By Bonnie Meekums
11 June 2012
‘D’you want one?’ A hand appeared in front of Nell’s eyes, holding a packet of B&H.
‘No thanks. I don’t. Thanks, anyway.’ Nell glanced up, aware that to continue gazing at her shoe would attract greater attention. She knew that just being here, not smoking, left her open to questions. She looked around. There was only this smoking shelter. Across the grass, she could see a wooden picnic table that, in warmer, dryer weather might offer an attractive alternative. She shifted from one foot to the other. Nell didn’t want to be here, but neither did she want to be back inside right now. For six months, since leaving behind the theatre and the philandering love of her life, she had managed an anonymous lifestyle, working on the make-up counter in a large department store. Now, for some unknown reason, this woman with the cigarettes was being nice to her. Nell wanted to sink, slowly, into the earth.
‘You that lady with the lipstick?’ Oh god, no. Now what? Nell breathed in hard, shoving her hands in her dress pockets so that her shoulders raised against an imaginary sudden chill. ‘Er – yes. I do the make-overs.’ Damn! What in heaven induced her to give so much away? Next she’ll be asking me where I trained.
‘Maaar-vlus,’ enthused the woman, taking a satisfied, extra-long drag on her cigarette, a smile slowly creeping across her lips. ‘Where d’you learn to do that, then?’
Nell stood, staring straight ahead. Oh, for pity’s sake, why not tell her? ‘I was a make-up artist. In the theatre.’ She replied, as blandly as she could. ‘Oooh, wonderful! I’d love to do summit like that. Ow d’you get into that, then? I bet you ‘ave ta be very clever. You got A levels, then?’
‘Yes, some,’ Answered Nell, vaguely. She looked at her watch, then at the woman’s cigarette. A long trail of ash hung off the end. It had been 10 minutes. She would have to go in soon. She turned to her accidental companion, facing her for the first time. ‘Look, would you mind if you don’t tell anyone I didn’t smoke out here? You see, sometimes I just get so hot in there, under all those lights all day, doing people’s make-up. I just need a bit of air.’
‘I know, love. We all need a break sometimes. Don’t worry. Mum’s the word, ducks.’ And with that, she patted her cigarette on the grille, and dropped it into the specially provided bin.
They walked silently through the doors and onto the back stairs, their footfall echoing up five flights. Neither of them seemed in a hurry to get back to her station. This time it was the older woman who looked straight ahead of her as she spoke: ‘I’ve seen you, making people up to look like film stars. Whoever or whatever you left behind in that theatre, it’s their bloody loss, love, and you can share an imaginary fag with me any time you want to get away from the bright lights and the heat. Name’s Mags. See y’around.’
And with that, she ran down to the basement. Kicthenware. Nell now knew where to get a B&H, real or imaginary, and a listening ear. Maybe anonymity wasn’t all it as cracked up to be.