Ten Stories About Smoking

BOOK: Ten Stories About Smoking
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by
Stuart Evers

PICADOR

For my mother – who once told me that there is more to a story than just two people talking.

Contents

Some Great Project

Things Seem So Far Away, Here

What’s in Swindon?

The Best Place in Town

Underground

Lou Lou in the Blue Bottle

Eclipse

Real Work

Sometimes Nothing, Sometimes Everything

The Final Cigarette

Acknowledgements

Some Great Project

In the hallway of my grandmother’s house sat a glass-fronted bookcase full of hardback novels. Since my grandfather’s death they had remained behind the glass, only
exposed to the air when she polished the shelves. The books had such fanciful titles, such colourful spines, that I couldn’t help myself. The moment she fell asleep, I would steal into the
hall, slide open the panes, and thrill at the dusty, bookish smells inside.

When I was about fourteen, I was caught red-handed and cross-legged, two Leslie Charteris novels by my side and
The Killers From Devil Island
open in my lap.

‘These are not suitable for you,’ my grandmother said, taking the book from my hands. She held it out in front of her as though it was stinking out the house. ‘None of them are
suitable; especially this one. Before your grandfather left he told me that I could read any of his books, any one that I wanted, but not that one.’

She leant down and trapped the book behind the glass.

‘And did you?’ I asked.

‘Of course,’ she said indignantly. ‘And I wish I’d listened to him too. It was absolute filth.’

Just before my father died, I informed him of my intention to write a family tree. I expected him, despite his faltering health, to be enthusiastic about the undertaking. But
with spittle flecking his lips he told me in no uncertain terms what he thought of genealogy. ‘What more do you need to know than I am your father and your mother is your mother?’ he
said, dressed in his hospital gown, as though to end the matter. On his deathbed he made me reiterate my promise to leave the past be; as did my mother when her turn came.

Once mother’s funeral had been arranged, the service conducted and the legal matters concluded, I fell into a deep, long funk. A blankness overwhelmed me. I didn’t think of either of
them, alive or dead, but dutifully I tended their graves. Even work, which had long nourished me, did not keep me occupied. I decided then that the only way to escape my lethargy was to embark upon
some kind of scheme, some great and meaningful project.

I went to an evening class to learn Japanese, but found that I didn’t much enjoy the company of others, nor the unfamiliar character sets. Online chess was mildly diverting for a time but
I didn’t quite have the patience to truly absorb myself in the game. Long distance running was exhausting but gave me trouble sleeping. Against my better judgement, I went on a few Internet
dates and slept with a woman. She cried on my shoulder after it was all over, and promised to call but never did. None of these things were for me.

Then, one afternoon, I did find something: a cache of photographs stacked in the garage. There were boxes and boxes of them; some loose, some in albums, some still in their cardboard sleeves. I
took them all into the lounge and over the following weeks catalogued, labelled and scanned them into my computer, ensuring their survival even if someone torched the house or a bomb was dropped
upon it. This was steady, uneventful work, but it provided a whole host of other pleasurable tasks. Timelines needed drawing, dates had to be estimated and locations confirmed. The administration
was gratifyingly intense, and leafing through those faded pictures of caravanning in Tenby and camping holidays in France brought back memories of happier, fuller days.

After three months I produced twelve uniform, chronologically arranged volumes of photographs. Over the following nights I flicked through each album, adding in my supplementary notes, but I
could not shake a returning sense of absence.

When there were no more notes to add, I started looking around for more photographs. One night I became frantic and upended every box and filing cabinet in the house. By four in the morning I
was in the loft scratching about with a pen-light, desperate to find something, anything to catalogue. At five, I eventually found something: a heavy suitcase, wedged at the very back of a narrow
crawlspace. Inside, packed along with several stale-smelling sheets, I found a pornographic magazine from 1972 and a thick wallet of snapshots.

Someone was quite a photographer: the black and white and bleached colour portraits were a far cry from the amateurish holiday snaps in my albums downstairs. They were framed
and composed, well balanced; all focused on my father’s youthful pout. In the early photographs he is alone, but later he is with a woman, a girl really, in a minidress and sunglasses. They
kiss in some of the photos, in others he is stripped to the waist, in one she has her hands over his nipples. The girl looks a little like Jean Shrimpton, but with a slight kink to her mouth.

There were fifty or so photos in the packet. There were pictures of the couple leaning against a Ford Corsair, another one of them on a Vespa, my father without a helmet and with the girl riding
pillion. And then some internal shots, portraits of them lying on a brass bedstead covered with rag-rugs and cushions, and then a photograph just of the girl; topless, her hands on her pregnant
belly. The next picture was of the girl holding a baby, then the same child in the arms of my father.

A secret that my father carried with him for almost four decades took just two days to expose in its entirety. A lifetime’s achievement ruined by computers and searchable
databases.

I gathered as much information as I could, then called a private detective. Two days later the detective showed up at my house and gave me the name Jimmy Tanner as well as the
address of a bar in Benidorm. The detective did not look as I expected, he was neither a sharp-suited Sam Spade nor a crumple mac-ed Columbo. He seemed like a regular guy, ordinarily dressed in
jeans and a jumper. If there was anything about him, it was the fact that his eyes were hooded. I wondered what he saw in a day, whether the work still excited him.

I looked again at the slip of paper and offered him a cup of tea. He surprised me by saying he’d love one. I warmed the pot and we drank our tea sitting at the round table in the kitchen.
I never normally used it and it felt oddly formal, like we were two old ladies discussing the local gossip.

‘Was he difficult to find?’ I asked, passing him a biscuit. The detective – Andy – took one and shook his head.

‘You get used to these things, Mr Moore. Some people make it their business not to be found; your brother wasn’t one of those. Army, honourable discharge, then Spain.
Simple.’

‘He was in the army?’

‘Yes, for a good few years too. Personally, I don’t know how they stand it. The police was bad enough.’

‘You were in the police?’

‘Most private detectives are old coppers. They need something to stop them from drinking all day long.’ The detective laughed. ‘That’s a joke by the way.’

BOOK: Ten Stories About Smoking
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