“20 Gestures” by Stephen McQuiggan


It was Mickey the Cat’s going away party and we were all huddled around the cheap casket like tramps around a campfire, sucking the last bit of heat from his freezing corpse. Over by the trees at the edge of the graveyard the sunlight glinted off the silos, drawing tears from previously dry eyes. Not that Mickey wouldn’t be missed, it was just typical of him to be buried today of all days.

The twenty third of April – Gesture Day – the one day of the year we were allowed to smoke.

The Reverend did his usual spiel, a recruitment drive sprinkled with some empty platitudes. He began to talk about “Ricky”; he hadn’t even bothered learning Mickey’s name. Perhaps it proved in his God after all—if he had known some of the strokes old Mickey pulled he would have been joining him in that gumhole.

I felt the scorch of morals, and the furry teeth of boredom gnaw at my mind. I looked round to see if all Mickey’s buddies had shown to see the last of his nine lives—the buddies he owed, the buddies he shafted, the buddies who had undoubtedly helped buy him his ticket on the Pine Express. We were all looking at each other, a stealthy appraisal of who would be next down that muddy chute. I nodded over at Daddy Fitz, Mickey’s old workmate.

Fitz rang me when Mickey collapsed on the factory floor in the middle of his shift. The first thing the boss said, Fitz told us, was “Somebody clock him out.” He looked at the butcher’s wreath that adorned the grave then winked at me, a private joke. Mickey hadn’t eaten meat in years—he’d swapped all his pork vouchers for backstreet tobacco. The cancer that devoured his meager body wasn’t smoking related though, how’s that for funny?

The thought of cancer makes me yearn for a cigarette. I check my watch—it’s over an hour walk to the designated Smoking Zone. I feel like a vampire on Summer’s Solstice; no time, no time. Farewell Cat, I say to myself, you’ll be running Hell in a fortnight.

I turn away and that’s when I see her, all dressed in red like she’s come to dance on Mickey’s grave.

She seems to shine. I’m mesmerised by her skin. She seems so… healthy. Well, okay, so everyone is healthy these days, that’s why they’re all so unhappy, but hers is a different kind of health, not the enforced kind we are all supposed to “enjoy.”

I doubt she attended JUNK DAY yesterday, when you were allowed a burger or a pizza. She was the antithesis of the franchises, even though she embodied the Agency’s drive for perfection. She probably works for the Agency, I realised, and immediately grew angry. Anger is all the rage nowadays. I hate zealots, especially the health fascists who refuse to see their idea of health is a spiritual disease.

God, I need a smoke, a proper one, need it bad. How much longer would they drag this farce out? Damn you Mickey.

It clouded over as I met her eyes, and her dress turned a deep shade of scarlet. Looking down at my shoes, my embarrassment is mirrored in their shiny black surface. At last the Reverend winds up his voodoo and I nod to Fitz and Kenny and we’re off.

“See you Sunday,” says the preacher, and Fitz says, “Maybe,” and we all laugh because church is compulsory, and because we’re about an hour away from a cigarette and everything seems funny.

Okay, so Gestures aren’t “proper” smokes, not like the ones in the good old days, the ones whose names linger in my mind like a long line of venerable monarchs—Winstons, Gallaghers, Benson and Hedges—but compared to dried banana skins and grass clippings they are the brand of the Almighty himself. We call them Lungbleeders because it’s rumoured they make your lungs sweat blood after every draw, and love them all the more for the myth. They say each Gesture is 98-percent grit bin or bus shelter, yet to us they are pure Ambrosia.

People don’t get that. It’s like when we were ordered to quit, the first thing they told us was to cut out routine cigs, but every cigarette is a routine cigarette.

Leaving the graveyard I’m daydreaming of a smoke and a pint, back in the days when you could still smoke in bars, back in the day when there was still such things as bars. We thought those days would last forever; how quickly we were marginalized.

