‘All my ex-lovers were lovely people: if I can believe that I can give up smoking,’ she said. ‘Yeah, right,’ I said, wheezing and laughing. It was past midnight, Saturday night, well, Sunday morning. We were having one of those wild smoking nights. Debbie Murray was practically the only pal left in the whole wide world that still smoked and the one person who could still make me cry with laughter. She pulled two cigarettes out of the pack, tapped them both gently, affectionately on the pack—the way a mother pats a baby’s bottom—lit them both at once and handed me one. I took it, smiling. It was kind of a romantic friendship.
‘I’m serious,’ she said, ‘dead serious. I’ve tried every other possible way. Tried the patches, tried the inhalers. In pubs, I’d try and hide the fact that I was sucking that stupid thing, like a five year old hiding a dummy. Did I tell you I even tried hypnosis?’
‘No way!’ I said, and laughed so much I brought on a fit of conspiratorial coughing. ‘You numpty. What was that like?’
‘Mental. And it set me back one hundred and fifty quid which I didn’t have,’ she said, blowing smoke in my face.
‘Which you still don’t have,’ I said, a little irritated. I’d lent Debbie 300 smackers last October, which she still hadn’t paid back. The idea that she’d burned 150 quid on a charlatan hypnotist took the biscuit.
‘It was odd. He had a very posh voice and he was trying to frighten me to death. Your toes are feeling exceptionally heavy. Your legs are very, very heavy. Relax. Think about how filthy your lungs must be… He’d asked for the names of the people I love best in the world. I’d asked if any of them could be dead already and he’d said No, no, no and at that moment I was wondering why not—I mean does he think the dead have no hold over the living? If anything the dead have more hold over the living!’ Debbie said. ‘True enough,’ I said. It was going to be a long night.
‘Did you fall into a total trance then?’ I asked. I poured us both a glug of extra wine. ‘One more for the road,’ I said gamely, knowing that we weren’t on a wee country road any more, with badgers hiding behind hedges; no, we were on a big fucking three-lane motorway, midnight juggernauts hurtling down. Debbie inhaled deeply. ‘A bit, but just as I was going under I asked him if he had ever sent himself to sleep while hypnotizing someone. He had a lovely voice really. Yes, he said, once, when he was trying to help a petite woman get over her massive panic attacks. He woke to her shaking him roughly back and forth. She was in a total state. That sort of kyboshed it.’
‘How long did it work for?’
‘I hope you went for your money back,’ I said with all the authority of my forty-three-year-old self.
‘Nan!’ Debbie said.
‘Why not?’ I said, the irritation rising. (Isn’t it strange how you can love friends and they can also be horribly maddening?)
‘He said it had a ninety-nine-per-cent success rate. I was ashamed. I didn’t want to be the one per cent.’
‘Neither did anybody else, probably. What a con. What a rip-off.’
Debbie shrugged her shoulders. She was one of those types that seemed to revel in being ripped off. There was always something grander than money on her mind.
‘Anyway, that’s all a distraction, Claire,’ she said. ‘Giving up smoking is a question of belief. If I can substitute one belief for another, right, I might get there. It’s not so much that smoking is my crutch. It’s that I’ve got to make giving it up my church! Need to stop being a martyr, stop seeing it as some sort of sacrifice, right?’
‘You’re a slaverer,’ I said. ‘You’re a blether of hell.’
‘Last time I was at an airport I went into the smoking room, which was right next to the praying room. Then I went into the praying room and prayed I would give up smoking, because the smoking room was enough to put you off for life. Smokers don’t actually like other people’s smoke. It’s nasty.’
I inhaled deeply and blew out. I didn’t really want Debbie to give up smoking. Nearly everybody I know has given up smoking; even the ones that you would think could never have pulled it off—the thirty-a-day-for-thirty-years diehards. I recited the litany of unexpected names, old friends and lovers who had crossed the border successfully into the non-smoking terrain: Isabel Aird, Adjoa Andoh, Suzanne Batty, Ann Marie Murphy, Pat Milligan, Femi Okafor, Ian Jack, Kathryn Perry, Catherine Marcangeli, Brendan Griggs. The list went depressingly on and on. I was starting to feel more and more like I belonged to a tiny band of weirdly devoted people, and every time I ran into a smoker, even a stranger-smoker, I’d light her cigarette gratefully. We were the grateful-not-yet-deads. Perhaps we should all have a special haircut to identify us—The Last of the Smokers, the last of the Big Pretenders. Debbie got up and put on some John Martyn. I only ever listened to him when I was with Debbie Murray. We blew perfect smoke rings to Solid Air. She tried to sing along, but John Martyn is hard to sing along to. You just sound wrecked.
