First-Person Accounts Magazine

Burning with Pleasure

The agony & ecstasy of combustable tobacco.

I nicked the fag from my brother because I was tired of rolling up bits of paper and smoking them out of my bedroom window. This had been a long phase, far too long, really, however long it was, given that it involved the ingestion of thick grey smoke directly into my mouth. I was, I don’t know, 12 years old? I don’t think I inhaled.

I would have tried, though; my God I would have tried. Inhaling had been a long-held obsession. For years I’d wondered at the sight of my brother sucking on a fag and then, after a mysterious pause, blowing smoke out of the side of his mouth. I wanted to know what happened in that pause and did it involve swallowing, so I rolled up bits of paper, smoked them out of my window and sometimes set fire to the contents of my bin while trying to put them out again. The whole system was flawed, the smoke so acrid that it billowed out of my mouth in a formless cloud, which was nothing like the cool, thin stream my brother exhaled and to which I aspired.

It was time for the real thing, so I stole a fag from his pack of Marlboro Lights, smoked it alone by a tree, temporarily lost the use of my eyes, semi-passed out and assumed I was dying. To be fair to myself, probably the most intoxicating thing I’d consumed at this point in my life was Calpol. Still, despite the undignified start, this turned out to be the beginning of a 30-year relationship with cigarettes, a strange, cagey dance which involves a combination of self-disgust, regret and total delight to this day.

What is it with these things? These disgusting things! I suppose it was the same with alcohol, which I had to train myself to like through dogged repetition. But my kid’s instinctive response to the smell of either smoke or booze was the right one: a wrinkled nose and an elaborate mock-vomit. The nose is wise: your body does not want these substances anywhere near it. But the need to smoke felt essential. I suppose you’re either the kind of person who experiences unhealthy intoxication and thinks, no thanks, my life will be better without that, or you’re someone who experiences unhealthy intoxication and thinks, even though that was profoundly unpleasant in multiple ways, I want more. It’s rebellion in its most elemental form. Never mind parents, you are rebelling against your own better judgement. Look at me, destroying myself!

The next time I smoked was in the park with a friend who kept her Marlboros in a little pencil case. My eyesight held up, and we were off. Fags were cheap, you could buy ten-packs for a couple of quid, and no night began without making this elegant little purchase that could slide discreetly into a coat pocket. The ten-pack was a giveaway, though. Not a proper smoker. No, my smoking was always social. The fundamental revulsion at the taste never left so I quickly learned the lesson that smoking required the accompaniment of alcohol. Perfect bedfellows, really, the way they sped each other up, so the more you drank the more you smoked until the fug of both amalgamated into one vile, gorgeous experience. I once tried to smoke a fag with a can of Sprite on a PGL holiday camp and found the experience so revolting that I swore I would never smoke without alcohol again. But I never smoked alone, or in the mornings, or in bed, the things that proper smokers do.

Not that it limited the intake. Back then, when you could smoke anywhere – pubs, cafés, university bedrooms, the tea mugs stacked with fag butts on the table by my bed – being a social smoker meant you were smoking most of the time. By that point, fags had become more than a habit. Anxiety had really cornered its market and smoking was my equivalent of a weighted blanket. Even when the law changed, I persisted because smoking then developed an even more precious function, which was to allow you to leave the throng of a social occasion, go outside and say what you really thought.

It’s still that, really. Just that. A chance to escape and do something I shouldn’t. Unquestionably immature. I mean, even now, the possibility of a cigarette can make me behave like an absolute child. Fags are just another sensory nostalgia trigger, the less scenic version of the madeleine, transporting you back to your first, to your youth. Certainly, nothing else has quite the same regressive effect, especially when it’s 2am, I don’t have to get back for a babysitter (a once-a-year scenario), someone suggests getting some cigarettes and I will eagerly trek to wherever the nearest source might be, however far away it is, coming back as triumphant as if I’d dug up nuggets of gold with my bare hands (which they might as well be given that they now cost about £90).

The other day, after years of nicking his, I gave a pack to my friend for his 40th birthday and then proceeded to smoke half of them in a state of deranged glee, handing out the rest like a fag-Santa. Of course, of course, I woke up the next day and delight had been subbed out for self-loathing. But maybe that is smoking’s other function, which is to at least give a tendency to self-loathing a focus. Something you can really pin it on, boil it down to, rather than letting it colour all aspects of your life. Smoking is a direct way of saying that I’m a fool, operating most of the time at odds with myself, still succumbing to the temptation of a ruinous thing even though, as was always the case, only the first one of the night ever tastes any good.

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