Make each glass an experience either metaphorically or at a remembered meal. At some relaxed didactic moments, my students have challenged me as to what is life for which once I answered it is a collection of memories, a history. A glass of wine is full of the congeners of poetry and philosophy and when empty brings song and once in a lifetime brings closure to a well-lived life. Our brain contains more memories than a cellar of wine will collect. My crumpled tablecloth telling its own tale holds more than a tabletop covered with framed photographs. But then no memory is an island.
The island was first mentioned by Homer. Achilles hid there until he was called up to fight in the Siege of Troy. In WWI, Rupert Brooke was buried on the Greek Isle of Skyros in an olive grove as the night deepened; in some corner of a foreign field that is forever England. This story, first told to me during WWII by my mother touched me. Early in the 21st century, I was in Kozani, northern Greece. I was taken to a high point where a plaque commemorated several dead including, one British soldier. They were shelled from below by a column of retreating German forces. This thought brings back Some Wine for Remembrance by Edmund Keeley which describes another incident that took place as the German army was in retreat. Someone had killed a German soldier close to Thessaloniki. In reprisal, about 80 people, mainly elderly, women, and children were herded into the local bakery and burned to death.
Still dazed from a now-lifted lockdown and still reeling, I woke up to face yet another, hoping to remain standing on our feet and in our heads when it’s over. As COVID’s second wave washed over us the news menu was grim: typhoon, earthquake, tsunami, flood, terrorism, war as well as water on the moon, 25 students gunned down on the site of the university and a little girl pulled from under rubble alive after being buried for three days encouraging the world from her hospital bed as she colored in yellow a new and brightly rising sun. As I turned on the radio I felt the thrill of the Enigma Variations and memories came flooding in. How long is it since I sang Land of hope and glory? My sky was red-speckled as early light played with clouds. Memories while seemingly laid to rest are not forgotten and are sometimes recalled in strange ways. Numbered years, our train of heartbeats too, above the abyss hang, a cradle strung somewhere between the poles of birth and death, And as our cradle rocks, the Coronavirus strikes randomly at every milestone all along that route, Day and night, knocks down like flies, our fellow men and numbers rise, While somewhere on that route today, brides stand meters from the groom…
Incredibly a tablecloth bought more than 50 years ago still has the red wine stain. It’s been there for about 40 years. What personal memories this stain silently contains for both of us and the family. It no longer has an aroma, or a bouquet and it cannot stimulate expectant taste buds. It's once deep robust red, is faded. But is it wine or purple aubergine? Science could work it out but I don’t want it to do so today. If my tablecloth was a representation of 5000 years of civilization then 90% of its surface and more would be blood-stained by war with far less than 10% white in the name of peace. Fortunately man and animal have the capacity to turn a blind eye to an engulfing cataclysm that will change a life forever. And in song, he wondered why a stone was gently taken from his hands, held with love, and kissed with respect. Sir, there is no stone on earth not irrigated by blood Lots spilled here on Planet Earth but the Earth still lives, and still breathes. Our Earth still lives.
Over 50 years of being together our thoughts differ on important things and our recollections show differing pictures, revealing different histories. If I open that chapter I may as well put the tablecloth away for another decade, no it was Christmas, no the New Year. In every house, there should be a historian who can mediate those time-made differences and reshaped memories. So I will stay with my hand-woven tablecloth with its embroidered patterns. I do believe that I can hear the high-pitched ringing of the cheerful crystal glasses. The wine, a Chateau Nerf du Pap, or a California red? Who bought it? Where did it come from, the tablecloth that is, Guatemala or Mexico? The approximation of Latin America will make do. What was the occasion on which the wine was spilled? I remember that salt was used on that auspicious occasion to lift the wine from the fabric. I recall throwing a pinch of salt over my shoulders for luck. The stain withstood all assaults. It seems that the salt of the earth could not stand up to our vintage of the soil. Luck came in, in many non-monetary ways. Big gains from lottery and pools steered clear of us.
I remember buying the tablecloth in Mexico. I’m almost sure or was that the chess set? Many questions! It took me 4 days to buy the alabaster chess set, one hour each morning in a delightful market. It was fun and the seller was pleasant and pretty. We knew it was a game and she knew I would buy it. Today, I play chess with my grandson using that set.
Over the years and from my late teens I have read up on wines and winemaking. Slowly but surely and from then on I have tasted the wines of France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece. Then the olives and the isles of Greece. I’ve tasted wines from Argentina and Chile but I have no recollection of wine in Mexico. In my wine beginnings, I felt a twinge of guilt having signed the pledge of abstinence from alcohol several times as a boy. The first time was well before my teens. Tea total was a useful anti-temptation instrument helpful and supportive of families with an alcoholic member. Even there, asymmetry and inequality were players, beer alley, and gin lane. I never particularly liked whisky, I started to appreciate wine but never could I have foreseen that at some point in the future I would examine the effects of alcohol on how we see. Those studies then took me to many parts of the world.
