Cigarettes were no alien objects in our childhood. In fact they were extremely commonplace; a natural appendage to most adults’ persona. Just as now everyone clutches a mobile phone, so then, most held onto a packet of fags. Ladies tended towards the flip-top box of 20’s style, where a plastic lighter could be inserted into the packet once approximately 4 had been smoked. Men on the other hand, particularly farmers, had a permanent flat box of 30 tucked into their top shirt pocket, always on the left (ironically above your heart) so as the majority right-handed amongst them could reach across and remove the packet with ease. This was a natural manoeuvre for every die-hard addict. Tobacco manufacturers who currently think it is an ingenious plan to present cigarettes in plain packaging to deter smoking are woefully mistaken and behind the times. These flat packs of 30s were always blank on the back and usefully so. Providing an instant notebook, many a crop yield was calculated on the back of such a pack; or the average price per ton on the floors; or the odds on the 2.40 at Borrowdale; – the possibilities were endless. Today’s blank packaging would provide double the calculation space.
It wasn’t only on smokers’ possession that cigarettes were evident. Any self-respecting house had them available in abundance. In the lounge, my mother had a particularly oriental looking cigarette case with a domed cloisonné lid, which when lifted, always revealed a stack of the neat white cancer sticks. Beside it was an upright decorative matchbox holder of the same Chinese art form into which an ordinary 2 cents box of Lion matches could slot perfectly and be elevated into a thing of class and beauty. Any visitors to the house could help themselves and the box would duly be replenished the next day. At dinner parties, cigarettes got even greater prominence, being arranged upright in a circle in dainty crystal vases, and placed down the table next to the flowers. This may sound bizarre these days but they were so cheap then and being tobacco farmers in a tobacco dependent economy, it seemed rude not to support the industry. In fact a lot of offices and public buildings had signs saying “Thank you for Smoking”.
So, obtaining cigarettes was not a difficult thing. But you were meant to be at least 16 before you officially smoked. Always curious, I was about six when I decided the time had come to see what was so appealing to adults about these objects. Obviously taking a cigarette was not going to be difficult, but how to light it; where to smoke it; and, most importantly in a country tinder-dry and rife with bush-fires, always blamed in our house on “some bloody idiot who threw a fag-butt out the window”, how to safely extinguish it, were all taxing issues to a small child. As always, I turned to my constant companion and our faithful nanny, Jofina, for a bit of collusion. Initially she was horrified and shaking her head vehemently, she said firmly; “No Shupa, smoking is a very bad thing and you must not do it.” I was adamant however, so she wisely changed tack and became a willing accomplice.
She chose mid-afternoon, when most of the labour would be out in the lands, with my father over-seeing, and my mother would be busy sewing or down at the store. Silently we selected one pristine cigarette from the immaculate rows in the cloisonné chest and slipped it into Jofina’s large double pocket in the front of her uniform. The spare boxes of matches were kept in the top left drawer of the cabinet under the standard lamp, and obviously needing the strike edge of a box, I regretfully had to shoplift a whole box, although I knew we might only need one or two actual matches. They joined the lone cigarette in Jofina’s pouch and then we nonchalantly sauntered out the mesh swing back door; up the narrow dusty path through the orchard; through the gate near Dad’s office and into the ‘other world’ of the farmyard, which held the delights of the workshop; the reservoir, the tractor sheds, and the tobacco barns themselves, where the golden weed was strung upside down in hands to dry.
Jofina decided the open-ended garage would be a good place to smoke this cigarette, although with adult hindsight, why she chose a spot adjacent to a vehicle loaded with fuel is a mystery, but probably because like most other things in life then, health and safety were not issues of concern. We squatted down behind the large white bench-seated Ford Fairlane which transported our family of six at the time, and with Jofina’s help I lit the cigarette. One puff – no problem; two puffs and I was coughing and spluttering and screwing up my face in disgust. That was enough for Fina to grab the offending item from my fist, pound it into the dirt, and march me from the garage back home; her head held morally high as she knew it would be long time before I smoked again, and me feeling very grown-up now that that hurdle had been crossed but very confused as to why adults liked it when sweets tasted so much better?