Saturday, February 18, 2006

Barefooted Brats

It started the night before my ninth birthday. Dean and I found the chrome plated cylindrical contraption in the sideboard drawer, all spinning notched disks and fluted brass rods. It had a hinged lid along one side and a scalloped end wheel, which when you turned it would set the fluted rods all spinning. "Here", Dad said, "You lick the cigarette paper and place it in the slot, then lay a measure of tobacco along the length, not too close to the ends or it ends up in my mouth, then you close the lid and turn the end."
So we sat on the floor at his feet, Dean and I and rolled him cigarettes with varying degrees of success, we laughed at our attempts and became loud enough that we were sent the the spare room where we were always allowed to sleep when we had friends to stay. I know it would have been Dean's idea, but there we were hidden by the wall with my father's pouch of drum tobacco and Dean, being the natural ratbag that he was; it was inevitable really.
"Let's roll some for ourselves." he said "We can take them to school and see what it is like to smoke."
I agreed, I always agreed with everything that Dean said, he was bigger than me. He was being nice to me. I would do anything for Dean to be nice to me.
At school the next day we whispered to the others at little lunch and Dean led us all to the chicken coop behind the hit-up board at the far end of the tennis court. We climbed through the wire netting gate into the little pen and found old feed tins and water containers to turn over and plant ourselves on, small relief from the dusty dried out chicken poop, still smelly even a year after all the chooks were gone. Kent demanded the best seat and set himself up as watch peeking between the boards to be sure the teacher was not coming. So we lit the small bent half squashed "rollie" passing it around we puffed clouds of smoke out from our faces.
"That's not really how you do it" Dean told us" You have to suck it right in."
We just looked at him dumbly and kept puffing. Ann held hers elegantly, legs crossed at the ankles. Evelyn swaggered provocatively at eleven years old, swore and spat the bitter tar from her pink perfect lips. I knew I looked stupid doing everything I did, so there seemed little point in trying to be anything other than an untidy little tomboy. At least I was good at that. Little Beth stood defiantly, threatening to tittle-tale to her parents, he carrot red hair stark against the shocked white of her freckled skin. She wouldn't dare, would she?
It became a ritual after that, every day we brought stolen cigarettes to school. We graduated to climbing the tree behind the coop, a better look-out we thought. As if the teacher couldn't see us out the small square window, those little puffs of smoke wafting from between the branches of the whistling pine athol trees.
I remember that time with a feeling of elation, six small children on top of the world. Untouchable.
I can still feel the dread as we watched from our perches that day when he finally stood up from his desk and walked that long 100 metres towards us. I wonder that he left it so long when in honesty he must have known that whole week. Perhaps he simply hoped that we would stop by ourselves. I think a school with six pupils was more than this first year teacher, posted to the back of beyond and an empty classroom of barefooted brats, had ever bargained on. Six defiant, strong minded rebels were harder to control than a normal class of twenty-five.
Watching his slow steady steps towards us that day, we knew that we were caught. I saw Beth's pale white cheeks flush red with fear and defiance, so, she had told on us.
His decided discipline was that we should tell our parents or he would tell them for us. It was the worst punishment of my life.
In time I forgot the punishemnt but I remembered that feeling of elation. The thrill of being naughty and more than any nicotine addiction. That memory took hold of me like a drug. The thirst for that elation has never really left me.
After all, we never inhaled. (Originally posted 27.8.04)