Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Making a friend

Back in the old days when I smoked, I used to tear off the end of the cigarettes in order to get my full-scale nicotine hit faster. It was no use dragging in a breath when they were full-length – the smoke would dissipate to almost nothing by the time it reached my lips.

Although I laboriously pointed out the perfectly acceptable explanation for me doing so every time I was asked, people around me (usually also smoking) still used to give me funny looks. Of course, I could have fallen into step and smoked the damn things whole, but I’m stubborn and I would also miss out on the enormous dizzy relaxation of the first puff after long hours of abstention. Mm. Those are the memories that almost get me lighting up again.

One year, I decided to give up smoking and unlike every other time I’d made that decision, something tipped the balance. I’d noticed on hot days that breathing didn’t come as easily as it used to. Sometimes I’d draw in a deep breath and feel the same as I did when I exhaled.

At the time, the government had just introduced foul pictures onto every packet of cigarettes and every sachet of rolling tobacco. You probably know the ones: diseased lungs, lumpen hearts, mouths teeming with cancer where teeth used to grow.

It was all rather disgusting to look at but it didn’t scare me at all. As for dying of lung cancer, well. You gotta die of something, right?

What finally tipped the balance for me was the realisation that I mightn’t die of those things at all. Instead, I might have to live alongside them, fostering a disease that sapped away the last of my pleasure but offered no respite in return.

Dying of lung disease didn’t cut it. Spending my life living in and out of the respiratory ward of the hospital did.

Anyhow, a few years after I quit cold turkey and tried not to look back, I stumbled into a colleague who snapped the ends of her cigarettes off before she smoked them. Every single time. When she saw me looking at them, stunned, she began to enlighten me as to the reason. A reason I recited along with her, almost word for word.

Years too late for it to matter, I’d found a friend who understood one of my bizarre habits and had independently adopted it as their own. If I’d discovered her companionship earlier, I might have held out through a few more seasons of struggling breathing before finally giving in and giving up.

I was reminded of this the other day, after my darling had ordered his dessert at a restaurant. I haven’t noticed it for years, but whenever he orders pudding he always stresses (sometimes more emphatically than might strictly be required) that his slice of chocolate brownie (or mousse, or ice-cream, or creme brulee) is to arrive in front of him HAVING NEVER TOUCHED ANY FRUIT, EVER!!! The menu might be foolish enough to wave the words berry and compote under his nose, but he’s not to be swayed by such depravity. My darling orders dessert for the cream and sugar rush, not for “nature’s candy.”

As I said, I barely notice these exchanges anymore. Certainly, they don’t stand out as much as the ones where he orders a bottled beer and then waits until the hapless server is standing beside the table before mentioning that he’d like it in a glass.

The habit, though, is one that has solely belonged to him and no one else. I might gather up my courage occasionally to say, “don’t worry about the salad.” More often, I’ll just poke it with a fork to make it look like I tried to eat the foliage that some madman tipped onto my plate. Other than that, I order what is on the menu and don’t quibble about the presentation or the contents. Some people have even been known to roll their eyes when my darling begins his anti-fruit tirade.

But the other night, close to his birthday which makes it all seem more fitting, he ordered his usual dessert sans compote. A few minutes later, dessert delivered and mostly eaten, the woman sitting at the table beside us ordered her pudding exactly the same.

Nothing red on my plate, you hear me. Nothing!

If I hadn’t been sitting there, and her husband hadn’t been holding her hand, then it’s possibly my darling and this strange woman may have ridden off into the sunset. At least, until he ordered a bottle of beer.

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