My love affair with cigarettes: The Teenage YearsSubmitted by Spam at 2009-04-15 10:25:52 EDT
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I never realised it fully at the time of course, but as soon as I took my first drag, my life became all about cigarettes.
As a 14 year old, smoking was the only thing in my life I ever did that was just for me. It seemed at that age that everything else was done just because other people wanted me to, or expected me to. Or sometimes I just did things because I wanted other people to see me doing it.
But smoking man, yeah, that was mine.
My first ever fag* was a Benson & Hedges Superking Ultralight stolen from my mum's crinkled packet left on the kitchen side where she'd smoke whilst cooking. One night, for no paticular reason I can recall, I crept downstairs, took one from the pack and slipped out the door to edge of my back yard. My hands shook as I lit up and I think even then, as I inexpertly sucked on the filter, I knew that everything after that specific moment would be different.
And fucking hell it was.
I felt free man, not in a rebellious way or anything teenage and angsty like that but just Open. To anything. It was like all of the barriers about what I should and shouldn't do that had been imposed and enforced by other people my whole life just smoldered away in a smoky haze of nicotine and tar. Nobody who loved or respected me would want me to be standing outside in my underwear in the dead of night sucking on something that would slowly kill me throughout my entire love affair with it and if any of them had the faintest clue, they'd do everything in their power to stop me. But here I was, doing it anyway. Just because I felt like it. 14 year olds don't get that kind of freedom, man.
In fact, looking back on it, 26 year olds don't get it that much either.
Nobody egged me on, watched me do it, and I didn't tell a soul about it for over 6 months. It was my moment, to be enjoyed alone, and that was that.
Later on in life, cigarettes were currency, more important than money itself because of their scarcity. Being the only 15 year old with a beard in school, it fell to me to buy fags for everybody else. With a 10% cut naturally. Young as I was, I still realised that my time as the most mature looking and unscrupulous member of the year was always going to be a temporary arrangement and so I jumped all over my advantage while it still existed. Within months I built up a miniature empire of nicotine and business was booming as every underage kid in school came to me to feed their habit. The 10% cut was thrown out the window and replaced with a sliding price scale depending on how young people looked and what their chances were of being able to source ciggies from anywhere else. Soon, I was known by all of the smokers in the entire school, sometimes even the lower years from from other schools would stop me in the street and ask me to buy packs for them, which of course, I did. For a healthy profit.
The icing on the cake came when I set up a deal with my older brother's friend Adam who worked the Tobacco counter at Kwik-Save. With our arrangement in place, I could happily order a thousand cigarettes and he would only run one ten-pack through the scanner. I would split the goods 50/50 with him in the car park after work and so get myself 500 smokes for just over a pound. That's 0.5p a cig, which I would then sell for 50p a time.
Soon, I was rolling in profit and I used money raised entirely from ciggies to purchase, among other things, my first ever console, a Super Nintendo: Street FIghter II edition. I was always Ken.
It all ended quickly of course. Adam eventually got caught on security camera and lost his job and a week or so later I was pinched by the head of school, my stash confiscated and the local corner shops all told not to serve me under any circumstances or face prosection from the school for serving somebody underage.
And yeah, it may be more Bugsy Malone than Scarface but that's as close to being a criminal overlord as I'll ever get.
I fucking loved it.
At 16 it was officially legal for me to indulge my habit which was well on it's way to flowering into full blown addiction but still, I never told my mum. I'd been hiding it from her for two years and she was completely clueless as to my activities, I knew she'd be disappointed with me and I wasn't ready to do that to her just yet - she'd raised my brother and I on her own for over ten years with little to no outside help and she deserved much better than that.
One time, she had an argument with the guy she'd been seeing for a few weeks, the first time she'd allowed herself to date anybody since she and my Dad split. I never found out what it was about - probably Me - I just remember the long minutes of screaming and shouting and then the stomach churning smack of a slap to the face followed by a slammed door and then eerie silence.
A couple of minutes later my mum came into my room looking disheveled and miserable. Her hair was ruffled, make-up streaked and the beginnings of a large red handprint was forming across her cheek.
"Do you have a spare cigarette?" she asked weakly.
Not 'A cigarette' mind, but 'Spare Cigarette': She'd known I was a smoker from day one and said nothing. All that time I'd been walking around with a smug expression on my face, proud that I'd managed to hide my secret double-life and she'd just sat there silently and let me get on with it, let me make my own mistakes. I loved her for that.
