Maybe it's time I took up smoking again. I could do with the company and you're never alone with a packet of 20 – party at mine if it's a packet of 25. Actually the last cigarettes I bought in my long, distinguished career as a smoker were Marlboro Lights in packets of 25. God, they looked good. White packet, white filter. It made the cigarettes seem pale and thin. I was smoking little effigies of myself. Those were the days; then I gave up cigarettes, took up biscuits, and got fat. Smoking causes minor health risks but it's wildly successful at achieving weight loss.
I quit nine years ago. It was after an intense, all-day session at the Plunket rooms in Pt Chevalier, where a therapist from Allen Carr's Easyway stop-smoking regime worked her way inside the minds of her class. There were five of us. One guy said it was his second time around, which hardly filled me with confidence. It cost a lot of money – something like $495 – and I figured it was a total waste, that it would have been better spent on things for the baby, or better still, 20 packets of Marlboro Lights 25.
But it was amazing. She started off by saying she would plant something like six or seven messages in our mind. They weren't especially complex but neither were they memorable, and one of the class, a woman from South Africa, said out loud exactly what I was worrying about after the third or fourth message, when she said, "I'm actually having trouble remembering some of them." I'd already forgotten the lot. Something something don't smoke, or whatever.
The therapist smiled. She looked at the class. She said, "That's the point. You won't remember anything. It's in your subconscious."
The subconscious! That old dark cave of secrets and desires, repressed memories and ancient grievances! She explained it was gestalt therapy, that the messages sank beneath the conscious mind – they were like sleeper agents, working their magic. In essence it was brainwashing. I thought later that it was a bit of a wasted opportunity, that she could have inculcated powerful and useful ideas to do with making lots of money or signing up to a terrorist cell. All of them would have worked. I follow orders, believe anything. A friend was once so staggered by my gullibility that he told me over a drink that he read about a doll called Mr Gullible; you pulled a string on its back, and it squawked, "I believe you!"
I said, "Wow! Where can I get one?"
We were allowed to smoke at morning tea and lunchtime and have one at afternoon tea; it was the last cigarette I ever smoked. Things were tough during the next few days but the spell gradually took hold, the subconscious obeyed the sleeper agents, and I became just another smoke-free schnook. Now and then I've tried to smoke. I've held cigarettes. I've lit cigarettes. But I'm simply unable to smoke cigarettes. Allen Carr Easyway: it works.
It was a long and emotionally gruelling day at the Plunket therapy session all those years ago. I felt like crying. It was saying goodbye to an old friend, that burning stick, that thin and pale guest, which had seldom left my side for 28 years. Vaping is for children and idiots, I don't want a bar of that nonsense; I miss cigarettes. I liked cigarettes. I smoked them in Britain, America, Europe, Southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East – my fourth book was called Smoking In Antarctica. I hated everything about my fortnight in the no-smoking zone of Scott Base but one night in the eternal sunlight of summer in Antarctica I trudged over a hill to the American base at McMurdo and the first thing I saw was a guy smoking a Camel on the main street. I said, "Are you allowed?"
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He said, "Welcome to the land of the free."
Those were the days . . . I think I want to come in from the cold. It's not that I want to go back to smoking a packet a day. Just the occasional cigarette, now and then, like an after-dinner mint. Nine years is a good smoke-free innings. The baby is now 12, and can look after herself. I respect the subconscious as a strong and implacable opponent but I bet the conscious mind could win the fight and allow me to pick up a cigarette, light it, and smoke it. Man, that first one would taste sweet. And the one after that.