#301 Smokers World

A SHORT STORY FOR NON SMOKERS

‘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.)

288 – Notes from Copenhagen: The Bicycle Courier Part II

I’ve been a bicycle courier in Copenhagen now for two weeks. I’ve delivered spring rolls, chicken wings, Korean noodles, calzone, spaghetti bolognese, coffee, smoothies, alcohol, fags, sausage rolls, Indian, Turkish and Chinese. Even aspirin.

In the afternoons waiting for my shift to start I watch the Tour de France on TV. Imagining myself climbing up the Tourmalet, or Mont Ventoux, or Alpe D’Huez on the way to the maillot jaune. Then it gets to four o’clock and I put on my grey T-shirt, strap my pink styrofoam box on my back and away I go into the mists of Copenhagen.

Most people rarely do this for long. A summer at most. If that. Not only is it phenomenally dangerous. It’s also incredibly knackering. 40 km in four hours isn’t a lot by cycling standards. Last winter in Auty I cycled 100kms most Sundays in three and a half hours. But I didn’t have a square box on my back full of pizza, booze and energy drinks. Neither were there any traffic lights, people, cars, crossroads, flights of stairs, customers, glass strewn roads, wrong addresses and cancelled orders.

On Friday for example I arrived at an address in Amager to deliver a vegan burger and quinoa salad (Copenhagen for you), only to discover not only were the flats not built yet but neither was the street. In fact, they hadn’t even started building anything. Just a few isolated portacabins on a waste ground where the groundwork contractors ate their lunch.

One came out to see what I wanted (A man on a gold Peugeot bike wearing a pink box on his back would attract attention in any city even Copenhagen), so I asked him if he knew where Luftmarinegade IV was.

He laughed a great booming Danish laugh, his mouth still full of egg and cold ham from lunchtime. He told me it hadn’t been built yet, pointing across to the mirror-flat waste ground stretching out to infinity ahead of us.

I thanked him and called the guy who runs the courier company. There had been a glitch in the system he told me. There was no order.

This has happened twice before. The software they use sometimes generates orders on its own accord and sends them randomly to one of the 30 restaurants we use without any payment being made by anybody.

The previous two times this glitch has happened the addresses have actually existed. This time though the software had sent me to an address that didn’t. Not yet anyhow. Maybe the developers had already let Google know of the impending new street even though it hadn’t been built. (The star marks where Luftmarinegade IV will be one day.)

I’ve now been told that the glitch has been fixed – not that I care that much (I get a free dinner each time it happens). But it made me think how intelligent software is getting when it can make a human being run around the city delivering burgers at will. (Memo to G. Orwell for possible sequel idea to 1984.)

Another amusing incident occurred last Wednesday when I took an order (real this time) for one bottle of Jagermeister, 2 litres of Coke, 3 packs of fags, and eight Pølsehorn (Danish sausage rolls).

This would be a fairly normal order for the time of day which was about 6 o’clock. Pre-going out Jagerbombs for a group of fresh faced blond Danes waiting for their ignition fuel.

Instead when I arrived there were three fresh faced guys called Ahmed, Abbas and Yousef eagerly waiting for me at the top of their stairs. We had a joke about how bad the Danish weather is – I was soaking wet – gave them their grog and grub and away I went.

So why was it amusing? Am I inferring that three guys called Ahmed, Abbas, and Yousef can’t order alcohol? Not in the slightest, I know plenty of Muslims who drink. It wasn’t the alcohol I think they were looking forward to. From the grin they gave me when I handed over the Pølsehorn it seemed that the forbidden pleasure of a pork sausage roll was more of a thrill than the bottle of high strength spirit I’d just given them.

The next day I got another order from the same guys, two packets of aspirin and four milkshakes.

It’s been an interesting few weeks I have to say. But perhaps the funniest event was last Monday in McDonald’s – Yep, I have no soul: I’ll deliver anything from vegan burgers to dirty frankfurters to Maccy D’s any day.

The order was for a Big Mac Meal and two Chicken McNugget Meals. I ordered from a girl who looked barely out of primary school and while waiting witnessed a middle aged Japanese man freak out because they didn’t sell beer. (Memo to Ronald McDonald, USA: sell beer in stores.)

Then the girl gave me three cups telling me to choose my drink pointing to the soft drink taps at the back of the store.

Two things went through my mind. ‘Free Coke for the bike courier!’ Followed by paralysing horror. ‘Oh my God! I don’t know what drinks they want. It’s not on the order!’

In panic I asked the girl what do people normally have with these meals. I didn’t expect her to reel off a selection of fine Burgundies, but I did expect more than a shrug of the shoulders followed by a noncommittal. ‘Coke?’

Luckily I had the customer’s number, so I phoned him.

‘Coke, for me,’ he replied when I asked him. ‘And milk for the kids.’

‘MILK?’ I replied loudly.

The restaurant had been very noisy, so I had been shouting to make myself heard. Only at that precise moment in time the restaurant went silence. All that was to be heard was a loud Englishman wearing a stupid pink box on his back shouting the words: ‘MILK! YOU WANT MILK?’

In end the man was very happy with his Happy Meal. And milk. And that was another day finished.

At the moment I work every day, but I don’t mind in the slightest. I cycle every day, earn a few coins, I see the city and get to learn more about this very strange species called Homo sapiens. Who might one day be overtaken by their own machines. Or Google.