My first cigarette was a second-hand stub retrieved from a flower bed in the park just outside my school. I was eleven. It was the last day of year 7, and what better way to celebrate than by sucking toxic smoke from damp tobacco through a filter saturated in a stranger’s saliva?
Despite this inauspicious start, smoking stuck. That summer I stole cigarettes (unused ones) from my Grandma’s stash and smoked them with a friend in the same park while riding our bikes in circles around the tennis courts and arguing which was best, Pokemon Red or Blue.
At eleven (or twelve, by the time the habit was in full swing) smoking was cool. It was the combustible equivalent of greased back hair, an inexorable erection, and a leather jacket with T-Birds etched in studs on the back. I was too fat to be cool for real. Smoking was the ideal facade. And it wasn’t long until my small circle of friends got in on the act.
The academic limbo of year eight arrived. On any given morning, if you’d disembarked from the 358 bus and strolled into the park, you would have found a group of twelve year old boys huddled together in the bushes, a cartoon raincloud of smoke suspended over our heads. We saw ourselves as outlaws; underage, targets for older boys hungry for cigarettes, and bound by the myth that some teachers patrolled the park before school.
The only part of this story I’m proud of is that, for once, I’m not the yellow-belly of the piece. I was the one who’d brave the scorn of corner shop owners to purchase lighters. It was me who, a few months after the smoking craze struck, took the next step and lit up my inaugural spliff. (Hindsight reduces the drama of this; they came at the cost of £2.50 each and were rolled in a bus ticket. For all I know I was smoking a refreshing cup of PG Tips).
It was my best friend at the time who couldn’t handle the pressure of our morning underbrush smoking club. Like me, he was in dire need of the cool points that came packaged with smoking. Only, deep down, he was too sensible for it. Every morning, despite what it had cost him, he would find any excuse to take the minimum possible puffs of his cigarette or spliff. Often he would just ‘enjoy the smell,’ before choking to the brink of regurgitation. Other times he’d very accidentally drop and step on it all at once, or simply express his satisfaction in ‘watching it burn down.’
One morning paranoia got the better of him. As we huddled in the bushes, a little Westie dog barrelled through the branches. My friend lost his shit.
‘I know that dog.’
We all peered down at it through the smoke.
‘I know that fucking dog. It lives across the road from me.’
His eyes were white and wide from fright. ‘What if it gets its owner?’
The Westie just stood there, looking around at us with its tongue lolling out between its teeth.
‘It’s not fucking Lassie.’
‘If the dog tells its owner they’ll tell my parents and they'll tell the school. Then we're fucked!'
He threw his lit cigarette as hard as he could at the Westie. It shook its head and dashed out from the cover of the bushes.
My friend ran too, in the opposite direction, before the Westie could wire up its enigma machine and blow our cover to its elderly owner.
I would have been smart to kick the habit then too. Due to the spreading epidemic of older boys threatening us with undesirable violence for our cigarettes, I took the genius precaution of hiding my supply in a small car-shaped biscuit tin. To protect the precious deathsticks, I clumsily lined the inside with padding and sticky-tape. It took exactly two days for my mum to discover the case and (quite rightly) kick the metaphorical shit out of me with perfectly executed verbal, mental, and, to my freshly purchased packet of twenty cigarettes, physical abuse.
This left me more time to work on my other crippling addiction. Binge eating was about to hit in a big way. No bushes required.