One Story About Smoking
A short story by Stuart Evers from his collection, Ten Stories About Smoking.
A short story by Stuart Evers from his collection, Ten Stories About Smoking.
What's in Swindon?
The last time I'd seen Angela Fulton she was leaving Wigan's World Famous Winter Wonderland dragging a three-foot stuffed rabbit through a field of dirty fake snow. I'd won the luckless animal for her moments earlier, but it had not proved the conciliatory gesture I'd hoped. Instead, Angela had stormed off in exasperation and hurled the rabbit onto a pile of rubbish sacks by the exit. I watched her leave and in an impotent rage headed to the refreshment tent and got drunk on mulled wine. By the time I got home, all of her possessions were gone.
We were in our early twenties then, the two of us pale and skinny and living in an exacting proximity to each other. We knew no one else in Wigan, and made no effort to mix with people outside of our respective jobs. Instead we sat in our smoky one-room flat, talking, occasionally fighting and in the evenings making love. Afterwards, by the light of a low wattage bulb, we'd inspect our bodies: the constellations of bruises our bones had made.
How we endured such isolation for so long is hard to say. I suspect now that we found it somehow romantic to live such a shabby, closed-off life. We had no television, no phone; just our books and an inherited Roberts radio that only picked up Radio 4 and John Peel. There was the odd excursion to Liverpool and Manchester, to the Lakes and the Wirral, but for the most part we stayed indoors, paralysed by the intimacy of our affair.
Of course, it could not last, and those last few months were unbearable, horrible. Without either of us noticing it, the real world slowly began to encroach. I started to go out on my own and come back late at night, drunk and insensible. Angela would disappear for hours without ever divulging where she was going. To spite her, one evening I came home with a second-hand television set and placed it pride of place on the dresser. In retaliation, Angela insulted the way I looked, the length of my hair, the state of my clothes, the number of cigarettes that I smoked, my childish sense of humour. One night she threw a book at my head and called me a thoughtless fucking cunt. The next morning neither of us could remember what I was supposed to have done.
Angela was not my first love, nor I hers; but it felt like we should have been. Years later, I would imagine her laughing at the appearance of my new girlfriend; in idle moments wonder whether she still dressed the same way. Late at night I'd remember her naked body, picturing her with a waxed bikini line that she'd never had. In such moments, I would consider trying to find her again, but didn't have a clue where to begin. Still, the compulsion was there: like a seam of coal, buried yet waiting to be mined.
That morning I left my house and took the Underground to work, bought a coffee and drank it at my desk while reading the newspaper. At 9 a.m. there was the usual departmental meeting, which was swiftly followed by a conference call. I ate my lunch in the courtyard and then browsed in a bookshop. When I arrived back in the office I had nineteen voicemails: three of which were just the sound of a phone being replaced on its cradle.
I answered the emails, returned the phone messages and was about to make my afternoon cup of tea when the phone rang again. It was a number I didn't recognize. I hesitated, then picked up the receiver. There was a pause and then a woman's voice asked for Marty. She was the only one who'd ever called me Marty.
Angela sounded exactly as she had before, and I recalled for a moment the way she used to breathe heavily in my ear. She asked me how I was and I stuttered, then stood up for no good reason. There was a pause, a long one. Eventually, I asked her how she'd got my number.
‘You're on the Internet,' she said.
‘I'm on the Internet?' I said.
‘Everyone's on the Internet,' she said.
I asked her what she wanted. She asked if I was with someone. I said no, not really. She told me she'd booked us a hotel. I asked where. She said Swindon.
‘What's in Swindon?' I said.
‘I will be.'
‘I'm not sure,' I said. ‘I mean—'
‘Oh come on,' Angela said, ‘we both know you're going to say yes, so why waste the time?'
I had never been to Swindon before, and all things considered, it is unlikely I will ever go to Swindon again. On the train, there was something about the look on the passengers' faces, a certain kind of blankness. I burrowed into my seat and took out a newspaper, but realized I'd read it all at breakfast. Instead I went to the buffet car and came back with some Chinese nuts and a can of Bass. In the silent carriage, I apologetically opened the can and crunched the snacks. I tried the crossword, but couldn't concentrate on even the simplest clue.
We arrived and in the midst of a stream of impatient commuters, I made my way out of the station. The line for the taxis was long and I waited behind a couple recently reunited by the 17.04 from Cardiff. The woman had her hand in the man's back pocket, and he was kissing her. Even in Swindon, I thought, train station kisses are the most romantic of all.
Eventually I got a cab, and the driver tried to engage me in conversation – something about bus lanes – but I ignored him and looked out the window, hugging my overnight bag to my chest. Swindon looked like a business park that had got out of hand. There was an eerie, almost American sadness to it; the entertainment parks, the shopping malls, the parades of smoked glass office blocks, their windows reflecting the dying sun. The hotel was at the intersection of several arterial roads, a squat building cowering against the flow of traffic.
