A Dark Light


I once knew a man in Bangalore who won the devotion of women through the sheer perfection with which he wielded a cigarette lighter. He had a rack of dozen lighters, which he cleaned and put in order once a week. Before making for his girl, he would select one, fuel it, and put in a new flint, taking care to choose a large and manly one for the tiny, frightened girl or with cigarette case and a slim glass of gin and tonic for the slightly neglected girl standing afar. At precisely the right moment in the cigarette maneuver, fire would dart from his hand. He had trained himself to see a pretty girl feel for a smoke across three platforms, as it were, and to be behind her, flame ready, before the cigarette was at her lips. He was a charmer, so elegant with his lighter that most women went on to believe whatever he said he was. What he was not was a distinguished smoker and neither was I.

I quit smoking for the same reasons that many people turn to religion: out of fear and hope. I fear leaving the earth any earlier than need be, for I greatly like it here and would like to remain in excellent physical shape. I cannot say that I felt all that poorly when I smoked. My first cigarette was smoked in the rain; make that my first five or six cigarettes. The brand is not worth mentioning but I and my friend whose name I shouldn’t mention were sixteen. We bought the cigarettes one rainy school-day afternoon. Lighting them in the rain wasn’t easy, and smoking them, when raindrops first blotched, then dampened the paper was no cinch either. My recollection is that we each smoked five or six cigarettes, and then lest it provide incriminating evidence, buried the rest of the pack in his background and planted a questionably tombstone at its head. I remember my friend still lingering there whilst I had already gone in to give it a silent salute. We can scarcely be said to have enjoyed the cigarettes we did smoke, though neither of us became the least bit sick, as young boys, toward the end of being taught a lesson, are supposed to become the first time they smoke. He and I then both went on, as it turned out, to distinguished non-smoking careers. I can’t help but wonder what went wrong. After quitting cigarettes I suppose I felt a little less lousy. I coughed less, I ate more heartily, and I breathed more easily at the top of the stairs. Stopping smoking, however, filled me with what I can only call fatness of soul.

We met again the other day at a dank yet expensive hotel in Wellington Island, eight years after our first and last smoke and neither of us spoke. I, sunk in despondency, had nothing to say. He had already used up his profanity watching the recent Manchester United game; besides, the English language was deficient in that it failed to provide words adequate to his anger. We were non-smokers in a world which demanded the accompaniment of a cigarette for life’s many activities. Coffee without a cigarette seemed unnatural; booze without a cigarette, impossible. A meal required capping off with a smoke, a fine meal with two or three. Emerging from your local tea shop or completing any errand called for a nicotine reward. In a minor crisis – a deadline looming up, an argument, tension of one kind or another and the occasions when nicotine twitch beckoned. But we always carry around a lighter, to be behind you, flame ready, before the cigarette is at your lips. We are the non-smokers that people deserve, but not the ones they need right now. So we don’t light them. Because we don’t need to. Because we are not regular smokers. But we are silent guardians, watchful protectors of smokers. A dark light.

This was published in FWD Life Magazine in their February 2014 edition.

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