Last weekend, I went to a wedding of an old school friend. It was a practically perfect wedding in every way. The ceremony took place in the corner of a field under the leafy canopy of an old oak tree. The bride was radiant, the groom handsome and the weather glorious, the sun beaming down from a cloudless blue sky. Everything was as it should be.
So why, come nine o'clock that evening, was I hurtling down the road to the nearest pub to wave my debit card at them (I always forget to bring enough cash to weddings) and ask for a pack of cigarettes in return?
I, who haven't smoked properly for years?
All of a sudden, buying a pack of cigarettes had suddenly seemed to me to be the most important, sensible and vital thing I could ever do. And yes, I do know all about the danger, cost and generally negative aspects of smoking. That's why I gave up in the first place.
But it is impossible to be single at a wedding at which you hardly know anyone, and not smoke. Because cigarettes, as every current and ex-smoker knows, are like a secret password which lets you into a whole new world: a world where everyone talks to you. They have the power to transform complete strangers into lifelong friends at just a wave of a packet. A pack of cigs is like a membership to the most friendly club in the world, when just seconds before you had been cut off from all civilisation without a friendly face in sight. Smokes, cigs, fags - whatever you want to call them - are practically magical in that respect.
I had done pretty well without cigarettes up until then. I had arrived - as usual - on my own, and had walked down to the cluster of people under the oak tree expecting to meet people I knew. I could see no-one. It turned out I was the only person invited from all those years ago, which was lovely and flattering of course, but this meant that the only two people I knew where the bride and groom. And they were likely to be busy for, well, the entire day.
No matter, I am British and therefore fluent in small talk. I turned to the man standing next to me as we were waiting for the bride to arrive, and said: 'Gosh, it's such a beautiful day! They have been so lucky with the weather, haven't they?' My mum would have been so proud.
The response: a look of disdain and complete silence. My heart sank. It was going to be a long day.
After the ceremony there were a few hours to wait before the reception, and so everyone duly sat around in their family groups, drinking. As a singleton, you have no such luxury. You can't just loll around, secure in the mother ship of familiar faces you have surrounding you, you have to constantly crash in to established social groups, to throw out opening lines and hope that something will find a welcoming audience. You then have to cling on for dear life to your new friends and hope they will introduce you to other people, so before you know it there are several people to which you can hope to bump into in the queue for afternoon tea, and who will invite you to join them.
I did all that - a compliment here, a 'So, how do you know the happy couple?' there and survived until the proceedings moved towards the sit-down part of the evening, with food and speeches. That tided me over nicely as it was all named seating, so there wasn't the horror of trying to find a spare place to sit which wasn't being saved by someone for their significant other who had just nipped to the loo/bar/buffet.
But then it was 9pm. The couples I had been sitting with all headed off to the dance floor. The various people I had been chatting to before had all disappeared. My tent - many of the guests were camping, and I had brought my two-man tent but sadly, not even one man to share it with - was beginning to look very tempting. But I couldn't go to bed at nine o'clock could I? I had completely run out of energy to once again start going up to complete strangers and striking up a conversation, not least because the music and romantic lighting made chatting virtually impossible. I felt very, very single.
But then, the miracle flash of inspiration. Cigarettes! I remembered the last of the driving instructions to get here was 'Turn right at The Red Lion'. After a quick restorative drink in said pub, I was back with the cancer sticks to fight another day.
Standing outside a marquee in the dark seems a bit weird and pointless: standing outside with a cigarette, entirely allowed. Within seconds I had asked someone for a light and we were away, charging straight through the 'Wasn't it a lovely wedding?' conversation and onto the 'And how do you know the happy couple?' routine. Some more people came out to join us, more smoking and chatting ensued. When enough smoking had been done for a while, the group of us returned to the marquee and of course I was invited to join them. Inclusion!
When they went off to dance, or we all ran out of conversation, I could return outside to see who else was there to say hello to, and the party would continue. Just standing outside clutching my pack of Silk Cut was enough, people would come up and chat and be sociable in a way that would never have happened it I had just been standing there for no reason, or, most likely at this point, hiding in my sad little tent.
After the disco had packed up for the night, we headed outside for a campfire, chatting and bonding like our lives depended on it. We reluctantly called it a night at 2am, having put the world to rights while my cigarettes were barely touched, having served their purpose. I haven't smoked since.
Ever since smoking bans the world over have come into force, smokers know that the most sociable place to be is outside a pub or bar. I used to live in New York and Rome, and in both places you would be far more likely to make new and interesting friends talking to complete strangers outside on the street rather than stuck indoors with the people you came with. I'm sure there is another way of talking to a succession of complete strangers but I certainly haven't come across it. There are times when I wonder how non-smokers ever talk to new people at all.
And if you are single at a wedding, that toxic, dangerous pastime is a complete life-saver. Oh, the irony.
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