A story from Stuart Evers's debut collection, Ten Stories About Smokingby Stuart Evers / February 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
Stuart Evers is a London-based literary critic. In his first short-story collection, Ten Stories about Smoking, he takes a clear look at quiet lives, in writing that has been praised for freeing itself from the dominant tone of British literary fiction in the last 25 years. Aravind Adiga, author of The White Tiger and winner of the 2008 Man Booker prize, has praised Evers for “an impressive debut,” noting that “love, loss and recovery are the real themes of these quiet, haunting stories.” David Vann, a rising star of American fiction, wrote that “Evers has found possibility in even the bleakest and smallest of lives, with each story delicately linked not only by a cigarette but also by a glimpse into how terrifyingly empty a life can be.”
For several years he had spun a solid and convincing story about an inherited sleeping disorder. It had been passed down, he claimed, on his mother’s side of the family and it meant he often woke up screaming, or was unable to sleep at all. It wasn’t anything to worry about, he’d reassured her with his arms hooked over her ribs, it was just a part of him, like his height or his shoe size. “Doctors call them the night terrors,” he’d said with a wry smile. “Makes them sound like some old aristocratic family, doesn’t it?” She’d laughed a little and then kissed him. He slept right through that first night, and slept for many nights afterwards.
Some weeks later, when the attacks first began, Jean felt prepared for them. She woke instinctively and immediately tried to calm him. She held him tightly and felt the erratic beat of his heart; she stroked his hair and told him that he was safe, that she’d got him. Peter lay in her arms immobile. When she tried to hold his hand it did not easily yield and when it did, it did so grudgingly. She spoke softly, reassuringly, saying the very first things that came into her head. She talked about her dreams and her ideas for the house they would own; the cars they would drive, the places they would visit. And she held him close until he eventually drifted off to sleep. This went on for months. By the time they moved into their three-bedroomed house, however, she had become accustomed to his screams and shudders, and neither now woke her in the night.
Her father and mother had been a pair of sometime insomniacs. As a teenager, she was used to getting up in the night and seeing one or other of them sitting on the sofa, perhaps reading a magazine or sipping a hot drink. Sometimes she would stay up with them; other times just get a glass of water and take it back to bed. She always thought this was normal, so she was surprised to discover that her first husband could sleep through just about anything. She’d always found this somehow creepy. “I was dead to the world,” he’d say and she’d think what a perfectly horrible phrase: so chill and unpleasant. That the marriage lasted less than a decade was not solely down to his sleeping, though she couldn’t help but believe it betrayed a fatal flaw somewhere deep in his character.
Peter’s flaws were more obvious, apparent from the moment she first met him. It was the company summer party and he had been coerced into attending by his boss. Jean had never seen him before—he was a consultant—and he looked uncomfortable. He was dressed in a slovenly suit, with persistent flakes of dandruff on his shoulders, pricks of sweat on his top lip. They were in a garden under attack from an abundance of greenfly. An unfortunate woman in yellow was covered in them, dots of them sticking to the fabric of her dress. Jean was standing next to him when they both saw the woman—Kathy from sales validation—lose her patience and try to brush all the insects from her skirt.
“I bet you’re glad you didn’t wear yellow,” Jean said to him.
“Quite,” he said. “It would clash terribly with these shoes.” He smiled, quickly. Jean was quietly disarmed.
She introduced herself and they talked about work. Jean made spiteful comments about her colleagues, pointing out their indiscretions and unpleasant habits. He laughed and sipped at his wine, commenting where it seemed appropriate. When there was no one left to dissect, Jean suggested that they leave the party, discreetly and separately, and reconvene in the car park. She went first and Peter finished his wine, wondering whether she would still be there in five minutes’ time.
The car park was deserted and she stood by a wooden fence, talking on her telephone. Her summer dress exposed her legs, her wedge espadrilles making her look taller, a lazy gust of wind fingering her hair. As he walked towards her Peter buttoned up his jacket, then unbuttoned it. When she noticed him she ended her call and told him she knew of a restaurant nearby: it wouldn’t take long to walk. She linked her arm with his and they chatted about how strange it was that they had not met before.
