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Smoke Break

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The summer of ‘99 was an unusually warm one in Derry, which only meant that it wasn’t all that hot but it was muggy as hell. Muggy in that kind of way where Erin always felt a little bit sweaty and damp which made having to move home for the summer from Belfast even that much more miserable.

She’d argued fiercely against it with her parents – couldn’t they just spot her the rent money for her own flat for a few months while she got a job and got up on her feet? But her ma had absolutely refused and Erin couldn’t believe the injustice of it all. She’d pay them back , Christ. And wasn’t she still their daughter? Where was the familial love?

“I told you this was coming for months, now, Erin. We agreed that your da and I would pay for a year of student housing. You should have – no, let me finish – you should have been working ages ago – a real job, not the 10 hour student job at the library. It’s not going to kill you to move home and save some money, you know. You’re lucky that you even have a room to return to. Enjoy it while you’ve got it,” her ma had said and it had taken everything in Erin not to hang up the phone right then because her ma just did not get the point. 

She had a whole life in Belfast now, mates and boys and favorite cafes and pubs and bookstores. But she’d sat her exams, and the term had ended, and even when her mate Nora had offered to let Erin sleep on her couch that summer, she figured that she’d be skinned alive by her ma if she didn’t come home now.

It probably wouldn’t be so bad. She’d find a job, she’d save some money. Michelle was still in Derry – for now, she wouldn’t shut up about how bored she was all the time – and Orla would be around enough even though she had somehow wrangled a job as a counselor at some athletics summer camp in Portrush.

And the three of them were planning a road trip down to Dublin at some point to go stay with Clare who already had her own flat. The only one they’d be missing was James, whose ma’s new husband was apparently fucking loaded and was subsidizing James’s Bloomsbury rent.

“His flat is so fucking posh, Erin,” Michelle had told her on the phone after she’d visited James during his first term at Westminster, “And then you go into his room and it’s like…a wee air mattress and a lamp like he’s just squatting. The dickhead doesn’t know how to appreciate a good thing even when it’s right in front of him.”

She’d definitely noticed but did her best to ignore the sad little deflated feeling she got when he’d first told her that he’d stay in London that summer, and if it wasn’t part of the reason for her last-minute appeal to just stay in Belfast – well, she just didn’t want to think about how lonely the summer would be without him, without all of them.

Besides, she’d seen him at Christmas, and they talked all the time. He even returned her letters with his own when the rest of them wouldn’t – “Can’t we just, like, talk, Erin?” Clare had complained, “I’m overloaded with coursework as it is without having to write you back.” Maybe she could work enough to save up for a plane ticket, too. And he’d told Erin he planned to visit. He wasn’t sure when, yet, maybe in time to join them in Dublin. That would be nice.

But, for now, she was just always sort of sweaty, mostly on her own, in Derry, where no one would hire her. Well – where Foyle Books wouldn’t hire her.

“Have you even applied anywhere else?” her ma asked – pretty unkindly, Erin thought, to someone who had just been rejected.

“Well. No. But I wanted to work there , Mammy,” Erin said, as the doorbell rang. Her ma shot her a look over her glasses. “Ach, fine. I’ll get it,” she said dejectedly, sliding out of her chair at the kitchen table to go answer the door. Michelle was on the other side. “Hi,” Erin said glumly, before turning to head back to the kitchen.

Michelle rolled her eyes, before stepping over the threshold, “Well good fucking afternoon to you too. Jesus, what happened for your face to look like that?” but before Erin could answer she called out, “How’s it, Mary?”

“Good to see you, Michelle,” Mary called back.

“Foyle Books said no. Said they needed someone who wasn’t just here for the summer.”

“Hard luck,” Michelle said, but Erin didn’t think she seemed like she felt all that bad for her.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do. That’s the one I was counting on,” Erin said.

“Oh dry your eyes, Erin, you shouldn’t have expected to get the first one,” her ma said. “I saw a sign that Tesco needs help, your granda can take you to go speak to the manager.”

“I’m not working at Tesco, Mammy,” Erin blustered.

“Oh I didn’t realize I had raised my daughter to be the Queen. What’s wrong with working at at Tesco?” her ma shot back heatedly, and Erin realized too late that she needed to get her foot out of her mouth, especially when her ma was still in her Woolworths uniform after her morning shift.

Nothing, Mammy. It’s just –” she started.

