The last few embers glowed at the end of the cigarette. He held it just above the ashtray, piled high with stubbed ends and loose tobacco which had spilled out from the cracks where the paper had not been properly sealed. As the paper started to burn and crackle, he lifted the short and thick cigarette up towards his mouth, held it to his pursed lips, and dragged hard, making it burn quickly as air passed through it and the smoke was pulled into his lungs. He removed the cigarette and stubbed it out in the ashtray, holding the smoke in his lungs and tilting his head back. He looked up towards the dim light that glowed in the centre of the room, and tried to see the cream ceiling through the thick smoke which had gathered. He watched the swirling patterns in the smoke, tried to imagine images forming, and then blew the smoke out and high towards the ceiling. He watched for several seconds as the smoke rose and mingled, creating new shapes, then looked back down to the seats opposite him.
Julie was sitting in the inflatable chair, her legs crossed and with an empty soft drink can in the small dip this created. She was probably only twenty, and was smoking with energy, with enthusiasm as she talked quickly to James who sat next to her. He was more relaxed, laying back in his seat and shifting his gaze between Julie and the television that flickered in the corner. James started to move for his pocket as he had noticed that a cigarette had just gone out, and pulled out a small tin which contained all kinds of paraphernalia. As he did this, Julie continued to talk to him, fervently brushing the hair away from her face as it rolled down from her head, trying to find its way out of the tight pony tail she had tied it up in.
She looked so young and fresh. As she dragged on the cigarette, he watched her face contort, he watched the orange glow light up her face and cast shadows. Then she would blow the smoke away to her side, and continue talking as the fire burned further down towards her fingers, then repeat again. He wondered why she would always come round here to talk to two thirty year olds when she had many
other people she could talk to. People who would probably want to talk to her and listen to her, rather than sit with her and let her talk.
"Why do you come her Julie?" he asked, accepting the cigarette from James.
She turned to him and laughed. "What do you mean?"
"Well, it's not like you're starved of people to speak to is it? You could probably have your pick of who you want to speak to. Why hang around with us?" He picked up the box of matches that sat next to him on the small table, struck one against the box and lit the cigarette. It flared orange in the flame, and he blew on it to calm down the fire before taking his first drag.
"Well, most of the people I've met are just morons. They don't have the first clue about what's going on." James laughed, the smoke rolling out of his mouth as his body shook. He tipped more ash into his ashtray and sat back again, bringing the cigarette back up to his mouth and taking a drag. It would carry on like this every evening. They would come home from work, sit in their armchairs and start skinning up as Neighbours ended. They finished their first, and then Julie would come round to talk about what she had been doing that day, the books she had read, lectures she'd been to, and how terrible the world was turning out to be. Clive watched her again as she shook her head with disgust, regaling James with various stories of children who were having bad lives, with areas of the world that should be better but someone at the top was letting them die just so that they could make an extra penny. This was the normal pattern. She would talk non-stop, only breaking to take another drag or to go to the toilet. James would sit quietly in the seat, changing channels in the middle of programmes, or suggesting they watch a video. Clive would watch them, and occasionally ask Julie a question. It would be a simple process: one question, one answer, and no follow up. It worked this way. They gave each other support, and knew what everyone was doing and where they were coming from. There was no need to wonder what they should be doing as everyone knew their place. Eventually Julie would go home, and a couple of hours later, they'd go to bed. Clive checked his watch. It was eleven thirty, and soon it would be pizza time.
"Who wants pizza?" asked James.
Everyone agreed, and Julie went to the phone. Clive watched his hand as the latest joint burned down towards his fingers again. It was so slow, almost impossible to see as the fire worked its way down towards his stained fingers, and threatened to burn him every time. He watched the small flecks of tobacco fly into the air and burn into ash, then get scattered across the room as they flew on the drafts that came through the door. He took another drag, and watched the orange fire in front of his eyes as he sucked in, then quickly moved his hand so that he could watch it cool down again and turn into a glowing ember. He would always watch the paper burn. When he was ill a few weeks ago, he had sit in bed smoking all day, and had listened to the paper burn. It was a crisp sound, as it someone was slowly tearing the paper apart fibre by fibre. He flicked his gaze over to the TV. The sound was down, and he could just hear the voices of actors above the wheezing of James' breathing.
