BUT NO CIGAR • by Jez Patterson

“You’re a fraud. Nothing but…” Janet struggled with a list of expletives, anger demanding she say them, years of self-discipline denying her the pleasure. “…a fraud,” she finished. Something inside her sighed; something inside her applauded — but without conviction.

The cigar Bernie Howard held was unlit. Just a short, fat stub. It could have been one of his fingers. His smile looked hooked over the ears, his eyebrows tenting together, hopeful for sympathy.

“The box is empty, Bernie. The box is empty.” The repeat-for-effect was a cheap actors’ trick, but she was sat before the veritable master of cheap tricks. Indecision caused her fingers to repeatedly bunch-and-explode at her hips, and her eyes jerked about like she was watching a tennis match on a poorly-tuned TV.

She yanked out the chair before his desk and sat.

“I need to know what you’ve been doing all this time, Bernie. Your wife told me about the cigars. I need to know what other lies you’ve been telling.”

Bernie stayed looking pathetic and Janet now recognised details that she should have noticed before. The same suit at every meeting. The fact Bernie never pulled out a file from the cabinet behind him. The fact his phone never rang. It was all a plywood stage-set and the scene they had performed each week a poorly-written sketch. Suddenly, she needed to know something else entirely.

“How many others have you done this to?”

“I have thirty-two artistes on my books.”

“Don’t say that, Bernie! Don’t you dare say that! There’re no books and they’re not your artistes — because you’re no agent. You’re just a little man with a little office, a suit and a bloody cigar.” She sucked up a breath that was so long it made her rear backwards. “Wait a minute: how do you pay for this office?”

“The shop downstairs belongs to my brother-in-law.”

“Your..? You never told me that. Why didn’t you at least tell me that? I might have put two and two together if I’d known that.”

Oh no, you wouldn’t, informed the voice that knew her humiliation was the cause of her anger rather than Bernie’s subterfuge. Her desperation to realise a pipe dream had been exposed and ridiculed. Except the last wasn’t true. Not really.

“I don’t get why you did it, Bernie. I mean, it can’t be for the money because you never charged me a fee. What about the others?” A shake of the head. “No? Then why? Just to make fun of us? Some weird, twisted kind of game?”

“I like to make people happy.”

“By deluding us into thinking you’re a real agent, that you were out there looking for jobs for us all? You suddenly get a box of decent-looking cigars for your birthday and you mount this charade? God forbid someone had given you a thermometer and a labcoat. No, Bernie. How can you say that you’ve been helping us? We might have been with a real agent all this time, getting real jobs.”

“I just wanted…” Not a whine exactly, but Janet’s mind twisted it until it was. However, the fight, the rage had gone out of her. If only he’d made a pass at her, got her to pose naked or even provocatively for photos, spoken to her in a suggestive way… if he’d done anything more than just give her hope, it would have been easier to fix claws, and spit and tear.

The promises of singing gigs in lounge bars, cruise ships, cabarets, the walk-on parts, modelling contracts…

‘He likes to be a part of people’s dreams,’ Bernie’s apologetic wife had told her, guiltier even than her husband; the way a parent feels responsible for their toddler’s bad behaviour. ‘It’s his last cigar, anyway.’

Janet reached forward, plucked the cigar from Bernie’s fingers and crumbled it between her palms. It wasn’t a dramatic finale to the scene, but at least she was the one closing the curtain. But as she left, she remembered the years before Bernie, years that she’d spent trying to find an agent who would take her on and her fingers trembled with doubt and wished they could piece it all back together.

She had been happy during their time together. There’d been no work, as before, but at least she’d been living the dream. It was all make-believe anyway, wasn’t it? Was it really so bad to just pretend and…

Janet closed her fingers back into fists. No. She wasn’t going to crumble like the last cigar. She could do this. After all, denial was just another art of suspending disbelief.

Jez Patterson is a British teacher, currently based in Madrid.

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