I was sitting in the bar in the departure lounge in Frankfurt airport nursing a beer while waiting for my delayed flight to London when someone came up behind me.
“Got a light?” he asked, in English. For a second I wondered how he knew I was English until I realised I had an English copy of Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries on the table in front of me.
“Sure”. Lighting someone else’s cigarette always causes that little embarrassed pause; should I give him the lighter, which might appear offhand, even rude, or light it myself, which might make him think I didn’t want his grubby little fingers on my property. I elected for the latter, and he leant forward, cupping his hands against an imaginary breeze. He was about forty, short grey hair, a look of slightly jaded fitness about him. He wore jeans and a T-shirt, which showed the huge tattoo of as mermaid on his arm to good effect.
“You waiting for the flight to London?” he asked.
“Yeah”‘, I responded. Shit, all I needed, I thought, some guy who’ll want to tell me his life story me when I’d rather be reading my book “It’s running ninety minutes late.”
“Oh well. May as well get a beer. Can I get you one?” he asked. In other words, can I join you and bore the pants off you for the next hour, I thought to myself before reluctantly agreeing.
A minute later he came back with two pints of airport piss and sat down opposite me. I offered him a cigarette.
“Thanks for the beer”, I replied.
“Should give these things up ” I said as I lit us both up.
“You want to think carefully about that before you do. You married”. Well, there did not seem to be much connection there.
I was married until I tried to stop smoking”, he said. He looked sideways at his cigarette, smiled.
“I don’t follow”, I replied.
“Well let me tell you a little story” he said, “I suppose you could call it a cautionary tale. A few years ago I had my own business, installing fitted kitchens. Not your common or garden kitchens, real quality stuff. I’d install Aga’s, marble floors, fancy lighting, the works. I made a lot of money from it. Then, when I realised I had all I could ask for, I realised there was one thing missing. When I was at school I played rugby, did athletics; I was fit. Years of smoking though had messed me up. I was strong enough, moving all sorts of heavy shit around while at work, but I had no stamina. So I decided I was going to quit smoking, get fit. My wife was really pleased, so were my two kids, they wanted me to be able to play football for more than five minutes without wheezing. I bought Allan Carr’s book, “The Easy Way to stop Smoking”. And it was. It was easy. I started jogging, joined a gym. I thought I had stopped permanently. I was a non-smoker. A few months later, at a party, someone offered me a joint, and, not really thinking about it, I smoked some. I don’t even smoke marijuana. Of course, it was mixed with tobacco. I got really dizzy for a few minutes. I’d already had a few beers, it was a good party, and everyone else was smoking dope. I didn’t want to be unsociable. Later, someone offered me a cigarette, and although I felt guilty about it, I had one. And another. The next day I felt really guilty, and resolved not to lapse again. Then I went down to the pub the following Wednesday with a few mates, and, by the end of the evening, I’d smoked about ten cigarettes. I woke up the next day, went round to someone’s house to fit a cooker, and while having a coffee break in their garden, found a packet of Marlboro in my jeans pocket. That was that. My wife and kids gave me hell, so I decided to quit again. This time I tried patches. Soon I was on five patches and ten cigarettes a day, smoked while at work. Before going home, I’d wash out my mouth with some mouthwash I bought just to disguise the smell, and I’d chew some gum as well. The patches ran out and I bought some nicotine chewing gum. Then one night my wife caught me smoking out in the garden when I thought she’d gone to sleep. She wasn’t too happy.
“Look, if you’ve stopped, fine, but you’re only cheating yourself” she told me.
Well she was right. I was cheating myself. That’s one of the traps of nicotine. You smoke a cigarette; the weakness of will fucks up your self esteem, so you smoke another one.”
We lit up another cigarette. I bought us both another beer.
“Next time I stopped, I used acupuncture. It works as well. In fact, all methods work, though nicotine replacement therapy seems a bit of a silly idea, really. Stop taking a drug by changing the method of ingestion. Not much sense in that. You don’t see crack smokers shooting it up instead. All you need to do to stop is make a marker beyond which you will not smoke. So, I tried acupuncture. I saw this Chinese guy who lay me down on a divan and stuck needles in my feet, hands, arms, the top of my head, then left me lying there for twenty minutes. Before I left he taped some poppy seeds on my ear lobes. I didn’t smoke for nearly three months. I thought that was that. Then one night my wife threw a wobbly, told me to get out of the house, and I went down the pub and sat on a stool staring at my beer for an hour or so before a guy I knew from school saw me and came over. He offered me a cigarette. And another. I bought a packet, went home, and in the morning my missus was right as rain. I threw the cigarettes away and went to work. I felt great. I had it beat. Until lunchtime. I met a business associate for a pub lunch which went really well. He sent some work my way and I bought us both a cognac and cigar.”
