Up in smoke

A New Year's resolution can disappear in the puff of a filter tip. By Richard Beard. Illustration by Toby Morison
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Single, 30-year-old man takes up smoking.

It happens in an overheated restaurant full of foreign families. Bright synthetic coats bunch the backs of chairs and warm the coatstand by the door. It is abroad, in the mountains of a cold country, several days before New Year. In fact, it's live music night, and two middle-aged men who need haircuts play live synthesiser and live guitar. They know some blues and the abridged Lionel Ritchie songbook.

We're sitting tight in a corner, with a lanterned candle flickering between us. Beneath the table, snow melts from our boots, and not long ago, as we rode a luge down a mountain in the flat light of late afternoon, my girlfriend told me she was sleeping with another man. I had the impression she thought it wasn't unamusing, in the grand scheme of things, and now I drop my bread several times into the cheese fondue, only partly theatrically (sighing). She lights a cigarette, like any other day.

It strikes me suddenly, but with great clarity, that the unarguable advantage her other lover has over me is that he isn't me. He may have other advantages, of course, but I'd prefer not to think about that. I also know more Lionel Ritchie songs than I'd like. Anyway, I want to make her realise that I, too, can be pretty good at not being me, so I reach across the table and take her cigarette. It feels surprisingly dense and hard and oversized for something which disappears so quickly. I suck on it and inhale, and then nonchalantly exhale in the direction of the guitar player. While handing back the cigarette, I notice the indiscretion of the stain on the filter tip. She takes it, smokes it. She doesn't look as worried as I want her to be. She doesn't care.

"You shouldn't," she says.

Well, I know that, thanks. I'm going to die because Cigarettes Kill and Smoking Causes Heart Disease and Tobacco Seriously Damages Your Health. It must be true because on every packet it says so. I've just inhaled a cocktail of nicotine and nitrobenzene and carbon monoxide, phenol and isoprene, and even a small amount of arsenic. I shall catch bronchitis and lung cancer and arteriosclerotic peripheral vascular disease. I'm going to drown in my own chronic mucus hypersecretion, and she just doesn't care. I'll kill myself with cigarettes, and then she'll see.

Self-pity doesn't come much purer than this; except if you're really prepared to work at it. The next morning, back in the city, trams slice through unconvincing lowland snow. She's gone out to work as if life carries on, leaving nothing much behind but her cigarettes. This could mean she's going to pieces, although I'd appreciate some clearer indications.

She doesn't seem to realise that sleeping with another man is deeply significant because I'm involved, me, the thing behind the eyes in the head on the body which is me, and which, it must be admitted, wants things to be significant but not quite like this.

Years and years ago - before I was even born, probably - I learned that smoking was bad for you. It was in the same category as self-pity, because you're only feeling sorry for yourself. Her cigarettes are just there on the table. Outside the window, a street light is strung squarely between the buildings, and it's New Year tomorrow. It's the blues and trombones in my coffee, so I slip a metaphor into the brain and hunch my shoulders (not really hunching) inside a raincoat (no real raincoat). I flip up the collar and pull down the brim of my hat. Here's looking at you, kid, and the big, wide world is a single step away, and, as they say in this country: Life, she is long.

I light the first cigarette I plan to smoke all by myself. It already feels less strange in the mouth. It also tastes vile, which reassures me that it must be fatal. It's difficult, and it seems to take a long time, but I stick at it until my head spins. I crush it out in her favourite cup, which was a present from her grandmother. That's the way to do it.

From previous disasters, I already know that, if things go wrong abroad, the worst refuge to take is Heathrow. (In transit, resist taking unshielded melancholy on to a plane because the cabin staff take it personally.) Touch-down, and already since breakfast I've broken a decent relationship, sullied the memory of a dear old lady, and ruined the mood of the early shift on a Boeing 737. I ought to be dead.

Self-pity is underrated. If something is genuinely sad, to the extent that it threatens the frame of a life, then action is the only allowable reaction. Feeling sorry for yourself is altogether more passive and less urgent. After all, this isn't such a big thing. I've read Shakespeare, and it happens in Shakespeare, so it happens all the time. Women are nasty and that's a fact, at least whenever the men aren't being nasty. A simple betrayal is so commonplace that, of course, you have to pity yourself, because no one else is going to do it for you. Like in Shakespeare, you either soliloquise and go on, or you fall on your sword.

