I’ve never smoked but I spent my childhood in smoky rooms, surrounded by grandparents and parents, aunts and uncles, all smoking.
Bronzed fingers, yellow nails, picking at cellophane and gold paper. Those fingers flicking at lighters, pressing a fresh cigarette to the orange glow of another already underway, or pushing one through the bars towards the orange-purple flames of a gas fire. Those fingers hooked around cigarettes, lifting them to lips that kissed me goodnight or spat into tissues to wash my sticky face.
The smoke itself had a warm smell of home, not the wholesome smell of a wood fire but sweeter and dirtier. Like an animal. It created its own fog, sepia toning as practical effect, until breathing was like chewing and my eyes ached and ran wet. And there was no escape: “Shut that window, it’s bloody knottling.”
There were ashtrays on tables, windowsills, the arms of chairs, all full of smooth grey dust and bent filter tips, some with lipstick stains. Ashtrays were souvenirs, gifts and ornaments — the lozenge of green and red glass, the magic machine with the button to open the trap, the porcelain Whitbread promotional piece the size of a toilet seat, the vintage car with the red plastic seats — and yet nobody could ever find one, which is how cigarette ended up in tea cups or the empty foil trays from Sunday’s jam tarts.
All the houses were tanned brown, nicotine jam on every smooth surface, from fireplace tiles to the smoked grey plastic lid of the Hi-Fi. Scrape it with a nail and it would come away, pleasingly, in curls. There were burns in odd places, like either the tracks of tiny meteors or wormholes, depending where and how the tip of the fag had landed.
Smoking was a mode of personal expression: Uncle Ernie’s meagre roll-ups, Grandpa Newman’s stubby naval non-filters, Dad’s attention-grabbing pipes, his mate Mark’s cigars, all made some sort of statement. Some brands were ladylike, others masculine, and everyone had a preference.
I asked my Grandpa Roland what he wanted for Christmas every year and he always gave the same reply: “Packet of fags.” (Players No. 6.)
We woke to morning coughs — to the sound of lungs trying break the belts that bound them with a hack, hack, hack, rattle and release, and then repeat. Later there were inhalers and oxygen tanks, and yet still cigarettes. Give up smoking or you will die, the doctors said, and most of my relatives looked from cigarette to doctor and back again, and took another drag.
I sometimes miss the smoke, the smell, and especially the smokers, happily smoking, sharing cigarettes to show their affection for each other, sitting in a cloud they made together.
But, like I say, I’ve never smoked.