He smoked. It was his pinnacle of sophistication. A grown-up pleasure he shared with most men of his Brylcreem generation, dedicated smokers from their early teens. It was a cultural refuge of small delight amongst the drudgery of their lives - a flame reignited forty times a day to keep the gloom at bay.
It was cool before cool was a thing. The reflected glow of match on cigarette transformed them, they imagined, into Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, the Sheik of bloody Araby. Each cigarette ignited a choreography of practiced moves, easy through repetition that gave succour and peace and made them feel good. Who could blame them.
It wasn’t just the movies. The indoctrinating, aspirational adverts were everywhere, and played their glossy part in the charade. No irony wasted on sports events supported by John Player, Marlboro or Embassy, promoting health through exercise while fastidiously charging people a premium for the privilege of a shorter existence.
Successive governments to blame too, paying lip service to the ideal of having a healthy populace while pocketing billions in tax revenues.
The stupidity and expense of it, the selfishness of sharing the toxins with his loved ones who could not escape the laden air he expelled in the small house, was at odds with everything else he valued in life. My grandparents had been smokers too, my mother didn’t stand a chance even though she never touched one.
He gave me his empty fag packets and match boxes to build barricades for my toy soldiers. Each one a mile marker on the road to an increasingly early death. I could have built a scale model of the great wall of China.
I can’t now forget the rank, sharp, lingering smell that tainted hair and clothing and breath, that then went unnoticed due to all pervading familiarity. Strategically placed ashtrays littered our living spaces and were weirdly accepted despite my parents’ otherwise puritanical leanings.
I timed him once. Eight minutes to consume one cigarette according to my new Casio digital watch, (bought with Embassy №6 vouchers). Eight minutes that shaved how many seconds, minutes, hours off his life? And then he lit another. I quickly got bored. But he didn’t. Maybe that was the point.
When he was dying of cancer I had the humiliation of wheeling my dad like he’d wheeled me in my pushchair only twenty five years before. I pushed him from hospital reception to the ward he would spiral down on like a broken crow, and on the way he made me stop at an open door so he could slip outside for one last fag.
He was dead two weeks later. He never got to see his grandchildren.