Million Dollar Smoke

 The well-dressed young man looked out of place on the seedy Redfern street. His suit was too fancy, his Volvo too smart, his smile too easy. He looked as though he’d stepped from a television screen; the man who asked women to compare Super Whizz with Brand X.

He was looking for a number on the row of dilapidated terrace houses that lined the deserted street. Bright sunshine could not hide the meanness of the rundown houses, the peeling paint, the derelict gardens.

They were too far gone, even for the yuppies who were renovating streets of inner city houses, turning yesterday’s working class terraces into tomorrow’s townhouses.

Their condition did not seem to worry the young man, he searched eagerly for the house number. He pushed open the rusting iron gate outside a particularly dilapidated terrace, which had once been painted green. The gate sagged to one side.

At the front door he smoothed his well-groomed hair, straightened his immaculate tie and knocked. The latch clicked and the door swung silently open. No one came in answer, the house was silent. The caller stepped tentatively into the hall, an expectant smile on his face.

“Hello, anybody home?” he called.

The interior was dark, close, fetid air diffused the stream of light from the open doorway. A door at the end of the hallway opened onto a deserted kitchen. He penetrated further, his bright eagerness impervious to the desolation of broken furniture and signs of poverty.

“Hello, Mister Smith, are you there?” he inquired of the empty rooms.

A faint noise from upstairs attracted his attention.

“Are you up there, hello?” he called.

Taking the stairs two at a time he climbed cautiously to the bend. A sound of muffled coughing came from a room on the landing. He pushed on, slowly opened the door and looked in. The man on the bed was sunk in deep shadow. He lay without moving, his eyes closed. Only his rasping breath showed him to be still alive. A thin grey blanket covered his wasted body.

“Mister Smith?” asked the intruder, coming closer to the bed.

The sunken eyes flickered open and tried to focus. For the first time in his life the young man recognised death in the pale depths of the fading eyes. A savage bout of coughing tore at the dying man’s chest. It seemed impossible that his frail body could still have such convulsive force. After a while it passed and again his eyes searched for the visitor’s face.

“I knew you’d come.” His voice was a faint croak. “Someone had to be here at the end. I knew they wouldn’t let me die alone.”

A slight smile twisted the bloodless lips and the eyes seemed to regain a spark. The young man sat on the edge of the bed.

“Can I get you anything, a glass of water? I should call an ambulance,” he said.

“No, too late, too late. Don’t go. Just as long as you’re here,” answered the dying man. He gripped his visitor’s hand, holding on tightly.

He closed his eyes. The minutes stretched out, harsh, laboured, breathing filled the silence. Slowly the painful breath faded into silence. The young man bent anxiously over the still form. Suddenly the eyes opened with a clear and lucid gaze.

“You wouldn’t have a smoke on you, by any chance?” asked the man on the bed with a calm smile.

The young man patted his pockets helplessly.

“No, I’m sorry, never use them,” he replied.

A faraway look came into the man’s eyes, as if he were recalling sometime or someone from the past. He smiled resignedly.

“That’s a pity. I’d give a million dollars for a smoke,” he breathed.

His eyes closed and slowly, after a while, the breath and the life went out of his wasted body. The young man sat quietly beside him, a strange expression on his face. With his free hand he reached into his inside pocket and drew out a piece of paper.

It read, Pay George Smith – One Million Dollars.

The man from the lotteries stared at the dead man’s face for a long time before he replaced the paper in his pocket and rose to leave.

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