WRITE ACROSS SUSSEX: Smoke screen

Write Across Sussex

Write Across Sussex

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by Andrea Hargreaves

Another entry in our Write Across Sussex competition.

There’s a brisk damp breeze blowing in from the pale, white-flecked sea but she doesn’t feel it. She doesn’t feel anything much, sitting in a green plastic chair adorned with seagull droppings on the narrow litter-strewn shared balcony outside the kitchen door of their top floor flat. She raises her right hip to fumble in the pocket of faded jeans that once fitted her but have now grown too big for her shrinking frame, and pulls out Rizlas and a small green and gold pouch of Golden Virginia rolling tobacco. Like most things relating to her own health and well being she is indifferent to the packet’s ‘Smoking Kills’ large-lettered warning. Slumped down again, with tired eyes half shut and her back to the weak April sun, she deftly extracts a rolling paper, pinches out a thin trail of tobacco from the packet, places it on the paper and with practised thumb and a middle finger that bears the yellowing stain of nicotine, spreads it out. Engaged in a ritual she repeats upwards of 40 times a day, she rests her index finger in the crease to hold the paper down in her left hand, using her right to make the paper into a half-pipe shape. Then, using her free hand, she delicately places the tobacco on the paper. Leaving some hanging over the ends she takes hold of the paper with the other hand, resting it between her middle finger and her thumb. She now removes her right index finger so the paper is resting between the index and thumb of both hands, her thumbs holding the unrolled cigarette so it is positioned a little bit to the underside of the middle fingers. Only now can she begin deftly rolling the cigarette between her thumb and middle fingers. When satisfied that the tobacco is in its proper shape she pulls her thumbs downward so the edge of the paper aligns with the top of the tobacco, increasing the rotation without creasing the bottom of the paper until the front edge tucks snugly behind the tobacco as she begins to roll. When only the glued edge remains she puts out the tip of her cracked, beige-tipped tongue and licks the paper to seal her roll-up. Lastly she pinches off the strands of tobacco protruding from the ends.

Raising her hip again to retrieve a red plastic petrol lighter, she flicks down on the tab, bends to the flame, instinctively gauging the wind direction and shielding herself from it, lights her cigarette, sucks firmly but lightly on its fragile slender end, and inhales deeply.

Her need temporarily met, she squints across at the clock face on the church tower. One fifteen. Fifteen minutes late.

Then the phone rings. Cigarette clamped between her thin wide lips she bears down on the arms of the chair and heaves herself up to answer it in the kitchen. Standing hunched over it, she counts to twelve double rings then takes the device from its dock on the wall and presses the ‘call end’ button. She waits there, knowing it will ring again. It does. This time she picks it up immediately but says nothing. Ten seconds later it rings again. She answers after five rings.

Not bothering to remove the cigarette, she rasps: “Where on earth have you been?”

“At a meeting. It went on...”

“I don’t want to hear your excuses. You’ve been with her haven’t you. Don’t you even think of trying to deny it. If you can’t call me at one then that proves to me that that’s where you are, sneaking off. Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing behind my back. Where do you meet? In the back of that van?”

“Sweetheart, you’ve got it all wrong. It’s...”

She slams the phone into its rest. Blood is surging in her ears, her chest is tight, her body feels like a pressure cooker with no vent for its steam. She takes a deep drag on her cigarette and control returns. He’ll pay for this, she thinks, going over to the drawer next to the stained stainless steel sink where she keeps her kitchen tools and knives. She jerks open the drawer, rattling the jumbled contents, plunges her right hand inside and cuts the soft part of her thumb on the tip of a pointed blade. Putting her cigarette on an unwashed plate she sucks briefly at the wound, muttering “It’s all his fault,” takes out the paring knife and stares at the smear of blood on its sharp blade. She imagines him coming home from work, approaching her in the kitchen where she is peeling potatoes for their supper, ready to greet her with his customary kiss, being unaware of the knife she is concealing by her side. She visualises the slight resistance the blade will make to the fabric of his jeans before it pierces the pale muscular flesh of his left outer thigh. She needs to make him see that he must love her, her alone, has to love her whatever she does to him, because if he does not then she is nothing.

The galley kitchen’s worktop is cluttered with plates, cutlery and pans that he had washed up and dried after dinner the previous evening but did not put away because he was called out to a woman whose bathroom had flooded. At least that was what he had said, but she didn’t believe him. How can any woman resist his charm and good looks? She’s heard him flirting with his female customers, exchanging quips and making them laugh. How dare he think about any other woman the way he thinks about her? She’s got to be the only one in his life.

Also on the worktop is his laptop. She switches it on and goes to his address book. She works deliberately through the list from Andrews, Francis to Welch, Barbara, deleting the details of all the female customers, then shuts it down again before making herself a mug of black instant coffee and preparing and smoking another roll-up.

She moves into their small lounge, suddenly irritated by the fresh brown stain on the cream carpet. His fault, she reflects. If he hadn’t made her so angry by making an excuse to go out and see that slut then she wouldn’t have thrown her coffee at him. She lies down on the shabby sofa, turns on the TV, flicks idly through the channels and settles down to let a procession of afternoon property shows drift in and out of her consciousness.

At 5pm the phone rings again. She goes into the kitchen and picks it up.

“Just leaving now, back in thirty traffic willing,” he says. “Anything you need from the shop?” Why’s he so cheerful, she thinks. What’s he got to hide?

“No, I’ve got everything I need. Anyway, I’ve got a bit of a surprise for you,” she replies, then puts the phone down. Her heart thudding, she wrenches open the knife drawer, takes out the paring knife, still rustily smudged with her blood, and puts it down on the worktop. She has time for one more roll-up before she his love is put to the test.

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