Then the hoodie-wearing yobbo turned round and I realised it was my good friend, Village Postmistress, sneaking a crafty cigarette.
‘Blimey, there really is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide in this godforsaken town’, she cried, and made to grind her gasper underfoot.
I stopped her, and soothed: ‘No need to conceal your addiction from me, particularly given your commendable ability to quote Martha Reeves and the Vandellas under pressure.’
Village P sank gratefully against the wall, and we sat together companionably while she did that sunken-cheeks deep inhaling thing that desperado smokers do.
‘Everywhere I go’, she rasped between drags, ‘there’s some accursed goody-two-shoes who knows me. “Ooh” they say, all smug, “still smoking are we?”’
Trouble was, VP had given up very publicly last year, accessorising her entire body with visible nicotine patches.
‘Obviously I can’t even think about smoking in the small outlying village in which I reside and serve the community in my capacity as postmistresses’, she said, all on the outbreath of a plume of smoke. ‘I have to drive to Lewes and skulk in alleyways like a criminal. Even so, you’re the sixth person who’s caught me today.’
It’s tough being a lung-hacker in the crowded south-east at a time of high moral disapproval. VP would have enjoyed hanging out at the Bitter End during the late eighties. You weren’t allowed in unless you had a cigarette permanently dangling from your lips. Alex Higgins, god rest him, and Hilda Ogden were our role models. Hilda still is, really: I don’t smoke any more but I like to wear my curlers in public.
I asked VP if she’d noticed the recent smokers’ backlash. In the last week alone, Marco Pierre White had been seen rakishly puffing a cigarette in his new Maresfield pub, while militant ash-fan David Hockney smoked openly at Glyndebourne.
‘It’s all very well for bad boy chefs and painters’, she sighed, stubbing the butt against the ancient flint wall and lighting another. ‘Pillars of the community like me don’t have that option.’
A man walked past and said, ‘Hello Postie. Still on the coffin nails are we?’
VP made a most un-pillar like gesture at his retreating back. ‘I’m too well-known here. I’m going to have to start commuting to London for nicotine relief.’
‘Apparently’, I said conversationally, ‘you can still smoke in the pubs in Alderney.’
She looked eagerly at me. ‘Is that the town near Chichester?’
I didn’t like to tell her it was even further than the Big Smoke.
Beth Miller, 7th August 2010. Published in VivaLewes.com and in Viva Lewes magazine January 2011.