Alan Stephens was used to considering the Christmas and New Year festivities as something that didn’t really involve him. Since he had lost his parents, and his sister and her family had moved from Cornwall to Bradford with her husband’s job, he’d made a habit of spending the time alone in the familiar countryside and streets of Truro. This year would be different though. As a founder member of the newly formed Spectrum organisation, he’d be spending Christmas on their floating HQ – Cloudbase – surrounded by the other men and women who were beginning to settle in and form a companionable workforce. It was becoming second nature to think of them by their codenames and – in fact – to consider his own name as Captain Brown.
Although he still felt something of an outsider in a company that consisted mostly of fighter pilots, soldiers and secret agents – most of whom were younger than him – he tried hard to fit in and was gratified when he’d been invited to become a member of the consortium formed by the other colour captains to buy Christmas presents for the five beautiful Angel pilots. He had realised this invitation wasn’t an automatic inclusion when he’d witnessed his field partner, Captain Scarlet, almost squabbling with his great friend, Captain Blue, over Blue’s insistence that the invitation be extended to his field partner, the dour Captain Black, and it was a great relief to be assured by the two younger men that no one had had any doubts about including him.
The other captains were a friendly bunch, on the whole. There was still a sense of rivalry between some of them – friendly, but serious in its intensity. The worst example of it was between Captain Scarlet – not a man to tolerate coming second – and Captain Black – the eldest and, in his own estimation at least, senior of the captains.
Alan sighed as he reflected that he had known Black the longest – ever since they had both been recruited into Spectrum when Cloudbase was being constructed – and they’d worked together on equipment and training for the other, later recruits. Conrad Turner was not an easy man to get to know, but once he had realised that Alan had useful expertise, he had treated Brown with polite respect and was careful to defer to him over matters that were his speciality.
I recognize that’s the best I’m likely to get from Conrad, who really only seems to thaw into anything approaching friendliness with his American field partner, Alan mused.
The others were mostly Americans. Only Black and Scarlet were English like him, although Doctor Fawn was Australian. He liked Fawn and they often spent what leisure time the doctor permitted himself in each other’s company. Other than that, he would play chess with Colonel White – the remaining Englishman in the senior ranks – or spend time working on the intricate mechanisms of the antique clocks he loved to repair.
On duty he was Captain Scarlet’s partner. Scarlet was a career soldier – and a very good one at that. He had graduated from West Point, where he’d trained as part of the World Army Air Force’s fast-track officer scheme, as top of his year; in fact, there was a trophy in his quarters to show that he had been voted the ‘Supreme Soldier’ of his class.
That‘s why the colonel made us partners, of course, Brown mused.
His own experience was in the technical side of the World Army Air Force and his expertise lay in the field of surveillance and equipment rather than field craft. Scarlet was, in effect, his ‘mentor’, there to show him the ropes. However galling he might have expected that to be, Scarlet never treated him as anything less than an equal, and his advice was always given with surprising tact, for such an impulsive and occasionally rash young man.
He closed the door of his quarters and strolled along to the Officers’ Lounge. He and Scarlet were due on duty in 30 minutes or so and he knew the chances were that he’d find his partner in the Lounge with the other captains. He nodded affable acknowledgments to the lieutenants and technicians he passed as he moved through the marvellous airborne craft that was now his home. Cloudbase was a technological marvel and he felt justifiably proud of his work on the infrastructure.
The Officers’ Lounge was more crowded than he’d expected. Not only were most of the senior officers there, but the two off-duty Angel Pilots as well. Scarlet saw him and beckoned him over to where he and Blue were in conversation with Melody Angel.
“Hi, Alan,” Scarlet said. “I tried to call you earlier, did you get my message?”
Brown shook his head. He had noticed that the message alarm on his intercom was activated, but as the last messages he’d received had been about nothing more exciting than the forthcoming menus in the canteen, he hadn’t bothered to check it. He made a mental note to always do so in future.
“Well, you’re here, so I don’t suppose it matters,” Scarlet continued. “The colonel’s asked to speak to us all.”
“Something happened?” Brown asked.
“I hope so,” Melody chimed in excitedly. “Otherwise all this work we’ve done in anticipation of seeing some action will lead to nothing but a great anti-climax.”
