The smoke from the cigarette eddied up, maddeningly. She looked at it, hesitating, wondering if she should make a grab for it while she could. Perhaps the man to whom it belonged, the one who’d put it down, wouldn’t come back for it.
But there he was, over at the stall, buying something, and he showed every sign of returning. Even now, he threw a glance over his shoulder at the seat, maybe to see if it was still free or if somebody had taken it away from him.
He was a fat, balding man, red with the heat, and for a while he’d tried to hit on her, but she’d answered with monosyllables, hoping he’d take the hint and leave her alone. And so he had – but taken, quite unknowingly, a far greater revenge by lighting up a cigarette and smoking it without so much as asking her if she minded. Of course she minded – but not why he would think she did.
God, but she was dying for a cigarette!
How long was it since she last had smoked? It was a stupid question, because of course she knew exactly. Three hundred and eighty five days – count them – three hundred and eighty five days since her lips had last closed around that tube of paper and tobacco and the sweet, sweet smoke had flooded down into her lungs. She glared at the wisp of smoke still rising from the cigarette, wondering if she should get up and move away. But the small yard was crowded with people, including far too many tourists, and there was no other place to sit. And any moment – any moment – her daughter was supposed to turn up.
What would her daughter say if she caught her smoking, for God’s sake?
Actually, there was no mystery about it; she knew exactly what her daughter would say. The words didn’t even need to be repeated in her head. She could see her daughter’s elegant nostrils flare angrily as she caught the smell of the smoke, and how her eyebrows would contract over her eyes. “Mummy…”
“Well,” she muttered aloud, defensively, “I’m only looking, aren’t I? I’m not smoking.”
But the cigarette smoke twisted in the air, and tickled in her nose like a lover, reminding her of how it would feel going down. She glared at the cigarette with actual hatred now, hating it for beckoning to her and making her squirm, her toes curling inside the flat black shoes she’d taken to wearing recently.
Over in the street, cars drove by, their bright colours flashing in the late morning sun. It was cool in the yard, in the shadow of the high walls of the old palace, and she’d no wish to go out in the heat. So she had to sit here watching and smelling the cigarette, and that was the worst torture of all.
Over at the stall, the man had finished buying whatever it was that he wanted and was turning her way. She caught a glimpse of the cigarette packet in his hand – oh Lord why did he have to buy more of the things? – and stood up to go away. This was really too much. She didn’t deserve this torture.
“Oh yes you do, though,” her daughter would have said if she were there. “You made me breathe that smoke all through my childhood – and that’s why dad left, didn’t he?”
That wasn’t true, of course, but she wasn’t going to go into that part of it with her daughter. All that was better left alone. The man was halfway back to the seat, and the cigarette was burned down to a stub, the last smoke separating, rising, and dying away even as she watched. She sat back down. Now that the smoke was out, maybe she’d be able to stay as long as he didn’t light up again.
Where on earth was her daughter? The girl wasn’t a teenager any longer, and should have developed some sense of time. She looked at her watch and once again regretted not having brought along her cell phone.
From nowhere, a cough climbed up inside her throat, bending her forward. It was the old smoker’s cough, the one she’d thought had gone a long time ago, the one that had forced her to finally quit on the day she’d spat out flecks of blood. Now, with the smoke, it was back again.
“Coffin nails,” her doctor had intoned. “That’s coffin nails you’re smoking.”
And, at that time, she’d finally agreed. And she’d quit. For three hundred and eighty five days.
“Something wrong?” It was the man with the cigarettes, of course, standing there looking down at her with a strange expression in his eyes. “Are you all right?”
She tried to nod and shake her head at the same time as another spasm of coughing caught at her throat. “I’m all right,” she managed, wiping at the tears in her eyes.
“Nasty cough,” he said. “Trying to quit, are you?”
“I quit,” she said. “Long ago.”
His moustache was white and stained yellowish with nicotine, his face red even in the shade. “If you say so. I probably shouldn’t smoke then, should I? Near you?”
“No,” she said, getting up. “You go ahead. I was just leaving.”
“No, no.” He raised a hand, as though to touch her arm, and put it down again. “I’m disturbing you with my smoke. I won’t.”
She sat back down again, glancing at the cigarette butt on the stone armrest. He caught her looking, and picked it up. “This would be a clue,” he said.
“In an old murder mystery, you know,” he said, as though she ought to understand without being told, “the glamorous woman would be found – strangled – in her boudoir, half naked, and the only clue would be a cigarette butt like this one. And the Great Detective would look for the murderer but…he wouldn’t find him. And he’d go out looking for other lonely women to seduce and kill – over and over again. The Cigarette Killer, they’d name him.”
She stared at him, at his thick wrists and stubby fingers, at the leer on his face. “What?” she repeated. “What did you say?”
“Oh, did I disturb you?” he looked suddenly contrite, like a strangely aged schoolboy. “It’s just my humour, that’s all. I’m sorry.”
“That’s sick humour,” she said, standing up for the third time. Her mouth was dry, and her heart hammering. “I don’t find it funny at all.”
“I said I’m sorry,” he snapped. “What do you want from me, blood?”
“I don’t want anything from you,” she said. “I never asked you to say anything to me.”
“I was just trying to entertain you,” he muttered sullenly. His hands scraped at the packet of cigarettes, stripping the cellophane cover away. The box had a photo of blackened lungs on it, so shrivelled they were scarcely recognisable.
“I don’t want to be entertained.” She turned towards the entrance to the yard. “Here’s my daughter,” she said, walking away.
Her daughter came up to her, looking into her face curiously. “Something wrong, mummy?” She looked past her at the man on the seat. “Who’s that?”
“Nobody,” she said. “It’s nothing.”
“What a strange looking man,” her daughter said. “He looks like an angry walrus. And the way he’s puffing at that cigarette! Serves him right if he – ”
“Stop talking about him!” her mother snapped. “Just stop talking about him, all right?”
“Are you sure you’re all right, mom? You’ve gone all white.”
“I’m all right,” she said. “It’s just that it’s so damned hot, that’s all.”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011