“Well, this time there was no way I was going to let my wife know I was still smoking. With the mouthwash and chewing gum, and not smoking for an hour or so before I got home, she didn’t suspect a thing; dinner would be on the table when I got home and we’d sit and watch some telly after the kids had gone to bed. I’d wait for her to go to bed and sneak out for a walk, and a last cigarette. One day, she asked me where the romance had gone from our marriage. You see, I was reluctant to get too near her in case she smelled cigarettes on me. Anytime she made an approach to me, for a cuddle or whatever, I’d find an excuse to do something else. My kids thought I’d lost interest in their games, because after an hour or so of playing with them, I’d have to find an excuse to get away to fix on nicotine. Afterwards I’d avoid hugging them in case they smelled smoke on me. I went to acupuncture again, but it only worked for week. I was well and truly hooked, worse than before, because I’d failed so many times; my self esteem plummeted. I’d buy a packet, smoke one and throw the rest of them away, swearing to myself that I’d just smoked my last cigarette. By now I was a total slave to the drug. My life was spent planning my next cigarette. I took up Taekwondo and never went to classes. My kids couldn’t understand how after two months I was still so crap at it. My sex life dwindled away to nothing; I never went to bed at the same time as my wife. I would sneak out into the garden for a last fag, then eat something before going to bed, to hide the smell. She wanted to go to counseling, but I refused to go.”
We both lit another cigarette.
“Why didn’t you just tell her?” I asked. It seemed like an obvious solution.
“Well, I thought I’d stopped. Every cigarette was my last. Also, I found I was getting off on the withdrawal symptoms. You get a kind of nervous energy, which unfortunately sometimes manifests itself as anger. I’d snap at the kids, at Yvonne (this was the first time he’d mentioned his wife by name). Yeah, in retrospect I should have told her. I thought she’d lose respect for me. Every day I thought today was the day. I’d last two, three days sometimes. One day I woke up so sure that I wasn’t going to smoke again that I felt high. It felt different than before. Then a business deal went bad. Back to the pub and cigarettes. I went four months without her knowing I smoked, which by then wasn’t hard as I was hardly ever home. She thought I was having an affair. In a way I was. With nicotine. Anyway, one day, when I’d told her I was off on a business trip ( I should have been ) I decided instead to go home and make the peace; come clean; tell her that I was a secret nicotine junkie. I arrived home about lunchtime with a bunch of flowers. There was a car I didn’t recognize parked in the drive. I let myself in, quietly, somehow knowing what I was going to find. There she was on the couch, astride a guy I had seen around the area; I think he lived on the next street. She was moving slowly up and down on top of him. He saw me before she did. She must have felt him stop, I could see her back tense up.
“What’s up, Dick?” she asked, then, following his eyes, turned to see me standing there with my bunch of flowers.
“Oh shit!” was all she could think of to say. Me, I just turned round, dropped the flowers on the floor and left. Haven’t stepped foot in the house since. She lets me have the kids some weekends. She’s got the house; the business disappeared in a drunken bender that lasted a month.”
He stopped talking, eyes slightly damp; he pulled a cigarette from his packet, looked at it wistfully.
“Lady Nicotine. She’s my mistress now. Some days we fight, other days we get on. Some days she won’t leave me alone, some days I see her for the bitch she really is.’
Sensing I might think the last referred obliquely to his wife, he clarified the issue.
“My wife? I can’t blame her. The guy she’s with isn’t a bad guy. The kids like him. I’m not bitter, just disappointed in myself. I hadn’t been a husband for getting on a year. Let’s drink to nicotine.”
We had a last beer before the flight was called. He introduced himself.
“Nick. Nick O’Brien. Though my friends call me Nicotine” he continued, smiling wryly. We smoked a last cigarette before they called our flight. I was in business class, he in economy; I never saw him again. While waiting for my train to Oxford, I walked into a bookshop. By some bizarre coincidence, the first book I saw, as I walked into W. H. Smiths, was the book he’d been talking about, “The Easy Way to Stop Smoking” by Allan Carr. I’m a great believer in synchronicity. I’d been meaning to stop smoking for years, anyway.
It was time to catch the train. I found myself a window seat and started reading.