They ate outside a Spanish place, picking at fish and meats in tiny terracotta bowls. Jean did most of the talking, and he listened intently, his head leant on his fist, his maroon tie loosened and splayed. Around them it got dark; couples left and arrived. They drank a lot of wine and told their own little stories. He spoke with a slight drawl to his accent that might have been Irish or Scottish. She liked it whichever country it was. When the bill arrived, they split it and he did not suggest a nightcap, nor did she invite him to her flat for a coffee. Instead they kissed as it started to rain, two cabs arriving within minutes of each other. They had each other’s numbers and that itching feeling that something had imperceptibly changed.
Over the weeks, she bought Peter medicated shampoo and took him shopping. He went along without argument, enjoying the attention. She took him to her favourite salon where her stylist gave him a haircut he initially eyed with suspicion, but later came to like. It wasn’t quite a transformation, more a remodelling. Every day he thanked her, even though sometimes she was unsure what she was supposed to have done.
Jean read up about night terrors, but didn’t discuss her research with Peter. Whenever sleep was mentioned, she felt him stiffen and so she let it go. At his flat, a high-ceilinged place in Edgbaston, she would select CDs at random from his collection and listen to them while he cooked. She had heard of almost none of the artists and she was surprised at how fragile and brittle the singers and recordings sounded—like people trapped on another planet. She liked that he had passions and enthusiasms she did not share, the faded, slightly bohemian feel to the place, the framed prints that hung on every wall.
It didn’t matter whether they stayed at her place or his, the night terrors kept him awake most nights—despite her early attempts to wear him out with vigorous lovemaking. After an attack he would remove himself from the bed and go to the bathroom. There he would wash his face, brush his teeth, shave, then head into the lounge and watch television. He’d pour himself a drink or two and return later to the cooling bed, his body fresh with the smell of cosmetics and the alcohol.
They went on several holidays together, and were introduced to each other’s parents. The meetings were stiff and formal, though Jean’s father and Peter bonded over a shared love of the Suffolk coastline. The two of them would sit in high, winged chairs and discuss with animation the towns of Aldeburgh and Southwold; they spoke of family holidays in cottages and caravans, the bitter taste of Adnams ale. It was on one such occasion, after a simple lunch and before their planned walk, that Jean realised she was going to marry him. Her first marriage had been agonised over, pinched and prodded until she was sure she was doing the right thing; but her second she decided upon without hesitation, while drinking a glass of red wine by the fire, her flushed cheeks reflected in its brass surround.
Two weeks later, Peter arrived home to find a suitcase packed in the hallway. She was sitting on the bottom step of the stairs already wearing her coat. “We’re going away,” she said. “We’re going on a magical mystery tour. Come on, get showered and changed. Quick, OK?”
She drove them both to a ramshackle cottage on the seafront at Aldeburgh. He loved its odd shape, its worn-down furnishings. They arrived late and he managed to sleep through till five or so. She woke with him and suggested they walked together down by the seafront.
“This is the perfect start to a day,” he said. “If I could, I’d live by the sea. I’d walk by it every day.”
“We’ll do that,” she said. “One day we will do that.”
That evening she cooked his favourite meal of potted shrimp followed by steak and mashed potato. They could hear the waves as they ate, and both had appetites emboldened by the sea. In the lull before cheese and biscuits, she proposed to him just as she’d planned. In her right hand she held a velveteen box containing a simple engagement ring she’d bought from a flea market. She asked him to marry her, and he fell silent and wiped his mouth on a linen napkin. He sipped his wine and looked at the debris of the meal in front of him. His face, crumpled and with a small dab of sauce at the edge of his mouth, looked papery. He rapped his knuckles on the table. She felt her stomach plummet, as though she’d taken a jump from a diving board into a recently drained pool.
“Say something,” she said. “Oh please, honey, say something at least.”
