There's something I have to tell you - a confession, which, at the age of forty, I am deeply ashamed to make: I am in a toxic relationship.
You'd think by this ripe old age that I'd have had the wisdom - and the courage - to end it. But no. Still it continues, lurching along, threatening my very existence; an undercurrent of menace so strong it could drag me under at any moment.
But this, this thing, I'm allowing to tarnish my life - well, I can't bear to call it a man. Because, actually, it's not a man at all. This relationship is with something far more sinister than any man I've ever met.
It's between me.....
I know, I know - it's utterly ridiculous. But this on/off love affair, it's a long-standing arrangement.....and every time I try to break free, there's something that pulls me back...
I can clearly remember the first cigarette I ever smoked: a Silk Cut, purchased as a pack of ten between a gaggle of my closest school friends and I in the summer of '91; lit with a pink-tipped match, hands shaking with a heady mixture of adrenaline, anticipation - and a dash of fear.
I drew the toxic blend of chemicals down into my lungs....and coughed violently, shuddering at the foul taste. So why did I not stop there, my curiosity satisfied, my suspicions confirmed that it would taste and feel utterly repulsive?
Smoking in the toilets at school. I obviously discovered cigarettes before brow tweezers...
I'll tell you why. Because I was fifteen, I was headstrong, and I wanted to experience everything life had to offer - especially, it turned out, the things I shouldn't. And besides, I thought those heroines of the silver screen were the epitome of glamour in the flickering films we watched at my grandparents' houses: all red lips, waspish waists and skinny cigarettes held aloft betwixt carefully-manicured, slender fingers.
I was a well-behaved grammar school pupil, gliding successfully along in the A stream, the wind in my sails, good grades guaranteed. I was even a hand-picked member of the Shakespeare Summer School for "gifted children", I'll have you know. So why then, did I not have the intelligence to realise that pursing my candyfloss pink-glossed lips around that little white stick would be the dumbest move I would ever make?
Had I known that sunny day would mark the start of a grubby love-affair so ugly that it would be like a black stain on a pristine white wedding dress, would I have stubbed it out after that first fateful drag, never to be tried again? I'd like to think so, although I'm inquisitive and determined by nature: a risk-taker through-and-through. And we all know what curiosity did to the cat. (Gulp).
If I could rewind my life to that second in the park would I say no a second time around? Unlikely. In fact, it could well have been my idea in the first place if I'm honest. When you're young and wet behind the ears you have no real concept of illness, disease, death.
As I later discovered, there are four stages in the relationship between smoker and cigarette: the rebellious infatuation, the deep love, the gradual awakening and the protracted, painful break-up. You'd better hope you reach the fourth stage, otherwise you'll be going straight to stage five: the end.
That initial flirtation, in the park wearing our school uniforms, playfully tossing our hair from side to side, giggling nervously as we attempted to smoke convincingly, soon led to regular secret liaisons: one of us would buy a packet from the local corner shop (strictly only two schoolchildren allowed in at a time - they were more concerned about us swiping a few penny sweets than the fact they were openly selling cancer sticks to schoolkids) and we'd lie on our backs on the grass gossiping and practising the fine art of blowing smoke rings: perfectly formed Os billowing up into the cloudless blue sky.
Soon the infatuation evolved into a full-on love affair. Despite my initial reservations about our compatibility, we persevered and then discovered to our delight that actually, we got along just fine. Soon we were spending every day together. I moved from Silk Cut to Benson and Hedges. He was stronger, more mature than his weaker associate, and image (to me then), was everything. Benson and I grew closer than ever.
As with many relationships, over time I lost the rose-tinted glasses of the early days and slowly began to see his flaws: the way he controlled me, the silent moodiness if I didn't listen to him calling my name. I had to keep him a secret from my parents - I knew they wouldn't approve. My mates all seemed to like him though, so I figured he couldn't be that bad.
Occasionally we'd split up; we'd bond over alcohol, although he left a bad taste in my mouth after a heavy night out and I'd decide I was better off without him. But there was just something between us - Benson and I - that was bigger than both of us. He was like an addiction; I craved him.
As I got older, I grew out of him, just a tad. We drifted apart, spent less time together. The relationship got a little stale (not to mention my clothes). We had a few trial separations, some of them lasting months. People congratulated me on my strength of character. But I always took him back, despite the way he made me feel. He'd often comforted me in my hour of need and I felt guilty ditching him after all that.
So where are we now? I'm trying to break up with him. Again. (Sigh). Maybe a little too gently, but my resolve is getting stronger. Because I don't want him to hurt me, and I feel he could. There's a dark aura of peril about him which hangs in the air; I know one day he could seriously injure me. I don't have children, so I don't have to worry about him hurting them, but most of my friends do; they sent their Bensons packing long ago. Some have the occasional harmless fling with Vape at the weekends, but that's it. It's high time I followed suit: I need me a new suitor.
You see, life is going swimmingly right now and I don't want that snatched away from me; it's taken a long time to get all my ducks in a row. I've seen it happen to other people - lovely people: finally kicking back a little, lifting their foot off the gas after a lifetime of hard graft, enjoying the fruits of their labour....then cruelly struck down by the one they thought they loved.
I'm sorry Benson.
This time you have to go.
Since this piece was written Sam has given up smoking. Four weeks and counting...
Stop smoking for 28 days and you're five times more likely to quit for good.
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