‘It’s illegal NOT to smoke on the premises,’ the sign read on the wall as Paul walked inside the building for the first day in his new job. Must be a mistake he assumed. Or an office prank, seeing as the smoking ban had been in place now for years.
So it was a surprise when he got to the reception desk and saw the two ladies behind it smoking to their heart’s content.
‘Didn’t you read the sign?’ said one.
‘The sign?’ squeaked Paul.
‘The smoking sign!’ the second announced fiercely.
‘Oh, I thought it was a joke.’
‘There’s no joking here. It’s illegal not to smoke. That’s what it says. Can’t you read,’ she roared taking a cigarette out of her packet and thrusting it violently at Paul.
Unsure of what to do, Paul took it, put it in his mouth, accepted a light from the outstretched receptionist’s arm and inhaled weakly.
‘That’s better,’ said the first as Paul started coughing. ‘Take the elevator to floor eight, Mr. Grey is expecting you. You’re Paul, I assume.’
‘Yes,’ he spluttered and walked towards the lift wanting to throw the cigarette away, but scared to do so after his telling off.
When the lift finally opened Paul saw that everybody inside was smoking. Three men and two women all sucking on cigarettes and full of smiles. Paul looked at them, smiled back, took a belated drag on his cigarette and joined them.
‘What are you on today?’ the man standing closest to him asked when the door closed.
‘What do you mean?’ replied Paul innocently.
‘What are you smoking?’
‘Er,’ said Paul desperately trying to remember what his dad had smoked before he died. ‘Marlboro.’
‘Nice,’ said the man approvingly. ‘Great brand. Strong and satisfying I always find. Great morning cigarette. Really gets the lungs moving.’
Paul nodded in agreement and tried pinching himself a few times wondering if perhaps he was dreaming. But as he choked on the smoke filling up the lift like a gas chamber, he realised it was all real.
When the lift got to the eighth floor he leapt out barely able to breathe and desperately hoped his office would be non-smoking like every other one in the country. But it was not. The 8th floor was as smoky as the lift. A yellow fug hung over the desks and computers like smog.
‘This is insane,’ Paul muttered to himself as he gazed around and saw that everyone was either putting a cigarette out, smoking one, or lighting up a fresh one.
‘Hello Paul,’ a voice behind him said. Paul looked round and saw a middle-aged man walking up to him offering his hand.
‘I’m Al Grey, sorry we didn’t meet at the interview but I was in hospital with a lung infection, but I’ll be your manager,’ he said taking a deep drag of his cigarette between his yellowed fingers.
‘Pleased to meet you,’ replied Paul. ‘Ermm, I was wondering if I could have a word before we start.’
‘Of course, let’s go to my office where we can talk and smoke in private.’
The man showed Paul into a spacious, heavily nicotine stained office and offered him a cigarette.
‘What the hell’s going on?’ Paul demanded refusing the man’s offer.
‘I’m sorry,’ said the man taken aback. ‘I don’t quite follow.’
‘Smoking! Why is everybody smoking for Christ’s sake. What is this place? A laboratory. Some experiment gone horribly wrong.’
The man took a long meditative drag on his cigarette. ‘I’m not sure I follow you at all Paul. And by the way, you need to light a cigarette.’
‘Why do I need to light up a cigarette?’ cried Paul. ‘I don’t even smoke. I came here to work not smoke.’
‘What do you mean you don’t smoke?’ The man paused, crushed his cigarette out, lit another and looked directly at Paul. ‘I don’t understand what you’re talking about. Everybody smokes. It’s the law.’
It was then Paul realised something very bad was happening to him and without saying another word left the room and started running back down the corridor past a giant cigarette vending machine. Paul got into the lift and was immediately confronted by a middle-aged woman thrusting a cigarette at him. Paul wasn’t in the mood to start explaining himself. He just wanted to get back to the real world. He looked at the woman as the doors shut. ‘You’re insane, you’re all insane.’
