette pack, waves it in the air. "Anybody's?"
you'd given up." Rick.
She offers the pack round. No takers. The cigarette at her lips, she finds a
lighter, flicks the flame into life and inhales.
cigarette she smoked, at a friend's house at thirteen, an exercise in
adulthood, hit her with the impact of a lorry smashing into a wall. The most
recent, puffed in the street an hour ago, had no more taste than water. This
one has the scent of Araby, the sparkle of champagne, the mist of distant
moors. She looks at the packet. A brand she does not know.
great-aunt died of lung cancer." Duncan.
seem too upset about it." Ellen.
"I have no
intention of dying or leaving you any money." Shona smiles.
Duncan grins back. "Don't need it."
filthy habit." Tom's beauty allows him latitude that women grant to few men.
"Your breath stinks, your clothes stink.."
why God invented chewing-gum and washing-machines." Duncan.
"Cigarettes can be sexy." Rick. "Bette Davis,
cancer. Emphysema." Clara.
bad for you." Ellen. "Even drink."
"I once had
a cousin who drank forty Benson and Hedges a day." Duncan.
conversation swirls as slowly as smoke, dissolving into some sport and the
national team. Tom fascinates Ellen with a comparison of the merits of watching
games live or on television. Rick, Duncan and Clara move on to film and
Hollywood stars. Shona sits in the middle, watching, listening.
She met her own Tom at sixteen. Sitting in a bar with low lighting and high pretensions, only the cigarette and the studied calm with which she occasionally puffed it masked her nerves and embarrassment. "You're cool," said a youth two years older as he stared into her eyes, and coolly she inhaled and coolly she let the smoke dribble from her nostrils. Later that night she ignored the pain with which he took her virginity but in the days that followed she howled in agony when he ignored her phone calls. It was the tobacco which saved her, transforming her regret into anger and anger into contempt. Over the years that contempt subsided and now she is no longer sure which emotion, if any, remains.
She turns to the others. It should be Duncan, she silently tells Rick, you look good together and you're both dependable and fun. But it would never occur to Duncan to dabble on the far side of the blanket. And Clara, my dear, while you might yet strike lucky, you will not do so here. Complain about the world too much and the world will turn a deaf ear.
Another breath. The smoke clears her senses and she looks across the bar, seeing each figure in sharp relief. Clothes melt away, revealing bodies tanned and well-toned or flesh pale and sagging, upright posture or stooping backs predicting failure of tendon and cartilage. Each smoker stands out, lit not by the flame of tobacco but the dull fire of their hearts, sending waves of light through arteries and capillaries to give each skin a warm, insubstantial glow.
That was how she used to feel. As her friends drowned the sweat of aerobics with the scents of the Body Shop, she sat calmly in upmarket bars sipping the latest cocktail, smoking the slimmest cigarettes and entranced by the egos of men half a generation older. Some she let seduce her, from curiosity more than desire. And if she returned home alone, at the end of the night there was always the last cigarette to satisfy at least one of her cravings without the complication of forced conversation or misplaced passion.
She drinks her beer, smiles at Tom and Ellen's increasing intimacy. Tom's telephone rings. He pulls it out, frowns at the number, answers it stuttering like a little boy discovered doing wrong. Another girl, a date he has forgotten, an old flame, a casual encounter that he has yet to conquer. He has not yet mastered the art of lying to one woman in the presence of another. Ellen stares into space, forcing herself not to listen to what she can hear.
Across the table, Duncan is telling the tale of an embarrassing dinner with an MP. At the punchline, Shona laughs and they turn to her, surprised.
"Another drink, anyone?" Duncan, standing up. "Ask now or forever hold thy peace."
Orders are given. Shona looks at her glass, decides not, stubs out her butt, unaware that her right hand is already reaching for the one to follow.
"How's your love life?" Rick to Clara.
"Like mine," Shona adds, and politeness descends as if she were an uninvited guest. What am I missing? she wonders as she embarks on the story of the last man she had hopes of, a Canadian engineer with a mental illness as predictable as showers on a spring day.
The story ends with the common refrain - "it's about time I met someone decent". Relieved, the others return to each other. Now she understands. She has let her defences down. This is not the Shona they know, nor the Shona she imagines herself to be. "Now, wait a second, guys," she wants to say, but she does not do petulant. Instead, she drains the last of her vodka and pulls hard at the half-finished cigarette, inhales lust and longing, romance and regret.
She sits back in her chair, suddenly bored. Looking round the bar again, she notices without noticing who has moved and who has stayed in the same position, who is coming in and where they will sit or stand. The smokers are as distinct as before, only this time it is not their beating hearts and their flowing blood that she sees, but their skeletons, solid, dull and grey, portraits of a death to come. She is less shocked than surprised, overwhelmed by an emotion that lies somewhere between the shiver of fear and the warmth of affection.
