No 16 - February 2001
Brief Ecounter in the Smoking Area
The train from London was eleven minutes late reaching Reading because of signalling problems at Slough. It lost a further twelve minutes between Didcot and Oxford because of emergency work on the track and a further seven thereafter for no discernible reason.
By the time he had to change, Martin’s connection - which had run exactly to time - had gone. He had forty minutes to wait, in the December cold and early evening darkness. The buffet on the northbound platform was still open, but the inexorable progress of health fascism had reduced the smoking area to a single corner booth. All the other tables were empty, but the smoking area was occupied by a middle-aged woman whose tremulous right hand was trying to steady a Silk Cut while her left idly agitated her coffee with a plastic stirrer.
Martin had no alternative but to take his own coffee and sit down opposite her. It was not until he had taken the first avid drag from his Marlborough that he was able to speak. ‘Filthy habit’, he said, apologetically. ‘Trying to give it up’.
‘Me too’, she said, colourlessly. She wasn’t looking at him. She probably wished that he wasn’t there. He didn’t mind her being there. Fate had thrust them together, and that was that. He figured that he might as well make the best of it. If she’d been younger, or slimmer - .but she was probably thinking the same about him. He was probably no older than she was, although common wisdom held that the fifties were always slightly kinder to men than to women. In his case, alas, slightly was the operative word.
‘Absurd, isn’t it?’ Martin said, figuring that speech was slightly less embarrassing than silence. ‘The only two people in the place and we have to sit together, because we’re smokers’. As he pronounced the last word he brought his forefingers together, as if to form a vampire-deterrent cross, but he made a mess of it and the lighted tip of the Marlborough touched the knuckle of the middle finger of his left hand. It wasn’t very painful - no worse than the sting of a dispirited autumn wasp - but it was one more item to add to the list of the day’s indignities.
‘Gets worse all the time’, she said, wearily. ‘We’ll have to carry bells soon, and shout unclean whenever we come into a room’. She still wasn’t looking at him.
‘Funny how things change’, he said. ‘It’s not as if I’ve never been a pariah before, but it was never this bad. I was in the navy once - long time ago - and picked up a bit of a reputation as a Jonah. Not that any of my ships ever sank, you understand. It was just trivial stuff - breakages, bad bets, always getting found out. The lads could give a man hell about stuff like that, though--all jokes on the surface, but underneath they really did shy away, as if there were some invisible cordon sanitaire -but smoking worked the other way in those days. You offered a man a fag, and the barrier dissolved. Everybody did it. It brought people together. Know what I mean?’ He lit up again as he said it.
The woman shook her head slightly. Slightly was the operative word, because she was concentrating on bringing her trembling hand to her lips so that she could take the first drag from her newly-lit Silk Cut. She didn’t need a moving target to add to the difficulty.
‘No - well, you’ve never been in the navy. Never been divorced either, I suppose. I have. Twice, but not recently. Same thing, in a way. Couples begin to avoid you. It’s not because they’re afraid you might start making passes at the wives. It’s because they have this superstitious fear that it might somehow be infectious, the foul contagion of marital discord. Smoking could break that down too, sometimes. You offered a man a fag and it created a bond between you, even if you were out and he was in - reminded you both that there were things in the world besides women. Wouldn’t work nowadays though. Offer a husband a conspiratorial coffin-nail and he’d probably look at you as if you were the serpent in Eden. Know what I mean?’
She shook her head again, a little more vigorously. She was expelling smoke from a mouth puckered like a parodic kiss, and the smoke formed a surprisingly graceful arc.
Martin lit up again. ‘No - well, you’re not a man. Probably different for women. Different rituals, different sanctions’.
Martin paused to wonder what a female equivalent might be, but after he’d considered obesity and self-mutilation he decided that even if he could find a better parallel it would be less than diplomatic to bring the matter up. Men weren’t supposed to notice the ways in which women stigmatised one another - which was okay by him. If he’d had a better understanding of the reasons women had for deciding to dislike and shun one another, he might not be on his third marriage. A third example taken from his own long and bitter experience might do the trick, but the only one that came to mind immediately was that business with the genital herpes, and he certainly couldn’t mention that to a stranger. He finished the Marlborough while he was still wondering, then reached for the pack again.
‘Well’, he said, ‘it’s bad, that’s all I’m saying. People shouldn’t treat us that way just because we’re addicted. It’s our lungs, after all. They should be a little more sympathetic’.
He had got through three more Marlboroughs before the next northbound train pulled in, and the woman had smoked three more Silk Cuts, but they both left their coffee cups half-full.
The woman would probably have gone to the other end of the train if she’d been able to, but there was only one smoking compartment and even that was only half a compartment, partitioned off from the rest. They didn’t have to sit opposite one another, but because there was only an aisle between them they could hardly avoid the consciousness of one another’s presence. There were no other passengers in the smoking area, and only a handful in the larger part of the carriage.
‘I knew a woman once who had a nervous breakdown’, Martin said, thinking that it would probably be better not to mention that the woman had been his sister, given what some people thought about madness running in families. ‘She was hospitalised for a while. Everybody smoked on the ward. All the visitors were nervous of the other patients, because we all knew that there were schizophrenics on the ward and people with paranoid delusions - you’d think they’d keep them separate, but they don’t. Nowadays, even with all the stabbings, most people would probably be more disgusted because they were smokers than because they were schizos. She gave it up after she got out, though - the woman I knew, I mean’.
‘I’m trying to give it up myself’, the woman said. ‘It’s a filthy habit’.
‘I know what you mean’, Martin said. ‘Me too. It’s just that sometimes, it’s the only thing that gets me through the day. I could kick the habit, but days like today - sometimes, you just need it, no matter what it costs. Know what I mean?’
The woman shook her head, but her face was turned towards the window and it was as if the gesture were aimed at her own reflection.
The woman seemed grateful when her stop arrived, and even more grateful when she realised that Martin had to travel on into the darkness. She was only thinking of herself; she had no sympathy to spare for him. Martin watched her from the window as she paused on the platform to light up another Silk Cut. Her hand was shivering more than it had before, because of the biting wind, but she managed to shield the lighter flame with her cupped hand and her avid lips grabbed the cancer-stick from her unsteady fingers.
Martin lit another Marlborough.
‘You have to have something in life that you can depend on’, he murmured. ‘You have to have something that gets you through, no matter what it costs. You can shake your head as much as you like, but you know exactly what I mean. We’re two of a kind, you and I. Twin souls’.
The last phrase was still echoing in his mind as he put his key into the lock on his front door, and he couldn’t help but wonder whether it might be echoing in hers.
They were, after all, two of a kind
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