One breath before COVID, an eternity gone by, we escaped the rains and raucous winds of a typhoon and escaped earth spewed hot volcanic ash in Asia. It occurred in synchrony with a viral quantum leap from animal to man. My time in quarantine was spent between zooming in and zoning out and I often felt like a pendulum that cannot keep time. Lockdown for me continues and will continue while schooling of my grandson, for now, goes on at home, distant from the school. Lockdown was a strange affair with strange effects the world over. In me, you would have picked up on the rains of confusion, a monsoon? It gave me a peculiar sense of duality, an absence of, or a forgetting of time, and certainly a confusion of it. It was not the endless time of some eternal dimension but an eternity of strangely uprooted and absorbing time pulling me through, along. Sometimes I was ahead of it, at other moments behind and from time to time not knowing time absorbed in whatever present moment; poetry, article writing, watching jigsaw puzzles assembled, a fun home fashion show, musical scores and song lyrics, an interview, etc. It all went into an odd ode. We are surviving; I am surviving a dog-Alma and her bark in lockdown and a teenager’s No, no, no. we kept busy. I was morose and philosophical. Much has fallen through COVID cracks much is going on.
I had forgotten about the tablecloth, my wife not but my memories of events surrounding it were intact It surfaced during the COVID pandemic and we used it once again. My poetic thoughts were survival tactics. In this locked-down world with far too much upon its sorry plate, we knew that the unlocked-down world was not so perfect, no state a perfect place. As species die out artificial bugs thrive and surveillance is applied. Certainly at tumultuous high tide the devil COVID drives. A world that walked in beauty through the seasons till its fall in apple blossom time will come around, another eternity may pass, olives falling to the grass. Lilacs will be gathered in the spring when some go home again. A splash of red above, some poppy bed in radiant bloom, buttercups with golden cups reach up towards the warming sun. More stimulus for my poetic urges; sun dazzled hibiscus unfolding slowly in the light to dazzle the bright bright sun upon the hill. To keep hope alive I urged, to wear COVID out of quarantine, keep devils at bay, wear COVID down, lockdown, contagion give way, test, test for COVID, and test til we know where the pest comes from where did he go. And after, it is what it is I could not shed Donald from my mind; is there a clue as to what Donald will do? If sleepy Joe’s horse is first at the post, if things go so wrong he’ll pull off a coup, he’ll do it for sure and have no remorse, he’ll go overboard and argue mail fraud, he will not stand back and no longer stand by. Bar Bar and ditch Mitch.
In my morose nostalgia, much came flooding back from childhood. Yes, I was in the West Riding of Yorkshire where rain on the Moors is not just rain; agriculture, coal mining, steel production, and the country’s largest Labor stronghold. My first fuzzy memories; Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, Air Raid Shelters, pending invasion and food shortage, then solidifying images and as a result of repeated hearing; blackout, child evacuees, a powdered egg from Canada, and the voice of Churchill, and then my personal emergent recollections; the Normandy landings, VE Day (Victory in Europe) and bonfires, the Atomic Bomb, then VJ Day and food rationing. How unifying it was then; there will always be an England and England shall be free. Post-war, seen first through the London fog, a newspaper photo, dull black and white showing the back of the Goalie of Moscow Dynamos. He is looking out for the ball from his net through pea soup. The Green Un on a Saturday evening with all the soccer results. Friday afternoon a Mars bar. And the messages never let up, never despair. I recall the startup of the NHS. Better housing, nationalization of coal. A scholarship from the no longer West Riding made a difference. Still today, whenever a siren sounds I feel something like apprehension. Still today the confrontation between good and evil is ongoing
Missing now was some laughter from the past, the frequent visitors and the often repeated chats; the food and the wine. One thing I can say with certainty, we did not drink Chateau Nerf du Pap often, so it being the stain’s provenance was somewhat remote. It was my sister who introduced me to that vintage. While I am no wine expert it seems that I can distinguish good wine from bad if there is such a thing. I was always intrigued by the sensitive taste receptors of expert tasters, tea, and wine. Brought up on it I knew my tea, but I still swopped it for coffee somewhere down the road. My mother was a fortune teller and read tea leaves. I did a stint at reading the future in the grounds and my daughter went up to London to study architecture and came back a futurologist.
Wine I had discovered earlier. How regal was the horse and trap of the tea seller? When I did find wine it was a revelation. With age, my taste buds are not so acute. Maybe it is a lack of experience as a result of economic pressures. In the days of youth, golden ones, full of happiness and full of fun, I recall packing a bottle of cold white wine with fresh bread and cheeses with girls to cliffs and sand dunes, one at a time and far from many. It was romance that made it memorable bombarded with images of writers, in which the earth moved and the earth is paradise enow. It had a sense of transience. In my ears, I could not tune out my mother’s voice that all good things have to come to an end. But like the moving finger having writ leaves in stark relief its non-cancellable lines to be remembered. It certainly moved over the tablecloth from Guatemala sorry Peru. What a paradox that while our tablecloth remembers the world insists on forgetting. It is tragic that humanity has such a short memory!