Words: The Wine Den (1)

Another brief hiatus – after drowning in wedding planning, brewing, a job interview, an intensive course, and now about to go away for a week; but at least I have a moment to catch up on my blog! Fingers crossed for a blog a day for a while!

This is part one of a short story I’ve been writing for some time. I started it just after my grandfather, Jon, passed away after having several strokes over the course of a number of years. He lived a much better and longer life than any of us expected, and never lost his sense of humour even when he couldn’t fully express himself. I met him on too few occasions, but I will never forget his rocket-fuel wine. Perhaps it’s from him that I get my urge to brew!

I’ve been reluctant to focus on this one for some time. Perhaps in finishing it, I fear it will close a door on the subject. Of course, this is never true if I don’t want it to be. I hope there will always be a door open. After all, he’s only in the next room.

Part one, however, is nothing to do with him!

This isn’t what happened. I wish that it was. I wish that they had been given the gift of meeting each other. Or maybe the gift is mine – that I was the one blessed by their meeting. Rather, what follows is how I had hoped it would be. Before the hospitals, and the ramps where previously there were steps. Before the chair – “his contraption” she called it, which was usually accompanied by the verb ‘pootle’ when he wasn’t around. Before the struggle to find the words, and you knew there was a witty joke in there, trapped behind a twinkling eye, electrical signals ricocheting awkwardly off walls that previously had been motorways of thought. Before she lost so much sleep, growing tired, but stronger – carrying them both. Before the rollercoaster ride of hope and despair, the recovery and the relapse. Before he left without so much as a goodbye, because neither of us had the strength and it was too awkward. I was too awkward.

I squeezed the brakes and came to a sudden stop when I realised I’d gone past it. The car rental company office was on a steep hill, so the back of my bike lifted off the ground significantly as I tried to stop. Chuck nearly carried on into me, but swerved to the side and glared to indicate his intense displeasure at having to panic-stop.

We pulled our bikes onto the pavement and began the walk back up the hill. Fortunately, there was a small set of bike stands, with one space at the end so that we could lock them up together. It was a dry, bright October day and unusually warm, though the beginnings of a chill hung like a suggestion on the breeze. The light drew attention to the grotty buildings in the area, which was near enough an industrial park that it was devoid of any character.

“Horrible area,” I said, to pass the time.

“It’s not around here, though, right?” he said, checking his phone while pushing his bike slowly forwards. Something I would never manage without getting tangled up in my handlebars.

“Obviously not.”

We came to a stop, shaking out sets of keys and jousting to try and fix our bike locks in place. It was the same every time, no matter the circumstance – neither one of us willing to wait for the other; both of us expecting the other one to open the door and go first.

bicycle amsterdam netherlands cycle
Photo by Prabhala Raghuvir on Pexels.com

I went first.

The door opened with an electronic bell, like the ones they have in corner shops to wake up the sleeping owner.

“Hi, we’re here to rent a car. I have a booking.”

“Name?”

“James.”

“Right. She’s running a few minutes late, she’s just collecting another car. Take a seat.”

“No problem.” Of course we’ll wait unquestioningly for the woman with no name. We don’t really have a choice.

A leather sofa in royal blue was parked up against a wall, with an oval glass coffee table that had been tactfully splattered with car magazines. Chuck looked at them with a wrinkled nose, but I picked one up and started flicking through. I wasn’t the least bit interested, but I liked absorbing ideas. I wondered about it all. The car, the house I had seen before, but Chuck had only extrapolated from small, dated pictures. It was a warm, welcoming place, even if I couldn’t give him an idea of how big it was from those camera angles.

“Sorry I’m late! The traffic was terrible,” the woman with no name came teetering in on impossibly high heels. “I’m Rebecca.”

Rebecca extended her hand for us to shake it, but not too much. Her figure was slightly closed off, her elbow stuck to her side so we had to come to her. Perhaps it was a business tactic, I thought. The handshake itself was neatly trimmed, like the end of her ponytail, which was tied high, platinum blonde, with just the smallest hint of the dark roots beneath.

She was dressed all in cream: fitted suit jacket, tight pencil skirt and these five-inch heels which she was struggling to walk in. I would struggle, too. ‘I’m entrepreneurial,’ it screamed. Go-getter. Deal closer. I wasn’t sure who she was doing it for; we were hardly dressed like board execs. It must have taken her hours this morning, factoring in the hair, porcelain doll make-up and clothes. In contrast, I was wearing a fairly inexpensive top with an asymmetric line that I liked from a Camden-based designer to go with my lop-sided hair. I always thought that a suit meant professionalism because it said “I am willing to sacrifice my individuality”. Willing to wear the same as every other fucker to get ahead. Chuck was wearing a formal shirt; his suit jacket probably rolled up in his backpack if I knew him, which I did. He had no choice in his work attire.

We smiled at each other like crocodiles, or wolves. The pause after initial introductions was just long enough to understand that we had already made judgements of each other, and they weren’t that positive. Regardless, I didn’t need to get on with her, I just needed her to let me sign the paperwork and give me the keys.

“Shall we have a look at the car?” Rebecca said. “I’m just going to locate the keys. If you like, I have an upgrade available to the next model up.” Ah, I thought. Here’s the justification for the appearance of professionalism. “It’s only another twenty pounds a day, and you’re only using it for the one day, right? That’s nothing.” Sure, for you perhaps. She scrabbled around for a set of keys on her desk, before repeating the exercise on two of her colleagues’ desks. “Ah, here we go. Let’s go then?”

We followed her out of the office. A cloud had drifted in front of the April sun, making it feel a fair bit colder than it did a moment earlier.

“I think we’re fine with the smaller car, to be honest,” I said as we walked behind her to a car park that had far too many cars wedged into it. Reversing out of here was going to be a frightening game, especially with them watching.

“Just have a look. If you don’t want it, you can just drive the other one. I have both sets of keys and the paperwork for both right here,” she said, waving the documentation cheerily, with a slight edge to her voice that suggested we had better play her game and look at the damned car. I just wanted to get on the road. Today was anxious enough.

“Here, see? It’s so much more spacious,” she said, indicating a black BMW. “A mid-range beamer, lots of extra features – you have your climate control, automatic tinting on your windscreen. Or, you have your original booking… just behind you.” Her tone changed to match her distaste.

I glanced at Chuck. I tried to convey I don’t need this nonsense right now with my look. “I assume it’ll get us there and back,” Chuck said of the lesser car; a smaller Vauxhall Corsa.

“Well of course, I wouldn’t give you a duff car, I’m just suggesting—”

“We’ll take the Corsa, please.”

Rebecca huffed, her nostrils flaring slightly.

“Look,” I said. “I’m taking him to meet my family, I just want the car I booked and to go.”

“Okay, I mean, you could be making a great impression with this one, but whatever,” she said, making one last play.

“Do you have a pen?” Chuck asked.

I looked at him. Thank goodness you’re here.

And here’s part two!

xRaph

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