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Tom Ward
Writer of the Month


Jack held the phone to his ear as the line buzzed softly, then died. He put the receiver down and stared first at the floor, then at the spaces between the framed photographs on the far wall. He sat there, on the edge of the bed, for a long while and even though he did not take his eyes off the wall, he could not have described a single detail of it.

After a time, he exhaled and ran a hand over his face; pinching his nose and puffing his cheeks out, letting the air slowly escape his mouth. Finally, he rose and searched about for his shoes. They were not by the door, nor were they beneath the desk. He found them half hidden under the bed, as though everything had become too much for them and they had tried to hide themselves away. Jack pushed his feet into them, slid into his jacket and walked out the door.

It was still raining when he stepped outside. The streets were blue and the sky was grey. There was nowhere he wanted to go, so he followed the rain downhill, heading east.

Jack had not smoked a cigarette in a long time. The first and only time he had bought a whole packet had been half a decade ago, at university, after a girl had ended what they had. He had bought a packet and then gone home and smoked them all, one after the other, and the smoke had drifted about the room, helping to unravel the knots in his mind.

There was a small shop just down the street from Jack’s apartment and he went in now, a surplus of rain dashing in behind him. He joined the queue at the counter. A man in late-middle age, with silver hair and a long camel skin coat stood before him and it was all Jack could do not to turn around and walk back outside. The man’s skin was tanned and short silver hairs lay softly against the skin like strands of silk. There was a smell of strong cologne. Traces of nutmeg and warm bark on a summer’s day. The man’s shoulders were damp with patches of rain water. Jack watched as he picked up a paper, folding it between his thumb and forefinger, before saying something to the cashier, slipping the paper inside his jacket and turning to leave.

When it was his turn to be served, Jack stepped up to the counter, and it was only with the third repetition that he heard what the cashier said.

“Cigarettes,” Jack answered, without looking up.

His nails worked against the wooden counter and tiny splinters stuck into the tips of his fingers, minuscule baubles of blood shining on his fingernails. The cashier asked Jack another question and, after a moment, he handed over three times the right amount of money in change.

“Keep it,” Jack said as the cashier called after him.

Jack stepped outside, and paused for a moment beneath the shop’s awning, fumbling a cigarette into his mouth, the cellophane wrapper falling to the pavement. He stood there, beneath the patter of raindrops, and glanced up and down the street, but there was nothing there except the grey rain. He should get a dog, he thought. Dogs were good companions. Loyal. Dogs were always there, at your side, and you could walk along with a dog and be fine. What would Jack say if someone stopped him now and asked where he was going, and why he was out walking in the rain? He wouldn’t be able to answer. There was nothing he would be able to tell them.

Jack held the cigarette between his lips, the filter damp with his saliva. He realised then that he had nothing to light it with, and cast about slowly for some inspiration, as though a flame might appear out of the ghostly sheets of rain. He squinted across the road. The far footpath was only just visible with the grey shapes of empty shop fronts, glass shining dully.

As Jack stared at the empty reflections, a girl emerged through a door beside a taxidermist’s. Jack traced her movements as she paced slowly back and forth, before leaning back against the shop front, safely out of the rain. Her red raincoat throbbed through the grey drizzle as she lifted a thin cigarette to her mouth.

Jack pushed the hair out of his eyes. The cigarette slipped from his mouth and stuck to his wet lip. He crossed the street slowly, like a man wading across a river, the rainwater seeping through the holes in his shoes. When he reached the far side he pushed his hair out of his eyes again, then stepped up on to the pavement.

The girl looked up at him. She was tall and her blonde hair had been stained a dirty brown by the rain, like a favourite jumper dropped in a puddle. Jack stood before her without speaking, and felt the sun strain weakly against the back of his neck. The girl smiled and when this drowned boy said nothing in return, her smile slipped slightly, then returned with honesty.

Jack tried to smile back, but the anchor in his chest weighed him down. He put his hand to his mouth in some automatic gesture of embarrassment and was surprised to find the wet cigarette still held there.

“I don’t think you’ll have much luck with that one,” the girl said, her words punctuated by dimples. “Take one of mine.”

She reached inside her shirt pocket and passed the dry packet across to Jack.

“I... have my own,” he said, patting his own pockets until he found the cigarettes inside his jacket. His shoulders were wet and he could feel the damp through his t-shirt. “Thank you, though,” he said, his eyes caught on a freckle beneath the girl’s left eye.