"You should sort yourself out mate."
"Yeah. Sorted." James grinned up at him, his eyes blood red.
"No, not sorted. You should sort yourself out. You sound like you're about to die." Clive dragged again.
"I am nowhere near dying. I'm one hundred per cent well, and no-one is going to get me yet." He had leant forward slightly to deliver this line, and he leant back in his seat again, coughing as he slowly moved, taking ten seconds to move one foot. "I am totally well mate. Never felt better."
"You sound it. Go to a doctor."
"No way. If I go to the doctor, they'll ask if I smoke or take drugs, I'll say 'Of course I do, who doesn't?' and there's no way they'll give me anything. They'll probably kick me out." James continued to lay back in the seat, smiling, and glancing up at Clive as he spoke.
"Well, your loss. If you get flu or anything, you won't be able to smoke. You'll have to drink juice and eat bran all day." He stubbed out the joint, and made himself comfortable in the seat.
"No way mate. I'm born to run."
They looked at each other and smiled. Clive stood up, shakily, and wandered over to the stereo as James turned off the TV. At the cabinet, Clive turned on the machine and started to look through the tapes. He found the battered case that he'd had for about ten years, took out the tape and started to play it. As the guitars started, Clive and James looked at each other, still smiling.
"Classic rock." said James.
Julie entered the room, waving a menu in her hand. "They said it will take forty five minutes. You're not playing this again are you?"
"Classic rock," repeated James, his hand tapping out a beat which didn't seem to fit in with the tune they were listening to.
"I'm popping off," said Clive, nodding to the others as he stepped into the corridor. As he shut the door, he heard Julie start talking again, trying to be heard above the music. Clive walked slowly up the hallway, running his hands against the turquoise painted walls. He looked at the painting to his left. He had bought it at a car boot sale for twenty pence, and hoped that one day it would be worth something. It was of an old man sitting in a chair, and he had never heard of the artist. He stopped to have a look at looked at the pencil work that showed the lines on his face, the streaks coming away from his eyes where the skin had got old and couldn't stretch anymore. The stubble on his face seemed to be growing out of the picture, and Clive watched as it shifted in front of him, his eyes unable to cope with the soft pencil strokes. He was sure the painting would be worth something in the future, and everyone would realise he was a genius.
He walked on, and went into the toilet. He locked the door, pulled down his trousers and sat down. In here it was cool, and his head started to clear. He looked at the shower curtains and the three ducks that James had put on the wall, flying upwards towards the ceiling. He rubbed his hand through his hair, then stood up, pulled up his trousers and pulled the chain to flush the toilet. As the water flushed through the bowl, he walked over to the sink to wash his hands with the odd ends of soap they used for the wash basin. The lather built up quickly in the hot water, and he rinsed his hands under the cold water, feeling the water pour over his hands. As he shook them dry, he glanced up into the mirror. The lines on his face streaked out from his eyes. He looked closer, and saw that deep grooves were starting to show on the skin, like pencil marks drawn on his face. He picked up a towel, dried his hands, and pulled the skin on his face down towards his chin. When he released it, it moved back, but seemed to be moving slowly. He tried again, and again. He pulled the skin down, out and up, trying to see what was going on. After a few minutes, he stopped, realising what he was doing, and that there was no point. He moved closer to the mirror, almost pressing his face against it. His breath created misty patterns as he tried to look even closer, as she tried to look at his own eyes. They were heavily blood shot, and the magnificent blue had started to turn pale. He had once heard that the life of a person is seen in their eyes.
"In that case, you're a zombie," he said to himself, and moved away from the mirror. He reached for the lock on the door, pulled it back, and let himself out.
