Donald had only ever had one true love. Many wives, but none held a candle to his first love, a love that had endured seventy two years. No matter what people around him said, this love was indestructible. He first met his true love back on the estate he grew up on. There, down in the centre of the woods, just out the back of the estate, left of the gasometer, just by the discarded horse hair mattress.
She had been purchased by his mates and himself by chipping in pocket money or loose change from down the sides of the sofa. This golden packet catching the fragmented July sunshine through the canopy of the trees, black writing embossed with the makers name and the crown of royal approval, beckoning them on to peel the cellophane wrapper off, the smell of the tobacco bursting free from months of air tight packing as the hinged lid is folded back and golden foil detached along the dotted line, heaven.
They were excitedly passed around, and then the lighter sparked in to life, bred for just this moment, five individual deep inhales, looking left and right to be sure you were not the first to wimp out. Then exhales in clouds of smoke highlighting summers rays, this was love, Donald was sure of that, he loved his teddy in the same sort of way, like, well like, he could not imagine never having it again. This, he decided would be a treat, this gang would never to be able to buy a packet every day, and he certainly couldn’t on his own. That night he dreamed of the day he would always be able to afford a packet of Benson and Hedges a day, if he practiced hard enough, maybe two packets a day.
In the fullness of time of course, he could afford a packet a day, even two, but he had found that one was more than sufficient, sometimes, at points of stress or drinking with his mates, he would start a second pack but never smoked more than ten of them. He bought them in cartons of two hundred, duty free. He had been lucky enough to land himself a ground level job in a new company when he was sixteen. Like most popular kids in school he hid his genius, and flopped out of school with no useful qualifications, just geography and woodwork, and at the back end of a depression there was not much call for a globetrotting carpenter, so when the job advert for a mailroom boy appeared in the evening standard, he called and got himself an interview. The rest, as they say, is history. He worked his way from mailroom to boardroom in a matter of almost a decade.
He would choose a particular department, it had to be no great jump from the mailroom, with the intention of starting at the bottom and working up as he intended to do in the mailroom. So whilst learning the ropes of the mailroom, he would sit every break time in the next department along learning how that one worked. He did indeed move up the ranks in the mailroom, and after just one year as mailroom supervisor, he applied for a junior job in the accounts department, he was smart, full of common sense, real life was never reflected in academic qualifications. So began the cycle again, working his way up in accounts and eying up his next step. It had not hurt his worth in the company when one Christmas party, the MD and himself had been the last men standing at the bar. They shared a passion of single malts, and while out of Donald’s financial grasp at this stage, Mr Peterson, the MD, call me Bob, had not once let Donald put his hand in his pocket, while keeping his glass full.
They had both had more than enough to drink, but carried on regardless. All of a sudden, Donald’s drinking buddy for the day, call me Bob, exclaimed loudly of his disappointment to have an empty packet of smokes, and asking the barman if they sold ciggerettes, and then being more than disappointed with the range they offered. It had been Donald’s habit since the first of these Christmas do’s to pack two full packets of Bensons in his suit pockets and a third in his overcoat. Finding an open shop this time of night was a near impossible task. He asked Bob his brand of choice, and would you believe he had only, and would only ever smoke Bensons, result, thought Donald, reaching in to his right hand jacket pocket and pulled out a full, unopened packet and handed them to the bosses, bosses boss. Bob reached for his wallet to recompense his lowly employee, but Donald thought the investment of twenty Benson and Hedges in his future would be a small price to pay,
“Call it an early Christmas Bob” Donald slurred with a smile.
They bonded over the first two smokes from the pack, and when asked his goals in life, he just told Bob, ultimately I want your job, and outlined his own personal expectations and how he was executing his plan. Bob just listened to how eager and full of passion Donald was about his career goals, and knew that his life expectancy as an obese, smoking alcoholic MD of a global company, he would be long gone by the time Donald had got to be in competition for his job. Also, he could think of no better person to replace him, Bob had once been a Donald in his first job, he too had pulled himself up by the boot straps, and unknown to Donald, Bob had written his name down on the inside of his empty packet, for future reference.
