“I hope you don’t mind,” he said, “some people don’t like them.” A heady, sweet smell filled my nostrils. Smoke coiled towards me as he put a cigarette to his lips, inhaled deeply and pushed smoke out through his nose and mouth. It smelt so different from the fug of pubs and smoking carriages, fuller and rounder. I looked down at the soft blue and white package on the piano, the cigarettes stubby and fatter than any I had seen before. Disque Bleu. Caporal. Fabriqué en France.
Thus began my passion for Debussy and Chopin, for Disque Bleu filtre, for the smells of France and the bliss of the shared rituals of the smoker. I soon learnt to love the cloying perfume of French tobacco, eagerly inhaling the fumes as my gauloises-loving piano teacher suggested that I take no more exams, abandon the syllabus and just enjoy the music. By the time I had mastered The Sunken Cathedral and a few of the more sedate Chopin preludes, I was a confirmed smoker, ready to go off to Sussex University, where revolution awaited me, and cigarettes were as inherent to our daily rituals as essays and seminars, demos, consciousness raising and earnest discussions of marxism and alienation. You couldn’t do anything without a fag.
I loved the way the smoke wound upwards as I sat back, wrist resting on the arm of the chair, fingers poised, the cigarette between the index and middle fingers, the glow of the tip in the dark as I savoured the sour fumes. It was an excuse to do nothing, to have a cup of tea, put on a record, to sit and talk or just to sit and think. It was impossible to imagine going anywhere, doing anything without ciggies. On the tube, on the bus, in the cinema, in bed, round the dining table, post-prandial, post-coital. Sharing a fag, passing round the ashtray, running out to the cigarette machine, throwing fag ends into the fireplace, plopping them into the slops of a mug of tea, standing them on end on the mantel when we were too lazy to look for an ashtray, throwing the glowing butt onto the ground, stepping on it and twisting it underfoot, lighting the next smoke with the fag end of the last one. Being so bored during my summer jobs as a typist that I’d forget I had a cigarette smouldering in the ashtray and light another one while it rested, waiting to be dragged on again, only to find I had two going at once.
I loved opening the packet, the rustle of the cellophane as I peeled it off, the bitter-sweet smell of fresh tobacco as I tore back the silver paper. I loved the feel of tapping the packet on the table, extracting the first of ten, twenty if I was in the money. I loved the intimacy of sharing a cigarette, of trying to light it in the wind, asking for a light, leaning forward towards the flame, glancing up, seductively I hoped, as the flame was proffered.
Lighters, SwanVestas, Woodbines, Number 6, four shillings for twenty, cartons of Duty Free, Disque Bleu, Gitanes, it was hopeless. I was besotted.