Blue gave her one of his brilliant smiles. “My, but you’re a blood-thirsty little lady,” he teased.
“And you’re a patronising hulk!” she retorted, glaring up at him for what she saw as a put down. Blue was a good foot taller than her and would easily make two of her widthways.
He looked down at her in alarm. “Hey, it was a joke,” he assured her.
Melody stared at him appraisingly for a moment and then placed a slender hand on his arm. “Sorry, Captain,” she said. “I grew up with a handful of older brothers, who all thought nothing of trying to make me feel inferior. I tend to over-react when a guy says something like that to me – it’s instinctive.”
“Message received and understood,” Blue said genially. “If and when the balloon goes up, Melody, I want you on my team.”
She grinned and punched him gently, harmony restored.
Conversation in the Lounge ceased as the colonel entered with Captain Black beside him.
“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,” White said, glancing round. “I am delighted to see so many of you here. Before I start, I ought to make it clear that this isn’t an official meeting – at least, as far as operational matters are concerned. However, I feel it is something that will reflect well on Spectrum and I hope I will have your support.”
“Sure you will, Colonel,” Captain Ochre interjected, “when we know what it is you want from us, that is,” he added, sotto voce.
“Thank you, Captain Ochre. I will get to the point.” White moved to the wall of the Lounge, where the deep-set portholes gave a view of the clear, blue sky and the carpet of sun-bright, white clouds below them. His officers settled themselves to listen to their commander; their curiosity piqued by his opening words.
“Spectrum is a new organisation, largely unknown by the populace of the world and destined to remain a shadowy presence. Our remit against international terrorism means that we must protect our individual identities, but I want Spectrum to be recognised and trusted by the people we seek to protect. Therefore, I have sought permission from the World President for Spectrum to create a Charitable Fund. This will make donations and grants to charitable and humanitarian projects around the world.”
He glanced at his audience and saw an almost universal nod of approval from them. With a feeling of satisfaction, he continued:
“However, the World President is concerned that the money should not come from the official budget – and I agree with him. Spectrum costs the World Government a vast amount of money and it is not for us to distribute that resource to outside organisations, even in a good cause. Therefore, I propose to set you all a challenge: I want you – the men and women of the crew of Cloudbase – to raise that money. How you do it, is the challenge, but you may not ‘moonlight’ – by which I mean work for any other organisation to earn money – nor,” he said, with a glance at the wealthy Captain Blue and the few other well-to-do officers, “should you merely dip into your own pockets to contribute. I am aware that some of you would have the capacity to do that,” he added, as he saw Ochre open his mouth to comment.
Ochre closed his mouth and scoured the assembly from beneath his brows for any guilty-looking rich folk.
Destiny Angel called out a question: “How long do we have to make this fund, Colonel?”
“I thought we’d make the first donations around Christmas time,” White replied. “So you’d better get your thinking caps on…”
Everyone set to with a will to find ways of raising money. There was an unspoken competition amongst the various services and teams to raise the most. The Catering staff sold off specially made food items and raffled off cakes, sweets and a VIP meal for two.
Two teams of technicians started a sweepstake to see which team could strip down and rebuild a jet engine the fastest.
“I hope the engines they use never end up in one my planes,” Scarlet remarked to Brown, as he handed over his stake money and took his ‘timed’ tickets from the smiling technician.
The Angels were arranging an auction. They were going around asking for donations of items they could sell, and Brown gave them the reconditioned carriage clock he had just finished working on. Captain Ochre gave them a beautifully detailed model of an Angel Interceptor jet that he had made himself, and Captain Magenta donated one of his small, yet powerful, pocket-sized computers. Rather to everyone’s surprise, Captain Black gave them a piece of moon-rock mounted on a granite plinth, which he had collected himself when he’d been in the World Space Patrol. All-in-all it promised to be a great success.
The colour captains were somewhat at a loss for an idea. They were all experts in their fields, but their fields were wide and varied.
“I can’t see anyone wanting to win a tutorial on the shooting range with me,” Scarlet complained, as they sat in the Lounge trying to come up with an idea. “Or a flying lesson from you, Blue.”
“Oh, I think there’d be enough young ladies on the base who’d take a ticket for that,” Captain Grey remarked, with a smile.
