I had a theory that if I collected enough cigarette boxes and scrutinised the warning pictures – the obscene, grotesque illustrations of the sick and the dying – I would become so repulsed I could finally conquer my addiction. Of course, I knew I would smoke the very cigarettes I had gathered in order to quit. The cure, like chemotherapy fighting a tumour, would be as devastating as the illness. However, I had tried to give up so many times before this felt like my only solution.
One morning, I spent all my time organising empty cigarette packs, shuffling them like tarot cards, trying to find an arrangement that would eradicate the longing and force it to effortlessly slide away.
A blackened eye, blindness.
Despite my attempts to go cold turkey, I needed to feel the harsh smoke move against my throat at least one more time. Just once, I told myself.
As I went to the local shops for a twenty pack of Marlboro Gold, the sun beat down upon me, reddening my pale skin and I wondered if this could possibly be my last box.
“Ah, Philip,” Yusuf, my local shopkeeper said, as he polished his till with a J-cloth, “good to see you as always. I hope you’re not here for…you know? We made a deal, remember?”
“Uh, well yeah. But the thing is, I was quite drunk at that time. Please, just one last box.”
“Sorry, no can do. I take deals very seriously, I’m afraid.”
“But I can’t afford them elsewhere.”
“Think of your health, my friend, and a brighter future.”
Bleach, tampons, coal, porno mags, whiskey, cigarettes, cigarettes, cigarettes.
It’d been an hour since I’d last smoked. I felt the onset of a fever and I could taste stale nicotine on my lips.
Outside, was a cluster of boys dressed in grey Reebok tracksuits and white Adidas trainers, brazenly smoking a joint as they leaned against the railings by a bank.
I’d seen them around.
I spat on the floor. The black phlegm reminded me of what I needed, and that what I needed was killing me.
The boys looked up and sucked their teeth. I took a step towards them and they stood in unison.
A naked man curled up on a bed, impotent.
“Guys,” I said, as they eyed me up and down like I was a mannequin, “I’m in a bind. Can you get me some cigarettes? I’ll give you a quid.”
“Three,” said one of the boys.
“Be reasonable,” I said, “I’m broke.”
Blood splattered on a handkerchief.
The boys wouldn’t agree and told me to ask my own friends instead of bothering them. I refused to argue, not wanting to reveal I’d lost all my mates to coke and clubs. My friends couldn’t give a shit about me and certainly didn’t understand my obsession with something that doesn’t even get you high. There’s no elegance in smoking, I soon learned that truth, but cocaine is for animals.
I had to see my mum.
Grungy rotten teeth, mouth diseased and infected.
She was in the living room of her flat when I arrived, engulfed in a cloud of smoke as light struggled through the net curtains. I scrambled to open the pack of cigarettes that lay beside her on the couch. I sighed as I took my first drag and after my second and third I realised the full burden of my addiction.
My mum watched TV as I reached for another stick. She hadn’t even said hi and she seemed in another world, holding her burning cigarette an inch from her mouth.
“When did you start smoking, mum?” I said.
She slowly lowered her cigarette and turned her head to me. “When I was pregnant around the time your dad left, well that’s when I took it up seriously, why?”
A foetus inhaling smoke, hooked from birth.
“Because this is your fault, my habit,” I said, “I never stood a chance.”
This shook her. “But we have each other,” she said.
“But I don’t want to rely on you like this, it’s destructive.”
“Oh, don’t be so dramatic.”
She stubbed out a half-smoked cigarette into a glass ashtray.
I slammed the door behind me as I left. I trotted down the front stairs and recalled how, when I was young, after every argument I had with my mum, we made up by sharing a cigarette – one after another. Cigarettes played a significant role in my mum’s world and it was natural for her to include me in this way of life. But I had become convinced that her motives were more sinister. She used cigarettes to keep me close, so I would always need her.
In my pocket was her box of cigarettes that I’d just stolen. I took it out and held it to the light.
Blood dripping from heart and lungs, arteries clogged. Shortness of breath imprisoning me.
I shook out the remaining cigarettes from the pack and slipped them in my top pocket. I let the box fall to the pavement and I crushed it under my foot. I needed to find a new way. I lit up and strode on.
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