Read by Jennie Davies
“And tomorrow,” Mr Choo murmured slowly, “you’ll walk into a convenience store and, on shelves behind the till, you’ll see them.” He paused to let the scene nestle. “And you’ll say to yourself:
“Hello! I remember you guys. You used to be my friends. We used to be inseparable. But you weren’t good for me and I don’t need you anymore.”
Gina’s closed eyelids fluttered as she nodded, remembering the good times of sharing and the bad mornings of grumpily searching for a lighter or matches, and the stupid times she singed hair leaning over a gas hob.
The therapist’s soothing tones drifted her into a 7-Eleven where her two-faced pals enticed her to choose. “Me,” begged the purple low tar, “Non, tu desire moi!” smarmed the Gauloise – pungent with the smell of the South Bank where Jean-Luc had broken her heart.
As Mr Choo droned on about how soon she’d gradually regain full consciousness, remembering all that he had said, she watched a carousel of images he’d previously planted flicker by.
Five pound notes cascaded from towering tobacco plants landing beneath a rumbling harvesting machine which scooped all in its path, including rats and cockroaches and even a sad-eyed monkey. All shredded and mashed into an ochre haystack upon which scaffolding erupted to clutch a wench with burnished pigtails tangle-trapped within the kindling. A Joan of Arc sporting Gina’s unborn daughter’s tiny nose above cherubic lips which cruelly slithered open to display a brutal range of nicotine stained milk teeth.
“And now,” Mr Choo intoned, “take three deep breaths. In. Out. In. Out. In. Out. And open your eyes. Breathe and smile. Welcome to your first hour of freedom.”
Ben had paid for Gina’s trip to Mr Choo.
“NLP,” her husband had enthused, “is the new name for will-power. You will give it a go, darling. Especially if we want, well, you know.”
“But,” Gina had made the feeble old joke, “giving up smoking is easy. I’ve done it lots of times.”
But she could not deny that the crunch had come. Running for the bus had become harder. The morning cough persisted throughout the afternoon and she’d developed crevices of corrugating fine lines above her lips. The ritual she had once loved had become a tyrant. It had become a hassle huddling around the front doors of offices and cinemas and nightclubs. It was no fun, shivering in the drizzle, frantically trying to flicker a flame into life more often or not hindered by a taunting breeze.
Ben had even forbidden her to smoke at home, in her own downstairs toilet with the window open.
“I don’t smoke that many,” she’d fib. “They just take the edge off.”
Patches, plastic placebos, rock hard chewing gum – all had failed. But Mr Choo’s images of wildlife squelched into the tobacco had done the trick.
A year later Gina was a subdued housewife who spent too many hours lying stock-still so as to encourage sperm to meet egg. However, all she had to cradle was seven kilos of non-infant bulge around her abdomen.
“Maybe it’s all that blubber you’re carrying that’s hampering things!” Ben surmised. “Best pop back for another session with Mr Choo.”
So Gina told Mr Choo her secrets, closed her eyes and nodded as he crooned: “And one day you’ll look at the shelves beneath the till and see the Kit-Kats and Crunchie Bars and say, "Hello. You used to be my friends and I thought I needed you but I don’t anymore…”
This time the pictures were of her as a ballooned naked whale-woman wedged in a bath-tub. Upon her cellulite ridged skin were arteries that had seeped into transparency along which globules of chicken fat coursed, bouncing against her heart like Catherine Wheels clamped to a wooden fence. Gina’s unborn daughter swam into view, trying to suckle on giant lemon-drizzle muffins blotched by yellow crusted pimples.
It took only six months for Gina to be reduced to a slender yet fidgety picture of elegance; an acceptable accessory for Ben’s arm. Too thin, maybe, he wondered? Too often tempering nerves with “just a small one, just a teeny, a nightcap to help me sleep, mid-morning pick-me-up. Something to take off the edge.”
She dumped the empties in next door’s wheelie bins, tripping on teetering heels and giggling at the trite.
Ben did notice and returned her to Mr Choo. Once again she was wafted to an ubiquitous 7-Eleven, this time to the area above the sweet counter to the right of the cigarettes. More sleepily than previously, Gina nodded an acknowledgment to her newest friends; the crimson Beaujolais, the vermouths, the miniatures of aged malts. One by one Mr Choo sent them cascading along her oesophagus, her skin yellowing as the jaundice slid from liver to womb.
“Hello. You used to be my friends and I thought I needed you. But you weren’t good for me…”
No longer being allowed to drive, Gina took a cab home to where Ben smiled and told her everything was going to be all right. “Now we can really get down to… well, you know!”
A few weeks later, passively sitting in the passenger seat in a petrol station’s forecourt, Gina wondered if what stirred and fluttered in her tummy was merely anxiety or what Ben termed, “the hoped-for.” She studied him queuing at the kiosk, seemingly unaware that he was in the presence of her three former chums.
There was something about the way Ben scrupulously studied the credit card receipt before neatly folding it into his wallet that jolted her out of her numbness. Even though he could not possibly hear her through the closed car windows she announced:
“I remember you. You used to be my friend. You used to be good for me. We were inseparable. But I don’t need you anymore.”
Pulling out her own set of car keys from her purse, Gina slid behind the steering wheel and drove away.