Iraq was high stress, but it beat the monotony of the Emirate airfield. I was sharing a room with eight soldiers, two of whom spent their nights alternately crying of homesickness, or wetly masturbating in their sleeping bags. In an environment where the occasional rocket or shell hit the base, meal times were an unlikely stress point; mainly because half of the forward base would descend on a small concrete mess hall at the same time to jostle over meager rations, doled out by angry Iraqi cooks. For this reason I deliberately forewent the edible food, and waited until just before the mess closed before presenting for whatever scraps were left. One evening it was just myself and a table of three sullen Iraqi soldiers in the mess, when a siren wailed over the base. It didn't signify any immediate threat, but it did mean we had to urgently RV with our units.
Connor and I are the only smokers in the courtyard, and within minutes a cloud of thick smoke combines with the humid air and hangs over the other patrons. Our cigars attract a group of very young men – possibly just turned 18 – and who had obviously never before seen anybody smoking in a Melbourne bar (the nanny banned indoor smoking over a decade ago). One of them, a pimple faced mongoloid in an oversized suit, sizes me up, and exclaims “what have we here, boys?” Connor and I shoot each other a glance, while another of the group excitedly blurts out that they were going to the brothel for the first time. A group of women at a nearby table laugh, and the kids retreat back to their table. I take a victory puff of my little Demi, which causes the ash to break off down my grubby t-shirt. I remark to Connor that it’s a nice little cigar – no off flavours, nothing outrageous, just clean, mid-tobacco. I stand up to shake off the ash which causes my still-aching head to pulsate with pain, while my little cigar, now fading to the midpoint, quietly goes out.
I cast aside my tray, and trudged out of the mess behind the Iraqis. On hitting the door, one of the Iraqis uncapped his canteen and splashed it behind him, hitting me in the face with his dirty Iraq sewer-water. "Watch that shit, you fucking Arab" came a voice, which I quickly realised had been mine. They turned to face me while I stood, hands on hips, sizing them up. They were small, dressed in Iraqi desert cam, and each had an American M4 rifle slung across their back. While technically allies, the tension between the Iraqi Army and other coalition forces had been building for weeks, with the Iraqis trying to reclaim some lost power (and lost face) from the Western armies. I was outgunned by these three but, unlike them with their slung rifles, I was carrying a holstered 9mm pistol. Not only did I have the close-quarters advantage of a short-barrelled weapon, but I could draw it in an instant. And, thanks to my four months on the range back in Al Khatim, I could unload a full clip in about two seconds, with deadly accuracy.
After the midpoint the Demi Tasse continues down its path of bland, mid-tobacco. My headache intensifies as the nicotine takes hold, and the sweltering humidity contrasts with the icy cold beer and somehow increases the slow, throbbing pain in my temple, while an incessant stinging pain drills into the back of my head. Any light sears my eyeballs, and I ask Connor to perform the regular relights needed to keep my little cigar active. Being able to detect only blinding light and assorted pain, I ask Connor what he thinks of the Demi Tasse, at which he shrugs, remarking "it's tobacco". Connor was a champion of cigarette smoking some years ago (the only person I know to smoke in the car without cracking a window), and I assume that the leaf, in any format, may serve him differently than connoisseurs like myself. The photos in this post are courtesy of a rough lighting system that Connor has rigged using the lighter and his phone, so the quality may suffer (still, it beats using a flash). At seeing the light a sudden wave of nausea washes over me, and I suppress the rising bile with another swig of beer as the semi tasse of the Demi Tasse lies dormant in the ashtray.
The standoff continued, and to bring my presence properly to bear, I unsnapped my sidearm by ripping the riveted flap off the canvas holster, and rested my hand on the butt of my 9mm. I kept reminding myself of my rights to escalate. If they reach for their weapons, I draw mine. if they bring their weapons to bear, or even touch the cocking handle, I fire into the center of each scene mass. I noticed the center man's water bottle shaking in his hands. He was clearly terrified, and was weighing up the same decision. Did I want to go down like this? Whether I lived or died, it was going to be over an accidental splash of water. But these idiots had no legal rights, and they were hardly human in my eyes. I felt no fear, but my heartbeat thumped in my ears while my cock hardened against my dirty fatigues.
To be continued...
A DJ, who has been setting up his table in the courtyard for some time now, suddenly spurs his system to life and blasts the patrons with both barrels; a thumping bass line, under a piercing electronic melody. A collective cry goes up, and after a few seconds the volume is adjusted to standard nightclub levels. Pain is now radiating from the base of my spine, up my neck, and ending with what feels like a clawed hand squeezing my skull from the outside. I can hardly open my eyes, and I find myself sitting hunched in my chair at the assault from the speakers. Connor ruffles my hair in a friendly dad way, which makes me cry out with pain as the ache rattles around my entire head. Connor scoffs, tells me to "stop being a little bitch", and waves my freshly relit cigar in my face. I take a tentative puff, and taste nothing but heavy tar. The smoke makes me cough, and my head pounds with every heaving hack. The Rey Del Mundo Demi Tasse is bland and inoffensive, and is my no means a bad smoke. I'm thankful that it wasn't more nuanced (or any bigger), as my spoiled palate and splitting headache would have ruined it anyway. I stub my cigar, call Connor a "motherfucker", and wander in search of a taxi.