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Stories & Scripts

Source: Adults

Author: Barry Gee

Title: Added Tar and Nicotine.

Whatever happened to the proud, boastful cigarette smoker? That arrogant, strutting, fearless man for whom no task was too great, no undertaking too dangerous, provided he had a decent smoke clasped firmly between his purposeful lips. I am fed up with being offered cigarettes from which all the attitude and character has been removed and are guaranteed 90% taste free. I feel sorry for those people who have allowed themselves to be frightened into smoking something that must be about as physically and mentally satisfying as a glass of water to an habitual drunkard. I get more taste by sticking my tongue out of the window on a foggy day.

My dad taught me to smoke and his dad taught him. It goes back generations. If my son chooses to smoke, and I am getting positive signs already even though he is only two years old, I want to be the one who intitiates him into the finer intracacies of inhalation, balance and posture. I don't want him learning it behind the bike-shed. I notice that he prefers to sit with me rather than his non-smoking mother and we play a game with the ash-tray and the butts.

During the war my father served in North Africa as a driver. One day, in a sand storm, he got separated from the rest of his unit and found himself in a small Arab village that wasn't on the map. His first priority was to get some cigarettes as he had only a few left. He found that they grew, harvested and cured their own tobacco in the village and made their own cigarettes. Because of the intense heat and the frequent sand-storms their tongues were like tanned leather and they needed a smoke with a sharp edge if it was to cut through to the taste buds. To this end they manufactured cigarettes with added tar and nicotine and it was one of these that they gave to my dad.

He had had to concentrate so completely on driving through the sand-storm that it had been more than an hour since he had last smoked. The Arabs had provided a tiny cup of sweet, strong coffee and he sipped it before lighting the cigarette. He inhaled the first puff deeply and experienced something that became the pivot upon which his life balanced. Everything that had gone before was now clearly divided from all that came later. He was a man of few words and was unable to describe the feeling of elevation and expansion that he experienced and merely said that it was 'better than sex'.

I was about twelve or thirteen years old and we were watching a football match from the terraces when he turned to me, in the anti-climax of a near-miss, and offered a cigarette. It was all so natural. He kept both eyes on the game as he proffered the packet and I took one and placed it between my lips. He lit a match and, with his cupped hands shielding the flame from the wind, he applied it to my cigarette. I could smell his day-job as a mechanic on his hands and see the oil-filled pores on his fingers. It was the closest moment I had ever shared with my father.

I am glad he is not still alive to witness the degeneration in the custom of smoking but he saw the end coming with the introduction of filter-tipped cigarettes. He refused to allow them into the house and when he found a pack of Marlborough's in my brother's bedroom he roughly tore off the tips and threw them in the bin. He died before nicotine patches became popular but I know what he would have done with them. He would have let one dissolve slowly under his tongue while he puffed away on a Capstan Full Strength or shredded them finely and added some to his own tobacco mixture.

He experimented with various combinations of tobacco in his search for an experience which would rival his enlightenment in the North African desert but, although he got close, he never managed to replicate it exactly. He used a little Virginia and a touch of Turkish but it was 60% Moroccan pipe tobacco from which juice could be squeezed with very little effort. To counteract the dampness he mixed in a good portion of Asian mountain tobacco which was so dry it could extract moisture from a damp object at a distance of a few centimetres. I tried to smoke his cigarettes but my every attempt ended in failure. It was like putting my mouth over the exhaust pipe of a Formula one racing car while the driver revved the engine. It felt like somebody was holding a flame inside my head close enough to scorch the back of my eye-balls while his accomplice took bites of out my brain. It was an horrific experience.

The subsequent times that I tried to get to grips with my father's smoking mixture I found that, although the muscle spasms decreased in intensity and the all-over cold sweat became more localised to my face and chest, it was not my destiny to follow in the footsteps of my father. I could see that he was disappointed, in the way a factory owner would be when his eldest son says that he doesn't want to take over the family ironworks, but he swallowed his dismay and accepted that he had to let me go my own way.

The search for my own blend drew us closer together as we spent idyllic, timeless evenings experimenting with various ratios. We sat in the kitchen and after an hour or so we could barely see each other across the table through the blue grey haze of tobacco smoke. We wrote down percentages on a pad and marked them out of ten. Occasionally I would add a comment which would later refresh my memory when I made my final choice. We looked at each other's faces more in those two or three weeks than we had done in the previous fifteen years. We were saying goodbye to each other as I took the first few tentative steps into full, independent adulthood.

The worst thing about having his left leg amputated from the knee down was that he wasn't allowed to smoke in his hospital bed. There was a room set aside for smoking outside the ward and he wanted to move his bed in there but they wouldn't let him. Neither was he allowed to sit there all the time, as he wished to do, but was taken there four or five times a day and given ten minutes to smoke. This was enough time for one cigarette which meant only four or five cigarettes a day. For a man used to smoking this amount in bed, in the morning, before he opened his eyes, it was hell. He came home after five days looking like that man in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest after he had the lobotomy. I wheeled him into the kitchen and sat down with him at the table. With his hands shaking in anticipation he lit up a cigarette and raised it to his mouth. His lips quivered and a solitary tear ran down his cheek. That is the only time I ever saw my father cry.

When he was told that he would have to have his right leg amputated he looked around for a private clinic where he would be allowed to smoke in his room but there was none. He considered going abroad for the operation and thought there would be no restrictions on his smoking in Turkey but, after enquiring about the cost, found that it would be far too expensive. He put off the operation until he had his first heart attack and needed a by-pass so he thought he would have both jobs done at the same time. He was in hospital for ten days and he was not allowed to smoke; not even four or five a day. He seemed to go into a state of semi-hibernation for those ten days and spoke hardly a word when I visited him. This time when he came home he looked like a survivor from a Soviet Gulag but a day of constant smoking put the smile back on his face and the twinkle in his eye returned.

He could blow smoke out of his ears. There are charlatans who are able to create the illusion of it happening but he really could do it. He never did learn to inhale through his ears although this was not through lack of trying. I have seen smoke seep out from around his eye-balls but this was unintentional when he was having a coughing fit.

The coughing became more regular during his final year and it would last for minutes at a time. During these periods, being incapable of inhaling, he would merely take the smoke into his mouth and chew it like a piece of fine steak before involuntarily coughing it out again. Doctors and consultants recommended that he stop smoking or at least change to a low tar cigarette but he laughed long and hard at the suggestion. When they left he lit up one of his own and, with a Mona Lisa smile, gazed contentedly around the room. "Fools," he muttered.

They had to remove one of his lungs but this did not diminish my dad's appetite for cigarettes. He had read of an opera singer who had suffered the same misfortune but it had not interfered with her career so he saw no reason to change his life-long habit. I noticed that he no longer inhaled as deeply or as proudly as he had done in former times but what was even more disturbing was the way in which he salivated on the end of his cigarette until it became a soggy lump of vile-tasting tobacco that dripped brown stains down his chin. When he raised it to his mouth he, more often than not, during the final weeks, missed his lips and daubed tobacco juice on his cheek or nose.

He was fifty three years old when he died which is normal for his side of the family. His father had died at fifty-one and his granddad had been even younger. It's a genetic thing. The end was peaceful. He was having his first cigarette after breakfast and his eyes were closed as if in prayer when my brother noticed that the blanket across his lap was on fire. It was easily extinguished but we found that my father had passed away and, in doing so, had dropped his lighted cigarette. It was only half smoked so I picked it up, put it between my lips, and shared one last close experience with my father. I inhaled deeply and, as the sulphurous smoke grasped my chest, I think I caught a glimpse of his vision in the North African desert all those years ago.

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