“If it comes to that, we could all raffle ourselves as dinner dates,” Blue agreed, with a broad grin.
“If I won the VIP meal for two raffle, I’d be able to afford to pay for the meal, as well,” Ochre said, mournfully.
“What do you do with your money?” Black asked, with a shake of his head. “You and Symphony Angel are as bad as each other; she’s always complaining that she’s broke.”
“And how would you know that?” Ochre demanded. “Ah, I suppose a little blue-bird told you…” He glanced at Captain Blue and was pleased to see a flush colour his cheeks.
“Well,” said Captain Grey confidently, “I am going to do a sponsored swim. You guys are all going to sponsor me for large amounts of money per length of the pool.”
“No I’m not,” Ochre protested. “You can swim for days at a time without stopping.”
“Ochre!” Scarlet interjected. “You can’t refuse to participate in everything.”
“Well, you sponsor me and I’ll give the money to Grey…”
“What do you want sponsoring to do?” Brown asked. It was hard to tell when Ochre was teasing sometimes, but they were all getting used to the mid-westerner’s abrasive humour.
“How about keeping your mouth shut for the foreseeable future?” Blue suggested in an amiable tone that contradicted his words.
“I’d sponsor him for that,” Magenta agreed quickly.
Ochre spluttered his outrage and everyone laughed.
The idea of being sponsored to do something – or even not to do something – quickly took root and the senior officers started to come up with variations on the theme. These varied considerably from Captain Scarlet, who decided to do sponsored press-ups for an hour, to Symphony Angel who forswore chocolate and pledged herself to lose weight. Captain Brown thought that was rather a shame, as she had a very pleasing figure, in his opinion, not like some of the ultra-skinny women you saw these days. He had a strong suspicion he was not alone in his opinion either.
“What are you going to do, Al?” Blue asked, as they sat in the canteen having lunch a few days after the colonel’s challenge.
“I can’t think of anything,” Brown admitted, with a rueful glance. He placed his knife and fork neatly on his plate and sat back in his chair.
Doctor Fawn, who was with them, looked up from his plate of spaghetti and said, “I’d have thought you had the most obvious challenge,” he said.
“I do?” Brown’s hand moved automatically to his tunic pocket and he unzipped it to draw out the silver cigarette case he kept there.
Blue ginned at Fawn. “S’obvious really,” he agreed.
Brown gave a sigh of realisation as he saw their glances locked onto his cigarette case. “Smoking,” he said.
“Yes,” Fawn said. “This is a perfect opportunity to give it up.”
“I’ve tried before… it doesn’t work.” Brown explained and he put the case back, as if to close the topic.
“You’d have the perfect motivation this time,” Blue said encouragingly. “Everyone would sponsor you – even Ebenezer Ochre Scrooge – and you’d make more than anyone, I betcha.”
“I don’t know, Adam. I have tried and couldn’t do it.”
“You know it counts against you in your medical assessments,” Fawn said seriously. “I’ve given you formal warning that you have to cut back and preferably stop all together. There aren’t many smokers on the base and you’d be a great example to them if you kicked the habit.” He paused dramatically and added, “Before you kick the bucket.”
“What have you got to lose?” Blue added.
Brown continued to look doubtful and the American said, “I’ll sponsor you for… twenty a day – twenty crisp onesers for every day you don’t smoke at all.”
“Strewth, Blue,” Fawn muttered.
“That ought to make it worth your while trying,” Blue urged Brown. “Whaddya say?”
“You say, ‘it’s a deal, Yank’,” Fawn interjected. “And to add some scale to that monumental offer, I will sponsor you for five a day.”
Blue called Captain Scarlet and Destiny Angel over to the table. They had just come in together to get some lunch and they listened as Blue explained what Brown was going to do.
“And I know you’ll both want to sponsor him too, won’t you?” he concluded.
“Mais oui,” Destiny exclaimed. “C’est un idée merveilleux! I shall be happy to sponsor you, mon cher capitaine.”
“Me too!” Scarlet said.
“Now, think how many people you’ll be letting down if you don’t give it your best shot, Alan,” Fawn said. “I’ll send an all-user email round, telling people you are open to sponsorship, if you like.”