‘You’re not very good at picking lovers. You’ve been with some real lou-lous,’ I said. I could hear my voice was starting to slur.
‘Lou-lous? Christ, where did that come from?’
‘Nutters then, bampots and weirdoes!’
‘No, they were all lovely! All my ex-lovers were absolutely lovely!’ Debbie repeated like a mantra. John Martyn was singing ‘May you never lay your head down without a hand to hold’, and ‘May you never make your bed out in the cold.’ Debbie sang along to that bit, quite fiercely. ‘The only person in my life who has lasted is you,’ Debbie said at the end of the song sadly. ‘Maybe friends are the big loves of your life. Maybe we get it all wrong, focusing on lovers like we do.’
‘We ask too much of lovers,’ I agreed.
‘Like hell we do! We don’t ask enough!’ Debbie said. She had reached the point where she might start to turn.
‘I think we should get to bed. It’s late. It’s one in the morning.’
‘We’ve got to sort this out,’ Debbie said. ‘This is important. If we sort this out right now, tonight, by tomorrow we could be non-smokers. Think of it! We could be free! Think how wonderful it would be to say I don’t smoke. What a beautiful fucking sentence!’
‘We’ll never be non-smokers,’ I said. ‘The most we can hope for is being ex-smokers. It never even occurred to the non-smoker to smoke. They just don’t get it.’
‘Don’t be smart!’ Debbie said, and went to light up two again at the same time. ‘You’re all right,’ I said. ‘I don’t want one right now.’ I felt a moment’s lovely superiority. Debbie looked fazed, then dazed, then lit up regardless, trying to look debonair. Joni was singing now.
‘So that’s the secret,’ Debbie said, leaning forward excitedly. ‘Ex-lovers and ex-smokers. We have to do a switch.’
‘You’ve lost me,’ I said.
‘Concentrate!’ she said. ‘I’m on to something!’ She swallowed the last swirl of wine. ‘Open another bottle to go with this! This is electrifying!’
‘No, it’s too late to open another bottle,’ I said.
I was starting to wonder about her theory actually. It’s impossible for me to become someone who has never smoked. It is impossible for me to become someone who has never loved. I will not ever become a non-lover. I have accumulated exes. These days I read the zodiacs of three major exes to see if they are having any luck. The full moon this Wednesday forecasts major changes for all my ex-lovers. I gave in and opened a screw top called ‘Laid Back Ruby’ to help me work out Debbie Murray’s Fantastically Complicated Way to Give up Smoking.
I am lover-less at the moment; so is Debbie. We’ve both been like that for two years. If one of us gets a lover the other will find it tricky, but not as tricky maybe as if one of us gives up smoking. We’ve been smoking together for nearly thirty years. I remember our first Sobranie. Our pal Gillian Baxter’s parents gave us one each on New Year. Her mother held open a beautiful Black Russian box. I picked a pink sobrani; Debbie picked a blue. We both had an advocaat and lemonade. We were fourteen, sophisticated, cool, already inhaling. That New Year Debbie sang along to Gilbert O’Sullivan singing ‘Claire’. She liked that there was a song with my name in it. I remember smoking our first Consulate and Debbie saying, it’s no worse really than sucking a Polo mint; then she blew a smoke ring the size of a Polo mint hole.
If she gives up and I don’t, I’ll regard it as a huge betrayal, worse even than her stealing a girlfriend. Debbie’s last bloke was a moron. Then she had a girl, Lucky; well, she called her Lucky because she gambled all the time, but actually she was very unlucky and she blew all Debbie’s savings. She never really liked any of my lovers when I think about it. Maybe she was jealous. Trying to think about them as lovely people is a real challenge. I am not deluded!
I’ve lived through two lesbian dictatorships: one of them even had a tiny moustache. For some reason, I’ve always been drawn to people stronger than me, to obsessive types. The first of the lesbian dictators had a big thing about cats. In fact, she first fell for me because one of her Refuge cats sat on my lap. ‘That’s very unusual,’ she said, her eyes widening with excitement. ‘Mrs MacDonald is usually very, very fussy about who she sits on.’ ‘Is that right?’ I said. I wished her cats weren’t called such stupid names. ‘Yes, I’ve no idea what happened to her before she came to me, but somebody abused her. You can tell an animal’s past.’ Then she leaned towards me and kissed me on the lips. It took me aback. When I did that thing, you know, replaying what had happened to try and give some pleasure, that line about the animal past always stuck and stopped me going further. It was as irritating as static.
