It’s currently quite warm and sunny in England, and so yesterday I was sat outside in a pub garden with a beer and a cigarette when someone came up to me and asked for a light for his roll-up.
I was using one of the e-lighters I bought last year, and which are still working. He said he’d never seen one of them before. I explained that he had to slide out the element, and press the tip of his cigarette against it. After a couple of tries he got it lit, and sat down on a seat on the other side of my table, took in a big puff of smoke, and said, “I’ve quit.”
“So I see,” I replied.
He was a young man, maybe 35 or 40, clean-shaven, well-spoken, wearing some rather frayed and battered shorts and tee shirt.
“I’m meeting up with my girlfriend in an hour or two,” he continued. “She’ll kill me if she finds out I’ve been smoking. I’m going to have to buy some mints before we meet up.”
“I’ve been away for two weeks, on a contract. It’s been a bit of an opportunity to have a few beers with the lads, smoke a few cigarettes, and even eat some crisps too. It’s my last chance. Dinner tonight is going to be a ploughman’s lunch.”
A ploughman’s lunch is a cheddar cheese and pickle roll, maybe with an accompanying salad. He sounded like he was going back to prison.
He didn’t give his girlfriend’s name, but I was already imagining what she was like. A teetotal vegetarian antismoker. She probably wore a tracksuit most of the time, even when she wasn’t playing squash or tennis. And she had dyed, cropped blonde hair. And she worried about seals and whales and polar bears and global warming. They’d have sex every Thursday, if he’d been behaving himself. And she was probably called Mandy. I could see it all.
He looked at me with candid, steady eyes as he explained that he’d stopped smoking because he had an acid reflux problem due to a faulty valve in his stomach. The problem went away when he’d stopped drinking and smoking. His father had had the same problem, except that in his father’s case he only got the problem when he stopped smoking. So his father had carried on smoking 40 a day, on doctor’s orders.
In my turn, I said I had never tried to quit smoking, and never would. I told him about Dr W, the first antismoker I’d ever encountered, who’d shouted against the “filthy, filthy, filthy” habit. Not exactly a cool, rational, scientific attitude to smoking. Dr W was the antismoker who’d started me smoking.
He said he’d been in favour of the smoking ban. He said he thought it was inconsiderate of people to smoke in restaurants, while other people were trying to eat. I said I came from an era where nobody gave a damn whether anyone smoked or not. People smoked pretty much everywhere. Antismokers simply didn’t exist. Mad Dr W was the first one I’d ever encountered. People had been sensitised to smoking in ways they never used to be.
He said he used to smoke pot. I said I did too. I said I even grew some once, in the valley of a roof. He said he’d grown it too, but in a garage under lights, until his son had discovered it, and he’d told his son a whole pack of lies about how he was growing the plants for a friend, didn’t touch the stuff himself, and ended up cutting down all the plants, and throwing them all away. That was when he’d stopped smoking pot.
We’d already established that he had a tyrannical girlfriend. She was now joined by a tyrannical son. Was the tyrannical son the offspring of the tyrannical girlfriend? Or was he the fruit of a previous tyrannical wife or girlfriend? I never found out.
Other little tidbits of information followed. He was an engineer. He’d been in college in Cambridge.
We only talked for about half an hour. But in that time I found out more about him than his girlfriend knew, or his son knew. Listening to him had been like listening to a quiet confession.
“Don’t forget the mints,” I called out after him as he left.
But I couldn’t help but think that if it was me that was meeting up with Mandy, I wouldn’t be chewing a mint. I’d be smoking a cigarette. And I’d tell her I didn’t want another goddamn ploughman’s lunch, not now or ever again. And I didn’t want to wait till Thursday.