“Then everyone will know…if I don’t make it,” Brown murmured, overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of his companions.
“You’ll make it – we’ll see to that,” Scarlet assured him.
Without realising it Brown had drawn his cigarette case out of his tunic pocket.
“Good idea; give me that,” Scarlet said. “You won’t be needing it from now on.” He reached down and took it from Brown’s grasp.
“I wasn’t going to start right now!”
“Yes, you are,” Blue said, and laid a twenty note on the table. “We’ll ignore whether you’ve had a cigarette up to now and I will give you today’s sponsor money in advance.”
“Will you sponsor me for that amount?” Scarlet asked, staring at the money.
“Of course not – you’re only doing press ups and that won’t require much effort on your part.”
“Then perhaps you can give him what you are sponsoring Symphony with?” suggested Destiny, smiling innocently.
“Oh, I don’t think I’d want any of that…” Scarlet said, and threw back his head to laugh at his friend’s discomfiture.
For the rest of the day Captain Brown was the centre of attention. He was genuinely touched by the eagerness of his colleagues to sponsor him to quit smoking and before long the list of committed sponsors, and the amount he stood to make for the charity fund, was very impressive. Although he found himself missing the sensation of having a cigarette, he was able to ride the craving, surrounded as he was by enthusiastic supporters. But that had to stop and when he finally went back to his quarters, the real craving set in.
He was tired and wanted to sleep, but so restless he couldn’t settle. He started to cough and felt the throb of a nagging headache. He finally got out of bed and went walking through the quiet corridors to the canteen.
There, he ordered a cup of tea and a small selection of biscuits and took them over to a table by the wall. He sat alone, trying to conquer the feelings of self pity that were telling him he should be allowed to smoke if he wanted to, and that no one had the right to tell him what he should do, when Captain Black came into the canteen.
Black saw him, and once he had his own drink, wandered over to him.
“May I join you?” he asked in his deep voice.
“Sure, although I’m not going to be the best of company,” Brown growled.
Undeterred, Black sat opposite him and stirred his tea. After taking a long sip he said, “I heard about your sponsorship deal; I’m impressed.”
Brown looked up, prepared to see the cynical expression that was almost habitual on Black’s less-than-expressive face. But, to his surprise, he saw something akin to sympathy.
“I’m not very impressive right now,” Brown said, alarmed to hear how whiney his voice sounded.
“It’s not easy to quit smoking,” Black assured him. “I think it was Mark Twain who said ‘quitting smoking is easy, I’ve done it dozens of times’. There was a man with first-hand knowledge, it seems to me.”
“How would you know?” snapped Brown.
“I used to smoke.”
Black nodded. “I still class myself as a smoker who doesn’t smoke and not as a non-smoker and that’s after… almost a decade.”
“That’s not very encouraging.”
“I started smoking as a kid. I lived with relatives in the wilds of Lancashire – there was nothing else to do. I spent the meagre amount they gave me for the chores I did around the place on a packet of fags and I used to walk into the countryside and smoke them – one a day. At the time it felt like a serious act of rebellion.”
“I started in the WAAF,” Brown confessed. He was rather surprised that Black was prepared to share personal experiences; it wasn’t something he did often or with any enthusiasm.
“Yes, the WAAF was responsible for turning me from a casual smoker to a hardened one,” Black replied. “I smoked like the proverbial chimney.”
“What made you stop?”
“I was blown up in an airplane accident.”
“I spent several months comatose in hospitals and had numerous operations and skin grafts. It cured me of smoking.” There was a rare glint of humour in Black’s dark eyes as he took another sip of his tea.
“It’s a bit drastic though,” Brown replied.
“I certainly wouldn’t recommend it.”
“I don’t want to let people down,” Brown confessed. “But I’d kill for a ciggie. All this was sprung on me rather unexpectedly. I didn’t have time to psyche myself up for it.”
“No, you never do. I lay there in hospital dreaming of taking a long drag on a fag – even now it’s hard sometimes when I smell the smoke on you not to cadge one off you.”
“Scarlet took my ciggie case, or I’d give you one.”
“I wouldn’t thank you for it,” Black said coldly. “What happened to the others you have?”
“Oh, Fawn came round to my quarters and took them away. They were relentless.”
