Before our births, void of choice, we became part of the story,
During our lives, with a choice, we can't escape the story,
After death, abandoned choice, the story continues to seep.
- Andrew Mansell


photo by Elizabeth Williams

My name is William Burns but most people either call me Will or Burnsy. As part of my so called healing process I have been asked to write about my experience with regards to, one could say, the hidden side effects of cigarette smoking.  Once I have shown sincere remorse, I will be allowed back to school but with the strict conditions that I must donate one day a month of my own time to explain to other teenagers the perils of smoking and help build the new toilet block on Saturday mornings. Apparently the pictures of gangrenous teeth and tar laden lungs have minimal impact on my generation. Something in actual flesh seemed more realistic and I have agreed to exhibit the skin grafted side of my but cheeks. There’s no way I’m going to show my singed pubic hair. I had to draw the line somewhere. Anyway, a month after my so called incident, the skin grafts on my backside have heeled adequately for me to sit down and write without discomfort.

On Friday the 1st April 2011, at morning recess, my mate Gazza was pressing me into trying cigarettes.

‘Everyone else has tried except for you,’ he urged me on, ‘I’ll give you a fag and you can use my lighter. Go on, you’re not a wimp are you?’

‘No, what’s the big deal, anyway?’ I tried to make Gazza look small, ‘Cancer breath,’ I added, acting tough.

‘You sound like my mum. Being a wimp is not a big deal, hey? Look around, Johnny, Ange, Devo; they all tried,’ Gazza was not giving up.

‘That’s bullshit’, Ange said, ‘Don’t do it, Burnsy.’

’It’s not going to kill ya, not today anyway,’ Johnny spoke up.

Devo whispered in my ear, ‘Why don’t you take the cigarette and lighter to the dunny and pretend to smoke it, flush it, and no one will know, except me and you.

I’m not sure why, but Devo’s idea would at least get Gazza to shut up, ‘Alright Gazza, I’ll try but after that, you shut your trap about smoking?’ I looked Gazza in the eye; in any case I needed a dump. I’m sure there’s no difference between mum’s hot chilli bean casserole and most diuretics.

‘Sure no prob, see Ang, I told ya Burnsy’s got balls,’ Gazza spoke as if he was proud of me.

I took Gazza’s lighter and wrinkled cigarette that he had been keeping in his front jean pocket for god knows how long and headed to the toilet block. The rest of the gang followed me. Gazza told the others he wanted proof and would watch if smoke came out of the cubicle. First things first, I took my pants off, sat down and began to sink a few subs.

‘He’s not doing it, he’s having a shit,’ Johnny spoke full of enlightenment.

‘Hey Burnsy, you reek, what about the ciggy?’ Gazza demanded as the bell to end recess started, ‘Hurry up.’

‘Alright, alright,’ I shouted. With my forearms rested on my knees and head bowed; the last thing I remembered was flicking the small metal wheel on the cigarette lighter and seeing a flame appear for an instant. What happened next is best explained in the letter I have attached that was written by the school principal Mr Land to my parents.

Dear Mr and Ms Burns,

I have left a message on your answering machine and texted both your mobiles as I can’t get in contact to talk with you. I have also emailed a copy of this letter to you. Due to the fact today was April fool’s day, I want to make it clear that the following is no joke.

This morning during recess, your son William, was involved in a major incident that occurred in the boys’ toilets. At this early stage of my investigation it appears William has violated the strict non smoking policy in place at Mornington South West Secondary College. As most of William is currently in intensive care at the Alfred hospital burns unit; I am unable to interrogate him. I say, most of William, as you can imagine, we are still not sure if any part of him slipped around the mangulated S¬-bend of the toilet he was sitting on, at the time of the incident.

The toilet block is in a total state of disrepair and will need to be demolished which has led to the unprecedented decision to allow all boys studying at my college to use the two male staff toilets. A huge inconvenience for all involved.

Four other boys in the toilet block at the time have suffered injuries ranging from severely singed eyebrows and lashes to concussion and hearing loss. One can only imagine the ongoing trauma these boys may suffer.  Several cigarettes were confiscated from one of these boys which led me to believe that William may have been involved in a sinister collaboration of sorts. William’s surname has raised an issue as well but I am prepared to dismiss this as a coincidence once I have met with you. With the seriousness of today’s incident; I have no choice but to summon both of you to a preliminary hearing in my office on Monday the 4th April 2011 at 9.15am sharp. Yours Sincerely, Mr Bos Land Principle, Mornington South West Secondary College.

The next thing I remembered was waking up, lying face down, in a bed that was not mine. Naturally I turned around only to be stung by the pain in my own ass. I tried to get up but felt dizzy and passed out – I guess. The following few days, the nurses helped me get back on my feet. The nurses were rad though and the hospital food was sick but after a week I was rapped to make my way out and get a taxi home. The strangest thing though, was at the hospital entrance a couple of lowlifes were smoking,   I coughed and felt nauseous. I was glad one of the nurses helped me past the smoke. When I got home, my parents had a bit of a dig at me but because Mr Land couldn’t fault my academic and attendance record he was prepared to give me another chance. Needless to say I have promised never to try smoking again.

Andrew Mansell, February 2012.

The two things I dreaded at high school were – being summoned to the principal’s office and the smell of smoke in the boy’s toilets. The principal’s office was a place where the strap was kept and nobody ever returned from there with good news. The boy’s toilets were a smoky health hazard and in a twisted way, prepared boys for the smoke filled discos of the 1980’s. You didn’t need a degree to know when something made you cough it was no good for you. With these memories, I came up with Burnt


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