In The Age of Nicotine



He orders a large gin and tonic and checks out the barmaid’s curves as she bends down to get a bottle of Schweppes from the fridge, his flat hand running up and down the smooth blond wood of the bar top. Thanks, he says. Takes his change, surveying the room and choosing a table away from the bar, en route to the toilets. He unbuttons his suit jacket with one hand, hitches his trousers and sits. Drinks. Lemony tonic fizzing his nose.

Then he sees her.

In the corner. She’s taking a Marlboro Red from its box. Knocks the filter against the packet. Zippo snaps, head tilts, eyes screw, ostentatious inhalation, toss of hair, exhale to the ceiling, look of quiet satisfaction. Now she’s picking at the non-existent shred of tobacco on her tongue.

This is pure theatre. Where did she pick this up? She must love those old arthouse films. The French ones. Black and white. Subtitles. Years ago he had a girlfriend who was into all that stuff. He went along to see a few. Great to look at, but no real plots or anything like that. Nothing happens. They had a great bar there though, at the cinema. He used to go early and sit in the bar, drink a few drinks on his own before the film. There were plenty of women in there too. Arty sorts mostly. Mainly plain girls in shapeless clothes, but some classy types too. The kind that probably don’t even have to read the subtitles and have been holidaying in France since they were knee-high. Sophisticated. Dressed with a bit of style. Nothing ill-fitting, or badly chosen. Each garment making the most of their assets. Leading the eye around their bodies to accentuate their best features — large breasts, long legs, hourglass figure — or to conceal their imperfections — chunky thighs, broad shoulders, fat arse.

He admires that. Make the most of yourself, whatever it is you’ve got. Make the most of it. Don’t cower away. Make the most of yourself. Be better.

He can’t take his eyes off this woman, smoking her cigarettes like she’s in a screen test. He’s got a book of matches in his jacket pocket and next time she reaches for a cigarette, he’ll be there with the lighted match at the ready. He picks up all the free stuff at hotels. Matches, combs, soaps and shampoos. He’s got a drawer full of them at home. Tons of it. And he’s got this trick with the book of matches. You just fold the match over — never tear it off, never do that — and turn the book inside out, as if you’re breaking the spine of a paperback, then you just snap your fingers and there it is. Instant fire. Instant cool. It never fails.

He’s thinking that if smoking became an Olympic sport — and let’s face it there’s no reason why not, they’ve already got synchronised swimming and that version of gymnastics where they jump around with a hula hoop — if smoking did become an Olympic sport, this woman would be challenging for a medal. Imagine standing on the podium, with the gold medal round your neck, listening to your nation’s anthem, the flag being hoisted, waving to the crowds, with a Marlboro smoking in your hand. He wonders how would they score it? Probably it would have to be a function of quantity and quality. The number of cigarettes they could smoke in a set period, and there’d be a panel of judges giving scores for artistic merit. And there’d be different divisions and sub-divisions too; filtered and filterless; high-tar, medium-tar, low-tar — like all the different weight classes you get in boxing.

He loves the way she holds her cigarette. Such long, elegant fingers. Some women look common, even sluttish, when they smoke, but this woman could single-handedly revive the reputation of the civilised smoker.

Just look at her.

He has never felt shy with women. Always known what to say, how to put them at their ease, how to lead them on. It’s something you’re born with, he thinks. Forget all the self-help books and the pheromone sprays. That’s all bullshit. Strictly for inadequates only. Either you’ve got it or you haven’t. And it never leaves you. Never.

Of course, he’s had dry patches. Everyone does. It’s like a golfer with the yips — shanking and slicing and topping. Or a darts player with dartitis — one day unable to let the dart go, as if they’ve lost the confidence that it’s going to sail into the treble bed as usual, surprised and appalled to find the dart still gripped between their fingers. But you always beat it in the end. Always.

She’s stubbing out the cigarette now. This is a crucial point. Will she spend an age chasing hot embers around the ashtray, or has she got the technique? Can she put it out with one smooth, strong action? There you go. She’s got it. An artist, right down to the butt.

He doesn’t have a fetish for smoking. Not at all. Nothing like that. It’s just that this particular woman happens to be an especially sexy smoker. Some women are like that, there’s just something they do that hits a spot and elevates them from their usual ordinary self. Gives them that extra pop. It could be anything — the way she drives her car, how she holds a cup or a glass, a special way she gazes out of a window on a train. Even reading a magazine or watching TV. Anything at all, except maybe hoovering, or washing the dishes, or something like that. He’s never been a smoker himself. Weak lungs. Tuberculosis as an infant. Could have finished him off in those days. Had rheumatic fever too. He missed a lot of school through sickness and wasn’t allowed to do sports, or go on trips.

The next cigarette she sparks up, he’s going to be there with his book of matches. Work his magic.

To him it’s no different to closing a sale. You’ve got to do the nitty-gritty to get in front of the client. Understand how they tick, identify what they need, make sure they know you can give them what they want. Only you can give them exactly what they want. It’s a matter of confidence and cynicism in just the right proportions. Too much of either and you’re nowhere. You have to be confident that, whatever it is they want, you can deliver. You must be cynical enough to not believe a word you tell them, but you better sound like you do. Believe your own hype and you’re dead. Get the mix right and the world is yours.