“They mean well.”
“You’ll be telling me it’s for my own good in a minute!”
“I don’t need to – you know it is.”
“I’m going to get some more biscuits…”
Brown stood and marched across to the counter.
Captain Black finished his tea and took his cup to the service hatch. “Goodnight, Alan, and … good luck.”
“Yeah, whatever,” Brown muttered dismissively, his mouth full of chocolate digestive biscuit.
On Doctor Fawn’s advice everyone was very patient and cut Captain Brown a lot of slack for the next couple of weeks. The normally genial Alan Stephens turned into a temperamental, irritable and self-pitying stranger. Captain Scarlet, not a man to suffer fools gladly, had to bite his tongue several times and walk away from potential flash points, but day by day, things improved. Every evening Captain Blue handed over another twenty note and following his example many other people did the same, giving Brown’s confidence a boost and the motivation to carry on.
His battle against the Demon Nicotine became the number one topic of conversation. Brown was simultaneously pleased and alarmed by this, but as Scarlet said one morning over his first, and Brown’s fifth or sixth, cup of strong coffee, “The more people who know, the less likely you are to backslide.” He grinned at an old memory. “Someone I used to know at university was all but stopping strangers in the street to tell them she was giving up smoking. She said that she was shaming herself into succeeding. Come on, Alan, it won’t take long!”
“Easy for you to say,” Brown grumbled, but allowed himself to be convinced.
The worst times were after meals, and especially after the first coffee of the day. That’s when the craving was at its height, and he desperately missed the feel of a cigarette between his fingers, and the taste of the smoke in his mouth. The quartermaster ordered nicotine chewing gum and a dummy cigarette for him, but as he told Scarlet: “It’s just not the same… it doesn’t feel the same, it doesn’t taste the same, and I hate chewing gum. Filthy habit.”
Recognising the onset of another bout of short-tempered self-pity, Scarlet wisely said nothing.
“And I’m constantly losing the bloody things.” Brown put a hand into his pocket to find the dummy cigarette or the gum; finding neither, he borrowed Scarlet’s biro and started twiddling it between his fingers.
He was plagued by splitting headaches, and rather more alarmingly from his point of view, periodic heavy pressure in his chest.
“Largely psychosomatic,” Fawn assured him. “Don’t forget you’ve been pouring pollutants into your lungs for years. It’s not surprising that you’re going to feel some kind of reaction there. Now, breathe in as far as you can…”
The doctor measured Brown’s chest expansion, then handed him a tube with a mouthpiece on the end. Brown eyed it dubiously. It looked like something the cleaners would use as a vacuum cleaner attachment. “What’s this for?”
“It’s for measuring your lung capacity. We’ll test you once a week, and I’ll keep a chart showing your progress. Now, take the deepest breath you can, and blow as hard and as long as you can into the mouthpiece. Empty your lungs completely.”
Brown did as he was told, blowing down the tube until he saw stars and broke into a wheezing cough. Fawn gave him a few minutes to recover, and then made him do it again. Brown appreciated everything that was being done to help him, he genuinely did, but he did wonder if it was going to be worth it.
Nevertheless, he soldiered on, from mini-crisis to mini-crisis, tormented by insomnia and a hacking cough, stomach cramps and weight gains. Scarlet took him down the gym every day to exercise and Grey would challenge him to races in the pool. Even Ochre, usually the least sympathetic of the captains to anything that smacked of personal weakness, engaged him in conversations about the mechanism of clocks and the pleasure to be gained from working on something and seeing it restored to perfection, or seeing something develop from nothing thanks to one’s own handiwork.
What couldn’t be helped by his companions was Brown’s lack of ability to concentrate and the resulting clumsiness that not only prevented him from working on his clocks but had resulted in one of his favourite projects being ruined when he dropped it.
Yet still he stuck to his commitment.
The day before Christmas Eve, the Angels held their charity auction and even though Captain Brown had the pleasure of seeing his contribution bought by the colonel for a princely sum, their total failed to knock him off the top spot on the fund donation chart. This was largely due to Captain Blue’s generous sponsorship, of course, but even so, Alan felt pride in his achievement.
Once the final item had been sold, Colonel White addressed the crowd at the auction.
