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A Bloody Nose for an Illicit Cigarette

by Joe Young 2 months ago in Teenage years
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When brutal authority figures were par for the course

Treacherous Tab-end (Image by Raphael from Pixabay)

I quit smoking over twenty years ago, but as a youngster, smoking on the sly caused me no end of trouble, mainly after I had been caught in the act by parents or teachers. But the most serious incident that happened to me regarding illicit smoking, occurred while I was living within the confines of a residential children’s home, where I’d ended up as a result of persistent truancy. On that occasion, smoking really was bad for my health.

At sixteen, I was the oldest, for want of a better word, inmate, and I was legally allowed to smoke. This didn’t mean that I could simply light up during a maths lesson at school, rather I was allowed one solitary cigarette in the evening, after my supper.

I had to take my daily legitimate smoke alone in the reception area, so I couldn’t share it with my friends. A staff member would give me a cigarette, an ashtray and a light, and then leave me to it. I felt a little strange at first, smoking in front of staff, but I soon got the hang of it, and I always looked forward to my bedtime smoke.

At the rear of the reception area, there was a huge door with a leaded glass window. I would turn my chair around to be almost facing that door, because I knew that some of my gasping confederates would be on the other side watching me. And I played to the gallery.

Smoking Like a Lord’s Bastard

Sitting in that armchair, in my dressing gown and puffing away, I could have been Noel Coward himself, had I owned a cigarette holder. I luxuriated over each inhalation, blowing smoke rings and flicking ash off with an air of great nonchalance. I did this solely for the benefit of those who were at the door, looking in like hungry street urchins, drooling at a bakery window. I was, to borrow a line from Brendan Behan, smoking like a lord’s bastard.

Speaking of Behan, in his book Borstal Boy, he tells an amusing tale of being caught smoking, which centred around a popular brand of the day, Three Nuns Tobacco. The sixteen-year-old hadn’t been told that smoking wasn’t allowed inside Walton Prison, where he was then situated on remand, and so he lit up a dog-end he’d found in the pocket of his shorts. A warder caught him at it, and confiscated the cigarette, telling him, as he crushed the dog-end with the sole of his boot;

“We only allow one kind of tobacco in here, son, and that’s Three Nuns,” adding, after a suitable pause, “Nun today, Nun tomorrow and Nun the day after that.”

But, back to my story, and, of course, that one cigarette a day was never going to be enough to keep my nicotine-hungry blood sated, nor that of my craving compatriots. We usually had the wherewithal for a smoke stashed in various hidey-holes, and sometimes we would march deep into the woodland which stood behind the building, where we could smoke freely, away from prying eyes and twitching nostrils.

Three Drags and Out

In school, if someone had a cigarette, they would ask to be excused, and then light up in the small toilet. After smoking about half, they would leave the lit cigarette on the floor, behind the door for the next pupil. There would be a flurry of raised hands, as almost the entire class had suddenly been overcome by the need to pee. Three drags and out was the rule, but most ignored it, and by the time the third person got to the smouldering ciggie, there was little left to smoke.

One participant in those sneaky smoking sessions used to play a dirty trick. Having taken his share of inhalations, and before leaving the cigarette for the next person, he would load up the filter tip with spit. The next to suck on it would get the unpleasant surprise of another person’s saliva entering his mouth. I didn’t bother with classroom smokes after experiencing that.

But the biggest event came one night, when I was caught smoking in the dormitory. Like the aforementioned Behan, I had recovered a dog-end from the pocket of my jeans in the bedside drawer. It was after midnight, and everyone else seemed to be asleep, so I sat on my bed and lit up. My bed was situated right next to a sash window, but that would only open about two inches, there being wooden blocks fitted to the frame. A fully opening window might have invited inmates to climb down a bedsheet and scarper, so physical restrictions had been introduced.

As I smoked, I heard footsteps immediately outside the open door of the dormitory. I quickly went to flick the cigarette through the small gap, but my aim was poor. As a staff member doing her rounds walked in, my dog-end rebounded off the window frame, and then, assisted by a gust of wind that came through the open window, bounced off the linoleum floor, sending out a small shower of sparks.

I looked at the staff member, who was silhouetted against the door frame, and my heart sank. It was the one person I’d not wish to have discover me doing something wrong. Had it been any other staff member, I may have been able to cajole them into letting me off with a stern warning. But not this one. She was a stickler, mockingly called Sister Mary behind her back by her own colleagues.

My Treacherous Tab-End

She picked up my treacherous tab-end, and walked out without saying a word. I closed the window and crawled back into bed, but I wasn’t there long, because the staff member came back, to inform me that my presence was desired in the reception area, instanter.

I followed Sister Mary down the stairs in silence, in my dressing gown. She showed me to the reception area, and after she left, I stood alone, right next to the armchair in which I had enjoyed a legitimate smoke a few hours earlier. After an anxious minute or so, the hulking frame of a senior staff member appeared. He stood over six feet tall, and with his hands thrust into the pockets of his dressing gown, he paced back and forth in front of me, muttering about the seriousness of smoking in the dormitory.

Then, without any warning, he unleashed a tremendous backhand, which caught me full in the face, and knocked me over the arm of the chair. As blood ran from my nose, he grabbed me by the lapels of my dressing gown and began violently shaking me, snarling out threats of what lay ahead should I ever be caught doing that again. I noticed that, as angry as he was, he never uttered a single profanity.

Somewhat dazed, I was sent to what was called the sewing room, where I was to stand shivering in the dark for an hour. My betrayer came in with tissues to stem the bleeding from my nose. Thanks a bunch!

When I was alone, I pulled out a wooden stool and sat down. I didn’t dare put the light on, as there was a window in the door. I reflected on what had just happened, and resentment inside me grew. That brute, who had smilingly assured my mother that I would come to no harm in his care, had viciously assaulted me. Finally, Sister Mary came, and guided me back to my bed.

The next morning, as several of us gathered in the bathroom, I was asked about my thick lip, and the caked-on blood around my nostrils. I told them what had happened, but no-one was surprised. They’d seen it all before. And that was an important factor.

Par for the Course

For I didn’t report my physical assault to the authorities, because at the time, it was par for the course. Other authority figures, like teachers and policemen, dished out clips and cuffs across the head as a matter of routine. I had done something wrong, and I was punished for it. The marks faded soon enough, although the resentment didn’t.

One day, as a young teenager, I had been larking about with friends, when the police arrived. Two of us were placed in the back of a car, although we had done nothing wrong. As my friend tried to whisper to me, the officer in the passenger seat, a renowned bully, turned around and delivered a full force slap across my friend’s face. “That’s for talking,” he said.

After a short pause, said bully turned around and gave me an identical slap across the chops. “That’s for listening,” he said. We didn’t make a fuss over the incident, because that was the environment in which we grew up.

That was our normality.

(Originally published in Medium)

Teenage years

About the author

Joe Young

Blogger and freelance writer from the north-east coast of England

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