Art Pact 247 - Paperwork
Drowning in paperwork, we took a few minutes to go out on the balcony and smoke, impishly tapping the ash from the end of our fags off the edge so that it tumbled down onto the lower levels. There were five of us, although Bentham didn't smoke, so he stood at one end of the platform and alternately frowned at us and stared at our cigarettes. Sharon, who has a finely-tuned radar for people's weaknesses, nudged me and drew a line in the air between Bentham's eyes and Lola's mouth. I'd assumed he had been staring at her tits, but the truth was more interesting.
"You all right?" Sharon asked. "You look a bit discombobulated."
"What the fuck does that mean?"
"Disconcerted," she told him. "Out of sorts."
"No. Perfectly fine."
"Oh," she said, nudging my elbow again. "I thought you might have some cravings coming over you. You know, perhaps something you used to love in the past but you've given up on now. Thought it might be getting a grip on you."
"Holy shit," I said, getting it. "You used to smoke?"
Sharon shook her head, rolling her eyes. She'd no doubt intended to string it out a little longer, but if she really meant to she shouldn't have drawn me in. I'm notoriously unable to keep my mouth shut. Everyone knows that. That's why she wouldn't sleep with me on the works outing.
"I did not used to smoke," said Bentham.
"You fucking liar," Sharon laughed. "You've got it written all over you. You might as well be chewing a pen and slapping patches all over your arms."
"Fine! Bloody hell, you're like the Spanish Inquisition."
"Unexpected?" Royce piped up. We ignored him.
"You." I said. "You, Mister Scotchguard, used to smoke."
He raised an eyebrow at that. I guess he hadn't heard our nickname for him before. Or perhaps he had, but he hadn't realised that it was him.
"Yes. We all have pasts, you know. I used to smoke. Not cigarettes."
"A pipe!" Sharon said, clapping her hands. "Please tell me it was a pipe."
"Cigars," he told her.
"How are cigars not better than a pipe?" asked Lola. "I mean, that is classy. Classy as fuck, you know, cigars in those boxes-"
"Humidors." Bentham supplied.
"Humidors. Those little guillotines that you cut off the tip of the cigar with. Wood-panelled rooms filled with smoke."
"Filthy things done with interns," Sharon suggested. Lola touched the tip of her own nose, pointed at Sharon.
"This must be some new definition of classy," Bentham said gruffly.
"Pipes. I'd really hoped it was pipes. Can't you imagine him as a pipe-smoker? Tweed jackets- no, not tweed - a smoking jacket! Yeah, a smoking jacket. Fuck yeah." She leant back slightly, made a frame with her hands and centred Bentham in the middle of it. He turned away, stuck his hands in his pockets, pulled the right one out again with a puzzled expression. There was a little piece of plastic wrapping between his fingers, which he looked at for a few seconds before he flicked out into the air. A gust of wind caught it, whipped it up and out of sight.
"Wow, you really are cutting loose today. You're shattering all expectations. First we find out you've got a secret past as a smoker, now this? Littering?" She shook her head. "It's the end of days, I tell you. The harbinger of the apocalypse."
I looked back in at the mounds of paper that waited inside. It might be nice if Bentham was the first horseman, I thought. We could do with a nice apocalypse, wipe the slate clean of all this damn work. I had always imagined that it would start with fire - perhaps too much listening to my father's tales of the sun's expansion when I was a child. I'd understood vaguely that he was talking about things that were far off in the future, but to a child all of the future is far off - a billion years might as well have been ten, for all I could see. I thought of the bloated orange orb covering the sky, the temperature roasting. Our bundles of forms and comment sheets and polls and data print-outs would begin to dry out, curling up, until inevitably a single spark. Ashes wouldn't just drip down in discrete clumps from the end of our cigarettes then. They'd rain down, grey dust that would block out the sun for the unfortunates in the flats below, a bureaucratic winter. Archaeologists in the future would find our blackened bones in the ruins of the tower and conclude that we must have been some ritual sacrifice. Something for the gods of information, something for the continuance of office life on earth.
"Why'd you give up?" Sharon asked.
"Bad for me, obviously. Plus, there was a girl. A woman," he corrected himself.
"Oh, didn't like the taste of it, eh? Like kissing an ashtray."
She made mwah-mwah air kiss motions towards Lola which ended with the both of them recoiling in mock disgust. I would have laughed, but I'd lost Becky because of smoking - well, in part because of smoking, in part because of who I was smoking with, I suppose. I tried to imagine what sort of woman Bentham would go for at all, let alone fall for enough to allow her to change his habits. I could imagine that, but I could not add on the extra requirement that she should like him back. It wasn't that he wasn't likeable, it was just that I doubted anyone could bear him enough to live with him. Even we could only really tolerate his constant presence because of the money involved.
"Actually she was..." Bentham began, but then stopped. I could see Sharon's sense for weakness working - she had a little glint in her eyes that came on. This time, though, I nudged her. She looked round, surprised. I shook my head - just a little movement, just enough to say not this time, leave it. She took a deep breath, nodded, let it go.