“Ladies and gentlemen of Spectrum Cloudbase, this is the final event of the charity fundraising calendar. I am hopeful that we will have a sizeable pot when we announce our awards to the press tomorrow. Six international charities have been chosen by you from the list you suggested and the fund will be split equally between them. I am happy to be able to announce that the World President has informed me that he will match coin for coin the amount we have raised.”
There was a hearty cheer at this news. Once it subsided the colonel continued:
“I would like to thank you all for your enthusiasm and commitment to raising this money. I hope you consider it to have been a success and that you will wish to do the same next year. I have already received several suggestions for events that could be held during the year to raise money for the fund, and I am giving them all due consideration. Tomorrow, there will be a number of small gatherings throughout Cloudbase, to celebrate Christmas. I know that not all of us here are Christians, but all of us are part of humanity, and whatever our own beliefs, I hope we can all participate in this festival as a token of our unity and our commitment to ensure that there is goodwill to all mankind across this beautiful and precious planet.”
More cheers followed this speech and the crowd broke up, happy and excited at the prospect of the reduced hours and duties that had been announced for the next day.
The senior officers were having their party in the Amber Room, as it was essential that Angel One remained manned. The Angels had acquired a real tree and the room was decorated with what was probably several miles of bunting and garlands. The most popular decoration was undoubtedly the mistletoe and there was much cheerful squealing and laughter as each Captain claimed his Christmas kiss from each Angel.
Captain Brown was starting to enjoy himself and for the first time in several weeks he wasn’t thinking about having a cigarette. He had a conversation with Melody, Black and Grey about cars until Rhapsody, wearing Captain Scarlet’s radio cap, dragged Black away ‘to dance’.
There was a scuffle when Scarlet came back from the control room with Captain Blue – who had covered for the colonel so that the Commander-in-Chief could attend the first part of the party – and rescued his radio cap from the young woman’s head, and when he turned round, Melody had strolled off to inveigle Captain Blue onto the dance floor.
Brown went to get a drink and he was still standing there when Rhapsody came alongside to speak to him.
“Isn’t this a great party?” she asked, smiling up at him. “It was so nice of the colonel to agree that we could have one. I hope it remains as much of a tradition as the charity fund is likely to be.”
“Yes, that would be nice,” he agreed.
Rhapsody chattered on and it was only when he turned to smile at her that he saw that she was inserting a cigarette into a long, black holder.
“I didn’t know you smoked, Rhapsody,” he said in surprise.
She flushed and tried to hide the holder. “Oh, I don’t really,” she gasped. “Well, just the very odd one at parties and so forth. I don’t really smoke.”
“I thought I was the only sinner amongst the senior officers; now I discover that Black is an ex-smoker and you still smoke!”
"I don’t! Look, let me explain, Alan. When I first started in espionage, I was trained by a formidable lady agent – you may have heard of her? Lady Penelope Creighton Ward? She ran her own agency for a while and when she retired, I ran it for a spell too. Lady Penelope taught me all she knew and she gave me an invaluable tip – a cigarette in a holder hides many things – recording devices, cameras... tracers, even. Problem is, you have to smoke the cigarette otherwise it looks suspicious. Now, somehow, I don't feel dressed for a party without one..." She removed the cigarette and threw it in the bin, slipping the holder back into her pocket. “Please, don’t give up now – you’ve done the hard part.”
Brown sighed and was about to answer her when Scarlet joined them.
“Alan, I meant to give you this back earlier.” He handed Brown his cigarette case. “I didn’t mean to keep it for so long, but I’m afraid I forgot I had it.”
“It’s all right, Paul; although I am glad to get it back. It was my grandfather’s and he gave it to my father, who gave it to me. A sort of heirloom.”
Scarlet smiled. “Well, you’ll be pleased to have it safe again, then. Now, young lady, you owe me a dance or two to make up for your naughtiness earlier. Pinching a captain’s official uniform is probably a court-martial offence…”
“I found it where you’d left it!” she exclaimed, laughing. “And I bet you can’t remember where you left it…”
They went away together, still talking.
Brown watched them go. The room was emptying as people went to get some sleep before the next duty rotas started. He glanced down at the silver cigarette case and slid his thumb over the smooth metal. He had missed it.