At Heathrow (bad decision), emerging from the automatic doors at Arrivals Terminal 2, I'm still fairly sure I ought to be dead. By an astonishingly modern coincidence, there, on the concourse, in front of WH Smith's, is a separate cashier under a sign which says Cigarettes. Do I want to buy a whole packet of cigarettes for myself? I mean, how much doesn't she care? Is it not worth going on to the point where I genuinely don't want to go on? And what could be more absurd than a healthy 30-year-old non-smoker wilfully taking up this bad, bad habit and joining the shirtsleeved exiles forced to loiter several times a day outside air-conditioned office blocks?

Perhaps she cares a little more now I'm gone. I shall buy a packet of 10 cigarettes. Then I learn that at Heathrow, packets of 10 are not for sale. This is an airport and either you come or you go. There are no half measures. I choose a brand so mild there's no colour on the packet. I've bought a packet of 20 cigarettes and, ignoring the signs to a Smoking Zone (who cares?), I light one. I'm 30 years old. I'm wearing my metaphorical raincoat and my Bogart hat, and I know I'm killing myself. I've just become a smoker.

At which point I should probably confess that, actually, I've done this before. For nearly 10 years, starting in earnest at the age of 17, I smoked cigarettes all day and every day, dragging my teenage contempt of death well into my twenties. I gave up three years ago, in order to move on. I wrote a novel, X 20, about a man much the same age as me who has just given up smoking. Fictionally, this man writes something down every time he wants a cigarette, and it's perhaps inevitable that he should write mostly about desire and frustration - love, therefore - and the difference between what he wants and what he can have. There are 20 chapters in the book, and the first chapter has 20 sections and the second 19, and so on until in the last and 20th chapter there is only one section. There is no 21st chapter because he no longer wants a cigarette and, therefore, has no reason to write anything down.

Back in real life, I play with my diminishing packet of colourless Heathrow cigarettes while watching a vivid M4 through the window of a National Express on its way to Wales. I'm still feeling sorry for myself, but now I'm also worried that I haven't actually taken up smoking but instead have given up giving up. I'm pretending to be the person I was before I met her and hoping to start again and have another go. Or I need to smoke cigarettes in order to stop again and have something to write. Or it's all purely chemical and there's never any giving up once your body, at any time, has asked for a little chemical assistance and received it. Whatever. The point is, I deserve to smoke because I'm all alone and it doesn't matter if I kill myself because she just doesn't care. I picture pale, Welsh body-surfers cruising diagonally across these waves of self-pity

Next day, in the shadow of the Black Mountains, a nice lady from the Walnut Tree Stores hands over a packet of cigarettes in a simple exchange for money. Three pounds and seven pence, which doesn't seem so expensive once you've got the hang of it. The nice lady doesn't say I shouldn't, or I should know better, or tell me to stop feeling sorry for myself (she just doesn't care).

I only smoke outside the house, as if it makes any difference. And I've only bought 20 cigarettes, which is the number which keeps coming up in X 20. Once I've finished the packet, I'll stop and so close off this episode with a satisfying numerical symmetry. Except, with the packet from Heathrow, it's already 40, which is just about all right because it's twice 20. I make these calculations as if, in the absence of sense elsewhere, there might be a hidden meaning in numbers.

Standing outside, feeling sorry for myself, smoking. My life is not in danger, except from the cigarettes, and the only thing wrong with me is that something I didn't want to happen has happened. I'm reminded - and about time, too - that any sensation of a life under control is illusory. I realise I have no great knowledge of what's going on or how the world works, so no wonder I feel sorry for myself. There are probably people who never feel this way, but that's because they've missed something. We feel sorry for ourselves because the world is big and our lives are small, but never small enough to keep under control.

It may even be that all sadness involves a form of self-pity, feeling sorry for ourselves that we don't live in a world without sadness. It's honest, and even inevitable, and, as long as it remains despised, it has its uses. It becomes something to escape, and, even though nothing changes outside ourselves, a brief immersion in self-pity allows us to have something to have enough of.

Days go by, and the insensible number of cigarettes I've smoked is now 211 (including the one in the flat). Life, indeed, she is long. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Rediscover the illusion of control. Stop smoking. I devise a plan: each time I want a cigarette, I'll read a section of the book about a man who writes a section of a book each time he wants a cigarette. I step outside, as if I was going to smoke. I watch the clouds roll down the valley towards their sunset. I remember the luge and another afternoon, and start to crave a cigarette. Time to read some book