I keep having the dream where I am smoking again.
When it happens I can’t remember anything about where I am, which is how I know that it isn’t real. Every time I have the dream, I’m in a moment out of context, just me and the cigarette. That’s the giveaway, because even though I must have smoked thousands of cigarettes in my life they all had a context, a backdrop that makes them lodge in my memory.
I remember, for instance, the cold, cold winter I spent in Oxford after leaving university. I was doing my first proper job, and on my breaks I would take a short walk away from the law library and sit on the nearby steps looking out on the empty sports field, perimeter lines smudged into the frost. I can still picture the acrid smoke from a Marlboro Red spiralling into the air, fighting with the mist made by my breath, lost in the whiteness. I was poor then, and my rented room always reeked of tobacco. I had started out on Silk Cut a few months before, but they didn’t feel like smoking anything so I switched to Marlboro Reds, which didn’t feel like anything but smoke. I liked smoking stronger cigarettes when it was freezing outside, and I never understood why I always had a cold. Cause and effect are light years apart, when you’re twenty-one.
I was never a natural smoker. I’m told I held the cigarette oddly, more like a pen than a cigarette.
I remember, too, a Lucky Strike Light in the university parks the following summer, half-heartedly racing round a makeshift football pitch with Dave, Eric and Phil in the dog days of their final year at university. I would fire in the crosses, Dave would get on the end of them and volley the ball somewhere between the jackets and jumpers that marked out the borders of the goal. It was the first time in my life that I was conscious of not being thin any more; in my mind, I was like one of those portly midfield geniuses of the fifties who didn’t let smoking and drinking impede their legendary status. I was perversely proud of the fact that I was the only one smoking. The sun would streak through the trees, and when the ball went out of play so would we. We were playing at being kids in the few remaining weeks before we all had to start playing at not being kids any more.
I never smoked when I was a kid. Far from it, I was dubious and judgmental when my brother asked me to keep his secret from my parents. I must have been no more than eleven. But I was always going to become a smoker at some point even if I didn’t know it then; I can see that now. Addiction runs through my family like writing through a stick of rock – tobacco on my father’s side, alcohol on my mother’s. My dad’s study, walls yellowed with nicotine, or the bottle of vodka I found in my brother’s writing desk one evening are testament to that.
I recall the first Rothmans Royal of the day circa summer 2001, sockless on the patio in my Doctor Martens and my ancient dressing gown, squinting in the sunshine at eight o’clock in the morning, ready for a cigarette but not ready for a shower yet. I had graduated to Royals by then because there were twenty-four in a packet, but even then I usually had to buy more than one packet every day. The patio was littered with dog ends none of us could be bothered to clear up, just as the kitchen inside was full of dirty dishes nobody could be bothered to wash. But then, if we could have been bothered – if we were those sorts of people - none of us would have been living in Stanhope Road, and we certainly wouldn’t have been living with one another.
Photographs of me back then make much more sense if you cover the cigarette with your hand. Not that many pictures of me as a smoker have survived, it’s almost as if I knew that one day it would just be an embarrassment, a tiny detail which makes you do a double take, an erratum from a previous life. It is a previous life, too; I had given up by the time I met my wife.
I remember the last cigarette.
Actually, that isn’t true; I don’t remember the last cigarette, and that’s what it has in common with the cigarettes in my dreams. What I remember instead of the dream is the mechanics – putting it in my mouth, the satisfying feeling of my thumb grinding the wheel of the lighter and willing the flame into being, the crackling noise as the light takes. Cigarettes are the perfect analogy for the people who smoke them, pumped full of chemicals which make sure they never last as long as they should. In the dream, I remember too the sour spiking sensation of smoke hitting the back of my throat for the first time even though it’s been so long; I’ve been a non-smoker again for longer than I was a smoker. I shouldn’t be able to remember all those sensations, and I don’t know what it says that I can.
The cigarettes I smoke in my dreams are always perfect, and yet so few of the ones I smoked in real life even came close. It was always cold, or pissing down with rain, or I was too busy worrying about running out, or my hacking cough, or when I’d be able to have the next one, or the one after that. If you’re given to hypochondria and neurosis smoking is about the worst thing you can do, and it doesn’t help that you can only think of one thing that helps you to deal with the stress. I used to open a packet, tear off the foil, turn the first cigarette around and put it back, filter at the bottom and pale brown tip at the top. That was the last cigarette I smoked in each packet – for luck, you see, though it’s hard to see what kind of luck featured in smoking more than one packet of cigarettes every day.
On occasion, when drunk, I would put that lucky cigarette in my mouth the wrong way round and I'd set fire to the filter. The rotten, treacly smell would drift into my lungs and I would be disgusted. Maybe the good luck it was meant to bring is that one day, when this happened to you, you would realise it was the last straw and stop. But that was never the case with me, I just threw that cigarette away. Not always, of course, sometimes I would tear the melted filter off and smoke the rest. My dream cigarettes are never like that – I always light the right end, and I smoke the lot, and I don’t know how to feel about them or myself.
There was never a last straw with me, and god knows there should have been. Instead there were a succession of penultimate straws, all of which would have been the final one for someone with more self-respect. I have torn cigarettes in half, thrown them down the toilet and rushed to a newsagent minutes later. I have bought a single Superking from a man at a kebab van for fifty pence at two in the morning when all the shops were closed, after promising myself I had quit for good. The state of his fingernails alone should have been enough to deter me. I have laid in bed in the dark, in the small hours, with pains in my chest thinking If I get through tonight I’ll never smoke again, and I’ve celebrated the next day the only way I knew. I don’t even need to tell you how. I never picked up a dog end, but I came closer than I like to admit.
You might think that’s my way of saying that I picked up a dog end once, and you might be right.
When I’m dreaming, I know I’m dreaming, but when I wake up things are different. I worry that it was real, and that I never quit. I worry that the last eight years were the dream and that I’ve woken up as the smoking me, the unhealthy, sad, dependent me who thought he deserved so much less out of life and got exactly what he thought he deserved. I worry, too, that the dream meant something – that on some level I want to smoke again, or that I’ll never be free. The rest of the time, I like to think I am the sort of non-smoker the world needs; I never tell anybody off for smoking, or nag them about the health risks. I just tell people – and only if they ask - how lucky I feel and that I’ve never regretted a single day, but that they should do what they like. In the aftermath of my smoking dream, I always worry that I am only fooling myself. Look back at the word worry, running through this paragraph like the addiction spreading like rot through my family tree, like a word running through a stick of rock. However much I worry now, I used to worry so much more back when I was a smoker, when I had things to worry about.
That last realisation is what always breaks the spell for good, that and the sight of the warm body sleeping next to me. I told you before, I gave up smoking before I met my wife. She is not a smoker, the only addictions that run through her family are a hankering for bargains and holidays. If I’d smelled of tobacco when we met she wouldn’t have looked at me twice. I like to say - to other people and to myself - that she was my reward for giving up and, silly though it might sound to you, I really believe it.
I owe that to smoking at least: I understand now that when you have dreams, it helps if only some of them come true.