‘Well, if you put it that way yes… it is medication in a cigarette form…’ The doctor spoke, slightly shifting the complex cradle of his fingers. ‘Very strong, very effective. Also, because of the nature of your condition, it provides means of occupation…’
Lola was sitting opposite the doctor in a poorly constructed chair she perceived immediately as placing her in a subordinate position – lowly and straw-like in the legs. The table between them warped in its dirty beige as she glowered up at him.
“But what I want to know is – isn’t it harmful? You know, in terms of second-hand smoke and all that?”
She was conscious of the colloquial ring of her speech beside the clipped and pruned pronunciation of the doctor. A hot haze of humiliation seemed to flower in her face, the thorns simultaneously singeing her skin. Holding her own ground at home was customary – John simply sat and shrivelled in the corner – but here the matter was different.
The doctor appeared almost to take relish in Lola’s apparent struggle, responding with a ceremonial slowness as if selecting each word individually.
“Well, Miss Lack – “
It was a start – the first medical professional finally to recognise that she wasn’t married. John was her partner. PART – ner – she remembered enunciating to one psychologist with especial emphasis . People seemed to assume she was someone else’s problem, sent by a seething husband exhausted with the hours of melancholy, and so forth. Sometimes she liked to think that it was John who was HER problem.
But a slight sense of power never stayed for very long.
“ – Miss Lack, I can only assure you that the method of medication will do no harm to your loved ones. It is tailored to yourself, your environment… the product of many years of medical innovation… “
A layer of scepticism seemed to shine thickly in each of her eyes. The doctor continued.
“It is not to be used in public, mind you, but as I have said… there are no effects on those who you love.”
There seemed something incomprehensible in the concept, Lola thought, but then again, much of her life itself had been incomprehensible, and sometimes she liked it that way. It made the acceptance of things easier, even automatic – allowing for a needle sharp transition of thought. After all, the method of medication itself had been very good according to her judgement – that morning she recounted how she had enjoyed the security of the cigarette between her fingers, the spreading sensation as the ferrules of smoke seemed to dissipate the anger and anxiety she imagined cold inside her like a layer of calcite. Any thoughts of imagery thrilled her, and anyhow, the image of her, cigarette balanced between the fingers in an almost ornate arrangement, was somewhat pleasant –
“Well,” She was evidently musing now, and the doctor leaned back as if assuming an easy triumph. “If that’s what you guarantee, I might as well give it a go…”
The doctor nodded slowly as if intending to express a bearing of great knowledge as a kind of weight.
“Hopefully, Miss Lack, it will provide a much more instantaneous form of relief from those spells of anger and anxiety we have been discussing, and also a form of medication which is perhaps more convenient to take – and remember.”
Those were the words she needed, her idealisations sweet and thickening amidst the crystallisation of such a promise.
‘Yes, yes.’ Her tone was emphatic with inevitable agreement, still shaping the very same words as she shuffled behind the pharmaceutical desk – already far removed from the doctor and his accusative ambiguity. She concluded that she didn’t like him, - didn’t like the way he looked at her, his eyes tracing her face in repeated circular motions as if smearing the contours of her face to a greasy smoke, to nothing. Men like him, in the real world – that is, were trouble, she thought.
The pharmacist gazed at her in a type of mock-sympathy, puncturing her series of thought with a forced etiquette. “Have you been on anti-depressant medication before?”
“Yes, yes.” The same standard response – always upfront, agreeing. She allowed herself to be settled into the agenda – perhaps that was her problem, always too eager. I only wanted to help, she remembered herself repeating over and over as she would gaze up at John with tremulous eyes brimming with hysteria, busy in the breakage of some routine or other. She remembered that he once made a cake for her, heavy almost as a standing stone, which she dropped in trying to help him present it. But he dropped more that day, she was convinced, dropped everything when he spat back at her face, shaken like a layer of water which a pebble pushes through ‘You’re ridiculous! Ridiculous!’
He had ruined it – yes, yes. The same answer when her name was called forward to collect her medication, the floor under her feet florid with other people’s lives and the anxious marks of illness. The packaging seemed almost anticlimactic in its neutrality – though white with a sterility she attempted to convince herself as being good for her, passing its unusual lightness over her fingers, into her palms…
‘Is there anything else, Mrs – ?’
At the certain term of address emerging from the lips of the painted young pharmacist, Lola turned away rapidly. How long she had stood for, simply staring at the package, she could not recall, did not want to recall. Quite a pleasant exhibition to herself she thought – only, people had to ruin it. Ruined everything. The door she rushed through seemed somehow smaller compared to when she entered it.
The cigarette seemed to fit with her fingers in a kind of reciprocity she thought, cradling, soothing.
She would lean almost provocatively against the counter, blowing smoke rings as she read or looked out of the window and into the imperceptible distance. The smoke which seemed to smooth a sense of power over, as if immersing her frail human body in wax to become a hardened, beautiful emblem, yet full of mystery. She liked to think like that.
