Congratulations to Kerri Harris of Chappel Hill, QLD on winning the Harold Goodwin Memorial Statuette for her entry to the 2012 Short Story Competition.
Why Don’t Elephants Smoke?
When I was a girl, my father smoked Marlboro Reds. He was a farmer and fitted the image of the tough, laconic, rugged, good-looking (aren’t they always?) wrangler in the TV ads. Around the same time, one of the earliest anti-tobacco education campaigns came to our small country primary school in the form of a pamphlet titled: “Q: Why Don’t Elephants Smoke? A: Because they don’t have chimneys!”. There was no lesson delivered with the pamphlets and any attempt at warning children about the dangers of tobacco smoking was completely lost on me. Instead, I focussed on the “smoke” part of the message and smoke I did. My brother and I would steal Dad’s Marlboros and puff away in the garage. We never inhaled, though.
Then at 11, I made a holiday friend at the beach. We pooled our lolly money and bought the cheapest packet we could find – Black and Whites. They cost 78 cents a packet. When her grandmother found them under Sarah’s pillow, the alarm was raised, my parents were notified, and I was hauled in for questioning. I thought I was in big trouble. Instead, my father simply ended the discussion with: “Don’t get hooked on those things because you’ll find that one day, you won’t be able to stop.” And that was it. I was expecting a belting, grounding, extra chores. I’d even heard stories of some kids being forced to sit down and smoke 70 cigarettes in front of their parents until it made them sick. But no -- I just got the talk about the addictive nature of cigarettes, along with what wasn’t said: my father was as fallible as he was hooked. And I thought: “Cool!” I wonder what else I can get away with…”
During high school, smoking was the way to look tough. Which of course was what we wanted – to avoid getting beaten up. Once again, tuckshop money was saved to buy Alpines, consumed with large quantities of teenage attitude down at the oval.
I’d moved onto St Moritz during my first job at 16. I had a pink marble ashtray and a gold Glomesh cigarette container. Later, I switched to Winfield Extra Mild and Barclays somehow thinking I was doing myself a favour and ignoring the early warning signs printed on the packet: “Smoking is a health hazard.”
“A pink ashtray doesn’t make it any more glamorous,” my mother would say.
It was only when I got married and thought about having children that I gave up, once, twice, maybe three or four times, before I gave up for good.
My father gave up smoking about ten years ago. He became a reformed smoker – and you know how they are. And even though my mother never smoked, apart from lighting up for Dad on long, family car trips, she developed lung cancer last year. I started making her a shroud, like a patchwork quilt – out of all the cigarette packets I collected over the years. I even had some of Grandad’s drum packets before he died of emphysema – they were a tricky shape though, but a couple of rows of St Moritz evened it up. I would like to put it on Mum’s coffin, apricot roses and baby’s breath bouncing as she’s wheeled out of the church for the crematorium.
I got the idea a year ago at Aunty Jean’s funeral. She was 69 and had been a smoker all her life. She was well-educated; a nurse. Her eulogy revealed she was happy to have had “69 good years”. Her husband didn’t agree, though. Neither did her grown-up children who took turns to rock babies up the back of the church during the service.
Aunty Jean’s brother was the first to duck out of the country church that blustery, blue-sky day and light up. Uncle Don excused himself as the congregation rose and bells tolled out across the town. Aunty Midge gave him a small nod and turned to shake the hand of family sitting behind her. I watched as Uncle Don took the side-stairs two at a time, pulling out a big, blue packet of Holiday 50s from his rented suit pocket. After he lit up and took that first long drag, he loosened his tie, and leaned against the cream weatherboards in the shade. The breeze picked up his smoke and drew it in through the hopper windows of the little church as if it was having a drag too.
Aunty Midge walked out of the church by herself. She smelt the familiar smoke and knew where Uncle Don was. She knew how hard and how often he’d tried to kick the habit. She couldn’t remember what he looked like without a cigarette in his hand – nicotine-stained yellow and brown, small patches of white where skin cancers had been burnt off, cut out. Funny, I thought, how he always sought shade.
“You’d want to give those bloody things up, mate.” My father’s voice boomed a little too loudly for a funeral.
Uncle Don turned and laughed a smokers’ laugh, gravelly, one that extended longer than everyone else’s and ended in a phlegmy cough. He was sick to death of always having to defend his habit.
“Leo, my old mate,” he said. “You’ve got to have some vices in life.”
“You can find plenty of vices without those bloody things. They’ll kill you.”
Uncle Don took the last drag deep into his lungs, and held the stub between his thumb and pointer finger, like a rebellious adolescent might.
