A FRAGRANCE IN THE MIND
Somehow the idea that youthful smoking was a sin had taken root, despite the generations of tobacco leaf strippers, bunchers, and rollers that inhabited the Kempen region, and the multitude of cigar factories in the various Southern towns – De Huifkar, Karel 1, Willem II, Hofnar, et autres.
At that time I already smoked a pipe openly. I had been buying my own tobacco since I was fourteen, and few people thought it particularly unusual that I smoked. Other people’s children ALWAYS smoked.
Henri’s parents knew, and regarded it benignly.
So charmingly eccentric! A pipe!
Thank G_d it’s not a stogey, or one of those horrid shag cigarettes.
Henri used me as his cover. Whenever we met outside for a smoke in the glade of ancient trees several blocks away, he would light up as my smoke wafted around him, perfuming his clothes and disguising his indulgence. He smoked the ‘halve’ coronas made by Hofnar, as well as some other brands. Seldom Willem II cigars, as he disapproved of their ties to organized sports.
It seemed sneaky to him for a tobacco company to feign an interest in the mental and physical health of the community, when obviously what they were more keenly invested in was their image and the well-being of their continuing enterprise.
The only sport, he maintained, that had any possible connection with cigars, was horse racing.
After several months, his sister Suzanne was in on the secret, which pleased me immensely. She was delightful company, and the three of us would park our bikes against one of the trees and sit on the bench. Two of us smoking, the third as a vivacious sparkling presence witnessing our depravity. All three of us would end up smelling woodsy from the Latakia in my blend, mixed with something 'else'.
It was a wonderful way to spend the twilight.
In summer the mist would drift in among the trees, and the glow from nearby streetlights would paint the glade a warm warm gold.
One evening we didn’t make it to our private place. His parents had some people over, and Henri and Suzanne could not leave.
I smoked a pipe in the quiet by myself, then went over to their house. Their mom had let it be known that I was welcome to drop by for coffee after dinner. We sat out on the veranda under the stars, and Henri’s father offered cigars to his old friend, indicating that I should have one also if I felt so inclined. I demurred, and filled my pipe.
The three of us smoked, with Henri among us and Suzanne just off to the side. Henri looked somewhat down, clearly wanting to smoke too. Suzanne suggested cheerfully to her father “maybe you should give Henri a cigaartje, he would look SO elegant smoking!”
The answer was no, Henri shouldn’t acquire the habit until he went away to college. Then tobacco might prove useful, especially if he was studying late at night. All university students smoked.
Old-style parents in the Netherlands in that day often disapproved of their children smoking. Not so much because the habit itself, as the horrifying idea that their children would neglect propriety by lighting up around them. Smoking, in some way, was a marker of the hierarchical distinctions that a family needed to maintain.
The older generation smoked.
The younger generation didn’t.
At least not around their parents.
I let my pipe go out, in deference to Henri’s plight. I was somewhat disquieted at having inadvertently been party to his father re-emphasizing the generational differences of status and privilege.
The next evening we met at the usual spot. Henri did not refer to yesterday’s events, and seemed unconcerned – he had his own cigars with him, and happily drooled faint whisps of smoke into the evening air. Afterwards, as we parted, he mentioned that after I had left, his father and the old friend had had one more cigar each, “just to keep the mosquitoes away”.
Both he and Suzanne had reeked of smoke when they went back indoors.
It had been quite lovely.
That autumn he went away to college, and occupied rooms in Utrecht with other students from Valkenswaard. Together they drank lots of strong coffee, and smoked the cigars manufactured by Hofnar every single evening. Once every three of four weeks he would come home for the weekend if he could, but most of the time I had no one to smoke with in the glade of trees, and I stopped going there, especially after the weather turned cold.
Months later, after winter had passed and the weather had warmed up again, I was bicycling towards the Wilhelmina Park when Suzanne on her own bike came next to me. I was very happy to see her, and without even thinking we rode toward the glade of trees. It was not yet even close to evening time; mid-afternoon, and pleasantly warm. We parked our bikes against a tree and sat on the bench.
I lit up, and we chatted for over an hour. I had another pipe-full to make the moment last, and whisps of smoke lazily drifted past and over her. I couldn't help noticing that she was, well... , "curvier" than last year.
When it was time to go, we both mounted our bikes, and rode back, still talking.
As we parted, she mentioned that Henri would come home for the summer. She looked forward to the three of us meeting every evening for a smoke in the glade again.
“Does your father now know that Henri smokes?”
“Yes. But he doesn’t do it around the old man.”
“Then how... ?”
“You’ve never sniffed his shirts, huh?”
“They no longer smell of your tobacco, but reek of Java and Sumatra.”
She also said that she very much preferred the fragrance of Latakia.
It just smelled so much more “civilized”.
And her mom agreed.
Much has changed since then. None of us live in Valkenswaard anymore.
I left over thirty years ago, it has been a dozen years since I last went back.
The cigar factories are all gone, the rollers have retired.
It smells different now.
WOODSY, AND SOMETHING ELSE
In another few minutes I shall leave the office and go around the corner to the cigar bar to smoke a pipe or two.
Definitely a full Latakia mixture, perfuming the sparse Saturday evening crowd.
Henri and Suzanne will NOT be there, alas. Probably no vivacious sparkling presence at all.
But the same gold gold glow from the grove of ancient trees will be all around.
And a familiar dreaminess will rekindle.
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