He wiped at his mouth again and put his head in his hands. He shook his head.
“No,” he said. “I can’t. I can’t do that to you.”
“Do what?” she said.
“I can’t,” he said. “I promised myself I wouldn’t do this.”
He looked away from her as he spoke. He told her he loved her very much. He told her that she had made him happier than he could ever have imagined. He told her that he never meant to let it get this far. He told her that she gave him hope and that there was nothing he would like to do more than marry her.
“So what is it? What?” she said. He looked up at her.
“I think I killed some people.”
It was the Thursday before the wedding, a little after three in the morning. Beside Jean, Peter slept peacefully. Since their engagement, decided upon after that long night in Aldeburgh, he had slept through every night. The night terrors—a product not of genetics, but of genuine horror—had disappeared, replaced by long dreamless periods of sleep. He could not remember such restfulness; she could not think of anything but the dreams that now plagued her.
In the recurring nightmare, she saw bodies blistered by heat, felt the air thick with the stench of flesh and hair afire. The screams and the pleas and the stretching arms, the metal melting on belt buckles, shoes dissolving into the floor. And him, her lover, watching, somehow flame retardant and dressed in his suit, smoking a cigarette lit from the inferno around him.
That Thursday she had been woken by it again, the fifth time in the last three weeks, and had been unable to rouse Peter or go back to sleep herself. Jean looked at her fiancé, his breathing easy and his body foetal. She put down the book she had been looking at rather than reading, then inched out of the bed. Pulling on a T-shirt with NO PROBLEM written on the front—a present from Jamaica—she moved into the hallway and then down the stairs. They creaked as she descended, but she no longer cared about waking him. Let him wake, she thought, let him suffer too.
It was late summer and the air was close and muggy. She went into the kitchen and put on the kettle and opened the fridge. From a plastic container she took a block of cheese and cut a chunk off at an angle. The kettle boiled and she made tea, which she took through to the living room. Most nights she ended up there, sitting on the sofa, blue-lit by the television. She watched talk shows and documentaries and programmes signed for the deaf, whatever night-time fare she could find. These days, she knew so much about all manner of trivial things.
Jean turned on the television and lowered the volume. It was a nature documentary about the wildlife of Siberia. She blew on her tea and watched the programme until the commercial break. Her mug empty, she put it on the coffee table and got up from the deep red couch and started to rustle around inside the cushions of the armchair. Somewhere, in a hollow she’d fashioned inside the padding, there was a packet of cigarettes.
She’d taken to hiding her cigarettes in ever more elaborate, deceitful places; even though Peter didn’t even know she had started smoking again. “We have no secrets,” Peter was fond of saying, which she thought a stupid, idiotic thing to say: what he really meant was that the big secret was out and that the little ones didn’t count. But for Jean the little secrets were the ones worth keeping. Which is why she hid the cigarettes with such ingenuity.
As she scrabbled around inside the chair, she began to hope that the packet wouldn’t be there after all; that Peter had discovered them, torn them up, and thrown them away. When she found them she counted them out, even though she already knew precisely how many there were.
Jean walked through the lounge, opened the patio doors, and sat down on the folding canvas chair. She lit a cigarette and inhaled as much of the smoke as her lungs could take. She did this every night and often wondered whether she could die that way: asphyxiated by too much smoke taken too quickly into her lungs.
The night was still and calm. She flicked the ash from her cigarette into a small barbecue. Peter had bought it months before as a challenge to himself; but they’d only used it once. It had not been cleaned since and stubborn pieces of charred meat remained stuck to its grill. Every time she saw it, she thought she should clean it, but she never did. Some nights she was even tempted to pull some of the flesh off the metal and eat it. But she never did that either.
As she smoked, she tried not to think about the fire, nor think about Peter. She’d spent most of the nights since he’d told her thinking about it in one way or another. Sometimes simply recalling exactly what he’d said. Not the main part, not what he thought he’d done, but that first sentence that cracked and splintered her life. I think I killed some people.
