The Unexpurgated List of Cigarettes I've Smoked Since Quitting
To celebrate five years and five weeks of having a (mostly) tobacco-free respiratory system, I decided to itemise every shameful transgression since my official graduation from Smoker to Smoker Alumnus.
One of my friends always said she would quit on her 30th birthday. I, on the other hand, was content to smoke until death, even if the former beget the latter. Then on 20 April 2008 I had to ditch half a cigarette and run to catch a bus, the Number 16 being a rare commodity on a Sunday in Glasgow. The short sprint nearly killed me. As I collapsed into my thinly-upholstered, steel-fortified seat, I could feel my heart struggling to squeeze plasma into my arteries, and with every pulse I felt a little bit more like throwing up and a little less like continuing to exist.
After the 45-minute journey I fell gratefully out of the bus and into a lush duvet of clean, fresh air. Belligerently I lit another cigarette. Two puffs in, I was ready to spew my guts into the gutter. That was when I made my life-altering decision. In solidarity with my friend, who at this point had moved to Malaysia beyond the means of my surveillance, I announced that I too would quit. Over the next few days I finished my pack, heroically but with decreasing pleasure, until that final melancholy draw in the putrid enclave of the bin shed behind my tenement on 22 April.
My moments of subsequent diminished willpower have been as follows:
July 2008: four cigarettes
After ten or eleven weeks of clean living, my girlfriend and I have an argument and she storms out for a walk. Ten minutes of juice-stewing later, I leave the flat and find myself going into the nearest newsagent and looking up at the cigarettes and asking for a lighter and a pack of ten Marlboro Lights. Not my brand, but they don’t have Camels (hardly anyone does) and Marlboro Reds seem like a bad idea after more than two months of abstinence.
I smoke a couple as I wander around the neighbourhood, then I see my girlfriend and we make up despite me smelling quite unambiguously like someone who has just smoked two cigarettes. The next day I smoke two more and ritually dispose of the pack. They taste foul, but I’ve never been particularly partial to a Marlboro Light. It’s a bit like mainlining a West End wine bar full of students and media darlings.
October 2008: one cigarette (hand-rolled)
In preparation for the premier of Cycle Path, some of us get together in writer Neil Mullarkey’s flat. Smoking had been a necessity when we shot the film in March and early April: Cycle Path took place in a mile-long tunnel with no ventilation, and it was a case of filling the enclosed space with fumes we knew and trusted rather than breathing in the tunnel’s own strange and unusual ambiance.
Anyway, surrounded by unreconstructed smokers I give into temptation and cadge the materials to manufacture a roll-up. Still know how to handle the tobacco; still can’t plug in a filter. The first puff gives me a racking cough and I crush at least half of it into the ashtray.
July 2010: one cigar, three cigarettes
A sort of pre-stag night is organised by my workmates and some other friends who can’t come to the main event. One of them buys me a celebratory cigar, which of course I know not to inhale but nevertheless include here for the sake of completion.
The last men standing: me, cigar finished, and my friend Stephen, who happens to have too many Menthol cigarettes. Now, I always thought that smoking Menthols was less effective than standing next to some mild-to-heavy traffic for five minutes, but it occurs to me that here is a way of enjoying a cigarette without convulsing like a man who’s just eaten burnt sand. So I persuade Stephen to give me three Menthols: it’s like smoking air, but after two nicotineless years the ensuing head-rush is a delight. Unfortunately they don’t go very well with whisky. Or anything, really.
August 2011: five cigarettes
My wife goes off to London with her friend for a few days, and I spend the first evening in a bar with a couple of mates. Wandering home at midnight, I realise that nobody is going to shout at me if I come home reeking of tobacco. It’s the perfect crime—sneak a cigarette for old time’s sake, wash my clothes before the missus returns, and I remain gloriously unjudged.
The selection behind the all-night newsagent’s counter is more expensive than I thought—the recession has not been kind to smokers. The array is less picturesque, too: the packs all seem plain and interchangeable, with added images of horrific damage to bodily organs.
Keeping my previous experiences in mind, I calculate that I can get the most money’s worth from a pack of ten Menthols, since I know I can still physically smoke them. The first wave of shame hits me when I slur to the newsagent that I didn’t mind which brand, and can I also have a box of matches please? He knows exactly what I’m doing in his establishment. I didn’t even pretend to look at the sweets or the dirty magazines.
I smoke four on the way home, a 40-minute walk through the nocturnal South Side of Glasgow. The nicotine rush is instant but the more I walk, the lower I feel. By the time I get back to the flat, I want to have a shower and take a wire brush to the inside of my mouth and lungs. I trudge into the courtyard, smoke one final cigarette just to hammer home the self-hatred, and dump the pack in the bin.
Total: twelve cigarettes, one roll-up and one cigar
My greatest achievement came in May 2012, when I spent three weeks in Southampton waiting for my wife to finish her job in Glasgow and come to join me. I remained cigarette-free for the duration, even though I could have gorged on Camels and washed the evidence out of my clothes before the missus arrived.
I have nothing against smokers: on the contrary, I am and always will be one of them, and I fully intend on rejoining their ranks one day. Some nights I dream of smoking; some days I position myself downwind of a smoker with a good brand. I was in favour of banning it from restaurants, but not from all pubs (why not just from family pubs?). Many of the characters I write happen to be smokers, and perhaps I maintain my addiction through them.
It turns out my friend in Malaysia never quit.
Originally published 13/05/13