There’s nothing unusual about waking through the slime of a dream about rape and loss and misery, but when I grope the pillow beside me for my fags, the first as yet unformed flutter of panic forces my eyes open.
It’s true then. A feeling as intense as the death of a loved one sweeps through me as I eventually push myself up to sitting. Frozen I stare at the wall and tell myself to calm down. Peter, my friend, is dying of lung cancer at the age of forty nine and I decided a few weeks ago in a responsible manner, along with Sophie (flat-mate and fellow puffer) to choose life. Since her mother died she’s gone from a meagre five or six a day to over twenty. I smoke forty – at least. We planned this. We’re going to do it. We applied our first nicotine patches at twenty three hundred hours last night, smoked our last cigarette at twenty three thirty hours and flushed our last smokes down the pan together at midnight.
The memory makes me feel a bit better. I get out of bed and shower. I want to call Sophie, see how she’s doing, find out if her gut aches as much as mine. But she’s on early shift – it’ll go to voicemail.
Walking to work has got me though a lot of withdrawals, it’ll get me through this one too. Amazingly, at this time of morning it’s still cold enough to see my breath and for all of a minute I blow out great funnels of the stuff and smirk at the irony. I’d be on my third by now. There it is again, the death of another sibling – just for an instant. I try to reach back to it, grab it so I can spit in its face before mashing it, but it’s the devil itself, and dances off gleefully, flicking at my gut, threatening unimaginable loss, forcing me to search for the early openers as I reach the beginning of Dundas Street. First newsagent I come to I stop dead and stare at the small ads in the window. Do we need a washing machine? No. So I study the picture of someone’s lost cat – Nov 2004 – be dead by now, a ford fiesta, no thanks. Between the ad for a twin buggy and a pair of budgies I can just see the rows of cigarettes. No harm in looking. I could ask about the twin buggies – one of the secretaries at work is expecting twins – it’d be quite natural to ask for a pen, take the number, no harm in going in…
The guy behind the counter looks up. I fear my jaw might be hanging open when he carefully lays his lit cigarette in the ashtray which is balanced on an old safe next to the till. I am transfixed as I watch the lethal silver thread coil upwards in lazy nooses, willing one to come my way.
‘Do you have a pen I could borrow?’ I stutter out eventually. ‘I want to take down a number from one of your ads, if that’s okay.’ I accept the pen, move back to the door, write down the number on the back of my hand. My bravado of the night before was sheer lunacy, I’m not ready, I’m simply unprepared. I should have told everyone at the office for a start, I should have got sponsors, set it up – this is just typical of me; swept away by a crazy moment of bordering-on-the-obsessive-empathy for Peter. Who on earth did I think I was? I’m only just coping with being off the booze. I’m far younger than Peter and most likely have years of healthy happy puffing ahead of me before I’ve even got to think of giving up. Even my motives are suspicious. Am I trying to rub it in – show him how together I am, prove I can succeed where he has failed. That I can choose life? Shit. Fucking shit bollocks.
I pat my jacket pocket, the one I keep my wallet in. But as I do so, something invisible takes a swing at me, but the pain’s real enough. I swing back, flailing wildly for some strength of character, some resolve, and almost immediately it surges towards me on a wave of anger that extends rapidly and illogically to all the smokers of the world who kid themselves they’re happy… ‘Take away their fags’, it roars – ‘take away the booze – see how chipper they are then!’ Tell him, I say to myself, tell the idiot behind the counter… take them away, burn the lot of them.
Having avoided eye contact till now, my anger makes me reckless and my gaze locks aggressively with the row of Marlborough. Thank God. I feel immediately calmer, reassured. I begin to see that even owning the packet might be enough, that it’s partly the soft comforting bulge in my pocket that I miss.
Within seconds I begin to truly understand the implications of such a rash promise: hundreds of times a day – in fact every emotion, every thought, every breath I gasp, inhale or gulp is enhanced, punctuated or born by the actual or virtual link to my next cigarette. Without these small lifts, I realise, in a blink, my job would be untenable and I’d lose it. Then where would I be? I need to think about giving up seriously, and not just radically threaten so much stability for so many people for the sake of an unknown threat to my health. It is, in fact, I’m realising fast, intolerably, irresponsibly selfish…
And so it goes on. I’m in a bad way – and I’ve only been up a couple of hours.
As I hand back the pen, I drag my gaze off my seductress and search briefly in the stranger’s face for a sign. Is he trying to give up too? Was that why he left his cigarette to smoke itself? Does he cough his guts up every morning and secretly despise himself for his weakness? The inch long ash-worm drops silently to the floor. Its owner picks up the almost finished butt, takes one more suck and folds it over on itself, crushing the life out of it. I feel the pain of extinction too. I pull out my wallet, flip it open and offer the proprietor a look of acute despair…
‘Thanks for the pen. Stupid, I’ve got no cash – I’ll just find a cash…’
‘We have a machine in the corner if you don’t mind the charge.’
I feel trapped, confused, but take out my card anyway and wave it, hoping he hasn’t seen the notes. I punch in my pin and draw out fifty quid.
