"Going out for a fag, eh?" Boyfriend's brother simpers sarcastically, as I spectacularly fail to sneak out for a cigarette without the usual derision.
It's Christmas Day. Commensurate misery dictates that furtively rolling my fag under the table has only drawn attention to my 'filthy', 'disgusting' habit, as all the ex-smokers here like to call it.
"Pipe down!" I retort defensively, "you're just jealous because you've given up and you really want one. You know you do."
The panicked flicker of someone who believes another can see into his soul seizes him for a moment, but a glance out the window restores the mask of smugness.
"It's raining," he grins.
This is hell. For two hours I have been confined to an affluent roomful of strange relatives asking me when I'm getting a job, and now I must go outside into the wholesome country air and pissing rain to take the only pleasure I have left, unless you count Viognier and Poirot.
"You can smoke in the garage!" tinkles Boyfriend's sister, the healthy glow of smoke-free success emanating from every cotton-fresh fibre of her being.
"Thanks," I mutter, as disapproving eyes leave board games to follow my solitary pilgrimage from convivial inn to dank stable.
Locating the light switch, I spark up and appraise my shelter for the first of several fag-breaks.
My grim fears are confirmed. The square footage of their garage is greater than that of my flat.
I plonk my wine glass down on the' table', a strategically placed wheelie bin, and wonder how my life has come to this.
New Years' Eve has traditionally been the night I look back in anger on the year that 'hasn't been', but since, as everyone keeps reminding me re smoking I'll be dead soon, the self-pity-fest advances to Christmas and this capacious garage in Essex.
A masochistic round-robin of everyone else's achievements reels through my thoughts: Joe and Sarah are getting married in February; they're younger than me. Steve and Charlotte; younger still, have just dropped their second sprog.
Once everybody's Facebook profile picture was of themselves getting off their chops on fishbowls in Magaluf. Now it's of their gurning offspring.
My friends have job titles like 'Doctor,' 'Dentist' and 'All-Round Clever Clogs'. Hell, there's even a 'Pilot' in the living room as I stoop shivering by the bins.
These 'Successful' people are jolly and content - they don't feel the umbilical draw of the next nicotine drag trumping their desire for warmth and companionship.
By contrast, I cut a gaunt and pathetic figure, hunched there over the recycling, like a Closing Time-era Tom Waits at the Edward Hopper diner.
The act of lighting up is tantamount to failure; I question my own special brand of cognitive dissonance and entertain thoughts of... giving up smoking.
A rare notion because I carry, not just a burning addiction, but a fierce sense of nostalgia in my heart (next to the congested artery) for days when it was normal to enter a room and find its surfaces accommodatingly dotted with ashtrays.
Cigarettes have ceased to be the urbane accessory to a life lived decadently, if briefly. Maybe it is time for me to knock my killer passion on the head for good.
Stubbing out my fag and abandoning my neon strip-lit vigil, I go back to the celestial glow of Christmas 2011, wiping raindrops from my face en route. Or are they tears of sorrow?
What I expected upon re-entry to the fold after my unholy sojourn I don't know; angelic carols around the log fire, perhaps. A protracted conversation about dental treatment, from hygienist to root canals, was far beyond my wildest dreams.
At these moments I thank the Lord for my outmoded nicotine-based hobbyhorse. Unlike any of these poor saps, haplessly involved in 'Tooth-Gate', I have a reason to retire to the sanctuary of the garage.
"Just popping out for a fag," I announce. "See you in a bit for another unfeasibly competitive game of Articulate."
Cowering from the razor winds, despite my Christmas jumper, I delude myself that smoking escapism is the better of two evils, after enforced conversation about bleeding gums and mortgages.
'Beep beep!' the Blackberry chimes, in an unprecedented signal-finding moment.
"I'm perched on a garden wall in Birmingham," the text message reads, "like an overgrown gnome".
It's my friend, the consummate smoker.
"Can 'Give Up Smoking' not be on your list of New Years' resolutions?" he writes. "I need someone to feel normal with."
The message more or less says: "Don't get clean! Let's die a slow and painful death together!" but it's heartening to know I'm not alone.
"Don't worry, Gnomey," I type quickly, before the Blackberry's 'Bloody hell. You really are in the arse-end of nowhere' SOS warning returns. "Quitting is for losers." Send.
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