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Courttia Newland
Courttia Newland

Courttia Newland’s first novel, The Scholar, was published in 1997. Further critically acclaimed work includes Society Within (1999) and Snakeskin (2002), The Dying Wish (2006), Music for the Off-Key (2006), and A Book of Blues (2011). He is co-editor of IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain (2000) and has short stories featured in many anthologies. His career has encompassed both screen and playwriting; plays include B is for Black, and an adaptation of Euripedes' Women of Troy. He was nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the CWA Dagger in the Library Award, the Alfred Fagon Award, the Frank O’ Conner Award and The Edge Hill Prize 2012. His latest anthology, co-edited with Monique Roffey, is Tell Tales 4: The Global Village (2009). A forthcoming novel, The Gospel According to Cane, was published by Akashic Books (US) and Telegram (UK) in February 2013.


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Passive Smoke


He needed to quit the cigarettes. It was beginning to get to her, especially since she’d begun to exhale smoke. The first time, Evie had been getting out of bed when she felt a tight pain in her chest and the urge to cough, followed by two dry bursts. The tiny puffs that escaped her mouth and the ashen taste on her tongue stopped her dead, one foot caught in the duvet, the other on the carpet, stunned. She remained there, a hand to her burning throat for the next five minutes, unable to believe what had happened. She instantly knew Max was to blame.

           The simplest thing would have been to tell him, but the notion was ridiculous, she already knew that. She threw herself into her dressing gown and marched downstairs, through the living room and into the back garden. Sure enough, there he was leant against the garden fence enjoying his first of the day while having a laugh with the neighbour. She stood by the open back door, dressing gown clutched in a tight fist, hissing like a snake.

          ‘What d’you think you’re you doing?’

           Max jumped out of his skin. He shot a look at Clyde on the other side of the fence, who was already smiling.

          ‘What?’

          ‘You’re not trying very hard are you?’

          ‘I am. I’m cutting down.’

          ‘In what way?’

          ‘I didn’t have one last night.’

           That was true. She was too upset to credit him for honesty.

          ‘I want you to put that out, right now.’

          ‘Get stuffed,’ he muttered into his neat-trimmed beard.

          ‘I beg your pardon?’

           She was almost shrieking by then, stood on bare tiptoes, leaning as far into the garden as she dared. Clyde was red with suppressed laughter. Heat rose on her face.

          ‘Yes dear, whatever you say dear…’ He took three big drags, admired the dwindling butt, took one more, pursed his lips and blew. This time there was no doubt; the hit struck Evie deep. She turned her head, coughing into the clean living room air, expelling a brackish grey cloud that swirled above her head. Evie could literally feel Max stare in her direction with that look in his eyes, the one she hated, narrow eyes and set jaw, a wolfish sneer. He didn’t even seem to notice the strange absence of any smoke around him.

          ‘It’s not that bad, why do you always have to exaggerate?’

           She thrust her head out of the back door again, lunging, spitting venom.

          ‘And why d’you have to be such a pig?’

          ‘Oink, Oink,’ he said, dropping the butt and crushing it flat beneath his heel.

          ‘You had better put that in the bin!’ Evie screeched, before she turned and stomped upstairs to the bathroom.

                                                                                          *      

Sitting in front of her desk at work, Evie tried to concentrate on what she was doing, but could only focus on Max. Their relationship seemed like an exercise of in incompatibility. He smoked, she didn’t. She worked, he didn’t. She liked theatre, film and books, he didn’t. Evie answered the phone and directed calls to relevant members of staff, speaking in a dull monotone. Yes, it had been fun back when they had first started dating, but if she was truthful she’d known he was boring even then - good looking, perfectly groomed, still boring. Of course, in those early days he’d been polite too, nothing like the obnoxious swine he had become. After a run of violent boyfriends Max had seemed the safer option. Evie hadn’t imagined she could bruise without fists.

