They’d talked about it, had discussions about it, late at night across the kitchen table, like other couples might talk about which one of their kids they could afford to send to college, or if maybe it was time for the wife to get a part-time job or for the husband to start putting in a bit more overtime –
‘It should be me. It’d be easier for me.’
‘But I won’t be able to bear it, John, darling. I won’t be able to bear watching you suffer.’
And he had suffered, for a while – and she, somehow, had found a way to bear it. It had to be done. His salary barely met the mortgage and the food bills, no matter how much overtime he put in, and there was no question of her getting a part-time job. So he’d quit. Just like that, one day – he’d given up.
They’d become a one-smoker household.
He sat on the chair that stood in front of the glass-topped dressing table and turned the half-empty packet over in his hand. He’d not touched the things on the table – her things – since the funeral. One of her friends from the bridge set had come by a couple of days after, taken away some dresses, some old shoes, and he’d told her she was welcome to them, sure, go ahead, no use to me, Harriet would have wanted them to be used, loved, after she was gone.
And then the friend, three long dresses folded in the crook of her arm, had paused, on her way out, and just glanced at the dressing table – at the silver powder compact and the Edwardian hairbrushes and the bottles of scent that Harriet had bought not for the scent but because she liked how pretty the bottles were –
John hadn’t said anything. Maybe it was the way he stood, interposed between the friend and the dressing table, or the way he looked at her. She left, anyway, with the dresses and shoes. She hadn’t been back.
Now he looked at the silver compact and the hairbrushes and the scent bottles and thought, well, you won’t be used, but you’ll still be loved.
Then there were the cigarettes. Eight left from a pack of twenty Margravines. You can’t love a pack of cigarettes, John thought. But Harriet wouldn’t have wanted them to go to waste. He drew one out, lit it, inhaled – watched himself in the wide mirror as he let the white smoke curl from his nostrils. They were women’s cigarettes and it was a feminine way to smoke and he felt self-conscious doing it. But it was the way Harriet had smoked.
She’d never been without makeup and she’d never been without a cigarette. That’s how she was in his memory: carmine lipstick, polished fingernails, a cigarette two-thirds smoked – sitting there – sitting here, John thought – looking at herself in the mirror, and letting the white smoke curl out of her nostrils.
They always were two-thirds smoked, those cigarettes of hers. She never let them burn down – said she didn’t like the way they looked, that way. She’d say that and she’d laugh: aren’t I silly, she meant – aren’t I just so silly and adorable.
It used to drive him mad. A fortune, they could have saved, a fortune, if she’d only smoked her cigarettes down to the filter.
But still: she was adorable. Otherwise he wouldn’t have adored her.
John finished the first cigarette and stubbed it out in the cut-glass tray beside the scent bottles. There were three stubs already in the tray. Each two-thirds smoked, each with a buss of red lipstick at the filter end. They were the last cigarettes she’d smoked.
Then she’d gone to sleep and not woken up.
He took a second cigarette from the packet and lit it. For a moment he watched himself in the mirror. Then he looked away, feeling tired of the sight of his own still face, creased, chinless, the cheeks pink from shaving, the domed head with barely a hair left on it –
He wondered how she could bear to sit here for such a long time – how come she never grew tired of her own face, her own sea-grey eyes looking back at her, narrowly, through the white cigarette smoke.
Maybe, John thought, there were some faces you just don’t get tired of. You could look and look and never grow tired and never want to look away. That’s how he’d felt, after all.
He’d not been the only one. Every man in the office knew young Hattie, the new typist with the lips and the hips and the these and the those, and every one of them had asked her out – and damn if she hadn’t gone out with most of them, too.
Not like that, though. Some of the fellows had tried to make out that they’d – that she’d – well, that Harriet was that sort of girl.At the recollection John stamped out the cigarette in the ashtray, took another, lit it, drew deeply. But that’s just how fellows in offices are, he supposed. Didn’t want to be ragged because they’d taken this girl out and bought her drinks and dinner and cigarettes – and had got nothing out of it but a thank-you and a limp gloved handshake.
John wasn’t the type to tell dirty stories in the office. But if he had been that type – well, those fellows would have learned a thing or two, that’s all, John thought.
In the taxi coming home from Da Mario’s restaurant she’d taken off one cotton glove and let him hold her hand. On the steps of the house she shared with a girlfriend she’d let him kiss her lips.
No, he’d not said anything to the fellows in the office. But who’s to say that one morning, if he’d walked in with a new a new swagger in his walk, if his ‘good morning, boys!’ had perhaps been sprightlier than normal, if he’d swung his feet up on his desk and sparked up a cigarette with more than his usual elán – well, who’s to say they didn’t take notice?
