Huff’n and puff'n

2012-02-10 00:00

THE smoke in the crowded room hung like the cloth over Table Mountain. We all smoked (as I recall), bar our chairperson, Gareth, a tall man who sat at the head of the table, and as the evening progressed and the pall grew thicker, to those sitting furthest from him his head at times all but disappeared in the swirling plumes of Dunhill, Marlboro, Lexington and other preferences.

The local branch of the executive of the Veterinary Association met every six weeks in those days in the eighties, usually at the Polo Pony Hotel near Hillcrest, a venue considered to be central for the members, the majority of whom came from Durban and Maritzburg districts. And on the way back to Maritzburg late at night, Rick and I would often light up in the car and exchange easy banter. I realise that neither Rick nor I were fundamentally enamoured with the concept of smoking, but had become addicted through the influence of peer pressure. Consequently, as time progressed, we both attempted to ditch the habit many times but, with equally porous resolve, we regularly fell back into the old trap.

In the early nineties, I finally cracked the addiction. Around that time, Rick also mounted a full-scale ­offensive. It was to have life-changing consequences.

The story goes that after a week or so, the stress of giving up depressed his immunity to such an extent that he developed a severe respiratory condition. During a paroxysm of coughing , he prolapsed a couple of discs in his back, necessitating immediate surgery. The first operation did not go that well, so he was subjected to a second. And although his doctors were magnanimous in their attitude to a fellow ­professional, there were still hospital fees to be met. During his time in hospital, he had also confided in a doctor that he had experienced a non-specific back problem while playing rugby as a teenager. On the basis of this information, his provident fund refused to compensate him for his six-months-of-loss of earnings during his recuperation. And when he eventually returned to work after many months of recuperation, he had to change his focus in the practice from the more physical farmyard work to that of tending to the health needs of small animals.

According to Rick’s reasoning at the time, giving up smoking was a very dangerous pastime. Not only had it cost him considerable pain and suffering, time away from his workplace and changed the way he had to conduct his profession, it also had serious financial repercussions.

So he started smoking again.

Over the years, he had various changes of plan, attempting to ditch the craving on a number of occasions. He used every trick in the book from medicated patches and gum to requesting psychological assistance. His work partners cringed at each announcement and learnt to give him a wide berth as his mood swings could be severe. And his kennel assistant regularly reached into his own pack of regulars under the conspiratorial eye of his silver-haired boss.

And then, just before he retired from his private practice, and with the minimum amount of fuss, he finally cracked the habit, and when he eventually left, he had not had a cigarette in many months.

But Rick was too young and vital to retire completely, and easily succumbed to boredom without the challenges of private veterinary practice. So he busied himself on occasions by working for a mutual friend and colleague.

I had not seen him socially for a couple of years. In order to remedy this, we recently met at an ­intimate restaurant and indulged in the easy banter fueled by absence, after many years of a close friendship. Although the conversation did not directly involve smoking, I did notice that Ricks bladder co­incidentally demanded attention every time the one smoker in our party left the table.

And, on occasions I believe, in the taxi rank close to a veterinary practice in Maritzburg, a distinguished grey haired figure will be seen exchanging a couple of coins for a Peter Stuyvesant loose.

• The author is a practising vet with a passion for his profession and a giggle in his heart



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