During my adolescence I took up smoking in a big way. I tried all of the popular brands of the day, such as Player’s No 6 (and No 10), Kensitas Club, Albany, Cadets and, in times of hardship, a life saving 5 Park Drive. A nicotine craving was a difficult pet to feed on the wages of a schoolboy, i.e., nil, but I did have resource to a daily fix.
Dinner money back then was 12p per day, exactly the same price as 10 Embassy Regal. Having just filled up on sugar puffs and toast, my need for tobacco was greater than that of food as I walked to school and so, more often than not, my dinner money would be spent not on developing my physical self with wholesome food, but on developing a smoker’s cough instead.
Of course, the repercussions of this were felt rather sharply when the bell rang for lunch. Having had nothing but four cigs since breakfast I was always starving at this point, and I went through the daily penance of regretting buying the cigarettes. The smell of food that wafted from the dining hall was almost unbearable, and I cursed my habit. But, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention, so one day I devised a plan to sneak what was said not to exist: a free lunch.
The dining area was situated on a mezzanine in the main hall of the school, which was separated from the well of the hall by metal barriers. Diners would form a queue along one side of the hall, where there was a coin vending machine attached to the wall. The diner would insert his (or her) 12p into this machine, and a turn of the handle would produce a token that was handed in to a dinner lady who then allowed the diner past the barrier and into the dining hall on the mezzanine. Once past this barrier the diners formed a queue that led to the serving area.
My plan was simple: I would walk through the main hall and then pretend to spot someone in the queue on the mezzanine and walk over to them as though I had some important business to conduct – perhaps to return a borrowed pen or some such pretext. I would climb through the barrier and brazenly walk up to the queue, which was past the pay checkpoint. If a teacher or dinner lady questioned my being there, I would nonchalantly explain that I was just passing something on to a fellow pupil and I would leave the way I came.
On D-Day (D standing for Dinner), I put phase one of the plan into operation by climbing through the barrier. I joined the queue next to my friend Haggis, and I chatted to him as we shuffled ever closer to the grub. This was it – I had effectively put myself onto free school meals without informing anyone. I picked up a tray and, with thumping heart, made my way along the serving area, nodding at everything that was offered. I took my stolen lunch in the company of friends and retired afterwards for a most satisfying after-dinner smoke behind the sports shed. I reflected on my scheme and its complete success, although common-sense told me that I should not attempt this ruse every day, as I would soon be found out. I would save it for those occasions when I was particularly hungry.
But in the battle between common-sense and hunger, there is only ever going to be one winner, and I began to shove my nose into this cheese pie and rice pudding filled trough on a regular basis, until someone noticed.
I exited the dining hall one day, having partaken of a hearty lunch at the expense of the taxpayer, and I was looking forward to my usual smoke before resuming lessons. I had just emerged from the swing doors, when someone grabbed the sleeve of my blazer. It was a prefect. I looked at him in surprise. “What?” I said.
“I saw what you did,” he said. I blanked him.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t give me that,” he said, assuming a tone of authority, “I’ve been watching you.”
“Watching me what?” I said, although I knew the game was up.
“You’ve been sneaking in for free dinners. I’ve seen you do it a few times.” I remained silent. “I’m taking you to the deputy head’s office.” This was a bombshell. Not only would my nosh-nicking exploits come to light, there was a good chance that I would be exposed as a smoker to my parents as the reason that I had to steal food emerged. I took a chance on the prefect having a soft side.
“Do we have to?” I said in a miserable voice. “Why get the deputy head and my parents involved? I’ll not do it again.” He looked thoughtful for a moment.
“Come with me,” he said and I followed him to the sixth-form common room, where I was told to wait outside while he went in. He emerged a few moments later, holding a sheet of foolscap paper. “I want you to write a double-sided essay on this sheet, and hand it to me before lunch tomorrow; otherwise it’ll be the deputy head.” He handed me the paper. “I’ve already written the title at the top of the page,” he said. I looked at the sheet and read the title, which was:
The Inside of a Ping Pong Ball
This guy fancied himself as a sadist. I think he expected me to recoil in horror at the task but I calmly nodded. “All right,” I said, and we parted.
That night in my bedroom, having become bored with playing records and drawing cartoons in an old jotter, I decided to tackle the essay. Almost from the moment I read the title I knew of an easy way to complete it, although it would take some time to write. I flexed my fingers and began.
The inside of a ping-pong ball consists of air. The air inside a ping-pong ball is not held at any great pressure. If it was, and the ping-pong ball was punctured, then the air would escape with a sustained ssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss (I’m sure you get the picture here) sssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss. But, as it is not pressurised, it doesn’t.
That was it; two sides of foolscap with very little effort, but a lot of esses.
I handed my essay to the prefect the following morning. He looked at it and laughed. “Clever bugger,” he said. “Well done.” He folded it up and put it into the inside pocket of his jacket. “Just don’t let me catch you doing that again.”
“You won’t,” I said and my belly rumbled as I made my way towards the sports shed.
(For the record, I quit smoking many years ago)