Memory’s not the friend it used to be, now it’s just a curse, a tumour that can never fully be removed, for its tentacles spread throughout the senses. Even when we don’t remember consciously, our body does. We are awash with smells that sadden, phantom kisses that linger, and sounds that make the heart race faster.

Today everything reminds me of smoking, of my one nasty little habit.

It’s rumoured this will be the last GESTURE DAY, that they will call it quits to keep the quacks happy, but they say that every year, and every year we trek to the field regardless.

We made it to the church, its doors opened to reveal the electronic turnstile in the nave, the one where you had to slot in your ID card to verify your attendance. There were cards on the black market that were supposed to log you into the system up to four weeks in advance but they weren’t reliable—Mickey was forever trying to palm them off on us but we wouldn’t bite, the Cat had been jailed countless times for Spiritual Neglect.

And there she was again, her hair over one eye, dress red as debt, an ungainly rucksack on her back pulling it out of shape, her long painted nails tapping on the railings as she waited for us to pass.

We filed by quietly, stung to silence by her presence, but she shot out a pale arm and stopped me. Up this close I saw that her skin was completely hairless, without scar or blemish, and I wondered briefly if they had finally gotten round to making those humanoid robots the movies had been predicting for years.

“I know your brother,” she says, her voice unexpectedly harsh. “Where’s he living now? I know he’s not in Coldfall anymore.”

“You’ve made a mistake,” I tell her, relieved she has me confused with someone else, “I don’t have a brother.”

“Don’t give me that,” she smiles, and I wonder if it wasn’t Eve who tempted the snake. “Of course you do. His name’s Callaghan.”

Fitz and Kenny stiffen at the name of Mickey’s dealer.

“Look, I don’t know who you are, but you’ve got things all mixed up. I don’t have a brother. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m choking for a smoke and the day’s a wasting.”

“Suit yourself,” she says, “but tell your brother Mickey’s sister Kate was asking after him, okay?”

Mickey told me his sister was dead, told me a week after she croaked they found the cure. Who was this Kate, was she an agent, or did Mickey have a health nut for a sister that he was too embarrassed to tell us about?

“Who the hell’s that?” asks Kenny when we’re safely out of the churchyard.

“Beats me,” I say, looking at my watch. “We can figure it out later, right now I’ve a butt to catch.”

I chance a look back as we reach the main road; she is still watching us, a red blight in the distance. As if on cue the day darkens. As we make our way into town the first raindrops fall like spots of blood from a uterus.

Everything’s a blur. Factories pump their waste into the air and exhausts sputter out a ground fog. There have been days when I’ve been so desperate for a smoke I felt like wrapping my lips round one of those pipes and taking a deep hit of carbon monoxide. Walking into town is like a junkie getting a hit of methadone.

Today we can smoke and not have to hide our yellow fingers, or rub orange peel on them to mask the smell. No gum today, no sprays, no unctions; it’s an expensive business pretending not to smoke.

The remnants of yesterday’s JUNK DAY tightens the arms of dog owners, as they struggle to hold back their charges from the Styrofoam trays that still litter the streets, the feces rattling in the clear plastic containers just below their tails. The rain comes on harder.

“Typical,” moans Fitz. “You think they’ll put up some cover this year?”

I don’t bother answering. I have a bad feeling about GESTURE DAY. It’s already got off to a bad start what with Mickey and Kate in the devil dress. We should have been halfway through our pack by now. What game was she playing? I try not to think about it. I came last in imagination and don’t care to strain myself on imponderables.

As we hurry down the main drag I see my nemesis approaching. I don’t know his name, only that I hate him. He’s jogging again, even though it’s not a designated day, which means it’s voluntary jogging, in his too white, too tight shorts pulled up way too high. His orange coloured girlfriend jogs alongside, her fake breasts stationery, jutting dangerously as they trot by.

He makes me feel small because I’m headed to the Zone, like a leper with a dose of pox. His armpits reek, leaving vapour trails behind, but he bears his odour like a medal because they say deodorant gives you cancer.

