‘Smoke’ short fiction by Jim Ward

Mark notched the gear into second and skidded along the wet gravel drive, pebble-dashing car and trailer as he slammed the brakes. The car, an Audi, jerked to a halt. 

Jason, baldy, a ring in his left ear, came out and slammed the caravan door behind him. He slid into the passenger seat. Silent. Young Andrew sat in the back seat. 

Mark reversed as fast as he’d grooved into the driveway.

‘You got the gear?’ Jason asked.

Mark nodded. He indicated the back seat.

‘Good.’

The clock on the dash read 7 am. The morning outside dark, cold, it was December, their frozen breath fogging the windows. A long drive ahead.

The car sped along bumpy roads, navigating bends like a rally car, Mark was a good driver, experienced. 

*

It was Andrew’s first job. He hoped his last.

For an hour they drove on back roads, past stone walls, sheds, old houses, the back of beyonds. Who the fuck would want to live in places like this? They passed homes that didn’t expect the 21st century. 

No-one spoke, silence the etiquette. No sound, except the engine and the bumps.

Andrew noticed the early morning light turning blue. A change in the surrounding landscape. Less stone walls, more hedgerows, some bereft of leaves. Blackberry bushes looking skeletal, others winter evergreens, icy dew on them like earrings.

At 8 am Mark switched on the radio. The news, then the weather forecast. 

On hearing the voice of the station’s weather girl, Andrew blurted out ‘she’s a ride that one’, believing for a moment he was part of a fellowship. When neither of the other two remarked, he felt exposed.  

A lit-up all-night garage came up on their left with Christmas hits playing to the forecourt. It was the first sign of civilisation since the crumbling small town Andrew had left behind. Benny had put him in touch with Mark. Benny, owner of ‘Ben-ton-tyres’, a one-man operation for bikers and the like. Local dealer and ex-con.

‘If ya need the readies to get outa this shithole country I can help ya,’ he said.

Andrew needed the readies. He had no future here. Small town life ranged him in, enveloped him, forced on him a desperation to leave.

He fancied himself down in Oz. On Bondi beach with drinking parties and girls. He read in some tabloid that there were even Irish girls working in the legalised sex trade down under. Backpackers taking time off from travelling to earn some cash. He wanted in on this. Better than the local girls: stuck-up or pounding around like weight-lifters in tracksuits. No class or too much.

Jason skinned another roll-up, his nail-bitten chunky fingers tanned by nicotine. A wet tongue finished the job. Andrew had lost count of the fags Jason rolled and lit since they began the day. Jason kept the car window on his side open to let out smoke—that was Mark’s rule. No smoke in his car.

‘Last time I was inside I gave them up. Filthy habit,’ Mark said the first time Jason lit up. ‘I’m seriously anti,’ he said in his Dublin drawl. ‘What brand d’ youse use?’

Jason showed him the packet.

‘What the fuck is that?’ A plain brown cover with pictures of death on it.

‘Sweet Afton,’ Jason intoned, tapping the packet. ‘All tobacco products are the same now, it’s the law.’

‘Filthy habit.’

‘What about drugs?’ 

Mark didn’t answer.

‘Drug pushers should be knee-capped.’

Mark just looked ahead at the road. 

More silence. They sped past winter fields of sheep. The morning brightened but stayed December grey. The sharp cold air streaming in Jason’s open window stung Andrew sitting behind and disturbed his cosy warmth in the comfortable back seat. Not used to early mornings, it woke him against his will.

‘How many?’ said Mark.

Jason looked at him.

‘How many a day?’ 

‘A packet.’

Jason sounded tough. From Limerick. Mark was Dublin.

The car whooshed through villages, one horse towns. The journey was getting more populous now. Off the back roads, though they were still careful to avoid primary routes – checkpoints. Heading north, Jason navigated. He knew this country. 

Andrew allowed himself a tiny moment of reflection and felt his chest swelling with excitement and pride to be on this caper, this mad mission. What would O’Brien and Kennedy think? They’d still be asleep, hungover. They’d never leave the shitty small town, cans and the smell of a spliff that’s all they wanted. At least Andrew had the wherewithal, the gumption to try this.  

A country dancehall, unused for years, reminded Andrew of some film he saw. A good one, he remembered, but forgot its title. It was all about olden days, men skulling naggins of whiskey in the jacks before asking the women for a dance. Old style music from a band.

Andrew’s thoughts shifted to her –Geraldine. She was the one thing he’d miss when he went out to Oz. Alright, he had visions of beach parties with Aussie babes in bikinis… wild nights, he’d heard from those who came home. But… Geraldine.

At the local night-club where the DJ played the latest techno-funk music, he’d stand, shoulder leaning on the pillar trying to pick her out among the bopping crowd. As the lights changed and flashed from darkness into colour he would spot her and focus on her, there with her friends.

One night he made a vow that he’d go away, leave the country and save up all he earned abroad so he could return to claim her. Someday. One night, after he saw two guys from the Meadows—a well-off neighbourhood—chatting her up in the late night chipper. Elbows on the tall counter they shouted her cheese chips and can of coke. On her way out she smiled at Andrew, asked if he had a smoke. That one night he made the vow.

Suddenly, the car skidded to a stop. 

‘That’s it.’ Jason pointed to a Centra supermarket straight ahead. It looked brand new on that crisp day, tinsel and changing coloured lights around the window pane. 

Andrew looked around. They were in a small town, little more than a country street. A terrace of houses on each side of the supermarket with grey cement walls and lace curtains behind the windows, a green post pillar with the initials ‘GR’ carved on it. Opposite, the proverbial village pub.

‘There’s our target,’ said Jason.

