Me, My Dad and Fags
I have never liked myself as a smoker. A full decade and a few thousand cigarettes in, I still don’t. But what keeps me at it, with fondness, is that I might not have him were it not for the fags. When I was very small and his beard was still black, he would kneel by the bathtub and I would sit happily in the warm water. His eyes would swim as he babbled to me and I babbled back. As soon as I could pronounce my esses (“sixty six, clickety click”), we began to talk and, slowly, I realised that I was clothed by his money and fed by his food.
With him, we (it wasn’t just me for long) learned to make fires and swim in rivers; to divide at length and to write in a manner that would delight our teachers. We learned to take eggs from the heat long before they were cooked, to scrape carcinogens from toast and to eat the seeds of apples – all from him. But, as we grew, life overtook him and I resented him for it. Then, on same day that I first uttered the word “fuck”, we were no longer friends. I punished him by breathing smoke.
He was frustrated by me. I loathed him for his temper. Had I understood that it wasn’t true anger – that he was unhappy, not hateful – we might have reconnected earlier. But endless, unanswerable questions and relentless unease, along with an inescapable sense of unfulfilled purpose, consumed him. His muscles and insides were taut at all times (as mine often are now). The terror of knowing it could get the better of him at any moment was always there, but occasionally there was also harmony and sometimes even hysterical laughter; naively, we thought that those moments were respite for him, as they were for us.
I know now that there is no moment when the voices in a plagued mind truly relent. He was anxious and unhappy in his own home, where I existed too, looking almost like a man and daring him to treat me like one. For the next four years, we made it clear to one another that we were not the friends we had once been. I no longer counted among the lights in his life – firstborn or not – and he was no longer my giant.
Later, I explained the first cigarette to myself as a dramatic reaction to a crush turned sour, but in truth, I was simply curious and, as far as I was concerned, invincible. What followed that initial embarrassing attempt at sucking smoke around the swings at dusk, with a boy who would become my best friend and a girl who terrified me (and to whom I was morbidly attracted) were a couple of years of keeping the habit a secret from my contemptibly wholesome father. I had made my first adult decision behind his back. And, from his silence, one could almost imagine that he hadn’t cottoned on.
Ma was complicit in my crime immediately. I made sure of that. Her face crumpled with disappointment, but she knew, as I needed her to. In this and everything, for better or worse, she was my ally. Every evening, I called to them behind the closed kitchen door that I was meeting some friends for a walk, left hurriedly, came back 30 minutes later and went upstairs, reeking of wrongdoing, without saying goodnight. At my 14th birthday party, I hid in a haze of smoking youths in the garden, on his land. I believed there was a good chance that he wouldn’t comprehend what I was doing, this man who had never had a vice in his life. His understanding of what I was becoming was a laughable affront to me, and so I smoked, right under the detestable nose that we shared, daring him to figure it – figure me – out.
The first near-divorce of which I was aware came not long after. I heard the argument perforating the floorboards, felt the slammed door and, from the upstairs window, watched taillights shrinking into darkness. I hoped he wouldn’t come back and went downstairs to comfort my mother.
I pushed open the kitchen door to find him, not her, sitting at the table. His eyes were closed and his nostrils were expelling a toxic grey stream. He wore the green fleece with holes from the bonfire and pockets full of bags for dog shit. He asked me to come in without opening his eyes. Slowly, deliberately, I sat down next to him and withdrew my tobacco. Neither of us said a word as I pulled the candle towards me and lit the first cigarette that I would share with him.
Then we spoke, as if one of us was in the bathtub and one kneeling beside. I tasted the bitter knowledge that adults hurt and saw that he was the same frightened teenager I was; that he was still waiting for someone to affirm his way of doing things; that nobody had ever given him the answers and that nobody would give them to me. Immediately, I realised that he had known all along, but could never chastise me for it as he couldn’t justify his own habit to himself. We understood one another, as before and I knew more about him than ever.
The sky grew bright as the air in our kitchen turned sticky with smoke and the sun had climbed high by the time he flung open the windows and put the coffee on. I wondered how much the dog and tortoise noticed the difference in what they were breathing. I stayed up to smoke with my father again and again through that long, cruel turbulence (and each that followed), surprised every morning by the lack of incriminating smell. One morning, as dawn broke, we hugged, long and tight; companions again. And it’s been there through it all; through joy, fear, and everything in between, with or without him – I’ve burned tobacco and found the silver lining in its smoke.
Photograph by Merlin Jobst