The dim underground bar smells of old smoke and spilt beer as he speaks. I tilt my face to look into honeyed eyes, misted behind the fog of cigarette smoke that curls from the tube hanging from his lip.
‘Do you want one’ he says pulling the pack from his shirt pocket and holding it towards me, his thumb flicking open the lid.
I shake my head and feel the rising heat of shame at having to admit I have never smoked. Doesn’t he know how old I am? Opening my mouth to confess, I catch the amusement in his face and I change my mind.
How dare he treat me like a child? I am fifteen and that’s almost grown up but I say nothing because the entry age is eighteen. No one ever checks age and the decade is turning. Things are different now.
The band is playing All along the Watchtower in the next room but it’s early and the Saturday lunchtime crowd hasn’t arrived. Most of them don’t finish work until twelve anyway. I look around at new people arriving. They glance at us and I feel important talking with the coolest bloke in Salisbury.
I hesitate and then take a cigarette from his box. I didn’t want him to turn away and leave me. Not now. It’s not as if I am naive about smoking. In fact I had once tried it with my brother behind the Balancing Rocks. I choked on the foul taste but that was because we were trying to smoke elephant grass. Cigarettes are different.
Mum smokes and every night she lights her last smoke of the day as she lies in bed. Since my Dad left I have always slept in Mum’s room so my older sister can have a room to herself. I don’t question these things. That’s how it is.
The nightly ritual is comforting and I love the sulphur smell of the match as it fares briefly before Mum shakes it out. Funny she always shakes it, never blows out the flame. Perhaps because her mouth is too busy sucking in smoke to blow.
I’ve never thought about that before now but it’s like time has slowed, exaggerating every nuance in a way that I recognise as remarkable. It is in such moments I know that there is a conscience factor at play; one that shrieks danger, or at least caution. But I haven’t yet learned to listen and I am not sure I ever will.
He snaps the box closed and with a flick of his wrists moves it backwards so it’s held between his little finger and the heel of his palm. Cupping his hands he holds a lighted match towards me. I can feel his screwed eyed scrutiny as I step forward, holding the cigarette between the forked index and middle finger of my right hand. It’s trembling and I flush again. Somehow I extinguish the flame.
He laughs and says ‘suck don’t blow.’
Mortified I gawk, wishing the ground would swallow me. Whenever I act the big deal I come unstuck. It’s so unfair. He reaches out and plucks the cigarette from my fingers.
Surprised I prickle with vigilance ready for anything but all he does is take his cigarette from his mouth and replace it with mine. Then using the coal end, he lights the new tube.
He sucks in and blows a long stream of smoke to the ceiling his eyes lowered to watch me as I watch him. Then he hands it back, filter pointing towards me.
‘I’ve run out of matches’, he says.
I take a small pull and stifle the cough. It takes all my concentration and I miss what he says. Dizzy now I say ‘pardon’ and clear my throat.
The next drag is easier and I manage like a professional. I am proud of my easy ability and boldly blow smoke in a stream to the ceiling. The amusement is still there but I think I detect admiration as well. My stomach constricts.
Since I first met him I thought he was gorgeous. He was just back from Liverpool and wore dark blue trouser with a vertical white strip and a broad, big-buckled, belt low on his hips. It was clothing so up-to-minute Carnaby Street, that it looked a little weird in the sanctioned backwaters of Rhodesia but I felt proud to be with him.
My brother’s friend walks into the bar and seeing us, he swaggers over.
He doesn’t greet me but before he turns to my hero he says ‘does your mother know you’re in here?’ Then he turns his back and takes my happiness.