God, it all made him feel like – like such a man. He’d had no interest in football or cricket or skiffle music or cars or anything that the other men talked about at work – except smoking (‘Have you tried the new Pall Mall, Ray? They make it longer, so the smoke is filtered further’). But now – whether he talked about it or not, he was the man who’d had Hattie. He was the man.
All the tricks, he’d used. Held open doors, complimented her perfume. Asked her questions about her life, her interests, and if, when she’d asked him about his life, he’d maybe dwelt on his contribution to the war effort, perhaps even played it up a little bit – maybe, in truth, he’d shot down somewhat fewer Messerschmitts than the oh, four or five he’d airily shrugged off – wasn’t that just part of the game?
Oh, hell. John caught his own eye in the mirror and flushed with embarrassment. So debonair, he’d been, so sophisticated – who the hell was he trying to kid? Again he stubbed out, lit up. He was an amateur and she knew it all along. Compared to her – God. The tricks she had. The games she could play.
He thought back to that first dinner in Da Mario’s. He’d never eaten Italian food before. Ordered spaghetti alla vongole and had to hide his horror when it turned out to have clams in it. Still, he’d ordered the wine and poured it for her, lit a cigarette for her like he’d seen it done in the films –
That was when she got him. That was when she stopped being Hattie the typist and started being the woman he just had to have – even if, damn it, he had to marry her to get her. The way she smoked. Thoughtlessly, effortlessly, but in a way that drew attention – demanded that you gave attention – to those carmine lips and those elegant hands and those sea-grey eyes narrowed through the smoke.
John picked up the silver powder compact from the dressing table. It was heavy, old, grooved like an oystershell. The same one she’d used that night. That night and every night and morning since. He worked the catch, flipped it open.
Christ – the smell, the perfume of her powder. His cigarette had burned down in the ashtray; quickly he lit another one, to cover it up. He inhaled, sighed out a billow of smoke. The compact sat open on the tabletop and John looked at it morosely. In the little mirror spring-mounted in its lid his own right eye looked beadily back at him.
The tricks they have, he thought. If they don’t get you with one they get you with another. She’d paused, on the wet pavement outside the restaurant, to adjust the seam of her stocking. She’d opened the compact (‘Have to see that my makeup hasn’t run in this blessed rain, darling’) and he’d watched her powder her nose – and in the reflection in the little mirror she’d caught him watching, and smiled. And then she’d sat and smoked that effortless cigarette. God, what chance did a man have?
It was like watching a magician. The misdirection, the slight of hand. What was the word? Legerdemain. Damn, they were good at it. And there can’t have been many better at it than she was.
But then the thing was, just like with a conjuror on the cabaret – it looks good, and you could almost, almost believe that the lady’s been sawn in two or that the Queen of Hearts has turned into a billiard ball –
But all along you know it’s just another con. You don’t mind, exactly. You’re the one that paid for the ticket, after all. But you know that underneath it all it’s just tricks – that underneath it all there isn’t really any magic.
The next cigarette John smoked unthinkingly. He just watched the things on the table and avoided the sight of his own reflection and smoked the cigarette. He didn’t even enjoy it. He had enjoyed the first few, he couldn’t deny it – Christ, he’d missed it, over the years. For all his ‘feel fitter than I have in years!’ and ‘soon be able to take you on holiday again, the money I’m saving on fags…’ – Christ, he’d missed it.
But this one he just smoked on down to its filter with a thick feeling in his throat.
When he was done he checked the packet. Two left. It was starting to feel like a chore. But it was a chore that, like all chores, had to be done. Wearily he lit the seventh. The smoke tasted stale, like the dead air of an office or the smoking compartment on a train. Out of practice, John supposed.
He supposed smoking was one of those things – like drugs, or drink. You get used to it, and then you get good at it, and then, just as you’re getting really good at it, you die of it.
Like life, too.
All these tricks, John thought, and all these games. We play and play and then one day we stop playing and we don’t even know who’s won. Is it me, sitting here, now, in Harriet’s seat, in front of Harriet’s mirror, smoking – he drew out the last cigarette – smoking Harriet’s fags? Have I won?
Or did Harriet win?
He held the last cigarette between his finger and thumb. Then he set it down on the glass tabletop. Then he sat up straight in the chair and confronted his own reflection. He took up the cigarette and quickly lit it. He held it loosely between his lips like Bogart used to in the films. He caught his own eye in the mirror.
Don’t look away, he told himself. Don’t look away.