“Nah mate. It wasn’t the smokes that killed her.” He nodded back towards the church. He flicked the butt to the cement path and ground it out with the ball of his boot, doing the twist in his dapper black suit with its thin black tie.
My grandad smoked rollies, the thickness of each smoke depended on how successful he’d been at the races on Saturday. One afternoon, he fell asleep on the veranda, trannie to his ear, form guide spread across his round belly and I was mesmerised by the ash growing longer until it fell under its own weight onto his green, checked shirt. He’d been at the Hivesville Pub placing bets that day. He never gave much away when he lost, but if he won, he’d grin from ear to ear for days. As the cigarette fell from his fingertips, it burnt a small perfect hole in his shirt. I thought about running and telling Nana that Grandad was threatening to burn the house down again. But instead, I reached over for the squashed, wet butt, and as I did, Grandad’s watery eyes opened. “Put it out,” he growled. I got such a fright, I dropped it on his shirt again then picked it up, like some dead thing and let it fall onto Grandad’s special ashtray -- the one where you’d press the button at the top and it would whir and swallow the butt whole.
That was about the time I started to collect cigarette packets. At first, it was my secret. But after a while and a lot of pestering, my uncles, aunties and neighbours would keep them for me. I have shoeboxes full of them. A waft of tobacco rushes out at me when I take the lid off to put more packets in. I keep the menthols separate.
Two of my uncles smoked a pipe. They’d come in from milking and lie back in the recliner to watch the cricket. There was a ritual they had, a bit like a Japanese tea ceremony. They’d tap out the contents into an ashtray and refill the pipe from a tin of Drum and take small puffs through one side of their mouth to get it going. “Pah, pah, pah,” like Popeye, the sailor man.
“You coming over for a cuppa, Don?” my father asked. “Or maybe something stronger?”
The men shook hands in that solid way that country men do. The corners of their eyes crinkled sincerely in the corners. They matched. They were cousins after all, the family resemblance evident not only in their eyes, but in their strong, Germanic hairline. The way they’d stand on one leg, leaning forward, the hand that wasn’t holding a beer thrust deep into their pocket. They joined a diminishing male circle of brothers and cousins who had played on neighbouring farms when they were still in shorts. They’d been lucky, through all those younger years of carousing, going to local dances, drink-driving home, always with a cigarette in their hands. They’d married nice girls who were now my aunties in their 70s. They rarely got together anymore, except at funerals. This day, they drank beer and talked about the weather, crops, before moving, inevitably, onto how the country was going to the dogs, and how it was all the media’s fault, and bloody Canberra.
The women and grown children came over from time to time and hosed down the quarrels the men had simply for the pleasure of arguing. My uncles lucky enough to have grandchildren living nearby scooped them up and planted beery, whiskery kisses onto wriggling, soft, pink cheeks.
“Grandpa, don’t smoke!” cried a precocious wriggler.
Uncle Don ignored the child.
“Grandpa! I said don’t smoke!” She swung on his leg like a tiny pole dancer.
“Well, I hope you never do, Kate, ah, I mean Laura.”
“Katie? Grandpa called me Katie!” yelled the child. “Grandpa, I’m LAURA!”
“It’s a bit late for your old Grandpa, sweetheart.”
“Smoking’s yucky! Isn’t it Mummy?”
“Leave Grandpa alone, Laura” said my cousin’s wife as she prised Uncle Don’s interrogator off his leg.
He opened a fresh packet of cigarettes.
“Look at this, will you?” He held the packet out to reveal a close-up of an eyeball pulled back by metal callipers with the caption: Smoking causes blindness. “A bloke can’t even enjoy a smoke anymore.”
“That’s the idea, mate.” My father laughed.
“Pretty soon I won’t be able to afford it anymore anyway.”
“There’s still wine, women and song, mate,” said one wag. They all laughed as my niece screamed out under protest: “Smoking should be illegal!”
“Laura! Shush!” said her mother.
“I’m gonna give these bloody things up one day,” said Uncle Don. “One bloody day.”
After Aunty Jean’s funeral, I drove back to the hospice to see Mum. I thought Aunty Jean would have liked to have been covered in my shroud. I thought I could re-use it for Uncle Don. Then I thought about my curly-headed, red-faced niece, screaming for all she was worth as her polite mother tried to silence her at the church hall. I thought: “Why don’t elephants smoke” just didn’t have the same power as screaming “smoking should be illegal!”. I wished I had kept some of those pamphlets; they would have made a nice border. It was then I made the decision to burn the shroud -- right after the next family funeral. I was pretty sure it would be my mother’s – the sensible woman who told me a pink, marble ashtray didn’t make it glamorous, who only ever lit them up for my Dad on long car trips, who shook her head when she smelled my breath, the woman who never smoked.
-- Kerri Harris