Lilly wasn’t just lighting George’s cigarette she was lighting his heart. He almost forgot to breathe as the flame from the Zippo reflected in her eyes and orange light danced on her face.
‘Thanks,’ he said.
Lilly smiled, deftly took the cigarette from his lips and put it to her own.
George’s heart quickened as her bright red lipstick transferred to the pure white of the cigarette. Then she blew a perfect smoke ring and passed the cigarette back to him.
As the smoke swirled through the dim light, George thought Lilly was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. Most girls looked plain in the olive green of their Auxiliary Territorial Services uniform, but not Lilly. The tunic accentuated her curves, and George wondered if the tight fit was by accident or design. She wore her cap just a couple of degrees off straight, and her blond waves framed a face that George thought could launch more ships than Helen.
‘Can’t you find anything else to stare at?’ she said, smiling.
‘Sorry,’ said George. ‘It’s just that…’
Lilly sat down and crossed her legs, making George’s stomach do another flip.
‘It’s just what?’ she said.
George took a deep breath. She was so far out of his league he didn’t feel he had anything to lose by telling her. They would be in the bunker until the all-clear sounded, so what was the worst that could happen? She’d give him the brush off? He was used to that, but he’d still be with her until the night’s bombs stopped dropping.
‘I think you’re really beautiful,’ he said, disappointed by the catch in his voice, and waiting for the knockback.
‘Why thank you, kind Sir,’ Lilly feigned coyness and then surprised him by saying, ‘You’re not so bad yourself.’
Had she really said that? He knew he was no Adonis, but his mum always said he had a winning smile. Though her nickname for him was ‘teapot’ because he was short and stout. He knew Lilly hadn’t likened him to Errol Flynn or called him handsome, but it was a nice thing to say. He found himself smoothing down his hair and wishing he hadn’t skipped a shave that morning.
He opened his mouth to speak, but the whistle of a bomb dropping close by came and they waited for the explosion. Then the bunker seemed to rock as dust and dirt fell from the ceiling, making them cough.
‘Are you okay?’ George asked.
Lilly nodded, dusting off her cap.
He supposed she wished she were in a large bunker, or in the Underground with lots of people. Everyone was used to air raids, but George reckoned that it was easier if you were with your mates or your loved ones. When the sirens had started, he had been walking down the street on his own and was stunned when this beautiful girl had suddenly grabbed his hand and steered him from street to garden to bunker. It was just the two of them.
‘My name’s George.’
‘Lilly.’ She softly shook his hand.
George asked who the bunker belonged to and Lilly told him that it was her aunt’s. She was in hospital and Lilly had been coming to check on her aunt’s mail when the sirens sounded.
‘Lucky for me,’ said George.
‘And me,’ she said. ‘I wouldn’t like to be down here on my own, and you seem nice enough.’
George frantically searched his head for words to return the compliment without sounding as if he was pushing his luck. Then another explosion made him flinch.
‘That sounded close,’ he said.
Lilly nodded. ‘I’m wondering if auntie’s house will be standing after this.’
‘Good job, she’s in hospital…’ George began to flounder. ‘I mean, it’s not good she’s in hospital…what I mean is…’
Lilly gave a little laugh. ‘I know what you’re trying to say.’ She hesitated and then said, ‘Would you hold my hand?’
George froze for a moment. The most beautiful girl he had ever seen wanted to hold his hand.
‘Please?’ she said.
George sat down beside her and took her hand. As the bombs dropped and the bunker rocked, they talked and talked. George couldn’t remember when he let go of her hand and put his arm around her, but he knew that meant it had to have been right.
When the all-clear sounded, they had been in the bunker for just a couple of hours, but he felt he had known Lilly all his life. More than that, he wanted to know her for the rest of his life and felt sad as they climbed out into the smoke-filled air above, knowing they would go their separate ways.
Above ground, little was left of the street they had left just a hours before. Houses lay in rubble and little fires still burned. But Lilly’s aunt’s house still stood.
‘Thank you for looking after me,’ said Lilly.
George took a cigarette from his packet. ‘Thank you for taking me into your aunt’s shelter, Look, I don’t suppose you’d like to see me again sometime.’
Lilly smiled, as she opened the Zippo and gave him a light. ‘Then you suppose wrong,’ she said, before kissing him lightly on the cheek.
They married in October 1945. Post war life followed, with the world changing immeasurably along the way. But George insisted that there was one thing he would never allow to change. If he wanted a cigarette, and if Lilly was there when he wanted one, he wanted her to light it for him. For a long time, Lilly just sighed in mock protest and then lit his cigarettes with the Zippo lighter that she kept with her all the time. But as the years turned into decades, and attitudes changed, Lilly eventually began to rail against his habit.
‘You really ought to give up smoking,’ she told him, time and again, but he always had the same answer.
‘I don’t drink, I don’t gamble, and I don’t chase other women. Do you know why?’
‘You’ve told me often enough.’
George nodded. ‘Because I get my kicks when you light that flame. It takes me back to the moment I met you, and I’m going to enjoy that moment as many times as I can.’
‘You may not have many moments left, if you don’t give them up,’ said Lilly.
‘But I’ll die having remembered twenty times a day for as long as I lived.’
Everyone was smoking until the nineteen-nineties, so it wasn’t George and Lilly’s kids that implored him to give it up; it was the grandchildren. He wobbled in his resolve under pressure from four-year-old Emily, who told him in graphic, if confused, detail of the damage he was doing to his lungs. He inwardly groaned at six-year-old Ben’s complaints. The kids became even more vociferous in their campaign as they got older, but George remained steadfast. The only concession he made was to leave lighting up until they’d gone home. Then the minute they were gone, out would come his cigarettes and Lilly would tut for the millionth time. But when Lilly opened the lighter, thumbed the wheel, and the flame sprang, George never tired of seeing it reflected in her eyes, just as he had done that day in the bunker.
So, it didn’t matter what the doctors said. As George and Lilly got older, and maladies became numerous, giving up smoking was always on their list of advice, but George didn’t listen.
‘You do realise the harm it does?’
‘Then why do you do it?’
‘Because it takes me back.’
‘You need to look forward.’
‘Why?’ said George. ‘Lilly and I are together today. Why would I want to look at a time when we might not be?’
They all said he’d die before his time. That smoking would be his undoing. As it was, Lilly passed away gently in her sleep one Sunday night and George woke to find the light in his life was gone.
On the day of her funeral, when everyone had gone and George was alone, he sat down to light a cigarette. He knew he must have lit his own at times but couldn’t remember when Lilly hadn’t done it for him. He sighed and flicked the wheel of the Zippo, but the spark didn’t turn to a flame. He tried again, but nothing happened. George kept flicking, but it wouldn’t light, and the flame being gone seemed like a cruel coincidence.
‘Why today of all days?’ he whispered, but then, in the same moment, he realised he didn’t really want a cigarette. What was the point if Lilly couldn’t light it for him? George nodded to himself and knew it was time to give up. He closed his eyes. Then he ran and re-ran that day in the bunker over and again in his head, until he fell into his last sleep.
About the author
Tony writes primarily for the stage, but has had stories published in a number of anthologies as well as People’s Friend, Your Cat Magazine and Café Lit. His award-winning plays are published by Lazy Bee Scripts and Pint Size Plays and have been performed across the world.’ You can follow him here - https://www.facebook.com/tonydomaillewriting/
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