“I might know of something,” Michelle cut in, and Erin shot her a grateful look. “Domhnall at Boar’s Head is looking. He was trying to get me to take it, but I’m making stacks at Ladbrokes so I said fuck no. But you’d be good for it, it’s just pouring a few wee pints. They don’t even serve food. Let’s go, get yourself a pint and I’ll get you your job.”

Erin wrinkled her nose, “A bar?”

“Do you want it or not? If you hate it, whatever, go and find your own job,” Michelle shrugged.

“No, no that’s good!” she said. It wasn’t a bookstore, but it also wasn’t a Tesco. “Let’s go then. I’ll be back for dinner, Mammy.”

Her ma shot her a look that still seemed a little too annoyed with her when Erin had just said she was about to go get a job, but she nodded and said, “Be back by quarter to 6.”

In the end, Erin had not been back by quarter to 6, because she’d been hired on the spot after she managed not to fuck up a pour on her first try.

“Aye, I can work with that,” Domhnall had said. He’d thrown her an apron, and she hadn’t left until 11 pm. Well, not except for her breaks. “You’re to be behind the bar except for three things: if you need to eat, if you need to piss, or if you need to smoke. No smoking behind the bar, patrons get mad when there’s ash in the beer,” he’d said as if he were imparting wisdom.

“Great,” Erin had said brightly. She didn’t smoke, but she could if it meant extra time off her feet. Besides, she’d gotten used to nipping a bit off of her friends’ menthols in Belfast on late nights out; they didn’t taste horrid and it felt kind of tingling and sweet when she inhaled.

When Domhnall had kipped to the back for a minute, Erin had pushed a couple quid into Michelle’s hands and said, “I don’t care what it is, buy me a pack of menthols and bring them back round.”

Really, Erin?” Michelle had given her the most disparaging look, but returned with a pack of Newports and, around 7 pm, Erin took her first smoke break. She hadn’t even had to light one, just waved the little box in front of Domhnall’s face and he’d jerked his head in the direction of the back alleyway where there was an old plastic chair, an ashtray, and some peace and quiet. She could get used to this.

After a week of it, she thought she even liked it. Well, she didn’t like that she got home reeking of smoke and sometimes beer if there’d been a spill or a cacophonous group watching Derry City FC who were too apt to throw up their glasses for a goal. But sometimes Michelle would come in at the end of her shift for a pint, and would sit out in the back with her to smoke – actually smoke and “not those fucking menthols,” she’d said, looking at the pack in Erin’s outstretched hand in disgust when Erin had tried to be hospitable and offer her one. 

It was really, really nice, seeing Michelle like this again almost every day. Sure, they talked enough when Erin was gone, but it was different when Erin was studying and Michelle was working a real job and talking about moving out of her ma’s and buying a car and even maybe leaving Derry. The phone never made up for the comfort and routine of living life next to each other.

There were a lot of things Erin liked about growing up – not having her friends around was not one of them, and, even though she thought she’d made peace with it already when they were all moving off to different cities, she was dearly starting to wish she could get at least one more summer with them again in Derry. It wasn’t right, being here at home and not having them around.

Even with Clare 20 minutes down the road in Strabane their last year in school, at least she’d been just a short bus ride away. Now she was hours away, and even Orla was only popping in on the weekends or turning up for the odd dinner when she’d catch a late train; Erin had already missed her a couple of times when she was working late. And James – well he felt like a whole other world away. She’d never been to London, she couldn’t even really imagine what his days looked like there. So she’d take what she could get – at least there was Michelle, and she had never been so grateful for her.

Which is why she was so annoyed that Michelle hadn’t shown up yet that night at the end of her shift when they’d very specifically made plans to catch a late showing of Notting Hill which Erin had been buzzing to see.

She’d been expecting her at 9:30 pm, had been watching the clock at 9:45 pm, watching the door at 10:10 pm, and wondering if she should ring her at home at 10:15 pm when Michelle practically skipped in through the door as if they weren’t trying to make the 10:30 pm showing.

“Cutting it close, Michelle,” Erin ground out, hurriedly untying and throwing her apron in the milk crate with the other dirty linens under the bar. “We should still be able to make it if we walk really, really fast,” she continued, grabbing her bag and checking to make sure she had her purse. “See, this is why you should get a car, you’re always fucking late and we can never get anywhere on –” Erin slung her bag over her shoulder and finally looked up to see that James – James – had come in through the door, just behind Michelle. Oh my god .

“The wee fucker surprised us!” Michelle said, uncharacteristically beaming.

