His car parked careless and crooked. He notices he’s left it on double yellow lines as he gets out and hurries into the newsagents. A dingy dusk is slowly coming on. Autumn’s stealth reaching out. Summer’s languid sprawl stifled. As he shuts the shop door behind him, the radio is playing Bye Bye Baby, a thin print baffled sound. The racks of magazines and newspapers are silent, unperused witnesses. At the counter he says “twenty Rothmans” fingering the change in his rough and calloused hand and finding a fifty pence piece. Slaps it down “there you go”. And she doesn’t flinch at the sharp bang but instead slides her eyes over him, bold and blatant. There’s a moment of sullen stillness, before she slowly turns her back.
When she reaches for the cigarettes high on the shelf behind her, he notices how her shirt rises, just above the top of her jeans. An edge of flesh. He can see painted nails only slightly chipped, imagines soft smelling hair, moist open mouths. A fascination that should have been momentary persists. The Bay City Rollers are singing “she’s got me but I’m not free”. As the chorus cuts in, she hands over the few pence of change. There’s the glimmer of a smirk as if she’s made some decision. He tries and fails to stare down her brittle stonebound eyes. He sees some decision that could be in his favour, or perhaps not. By the time he’s pocketed the change, she’s pasted on a real smile, doing her best against the odds to be winsome. “You’re not from around here are you?” “No” he says scooping up his cigarettes. “Thanks”. And he hurries back to the double yellow lines. As he leaves the shop, he notices the sign with its hours dangling and bouncing on the moving door, opening and closing, opening and closing. Six o’clock he thinks. Not so far away. Unbidden the thought. “Maybe I’ll pop back.” And he glances over his shoulder, lazy hand raised.
The hotel is only a short distance up the slowly clogging road. He has a map and directions, and the journey was simple enough. He’s already followed most of it, not counting the unscheduled stop for smokes. Frowning out from tall and dreary undergrowth the downtrodden hotel is hard to see from the road. But he sees the tired sign and pulls in. He gets his tatty bag from the backseat, and picks up the cigarettes from the front. In reception he opens the pack and deep delicious that first long lungful. He signs his name and takes the key on its heavy fob. He turns towards the musty stairwell and takes the stairs two at a time in a lanky, uneven stride. The cigarette’s in a corner of his mouth and thoughts of her are in his jeans. The room is small, colourless, and growing greyer with night now fully formed. Bed. Wardrobe. Chest of drawers with a rusting Teasmaid and ancient biscuits plastic wrapped and dusty. He throws his bag down on the single bed and looks at his watch. It’s nearly twenty to six.
Stubbing out the cigarette in the ashtray on the bedside table he looks again. Still twenty to six. He lies down watching grey spirals rise slowly towards the ceiling, fading to tar. What next between now in this gloomy room full of unspecified browns and his job interview in the morning. As if he didn’t know. Hours and hours in the room’s soulsapping shadows, or at the hotel’s little bar also washed with unspecified browns, peppered with unspecified men like him. On the road looking for something else. Something else maybe at six o’clock. Another cigarette. He’d run out as he had passed the racecourse on the A19 into York. He knew he should cut down as he crawled in traffic through Fulford and had even pondered using this trip as an excuse to give up; a sort of marker between where he’s been and where he’s going. Who he was and who he thinks he should be. From the dismal to the thrill of the unknown. All he had to do was get through the traffic and turn right into Heslington Lane to Egbert’s Hotel. Get to his interview in the morning and his life would change. No more fags, no more birds. No more picking winners that didn’t win. Tomorrow they’d love him. Tomorrow he’ll be the winner. The one. Bye Bye Baby. Then he’d seen the corner shop, a beacon in the drear. With singular determination and no will power at all, he had lurched the car onto the yellow lines and gone inside for Rothmans.
Mika had watched him with narrowing eyes. Thin, wirey, old. He’s really old she said to herself, proper wrinkly. Might make a change. They say at school that older men are better at it, slower. She’s not sure what slower or better might mean, but the wrinkles would be a first. From his sharp blue eyes to his neck, the visible lines mapped a life and told old stories. She didn’t care much about what he had to say, but what would the rest look like? She pondered this as the lights were coming on out in the street and the traffic was thickening and slowing. She called up the stairs “I’m going now. Don’t forget to lock up.” A grunt and a foot on the stair and Mika flipped the lightswitch and stepped out into the faceless evening. She had homework she was supposed to do. She had promised to do it, but it was boring. And there was no one at home until her Mum got back from the dogtrack later. Should she linger? It’s cold and starting to rain. Was he likely to come back? Would she dare if he did?
At school next morning all the talk was of the corpse found in Egberts Hotel, stretched out, bound to the bed and strangled. Sixteen Rothmans in a pack on the bedside table and an empty ashtray the only clue.
2 thoughts on “Sixteen Rothmans”
A good short story. Poor guy – what happened?!
I do not know. You tell me. Glad you liked the story.