           She began to feel pangs of hunger close to her 11:15 break. When she looked at her watch Evie saw she had ten minutes left. There was a somewhat familiar tickle and she felt that lurch in her chest, then there was the hit, and she couldn’t control her own body. She started to heave dry coughs. The Year 10 Head, Edward Draper, was stood at the Headmaster’s pigeonhole at the time, a handful of files and letters in hand. He dropped them at once and ran to her side as she coughed and retched and wiped the stinging the tears from her eyes. He even thumped her back, which was thoroughly irritating, until he smelt the smoke. Draper backed away. He was sniffing the air, eyeing Evie with contempt.

          ‘I know you’re fully aware of the ban; I think you should wait until your break to smoke, especially around the older students,’ he told her, thick eyebrows clashing together. Evie suddenly understood why she’d overheard the kids call him Crouching Caterpillar.

          ‘I… don’t…’ she wheezed, just as she blew out a huge plume of smoke. She looked up at him, eyes bright, in desperation. ‘I don’t smoke…’

           Draper didn’t believe her, even though he’d never seen Evie smoking before. He peered at her fingers and even into the bin under her desk for evidence. Finding none, he looked around the small room as though he wanted to call for help; but it was empty.

          ‘I think you’d better get some fresh air and a glass of water, don’t you?’ he said, an unconscious hand to his throat.

           Evie jumped to her feet and pushed past Draper. She ran along the corridor and down the stairs three at a time as the pips went for morning break, her mouth covered with one hand. In the playground she leant over, hands on her knees, coughing so long and loud she attracted a group of sympathetic kids. They rubbed her back and offered cans of soda, which she took, but nothing made any difference. When the kids saw the cigarette smoke belch from her open mouth they backed away as though she had fangs for teeth. By the time Evie’s morning break was over, both her coughing fit, and the crowd of students, were gone.

                                                                                          *          

He had to be told. She couldn’t risk losing the best job she’d ever had, or becoming a freak to anyone that might potentially witness her puffing like a cartoon dragon. It was demeaning, a smear on her character, especially as a non-smoker. All afternoon, even during her hour lunch break, Evie sat at her desk typing with tentative fingers, the office window pushed wide open in case she felt that uncontrollable twinge, oblivious to the Head’s complaints about the draft. Whenever she began to feel that foreign tickle, she jumped out of her seat and hung her head outside, mindful of passing staff members, blowing rolling plumes of smoke into the air. He’d been lying. Max wasn’t trying to give up, no way. Every cigarette he smoked was expelled from her virgin lungs in violent bursts. Evie imagined the Marlboro Lights, his brand of choice, tasted like mountain air on his tongue.

           She fumed over his deceit all the way home, and felt even worse when she stormed into the living room. Max had his feet up, wireless game pad in hand, face contorted as he wrestled with that stupid football game on his Xbox. She had to stand at the door for at least 5 five minutes before he even noticed she was there. He gave a mute wave and a grunt before he returned to the TV.

          She decided to bide her time, going upstairs to change out of her work clothes and get a quick shower, brush her teeth. Hungry, she threw together dinner and ate alone at the kitchen table until he wandered in, drawn by the smell. They sat across the table in silence, Evie watching him eat, Max wolfing it all down as though it was his first meal of the day. Looking at the empty sink, she guessed it was. One of the things she’d loved most back in their early dating days was his appreciation of her cooking. Now it was just another irritation in her chest, something else that made her want to retch.

          His plate clear, Max leaned back, eyes at half-mast, hand resting on bloated belly. She narrowed her eyes over the remains of her own half-eaten dinner.

          ‘Do you want to tell me anything about the smoking?’

           He stared back, uncaring, picking at food between his teeth with the outer tine of his fork; more bad habits, the offences stacked up like dirty wares. Shook his head.

          ‘So you’ve nothing to say?’

          ‘Nope.’

          ‘Even about this?’

           A pack of twenty, the golden packet bright between her fingers. The box was open, half the cigarettes missing.

          ‘Sneaking about in my drawers are we? Nice to know I’m trusted…’

          ‘Well how can I if you’re taking me for granted, lying to me? How can I believe you then?’