Fitz, who wears his lungs on his sleeves and refuses to be brow beaten by the fitness fascists, can’t resist hawking up a glob of phlegm at their feet. No doubt the CCTV will capture that and report him to the Hygiene Dept, but it’s worth it to see the joggers scatter like he lobbed a grenade. Yeah, I’ll even help Fitz pay the fine—the look on their faces is worth the credits—jogging is an ignoble act at the best of times.

My smile slips from my face as I watch their haughty backs pick up pace, then catch a glimpse of red. Is she following us? That dress is a little loud for stalking. Agents usually tend to be more discreet, but nothing surprises me about the agency nowadays.

Only last week I passed a patrol car and saw one of them smoking in full view, flaunting it, blowing the precious smoke in my face. We used to call that a back street kiss, but I felt no romance only an all consuming rage.

“De maximus ni curat lex,” said the laughing Agent, flashing his gun to move me on. The Reverend translated that for me: the law does not apply to giants. The arrogance of it shocked me, though the Reverend backed him up.

“He threatened me with a gun!” I protested.

“My son, bullets, and vibrators for that matter, are genius extensions of our animalistic urges. As is the need to smoke. We must not condemn those who cave in to such weaknesses, we must help them. After all, this is why we have Gesture Day.”

Gesture Day—already it was slipping away and I hadn’t so much as coughed.

“Listen guys,” I said, “has anyone any credits? I think we should grab a cab to the Zone, at the rate we’re going we’ll not even be light headed by nightfall.”

Kenny grunted, shaking the wet hair from his eyes as he fumbled in his pocket. They knew it made sense even though pay day was a long way away.

I was eager to get away from Kate, lose her in the Zone. I was nervous of her intentions and her bizarre insistence I had a dealer for a brother. If that were true would I really be trudging through the rain to stand in a bloody field?

It’s easy to find a cab; they are the only vehicles allowed on the roads at the weekends.

“Let me guess, Gasping Central?” says the cabby.

“Yeah, by way of the gym. Thought I might work up some health coupons before I pollute myself like a heathen,” laughs Fitz and the cabby joins in. I think he might have been a gasper once himself.

I look out the rear window and see Kate flagging down a cab herself.

“Step on it mate,” I say nervously, “I feel the need for weed, y’know?”

“Doing my best pal, these things are electric remember.”

We hummed up the road, the crowds starting to build as the populace make their way to the Zone, that Elysium field that spent the rest of the year as pasture for free range cows and Slop Out Day.

I relax a little. The best part is thinking about it, anticipating the hit. It’s like a song that comes on the radio just as your optimism reaches a crescendo and the sun comes out and it’s instantly your favourite song. You know by the first chorus this is the song that will always remind you of this day, whatever this day may hold.

About half a mile out the taxi pulled up. “No parking from here on in guys,” says the cabby. “I could drive round for an hour or more and still not find a spot. The fare’s the same, and you’ll feel vaguely cheated for the rest of the day, but you’ll get a smoke that much quicker…’

Kenny stuck his card in the slot and logged up the credits as we all clambered out.

There were a phalanx of taxis behind us so I couldn’t be sure which one was Kate’s, or if she had even made it this far. Ahead of us, at the end of a tapering road, was the electrified gate flanked by armed Agents busy checking doctor’s passes to make sure no first timers were trying to sneak in.

Behind the gate, rising like a poisonous jellyfish, was a haze of blue-black smoke. We couldn’t help but cheer; in a few minutes we’d be adding to that pall. Gesture Day—best goddamn day of the year, better than Christmas, even if you had just buried your best mate.

The line is still thin and moving along nicely; the people who have camped out to get in early have relieved a lot of the usual bottlenecking. It isn’t long before we are flashing our IDs and getting our medical cards stamped and taking our packs.

20 Gestures.

I fondle the pack in a daze, staring at the picture of Christ casting the unrepentant smoker out of paradise, almost salivating at the thought of tearing them open right now and smoking them like pretty maids, all in a row.