I never denied it of course, It would have a been a slap more grevious than the one dealt by that prick. Without saying anything I reached into my bedside draw, pulled out two Embassy No.1's, lit them both and passed one to her. She sat down next to me and I put my arm round her to comfort her as she sobbed quietly on my shoulder.
We sat in silence, just smoking, not needing words.
It's the closest I've ever felt to my mother.
By 17 I'd moved out to live with my granddad and I sat and watched him slowly drink himself to death, still mourning the loss of my gran 5 years prior. The house hadn't been cleaned since the day she died and the whole place stank of rotten food and Old Holborne pipe tobacco. To this day, I can't smell that paticular brand without feeling a fleeting instant of sadness as I'm flooded with memories of the slow and poisonous demise of a titan of a man who, even in his early seventies, used to scare the living daylights out of anybody and everybody who crossed his path.
I was 18 when I finally admitted that my own flirtation with the demon weed had turned into addiction and I was burning my way through 30-40 fags a day. I was In the second year of Sixth-form by then and I spent all my free study periods either smoking round the back of the common room or learning little tricks with my beloved cancer sticks. I could flick the bottom of the pack so that just one smoke would fly out which I'd then catch in the same hand in a 'ready to smoke' position. I spent hours learning to throw one in the air and catch it in my mouth and got so confident, I could eventually do it with a lit one... resulting in only the minorest of second degree burns. I based all of my smoking mannerisms on Vincent Vega from pulp fiction, right down to the way I held the smoke in my lungs mid-sentence, I even grew my hair into a ponytail because, let's face it, he was fucking cool in that movie.
Even though it was legal at the time and, as a sixth-former, I operated with some degree of autonomy, smoking during school hours was still a suspension worthy offence and was to be done with the utmost of care.
Which is why it was such a bid deal when I once walked out of the unused fire-exit from our Sixth-form bungalow with a fag already in my mouth and a lighter in my hand only to literally walk into the back of Ms Kirk, Head of Sixth and my arch nemesis.
Of course I froze up there on the spot like a rabbit in the headlights and made no effort whatsoever to conceal why I was out there - just using the fire-exit justified a hefty bollocking so I was pretty much toast already anyway.
She turned to face me and straight away I noticed exactly the same terrified look on her face as I probably had on mine and it took me a couple of seconds to realise why until I noticed an unlit Lambert & Butler hanging from between her shaking fingers.
And we just stood there facing each other in possibly one of the most awkward moments I'd ever experienced up to that point, our Mexican Standoff only broken when her face suddenly mutated into a rueful grin.
"Gotta light?" She asked.
So of course, I obliged.
"I won't say anything if you don't" She said.
So there we were, the Head and I, two people that hated one another above all else and spent our days contriving to find ways to ruin each other's lives, standing in the out of bounds zone of the school, silently sharing a smoke that, if discovered, would cost her her career and me my education.
For all our future conflicts and arguments, she never ever mentioned it and, until this precise moment, I've never told a soul about it. It was just one of those things, solidarity between smokers, our football game on Christmas Day.
So yeah, you labcoats and doctors, health freaks and politicians, you may tell me that it's dangerous, that I'm killing myself and those around me. But what I've told you here is just the tip of the iceberg and without thought or prelude, I could tell you a hundred more stories right now. Like how, before getting my first ever blow job, the girl kneeling before me lit up a Royal and put in my mouth just before starting her work. Long walks with friends by the brook in the summer, smoking all the while, the running competition to see who could flick their butt to the other side. How your brand dictated your status (Lambert and Butler? - fuck off you skank.). How the way you measured distance and time changed (how far is it to Matt's house? - It's about one cigarette away. What time you leaving? - After this fag). Those horrible experimental periods when I tried Menthols for the first time.
And the fucking lingo! Shit man, we teenage smokers had our own fucking dialect: Twos. LD's. "Save me the letters". "Don't take it to Butlins". "Crash me an oily" (Oily Rag = Fag). I swear, non-smokers never knew what the fuck we were talking about half the time.
And No. I never thought I was cooler than you because I smoked and you didn't and I couldn't give two fucks about what other people thought about me and my habit while I was still a teenager.
I accept the health implications and the fact that I've probably shortened my life and the increased risk of cancer and heart disease and all that jazz.
But when I'm asked if I ever regret starting up this awful habit, I'll always take a long drag from my Benson & Hedges Silver and reflect upon everything I've just told you before giving you the most sincere answer possible.
Not for a single fucking second.
(*Yes Americans. Fag is the accepted English vernacular for Cigarettes, the term itself is probably more widely used than the word ciggarette itself. Oh the absolute HILARITY.)