She could hear the words crisply in her mind, recall the dampness of the rented cottage’s rooms, see him sitting at the table, his hair well styled and his sweater well pressed and that dab of sauce still at the corner of his mouth. The softness of his voice, its soothing timbre saying something so brutal, so stark. I think I killed some people.
The more she thought of it, the more angry those six words made her. The non-specificity of some people, the prefacing of such unspeakable violence with I think. It made her want to shout and scream, to beat at his chest with her balled-up fists. You think you killed some people? You think?
Inevitably then she’d imagine the dead bodies, the ash of the living cremated, the fireball whoosh of the explosion. In those first months, she did a lot of research on the fire, research which, like the smoking, was another closely guarded secret. She read transcripts of firemen’s testimonies, newspaper reports, the official governmental inquest. Nowhere was there blame attached; at no point did anyone say that there was someone culpable for the deaths of thirty-one people in a fire at King’s Cross Underground station. But someone’s fingers had dropped the match that had ignited the matter below the escalator steps. Someone was responsible.
She stood up and looked over the fence into next door’s garden. It was neat and pretty, regimented flowers in beds and a well-maintained rockery. She wondered if they’d notice if she crept onto their lawn, lay down on the lush turf and slept. It was a strange idea and one that hung heavy in her head. She wanted to sleep; she wanted all the sleep he was denying her, but instead she took in another huge lungful of smoke.
On that evening, Peter had been drinking in a pub in Soho with his then girlfriend, Simone. They were drunk and had argued over something and nothing. On the Underground their disagreements had become more personal. In front of an alarmed carriage, they had argued in her native French and later in English, his Galway accent increasingly loud. At Euston she ended their relationship and at King’s Cross she danced past the crowds with Peter in pursuit. He lost her in the tunnels somewhere near the Piccadilly Line. He took the escalator and on the way up to the ticket hall struck a match, lit an Embassy and let the match fall. I think I killed some people. Thirty-one people to be precise. Jean even knew some of their names.
When his confession was at an end, she had, of course, told him not to be so stupid. In that rented cottage she’d taken him in her arms, her ring box still tight in her hand.
“Sshh,” she’d said. “It’s OK. I’ve got you. I’ve got you, Pete.” And she’d explained about how it could have been any number of people and that it was an accident just waiting to happen and that there was no possible way he could know it was him who had caused such a catastrophe. She felt starchy and nanny-like. She stroked his hair and could almost feel the relief flooding from him. They stayed like that for a long time, Jean telling him it wasn’t his fault, that he wasn’t to blame, that he was not responsible.
She watched next door’s cat pad along the fence. For a moment she was tempted to flick her cigarette at it. She could see how easy it would be to hit its black and grey flank. The cat jumped down and still she had the cigarette poised, though now her shot was compromised. If she missed now, the cigarette would be lost in the tangle of weeds and nettles by the fence. It could start a fire. A real one, not the one that just burned up her nights. She had plenty of matches, she could set the whole lot alight and watch it go up, watch it rage from the upstairs bedroom, taking every garden with it.
She wished that he had never said anything. That the man she fell in love with was back; the shy, lonely person with a constant look of surprised happiness on his face. The killer of some people. Of thirty-one people. Absolved from that blame, he had become divorced from himself, and from her. Despite everything, she had preferred the remorse.
She put out her cigarette and looked back inside the still, dark house. Each night she watched for his bare ankles on the stairs, the look of horror on his face, his T-shirt and shorts damp with sweat. “I had the dream again,” she’d hear him say, and she’d hold him and tell him that she’d got him and that he was safe. She wanted him to have the dreams again; she wanted him to take them back from her. But he never came down the stairs and never saw her smoking cigarettes sitting out on the canvas chair.
The cat stretched, sleek in the night, then washed itself for a time. When it stopped it nudged its nose against a stray piece of timber. Jean looked again at the matches and then back at the house. When she turned around again the cat was looking at her, holding her gaze with reflective, filmy eyes. It was still for a second, then darted off through the garden and out into safety.