I remember our first cigarettes together were Rothmans, middle tar, with a filter, of course. It was ten o’clock on a Saturday night and we were attending a local church’s youth club disco. I recall that she’d gone outside for a breath of air.
God, I could do with a gasper, she’d said, avoiding my gaze, as if we were on stage and I’d forgotten my lines while searching for a prop.
I groped around inside my jacket for my pack of Rothmans. My awkward fumbling attracted her attention, and she smiled as I raised my head. She moved closer and caught my eye as I flipped the lid to reveal a double row of cigarettes, lined up like coffin nails wrapped in silver paper.
Do you have the convenience of a light? She’d asked, helping herself.
No, I don’t, I said, clenching a cigarette between my lips, and turning my pockets inside out to show my lack of a handy incendiary.
Typical, she said, rolling her eyes and leaning towards me.
My jaw all but fell open as she raised her slender hand toward my face.
Never mind, she said, I’ll improvise. Her out-stretched thumb and forefinger plucked the smouldering cigarette from my dry lips. The manoeuvre was gentle but precise and practiced, as if she was removing a milk tooth from under a sleeping infant’s pillow. Her studied gesture was one of ritual, full of expectation, belief and mystery. She was both a nocturnal light-fingered fairy with a delicate touch, and a kind spirit exchanging a child’s fang for a silver sixpence. My cigarette, now resting between my lips again, took on an unearthly quality, blessed by her soft caress. I watched her drawing the smoke into her lungs. The world stopped spinning, and I felt dizzy, waiting for her to exhale.
I needed that; she said, allowing the white plume to drift over her shoulder.
I’m Virginia, by the way.
I returned her smile as my face blanched, the smoke having gone down the wrong way.
Don’t forget to breathe out, she said, grinning, or you’ll die coughing.
At that moment, I was hooked.
I’ve given up smoking a thousand times; it’s easy. No, really, it is, I promise. It’s a question of perseverance; I don’t mind and they don’t matter. That’s what they say, isn’t it? In the past, I stopped smoking for days, and often as long as a week. When we were young, there was no reason to cease. Besides, after years of dedication, it was easier to continue than to quit.
When Virginia died, I was bereft. She made me promise to quit when I was by her bedside. I visited her in hospital and she had tubes everywhere and an oxygen mask, which she removed from time to time to have a quick puff. She’d insist on me pushing her wheelchair outside for a breath of fresh air. Once we were away from the matron’s watchful glare, she’d rifle through my pockets, spark up and have a good wheeze and cough. Virginia smoked until the last few hours of her life. She was ever faithful to the pleasure that killed her. We’d had fifty years of marriage, golden years and many, many happy times and no regrets.
I’d never smoked much before I met Virginia; well not every day, anyway. All my pals smoked, and I’d tried it with little success. They told me it was what adults did and I ought to try harder. I persevered until I reckoned I’d got the hang of it.
‘Gaspers’, she used to call them. Can I nick a gasper? she’d ask, when we got to know one another. She smoked Benson and Hedges and I soon changed my allegiance. It was easier if we both smoked the same brand.
The night we met, I’d marched into a local tobacconist clutching the correct money in coins and asked for a pack of twenty. It was my first packet of twenty and I only bought them to feel grown up. I didn’t even have money for a lighter. I had to ask someone for a match to light the one I was holding when she spoke to me. Virginia had caught my eye about town and I’d seen her smoking. I thought I could impress her if I smoked too. If she encouraged me to smoke in the first place, it seemed fitting that she should ask me to stop after her departure.
While sharing a cigarette, we fixed all our problems together. Whatever came our way, we would fight it until the end. We were invincible as a couple and inseparable too; a match made in heaven. Virginia and I laughed our way through life’s troubles. We never argued until we tried to give up smoking at the same time. I’d had a health scare, and she suggested packing it in. Going cold turkey together is awful, and we almost ended our relationship in divorce. After a week, I’d had enough of a respite and started smoking again. I was soon on top form and felt fit again. The breather restored my health, and we returned to our old ways soon after.
But what about the expense, I hear you say? It’s funny how you can always find money for cigarettes when you’re a smoker. It doesn’t matter how tough things are, you can buy another pack. My Uncle Jim was a big smoker in the nineteen-seventies. He enjoyed anywhere between thirty to forty cigarettes every day. It was an era when smoking was encouraged and tobacco companies offered many incentives. They gave tokens away with every packet. The idea was to collect them and choose gifts in exchange. Uncle Jim collected seven thousand cigarette tokens of various denominations, hoping to claim a new car. He counted them out, gathered them up in a dozen boxes, and sent them off. It’s funny, but he heard nothing back from the cigarette company. When he called them, they said the tokens must have got lost in the post. Uncle Jim couldn’t believe it. According to my aunt, he hurled the telephone through their enormous picture window. The loss didn’t deter Uncle Jim, however, and he continued to smoke an alternative brand of tobacco.
I overheard my family discussing the issue, and they asked the inevitable question regarding his expenditure. What would Uncle Jim do with the money if he had it all again? Uncle Jim just shrugged and said, if he had all the money he’d spent on cigarettes, he’d spend it all on cigarettes.
It made little sense to me as a youngster and the waste horrified me. Now, I’m not so sure. He enjoyed a cigarette and I can understand that up to a point. He didn’t die of cigarettes and he had a happy life. As a social shorthand, it’s great for making friends. Can I pinch a ciggy? Would you like one of mine? Have you got a light? Inevitably, such questions lead to longer conversations at work or at a party. I’ve made many friends and acquaintances in that way.
When Virginia got ill and had to rest in the hospital, I rationed myself to fourteen cigarettes a week. Two every day; one in the morning and the other in the evening. Some days I’d get to half past ten, and I’d allow myself the second cigarette. Then, by lunchtime, I’d struggle not to have a third. Most days I’d finish ten cigarettes by mid-afternoon and pretend I’d done well. After all, I could have smoked a pack of twenty with ease. In the evening, I’d buy more for the next day and smoke them by the end of the night.
During my last visit to the hospital, Virginia asked me in a whisper if I had a light.
I’m sorry, love, I said, biting my lip as my eyes burned with salty tears.
I haven’t got a light; I said. Didn’t you know I’ve given up?
Typical, she said, her voice rasping behind the oxygen mask. I’ll have to improvise.
Almost a year has passed since she made me promise to stop with her last gasp.
I’ve kept my promise for eleven months, three weeks and four and a half days.
Just thinking about our life together makes me miss her so much.
It’s difficult to forego the two most precious things in one’s life.
Losing them both at the same time is heart breaking.
Virginia and cigarettes go together.
In my mind, I can’t separate them.
God, I could do with one now.