Sunday, November 08, 2009

No Smoke Without Fire

I lift my finger and sniff. There’s no smell, no evidence of it at all. It doesn’t linger on my fingertip as it does in hair or cardigans.
     I look at the cigarette fallen carelessly from the ashtray, grey speckles spreading across the table like a distant constellation of stars. I rub my finger in it again; make a smiley face.
     Cigarettes reminds me of my family: of my mother sipping black coffee on the back step on dull afternoons, of slanging matches with my father across Sunday dinner, of Alien Sex Fiend's RIP rising like a ghoul from my sister’s speakers every Saturday morning. The smell of nicotine carries me back to Garthfechan - our old white ghost of a house swallowed up by holly bushes and cherry blossoms with its red front door, Seventies wallpaper and our King Charles Cavalier spaniel, Daisy - her brown and white paws skittering across the kitchen lino. It’s tea stains on the green carpet; it’s squash rackets in the hall. It’s raised voices on the upstairs landing. It’s gravel spitting from under tyres as Dad’s Porsche speeds off again down our driveway.
     Both of my sisters smoke, as did my mother and also my father until he got diabetes in his Forties and gave up. Most non-smokers I know, given the choice, would extract their own lungs before taking a smoker as a partner.
     But me, I love a smoker. The smell. The ritual. I feel as though I was born in a tobacco cloud. My memory of childhood is fume-filled, hazy, polluted with tar and matches. I can almost imagine my mother lighting up another Silk Cut as she pushed me out of her, sucking on it between the midwife's swearing and her own screams. Every night of my childhood she sat in her red leather armchair by the living room window, the TV screen lighting up her specs, a marble ashtray teetering on the arm. I'd peer up as rings floated from her mouth like bubbles. Fags were as much a part of her as the tight perm, large square bifocals and her all-year tan (from hoeing the rich, rye earth of our flowerbeds in all weathers.) Mum pinned little swirls of hair to her scalp as the opening credits of Minder or Coronation Street rolled. I took another Kirby grip from the old green tin on the carpet; open up its dark ribbed metal pincers. They were addictive to play with; I pulled their shiny heads of like lice eggs and squeezed them between my fingers.
     I like the faint aroma of smoke through chewing gum; the casual whiff of it on clothes. I love to hear the click of a lighter and watch a person’s face change as the cigarette end starts to glow. I’m intrigued by the necessity of it, the burden. Mum demanded fags throughout all three strokes. We tried to deny her, but in the end, well, it was one of her only pleasures left. I’d sit by her in the living room as it burned down in her fingers until the end was a curly, grey beard. Then I’d nudge her and she’d flick it, absent-minded, into the ashtray and take a puff. For her, it was now less about smoking and more about feeling that thin paper between her fingers as she sang along to the Sheila's Wheels adverts. It was about being normal.
     I am a terrible smoker. I take the tiniest puffs and choke if I inhale anywhere near the filter. In my parents’ day, smoking was what film stars and heroines in novels did. It was sexy; it was romantic - like driving fast cars and giving up the person you loved for the sake of international politics. Watching Godard’s Breathless recently, I noticed the film was shot almost entirely through a cloud of French cigarette smoke. I can't imagine Jean-Paul Belmondo’s climactic death scene without that final drag on his Gauloises.
     Let me make it clear - I am glad for the smoking ban. It’s a bit like sex – I only want people I am intimate with blowing smoke in my face, giving me an increased likelihood of lung cancer. Strangers – you can forget it. However, in an increasingly vice-less society, where our experience is franchised rather than disenfranchised, where troubles are smoothed out by regular decaf lattes drunk in regulated chain-cafes, served at regular temperatures by waitresses with regular faces, regular breasts and regular uniforms, smoking seems one of the last bastions of irregular, disenfranchised, real life.
     Admittedly, Brighton still has its pockets of iniquity, where rooms are filled with that unmistakable clog of youth and a few too-old-and-should-know-betters. And though I’m by no means saying that pleasure can’t be found in past-times that are healthy and wholesome, I can’t help wondering if one day soon we’ll be reminiscing about a long-gone era of revolution, rock n roll, fags, booze, pub brawls and teenage rebellion. Counter-culture will be dead; pop music will be dead. All the old hippies, punks and ravers will be lying in unmarked graves.
     Would we care? As with climate change, you may mock, say it’s all fantasy, a gross exaggeration. But the signs are already here, and it might not be that long coming. So, any last requests
     I thought so.

1 comment:

Marta said...

Well, reading this, I almost want to become a smoker.
Hehehe, almost.

(I agree with that part about extracting my own lungs) :)