When the office re-opened in the New Year, there on Donald’s desk was a gift bag, the label attached read…
“Donald, many thanks for the ciggerettes, to you my door is always open, Bob”
Donald was more than taken aback by the message, and clumsily fumbling at the opening of the bag, pulled out a bottle of eighteen year old Talisker. He suddenly couldn’t breathe; he remembered the conversation they had, everything they said from start to finish. He even said that he was after his job. A P45 and a week’s notice was what he had expected to find on his return to work, he was very drunk, and at the best of times his manner was blunt, but could be just shy of aggressive when oiled up. Maybe the man had admired his candour. Little did Donald know just how much of an impression he had made. Every year then after Donald would send him two hundred Benson and Hedges for Christmas, and within just a few years they would always be wrapped in a duty free bag and bound with gaffer tape. In return, on Christmas eve, a Harrods van would pull up outside his house, and would receive a beautiful wooden presentation box containing this year’s bottle to add to his ever growing collection of the superior end of the world’s single malts, he said worlds and not just Scotland’s, because a few years back he received a Welsh bottle of Penderyn, and more recently Suntory yamazaki eighteen from Japan, millstone single cask French oak from Holland and even Amrut Kadhambam from India would you believe.
These, he always promised himself, would not be opened before he retired, as truly good whiskey was best drunk within the first few days of opening, apparently, and this was a good two to three day task, plus a few days recovery time.
They would meet up outside of work, this relationship would never be spoken about within work, although Donald did make late appointments to visit him in his office, these were the business end of there relationship, and Bob welcomed input and ideas from Donald as he had a very outside of the box way of thinking, due more than likely because he was looking at the business with views not pre-moulded by a university degree. Once Donald was the global operations director for Petersons Plastics, their meetings were organised by their PA’s who knew better than either of them of when and where they should be. They even knew when to rota their whereabouts to the same location, they both knew about the “special” relationship, but to give both men credit they would always sort each other’s Birthday and Christmas presents personally, but the Girls would be in charge of everyone else’s present even their own, and both had perfected their masters handwriting to fill in the cards.
This went on until Bobs over indulgent suicide by cake and Courvoisier. His heart gave out one Boxing Day morning, just after full English breakfast, toast and bucks fizz, easy on the bucks, heavy on the fizz. He was full, happy and smoking his Christmas present, they always tasted better to Bob, more to do with whom they came from and the memories they brought, than anything to do with a special blend.
Donald had been up early boxing day morning and taken a walk through the large garden of Bobs house. For more than a decade now they had spent the Christmas break together, he needed some fresh air to think of the easiest way to tell Bob that at fifty two next birthday, he was taking retirement, which was all Bobs fault for insisting he started a pension when he was nineteen, with one of the more successful financial institutions, and with his company share package, he was going to take a gap year, and then see how the land lay twelve months from now. He returned to the house in time for a fresh hot cup of coffee before breakfast, and a smoke. They ate breakfast together and laughed and joked whether it was too early for a glass of Donald’s new whiskey, and as mentioned Donald had be saving them for his retirement, and this was the best way he thought to bring the subject up, as both men knew the reason why they were all unopened. As Donald excitedly fumbled at the foil, Bob quietly said….
“If it’s easier for you kid, you don’t have to say a word; your actions tell me all, as did you pacing the gardens in sub-zero temperatures for ninety minutes”
He poured two generous early morning liveners, and as they glanced over the rims of their glasses, Bob winked and said
“Proud of you son”
They shared this final whiskey and laughed as Bob handed him a smoke from his own Christmas present. They both laughed until tear of joy, sadness and, well just an overwhelming sense of the end.
The end of what neither of them knew, but it was more than likely their lifelong attachment to Peterson Plastics. Bob had stood down almost ten years ago, but had kept his interest going through Donald’s stories, and he too travelled to everywhere he wanted and some places he didn’t, they would use their globetrotting to meet in weird and wonderful places, and a jail cell in Thailand, but that was a story for his biography.
Bob’s last moments were a glass in one hand, smoke in the other, laughing until his heart said enough is enough, and even before Donald could react, he was gone. Donald couldn’t help thinking as he sat there looking at his mentor, best friend and father figure, lifeless, empty, his spark extinguished like the butt of the cigarette Donald stubbed out, he didn’t mind leaving this once legend of the plastics world where he fell until the emergency services arrived, but he would not sit there and let him burn frozen finger on his last Benson and Hedges, and if this dis-pleased the police then, well, just then…
He sorted the whole business of Bobs farewell, and although he broke down several times during eulogy, but he eventually got through it, it didn’t help that Bobs brother, sitting in the front row, was identical. He was a knob head, but everything else was identical.
Thirty years later, as he sits in his chair, his traditional salute to his friend of a smoke and a single malt, he never forgot the good times, bad times and drunken times and missed him more every year, and then he looks to the table, at the freshly opened packet of smokes, a simple amalgamation of tobacco, paper, cardboard, cellophane and that fluffy shit they make the filters out of, and realised this simple golden box has always been there, forever intertwined through the fabric of his life. He owed it all, everything, his life to twenty sticks of carcinogenic tobacco paper and fluff. He sat there, said a few words to his long gone friend, and smiled.