Somewhere, in the depths of my sleep, a niggle prompts me to turn over, and the resulting disarrangement causes me to frown in annoyance. I am now aware of my retina, and the daylight penetrating the thin membrane of my closed eyelid. Damn those white curtains that Alice insists on hanging in every bedroom. I open one eye to focus on the bedside clock. It comes to rest on a box of cigars. They are alien to me. I am not a smoker. I never have been, and never will be.
The association returns from a jumble of half-focused memories. They are the memento of the night before; a prop for a friend’s fancy-dress birthday-party; the theme – US sit-coms. Alice went as Jeannie from I Dream of Jeannie, and I, un-co-operatively, went as Hannibal from The A Team. I figured all I needed was a bandana round the throat, an open-necked shirt, and a couple of cigars held in hand or chomped on between grinning teeth. Going as Larry Hagman, Jeannie’s co-star, would require the hassle of hiring a USAF uniform. I was right, it was hassle-free and I had been a hit. It was a good evening.
Alice’s hired costume is pooled forlornly on her side of the bed. Poor girl, she must have been exhausted. I hadn’t even heard her get up. She had dressed and showered and was now blearily chugging down the motorway to spend a weekend consoling her best friend after the collapse of yet another disastrous relationship, with a man who we all knew was eminently unsuitable. What a depressing thought. I find it hard to be as sympathetic as Alice with someone who appears to repeat the same mistake again and again, so I bite my tongue.
Alice and her friend drift out of my mind as I continue to scrutinise the cigar box. It is cream and crisp, with a gold embossed band round the middle, surmounted by a red crest, chronicling the aristocratic pedigree of these peculiar Cuban creations. Funny for a Marxist country to be so proud of its blue-blooded antecedents. On closer inspection the gold circlet is composed of a myriad of tiny shiny shields, denoting the various awards this brand has won in the course of its illustrious history.
I had bought them because they were the longest ones in the cigar shop. I didn’t intend to smoke them, and anyway you can’t smoke anywhere in public these days. Nonetheless, the sweet taste and pungent smell of them had got inside me. There was a faint aroma still on the tip of my tongue. I was supposed to have presented them to my host at the end of the evening. But for some reason I didn’t. I took them home and placed them carefully back in the box. Alice thought I was crazy – now we would look cheap, like we had forgotten to buy a present.
Something about the box craves my full attention. But what is it? What magnetic power does it exert? Is it simply the compact beauty and refinement of the box and its sleek, missile-shaped cargo? Is it the association with exclusivity — the notoriety and celebrity of a genuine Cuban cigar; the Champagne of smokes; the forbidden fruit that the whole US Customs and Excise Department is marshalled against in its undeclared war with its diminutive and revolutionary neighbour? Or is it the parade of famous and powerful men who we have all seen champing and sucking them – like ubiquitous masculine pacifiers – the male equivalent of milk chocolate that we all secretly want a piece of?
I think of Clint Eastwood with his flinty stare and surly lips, clamped round a cigar in his ‘man with no name’ Spaghetti-Western phase; or Arnold Schwarzenegger with his “I’ll be back” roles — from hard-core mercenary to uber-robot – snarling and puffing in equal measure. Or then there’s the man who saved the world – Winston Churchill, with his endlessly copied ‘V for victory’ salute. Wherever my mind turns the cigar has always been an iconic and pre-eminent association; much more so than the suspect cigarette, which is the smoking equivalent of fast-food – disposable and commonplace. “So much more bad for you”, my mind involuntarily whispers to me, and leaves hanging in the air the tacit conclusion that cigar-smoking is positively analeptic.
What dark PR force is sneaking up and pouring its honeyed words in my ear? I do not know. What I do know is that I reach for the box. I turn this perfect rectilinear packet over in my hand. The light from the ineffective blind bounces off its shiny surface. There is no apparent entry into the box, no broken wrapping or spilling contents. I know, from having cut the paper seal on its side, that to access the interior at the point of entry all I have to do is press upwards with my thumb and the outer-casing slides down and an inner-casing slides up. It is as if I have tripped a secret spring on some ancient relic. The movement speaks of craftsmen; it is smooth and effortless. And for a moment it would appear that all we have is an inner sealed box. But just then the inner box reveals a flap which opens to display three brown cigars nestled together. The precious cargo yields a whiff of spice. I have smelt a tobacco flower and I know how strong its scent is. No wonder the leaf, and its transformation into a roll of tobacco, should contain so powerful an aroma.
I notice for the first time French writing on the box. The text is large and out-of-keeping. It is attached to a sticker affixed crookedly around the centre. I have read enough schoolboy vocab to understand that ‘Fumer’ is smoking and that ‘Morte’ is death. A French import? How very strange. I wonder casually at the journey that this little box has made to end up here in my bedroom. A corner of the sticker is flapping. I slip my thumbnail underneath and slowly peel. I am careful not to damage the packaging and it comes away in one clean tug. It seemed the French authorities, going through the motions of enforcing EU anti-smoking directives, were themselves equally at pains not to damage the presentation of this Prince of Cigars. And suddenly the box is free. Free of its offending handcuffs, free of the degrading smear, free of the unkind attack on its integrity and perfection.
I muse for a moment on the Cubans turning a blind eye to the rest of the world and its anti-smoking rules and regulations. Perhaps this brand is so strong an export earner that they cannot turn their own critical gaze upon its possible dangerous and health-damaging properties. Maybe the Cubans don’t care a jot what anyone else says, or maybe their bristling, South American pride and machismo just dismisses this as so much hot air and nanny-state emasculation.
I resolve in that instant to get up this very day and smoke this big fat missile from Havana.
What has come over me? I don’t smoke. I’m almost 40. Why now? I can see the rational me, standing outside myself – critical, disapproving, aghast. What am I doing? Am I mad? But I pull on a t-shirt and some cargo pants and continue downstairs.
I’m a writer after all. Hundreds of thousands of fellow scribes have started the day with a coffee and a smoke. I do neither. Perhaps that’s the problem with my writing? Perhaps that’s the problem with my whole life? I keep it too safe, too sensible. I need to leap occasionally and not know whether there is a safety net. It’s not a mid-life crisis; it’s a realisation that one has become “comfortably numb” — to quote Pink Floyd. Now I really am showing my age.
I proceed into the kitchen and fill the kettle. A coffee sounds divine. That and this puff will really set me up. I am going to enjoy this day. And as a result I am going to create some amazing work.
I push open the French doors into the garden. The sun is streaming down. Insects buzz about happy to be alive. I feel that all of nature will anticipate my next step with equal measures of love and reverence.