          ‘It’s none of your business! I’m a grown man, what I do is my own concern…’

           A shift in the air; raised tensions creating heat between one body and the next; clenched fists, protruding tendons, red faces.

          ‘None of my… This is my flat! I pay rent while you sit on your arse all day, doing nothing… I have to breathe in your smoke…’

          ‘Well leave then! Or I will! Either way, I not listening to this crap…’

           And that was the end, Max slamming his offending fork onto the plate, causing a painful clatter in her ears. He stormed away and out the front door leaving Evie with a half pack of twenty and her anger for company.                                                                                           *

That Saturday evening Evie dressed in front of the bedroom mirror. She’d chosen her tightest purple dress with the shortest hemline. Damn Max if he didn’t know what he was missing, she’d show him anyway. The frosty atmosphere in the house had lasted ever since their argument and both were so busy maintaining hostilities they’d forgotten the invitation extended over a fortnight ago, asking their next-door neighbors Clyde and Sonia over for dinner.

           Evie applied a little make-up and went downstairs to find Max scrolling through his iPod with a lazy thumb. He wore jeans and an old T-shirt that continually escaped the wash, didn’t react when he saw her sheer purple dress. Yet another dirty plate.

           She retreated to the kitchen, pretending to watch the butternut soup until their guests arrived bearing bottles of sparkling wine. Clyde was a six-foot plus oaf in Max’s vein, albeit without the looks. No wonder they got on. He kissed her on the cheek and leered at her cleavage even when Sonia noticed. His partner was a miniscule sweetheart, polite, humble and funny, painfully beautiful. She snatched the bottle from Clyde’s grasp, ordered him into the living room with his playmate, popped the cork and poured for herself and Evie. They sat at the kitchen table, fully prepared for a good old gossip.

          ‘How’s things?’

           Evie stirred the soup, lifted the lid on the saucepan of stewed fish curry. She was struck by the insane urge to cry.

          ‘Oh, the usual,’ she told hersaid, back turned, spoon lifted to taste. ‘I shout, he ignores me. I’m surprised you haven’t heard.’

          ‘Well…’ her neighbour gazed at the bubbles in her glass.

          ‘So you already know. That’s about the size of it.’

          ‘Men aren’t generally easy to live with,’ Sonia conceded, forming her words slow. ‘Look at Clyde. I used to wonder why he wasn’t sensitive and considerate, then I realised guys like that already have boyfriends.’

          ‘Yeah…’ She was supposed to laugh, she knew that; Sonia was smiling, encouraging her, but she was so tired she couldn’t muster strength. ‘It’s just that most of the time I don’t know why I bother. Surely that’s not good?’

          ‘Yeah, but still…’

           The men strolled in, just in time for dinner, as was usually the way. Evie spooned out food and sat submerged in conversation, feeling as though she’d been ducked under shallow water. Everything seemed muffled, far away. Max was shoveling mouthfuls and cracking the same old jokes, talking about the same old topics. Clyde complimented her cooking and felt Sonia up under the table, making her jump and slap him every few minutes or so, even while he made eyes at Evie like a dog mesmerised by an out- of- reach bone. Sonia attempted to angle the conversation Evie’s way, but it was a losing battle she’d lost the heart to win. She sat there, dazed, wondering what had made her want to invite her neighbours over when she despised Clyde so much. Then she remembered. She hadn’t. It was Max.

           She’d bought dessert from the local supermarket, a small strawberry cheesecake Max usually loved, but the men were up and out before she could even get to the fridge, heading for the back garden. Even though she knew why they were going, knew she should find some excuse to leave the kitchen, Evie stayed.

          ‘You know, you don’t have to do this to yourself,’ Sonia whispered, half an eye on the kitchen door.

          ‘I know.’

          ‘It might seem as though things aren’t the best between me and Clyde… He’s a pig, we both know that, and my family is always going on about how much better I could do… The thing is… I feel stupid saying this now…’ Sonia shifted in her seat, allowed a small wince of embarrassment. ‘I love him. Bottom line, I truly do. Warts and all. So you have the to ask yourself the question, is he worth it? And if not…’

          ‘… I know what to do…’ Evie said.

