George Sprung turned his key carefully in the lock. He stepped into the house as if he expected a booby trap, closed the door softly, put his briefcase on the bottom stair, hung up his coat and removed his shoes without a sound. He met his own gaze in the hallway mirror. And there he was: a mouse, a weed, a dry cracker, a glass of flat lemonade. His manner was meek and deferential, his job repetitious and limiting, his home shabby and cramped, his posture crooked and painful, his clothing worn and ill-fitting, his past wasted and unremarkable, and his future bleak and far too long. He was fifty, looked sixty, felt seventy, and wished he were dead.
Next to the mirror was a framed photograph of his wedding day, which aroused in George the same feeling that might come with looking at a mugshot taken when you were falsely imprisoned for a terrible crime. He had met Delilah in a bus station cafe and she had won him over the way a hammer wins over a nail. She looked out from behind the glass with the same pitiless glare she’d cast on him every day in the ensuing thirty years, during which time she had successfully ground his soul into a smooth paste. He was resentful and she contemptuous, and so blazed within them the only intensity their marriage contained.
George heard the bed creak upstairs. He scrambled into the kitchen and turned on the oven. By the time Delilah shoved open the kitchen door he was wrist deep in chopped vegetables. The glare descended upon him.
‘You woke me up, George. How many times do I have to tell you to be quiet when you come in?’
‘Sorry, love’. It was a tie in George’s mind as to which word was the most insincere.
‘If you were sorry you wouldn’t have done it.’
‘Erm,’ said George.
‘How many times do I have to tell you not to talk back to me?’ said Delilah.
With the evening’s routine firmly established, George made stew, laid the table, cleared the table, washed up, dried up, ran the vacuum cleaner round, did a load of laundry, hung it out, gave Delilah a foot massage and listened to a thorough rundown of his failings. Delilah then slumped in an armchair in front of the television and embarked on a chain of cigarettes that would last well into the night.
Her grip on him thus relaxed, George took the opportunity to quietly withdraw to a corner of the garden and enjoy the one respite from his misery: a few precious moments spent puffing on a battered pipe and blowing sweet, aromatic clouds into the evening air.
Alone at last, George closed his eyes and freed his thoughts. He took a long draw of musky smoke from the pipe and held it in his mouth, savouring the taste before he released it and opened his eyes.
The smoke bloomed as usual and then, in a curious break from routine, thickened rather than dissipated, and three holes appeared towards the top of it, arranged like those in a bowling ball, and four tendrils curled out from the edges of the cloud. One of the holes opened into what could only be a mouth, which made the other two eyes, and the tendrils uncoiled into something like limbs. The smoke was now roughly a creature, somewhat oval in shape, hanging in the air as it smiled at George.
‘Ha ha!’ laughed the Smoke wheezily. ‘Ha ha ha ha HA HA HA!’
George stumbled backwards and stared warily at this new development.
‘You sad sack!’ rasped the Smoke. ‘You broken, bent, umbrella handle of a man! Weak-kneed and whipped and trodden on! Saddled and ridden into the dust without a whimper of complaint! Disgustingly ordinary in word and thought and deed and life!’
George raised an eyebrow. ‘Have we met?’
‘Ha ha ha ha ha HA HA HA! We have not,’ said the Smoke. ‘And yet I come to you with an opportunity to better yourself.’
‘Hmmmm,’ hmmmed George. ‘What’s the catch?’
‘First I give you the opportunity. Then I tell you the catch. That’s just how these things work. It’s an age-old arrangement, and not one I’ll change for a spineless coward like yourself.’
George tapped out his pipe on the top of the fence and shrugged his shoulders.
‘Well, what do I have to lose?’ he said.
‘We both know the answer to that,’ replied the Smoke.
‘Nothing,’ they said in unison.
‘What are you offering?’ asked George.
George’s eyebrow jerked up again.
‘Nothing less,’ whispered the Smoke, ‘than the answers to all the mysteries of the universe.’
George looked back at the house and rifled through the back catalogue of his disappointments, unrealised dreams, woeful failures and inhibited experiences. What made him happy? What made him special?
What made a dustpan happy? What made a doormat special?
‘Deal,’ George said.
The Smoke chuckled to itself. ‘As you wish,’ it said. ‘Listen closely.’
And with that the Smoke began an epic recitation of history’s most closely guarded secrets. The creature revealed to George the true beginnings of the universe; how the dinosaurs became extinct; who actually built the pyramids and the Sphinx; what happened to the crew of the Marie Celeste; who shot JFK and why; the true author of Shakespeare’s plays; the truth about UFOs and alien visitations; the meaning of the face on Mars; the true age of the Earth; what happened to Amelia Earhart; whether or not ghosts are real; whether or not gods are real; and the truth about Bigfoot, Stonehenge, the Shroud of Turin, the Bermuda Triangle, the lost city of Atlantis, and on and on and on and on, George’s eyes ever-widening and his mind ever-expanding. It seemed like hours later that the final words poured from the Smoke’s mouth and George discovered the true identity of Jack the Ripper. The creature delivered a satisfied smile, and George shuffled dizzily to the edge of the patio and lowered himself down. His cheeks filled and he exhaled long and loudly.
‘And now,’ said the Smoke, ‘you know everything. Just think what you could do with all this information. You could have the attention of the most powerful people on the planet. Think of the glory and fame and accolades you could receive! No one person has ever been privy to the secrets you now possess.’
George rubbed his eyes wearily and tried to think of something suitably solemn to say. ‘Well, quite.’
The Smoke continued, ‘You are now the mightiest fount of knowledge on Earth and you could, if you were able, use that knowledge to change the world.’
George nodded in agreement and muttered, ‘Change the world, yes…’ Abruptly he stopped nodding and looked quizzically at the creature. ‘If I were able?’
‘Ah yes,’ wheezed the Smoke. ‘The catch! My favourite part of the whole thing. If you breathe a word of this to anyone, if you divulge to them any of the knowledge I have given you, they will instantly turn…’ – the Smoke paused for dramatic effect – ‘…to stone! STONE! Ah ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha HA HA HAHAHAHA!! Enjoy your new life, George Sprung! HAHAHAHAHAHA!! You wretched, helpless, useless flap of skin! Ha, ha, HA! You uninspiring, shambolic, gullible fool! HA HA HA HAAAAAAAAAAA!!’
Its cruel prank played and its taunting laughter ringing in George’s ears, the Smoke spiralled into nothingness and was gone.
George sat on the cold stone and mused a while. He took the pipe from his pocket and pressed tobacco into the bowl with his thumb.
‘Hmmm,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘Hmmm.’
George lit the pipe and puffed away. And as he did so, dormant facial muscles formed a smile for the first time since 1986. He blew cloud after cloud into the clear evening and watched them slowly disappear.
After a time he emptied his pipe against the patio steps and returned it to his pocket.
From inside the house came the familiar creak of Delilah’s armchair. She was on the move.
George stood up and walked back indoors, eager for the first time in his marriage to strike up a conversation with his wife.
As George crossed the threshold he found Delilah waiting for him, her thin lips curled into a smug smile. He responded with his own.
‘Delilah,’ he announced, newly empowered, ‘I have to tell you somethi–’
‘George,’ she said, ‘shut up. I have something very important to tell you. Now then–’
As the interruption continued, George saw something out of the corner of his eye, and the world seemed suddenly to crawl into slow motion.
Delilah’s cigarette smouldered in the ashtray beside her chair. And as the last vestige of smoke dispersed, three holes, like those in a bowling ball, spread into a mocking grin and faded away.