“I need a cigarette, Ativ bhai“, my colleague croaks. He is sitting across from me in my apartment. Between us is an empty space of flooring, and sometimes, if I open the blinds, I can see a patch of streetlight on the floor at night, striped with the fine shadows of the blinds. He and I are sitting across from each other, and I am the Ear again. I have no cigarettes in my apartment, because I want to quit and get rid of the smell from my nostrils. Nevertheless, in the case of my colleague, I make an exemption. He needs the nicotine, I notice, and I tell him that I will get a pack. He asks for two types, Dunhills, long and very thin and Rothman’s a more mild cigarette that doesn’t burn your throat. I walk out into the Eastern European evening, the sun has just gone down but it is late at night if you go by the clock.
I am in a black tracksuit, and my shoes make sharp sounds against the pavement as I walk to the Cigarette Shop, one of many that dot this town. These cigarette shops sell cigarettes, beer, alcohol and snacks. I walked into the cigarette and asked for the cigarettes that I wanted. The lady went to get them, and at that moment, a boy entered the shop from a door that lead into a small room. I turned to see him and he was the Angel of Verdun.
Now, I am trying to put my past behind me. The incidents of two weeks ago embarrass me. I hoped that John wouldn’t notice me as I stood there, asking for cigarettes and fumbling with my trouser pockets.
“Ah, it’s you, then”, John extends his hand and I grasp it firmly for a second. There is no point in pretending. I smile widely and apologize for any drunken inappropriateness on my part. I am a gentleman, I told him, and my uncouth behaviour has no excuse. He laughs, and now that I can see him clearly, I gather that he is almost 16 years old, brown-haired with a few curls here and there, but with deep green eyes. He laughs widely, the sound fills the whole room of the shop and the woman gazes at him benignly with a motherly affection. His mother owns the shop, and he studies at the local school.
“You and I have a lot to talk about, Mr”, he is smiling now, and in his eyes is a light that I remember seeing in my own when I was younger. The idealism of youth, I conclude, shines most bright at his age. All my friends are disillusioned, it is a mark of transition from boyhood to manhood. I tell him my name, and he repeats it a couple of times. He gets the pronunciation mostly right, but there is a twang of his accent. I find that it isn’t an uncomfortable accent at all. he and I exchange numbers, and I am to meet him at a cafe in the town center (not too far away from the bench where we first met, he says, with humour and lightheartedness). He wants to know a little more about me, and I want to know a little more about him as well. It is intriguing that a fall from grace can truly mean the beginning of something new, something honourable.
I wish him goodnight, and leave, making my way back to my flat. My colleague has a story to tell too, and I wish to listen to it with my fullest attention. I can’t however, keep a feeling of optimism away from my mind as I walk up the steps to my flat. All seems well.