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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Bimbo, the Blitz, and Tobacco [Part 2]

Frankly, I wasn’t that keen, I confess, for two main reasons. No, three.

Firstly, I didn’t know how to smoke, though I gathered it wasn’t quite the same action as blowing bubbles with a bubblepipe. There was something different about it and I didn’t want to put my ignorance on the line, even to Bimbo.  Maybe especially to Bimbo. He would tell others at school what a failure I was at one of life’s fundamental arts, and there would be much scorn, probably amongst many others who didn’t have a clue about it either, not having the luxury of daily access to the Blitz and the contents of its ashtray.
   Secondly, the thought of the circumstances under which these had been partially smoked by his dad didn’t appeal to me much, and, thirdly and most importantly, if my father found out, I was sure I was in for a belting that would be described in our post-Saddam world as the mother of all beatings.
   BUT peer pressure is peer pressure, and dumb kids are idiots, so off I slunk reluctantly with the master smoker down behind the stables.
   There are two ways you can get your nicotine hit from second hand dumpers from your nearest shitcart – you can simply light up what’s there and smoke them like there’s no tomorrow, or you can also steal a packet of Zig-zags from the Blitz, extract the best of the partially burnt tobacco from the leavings, and remake the durry using a fresh cigarette paper [trade name Zig-zag or Tally Ho]. So a freshly remade durry was my preferred option, but to be truthful, I wasn't keen on either of them.
   Rolling a smoke by hand is an art form, and I would no more have been able to do it than fly to the moon, which in 1955 was regarded as even more impossible than shortly before that July afternoon in 1969. Bimbo, on the other hand, was highly expert at it, looking like a wizened little veteran as he ran his tongue along the gummed edge of the cigarette paper and stuck it down.
   I don’t know about you, but I was very icky about other people’s spit as a kid. If I had to share a bottle of drink with someone, I always wiped off where their mouth touched the top, even other family members with whom I must have shared every known [and unknown] microbe. Others were not so fastidious. Even the fact that Bimbo had freshly licked down the durry wasn’t to my liking, but as there was only one of us capable of doing the job, he made two, noted which one was bigger, kept it and thrust the other one into my hand. He lit up, holding the smoke in the recommended way, and drew on it deeply.
   He looked at me, still sitting there trying to emulate his expert grip on the durry.
   ‘What’s up? Here,’ he said, tossing me the box of Redhead matches.
   Striking matches I was good at. I had nearly succeeded in burning down our house twice even by this stage of my life, but those are other stories and at the rate I’m going I am never going to get to the end of this one. Sorry.
   I put the durry between my lips, loathing the taste of partially burned tobacco, struck a match and applied it to the end of the smoke. It flared for a while but nothing really happened. I did the only thing I knew. I blew gently as if I were making a bubble, something which I was also good at because I had my own special soap formula for producing large, stable, rainbow coloured bubbles.
   ‘Idiot!’ snapped Bimbo, ‘don’t blow – suck on it!’
   That was a revelation to me. As far as I could see, practically every man in the 1950s smoked, as well as some women usually regarded, in Calliope at least, as a little loose of morals if they did it in public. Joyce Moran was one - she was the one who loudly told everyone in the café about her encounter with Charlie Brown in the thunderbox - but she didn't care what anyone else thought about anything. My point here, now almost completely lost I regret to say, is I had never really noted carefully how the act of smoking was done. It just seemed ridiculously easy, like riding a horse - until you try it. Right then I wished I had paid more attention to the myriad of opportunities I'd had in the past to observe the right technique.
   I sucked, just a tiny bit, and blew a thin puff of smoke out straight of my mouth. It tasted even more foul lit than when it wasn’t, but at least something resembling smoking was happening.
   ‘That’s not right! Next time you suck, open your mouth and do the drawback.’
   My English language skills were pretty well developed by the age I was given this advice, so being told to do anything called a drawback seemed counter-productive to me.
   ‘Just get some smoke in your mouth, then open it and breathe in. No, not through your nose, breathe in through your mouth, dopey.’
I did as bidden, hating the acrid taste and smell more and more, and sucked the smoke into my lungs. The effect was indescribably awful. I had a hand grenade in each lung, and they'd both gone off together. 'Drawback' was indeed a good description, though hugely understated as far as I was concerned.
   ‘Jeez! Stop coughing your guts up. You’ll have dad down here in a minute wondering what’s wrong. Stop it!
   Stop your lungs feeling like they were on fire? Shattered into clumps of rapidly dying cells? Are you joking?
   He wasn’t, but nor was I. I stopped coughing finally, and puffed tentatively, and tried to avoid inhaling any more smoke into my protesting lungs, but gave up before half way. I was feeling more than a little ill and must have looked like it. ‘Here. I’ve had enough.’ 
   ‘Well, give it to me and I’ll finish it off.’ Bimbo had absolutely no qualms about other people’s spit so he dragged on it till almost the end.
   His dad appeared from round the corner. Bimbo’s reflexes were pretty quick and I marvelled at how the tail end of the durry, loosely held between the fingers of his right hand, instantaneously disappeared under the mixture of loose dirt and decomposed horse droppings we were sitting on. 
"Drawback Denis" illustration by Watto

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