“Oh my god,” Erin said, this time aloud.

“I just got in an hour ago,” James said, a wide smile on his face too.

“Oh my god!” and this time when she said it, it was muffled a little by his shirt as she had rushed over to pull him into a hug. He’d barely had a chance to return it when she stepped back, holding him at arm’s length to look at him and feeling the weight of his own hands at her elbows, holding her right back. “I can’t believe you’re here. What are you doing here?”

It had only been six months since she’d last seen him on their Christmas break, but she thought he seemed like he’d grown another inch and he was just so sturdy and real and there. That was the best of all – he was there, in front of her and she could actually touch him and see his face and hear his voice in this room, not over the phone a sea away.

“I’m visiting,” he laughed. “I told you I would.”

She gave him a wry look, “Yeah, like in a month or whatever. You never said when.”

“Oh, well, in that case I can go,” he said, hitching his thumb in the direction of the door. “I’ll go home and see you back here in a month.”

“Very funny,” she quipped, and she felt like she could glow forever under the soft, happy look he was giving her. “How long are you staying?”

“Jesus Christ, can we get past this part?” Michelle griped. “He’s here now, pour us a couple and we can talk like normal people over a pint.”

“I work here, Michelle. We can’t drink here,” Erin said disapprovingly.

“You’re meant to drink here, Erin. Why do you think you get a discount? Besides, I drink here all the time with you sitting next to me,” Michelle argued, as if Erin was really failing to see the point.

But finally Erin persisted enough that Michelle got fed up and a half hour later they found themselves tucked into a booth a few streets over on Waterloo, James next to her with his shoulder bumping up against hers just like always.

This was good , this was better than good, she was buzzing. The drinks may have had something to do with it, but she thought she’d probably feel this way even without them especially when she kept looking over at James next to her just to watch him flick his eyes away at the last second. There was no amount of flirting with boys in Belfast that could bring her as much delight as she was feeling right now.

She was three in now, and she could feel her cheeks flushed and warm, no doubt helped by how oppressively warm it had gotten in the pub the more people filtered in. 

“I’m sweating my tits off,” Michelle complained, trying to fan herself with a coaster.

“Aye,” Erin agreed, “Want to step outside for a smoke?” Michelle nodded and they both moved to get up until Erin noticed the slight bemusement on James’s face as he remained in his seat.

“You coming?” Michelle asked him, noticing it too.

“Sure, I guess,” James shrugged, and followed them outside into the cool night breeze.

“God that feels amazing,” Erin said, feeling the slight wind pick her hair up off her neck, before beckoning Michelle to pass her the lighter. 

James stared at her. “Right. This is new,” he said, watching her light up. 

“Erin’s taking advantage of her employer and pretending to smoke to get extra breaks,” Michelle said, rolling her eyes.

“Oh, pretending?” he asked laughingly, gesturing to the waft of smoke Erin had just blown out through her nose. “Can’t imagine what your mum thinks of this.”

“As if she knows,” Erin scoffed before holding out the cigarette to him. “Want some? It’s menthol. It tastes ok.”

“Yeah, I know what a menthol tastes like. I’m good,” he assured her with a grimace.

Michelle’s eyes went suddenly wide with glee. “Oh you do, do you? And whose wee menthols were you smoking, James?”

“What do you mean?” Erin asked, not catching on.

Nothing,” he ground out, shooting Michelle a weird look.

“No, what?” Erin asked again.

“Menthols are a girly cigarette, Erin,” said Michelle with a knowing glance.

“So?” Erin asked. She really didn’t know what Michelle was on about.

Michelle,” James tried to interject.

“Wise up, Erin,” Michelle urged irritatedly. “James tried a menthol. A menthol is a girly cigarette. Ergo he got it from a girl. Who’s the girl, James?”

“Oh. Oh ,” Erin said, her own smile crossing wide across her face at the realization. 

“For fuck’s sake, not you too,” he said huffily. “Just because I’ve tried a menthol doesn’t mean anything about anyone.”

“Was she a good ride?” Michelle goaded, the way she always did when she was trying to embarrass him.

Jesus, Michelle,” he said, looking up at the night sky as if he was praying to God to remove him from this conversation. Erin’s smile dimmed a little and she watched him carefully for any clue to the actual answer to Michelle’s question.

