“Well, I guess we both like travelling.”
“I lived for nearly a year in Argentina.”
“So you speak Spanish?”
“Yeah,” Chuck replied. “But I haven’t for a while.”
Jon rose from his chair and thumbed through his record collection. He carefully selected a sleeve so as not to reveal the joke too soon, placed the large black disc and activated the old turntable. It crackled briefly and came to life with the melodramatic screech of violins, a double bass and piano, and a jumping accordion: an Argentine tango. Jon hopped about the living room, and when a deep contralto began singing, Jon demonstrated his musical prowess and his knowledge of the words, which he pronounced with a faltering, though slightly comic accent.
“Gosh,” Chuck said, taking a sip of lavender cordial. “You’ve got so much energy. My grandad can barely move, and he’s only five years older than you.”
“He still works, you know,” Jane said proudly. “Not so much plumbing, but you still work as an extra, don’t you Jonny boy?”
“Yearp,” he replied.
“Gosh,” said Chuck again. “What sort of thing?”
By way of response, Jon rose and walked out of the room, quietly warbling a tune.
“I. I who have nothing-ng-ng… I. I who have no o-o-o-one, adore you and want you so…”
“Is… is that his answer?” Chuck looked at me for a clue. I shrugged, and sat back to enjoy the performance.
Jon soon returned with one of the items from the window – a large white Elizabethan collar and fedora with a black feather. Immediately, I was reminded of period dramas and films featuring Cate Blanchett. He continued to sing, leaning into his voice a little more now as he did a little twirl in the room, which created an oddly quaint sense of anachronism. With the addition of a little makeup, it would not have been unlike a brief living room performance from a drag queen. He made it feel like he was doing it for himself, and we just happened to be there, which echoed a piece of advice on a nearby birthday card: Dance like no one’s watching.
“Sorry, I still don’t get it,” said Chuck at the conclusion of the verse. The rest of us simply laughed in reply.
“His agent is fantastic,” Jane continued. “She’s so considerate of him and us. She’s come round a few times for tea. Do you know I haven’t the foggiest idea how these people operate, I couldn’t tell you, but she manages to get him into these huge BBC productions and big screen films… I tell you Jon’s met so many stars, you wouldn’t believe it. You just wouldn’t.”
Jane seemed more excited by this than Jon did, though he had exited once more to doff the headwear. The lavender cordial and biscuits soon ran out, and Jane prepared a variety of vegetarian nibbles as a kind of slightly late ‘lunch’. Jane invited us over to the table.
“He met Shirley Bassey once, nearly missed your dear mother in her Shakespearean debut. You must have heard that story by now.” Jane looked at me and I shook my head: I hadn’t.
“Oh well, she said. Jon, would you like to tell it?”
“It all started on a cold November day. I was on a plumbing job, one of our family friends was working in television at the time. I didn’t really know what I was letting myself in for, but at the time I needed the money and it was a chance to meet some famous people. Anyway, I arrived to walk right onto the set of the Muppet show, and there she was getting ready to sing ‘Goldfinger’ in one of her famous sparkly red dresses.”
“Gosh,” Chuck and I reacted in near unison. “That’s one of my favourite James Bond theme tunes,” Chuck added.
“Correct!” Jon answered. “So I did my work and afterwards I watched her perform it. It was incredible. So much work went onto sets back then, but I imagine it’s all computer-generated and green-screened now.”
“They had this huge pile of bars that looked like gold, and a silly storyline to justify it. Anyway, afterwards, she took me out for lunch and a drink, and of course I accepted. Then later, she invited me to her hotel.”
I looked over at Jane, who had been watching our reactions.
“Did you accept?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
“I told her I was married, and that my daughter was about to appear in a production of Henry V. So she smiled and we got into her limousine.”
“And she dropped me off at the production so I wouldn’t miss it. I had a front row seat.”
I looked back at Jane, who was still watching us, but her expression had softened. “I think your mother was worried he wouldn’t make it, but Jon would walk through fire for her and Kip.”
“Was it a good production?” I asked.
“You know your mother. She would take the worst role and make people laugh with it.”
“It helped that I had imbibed a couple,” Jon admitted.
“Jon’s quite the wine man. We make our own here, Chuck, but Jon makes it pretty aggressively. I can’t drink it anymore.”
“He’s already been warned,” I add. “That stuff should come with a warning label. It’s rocket fuel.”
“Follow me,” Jon said, putting down his plate of untouched crudités. None of us had really started to eat, but Jane wasn’t put out by the change of plan; in fact she was keen for us to go with him. Of course, I knew where he was taking us.
We walked back through the kitchen and narrow hallway to the other side of the house, where an extension had been built onto the side of the house.
“No one’s allowed in here who isn’t family,” Jon said, pausing with the key in the lock and looking at me, then at Chuck; his final chance before apparently breaking with this tradition and letting Chuck in. I nodded – this seemed to be what he was waiting for. He was to be family. Why else would I bring him here? Partly, it was Jon ramping up the importance of his den. I imagined many people have been in here, thus making them a part of the family. A family that was unexclusive, welcoming, constantly growing and uniting. It was a great and wonderful thing to be invited in, but it was a thing which carried no airs with it. We were going in to drink wine so strong it defied definition; this was the way such bonds were forged – outside of EU standards laws. A sign on the door, printed on very old, yellowing paper, read “Jobs Folly”, and in red underneath, in slightly smaller font, “Jon’s place”. A certificate bestowing him associateship in the Institute of Plumbing (1997) was stuck proudly underneath.
Despite having been in before, I was not prepared for what lay beyond. Jon opened the door onto a single room which despite its actual size still appeared small thanks to the chaos and clutter that had found its way here. The den had the strong smell of whisky barrels and gardens. Shelves were stacked with wine bottles, some dustier than others. One corner had an old bench tucked into it, making the shelves beyond harder to reach; the bottles there looked old enough to tell their own stories, and cause an asthma attack if one were to breathe too close by.
He leaned over the counter and pulled a bottle from a shelf. It was middle of the range: about half as sticky and dusty as the corner of antique valuables – these had perhaps reached ornamental stage, likely having reached peak undrinkability some time hence.
“Those are the secret,” he said, drinking his wine like it was half the proof of the stuff we were drinking and indicating the oaken whisky barrels on the floor.