I had often wondered, having been gifted several of these bottles in the past, how they achieved an almost ‘whisky’ like quality. It was probably why they tasted like the UK Space Agency would be interested in them, but also what made them particularly smooth despite being frighteningly strong.
Clearly holding a different point of view, Jon opened the bottle. The cork came free not so much with the satisfying squeak that so often begins the wine drinker’s experience, but hesitantly, and unnervingly in two slightly crumbly pieces. Jon produced three upturned glasses from a high shelf and handed them to us. The bottoms had a fine layer of slightly sticky dust, but the insides were clear. Chuck looked at me with a glimmer of concern. I gave the smallest shake my head: nothing here will harm you, you’re safe.
Jon poured a rich yellow liquid into Chuck’s glass, then mine, and finally his own. The smell of the oak barrels came through quickest and loudest, cutting sharply through my nose hair like horseradish. Second came the elderflowers. A strong, sweet, almost hypnotic smell. Elderflowers – the word, the smell, the taste – often made me think of druids and witches and ancient times when people lived in huts. A smell that belonged here, in rural Sussex. Then there was the wine. A sharp, bright note from the grapes that came through last, drowned out by the other flavours, almost like the true goal here was some kind of alchemical process. Turning wine into whisky like some kind of next level Jesus.
While I was mentally preparing myself for the potency of what we were about to drink, I noticed that Chuck had been waiting for me to start, and Jon had already had about half of his. I recalled a tip from an old Russian friend of mine – to get rid of your breath before drinking anything so strong – and took a sizeable gulp. Chuck followed suit, and coughed in complaint. Jon and I laughed: he’d been warned.
Before we left the den, Jon selected one of the older bottles – in the ‘vintage’ section. A red that had been labelled ‘Elderberry, 2012’. The label had a family crest on it, which clearly had my mother’s artistic fingerprint on it. A goat’s head on top of a shield with three black circles and three black horizontal lines. Humberstone. A raven – no, a blackbird perched to the side of it, which looked like a creative addition, as the bird was just short of the heraldic style of the goat head. Jon turned around and picked up a permanent marker and scribbled something else on the corner of the bottle’s label before handing it to Chuck.
I peered over his shoulder to scan the writing. It read, “To Chuck – welcome to the family. J&J.”
“Oh, thank you,” Chuck said, still holding the rest of the white wine. I couldn’t tell if he was genuinely pleased to receive this second bottle of what he would now almost certainly consider to be downright poisonous. Either way, this moment felt like it would on our wedding day – a symbolic gift of acceptance into our madness. It was a good insanity, one where people showed they cared with a handwritten letter or a silly trinket we found the other day that reminded us of the other. One I realised Chuck hadn’t quite understood when we first bought our presents for each other, when I started filling our house with paintings and trinkets and soft toys that reminded me of him. Coming here was starting to remind me of home, memories everywhere, solidified into objects. The feeling of belonging, that in the receipt of the wine bottle, I hoped Chuck would share in.
We stood in the den a while longer talking about wine, and meandering back through earlier topics like Chuck’s work, history, our hobbies. There was a great deal of overlap – it was like Chuck filled the gaps in conversation where I could never have participated by myself. We could have stood there, chatting into the small hours of the morning. Jane appeared to let us know that she was making dinner and that it’d be warmer and more comfortable in the sitting room, which as we’d all taken to leaning on the nearest supporting objects, was a welcome reminder. The sun had set since we’d come inside, and we were two bottles deep. Between three, that ordinarily wouldn’t be enough to throw me, but I could there was a definite slur in our voices, and even I had managed to forget how strong the wine was in the pleasure of present company.
“What’s this?” I said, pointing at a couple of shoeboxes to the side of the bench.
“Oh, never mind. It’s… Jane leaves me a post-it note every day before she goes to work at the shop. I’ve been saving them.”
I opened one, and wished I hadn’t. Jon let out a quiet sigh, but I stumbled forwards to pick up the ones that had escaped, noticing the true level of my inebriation for the first time. The box was full; there must have been over a thousand in this one alone. I tried not to nose into the secret messages between two people as close as this, who had lived almost their entire lives together; but several of them caught my eye. Many had little drawings, of two people holding hands – clearly Jon and Jane; of a bird, a raven – no, a blackbird; of a woman with an old radio microphone and a label to help the viewer – Shirley Bassey.
I stood up having picked up the fallen notes and replaced the lid on the box, offering it back to Jon as I no longer felt I could be trusted with them. He took it and opened it again, more carefully than I had, and perused a few of them. I don’t think a penny could have bought the thoughts of a man reading back memories such as these. Any single one of these might have been worth the moon to him, and I doubt he would have exchanged them for any price.
He showed us a few. There was one from when he was sick with the flu four years ago, with a picture of chicken soup on it labelled just like Shirley Bassey had been. Another one was a little teddy bear with a little black nose saying “free hugs”, from a time when he was so busy with work that he hadn’t seen Jane in three weeks.
“She’s kept me alive,” he said, putting the lid back on the box.
“Shall we go back through to the sitting room?” Chuck said. I nodded. I was in desperate need of a sofa to sit on.
I went ahead, the other two following behind me. Jon closed the door to the den, locking it back up again before joining us. As I passed through the kitchen, where Jane was waltzing between the stove and the sink, I asked if I could assist.
“Thanks,” she said with another smile, “but it’s such a small kitchen, I can’t tolerate more than just me in here.” This was half-true. What she meant was, she would rather not have to explain to me where everything was. I had previously witnessed my mother, having grown up here, do the cooking waltz with Jane, and even she made a misstep or two on the tiny dancefloor.
The smell of boiled vegetables filled the room, but in the sitting room it was overpowered by the smell of a lit fire. A tiny bowl of olives and feta and a second bowl with crisps had appeared where once there were biscuits. “Help yourselves to the nibbles.”