In the corridor he could still hear the music, but Julie's voice had stopped talking. He walked slowly back up the hall and glanced towards the picture again. As he got to it, he reached out his hand and turned it around so that it faced the wall. He walked up to the door, and stepped back in the room. He walked straight into the smoke cloud that was hovering around the ceiling, and his eyes watered slightly. He rubbed them, and noticed that James and Julie had gone. Sitting down in the inflatable chair, he reached into his pocket, pulling out his own tin. He took out everything he heeded, and started to roll again. The tobacco went into the gummed papers, and he sealed it all up. In his watering eyes, it appeared as if everything had gone perfectly. He pulled out the box of matches, and looked at the room again. Off colour walls, mismatched coverings and decorations, and three posters that tried to hang from the walls, but kept coming off in the damp. The TV was flickering silently in front of him, some kind of comedy, maybe a farce. The reception was terrible, and half the buttons didn't work. The stereo was playing an album from the eighties that he listened to at least once a week. He was sitting in a smoke filled room, forgetting things, and he was alone.
Nobody to talk to, and not caring. He went for the matches again, and then heard Julie groaning from inside James' room, punctuated by the occasional grunt from James. With a swift movement he picked everything up, and grabbed his coat that was hanging off the back of a seat. With a quick glance to James' door, he put on his jacket and headed for the front door. The night air hit him as he walked up the short garden path, and the concrete slabs that welcomed him home every day. Opening the rusty gate, he turned right on to the street. Although it wasn't a main road, the traffic came through here constantly, taking a short cut rather than stopping at the traffic lights, so you always had to take care, especially when you'd spent the evening trying to destroy your brain. He heard a car approaching with a load drum bass shaking the windows, and watched as it rushed past him towards the other end of the street. He looked both ways, and crossed across to the other side. Just up on the corner was the newsagent, and he could see the light still on in the twenty-four hour store. He avoided the small puddles that had gathered in the street, and looked at the yellow glimmer that came from the street lamps. Looking back at the house, he could see the lamp on in James' bedroom, and imagined seeing the shadows of two people moving against the window. But all he could see was the tattered net curtain and the brown curtain behind. Walking down the street, he paused to stroke the ginger cat with large paws, and walked into the newsagent.
Whenever he came in to the store the late staff were watching a video on the small portable they kept behind the counter. He heard the tell tale signs of a car screeching around a corner, and the Hollywood interpretation of a gunshot. He smiled at them, and the two young men smiled back, before going back to their viewing. Clive walked up to the refrigerator where they kept the drink, and he looked over the limp pasties and stale scotch eggs. He moved the yoghurts out of the way, and looked for a high sugar food. There were low fat desserts, there were healthy bio-pots, and it took him some while to find a chocolate trifle. It was maybe enough for two or three people, so he bought it and reminded himself to eat as much as he could before James realised he didn't have one. He looked at the drinks, and reached for a large bottle of cola: shop's own brand that
would only set him back a few pence. On to the magazines, he looked over the pictures and the arrangements of the magazines in their own areas. The rack started with computer magazines, then turned into sport and music. He looked at the pictures, of the infamous bands and faceless DJs who adorned the covers. There was one which offered a free disc of music, and he picked it up, looking at the cover and deciding that he needed to listen to something more modern, something that hadn't been battered over the years. As he walked up the aisle, the pictures of near naked woman stared down from the lifestyle magazines. He picked up three, and looked at the pictures. Each cover had a similar story of a young girl who enjoyed taking her clothes off, and each one looked the same. He flicked through a couple of pages to spot a difference, looking to see what he could learn from reading them. after a few minutes, and some detailed examination, he put them all back and picked up a woman's magazine and a TV guide.
His arms now laden with reading material, he looked at the instant food, and decided to buy a loaf of bread. Pressing them all gently, he decided the packaged loaves were going stale and would have the slightly artificial taste of bleached flour. There was one unsliced loaf left, sitting in a plastic bag that let it breathe. As he pressed it, the crust broke and small flakes fell off into the wrapper. He picked it up, placing it into his growing pile, and then turned to the soup. So much meat, and only tomato soup on offer. He walked past to the sauces, and picked up a cheap bottle of tomato sauce. The deep red had dark flecks in, and he turned the pot around. As it turned, the sauce moved and the dark flecks moved with it. He held it up to the light, watching the neon strips reflecting off the glass, and the thick blended tomato and basil moved in front of his eyes. The basil was swallowing up the light, making the bottle darker than it should be. At the edge of his sight he saw the darkness coming in, starting to fill his vision. It seemed that the bottle was getting bigger and
bigger in his hand. Before it was too late, he looked away.