          ‘Exactly.’

           She felt a sudden pang for the creamy taste of cheesecake and got to her feet, turning towards the fridge.

          ‘You’re right. I know you are. I just feel it’s like the song says, you know… “I’m not in love…¸’

          ‘“… But you’re open to persuasion?¸’ They laughed, perhaps more heartily than the words allowed. ‘That’s cool. That’s normal. But is he doing a good job?’

           She found the cake and searched for a knife, some plates. Peered out at the garden door. Max’s laughter drifted back into the house.

          ‘Noooo…’

          ‘Well…’ Sonia lifted her slim shoulders and let them fall, sipped more wine.

           Evie was smiling, thinking how cute that miniscule gesture looked on Sonia when it happened. The hit. This time it was so deep in her chest she almost gasped, her shocked reaction making her bend over, suck in air, almost drop the packaged cheesecake to the floor. Sonia half rose to her feet, unsure what had happened, and then Evie rose again, eyes wide, grasping her throat with one hand, and bellowed a thick blast of grey smoke across the table into Sonia’s stunned face. Directly after that came the coughing, so fitful and loud she was forced to put down the dessert, sit at the table. Sonia came to her side, rubbing her back while she belched more smoke into the kitchen, again and again. It went on like that until the coughs began to subside in force, died down into nothing. Sonia ran cold tap water into a glass and handed it to her. She gulped it down, breathing weakly, a hand still rested on her throat, almost face down on the table.

          ‘Oh my God…’

           Sonia was peering at her. Evie avoided her stare, ashamed.

          ‘Sorry about that…’

          ‘Sod that babe… Was that him? Max, I mean.’

           Her throat was burning her, so she nodded.

          ‘Have you told him?’

           Shook her head, twice.

          ‘Oh Evie, you have to. That’s really bad.’

           Evie sat up, feeling shaky. It was struggle, but she was so surprised she had to.

          ‘You saw it? I mean saw the whole thing, not just the smoke.’

           Sonia’s expression morphed from concern into annoyance. She made to speak, thought about it, started again.

          ‘I believe what my eyes tell me babe. You don’t have to worry about that. And you know it’s true. Do something.’

          ‘I will,’ she croaked. They held hands.

           The men came back, laughing overbearingly loud, smelling like bonfire. Clyde looked at the women and sniffed the air, giving Sonia a questioning look. Max, oblivious as usual, flopped into the seat he’d vacated, spotting the boxed dessert.

          ‘Ah yeah, strawberry cheesecake, my favourite! You dishing it out or staring at it?’

          Another roar from both men, Sonia shooting daggers at Evie. Max and Clyde clutched each other and laughed.       

          

She lay in bed the following morning with Max snoring beside her, staring at the ceiling, possibility dancing through her mind. The sun was rising. The birds were chirping into life, though Evie hardly heard them. Every so often her boyfriendMax would grunt and throw an arm across her body, which she would immediately remove. Despite her anger at him she was happy. Someone had seen. And she’d had an idea.

           After some time she decided he could stay in bed, leaving him to sleep while she showered and dressed. The local supermarket opened late on Sundays, so she was there when they raised the shutters, looking amused at her impatience. There were half-sized trolleys not far from the entrance. She took one, rolling up and down the aisles filling hers with as much food as she could find, everything from cakes, to sausages and Gammon steaks, to ready meals and pies, nothing remotely healthy. She scanned packaging for E numbers and additives, the more the better. When she’d piled the trolley high, Evie paid with Max’s credit card. She took her massive haul home.

           He came downstairs to the smell of a full English breakfast. Fried eggs, sausage, bacon, mushroom, beans, black pudding, and toast. He was rubbing his hands together in glee as he entered the kitchen, just in time to see Evie clearing her plate.

          ‘Wow, smells lovely!’ Max wore a wide grin. ‘Where’s mine, in the oven?’

