“It takes me five minutes to smoke a cigarette”.
This comment reverberated inside Sarah’s head for a good five minutes before she fully realized the implications of this comment. “Exactly five?”, she asked Tina. “To the second”, was the reply.
That was the only assurance Sarah needed. It was decided: she would take up smoking.
Sarah’s problem with time had been acute for many years prior. Clocks mislead her, watches were bulky and inconvenient, even the sun sometimes alluded her when it disappeared behind a mass of cloud. Yet, at this moment, after so many years of being late, she had figured out that smoking would be her answer.
After a little thought, Sarah had come to the conclusion that the time it takes to smoke a cigarette was a more accurate measure of five minutes than any quartz watch on the market. Her new way to measure time was not in minutes, but in cigarettes. One cigarette equals five minutes. A seemingly seamless plan, in her eyes. Later that afternoon Sarah headed to the convenience store and bought her first pack of cigarettes.
The next morning, Sarah awoke at eight. Her life as a smoker was about to begin. She had her first cigarette already waiting for her with a lighter close at hand. She had to be at work at nine: twelve cigarettes’ worth. Without hesitation she flicked the lighter and inhaled.
It was much more difficult than she had anticipated. Smoking in the shower proved difficult, and smoking while preparing her breakfast left her with an ashy taste in her mouth. Yet, her desire for punctuality prevailed, and she continued to puff away. Time was easy to tell now, it was only a matter of counting the number of cigarettes she had smoked and multiplying that by five. By 8:59 there were only a few millimetres of cigarette left, so she knew she was on time. She headed up to the office, albeit huffing a little on the way up the last flight of stairs.
During her lunch break she smoked nine cigarettes and was perfectly punctual upon returning to her office. At this point Sarah was confident that her plan was flawless.
Yet this new way of telling the time had many other implications. Whenever she needed to measure time, no one wanted to be around her for fear of the cloud of smoke that constantly surrounded her, choking out all life in the vicinity. Her nieces and nephews refused to come near her, as they gagged and coughed when she was within twenty feet. At work, if she had a meeting to attend, she had to go out on the fire escape, as the building was smoke-free. This presented a problem, as she couldn’t get anything done all day until her meeting took place. If her meeting was at three she would merely sit on the rail and smoke for the whole morning and early afternoon. Her job was threatened many times because of this habit, but every time her managers came out to chide her, they always ended up partaking in the habit and five minutes later they would walk away clicking their tongues.
After many years of this method of time keeping, people were still remarking on Sarah’s amazing punctuality, although they also noted her sallow complexion, hacking cough, and general sickly appearance. Not to mention the almost unbearable stench that emanated from here mouth, clothes, and hair. Even her eyelashes carried the smell of smoke with them, and with every blink a wafting of stale cigarette odour could be detected.
It wasn’t long before Sarah went to the doctor because she was feeling a little unwell (of course before her appointment she had to smoke 27 cigarettes to make sure she was on time). When she finally sat down in the examination room, the doctor took one look at her and said, “My God woman, I’m surprised you’re still living and breathing”. Although, what she was doing couldn’t really be described as breathing. It was more of a shallow rattling. After doing some tests and diagnostics and prognostics he found that Sarah was, indeed, quite ill. “Sarah, your smoking has taken a severe toll on your health. As it stands, you have at least 135 diseases, some of which haven’t even been discovered yet. The reality is, medically, you shouldn’t be alive at all anymore. You have two weeks to live.”
Sarah was taken aback by this news. Could her foolproof plan for being on time have a drawback she hadn’t foreseen? Yes, it could and it did. Sarah was dying and had been for some time. Now time, that which she strove to befriend, was her ultimate enemy.
Yet Sarah felt she couldn’t stop her time keeping, on the contrary, this would be the ultimate test of the accuracy of smoking as a time keeper. If it truly was as accurate as she thought, perhaps in death she would receive some sort of recognition for her efforts. After walking out of the doctors, she lit up again frantically. She rushed to her car, clutching for a calculator. She needed to figure out how many five minutes were in two weeks.
It was a huge undertaking. Sarah would smoke for two weeks straight to put her system to the test. She enlisted the help of family and friends, who’s primary task was to ensure she smoked the entire time (sometimes deep brown drool would attempt to carry the lit cigarette with it onto Sarah’s shirt front). Each night she stayed up as long as she could, smoking all the while. When she collapsed from disease and exhaustion, she instructed her loved ones to place a cigarette in one nostril while she slept, taking care to plug the other one. And of course, she demanded that they keep track of the number of cigarettes. They were also to keep the butts from her nightly smoking so she could verify the number in the morning. With each day, Sarah would wake feeling closer to death, which only helped to reinforce her confidence in the system. One week, twenty three hours and fifty minutes after her first cigarettes when she left the doctors, Sarah was wheezing heavily, sprawled out on her bed. There were only two cigarettes left. She smoked the first. She lit the second, bringing it shakily to her mouth with a skeletal hand. Her family came in closer, waiting for signs of the life to escape her. Her last puff of the second cigarette was drawn in. The tobacco crackled menacingly as the last millimetres were burned by Sarah’s inhalation. Everyone around her also took in a breath and held it. She exhaled. She looked around. She took in a breath of oxygen, as everyone else let theirs out.
Six minutes and thirty seven seconds after her last cigarette, Sarah was dead with the knowledge that all along her system had been flawed, and that her wasted life was for naught.
©Lauren Greenwood 2013