The dash clock read 12.35 pm.

‘Now we wait.’

Jason reached for his pouch of tobacco and busied his stub-nailed brown fingers rolling another cigarette. 

‘At 1 pm the clerk goes to lunch,’ he said. ‘The post office is then manned by a shop assistant. The cash, all the Christmas bonuses, is out of the safe waiting for pick up. We do a quick in—take the loot at gunpoint—and out again. You, Mark, have this baby revving outside, and away we head.’

‘And no law?’

‘I’ve done my homework, nearest cop-shop is five miles away.’

12.40 pm. They waited in silence.

The Centra had customers filing in. Lunch time, it had a deli counter. The local post office was in the supermarket. People resembling pensioners entered.

1 pm. Mark shifted into gear and cruised the car to the store’s entrance. He stopped, engine purring.

‘Now we wait five to be certain she’s on her break.’

Slow minutes ticked. Andrew’s heart thumped. He felt he needed to shit. 

‘Hand me the Nike holdall,’ said Mark. It lay beside Andrew on the back seat. Andrew gripped its handle, passed it forward.

Mark unzipped the bag, took out two black balaclavas, and handed one each to Jason and Andrew. Then two pairs of black leather gloves. Then a black 9mm handgun—he checked the breach, cocked it and gave it to Andrew. 

‘Keep the safety catch on. It’s only to warn them. And this is your baby—handle with care,’ he said to Jason, giving him a neat sawn-off shotgun. Ten cartridges too. Jason loaded the shotgun, and put the shells deep in his pockets.

‘Gloves on first, balaclava last,’ said Jason. Andrew obeyed. ‘Let’s go.’

They leaped out of the purring Audi . Jason led, head covered, gun hidden under his arm. He sped in. Andrew followed. The gloves and balaclava made him hot and itchy despite the chill. 

They ambushed customers buying lunch rolls and takeaway coffees. People collecting pensions and the Christmas bonus.

 ‘This is a stick up,’ yelled Jason. ‘This is real. Hand me your cash.’

Andrew stood as planned guarding the exit, handgun ready.

The young girl behind the desk’s face turned puke green when the shotgun aimed at her.

‘Fill the bag.’ Jason tossed a canvas sack. She looked around to the till, searching for the owner to give permission. Jason cocked the gun. Shaking, she took the bag and began stuffing it with wads of notes. 

At this rate, Andrew was sure, he’d be on Bondi and in the sun for the New Year.

He felt a tugging on his pistol, someone touching it. A young kid, maybe three or four. ‘Are you Santa Claus? That’s my present,’ tugging at the loaded pistol. ‘That’s what I want Mommy.’ 

Jason was shouting: ‘Hurry up!’ at the girl.

The kid jerked the gun. A noise like a firecracker, twice, a burning smell—cordite, sensation of smoke.

Two shots straight into the belly of the young kid’s pregnant mother just entering the supermarket.

The woman looked surprised at first, then placed her hands over her wound, bringing them up to see crimson. The young kid ran to her.

Jason grabbed a paralytic Andrew by the collar, raced with him into the waiting car.

‘Let’s go!’ he ordered Mark at the wheel.

 ‘What the fuck happened?’ Mark asked

‘Dunno,’ said Jason. ‘Andrew shot someone.’

Andrew gripped his crotch. He’d pissed in his pants and was staring ahead, shell-shocked.’

‘Like dead?’ said Mark.

‘Dunno. Looked bad.’

‘You get the cash?’

‘Fucking bitch froze when she heard the shots, never gave me the bag.’

‘Jesus Christ.’

‘Yeah. Just keep driving. We gotta get outa here.’

‘Fucking kid! Whose idea was it to bring him along?’

‘Dunno. I need a smoke.’

‘Christ, give me one too.’

There was a minute of silence, then Mark said, ‘Ya got a smoke? Five years off them… I need one now.’

Silence.

Mark fired Jason a stare.

‘I don’t have the pouch.’

‘What?’

‘I must have dropped it.’

‘Back there?’

‘I last had it here… before I went in.’

‘You dropped the fucking pack? Back there?’

No answer.

‘You know what that means?’

The silver Audi wound its way along country roads at full throttle. The December afternoon grew ever duller as cloud gathered from the east, past houses, homes solitary, isolated, smoke blowing out of their chimneys.

2 poems by Jim Ward

Jim Ward has previously been published for poetry in English and Irish (Cork Literary Review, Poetry Bus, Galway Advertiser, Feasta, Culture Matters’ The Children of the Nation anthology, Live Encounters, Pendemic, The Blue Nib) and for one short story in Irish (Feasta). His play Just Guff won ‘Best in the West’ award at Galway Fringe Festival, 2017 and has toured locally including Town Hall Studio, Galway, Kilkee Playwright Festival and Liberty Hall, Dublin as part of MayFest 2019. His poem 2016 Proclamation was runner-up in the Galway Bay FM/Thoor Ballylee Poetry Challenge to ‘Yeats’ indominatible Irishry’ 2017. 

About the contributor

Jim Ward has previously been published for poetry in English and Irish (Cork Literary Review, Poetry Bus, Galway Advertiser, Feasta, Culture Matters' The Children of the Nation anthology, Live Encounters, Pendemic, The Blue Nib) and for one short story in Irish (Feasta). His play Just Guff won 'Best in the West' award at Galway Fringe Festival, 2017 and has toured locally including Town Hall Studio, Galway, Kilkee Playwright Festival and Liberty Hall, Dublin as part of MayFest 2019. His poem 2016 Proclamation was runner-up in the Galway Bay FM/Thoor Ballylee Poetry Challenge to 'Yeats' indominatible Irishry' 2017. 

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