Smoker’s Story

I was walking into the bank this morning when I passed a young slender teenager who was looking rather solemn, leaning against the wall with a cigarette hanging out the corner of his mouth. The image created made me reflect on the previous evening’s conversation.

Whilst sitting around the kitchen table, the talk turned to smoking or to be more specific the health risks associated with it. The topic was very poignant because the grandfather of this particular family had died of lung cancer in his early forties some 30 odd years ago and currently his youngest son is about the same age and a smoker.

As I walk the streets of Sandakan, I often see many young and old smoking. Of course I don’t know the percentage of those who do smoke but I suspect it is quite high compared to other parts of the world.

This is not going to be a piece on ‘stop smoking or else’, but of the choices we make during our life.

In another life, I used to work as a nurse in Adelaide and in that capacity I had to deal with a lot of different people; some pleasant, some not so.

This took place almost 40 years ago. I don’t remember the name of the man central to my story, so for the sake of this tale we’ll call him Harry.

Harry was the sort of person who you could take too almost immediately. Despite his debilitating condition, he came across as chirpy, cheerful and personable. He struck up conversations with almost everybody on the ward. I was 19 and very shy but I immediately felt comfortable in his presence. At the time, he would have been in his early seventies but looked much older. His craggy-character-filled face told of a life of excesses and through his constant stories, obviously one he never regretted. Ever the optimist he refused to look at anything in a negative light. He must have been in excruciating pain but brought an immediate cheer to the otherwise depressing environment of the ward.

You see this particular ward was for amputees. Mostly people who had experienced trauma of some sort, severe diabetics, or in the case of Harry sufferers of PVD or peripheral vascular disease.

Harry was a chain smoker and had been since the age of 12. He loved his cigarettes and couldn’t imagine a life without them. He enjoyed the odd beer or two and smoking went hand in hand with that activity.

I’m not going to go into the intricate details of PVD other than to say the majority of those who contract the disease smoke.

Harry’s feet and lower legs were almost black through lack of blood supply. In other words, his limbs were dying. On this blackness grew large fluid filled blisters that constantly burst giving off a putrid odour whenever the wadded dressing was changed around his ankles.

The afternoon he arrived, the doctors had decided that he was to lose both of his legs above the knee. Harry took the news in his stride and tried to make a joke of his predicament. Everyone was amazed with his attitude, some thought he was in denial.

Harry could not stand to be in bed lying down. He said it was too painful but looking back I think in reality he just wanted to sit up so he could have a smoke. In those days, it was okay to smoke in hospital, so even though he was about to lose his legs through smoking the idea of not having a cigarette never crossed his mind.

You could see he was in great discomfort but he didn’t complain. He lit one cigarette after another deep in thought between the storytelling. This man had been a born entertainer.

Evening arrived and the anaesthetist came to see to Harry and talk about the next day’s surgery. He inspected his legs for a short time and asked to be excused. Soon after a team of medicos arrived and gave Harry a more thorough examination. After a short discussion among themselves, Harry was told the worst possible news. The circulation in his legs had completely shut down. The creeping blackness had now almost reached his groins. There was nothing they could do.

From what I remember Harry wanted to be alone for awhile. For the next half hour his only companion was a cigarette.

Later that night, I happened to go past his bed. I felt awkward and he could sense it. He smiled at me and that helped break the ice somewhat. He started one of his life’s stories, but stopped abruptly midstream and said,

“You know, I have done a lot of stupid things during my life. Things I am ashamed of. But not for one minute do I regret the general direct my life took.
I started smoking as a young boy; stole my old man’s tobacco and rolled my own. You know this may sound strange, but if I had my time over again I would still smoke. I loved it, those around me didn’t, but I did. It’s going to kill me. I can live with that.”

Laughing when he realised what he had just said. The conversation went on a little longer; I don’t remember anymore.

We said our goodbyes at the end of the shift and my parting memory was of a burly man sitting upright in an armchair, eyes fixed on some distant object with a sly almost indistinguishable smile, a cigarette butt firmly fixed in the corner of his mouth.

He died at 2 a.m. sitting in the same position I left him, still smoking until the very end.

One of the night staff told me that the last thing he heard Harry say before he passed away was “They can bury me with a packet of cigarettes; with me in life, a reminder of what killed me in death.” He was apparently chuffed with the idea.

The teenager was still there, cigarette in hand, as I started my walk home. I wonder if he’ll be one of the lucky ones or if it does eventually kill him, accept his fate the same way Harry did all those years ago. No regret?



My Last Swim

Humphrey B Bear

Humphrey B Bear


Nothing like a reality check . Having a relaxing, if lazy Saturday morning in the Sabah Hotel contemplating life as one does when in the middle of a mid life crisis, I decided it was time to try out the hotel’s swimming pool.
Not to swim mind you, just a quick slash and paddle. Never really having learned to swim, I can with a sort of toad-like breast stroke/ splash for all of 10 metres and if I’m feeling particularly energetic a robotic / cadaver back stroke. No potential olympian here, but a dreamer of greater things.

Anyway, I rustled through my backpack to find my well-worn-white-activity shorts and my never-been-to-the beach, beach towel. Taking a quick look in the mirror ( it’s always quick these days ) I perused my once manly figure and after missing a beat or two, darted out of the room towards the lift.

The pool was fortunately devoid of swimmers and apart from a few sun baking ( must be from Europe ) we had the place to ourselves.

Feeling more comfortable with this fact, I ordered a beer and a mineral water for my dearly beloved. I know before you say it, “You mustn’t drink and swim.” True, but as I explained, I shimmy rather silly than swim out on a limb. ( sorry, I couldn’t help myself )

A beer and the tropical sun builds a mountain of confidence. It was time to take the plunge.