John, she convinced herself, did not like to think at all. Most days now he slumped in his chair in the corner – the possessive adjective being significant – the steely grip of his fingers seemed to seize the arms of that chair with an almost maniacal possession, Lola thought. Perhaps a couple of months before she would have been jealous – with a jealousy as florid and awful as the artificial arrangements of flowers which dominated the mantelpiece, erupting into their own coloured flames. She barely turned the fire on now – and told John not to do so either – it was with this medication she felt a warmth, a warmth restored, so to speak.
‘Allowing the true self to be revealed…’
Her eyes consumed the oft-read syntax greedily from the brochure inside the medication box. It was lunchtime and an iceberg lettuce on the kitchen counter glistened as if frozen, isolated and cold like a laboratory specimen. Lola paid it little attention – she had become accustomed to one of the cigarettes at lunch, one mid-afternoon and one at dinner time. It seemed to pacify her appetite a little – not that she minded. She assumed John did not mind either, though she noticed he would occasionally cast her perfunctory glances from his usual position – his eyes exposed and questioning beneath the pale hair in a way that irritated her.
‘I wish you wouldn’t smoke in the house,” He mumbled, his fingers knitting anxiously around a pen with which he was completing some writing in a dishevelled pad which laid across his lap like a fallen bird ‘I’ve never liked the idea of smoking in the house…’
As ever, Lola responded with a dismissive flick of the hair and a customary creasing of the lips.
‘Doctor’s orders,” She responded, leaning in his direction across the kitchen counter. The lettuce rolled at the reverberation and hit the floor like a wet piece of flesh falls from an operating table. Her painted lips took especial pleasure from the re-iteration. “Doctor’s orders.”
After all, she thought, as the doctor said, the medicinal cigarettes did no harm to loved ones. If John had a problem with it, he was being selfish. She recalled what she thought of as his selfishness, even in the early days, when it required an additionally strong squeeze of the hand in order to get him to go the pictures again with her.
“Why can’t we just go for a walk?” He would say, an urgent appeal arising in his tone after a couple of times. “I need a walk.”
Never really did she care for such excursions – and many- a-time she had urged to make this evident, dragging on his arm, executing that appalling whine which was customary of small children and aggressive dogs simultaneously. Then he would sigh, and shake his head in the slightly lolloping way which seemed to infuse his whole movement, and submit to another night at the pictures, or at dinner, listening with a remoteness she took for fondness to her tirades of conversation. She liked him then, she told herself. Silence was romantic after all, like in the films.
It was silent now, after the lettuce has seized rolling on the floor. Ten years! Her mouth seemed to expand in a kind of surprise, although this was ultimately necessary to allow the smoke to trickle through – emerging at intervals, John thought uncomfortably, like an ashen tongue. Yes, he thought, ten years they had lived together. The faux-leather chair, chilled and discomforting beneath him, seemed somehow reflective of that space of time, hollow as he drummed his fingers, fading where the scrub of his hair rested heavily against the material.
A cough contorted him back into the frame.
He coughed raggedly in a way that made his body appear seized by some external force, shaking from the inside so that even from where Lola was standings she could hear the click, click, click, of his grinding jaw amplified by the marble fittings. She mused – it had been her plan all along to have the lounge knocked-through to connect to the kitchen – a clear expanse in a marble, open-plan affair. She could see more that way.
She could see John with the paper still straddled stubbornly across his knee. John could see her, the curvature of her body emphasized by the straight-cut stone which surrounded her, the slender cigarette which was suspended between the thread-work of her fingers, occasionally scattering ash in its salt and pepper array.
She shook her head and crossed and get herself a glass of water. His coughing irritated her – rumbling through his lips and lingering in the air like a remonstration. The medication doing so much good and john idling away in his chair like that – occasionally clocking her out of the corner of heavy eyes where the pupils moved perceptibly, as if embodying some great weight. Water soothed over her temporary soreness of nerve – the way it curved from the metal faucet, a wide curve which reflected her face infused with colour, the full lips with which spoke with a smile –
“Oh John, this medication is doing a world of good, I’m sure.”
The way she pronounced his name clashed awfully with his sense of self-conception. He swallowed audibly – swallowed old, dank air as she drank cool clean mouthfuls of water with the fastidious gestures of a little sparrow, or some small animal. He looked grey and miserable today, she thought, coughing and spluttering there in his chair, probably staining the marble tiling with those great overgrown slippers of his. Why couldn’t he be happy for her? Why couldn’t he –
‘I need a walk.” His speech segmented her thoughts – the unusual assertion had an announcement-like ring to it.