Once outside he took a huge breath of air and started walking towards the station to get the train home. But something was wrong. The smell. The air was different. And then he realised, just like in the building, everybody was smoking. Either lighting a cigarette, smoking a cigarette, or throwing a cigarette away into giant ashtrays lining the street just like in the office building.
People suddenly started looking at him and tutting. ‘You’ve got to smoke,’ he heard somebody say. ‘Smoke-up!’ said another.
And then he saw them. ‘Oh my God,’ cried Paul when he saw two uniformed thugs racing towards him. On their jackets were the words Smoke Police written in bold red.
‘Oi, you in the suit. What’s your game?’ they shouted as they grabbed Paul.
‘Get off, you’re insane,’ cried Paul.
‘We’ll see who’s insane m’laddo,’ said the first one taking a packet of cigarettes out of his jacket.
‘No,’ protested Paul. ‘Please no more. Why are you doing this to me?’
‘Because it’s the law,’ shouted the second policeman forcing a cigarette into Paul’s mouth.
‘No, please,’ wailed Paul. ‘Let me go, I don’t want to smoke.’
‘Shut up and smoke,’ they both said in unison. ‘You know the law. Everybody’s got to smoke. Everybody’s got to smoke in Smokers World.’
‘But I don’t want to,’ pleaded Paul. ‘Please! I don’t want to smoke. It’s not good for you.’
‘We’ll decide what’s good for you,’ said the first policeman shoving another cigarette into his mouth. ‘Now stop squealing and start smoking,’ he finished booting Paul hard in the ribs.
‘OK OK,’ said Paul. ‘I’ll smoke, I’ll smoke. Give me a lighter for God’s sake.’
The second policeman handed Paul a cheap plastic yellow lighter with the image of a skull and crossbones on it. ‘Here. Now smoke up before we arrest you.’
Paul sat wearily down on the curb, lit the cigarette and took a long deep drag.
‘That’s better, isn’t it?’ they said.
Paul slowly nodded. ‘Yeh,’ he said taking another long pull. ‘Strong yet satisfying,’ he mimicked the man in the lift.
The policemen put away their truncheons and prepared to leave the scene of the crime.
‘But one thing before you leave,’ asked Paul.
‘Yes,’ said the first policeman curtly.
‘Why aren’t you smoking?’
They looked at each other. Their minds seemingly unable to process the question. After a few seconds the second one replied. ‘We’ve never been asked that before.’
‘I thought so,’ said Paul standing up and facing them, flicking his cigarette away in defiance.
‘Well,’ said the first. ‘We don’t smoke because we don’t have to.’
‘Why not?’ asked Paul.
‘Because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do our job as we’d always be smoking.’
‘What about everybody else,’ demanded Paul. ‘All the people in the offices and the shops and the factories smoking all the time.’
‘I’ve never really thought of it like that,’ said the first.
‘If you let everybody do their jobs without smoking,’ ventured Paul boldly. ‘Their jobs would get done quicker and more efficiently and the country would be richer and stronger.’
The two policemen looked at each other and Paul saw a small imaginary coin drop somewhere in their brains.
‘But,’ started the first one realising the seriousness of what Paul had just said. ‘Then what would we do. We wouldn’t have jobs.’
‘Yeh,’ piped up the second looking angry again. ‘I’ve got a family to feed. And a house and a car to run.’
‘Too right!’ said the first. ‘And look, he’s not smoking again, looks like we’re going to have to arrest him,’ he finished whacking Paul to the floor with his truncheon.
Paul did nothing as they started tying his hands behind his back. There was no point in struggling any more. ‘Get in the van,’ said the second hauling him into a blue army style truck that had appeared from nowhere. ‘You know the law,’ he started saying again. ‘Everybody’s got to smoke. Everybody’s got to smoke in Smokers World.’
Copyright 2019 Philip Ogley
(Taken from The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd and Other Stories by Philip Ogley buy here.)