Smokers by Janet Olearski
The Onorevole Gaetano Costa, the highest of high-court judges, domiciled in the city of Palermo, was a heavy smoker. His wife Rita did what she could to discourage the habit. However, it transpired that one afternoon in early August, overriding his wife’s advice and expectations, he stepped out of the house to buy a packet of cigarettes, followed in haste and concern by his bodyguard. He crossed the via Roma and headed up the via Cavour in the direction of the Teatro Massimo to reach his preferred tabaccaio. He gave a nod to the owner of the newspaper kiosk opposite the shop, entered, made his purchase, and exited, all in a short space of time. As he browsed the books on the bancarella and opened his pack of cigarettes, a small black car pulled up by the pavement alongside the kiosk. The car’s right-side window rolled down and a volley of shots was fired from the P38 that was balanced on the car door.
The following day, the newspapers on display outside the kiosk reported the sudden and barbaric end of Onorevole Costa together with his bodyguard. This was one tragic example of a case in which someone would have done well to give up smoking.
I moved into the Costas’ second floor apartment a few years after the Onorevole’s death. The kitchen balcony was locked off with a barred gate. The apartment door was bulletproof, a block of steel – several inches thick – that bolted into the threshold. His widow, now a Communist MP, had already transferred to the penthouse apartment in the same building. In the early days of my tenancy Mrs. Costa, looking small and anxious, would visit me to see if all was well, and to urge me, if I needed to smoke, to do so on the front balcony.
‘Otherwise,’ she said, ‘the walls and furnishings will be ruined. But give the balcony a wash now and then, won’t you?’
I was young and understood very little about housework, and even less about loss and bereavement. I knew about smoking. In the London flat where I had grown up, the wallpaper and furnishings were yellowed and malodorous. There were no balconies on which to escape the fumes. My parents chain-smoked and blamed the war.
‘There you have it,’ said my mother whenever she watched a war film on television. ‘When a soldier is wounded, they put a cigarette in his mouth to make him feel better.’ She spoke not without insider knowledge. A World War II bullet blasted its path through her brother’s chest, exploded out of his shoulder, and tore apart one of his lungs. This ensured that he would never smoke again, nor would he be caught in the smoking trap. He was saved by Streptomycin, not tobacco.
Following my parents’ example, I had also smoked, but I did so in order to be seen as sophisticated, not because of the war, of which I knew nothing. At art school in the late 1960s, recently released from my Notting Hill convent school, I wanted to be like the unflappable girls in the painting studio, who dressed in black and who paused between brush strokes to roll their own. I smoked because it was not done to sit in the Students’ Union and refuse a cigarette, the equivalent to turning down a date. Cinema adverts told me that the brand of cigarettes I chose would be my ‘international passport to smoking pleasure,’ and if I smoked Gauloise Blu I would surely live the same slick and glamorous life as Alain Delon, and speak French into the bargain.
My mother, a lifelong smoker, suffered from bronchitis. We took it – my father and I – that smoking was bad, and lectured her on its dangers, of which she was well aware. My father, while continuing to smoke himself, gave her the evil eye whenever he saw her light up a cigarette. She gave in and, miraculously, gave up. No patches, no e-cigarettes, no therapy, no substitute binge eating. She just stopped. But I thought it strange that, when she emerged from the bathroom, the air that circulated inside had a strangely smoky after-smell.
‘Are you still smoking?’ I asked.
She was poker-faced when she told me, ‘No.’
My mother wouldn’t lie to me. Would she?
When she died some years later, her bronchitis as chronic as ever, I began to refurbish our flat. A carpenter friend removed the wooden panels from around the bath, uncovering the many mounds of cigarette ends that had accumulated below a hole next to the pipes. I never told my father, who by now had made his own doubtful commitment to not smoking. Five years later when he too died, the doctors attributed his heart attack to heavy smoking and not to his poor adaptation to a new medication for epilepsy.
I ceased smoking long before my parents’ deaths. My Sicilian partner removed a cigarette from my lips and told me I did not smoke. And, it was true. I did not smoke. I had never become addicted. The cigarette smoke drifted in and drifted back out again. It never got to explore the inner recesses of my lungs. He, on the other hand, had been an inveterate smoker until the incident that changed his mind.
Always a strong swimmer, he had found himself at the beach one day when a child was caught in a cross current and was dragged beneath the waves. He dived in to save the boy. It was in any case expected of him but, as he tells the tale, one minute he was ploughing through the water and the next he was clawing for the surface as the undercurrent pulled him into its depths. His breath was taken from him. His lungs froze. He gasped for air, for oxygen, for life. And down he went.
He found himself on the shore, the rescuer rescued. Others had entered the water. The boy was brought back safely. The doctor concluded that my partner’s smoking had indeed damaged his lungs. This time he had been lucky. There would be no next time. He stopped smoking that same day, after which, like all once-smokers, he condemned the nicotine-stained unbelievers.
The walls of my home in Central Portugal are not yellowed. They are black, the furnishings consumed or melted. The ceiling lights hang rigidly like stalactites. The windows are exploded and cracked. The TV, the printer, the appliances are molded into folds like playdough. Fragments of soot waft down through the air onto the charred surfaces below. People ask me how the October fires started, and I do not know. It was hot. It was dry. It was windy. Perhaps a car drove past, a window was rolled down, and a lighted cigarette end was fired from the open car window at an unsuspecting eucalyptus forest.
Janet Olearski is a London-born writer, who lives in Central Portugal. Her short fiction has appeared in Constellate, Litro, Bare Fiction, Wasafiri, and elsewhere. Janet is the author of the story collection A Brief History of Several Boyfriends, and one unpublished novel, A Traveller’s Guide to Namisa.
You can enter the 2020 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize here.