I ONCE worked with two old boys called Carl and Jimmy. They weren’t old really, they just seemed old at the time. It was the early 1980s and I’d be in my late twenties, they in their early forties. Early forties isn’t old, unless you happen to be observing things from the viewpoint of someone twelve years younger . . .
At break times we’d sit in the sunshine talking about stuff that happened in the days before I was born, and one of the old boys would pull a packet of cigarettes from his back pocket and offer the other a smoke. Because the packet had been stuffed in a back pocket, the cigarettes were invariably flat.
The other would take a cigarette, place it between his lips, light it inside a shield of knurled knuckles and, as he exhaled the smoke, utter the words “Passing clouds”. At which point the pair would chuckle before resuming their conversation.
Initially, I assumed these words and the ritual surrounding them formed some sort of poetic reference to the first drag being exhaled by a pensive smoker after a hard morning’s work on the floor of a quarry. But when I questioned the practice I learned something mildly interesting.
Passing Clouds were a brand of Turkish cigarettes available to British troops during the Second World War. They were famous for being tightly packed, to the point they had been flattened inside the packet. Carl and Jimmy were youngsters during 1940s and had grown up in possession of this knowledge; this embedded reference had become a humorous aside to be shared when an opportunity arose.
Now, thirty-five years later, I’m sitting in March sunshine dwelling on this appreciated recollection as clouds drift over the Sierra Nevada and disappear into inland Spain. Clouds pass and so does time. My new country is the greenest I have ever seen it and there is pink snow on the mountains, coloured by dust from the Sahara. The streams are full and the broad beans almost ripe.
Carl died of a heart attack a few years back; what became of Jimmy I have absolutely no idea. If I was a smoker, I’d flatten a cigarette and light it in their memory, then dwell for a while on the sublime miracle that is the human mind and how something as commonplace as atmospheric vapour can dislodge an event that barely merited recording – but one which has given me a few moments of bittersweet pleasure.