We buy a disposable lighter between the three of us and I feel the usual crippling anxiety that it won’t work—two years ago one blew up in Mickey’s hand—and we’ll waste time having to scrounge a light. On Gesture Day trying to get a light is like trying to steal fire from Neanderthals, but Fitz hits the lighter with his thumb and it blazes like the Second Coming.

I’m coughing already, coughing myself grey, as I expel my very essence, spraying my fellow gaspers with hot saliva. They are hosts for my virus, passing on this glorious affliction, hopefully infecting enough people to make this world sane again. I start to sweat; you sweat when your engine’s overheating, and when your engine overheats it smokes.

I take out a cigarette, torch it, inhale deeply.

The harsh tickle, the sudden tension as the heart begins to race, to gallop toward nirvana, nostrils steaming, skin prickling with an electric kiss, all thought concentrated, purified, slicing through the muggy stew of the everyday, and I feel for an instant that I soar.

I inhale, I bury, I exhale, I exhume.

I pollute my body to free my mind. Suddenly the world makes sense. This is why we do this, why we hide and hawk and splutter in the dark; to feel alive, to feel.

We smoke, the air around us filling up with the acrid haze billowing from our healing lungs, and I feel the wired strife that has been building all day leave me. Oh sweet cigarette, my heart is an iPod full of songs of love for you! That once so familiar sensation returns, like something has crawled from my throat and died on my chest. I don’t draw on the cigarette as much as caress it.

The field is full, hardly room to move your elbow, not that it matters, the smokes never leave our mouths; no-one breaks the embrace save to light another, then another.

I see Kenny and Fitz rake their first two down to glowing spear points then reach for a third. Someone once said, “If you tell the sons of Adam not to eat an apple they will devour an orchard,” and I laugh at the truth of it all. Third light’s bad luck they say, but we felt only bliss in our good fortune. Soon we would blanch and cover ourselves in vomit, but for now we believed in God, and God loved us.

We were a squadron of Lungcancer Bombers, strafing the field with mucus patterns, shining brighter as we inhaled our victory. In that moment I would have voted for the Director again, because he gave us this day, because he gave us 20 Gestures.

Then the cramps started. I left Fitz gagging, and Kenny wandering like an untethered balloon, as I searched for the toilets. I found the usual rank of huts by following my nose; they could make House Detective systems that could trace smoke through solid brick and set off alarms in Agency HQ, but they still couldn’t devise a Portaloo that flushed.

By the time I returned night was falling, the sky full of ashtray constellations. The field was beginning to empty, though there were still a few hundred stragglers scavenging for butts, a task that would have made Sisyphus laugh. Then, as one of the guard lamps sweeps the Zone, I see her, the rucksack biting deep into her thin shoulders.

The guards on the gate must have left already. Once all the cigarettes had been handed out security tended to be lax; they knew none of the smokers would part with them. They were meant to stay and search people leaving, make sure no tobacco left the field, but they usually left that to the attack dogs.

Had she been searching for us all day?

She marched over, reaching Kenny and Fitz just as I did.

“Hello Callaghan,” she says. “I see it’s not enough for you to pollute yourself,” she nods at my cigarette, “you have to murder other people too.”

“Listen love, I’ve no idea why you think I’m Callaghan, or what you mean by murder, but—”

“You murdered my brother! You got him hooked on that filthy weed and he got cancer. I hope all those tumours in his gut made you a rich man.”

“Mickey’s cancer wasn’t smoking related, if it was he would’ve been jailed as soon as it was diagnosed, you know that. And like I keep bloody telling you, I’m not Callaghan. These are the first smokes I’ve had all year.”

“Where do you think those smoke clouds are going now? Do you think they just vaporise up there?” She was crying now, “No, they linger, sucked in by dreaming children and pregnant women, by innocent, decent people. You might not be Callaghan, I don’t really care. You’re all the same, dealing death to all around you without a second thought. Well, it’s your lucky night. I’ve found a cure to stop you smoking.”

