The kettle is boiling. I fill the single cafetiere. I splash in some cinnamon and prepare the tray. I grab a box of Swan matches. And then I extract the cigar. As the flap pops open the cigars appear like dusky maidens arriving by private lift at an exclusive party.
I select the one on the right. I push back the remainder. They look forlorn as they return to their darkened room, awaiting their turn to be burnt up and reunited with the light.
I place the cigar on the tray and slide my feet into a pair of beach-battered Birkenstocks. I feel like Hemingway or Conrad or maybe Jack London. I step into my suburban garden, pretending it is attached to a log cabin and I am really surrounded by the spring expanse of Alaska or Northern Canada. The grumble of a passing diesel van is the far off moan of a Brown Bear. The flapping wood pigeon in a nearby tree is a sea eagle annihilating its freshly skewered prey.
I head straight for a carefully arranged two-seater garden bench. It is placed in a corner of the garden where every viewpoint of nearby human habitation has been carefully obscured by branches and bushes; here a dangling buddleia, there a lilting lilac, and further off a riot of out-of-control wisteria, its tendrils flailing over a wild rose and overtaking everything else along the boundary fence.
I am alone. I finish my coffee and contemplate the moment. I am ready. I am looking forward to this. The great thing about cigars, I remind myself, is that you do not inhale. I recollect some ghastly moments at school trying to join the in-crowd and cadging a smoke before retiring humiliated and coughing my lungs up. I’m a foodie at heart, and into the whole organic thing. The fact that cigars are somehow natural, from a dried leaf, and not pumped full of slow-burning carcinogenic chemicals, like a mass-produced cigarette, is quietly reassuring.
I will smoke for half an hour and let my mind wander. Then I will wash up and begin my day, reinvigorated and relaxed. I pick up the cigar.
What now? My information on cigars is gathered from films and watching cooler friends at University Balls. I know that the aficionado carries a cigar cutter at all times, but I am a novice. I have brought a mushroom knife. I open the clasp and slice off the sharp end of the cigar; that bit I know goes in my mouth. It has to be clean; no nasty frayed bits.
Then I examine the paper girdle. It’s like a two-dimensional signet ring, that encircles the centre of the cigar. Do I break it off? Somehow it seems wrong. The cigar would appear denuded. I decide to leave it. It is nearest the smoking end of the cigar and maybe it will be a good measure of my progress. When I reach it the cigar will be all but a stub, and if my memory serves me correctly, cigar smokers always discard the stub — like a dominant male marking its territory – I have been here, be aware. I am a big beast and not to be trifled with.
The morning dew still twinkles on the lawn. I am master of all I survey. The day is pregnant with promise. I am that great writer gathering my creative reserves, readying myself for a great burst of artistic energy. Lighting this cigar will be like a fuse on a creative bomb. The top of my head will go boom and out of it will spew greatness.
I have cut the end of the cigar and placed it in my mouth before I am fully aware that that is what I am doing. It seems strangely animate, as if I have cut the tip off some alien finger that now I am inserting in my mouth. Am I the host for some ‘body-snatching’ contaminator?
The cigar fits comfortably on my tongue. It isn’t unpleasant to the taste either, neither slimy nor crumbly — inert and yet embryonic. I know that when I light it and blow out the flavoured smoke, something significant will be happening. A Rubicon will be crossed. Depending on one’s view of smoking and smokers, I will either be joining the ‘dark side’, or taking a positive step in shaking off my petit-bourgeois mental shackles.
I fire the match and light the cigar.
Instinctively, I cup my hand to shield the flickering flame. I puff mechanically. Again I see an image from a film, of a man sucking on a cigar to ignite the end, and then turning it around to examine the glow, before exhaling deeply. This I do. It is exciting that I am alone and that no-one is examining my first hesitant puffs.
I re-arrange my position in the seat. I puff. I exhale. I make sure that I don’t inhale. I try holding the cigar Churchill-like, between middle-finger and fore-finger, but I feel more comfortable holding it between forefinger and thumb. Between smokes it gives off a cloud of purplish smoke, and I am enveloped in its haze. It isn’t as toxic as cigarette smoke, nor as eye-watering as burnt toast. But I will still need a shower before Alice returns. She would find this whole business difficult to understand. To her this would appear adolescent and puerile when placed next to her great journey to rescue her friend from heart-break and despair.
I realise, not for the first time, that man is ultimately alone. A mate is for companionship, but a cigar, like a dog, is for true understanding. I smile to myself as I puff and puff. And I feel the smoke filling and vacating my mouth. My tongue tingles, like I am eating burnt sherbet. I stand and perambulate the garden, like some great land owner examining his estate. As I encounter a wasp or a spider I engulf them in a cloud of exhaled smoke and invariably they spiral off and scramble for cover. I am Gulliver tormenting the little people. I examine my progress from time to time, and the cigar at first seems immune to the amount I am puffing away on it, as if it will go on forever. But suddenly the pristine cover is off and the grey ash is piling up at the end. I enjoy seeing it dangling and magically defying gravity. It grows and grows and still it hangs on quite tenaciously, so that the length of the cigar has not shortened although almost a third is made up of spent leaf. Again, the comparison with a cigarette casts the cigar in a more favourable light. Cigarette ash would flutter away at the slightest tremor or whiff of breeze. Cigar ash, by contrast, needs an all-mighty whack to knock it off its pedestal. And unlike the cigarette equivalent, which would scatter and fragment like dust from an urn, cigar-ash is like coprolite. It sits unmoved and unmoving, waiting to be petrified by time and uncovered by explorers at a later date.
I circle the garden a couple of times before I return to my seat. I shut my eyes and let the sun heat my face and body.
At first I had puffed slightly nervously. Nervous that the cigar might go out. Nervous that I wanted to do this right. How long should I leave between puffs? Not too much and not too little. But as I pass the halfway mark I relax and let myself puff as the mood dictates. I let the smoke curl up from the glowing end and don’t worry about the passing of time. I watch the cloud that I exhale drift completely away before I turn again to kiss my new-found ‘companion’. Like the vanishing smoke my mind floats on high. I am relaxed and yet I am pleasingly alert. I can feel the blood pumping in my chest and in my skull, and even in my tongue. In fact, my tongue is pulsating with what I can only describe as excitement.
As my body opens itself to this new and heady experience, so my mind seems to open itself to new and unexpected possibilities. My normal reserved and conservative nature is having to reassess everything. My whole being, so physically and spiritually antipathetic to the ‘decadent and irresponsible’ smoking world, is now struggling with a realignment in its moral compass. It is almost as if my sensible, strait-laced and responsible nature is falling away just like so much burnt up ash from my cigar.