Our readers are guaranteed to enjoy this story by one of our favourite writers, Martha Perriam:

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”

I was only 17 when I left home and went to University – as green as the grass in my father’s Somerset fields.  But the thing about being a 17-year-old girl is that although you have very little experience of life you don’t know quite how little it is.   The world conspires to treat you as an adult. Teenage boys may have a difficult time becoming men, they have to prove a thing or two to themselves and their peers, but girls don’t have to prove anything, they just turn into young women.  It has something to do with fashion and make-up, but a lot more to do with the sprouting of breasts.  People – well men mostly – start being friendly, listening to your opinions, laughing at your jokes.  I fondly thought that my views were more interesting all of a sudden, my company more stimulating.  Looking back, it gave me quite amazing, and absolutely unwarranted, self-confidence.

So there I was, in my 4 inch heels, beehive hairdo and big hoop earrings, trotting off to lectures every morning and in the evenings there might be some party or, once every three weeks, the local repertory theatre.  We would sit in the “gods” for the princely sum of 3/6d and see some of the greatest plays and actors who later were to become the most illustrious stars in the theatrical firmament.  The range of plays was an education in itself – Shakespeare, Ibsen, Ionesco, Chekhov, Ustinov – we saw the lot.  But the “Rep” system was also the forcing ground of great talent.  One week our favourite actor might take the lead, three weeks later be a spear carrier.  And we did have a favourite too.  We all thought he was truly gorgeous, especially me.  He was very tall, slightly stooped, with wavy blonde hair and the bluest eyes in the world.  I used to daydream about him, imagining what it would be like to be with him, to have those eyes turned full on me.  I looked forward to the theatre so much that I did without lunch for a few days beforehand to afford it.  Unfortunately I never knew whether he would be on stage to be adored all evening or whether he would only appear occasionally.  When it was his turn to be the spear carrier he still drew the eye – tough luck on the actor meant to be in the limelight!  He had star quality by the bucket load, which would take him to the heights in time.  But at that time he was almost unknown outside Bristol.

Beware though of what you wish for.   One night, he turned up at a party!  Somebody’s sister, not a student, was the hostess and it was more or less open house if you brought a bottle.  I can’t remember any food being served, and as far as I know drugs weren’t on the menu either, but booze certainly was.  I was done up to the nines of course, with my wasp waist and pointy bra looking, at least in my opinion, the picture of sophistication.  I suppose he arrived with other people from the theatre after the curtain came down at about 10.30. Anyway, one moment it was the usual crowd and the next the party was transformed.  It all went a bit quiet as the door opened with a rush of cold air until they filled the room with their long legs and loud laughter.  People pressed glasses and drinks on them and they spread out around the room, their post-performance adrenalin buzz infecting us all.  As the undoubted star of the company swung around the packed room someone introduced me to him – that’s what happened in those days still – and he gave me a deep bow and kissed my hand!

I can’t recall the conversation if there was any, I expect I was dumbstruck.  He bent over me and held out a packet of Sobrani, so of course I took one.  I’d never smoked, but everywhere there were advertisements with elegant women holding a glass in one hand and a cigarette between the top joints of the first two fingers of the other who made it look the most natural thing in the world.  It didn’t cross my mind to refuse.  He produced a lighter and I inexpertly leaned well forward and sucked one end until it was alight.

I began to cough.  Sheer manners induced him to wait until I could breathe again, but when I tried once more to inhale, intending to blow a smoke ring, something I’d seen done often enough, the smoke blew straight back into my face.  Then of course my eyes began to run, mascara dribbled down my cheeks and as another fit of coughing overtook me I dropped the cigarette completely.

So where should the blessed fag land?  Why, in his turn up! (Remember them?)  He was wearing some sort of tweed trousers, as arty people did in those days.  He looked down rather vaguely whilst I continued to cough. The smell that soon started to permeate the room was undoubtedly burning wool and smoke was issuing from the area of his socks.  One of his friends tipped a glass of beer over his foot but our hostess went one better and flung a whole bucket of water over his head.

My idol, my dream of meeting him come true, and what happens?  I set light to him and get him soaked to the skin.

Naturally he rose to the occasion and turned it to his advantage.  Standing there with his hair dripping, his trousers singed and everyone open mouthed he flung his arms out, threw back his head and proclaimed a speech that I thought might have been from Shakespeare as though it was the most normal thing in the world.  Perhaps it was for him.  You don’t get to the very top without being able to hold attention in adverse circumstances.  As he finished the room cheered and laughed and he took another bow, completely unabashed and absolutely centre stage.

But as he swept out of the room with his entourage he looked for me, a sadly bedraggled little girl with smudged make-up and a very red face.

“Never mind luvvie” he said in a loud stage whisper. “Can happen to the best of us.  Just don’t take up smoking, it really doesn’t suit you!”

And funnily enough that was one of the best pieces of advice and lessons learned during my college years.  I’ve never touched a cigarette since.

© Martha Perriam 2016

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