I saw the transmitter in her hand, the heavy bulk of her rucksack, the protruding wires, and I didn’t need to consult the Agency’s seasonal urine colour chart—it flowed down my leg in a stinging rush.

I dropped my cig and ran without even shouting a warning; we are all only heroes in hindsight, once we have edited events to our own satisfaction.

The explosion hammered the night and I flew on a fist of scalding air high over the Zone, flaming bodies soaring beside me, falling angels, and I landed hard on the surface of a planet deaf to its own death rattle.

My motto had always been “We can’t live forever so why live at all.” It consoled me, justified every illicit smoke and furtive sausage, all my small rebellions against the Agency, against Big Mother. Death to me was just another form of boredom, indistinguishable from life, but now I wanted to live, even if it was behind the wheel of this corrupted body. I needed to live.

I could hear screams, see men shaped flames scatter wildly, and I got to my feet and ran, barely hearing the ‘copters above the roar of my boiling blood. It felt like I was bleeding from a thousand different wounds as I fled through the gates and back out onto the streets, lurching into an alley before I collapsed. The Agency snooper trucks sped by, a brash carnival of flashing sirens, as I struggled to breathe.

I had one smoke left, and I thought long and hard about lighting it. To hell with the jail time, I mightn’t live long enough to be sentenced anyway. Then all the light and noise tapered down to a tiny dot and I slipped into the silent dark.

When I awoke sunlight was licking the edges of the alley. I got unsteadily to my feet, trying not to vomit. I never thought of Fitz or Kenny, they knew the dangers of smoking as well as I. All I was worried about was getting home.

I blamed the Agency. Health, joy, happiness (none of it worth a PC damn), where had it gotten me but here, half sautéed in a filthy backstreet.

A new day dawned—Token Day—and I began to panic.

This was the one day a year the drinkers got a bottle of Monkey Blood gin. The streets would not be safe. Even the guards kept a low profile on Token Day. I crawled further back down the alley, in between some bins, and decided to wait it out. I smoked my last cigarette. Then the raucous cheering started as the drinkers took to the streets like a horde of broken toys. I inhaled deeply, and shut my mind to the carnage that lay ahead.

Stephen McQuiggan is a factory worker from Northern Ireland. He appears in forthcoming issues of Bards And Sages and Morpheus Tales, and in upcoming anthologies from Angelic Knight, Cutting Press, Crowded Quarantine, and Horror Library Vol 5.

Read Stephen McQuiggan’s comments on Myra Sherman’s “Night Shift.”

Notes from K. Anne Unger, Editor
The reader is plunged into an intriguing and surreal world where characters function the only way they know how in an oppressed society in Stephen McQuiggan’s “20 Gestures.” The story’s gripping landscape is created by the voice of a character so cunning and quick-witted it demands our attention even if the protagonist’s goal is simple: smoking as many cigarettes as possible during the course of the day. It’s easy to become involved with this story, to stay engaged and entertained even if you’ve never experienced this universe before.

Comments on this story by Wendy Fox, author of “The Car”
In fiction it feels like we are always struggling to get the details right, even when we are writing about a world that closely resembles our own, and so I admire writers who can tackle a landscape that requires even more invention, with an alternate vocabulary, a different landscape, and a new set of rules. Stephen McQuiggan’s “20 Gestures” puts the reader immediately into a dystopia—at least, it’s a dystopia for his character—but anchors us with the familiar: the shop boss who demands a fallen worker be clocked out, the funeral of a friend, a dress “as red as debt.” Recognition helps pull the reader through the story as McQuiggan’s character navigates a place we don’t necessarily know. What stayed with me from “20 Gestures” was the sense of terror, whether it is the reverend who commits the departed without knowing his name, or suicide bomber who has mistaken your identity, and yet, in this world, it is the day after that is worse.

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