He groped unsteadily to his feet, the chair and its exhausted skin squealing in protest as he moved. Such a physical effort, he thought, everything now seemed such a physical effort. Perhaps it was because the writer’s block had begun to set in and he was vaguely aware of an impending deadline for Monday. Perhaps it was because he was unconsciously concerned for his ailing mother despite her willingness to exclude him from her life for the past decade or so. People made strange choices, after all. If he had a choice now – he would have given anything just to for Lola to sit beside him and let him run a tired hand through that long brown hair of hers, like they used to, her hand in his. He watched her fingers adjust on the cigarette, the lacquered nails scraping against each other as if adjusting the settings of a weapon. He wanted to say – “Come and give me your hand, Lo, come and give me your hand!’. He wanted to write, freely and flowingly of the grass they had chased through one summer when the idle ears of corn stretched way above their ankles. He wanted to –
“Yes, yes. Walking, walking – it’s all you ever do!”
Her words cut him, intended to be evidently without affection as her exclamation was followed by a defensive draw on the cigarette. Sure, she seemed stronger since taking up the medication, almost impossibly strong sometimes, John thought. Perhaps he should be happy for her, happy with the same intensity of the tiredness, the same dark intensity of her shadow as both swept over him where he stood. He sidled to the door – not wanting to ignore her, wanting to instead install his movements, the way his feet aligned themselves on the floor with a kind of purposefulness of invitation. Desperate invitation, even. Walk with me, Lo.
The clock needed re-aligning, Lola thought, when John stood up, even with the strange shuffling gait he seemed to adopt nowadays, it accentuated the odd alignment of the clock. She could have it sorted soon enough – with all the new energy the medication seemed to invest in her, injecting her with resolve. Smiling around the cigarette slipped between the teeth, she stepped forward determinedly.
He didn’t look back.
Her efforts to adjust the clock, manipulating it by its sharp little fingers, were only interrupted some minutes later by a dull thud on the veranda – like the sound of the flower basket falling from its hook and uprooting the straggled articles of growth, yet again. She advanced outside crossly, biting down on the cigarette in a way that almost coated her tongue with ash. Little she cared, she just wanted to get on with things – caring equally little for the slimy, sweat-laden texture of the metal door-handle beneath her palm.
It was then, crossing the threshold, she noticed. John slumped on the slated wood of the veranda floor, seized with the spasmodic tortures of what appeared beyond a fit of coughing. She rushed to his side, careful not to swallow the ash.
“John? John? What’s happened John?”
His body was convulsed as if he had been caught in the back by a very intimate blade. But there were no such marks, no blood. Only a dry retching cough from the back of his throat which dashed the lips with foam and red. John dying, dying on his own doorstep! Lola was panicking now, pressing her face close to his, close to inanimate whites of his eyes which seemed to roll in their sockets, occasionally fractured by the images of the own futility of his fight.
“Speak to me John!” Her voice came in breathy, desperate bursts, furling across his face – she hoped it may rouse him, anything –
His voice twisted to an agonized shriek.
“Smoke! That smoke, that…”
Delirium, she thought hastily, it must be delirium. She tossed away the near finished cigarette, grappled for his hands, attempted to plant a quick kiss on his forehead. She could manage this, she told herself, that is what the medication would allow her to do – stay collected, stay calm. It was with a sense of this regained resolve with which she rose and ran for the phone.
Must ring the doctor.
She scrabbled on the phone table for where her medication box sat customarily, rifled through for the brochure and punched in the given number.
The doctor answered without apparent surprise, despite the slight tremulousness of her tone. She was a little embarrassed, despite the gravity of the situation – this was the doctor to whom she always told – yes, I am and can be a strong and eloquent person.
“It’s John – I think he’s having a fit!” She managed, gripping the receiver in a way that seemed somehow familiar. She couldn’t help it.
The doctor calmly, almost absently, asked her for the symptoms. Unnerved by this, as she could not see the form of John as she spoke – presumably still prostrate in agony on the veranda – she began to list all she could remember.
The doctor did not interrupt her, only opening his audibly dry lips to conclude her listing.
“The most evident symptoms, it appears… of smoke poisoning.”
A pulse of perspiration seemed to thicken Lola’s palm in a hot burst, the anger fizzed in her throat.
“But, but –“
The doctor seemed to mimic her, an echo in her air. She continued, falteringly.
“But you told me that this form of medication – these cigarettes, antidepressant cigarettes, yes, if they are the cause, that is - you told me that they would do no harm to those I love!” She spat in an almost single hysterical outpour.
The doctor paused momentarily, as if whetting his lips. His voice arrived at her ear, earthly and measured with every word.
“But Miss Lack – you don’t love John, do you?”
A great hacking cough.
She left the receiver hanging like a shattered jaw as she ran back onto the veranda at the accumulation of another grating shriek, hardly hearing what the doctor had said. The noise foamed from John’s lips – the words in which were inaudible.
And there, on the veranda, she looked over the convulsed body of her partner, the cold wood against which his head shook, the sun glowing sickly through the clouds, the cigarette, her cigarette, the end of which she had left burning-ever-so-slightly beside him.
Her eyes looked for distraction – falling to the medical leaflet she still clutched between her fingers.
‘Allowing the true self to be revealed…’
The words rose to meet her, as thick and sudden as smoke. er