She was called Caroline, the Cat Woman, and she was very beautiful really. She had a haughty intelligence that you could detect around her cheekbones that was quite cat-like. She was enigmatic, never gave much away. I never met any of her family and she never spoke of them at all. She enjoyed listening to me talking about my family. She loved my imitations of my mother and father. Her face would grow furry with pleasure. She even kept a cat journal. The last straw for me was when we came back from Florence. ‘Mrs MacDonald is sulking because we’ve been away,’ Caroline wrote in the journal. ‘Not even Michelangelo’s David was worth it. I’ve put Mrs MacDonald back months, just as she was starting to trust me. That’s it—no more holidays!’ I read that with growing alarm.
‘Smoking is my first erotic memory when I think about it,’ Debbie was saying. We were so drunk by now that we were more or less talking or thinking to ourselves. We’d returned to the state of the quintessential smoker, a luxurious state of aloneness. I took my fag out and stood at the back door and smoked under the sizzling, smoky stars. I would miss the starry-smoke the most. What is the point in having a gorgeous night sky without a cigarette to go with it? Just thinking about stopping was making me feel nostalgic. I went back in. Debbie was stuck on the same sentence again. ‘Yes,’ she was saying, as Joni sang. ‘Yes, smoking is erotic.’ She stubbed her fag out. The ashtray was overflowing. It was filthy actually. Filthy, dirty. How any of us could do it was beyond me. Every time I managed to give up, I stared with horror at those that still smoked. How can they do it, how can they, I’d think, in the twenty-first century, knowing all that we know? I’d stare at the woman puffing away waiting for a bus, at the widower with his widower’s shopping in one hand and his fag in the other, at the clutch of teenage girls inhaling and exhaling nonchalantly, and I’d think, you’re crazy, crazy, crazy, you’re going to die! Picture the oxygen tent! And then three weeks or nine months or one year later, I’d be back with them again. Unbelievable, un-fucking believable! Apart from anything else, it looks deeply weird, smoking, like something human beings were never supposed to do. Unnatural, all that smoke coming out the nose and the mouth.
‘Do you remember your first kiss?’ Debbie said, ‘your first long snog? I remember mine. It was under a desk. Kenny Davies stuck his tongue in my mouth and then slid his lips across like two wee grass snakes or something. It wasn’t very pleasant.’
‘Yuck,’ I said.
‘Slippy, slithery, sneaky. See. That’s another similarity between smoking and sex. The first time both stink. The first fag is a nauseating experience, right? It gives you the boke. I remember Margaret Millar forcing me to inhale so I could be one of the gang. It was horrible. Really-really-really. Not nice. Not pleasant. I remember thinking, there’s no way I’m ever going to get addicted to this. They said, don’t start or you’ll get addicted, but I smoked on and off, and off and on, and I’d say to myself, I’m not addicted, right?’
Debbie was looking traumatized now. The thought of giving up completely was doing her head in. I know. It was like facing the abyss, the well of loneliness. No companion there. What was there? It was like a big dark void or something. I poured us both another glass of wine. My watch said three a.m. ‘You still thinking we should give up tonight?’ I said. ‘What about tomorrow? Tonight’s not the best night.’
‘Don’t play games with me!’ Debbie said, snarling in my face. ‘It will always win. You can’t bargain. It will always get you. The only way is to make them lovely people. What did they give me—the ex-lovers. The buzz? They gave me a hit, an excitement, right, and I thought I couldn’t sleep without them, right, and that I would get terrible mood swings if I gave them up, and that I wasn’t capable of being sociable on my own.’
‘Are you talking about lovers or cigarettes?’ I asked.
‘Same difference. Actually the cigarettes, they understood me better than the lovers. A cigarette is an enigmatic lover who understands all your intricate complexities without you having to say a single word or have a word said back,’ Debbie said. She was one of those people that could actually sound quite pompous drunk. It was lovable really.
‘I see,’ I said. Well, I did.
I was back on my own again thinking about the lover that came after Caroline, the Cat Woman. She was another right warmer. Fiona. She was very judgemental and had absolutely no sense of humour. But she was a mixture because she was sentimental too. On the day we met the juke box was playing that song—who sang it?—she’s got Bette Davis eyes. A smoky voice, remember? It was romantic. She smoked back in those smoking days. But then she suddenly and violently changed, joining the vicious band of ex-smokers who believe that smoking is evil like a new wacky religion. I remember the day she gave up; she said, very snootily, ‘Once you decide, it’s easy. You just have to choose your moment. Actually,’ she said, even more snootily, ‘the moment chooses you!‘ That day she took the curtains to the dry-cleaners and hired one of those shampoo-the-carpet jobs. She sniffed the air. She painted the living-room walls magnolia. Fresh start, she said. You too. I pretended to give up, but any opportunity I got I sneaked a fag and then sucked extra strong mints all the way home. I’d get in, run up the stairs, wash my hands, spray perfume all over, until one time she caught the hint of something on my breath and said that she couldn’t trust me any more. If I was going behind her back to smoke in secret, I could just as easily have an affair She asked me to choose, the fags or her. I chose the fags, packed my bags and I was out of there in a week. No love lost really. I fell upon my pack of cigarettes and upped my daily intake.