He walked round to the freezer, and looked at the flavours of ice-cream. This was the sweet food he wanted. He looked at the trifle he had picked up, and looked back at the ice cream. Between vanilla, strawberry and chocolate he saw a single tub of blackberry ice-cream. He reached over, and dropped the music magazine into the chiller. He picked both items up, and wandered over to the snack food. Two bars of random chocolate and a tube of crisps, then over to the counter. The assistants had turned down the volume of the TV as he approached, but he could still hear the profanities coming from the speaker. One of the men took his items and started putting them through the scanner. Clive took out his wallet, and got his card ready.
"Can I have a mix of the usual." The other man turned to the cigarettes, and picked up some loose tobacco, cigarette papers, and a box of matches, placing them with the rest of the shopping.
"What movie are you watching?"
"Yeah." They both looked at Clive, "but we've watched all the good ones. You need to revisit the classics. Well, revisit the funny films," said the youngest of the two men, the one who was serving him.
"What else have you watched?" Clive sniffed deeply, and realised that his head was spinning, His jaw had started to go numb, and he could feel his eyes going the same way. The counter in front of him was a deep red, and he could see beyond the colour, deep into the texture of the counter, and he reached out with one hand to feel it. Although it was smooth, he could feel the wooden texture, all the ridges and swirls under his hand, and it made his mouth taste of fudge.
"Are you looking for something to watch?" asked the unoccupied man.
"Maybe. I might have a late night."
"Try watching this," he pulled a video from under the counter, and handed it over. Clive handed over his club card and looked at the video box. At first he saw several faces, then the blue of the cover took over, and he looked at it.
"It's a good movie."
"Robert de Niro. He's good." Clive said, handing over his credit card. They all agreed, and then Clive signed the receipt. More money going out, he thought as he picked up the bag of shopping and took his cards back. He shuffled from foot to foot, looking down at his dingy trainers.
"What are you doing on Saturday Clive?" asked the young man.
"Not much. Want to come over?"
"Okay." Clive walked out of the shop and back into the night air. He crossed the street and headed off at a slight jog back towards the house. The lamp was still on in James' room, so he knew he didn't have to hurry. Walking up to the door, he took his keys from the deep pockets, and unlocked the door.
The first thing he noticed was the low groaning still coming from James' room. He walked into the kitchen. It was clean, as James always washed up after every meal, and Clive had to clean the sideboards at least three times a week to keep sane. He opened the small freezer and put the ice cream in straight away. He emptied the rest of the bag, leaving it on the side for now, and found a spoon and a glass. Taking the chocolate trifle and the bottle of cola, he walked back to the front room. The groaning had stopped now, and he could hear Julie talking quietly to James, who still appeared to be grunting softly.
He closed the door to the living room, and sat back in his armchair. He remembered the video and rushed back into the kitchen to get it, then returned to his armchair again. He placed the video in the player, and poured a glass of cola for himself. The trifle was positioned close to the leg of the chair, and he put the spoon of top of the lid. Reaching into his pocket, he took out the tin, and reached over to pick up a long book. Resting it on his legs, he placed everything he needed onto the book. Licking the papers, and sifting through the tobacco, he followed the ritual. The night air had cleared his mind slightly, and he soon had the next joint ready. It was three papers long, and thick. He picked up an ashtray and put it between him and the sofa so that James and Julie could use it. He placed the joint in his mouth, and struck a match. The flame lit, and he put it against the end, hearing the tobacco light and the paper start to crackle once more. Shaking the match to put it out, he took a long drag, filling his lungs with smoke. He leant back, closed his eyes, and blew the smoke up again. It shot towards the ceiling. He opened his eyes as the door opened.
James and Julie were hand in hand in the doorway. He grinned at them, and took a second drag. Sat in the chair, the orange fire was burning in his mouth as he dragged smoke into his lungs, and into his blood. He was looking at his friends; they were looking at him. Although they had each other and could hold hands and sleep together, he had his chocolate trifle and drink of coke. He smiled, because this was true love.