A cough in the night

My upstairs neighbour goes to bed at 10-30, and gets up at 5-30. I know this because I live in a 1960s high-rise block, and in the 1960s the phrase “sound insulation” would have seemed like the phrase “heat wrapping” does to us now – a bizarre juxtaposition of two words that have no relationship to each other, not a desirable thing to install when you’re building flats. The ceiling above my head is the floor beneath my neighbour’s feet: a single layer of concrete, through which sound is readily transmitted. This means that I hear more of his life than I ever wanted to.

One of the things I hear is his smokers’ cough. I hear him take his first cigarette of the day, at 5-30, and I hear him take the last, at 10-30. I know a smokers’ cough when I hear one, because I lived with a smoker for the first 19 years of my life – my dad was a 40-a-day man from the age of 14 until his death at the age of 68.

His smoking killed him, probably, since he suffered a fatal heart attack. Heart disease is a consequence of smoking in its own right, of course, but the smoking had also given my dad Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, and the steroids that made it possible for him to breathe had the side effect of increasing his risk of heart attack.

The smoking got him coming, and it got him going, and he never stopped, not even on the day he died. My mum found his last cigarette in the ashtray – by then it was just a long column of ash attached to a filter, ready to crumple to nothing the moment it was touched. It had burnt out hours before, but it was probably still burning when he died. Cigarettes killed him, and a cigarette outlived him.

My dad was a sick man by the time he died. He had the heart disease – though that was unsuspected, and discovered only on autopsy (he probably wouldn’t have been prescribed steroids if it had been known about). And he had vascular dementia, which was caused by – you guessed it – smoking, and had left him in a state of near-constant rage and fear at a world filled with things he just couldn’t understand any more. But he also had the lung disease – the wheezing, rasping, choking fight to breathe.

He’d had it, in milder form, for years before he died. He’d been forcibly retired at the age of 52 and breathing difficulties was one of the reasons (though he also had a kind of slow-burning mental breakdown which never met the criteria for any recognised mental illness, but left him utterly unable to function in a work environment). So I know the sound of someone smoking his way through the various stages of COPD.

In fact, it was the soundtrack to my adolescence, since I was 13 when my dad finished work, and retirement left him nothing to do but sit, and smoke, and promise to take the dog out in 5 minutes. That very particular cough was a constant presence in my life, but one I became especially aware of after dark.

I’d lie awake, listening through the thin wall or floor that separated me from my father, and hear him choke as he smoked, and smoke as he choked. And I’d wonder if – as he had, on other nights before – he’d so far lose the ability to draw breath that he’d be away in an ambulance to A&E before the dawn broke. I’d listen to the sound of that very particular cough, and wonder why he couldn’t just not smoke. Such an easy thing – just don’t pick up the cigarette, don’t light it – and then I wouldn’t have to lie in the dark, listening to him choke, and wondering if tonight he would go to hospital. If tonight he would die.

And now, in the dark of the night, I listen to my upstairs neighbour take his first cigarette of the day at 5-30, and his last cigarette of the day at 10-30, and I hear that cough. That particular cough, which I had thought I had forgotten, but evidently was buried deep within me. And it turns out that, if I have never forgotten the sound of that cough, neither have I forgotten the feelings and emotions it evokes is me. When I hear it, I become in essence my adolescent self again.

So I lie there at 5-30 in the morning, and I wonder why my neighbour couldn’t just not smoke, when it’s such an easy thing – just don’t pick up the cigarette, don’t light it. And I wonder when the time will come that it worsens for him, and he will find that the cough doesn’t stop, and his breath never comes, and he will have to go to hospital.

I lie in the dark, with all those old emotions and fears swirling around me. Except this time I don’t just wonder. Because now I know how it will end.

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