          ‘Yours? Oh sorry love, I thought you’d still be full after last night, so I made breakfast for myself. Is that alright?’

          ‘Well…’ Max looked around the room, confused. ‘… I thought…’

          ‘You sure you’re not full?’ Evie said, staring at him, brown eyes gleaming. ‘I could’ve sworn you would be.’

          ‘Well…’ Max flopped to the kitchen table. He lay back in his seat, hands resting on his stomach. His eyes looked vague, distant. He seemed sleepy. ‘Come to think of it, I do feel a little bloated. Dunno why.’

          ‘Thought you might.’ She smiled at Max for the first time in months. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

          ‘No thanks, I couldn’t stomach anything.’ He looked at her, suspicious. ‘What you grinning at?’

          ‘Oh nothing. Just feel good today. You don’t look so well actually. Maybe you should go back to bed.’

          ‘Yeah…’ Max said. He was beginning to pale. ‘I don’t really feel the best.’

          ‘You seem a bit peeky.’

          ‘Yeah.’

           He got up, stumbling out of the kitchen. Evie’s smile grew. When she was sure he wasn’t coming back she opened her laptop and looked up the Ocado delivery service on the internet. She ordered more food and put it on Max’s card.

           Evie did the same thing every day for the next three months. She ate a massive breakfast, lunch and dinner, making sure she snacked in between each meal. Full English breakfast, bacon double cheeseburger and chips with a side order of onion rings for lunch, Sunday roast for dinner most days. King-sized chocolate bars, family- sized packs of sweets, grab bags of crisps, as long as the latter were full of MSG, none of that organic stuff. She bought the ready meals, and ate them at work, or when Max was out of the house. Every now and then she would feel the hit. She’d run to the bathroom, lock herself in and wait for the spasms to pass.

           Somewhere along the line Max seemed to notice that although he hardly ate, he was putting on an extraordinary amount of weight. His cheeks and throat swelled as though he had mumps, and his stomach began to push against his jeans in protest. By the second month he began to find nothing fit him like it had. When he went clothes shopping he was dismayed to discover he’d gone up a size. Max had always been quite fanatical about the fact that he could eat whatever he liked and not gain pounds as long as he exercised. Now Evie could feel the difference when he climbed on top at night, saw how hard he laboured once he was there. It pleased her to know she could affect him too. It was all she could do to keep the secret.

           Still, it didn’t take long for him to realise he had hardly eaten a thing for over three months, while Evie, normally a miniscule eater, was putting away huge plates of food three times a day and not gaining a stone. She was having her now usual full English in the kitchen one morning when he came down and slid into the chair opposite her. The skin on his face was sallow, puffy. His normally bright brown eyes had become submerged in flesh. His arms and shoulders had gained in width and the T-Shirt he wore was baggy enough to hide the growing ball of his previously non-existent stomach. Evie fought down a smile, concentrated on her pork sausages.

          ‘Good morning.’

           He leveled his face with hers. Leaned across the table.

          ‘What’s going on Evie?’

           She was chewing, voice muffled by her full mouth.

          ‘With what?’

          ‘You know what Evie.’

           She sat back, swallowed. Almost closed her eyes, it tasted so good.

          ‘Max, I’m really sorry. You’re right; I never should have done it. I’ll make some brekkie for you too, all right?’

           He slammed his hands on the table, palms down, making her jump.

          ‘I don’t want breakfast Evie. I don’t want it because I’m not hungry. I haven’t been hungry for the last three months, doesn’t that make you at all concerned?’

           Shrugging, maintaining a casual expression.

          ‘No. I just thought you weren’t fussed.’ Evie gave him a quick flick up and down with her eyes, waited a beat. ‘You certainly don’t look as though you’re starved…’

           It was all she could do not to laugh at the look of indignation that crumpled his face into a petulant frown of uncertainty, a schoolboy’s sulk. Max unconsciously put a hand across his stomach, saw she was watching, took the hand away. She lowered her head towards the plate and cut a piece of bacon into a manageable portion. Added beans. Lifted the fork to her mouth. Open and swallow.

