Previously in "What I Miss Most": Sauntering around Boots.
Is pleading a legitimate part of grief? If so, then please Lord, all I ask is that you answer my prayers and open up just one pub garden. Even a single flimsy patio chair and a tin can ashtray will suffice.
In the Before Times, I was a proper smoker. I can count on both hands the number of days over the last decade-and-a-bit that I haven't had a cigarette perpetually on the go. I was a weak man, a craven man. However, the last month of enforced solitude has done what a million strategically placed Allen Carr books, disapproving glances or scare-em-straight cigarettes packs could never have hoped to achieve.
As the quarantined days have turned to weeks, and then to probable months, the desire to puff myself into sweet oblivion has subsided into something far more sinister: a listlessness bordering on apathy towards my old carcinogenic friends. How did it get to this? How could it be possible, in a time of heightened stress and flatlining sanity, to smoke less, not more? Some of it might have to do with the rapid, worldwide spread of a virus with the potential to devastate even healthy young lungs – and though that's the answer I would give in court, it isn't the truth. I'm afraid that the collapse in my nicotine consumption has a much less sensible explanation: the temporary extinction of the pub smoking area.
What does it say about me that these ashy spaces have formed one of the bedrocks of my life, good, bad and demented, for the entirety of my adulthood so far? Ninety percent of my social life – back when such a concept held any sort of meaning – was conducted in their confines. The shifty Skehans pergola, The Herne's cavernous garden, the weird, thin little enclave at the back of The Laurieston in Glasgow, which has the air of a portal leading directly to the Twilight Zone. Each has witnessed more absurdity and joy than I can put into meaningful words, as well as the occasional wobble and earnest, hushed one-to-one tete-a-tete on all things love and life. Even writing this is more than enough to turn me misty-eyed.
It's rarely just about the physical smoking areas themselves, but what they can, occasionally, represent. The kind of stress-free communal space that's so much rarer than it should be. Where else can you sit or stand in comfort, for a whole night, shuffling in and out of conversations for as long as your attention span demands, or the cold allows? And how many awkward indoor moments have been justifiably aborted by making an apologetic beeline for freedom, "borrowed" Regal nestled behind the ear?
I can't be the only one who's reached the stage of constructing futile hostage negotiation situations in my head. In the darker hours, I've tried everything – "Let the smoking areas go and I promise to complete Couch to 5K," and all manner of other abjections. Why does it matter? I am an adult man and can smoke if I want to: there is no one with a gun pressed to my temple, telling me to step away from the baccy. But without the combination of space, friends and beer, it's all started to feel a bit empty.
After all, there are only so many times you can slink off a Zoom call and onto the thin bit of street outside the front door for a prison-thin rollie, sucked down with one eye clamped with justified suspicion on the full family of joggers barrelling down the pavement. It just won't do, I'm afraid. I need something else, something more. I need to feel the tiny thrill of charity after giving a stick of filters to the person who only asked for one, just as I need the perfect setting for a couple of hours of uninterrupted nonsense talk with my loved ones.
It's clear enough that all I'm really asking for is pity. Pity, and one loosely rolled cig, with a pint of reliably dismal lager and the same half dozen bits and gags that have sustained my close friendships since my 18th birthday. Written down, it doesn't really seem like too much to ask. There will be people in my life who are delighted by my sudden declension from smoker to ex-smoker, but I'm not quite sure I'm one of them yet. If anything, it's just one of the most solid reminders of the complete collapse in the ordinary social order of my life and the lives of those I choose to spend my time with.
If only we'd known what was to come, perhaps we'd have just chosen to stay there after closing time, like the Japanese soldiers who carried on fighting for years after the end of WW2. Enough. Forget smoking areas. Perhaps all I'm really trying to say is: I want to go outside and see my friends.