He gets up and walks over to the jukebox. He doesn’t want to appear out of nowhere with a lighted match. He doesn’t want to pounce on her out of the blue. That’d be creepy. That’s not the right approach. Up to the jukebox and right in her eye line. Let her notice him first. There are rules for this sort of thing. It’s like sport. If you don’t know the rules you’re not going to score, you’ll be flagged offside before you get your shot off. Know the rules.

The problem starts when he gets to the jukebox. It’s then he realizes he’s not as clued up on this type of thing as he used to be. He’s not clued up at all. He doesn’t listen to radio outside of Melody or Heart or Smooth FM, and even then he doesn’t really take any notice of the music, it’s just there. He can’t remember the last time he bought any music. He cleared out all his tapes years ago and bought a mini-CD player, but he never got around to buying any CDs. He’s flipping through the choices and trying to maintain the veneer of nonchalance. Think a suave and debonair man of the world, taking his time over a particularly good wine list. Enjoying the list itself. That type of thing. He hardly recognises anything on this machine. And the tracks he does know aren’t appropriate for this scenario. The selection has to be just right. He doesn’t know her musical tastes, so he has to pick something that is neutral, but ineffably classy. A few years back this would have been easy. Sade, something like that. Simply Red, maybe? They must have some Simply Red on here, surely? When did people stop listening to Simply Red? What do the people who used to listen to Simply Red listen to now? Maybe an Elton John track? They have that on the machine. No. Too gay.

He feels there’s someone standing behind him. That’s the sixth sense. Sensing when someone’s watching you. Everyone’s got it. Everyone can sense. It goes back to the Stone Age. It’s simple self-preservation. The woman who’s smoking, she knows someone’s been watching her, and he knows that she’s been watching him at the jukebox. That’s why it’s important to look like he knows what he’s doing.

He turns around and it’s not the elegant smoker, but a gum-chewing twenty-something girl, dumpy in a too-tight crop top and hipster jeans, muffin top belly. He looks over her and sees that the woman is not at her seat, but that her drink is still there — large white wine — and so are her Marlboros. The girl stares at him with a look that might amount to youthful disrespect, if only she could summon the resolve to muster the requisite facial muscles into position. Instead the look she gives him is a pure blank. So blank it hardly deserves to be classified as a facial expression at all. Loose change jingles in her puffy pink hand and she looks past him towards the silent jukebox. The man checks again that the smoking woman has not returned to her seat and, in her absence, is happy to admit defeat, gives the girl an ‘it’s all yours’ kind of gesture and rejoins his gin and tonic.

As he takes his seat, the woman exits the restrooms and swishes by him. He watches the sway of her hips, perfectly accentuated in a black pencil skirt and heels. This woman knows, he tells himself. This woman knows how to make the best of herself. She’s an expert. She could even teach him a thing or two. He watches her return to her seat. The moment is nearly on him. On them. He checks the book of matches in his pocket, adjusts his cuffs, straightens his tie, passes a palm over his hair.

The pleasant bustling sounds of the bar — muted conversations, ice being scooped and tinkling into glass, the beeping of the till, the noise of coin on coin — is lost to a thumping backbeat and air raid siren wail of the twenty-something girl’s jukebox selection. The man looks up. The girl is seated by the window with a pasty-faced youth in a tracksuit and baseball cap. Nodding heads in time with the beats. The woman, Marlboro packet in hand, glances over at the man for the first time. She gives him a look, as though he’s just affected an introduction by breaking wind. It gives way to a quizzical air, then she turns her head away, smirking. She lights her cigarette.

He has to turn this one around. Make the most of the situation, bad though it is. Don’t cower away. Get over there and explain. Just explain what happened. Come right out and tell her the story. But it would take too much explanation. It’s complicated. Would he have to explain that he couldn’t decide on a track by himself? That he’s so completely out of touch with things? He needn’t tell her that. He imagines trying to explain to the woman and getting lost in the telling. No. No explanations. You can’t start making excuses for yourself by way of an introduction. Make a new plan. Quickly. Be decisive. Make a joke of it. That’s it. There’s a joke in here somewhere. A joke at his own expense? No, not at his expense, at the girl’s. That’s it, she’s an easy target. He must be able to come up with something. It can’t be that difficult. But maybe that would make him appear old? Like an old man, complaining about the youth of today. Different tack entirely is what’s needed. Just keep it snappy. A one-liner to dismiss the thing, get a laugh, move on. Move in. A one-liner. Come on! Kick that brain into gear. He needs a one-liner. Pithy and funny. A killer one-liner to break the ice and clear the air. What though? What?

Out on the street it’s twilight. He deep breathes through a mild attack of vertigo. A couple of stiff drinks and no dinner have left him feeling weak. More than weak, he feels vulnerable. He feels old. He tries to decide what to eat. He thinks pizza and McDonalds, fish and chips, a kebab. He can’t decide what he wants. He just knows he needs to eat. On the way back to the hotel — really it’s more of a motel, no bar or restaurant, or room service — all he passes is Mr Wok’s take-away. So he orders prawn crackers, spring rolls, wontons with plum sauce, sweet and sour pork balls with egg-fried rice. He arranges his meal on a newspaper he lays across his hotel bed, drinking cold beer and miniatures from the mini-bar. He eats too much and feels over-stuffed. Unwell. Old. Later he will fall asleep watching the porn channel. But before that he makes a call to his wife, like he does every night he’s away on business, and takes a travel iron from his suitcase and irons a shirt for the morning.

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