          ‘Have you put Obeah on me?’

           This time she did laugh.

          ‘I thought you called it superstitious nonsense. Group hallucinations of the highest order, didn’t you say?’

          ‘I did. But my grandmother believed. I’m prepared to admit I could be wrong.’

           She dangled a piece of sausage in front of him like bait, but he couldn’t even look, his face turning green at the sight of the meat.

          ‘Really? What a shame your admittance couldn’t be stretched further than duppy power…’

          ‘What?’

          ‘Could be the first step on your journey you know.’

          ‘Evie. You’re not making any sense.’

           She pursed her lips, feeling powerful for the first time in months.

          ‘I didn’t use Obeah on you Max. I wouldn’t fool with that stuff, even if I knew how.’

           Max slumped against his chair, even as she found it strange that he believed her totally, didn’t think for a minute she might lie. It struck her then, how much Max trusted her not to harm him, all while throwing mental barbs for most of their relationship.

          ‘So what’s happening to me?’ he said. The fear on his face was genuine. He looked as though he might cry. ‘I see myself in the mirror and don’t recognise who I am, and when I try to eat I can’t. I’ve put on three stones in the last few weeks; I’ve never put on that much in my entire life. There’s more food in the house than we’ve ever had, and when I come into the kitchen you – skinny you – are eating like a monster. You’ve got me searching the house for a bowl of sweat rice hidden in a cupboard… This is weird stuff Evie, it’s making me scared.’

           She was finished, the plate before her clean, and yet she felt light as air, content but hardly stretched. Max, on the other hand, had that sleepy-eyed-look of a man who had downed more than he could handle. He leaned back, burped long and loud, covered his mouth with a hand and looked very uncomfortable. Evie wiped her mouth with a tissue. She was stern, deadly serious.

          ‘Light a cigarette.’

           His eyes widened, though he tried not to.

          ‘I don’t have any.’

           She sighed.

          ‘Come on Max, don’t treat me like a fool. I know you’re still smoking.’

           They stared into each other’s eyes until he puffed a huge breath, reached into his pocket and pulled out the pack. Another search for his lighter, then he was leaning on his elbows with both items in his hands.

          ‘Sure about this?’

          ‘Go on. I wanna show you something.’

           She wasn’t sure if it was for her benefit, but he took it slow, placing the cigarette in his mouth and letting it hang limp, spinning the cheap lighter wheel as softly as he could, letting the flame burn a few seconds before he bent it towards the tip, the glow and crackle as it caught, the race of red light as it sped up the cigarette. The hit was less of a blast and more of a tickle this time; she could feel it, but her lungs did not have the urgent need to expel the foreign object like they once had. Max took the smoke down, held it. Thus, so did Evie. It had happened. She’d got used to it.

           When he exhaled, of course, nothing came out. She could feel his warm breath caress her skin like it did in the old days, when they had made love, him looking down on her with clear intent. Evie let the memory play in her mind for quite some time. It was a good one. She opened her mouth and let the smoke go. Max immediately reared backwards as though he’d been slapped, eyes closed. She blew it all out, everything he had given her until there was nothing left. Then she sat there and stared, point made. It didn’t surprise her to see tears roll down his cheeks, even though his eyes remained shut. At this stage in their relationship she guessed, after everything that had happened, nothing would.

          ‘How long?’ he said, eyes squeezed tight.

          ‘Four, five months. I can’t actually remember.’

          ‘And you didn’t say anything.’

          ‘I was hoping you’d notice.’

           He had the good grace not to reply, just nod his head and weep in silence.

          ‘We can’t keep doing this. To each other, I mean. You know that don’t you?’

          ‘Yes.’

           Evie stood and put her plate, knife and fork into the dishwasher. Went back to the table and laid a hand on his shoulder.

          ‘I’m leaving Max. I think it’s for the best. So do you, really.’

           She let him grasp her hand a moment longer, and when she could take no more, carefully removed it. She went upstairs to pack.

          

          

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