THE TASTE OF chemical rich smoke on my young tongue – disgusting – unlike anything I’d known, and soon I was coughing back the wretched air, a laughable amateur. Like stolen beer sips, neither of the vices adults enjoyed were pleasant, if anything, someone should be paid to drink and smoke. The way things were, was entirely backwards.
Behind the rickety sun bleached wood of the garden shed, I sat marveling at the dotted tan butt, crisp gold band, insignia on flawless white paper, the end smoldering bright orange, a thick concentrated smoke whisked away into the air. Between my index and fuck-you finger the fat cigarette felt awkward but the positioning was authentic; friends, relatives and teachers all held it like that, Dad and Mum too.
On my first drag I nearly fell off the crate, lungs rejecting the smoke, and I coughed until in a fit, the cigarette tumbling to the ground, lost among the grass. Spluttering and spitting with the foul taste, I vowed never to try it again.
“You little bastard!”
All of a sudden, Dad was there, wide eyed and furious, twice his normal size. Turncoat coughs had given me away.
He stepped closer and grabbed me by the neck, my collar choking me in a reenactment of what had just happened with the cig.”Where did you get them? Huh? Did you steal them? You must have stolen them you little shit!”
I couldn’t speak, my toes barely touching the ground. He and Mum smoked Coast, the packet on the ground were Himalayas, the cheap ones Mrs. Ableton liked, the ones she was missing from her black leather bag she slung on her wooden seat in class 2A, with the easy open gold clasp.
“Sit down!” Dad barked, dropping me. He was so angry I could feel the rage as if heatwaves on tarmac, and I knew saying nothing and avoiding eye contact were optimal strategies. I hadn’t been beaten yet a naive granule of optimism suggested. What followed was worse.
Sat on the crate, immovable, as if part of it, I watched as Dad reached down for the Himalayas, all nineteen of them in the shiny cardboard box. Poking into his jean pocket under the belly overhang, he produced his favourite lighter, a silver windproof. “You’ll smoke every last one of these. You have to learn!” Every word was tinged with sadistic intent, his disappointment in me years ago established. Pulling one cigarette out he placed it in my trembling hand. I put it to my lips and he flicked the lid open igniting the flame expertly with a giant thumb, placing it under the end of the wobbling cig.
I choked straight away. I felt ashamed, not for smoking but the isolation I was in, tears not yet present as I concentrated on the long blades of deep green grass, a ladybird walking a length…three, five, seven dots. I lowered the cig.
“By god you’ll smoke it boy!” My hand was forced back up as he watched with the intensity of a line judge.
Every time I inhaled I choked, spluttering, eyes watering, my small torso recoiling with the tainted unfamiliar oxygen. Puff by puff, I somehow got down to the golden band. Dad already had the next one lined up. I felt awful, the taste alone was enough to put me on the cusp of retching, saliva juicing. One after another I smoked the Himalayas, trying to avoid inhaling in an effort to stymy the coughs, the taste alone along with the nicotine such a surprise to my system my head buzzed with an unfamiliar feeling, building and building until I turned to the left and inevitably puked, the ham sandwich from lunch in watery pieces.
Smoke tainted vomit haunting me already, bleary eyed I looked at Dad, looking for sympathy, empathy, a sign it was over, for a loving caring father, none of them present. Just a Victorian era fury. Five cigarettes into the pack, my lesson hadn’t been learnt yet. Six was sparked up.
“Just to make it easier, I’ll help.” And like classic father son bonding experiences, we smoked together, me on the verge of hurling again, him quietly watching for signs of people beyond the shed.
“You’ll never do it again. You’ll thank me some day.” He said it with utmost sincerity, as if totally normal, as if I should picture my friends doing the exact same thing with their Dad’s, a rite of passage to talk over during school breaks.
With four cigarettes to go I could scarcely move. Hangdog, I was drooling and spitting, my breathing rapid, heart racing, vision blurred. I dry heaved twice and my next memory is of falling to my left and blacking out.
“What happened?” Mum asked, hysterical, her voice distant, surreal.
“He was smoking behind the shed, I found him like this.”
In my hazy state I imagined her checking her bag and pockets to make sure her cigs hadn’t been stolen.
“I’ll call the – ”
“No! I’ll drive him to the hospital.”
With the stench of cigarette smoke on an eight year old, it didn’t take Dr. Stern long to figure out I had nicotine poisoning. In hospital for a night of observation, I was given all sorts of nuggets of wisdom by kindly nurses. It was almost worth the torture to have them fuss over me. They all bet I wouldn’t do it again.
The cost of the medical bill, including the petrol used to get there and back, was factored into my upcoming birthday, of which I was assured would be little more than a cake if I was lucky.
On the drive home, I was sworn to secrecy. “Don’t you dare tell anyone, and if you do…” He flicked ash out the crack of the window, a knowing eyebrow raised as I looked up at him, unsure of what he was exactly. Then he ruffled my hair, grinning forcibly, a smile stolen from a psychopath. “It was for your own good. You learnt your lesson. You’ll never smoke again will you?” An element of pride raised the pitch, while the smell of cigarette smoke circulating in the car reminded me of the day before.
About fifteen years later, having never smoked again, I bought a pack of cigarettes – well – a carton for good measure. I sent them anonymously to Dad: Happy Birthday. Himalayas, naturally.
And you should pay heed to the warnings on packs. Cigarettes really do kill. Indiscriminately. Our relationship had ended immediately after that car ride back from the hospital.