It’s not that she really minded if there was someone. Well – she sort of hoped there wasn’t, but she wouldn’t have minded. She couldn’t have minded. He wasn’t her boyfriend, he wasn’t hers . He could have been, but she’d said no – or really, she’d said later.

She’d said it when Michelle had first found them out, and she’d said it the previous summer too, about a month before he’d left for uni.

He’d walked her home one night, a rare occurrence that only happened when Orla wasn’t with her, and he did what he often did when they had found themselves alone together over the past year – he held her hand. She loved it when he held her hand, reaching out to her in the dark to tether her to him for even just a few minutes. It didn’t happen very often, mostly just during times like this and the odd brave instance when the two of them would be trailing behind the other three and he’d reach out and grasp it.

But when it did happen, there was a rhythm to it, a routine, like this. He’d walk her to the front steps of her house and, if it was quiet or late or just no one really around, she’d stop and say a last few words to him, and he’d reach out and maybe lightly brush her hair over her shoulder, or away from her face, and she’d lean up and press her lips against his just like she’d done in Donegal. He’d give her the nicest smile, and she’d try not to feel too sad that she couldn’t do this, always.

She always kept that last part to herself, until that one night, when she’d impulsively decided to say it out loud because she was thinking about how much she would miss him when he left.

“I wish I could do that, always,” she had said wistfully and his nice little smile had grown bigger.

“You can, you know,” he said back, looking at her a little hopefully, and she instantly hated herself that she’d said anything at all because she knew what she needed to say next.

“James, I – you’re about to leave. For a really long time. And I won’t be able to visit you, or see you for months. And you’re going to be in, like, another country. And what if…You’re going to meet a lot of new people. And – and so am I,” she said haltingly, before giving him what she hoped wasn’t too desperate of a look.

His smile had faltered, just a little bit, but he’d squeezed her shoulder and given her a very agreeable, “I know. That’s ok.”

“Maybe someday,” she offered, feeling really, really terrible.

“Yeah, maybe,” and he’d nodded.

That time he hadn’t said he would wait – she hadn’t wanted him to, had never expected it – but she tried not to let her stomach sink too much when she realized that he hadn’t said it. It wasn’t right to feel bad about it. And she felt grown up in all the worst ways knowing that she couldn’t feel bad about it, not when she wasn’t willing to give it a go with him.

She hadn’t kissed him again after that; he hadn’t walked her home again either.

But nothing real had changed, it all felt the same, as it always was, and she really liked that about her and James. They still talked the same and hung out the same and, when they’d both moved, still called each other all the time. She told him about her new friends, and he told her about his, and about his coursework, and the weird shite he saw on the tube.

She didn’t tell him about the boys she’d snogged the way she’d tell Michelle and Clare, but he didn’t tell her about anyone else either and she never asked him or brought it up the other three. She hoped he didn’t bring it up either because she was pretty sure Michelle at least would be all too happy to share.

And now, standing here outside of the pub with her cigarette burning down idly in her hand, she watched him carefully still as he tried to get Michelle off his back about the menthols.

Erin,” he whinged. “Can you please tell Michelle to shut the fuck up?”

“Shut the fuck up, Michelle,” Erin said, finally coming to his rescue.

“Don’t be such an arsehole, Erin. You can’t take each other’s side,” Michelle said snidely. “That’s not how this works. Being cousins with a dickhead has to be good for something.”

“You know what’s great about London?” James said. “No one there says I’m a dickhead.”

“To your face,” Michelle muttered.

“It’s so great to be back,” he said, glaring at his cousin who made a face back at him.

“All right, can we be done here?” Erin cut in, and Michelle took a last drag and ground out her cigarette butt on the ground.

“Aye,” Michelle said, “It’s late, let’s go.”

“Already?” James asked, “We just got here.”

Michelle gave him a disparaging once over, “Some of us have jobs now, James.”

“Aye, and it’s shite,” Erin said petulantly.

The three of them walked slowly back home together in the quiet night, and when it was time for Erin to go in her own direction she told them good night and turned to leave before James stopped her with, “Do you want me to walk you home? It’s so late.”

“What the fuck, James? What about me?” Michelle protested, and Erin was glad for it because she wasn’t sure what expression he might be able to read on her face in that moment. James hadn’t offered to walk her home since…well. And she knew she shouldn’t want him to, but she did.

“Oh, sorry,” he said and had the good sense to look at least a little contrite which gave Erin time to respond sensibly.

“Thank you, no, I’ll be ok. See you again soon,” she said, and matched his long look with her own before turning to go home.