I drove into our Health Centre car park today on my way to collect a prescription for Mrs Llew. It’s a regular port of call for both of us. It’s a pleasant spot when it’s sunny, with its surround of lime trees on one side, and on the other, mature walnut trees. I’ve no idea when they were planted. I parked my car and walked or, rather more precisely, hobbled towards the surgery.
On a seat there was an old man. He was alone. He was probably older than me, around 80 I should think. He was about to light a precisely-rolled and very slim cigarette. I made eye contact with him, smiled and said hallo. It’s still possible in our small town for strangers to greet each other without suspicion. But I had a specific reason for this greeting.
This lone old man, about to light a cigarette as someone passed by, might well, even in our friendly town, have expected an embarrassed distancing or even a hostile glare from a stranger, disapproving of his tobacco – and enjoying the heady sense of superiority which such disapproval facilitates.
So I smiled at the old man and said hallo.
On my way back to the car I saw that he was still there. He was looking down, deep in thought. And I saw him shake his head, almost imperceptibly, from one side to the other. What was he seeing? What or who was he remembering?
I was limping from my aching knees. He had a high-tech metal walking stick. We made some brief conversation about arthritis. And the sunny day.
There’s a pub opposite the health centre. It occurred to me that once he might have sat there, inside or outside with the ‘locals’ enjoying his roll-up cigarette and chatting with the other customers. Not any more. The second, no the third reincarnation of that old hostelry since the smoking ban of 2007 caused it to change for ever, is as an Indian restaurant with bar.
Perhaps he could have gone to one of the many town cafes or a club. Oh no he couldn’t. Nor, if he lived in a sheltered housing complex, would there have been even one communal room where, with his friends he could have smoked his cigarette indoors.
So he, if he wants to have a smoke away from home, he will have to find a place where he will probably be alone with his thoughts. And look down at the pavement. And shake his head from side to side.
As I walked on towards my car I caught a haunting rich scent of dark, Old Holborn tobacco.