The hotel lobby was shockingly bright, decorated with plasticky blonde wood. The receptionist – a young man with ginger stubble – was sullen and gittish. I told him there was a reservation in the name of Fulton and he puffed out his cheeks.
‘Yes, that's correct, sir. However, the reservation appears to be for a Ms Fulton, sir. And we require the person named on the reservation to be present before any party can take possession of their room or rooms,' he said.
‘Did Angela not put my name down as well?'
‘Evidently not,' the receptionist said and waving his hand answered the ringing telephone.
I stood there not knowing exactly what to do. ‘I'm so sorry,' the receptionist said into the receiver, ‘would you mind holding for one moment, madam?' He turned to me.
‘Sir, why don't you wait for your friend in the bar?' he said, pointing to some double doors. I picked up my holdall and followed his outstretched arm.
The bar was just as plasticky and woody, and just as garishly lit. There was a drunken party of young women sitting around a huge round table and three Japanese businessmen silently drinking Stella Artois. I ordered a gin and tonic. It felt like the right kind of drink to be seen with by an ex-lover – from a distance it could easily be sparkling water. The barman was sullen and gittish. He tried to get me to order some olives. I ordered some olives.
Angela arrived soon after. She looked older, but in a good way. Her hair was kinky and her eyes fizzed like Coca-Cola. She stood at the bar and drank the remainder of my gin and tonic.
‘Say nothing,' she said and took me by the hand.
The bedroom was brown and cream and functional. She sparkled in her silver dress and pushed me against the wall. For a moment we were twenty again. She guided us both back to a time when we didn't need to worry about interest rates and love handles, pensions and cancer, stunted ambitions and broken dreams. I made sure that she came first; I could have done it with my eyes closed.
After we were finished, she looked at me expectantly and rolled over. I held her tightly and she leaned herself back into me. She smelled of sex and shampoo; her breasts heavier in my hands.
‘Hello,' she said, ‘I've missed you.'
She interrupted me with a long, sloppy kiss, which she then abruptly curtailed. She put her hands on my chest and then on my face, like she was piecing me together from scrap.
‘But . . . no, this is all wrong,' she said. ‘Something's not right. I feel . . . ' she shivered. ‘I can't explain it.' Angela bent down and kissed me again, experimentally.
‘You smell . . . I don't know, wrong,' she said, sniffing my skin.
‘What, like bad?'
‘No. Just not like you.' She looked puzzled for a moment then glanced at the bedside table.
‘Did you quit smoking?' she said, like it was an accusation.
I laughed. ‘About five years ago now.'
‘Quit? I never thought you'd quit. Not ever.'
I didn't like the maddened look in her eyes: she was naked, but not in a good way.
‘Well I did.'
I put my hand to her hip and she looked at me as though I had deceived her.
‘Do you still drive that Vauxhall Viva?' she said.
‘It was a Hillman. And that's long gone. You don't need a car in London.'
She pulled up the bedsheets and put her head in her hands.
‘I never should have done this,' she said, ‘it was a terrible, terrible idea.' She turned her back on me then and made her way to the en suite bathroom. She had cellulite on her thighs. It was sexy in a way that women just don't understand.
‘I don't get it,' I said to the closed door. ‘You spent the whole time we were together bitching about how much I smoked and how bad it was for me and how much it stank, and now . . .' She opened the door wearing a white towel. The shower was running.
‘Look, Marty,' she said, picking up her abandoned clothes. ‘I wasn't going to say anything, but the truth is that I'm getting married.' She smiled, tiredly. ‘Or at least I was thinking about getting married. But then out of nowhere, I started thinking about you. About those years we had. And what I have with Declan, well it's not like that. Nothing could be like that. So I had to see. I couldn't let it just go. Couldn't let it just disappear into nothing. I hoped that, you know, that it would all just slot back into place, but . . .'
‘Look at us,' she said. ‘We're not children any more. In my head, you're this romantic, childish, impossible boy with all these impossible dreams. But that's not you. Not any more. And I can't bring him back. And even if I could, could you really live like that again?'
‘Yes,' I said. ‘Yes I could. And if that's all it is, I could start again. I could start right now!'
‘You know there's more to it than that.'
She laughed and closed the bathroom door. As the water fell I imagined her getting married, the flowers in her hair and the string ensemble playing as she walked down the aisle. Her husband a lunk of a man; his head shaved and looking like a security guard in his hired suit and tails.
When she came back into the room, Angela was fully dressed, her hair wet at the ends. She picked up her overnight bag.
‘I'm sorry, Marty, I just needed to know,' she said and kissed me lightly on the cheek.
She shut the door behind her and I went to the window to see her drive away. Across the bypass, a twenty-four-hour supermarket glowed red and blue. I pulled on my jeans and headed out to get supplies.