He was about to slip it into his uniform pocket when he fumbled and it slipped to the floor. The catch opened and he saw the seven cigarettes still inside.
He gasped and decided to throw them into the bin with Rhapsody’s unsmoked cigarette. He picked the case up and looked up to see Harmony Angel smiling at him.
“Happy Christmas, Captain Brown,” she said.
“Happy Christmas, Harmony.”
Encouraged, she came across to talk to him and the case went back into his tunic with the cigarettes still inside.
The week after Christmas, things had returned to normal, and as everyone’s workloads increased, Captain Brown felt the change keenly. The euphoria he’d felt at having everyone’s encouragement and praise for giving up smoking evaporated, and his friends, busy with their own problems, became less openly supportive. They didn’t mean to be, of course, and when he mentioned how he was doing they all looked interested enough, but it wasn’t the same, somehow.
A few days after the New Year, he spent a frustrating day trying to trace the hideout of a suspected terrorist cell through the aerial surveillance and CCTV footage from the area. By the time his shift ended, he felt an expert on every crack in the pavement and every net curtain that twitched whenever a car drove past. He had studied the faces of the tired, middle-aged women who carried shopping into the apartment blocks, and the young, unemployed men lounging on the street corners ogling the young women who sashayed past them with haughty provocation.
Now he had nothing to do; he knew Scarlet was taking Destiny out to dinner tonight; Captains Black and Blue - ‘the Bruise Brothers’ as Ochre had nicknamed them - were away from base on an assignment, while the colonel was on duty and Fawn was too busy to take a break, so he was at a real loose end.
Stiff, hungry and depressed, he strolled through Cloudbase and out of habit, found himself at the entrance of the rather grim ‘room’ designated for the use of the smokers on base. Cloudbase had not been designed to accommodate people who smoked, but he had, quite early on in the fitting out, petitioned Colonel White into providing a ‘Smokers’ Lounge’ for those poor die-hard addicts who couldn’t stop. White had agreed to his request, but in doing so, he had managed to make it quite clear that he disapproved of the whole activity. The room was buried deep in the bowels of the base, close to the outer walls and as far away from comfort as it was possible to be. It had hard, non-combustible benches around the walls and powerful ventilation ducts to remove the smoke from the atmosphere.
Brown slowed as he approached the familiar door and peered through the thick glass observation porthole into the unappealing room. There were, as always, one or two men in there, puffing away for dear life on their cigarettes. As he walked away he saw his old smoking buddy, Technician Ray Carter, approaching from the other corridor.
“Hi, Alan, happy New Year!” Ray called. He had been groundside for the past three months, installing security cameras at Spectrum bases. “I wondered where you’d got to. Did you have a good Christmas?”
“Happy New Year to you, Ray. Yes, it was a good one up here with everyone,” Brown said, sounding rather wistful.
“Yeah, I heard tell there were some pretty good parties. Trust me to miss the fun.”
Ray pushed the door to the room open and the smell of tobacco wafted out of the Smokers’ Lounge. “Coming in for a fag? Actually, I have some new Turkish ones I’d like your opinion on, so I hope you’ve got a light… my damned lighter’s on the blink again. Still, you can usually find some friendly pariah who’ll light you up.”
He paused and looked back over his shoulder, expecting Captain Brown to take the door and follow him in.
Brown hesitated and then stepped forward to take the door from Ray. “Yes, I think I have my lighter in my pocket, although I’m short of cigarettes. I only have six or seven.”
“That’s okay, you can share mine.”
Brown smiled and followed Ray inside.
After all, I can always give up smoking next year, he thought as the door swung closed behind him.
‘Marizel’ is the nom de plume of two authors whose work is already on the Spectrum HQ website, but the idea for this story developed from a three-way conversation, and so Marizel would like to thank Caroline Smith for her input and for beta-reading the finished text, and – occasionally – for holding the coats of the joint authors when it came to fisticuffs… only kidding, Colonel Chris!
We, at Marizel, wish all of you out there in ‘Anderland’ a Happy New Year; especially Chris Bishop (our revered colonel) for whom 2011 holds the additional excitement of the website’s 10th anniversary.
Any comments? Send an E-MAIL to the SPECTRUM HEADQUARTERS site