The Pilot is quiet. Most of the holidaymakers have gone home. The barman says, hey, buddy. And, I say, hey. But I can’t say buddy because it just seems stupid. And because he wears a black polo shirt. So he says, Grinner (with a question mark at the end). I say, please. And he goes off to pull that particular pint.
How’s the non-smoking going, I ask. Not well, he says. I had a fag already today for breakfast. And one in my break. Don’t worry about it, I say. It’s a tricky thing, stopping. And real quick off the mark he says he’s going to start again tomorrow. Funny that. The confusion of starting and stopping. The confusion of the phrasing. That’s smoking for you. He’s going to start stopping again to stop starting again. Tomorrow. He accepts my payment. I pocket my change and go outside for a smoke.
Jessica is at one of the benches. She is hunched over her phone. Dreadlocks at rest on the table. She covets half of a half. She has two ashtrays beside her, an empty pint jar & a tumbler of slush. Safety in numbers. There appear to be about a million butts in each ashtray and she has one in her gob. It is limp and unlit. I remember that I still owe her thirty quid for the sofa that she left behind at the flat for me when she moved out and I moved in. Hey, Jessica! Hey, says Jessica, fag twitching between her lips. Can I join you, I say, sitting down opposite her. She sprays a blue clipper that she has in her hand over the end, or there abouts, of her roll-up. Yeah. A tiny feather floats down out of the sky and the seagulls nesting on the roof of The Pilot whistle. Jessica is getting trashed. I can see this. She is waiting on a call from Mad Lisa. Mad Lisa is her lover. She lives in a cottage up the Rocombe end of town. I clear my throat and take a sip and settle in, constructing a cigarette.
Mad Lisa, it transpires, has decided not to let Jessica move in with her at her place. Has there been a to-do? I ask, plucking a strand from my mouth. Sort of, she says. Mad Lisa says it wouldn’t work; the living together. And, anyway, what good is it having a lover onboard if that lover can’t pay the rent and, quite frankly, the age difference between the two of them is something that is causing ructions to Mad Lisa. And, it would seem, to many of the locals, too. Not that the gossip bothers Mad Lisa or Jessica. Mad Lisa isn’t prepared to act as a surrogate mother etc, etc. Mad Lisa isn’t going to be tied down. She’s a free spirit, blah, blah, blah. And, anyway, Mad Lisa likes to live a little. Sure, sure. And, living on cheese sandwiches, Mad Lisa says, is living just a little too little. Where’s the Mortadella? The Milano hams? The linguine? The Gelato? The prosecco? The Cannoli? Living costs a pretty penny, blah, blah, blah. I agree. You can’t live on fresh air.
You not working at the care home anymore, I ask quietly like it’s a big secret. She shakes her nest and continues, fag jumping up and down, to fill me in. Mad Lisa has decided that she needs to get a lodger instead. That way she gets the rent paid and that will allow her to splash out a little. Live a little. Fresh air and all that. Also, Jessica says Mad Lisa tells her last night that three would be a crowd. Yeah, but a small crowd, I say.
Mad Lisa part manages The Ship on Brewer Street. It pays a pittance. Sure, there’s the freebies. The crisps, pork scratchings, the toilet rolls and cleaning products, obviously, slipped into the IHEARTFRIDAKAHLO tote bag at the end of the shift. But they’re just perks. I say, sounds like a great deal if you like cheese and onion crisps. Or bleach. Jessica breathes smoke. Hmm, she says. But she doesn’t sound convinced. Mad Lisa has got wise of late and realises that no amount of free bar snacks is ever gonna pay the rent. I nod. Sure. I think that it doesn’t sound too rosy for the lesbians. Jessica sprays her butt again. Misses & says, it’s not like I don’t give her some right proper loving. All the time. I’m just like shit-crazy for her pussy. I don’t know quite what to add to this information, so I nod and take a sip of Grinner and we go quiet for a while and smoke.
Eventually I ask, how’s the new house. This just makes her bangles rattle. Fat Matt’s moved out and the bastard landlord’s none too pleased about the rats. Infact, it would be fair to say he’s freaking out.
She grinds the soggy fag into the nearest ashtray. Yeah, rats. And Peanuts.
She’s scrabbling around in the ashtray. Yeah, she says distantly. Peanuts. Oh, right, I say. She selects a butt, examines it and places it between her lips. So, is there a rat problem? Jessica frowns. She has a forehead like corrogated card.
Yeah, you bet there’s a problem with the rats. A massive fucking problem, apparently. My rats!
She gives out a couple or three rat names that pass me by. The bastard don’t like me having rats. Bastard. I say I’m sorry to hear this. I try to hide my disdain at the thought of rats running wild and shitting and pissing everywhere. I just tut, like, yeah, bastard. They scratch up the skirting, she says. The bastard landlord don’t like it. I mean, it’s only bastard skirting. I nod, yeah.
And then I think about all the tiny claw marks that etch the skirting in my place, which used to be Jessica’s place. There are, I suddenly recall, many scratch marks in the airing cupboard, also. I call it an airing cupboard. I mean there’s a boiler in there. But Penny says it’s just a cupboard. I put a pair of her jeans in there to dry last time she was up. She had left London in a rush and hadn’t had time to dry her laundry. So, she had travelled down with a bag of damp denim on the train. That, she said, is not an airing cupboard. That, she said, is just a cupboard. How can jeans dry in a cupboard? She had gestured vaguely to the outside of the building. There is a lot of air out there, Nick! A lot! And sunshine! That is what you need to dry wet jeans. Sun and wind. Not a dark cupboard! Then she had asked about the claw marks on the inside of the cupboard door. There wasn’t really too much to say it. But I tried to look interested, just to take the subject away from her damp denim. To be fair though, by the time she left on the Sunday those jeans were almost dry. Almost. They had lost that just-washed thing, but, you know, they were dry. Still. You live, you learn.
So, Fat Matt’s moved out, then, I say.
Fat Matt’s moved back to Exeter, says Jessica. I need to get my shit together. There are, she says, suddenly even more seriously, the rats to think about. And Peanuts.
My hamster, she says.
Cool, I say, as if it were just the coolest thing ever.
We sit in silence again and take in the stink of the ashtrays and the people passing by on Silver Street. Then, when the sadness becomes too heavy, I say, hey, I still owe you for that sofa I think.
Sofa? she says. But then she says nothing because she’s picking a butt apart & concentrating. The subject seems to pass. Then she says, yeah. Yeah, yeah, the sofa! The money would be handy actually. She attempts to light the end of the butt again, but it is a no-hoper. That is one dead smoke. She rattles her bangles.
Do you have a proper fag?