‘It’s all about desire,’ Debbie was saying as I rummaged in the cupboard for something else to drink. I found an old bottle of tequila. Well, the sun was rising. We’d moved on to Neil Young now. He was singing in his heartbreaking beautiful voice, ‘I’ve seen the needle and the damage done, a little part of it in everyone, but every junkie’s like a setting sun.’ One last nip for the road, I said warningly. I tried to visualize a Junction 7 exit on our motorway. ‘Yep,’ she said. She was nearly passing out now anyway. ‘Did you ever desire me?’ ‘No, don’t be daft,’ I said shocked and a bit wary. ‘Why not?’ she said, genuinely curious. ‘Why not when you are a lesbian.’
‘You’re my mate,’ I said. ‘And you’re like my sister. It would be like incest or something.’
Debbie smiled. This answer seemed to please her. ‘Well, I never desired you either. I desired to smoke. I desired my cigarettes. For them, I had too much desire,’ she said grandly, putting on an Edith Piaf accent. ‘There was a while when I craved a lover,’ I said, ‘but that’s gone now. Don’t even feel a pang of regret. Well rid. That’s what I think. I got well rid.’
‘That’s not the right attitude,’ Debbie said, sounding suddenly sober. She could do this: suddenly turn sober. It was very fucking freaky. Like somebody going BOO! ‘The correct attitude is to find a way to make them lovely in your memory. Give them the nostalgia!’ she said triumphantly, like she had suddenly found the key. ‘Give them the nostalgia!’ she repeated, her voice deepening. ‘GIVE THEM THE NOSTALGIA!’ she said, this time sounding very crude.
‘I’ll tell you what, Debs,’ I said. ‘If all I’ve got to do at the end of this head-fuck night from hell is give up smoking, it’s going to be quite easy. My ex-lovers had nice things about them, yes. The Cat Woman loved her cats. She was nice to her friends. She got upset at tsunamis and disasters. She gave money to charity. She donated her blood regularly. She visited a lonely old neighbour every Sunday afternoon and took her a little cake, an Eccles cake.’
‘Really?’ Debbie swung around and stared at me, definitely stone cold sober now. ‘You never told me any of this. How come you never told me any of this?’
‘It was more fun slagging her off, like it was more fun smoking,’ I said, putting out my last doubt ever, squashing it into the ashtray with a new, fresh determinedness.
Debbie lit up again. God, she must have smoked twenty-five, at least! The room was thick with fug. I opened the window. ‘Let it out,’ I said. ‘Tomorrow, I’m going to take the curtains to the cleaners.’ ‘You what?’ Debbie said. She looked disappointed in me, like she wasn’t expecting to be taken seriously. ‘I’m through with smoking,’ I said flashily. ‘Smoking is so last year.’
‘I hate it when people use the word so like that,’ Debbie said morosely.
‘Smoking is common,’ I said, ignoring this. ‘We’ve got to get out before we’re the last ones left on the planet who smoke. Let’s join the other gang. They’re the cool ones now.’
Debbie cupped her hands around her fag. She looked so lonely. I felt sorry for her, but I had my health to consider. I had my lungs to think about, my blood circulation. ‘Listen,’ Debbie said, taking a deep drag, miffed. ‘This was my idea.’
‘I know,’ I said, ‘but it’s going to be a tough one for you, because your ex-lovers were psychopaths. Mine were all quite nice people really.’
‘You think that because it was you that left them. None of them left you,’ Debbie said, lighting up yet another filthy cigarette.
‘True, true,’ I said evenly.
‘I’m always the one that’s left,’ Debbie said, and suddenly shocked me by bawling her eyes out. ‘Put the fag out,’ I said, ‘and come and look at the sun coming up. It is bright red.’ We stood outside my back door, linking arms looking at the red eye of the rising sun for a long, long time. Debbie didn’t light up. Maybe Debbie would never light up. Maybe we would both become very boring, fat people. ‘I think we’re going to become boring people,’ Debbie said with that uncanny ability to speak my inside thought aloud. ‘Shut up, baby,’ I said in my best Double Indemnity voice. ‘Let’s get some shut-eye. It’s late.’ The morning clouds were swirling about in the sky like wee puffs of smoke.
Photograph by Mary Streepy.