Feasting With Panthers

I arrive punctually for my appointment with R at his flat in Wapping. I won’t give his full name, because R is a teacher, and the next few hours as planned would not reflect favourably on his career.

The door cracks open, R’s foot wedged against it so that it opens no wider than half the width of his face. He sees it’s me. And no one else. I am ushered inside.

‘Have you got – ?’ He doesn’t need to say the word.

‘Yes,’ I say, ‘good stuff too, I’ve got this dealer in – ‘

R holds up a hand. ‘It’s better I don’t know.’

Others will be here shortly. There is O, a successful actor, who’s just finished filming a commercial. He sits in angular discomfort as his long, thin fingers carefully assemble his apparatus with the thoughtful care of a surgeon.

D is a banker. His plump fingers nervously roll the stem of his wine glass back and forth.

R is cooking some food, I am cutting the foil from the neck of a wine bottle, and to any outside observers, we look like no more or less than four friends having a quiet night in. But our purpose is not so innocent.

We are not addicts, and I say that honestly. Though we are about to consume one of the most dangerous and addictive substances known to man, we are all, so far as I know, thrilling on the brink, rather than plunged into the abyss of naked chemical compulsion. R and I have pipes. O has brought a number of long, ready-rolled cigarettes, in separate compartments of a slim tin box depending on precisely what they contain. When we are all assembled and ready, we begin.

This is what the smoking ban has done to us.

O offers D a choice of American or Turkish cigarettes. D goes for the latter. R and I discuss our pipes, both obtained from Davidoff, and discuss all the different shapes you can get. We both have a briar; R’s is a slightly curvy affair, while I prefer my straight stemmed number. I am smoking a proprietary blend; R has been experimenting for some time with mixing small quantities of different single estate tobaccos. At the first crackle of the weed in my bowl, I can hear my father’s voice: ‘HabituĂ©! Lotus-eater!’

I cough out the first mouthful of smoke I’ve had in a month. My tongue tingles. after this pipe, I will have a glass of water, stood on suddenly uncertain legs. Because though I love – all of us love – the nicotine high, we live in dread of tipping over into the expensive devastation of becoming its slave.


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