He shook out a cigarette, another identical little role of tobacco and paper. The girl held a lighter out, lighting it on her second attempt. Jack leaned into the flame and nicotine sank down into his lungs and smoke coiled up under his nose. He leaned his shoulder against the wall and closed his eyes. Smoke and the sound of water running through the gutters lit the darkness with flashes of pale blue.

“I’m Heather,” the girl said.

Jack swallowed then inhaled deeply on the cigarette. He wanted to enjoy this, he wanted it to do him good, but the taste was bitter and the smoke made his throat feel like it had been scrubbed with wire. Still, it was a foreign experience, and there was pain in familiarity.

“Do you live near here?” the girl asked after a minute, glancing at him out of the corner of her eyes as rain rattled off the road then ran away down the hill.

Jack was about to answer, then he paused for a moment and said slowly, “No... I’m from somewhere else. My family live somewhere else.”

It was not the answer he would have given earlier that afternoon, but now it was the right answer and it was good enough for the girl. She nodded in reply and Jack was glad to see her smile again. They smoked side by side in silence, Jack inhaling each breath of nicotine, the cigarette burning low and hot against his fingers and he dropped the remains of the cigarette suddenly, the orange glow hissing to nothing against the slick, grey streets.

The girl, Heather, drew her red raincoat around her, then turned to go back inside.

“It’d be nice to have a dog,” Jack said suddenly.

Heather stepped back from the door and looked at him, her head tilted to one side, her freckles burning as though something had embarrassed her. Jack turned away, and then back to her. The moisture had been sucked from his mouth and dry balls of grey spittle coated his tongue. He swallowed quickly, but his throat hurt and it was not an easy action. He was about to speak, but laughed quietly instead, then turned his eyes back to the white mist of rain beating frantically against the road.

“I wish I had a dog as well,” Heather said. Her hand fluttered to her mouth, bird-like, then dropped limply to her chest. “I just lost my cat... a dog would be nice. Something different."

Jack fumbled with the cigarette packet. Something warm and wet landed on the back of his hand and he wiped it away against his shirt. He offered the packet to her.

“Have another?” he asked, his eyes focused on the tip of her nose, lacking the strength to travel up to her eyes.

They each took another cigarette and Heather leaned in to light them.

Jack watched the smoke at the tip of his cigarette then said, with great difficulty, “You’d never be lonely with a dog.”

Heather’s fingers trembled as the rain lashed against them. They retreated back against the empty shop front. “It would be nice to have someone there when you came home at night,” she said, her eyes on the far side of the world to where Jack stood, wrapped in his thin jacket, the shoulders soaked through, his chest marked by a dark, misshapen ring.

Jack nodded to the rain, but there was nothing more he could say.

Finally, their cigarettes exhausted, they turned to one another and smiled in farewell. Jack stood for a moment, nodded after the flash of red that was retreating back inside, then stepped out into the rain, heading back towards his own flat.

The rain continued throughout the night and the cigarettes slowly disappeared. Jack lay sweating with his arm wrapped around a pillow as yellow streetlight came through the window from outside. Strangely, he could think only of the girl. He wanted to think of the phone call, wanted to consider the words he had heard just that afternoon, think about what they would mean for the rest of his life, but the memory of the girl smoking in the rain smothered these thoughts, everything else sinking beneath the image of her eyes burning behind a cigarette.

In the months afterwards, it became engrained in Jack’s daily routine to buy a packet of cigarettes and stand across from the taxidermist’s, waiting. But the first time he saw her was the last and this grief slowly grew inside him and began to replace the old grief, until, eventually, the loss of both people settled in Jack’s stomach and he thought only of the first, wearing the memory like a layer of skin, tucked away just beneath the surface. The girl was just an image he thought about sometimes when he went outside to smoke in the rain, wrapped in his father’s jacket, breathing in the smell of nutmeg and warm bark on a summer’s day. 

Tom Ward is a London-based author and journalist. He is the winner of the GQ Norman Mailer Award 2012 and the PPA New Consumer Magazine Journalist Of The Year award 2017. His books include 'A Departure' (shortlisted for the People's Book Prize 2014) and Fires (2017). His short story collection Dead Dogs & Splintered Hearts is out now. Follow him on Twitter at @TomWardWrites