“No. Stop. Put it back.”

Harry pushed his cigarette back into the pack in the same action with which he’d drawn it out.

“You said you were quitting, don’t you remember?” his wife said, eyeing him.

Harry had been quitting smoking for forty years, the same amount of time he’d spent being nagged to quit by his wife. Jean took the pack from his hand and replaced it with a packet of nicotine gum.

“It’s not the same,” he said, wearily. He mashed a piece of it between his gums and scowled in her direction.

Leaving by the back door, he went out to the garden and sat in his chair. Rain was starting to come down in scant droplets. Harry looked up at the sky. It looked like a pipe about to burst. He didn’t care: there was peace on his deck chair where there was none in the house. The garden was man-territory; the house belonged to his wife. He picked up a shovel and cut down his cigarette craving a little each time he plunged it into the earth; distraction was key. That was what the well-thumbed guide on quitting smoking had told him. He knew it well; he’d been reading it since they arrived as a newly married couple at this very house.

Jean had been happy to put up with his vices prior to married life, but crossing the threshold had changed the rules. She was in charge and Harry had to do what she said if he wanted to keep the peace. He pulled weeds from the ground, like she removed the pieces of lint from his clothing when they were in public together. Smoking was his one act of rebellion, the one part of him she hadn’t been able to rein in yet.

He reflected on his former years. He used to have a motorbike and rode it to work every day. That was when he was still working as an artist, selling his paintings from his studio in town. He thought longingly about the paintbrush he missed holding between his fingers. She’d said it wasn’t a real job and he needed to settle on something steady: a realistic source of income. So he had become a civil servant and seen his creativity dwindling daily. The only pen marks he’d made since then were the ones on the letters he’d had to sign in the office. Everything else in the workplace was spelled out in regular, typewritten letters. They could have been produced by any hand in the country. Harry slid his back-up pack of cigarettes from his pocket. He held one like that paintbrush he’d coveted, inserting it between his lips and lighting it. He exhaled in the direction of the kitchen window. Jean was standing washing dishes, watching his every move. Her features had softened with age; her blunt blonde hair had become white waves. Her tall, lean form had shortened and widened considerably. But those eyes; they could still slice through him, spotting his every flaw and dissecting him with a glance. His motorbike had been quickly put up for sale too. She labelled it a “death trap” and said they could use the spare cash. Jean stood there, scrubbing the surface off the patterned dishes. She’d never had an eye for the beauty of artistry. He remembered painting her a picture for their first wedding anniversary, an image taken from their wedding photos. He’d expected the sentimentality to reach her cold core, but had quickly been proven wrong.

“What did you waste time on that for?” she said. “I told you I just wanted a pair of earrings.” It was probably still stashed in the roof-space, he thought, along with all his other abandoned hobbies.

He looked around at the flower beds, where artistic beauty sprung up in little bursts of colour. It was something she didn’t try to cull; she liked the neighbours to envy their garden. Ellen from next door was always over for tea, sitting in his armchair and admiring the plants through the window. The opinions of others had always mattered more to her than his. He finished up his cigarette. It was funny how many things sprang to mind in a three-minute smoke break. The smoke curled its way into the recesses of his mind; his only form of therapy. The pipe burst in the sky and he ran for cover, wishing she hadn’t denied him a shed in which to take shelter instead.

“I can smell that smoke in here,” she said, spraying room spray around him. He choked on it. “I thought you said you were quitting,” she said, narrowing her eyes at him.

“I’ll try again tomorrow,” he said, lifting his newspaper from the sideboard.

“I’ll make a cup of tea, the kids are calling round in a few minutes,” she said.

Sometimes, he thought, it would be nice to sit in a quiet room and read, without constant activity. Jean produced the tea cosy and slid it over the belly of the teapot. The good cups and saucers were set on the trolley, a plate of scones completing the display.

“Push that into the living room, would you, Harry?”

He grunted and did what he was told. Sitting down in his armchair, he put one foot on the footstool. The doorbell rang.

“They’re here. Would you let them in, Harry?”

Harry shuffled to the front door. At least, he thought, the arrival of outside faces would put an end to the nagging for a while. Jean loved company and came to life like uncorked champagne in the presence of visitors.

“Hello, love,” he said to his daughter and son-in-law.

His daughter leant in and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

“Oh, Dad, you aren’t still smoking, are you?” she said, with eyes that interrogated as much as her mothers’ did.

Their two children came in and Harry’s face lit up. “Hello,” he cooed at the children. Seeing their faces brought back a little of his vivacity. “What do you have?” he asked the younger of the two.

“My dolly,” she said, proudly holding it up for his approval. She wrapped herself around him, unworried by his scent. He smiled at her.

They sat down in the living room and Jean walked in. She’d applied pink lipstick and combed her curls. She looked bright and cheerful.

“Hello,” she said. “Come and get a cup of tea. Your father was smoking before you got here,” she sighed. “Maybe you can convince him to stop.”

“Dad, it’s bad for your health. You need to think of Mum,” his daughter scolded him.

Harry turned on the cricket, hoping to steer the conversation elsewhere with his son-in-law’s help.

At seventy-five, Harry’s desire for rebellion was unbottling itself inside.

“I like smoking,” he said, above the other voices in the room.

Jean glared at him, across the room, like he was a jack-in-the-box that had popped up, not on cue.

“There’s nothing wrong with my health, I walk miles a day,” he said, defending his habit.

“You just need to take them away, Mum. Hide them somewhere he can’t find them.”

Harry took a silent sip from his tea cup. The plants waved to him through the window, like little flags of freedom. He’d return to them later, he decided, once everyone had left. No one seemed to notice he wasn’t talking. They were too busy listening to Jean boasting about her Begonias. He’d planted them, but he let her take credit for them; anything to placate her.

The room suddenly looked like it was a world moving backwards against the one he was in. Everyone’s laughter and smiles felt far removed from him. He stood up to go out the door and fell to the floor. She was right, he heard someone say: the cigarettes had finished him off.

A few hours later, he woke up, disoriented, with Jean sitting next to him.

“Where am I?” he asked.

“You’re in hospital. Don’t you remember you collapsed?” she said, impatiently.

“What happened?” he asked, “Was it a heart attack?”

She shook her head at him. “They say it was a panic attack.”

“A panic attack? What’s that?”

“They say you collapsed due to anxiety. I don’t know what you’d have to be anxious about,” she said, disparagingly.

Harry enumerated a list of fifty items in his mind. He decided it was best to not share any of them with her. She handed him his newspaper. “I brought this for you, thought you’d want it.”

He looked down at it, his hands shaking the print. “I need a cigarette.” He said it like he was admitting involvement in a crime.

She shook her head. “I didn’t bring any with me. The doctors don’t think you should be smoking anymore, anyway. They agreed it could have caused this.”

Harry thought about inhaling a delicious drag of smoke. It seemed as distant a memory as the other parts of him he’d left behind. He knew it was something he loved, but had already lost the taste of it in his mouth.

The cigarettes hadn’t finished him off, after all, he thought. But there was always Jean.