Off with the T shirt, a final adjustment to the leisure shorts and a quick stroll to the pool ladder. Just before committing, I looked up and to my utter astonishment, the pool was now full of 20 somethings looking trim, lean and mean.

The men were built like Greek Gods and the women came straight from the garden of Eden. Not an ounce of fat to be seen.

As if to react to this sight, my sea of fat decided to become mobile. Waves of cellulose, starting from the navel, travelled south looking for landfall only to fold up and over my shorts looking much like a melting toy Humphrey B Bear placed to close to the heater. ( You would have to be Australian from the mid 60s to understand that one. )

I slinked down the steps and covered the erupting jelly as fast as I could.

Now dear reader as i said before, I’m a dip-and-leave sort of swimmer, but I had to endure 1 hour of soaking until the last of the super beings left the pool.

And before I finish this little ditty I wish to leave you with this image. Remember the old white faithful leisure shorts of mine? Well, just think of wet and transparent! Not a pretty sight.

The Thin White Line

A crack in the curtains allowed a sliver of light to penetrate the otherwise dark room. A pair of eyes followed the illumination to its final destination, a threadbare crumpled bedspread.

Eugene could not gather his thoughts. The scene was baffling to his ever increasingly befuddled mind. Nothing made sense anymore even the primitive emotions that swelled up from the deep recesses of his once productive brain.

Fear, frustration and anger surfaced now and again with no meaning or substance to connect too. They were just there hanging like the Sword of Damocles over his increasingly lifeless soul. The fine thread would soon break; whether he lived or died, it mattered not to him.

A fly walking up the wall, an inexplicable mystery. The dots didn’t connect, the picture was incomplete.

The door opened slowly, Rosemary’s head appeared along its edge.

“Hello, my dear, I hope I’m not disturbing you. I’ve brought you some of your favourite cup cakes, you know, the ones you love so much.”

Eugene’s expressionless face didn’t change. It didn’t show any acknowledgement to the woman he had been married to for almost 50 years.The face and the voice meant nothing. He momentarily gazed into that face, but the flame of recognition did not flicker.

Rosemary for her part found it difficult to let go of this man. She was determined to remain stoic and show her love until the bitter end. What she could see still belonged to her. It was still her Eugene, the man she raised 3 beautiful children with. The man who supported her throughout life’s roller coaster journey.

Yes, it was still him even though deep down she knew his earthly connection with reality was now lost forever. His body no longer held the memories, his heart grasped no secrets they had once shared. She alone held the key now. He could never again open that door.

Rosemary sat next to him on the bed and held his long bony hand in hers. Stroking his fingers, she talked incessantly for the next half hour, not pausing for a reply that was never going to come. It was as much to do with her own sanity as anything else. He was lost, but she still lived in a world of memories.

“How cruel; what was the point of all this,” she thought.

A tear rolled down her cheek as it had often done during the last few long years. Wiping her face dry, she whispered into his ear.

“ See you next week my dear. Same time, I’ll be here.”

Eugene stared blankly at that thinning slither of sunlight progressing up the wall.


A Moment In Time

The oval shaped fishpond stood there quiet and serene as the early rays of sunshine pierced the outer layers of the glasshouses exterior. The crisp cool morning air settled deep within my lungs as the shadows and light intermingled on the flat undisturbed water, playing with each other as the Lilly Pads watched on.
They always did this, I observed, whenever the morning sun was able to break through the gloomy winter cloud. The many pads large and small spread out over the water’s surface, green flat circular serving plates awaiting the day’s meal of sunlight.
Only a single delicate white flower broke the sea of green, the belle of the ball looking to be asked to dance but alas all the likely suitors were preoccupied, a symbolic wallflower.
Most of the activity this morning was below the surface. The small silver fish, amphibians and invertebrates stirred into life, darting here and there looking for security under the giant Lily pads as the light penetrated all the way to the bottom of the grey concrete pool.
All this was happening as a young couple stood on the far side in deep thought . A moment in time shared with two strangers. Never to be repeated.


He Didn’t Notice at First

He didn’t notice at first. It started six years ago, the long slow process that entered his consciousness, like a drip from a leaking tap, constantly in the background until something focuses the mind to its existence.

She was like that, constantly in the background, not intruding on his life, for the feeling at first was one of ambivalence, the satisfaction of good conversation once or twice a week but no more. At first the pages in the book were mostly empty, only words, the sentences not constructed, the story not formed. The life spark was almost inconceivable but the awaking had begun back then. His life up until then had mostly been unremarkable. The years after youth had gradually sapped the enjoyment of living. Routine and predictability had replaced opportunity and spontaneity.

It started like most: marriage, kids, mortgage but mediocracy and failures followed. No one’s fault, every one’s fault, who knows. In the end it didn’t matter, life was meandering towards its inevitable conclusion, the river was running dry. Meaning to what? Then… from the deep void she entered.

The words started to arrange themselves. The faint glow of enlightenment pervaded the darkness.

Contact became more frequent as the days, weeks and years passed by. Similarities became more stark too: innate intelligence, insecurities, ways of perception, stubbornness, the laughter, the smiles, the sadness, all manner of things created the glue of bondage. The words were making sentences.
Long discussions on important topics of no consequence flourished as the story developed. It wasn’t significant as the need to be together strengthened to the point that nothing else really mattered for life was now two on a blank canvas waiting to paint the final landscape together.

Is the story complete? No, but for the journey… He can’t wait to find out.