Then the vision clears and for a moment she is tempted to seek their companionship, to stand up, go and speak to each of them in turn, listen to their stories, laugh or commiserate. But she has no energy and she turns back to those around her, to Duncan returning and the bounty he brings. With every word they utter and gesture they make, they become more distant, as if they are strangers or have met in a dream. No, it is more mundane than that. She is getting old, and it is not friends she wants, but a lover, a husband, although the word still frightens with its suggestion of finality and fidelity until death.
Another stub extinguished, another fag lit. At least a dozen still wait in the packet, lined up like men sharing a bed. Life should be so simple. Choose a partner, settle down, when he has turned to ash, return to the store for the identical model, or one beefier, taller or less demanding. Stop when you get bored. Start again when the impulse takes you.
Not long ago there almost was a husband, a man who shared her bed and politics, her taste in music and cigarettes. But over the year they were together she grew bored, as he resisted adulthood and she yearned to grow old. When they separated she gave up smoking, as if it had been he, not the tobacco, that was the addiction.
Three weeks ago she realised her twenties were about to leave her forever, the faint cracks that had appeared in a once perfect smile had come to stay. At the end of an evening when she had drunk one glass too many, when the man she had thought unattached had called an unnamed partner to say he was coming home, when she could not find a taxi and rain had begun to fall, she had walked into an off-licence for shelter and walked out with twenty Dunhill. The first one calmed her, the second was an old friend. The third she could not remember. The fourth and fifth brought back memory, the sixth and seventh excitement. Cigarettes gave her life, cigarettes gave her life meaning. Without cigarettes she might as well die.
She comes back to the present as if a lifetime has passed. Ellen and Tom are so close as to be ready to leave. They will sit for an hour in one of the restaurants nearby where couples cocoon themselves in candlelight and wine. Afterwards, perhaps, they will go to a nightclub, although Tom is too impatient to dance and all Ellen wants is to hold him at night and wake up in the morning and forgive him his stubble and bad breath. Sex she does not think about, afraid that when it comes it will be less bonus than drawback.
The smoke settles against the walls of Shona's lungs as gently as a feather wafting onto snow, seeps into her bloodstream as sweetly as honey and drifts idly onwards as a slow-moving stream on a summer's day. She is floating, at peace, detached from the world.
There is laughter on her right. Clara, grasping Duncan's arm as she giggles. It means nothing. It should be Ellen at Duncan's side and Clara about to leave with Tom. Duncan would never disappoint Ellen and Clara would have no illusions about Tom's intentions. She would take him home, pull him onto her and kick him out in the morning. Two days later he would wonder why she did not return his calls. If they could each get beyond each other's armour, they might be good for each other. She would ground him; with his wings clipped, he would mature, become, to his own surprise, a devoted husband and father.
As for Rick... He has the combination of wit, humour and intelligence that she seeks. Perhaps if they went out together, she might work a miracle, persuade him of the virtues of vagina and breasts. If all else fails, she can be the classic fag hag until he finds his Mr Right. The classic fag hag even after he has found him.
"Go on to a club afterwards, shall we, Rick?" she says, her voice a mock seductive whisper. Rick does not hear. She will ask again when they leave and if he has other plans make her way home. With thirty channels of television and a bottle of vodka her options are open.
Across the bar the scene has shifted again. People are more relaxed. Hands and bodies are closer, opinions louder and only occasionally offensive. The staff move quickly and efficiently, enjoying the buzz, looking forward to the tips at the end of the evening. A group of smokers in a corner hands round cigarettes like sweets among children. Their shapes shift, revealing not skin and skeletons but buried spots and stains, tumours and ulcers. Some are barely visible, others are large and bright. All cling to their hosts like limpets, enveloping organs and sinews. One or two twitch, grow imperceptibly. She looks up, but the faces reveal nothing, laugh and talk unaware of the parasites within.
Fascinated, she takes a long draught of smoke that for a moment clears her vision. "Do you see that?" she asks the others, but they pay no attention. "Do you see that?" she repeats, louder, but she can hardly hear her own voice. Suddenly, panic seizes her. What if she is harbouring one of these creatures, what if the cancer is already eating her away? What if her future has already been destroyed, if death really lurks in the cigarette she holds?
Across the table, half a lifetime away, is a man she once knew. "Rick!" she shouts, but the word is silent. Her glance falls. Her clothes have fallen away, her hands, her arms, her body are ghostly grey. As she stares at the flesh, it begins to dissolve, become almost transparent. Only the half-smoked cigarette is real, floating up in a half-formed hand to rest on insubstantial lips.
She is desperate to speak, but her mouth, her jaw, are numb. Beside her, Tom and Ellen have stood up and he is helping her with her coat. Rick and the others get up. They speak to each other but Shona hears nothing. "Hey," she tries to call as they walk away, but her lungs are motionless. She is not breathing, she cannot breathe, breath is no longer necessary.
"Hey," she tries again, "wait for me," She would stand but she has no legs, push herself up but she has no arms, move but has no body, think but has no...
On the threshold, Clara looks back to check they have left nothing but only empty glasses, a half-filled ashtray and open cigarette packet remain. As the door closes behind her, a cloud of smoke hovering over the table drifts apart. A waitress comes over, collects the glassware. The pack she leaves for someone else to pick up.