It works: the bulge in my breast pocket gives me comfort and courage. I blow out again, this time owning the breath – this time acknowledging gratefully that it’s steam – warm damp air, not the effluent from an act of self-harm. Ha. I do it again, ignore the small collapse deep within and for a few seconds, for a few golden seconds, I glimpse, no not glimpse, feel something, no, not feel so much as understand. Have I understood? Well no, not really – it wasn’t really an understanding thing – shit – and whatever it was has well and truly split while I was trying to glue meaning to the fucker. I grab at something else: there’s not a smoker in the land who’d not, if they were man enough to be honest, rather be me. Ha, yes, this was true. I’ve nailed it.
I walk on; pale yellow sunlight spangles the glass on the flats opposite. I feel stupidly touched, emotional, close to tears, happy that I live in Edinburgh, didn’t have a drink today, that I finally have a girlfriend, that she knows everything, that me and Sophie worked things out, that her mother is dead, that I have a job…
I know fine well that support at work will be weak – most of them smoke. As I walk up Broughton Street I notice a tramp being moved on by a policeman – that could be me. Something hardens up; I hung on by the skin of my teeth when I gave up drinking, made it through the vicarious underworld where nightmares are spawned and lived out – maybe I could again. With a bit of luck maybe I could.
‘William’s waiting for you.’
‘Okay, give me a couple of minutes – get him a coffee for me will you?
I climb the two flights to my cubbyhole of an office mentally preparing myself for what lies beyond by inhaling deeply and holding my breath. I pick up the ashtray without looking down and shake the contents into the wastebasket which I leave in the passage for the cleaners. Then I pace to the window and open it, stare down into the alleyway and up into the sky and leave it open. Feeling the pull of the wastepaper basket’s gaze through the wall, I go back to my desk and call down to the switchboard. ‘Send him up.’ My coat’s got its beady eye on me too so I snatch it off the door, jam it in the filing cabinet and sit on my hands.
William knocks gently. ‘Hello, Adam.’
‘Come in.’ I say. ‘Wow, you’ve got a lot of papers there. Is there a lot to go over?’
‘No more than usual. What’s going on?’
‘Our weekly catch up, William.’ I say. ‘We’re having it today because tomorrow you’re wife’s due to have a baby…’
‘Yes, yes, I know that, but something’s odd. Why’s the window open – why aren’t I gasping for air – what are you up to?’
‘Christ – can’t I have a little fresh air without you waking the dead – sorry Sherlock, but can we get on? Only I’ve got a very full morning.’
William chooses the yellow vinyl chair and perches on its edge folding his hands on top of his knees. It’s hard to imagine him having a wife.
‘Here are the papers for that house in Morningside. The owner’s not happy that I’m not going to be around. You got it covered? Read up on the period pieces? It’s a fabulous house you know. No one’s touched anything for a hundred years.’
‘Yep. I was up there on Friday. All’s good.’ I get up, go to the window and close it.
‘Are you okay, Adam – is this a bad time?’
‘No, well, yes, I have a lot on my plate at the moment. My sister’s getting married – I’ve not written a speech, or, well a million things. Would you like a coffee or tea?’
‘Thank you – tea please. Bonnie is it? Here in Edinburgh? I forgot you had that on.’
Without replying I almost run out the door. As soon as I’m in the passage I drop to my knees and stick my head inside the wastebasket. But the bitter-stale smell isn’t enough. I pause hotly and shamefully before diving downward in guilty anticipation. I lean back against the wall and stare at a black streaked butt about two inches in length, and try not to hyperventilate or giggle.
‘Adam, what on earth’s the matter?’
William must have opened the office door several seconds earlier, while I was engrossed in the nether regions of the wastepaper basket.
‘Nothing, absolutely nothing’ I say, waving it around. ‘Got it in time – some idiot must have dropped this without stubbing it out properly. Tuh.’ I tap my nose. I’m pretty sure it’s the wrong gesture to make but William is used to my eccentricities and goes quiet.
‘Now where was I? Tea?’
I rush to the tiny kitchen – slosh water into the kettle, grab the gas lighter and am about to light the finger stump when William pops his head around the door.
‘Need a hand?’
I wave the stub around again for a second or two hoping he might bugger off and then gloomily run it under the tap.
‘Here we go.’ I say, snatching up a tray, making the coffee and tea and taking them through to the office, William on my heels like a bloody spaniel.
‘Now where were we?’ I open my filing cabinet drawer, rummage under my coat, pull out some chocolate chip digestives and shake them onto my desk.
‘Still taking sugar are you?’ I ask holding a spoon of the stuff above his cup. ‘Only I know you were trying to give up…’
And then his face lights up like a fucking firework.
‘My god that’s it! Give up, give up – you’ve given up smoking! I’m right aren’t I? That’s why you’re so jumpy, why you had your head inside the waste-basket, why the window was open! Congratulations Adam, this is wonderful news…’
‘Actually I’ve not decided anything – I don’t think I can do it – it’s for a friend.’
I sit on my hands again.
‘In the lap of the gods eh? This is just what you need, Adam – a challenge, choosing to live, setting an example – please take your hands out from under your backside and let me shake one of them.’