IT HAD WITHSTOOD THE YEARS. HIS KNIFE SLICED IT OPEN AND THE cork was still intact beneath. For a moment the scent was so immediately pungent that all he could do was endure it, teeth clenched, as it worked its will on him. It smelt earthy and a little sour, like the canal in midsummer, with a sharpness which reminded him of the vegetable-cutter and the gleeful tang of fresh-dug potatoes. For a second the illusion was so strong that he was actually there in that vanished place, with Joe leaning on his spade and the radio wedged in a fork in a tree, playing ‘Send in the Clowns’ or ‘I’m Not in Love’. A sudden overwhelming excitement took hold of him and he poured a small quantity of the wine into a glass, trying not to spill the liquid in his eagerness. It was dusky-pink, like papaya juice, and it seemed to climb the sides of the glass in a frenzy of anticipation, as if something inside it were alive and anxious to work its magic on his flesh. He looked at it with mingled distrust and longing. A part of him wanted to drink it – had waited years for just this moment – but all the same he hesitated. The liquid in the glass was murky and flecked with flakes of brownish matter, like rust. He suddenly imagined himself drinking, choking, writhing on the tiles in agony. The glass halted halfway to his mouth.
He looked at the liquid again. The movement he thought he saw had ceased. The scent was faintly sweetish, medicinal, like cough mixture. Once again he wondered why he had brought the bottle with him. There was no such thing as magic. It was something else Joe had made him believe; one more of the old fraud’s trickeries. But there was something in the glass, his mind insisted. Something special.
His concentration was such that he didn’t hear Kerry come in behind him.
‘Oh, so you’re not working.’ Her voice was clear, with just enough of an Irish accent to guard against accusations of having a privileged background. ‘You know, if you were planning on getting pissed you could at least have come to the party with me. It would have been a wonderful opportunity for you to meet people.’
She put special emphasis on the word wonderful, extending the first syllable to three times its natural length. Jay looked back at her, the wineglass still in his hand. His voice was mocking.
‘Oh, you know. I’m always meeting wonderful people. All literary people are wonderful. What I really like is when one of your bright young things comes up to me at one of these wonderful parties and says, “Hey, didn’t you used to be Jay somebody, the guy who wrote that wonderful book?” ’
Kerry crossed the room, her perspex heels tapping coolly against the tiles, and poured herself a glass of Stolichnaya.
‘Now you’re being childish as well as antisocial. If you actually made the effort to write something serious once in a while, instead of wasting your talent on rubbish-’
‘Wonderful.’ Jay grinned and tipped the wineglass at her. In the cellar the remaining bottles rattled boisterously, as if in anticipation. Kerry stopped, listened.
‘Did you hear something?’
Jay shook his head, still grinning. She came closer, looked at the glass in his hand and the bottle still standing on the table.
‘What is that stuff, anyway?’ Her voice was as sharp and clear as her icicle heels. ‘Some kind of cocktail? It smells disgusting.’
‘It’s Joe’s wine. One of the six.’ He turned the bottle around to see the label. ‘Jackapple, 1975. A wonderful vintage.’
Beside us and around us the bottles were in gleeful ferment. We could hear them whispering, singing, calling, capering. Their laughter was infectious, reckless, a call to arms. Château-Chalon muttered stolid disapproval, but in that raucous, carnival atmosphere his voice sounded like envy. I found myself joining in, rattling in my crate like a common milk bottle, delirious with anticipation, with the knowledge that something was on the way.
‘Ugh! God! Don’t drink it. It’s bound to be off.’ Kerry gave a forced laugh. ‘Besides, it’s revolting. It’s like necrophilia, or something. I can’t imagine why you wanted to bring it home at all, in the circumstances.’
‘I was planning to drink it, darling, not fuck it,’ muttered Jay.
‘Please, darling. Pour it away. It’s probably got all kinds of disgusting bacteria in it. Or worse. Antifreeze or something. You know what the old boy was like.’ Her voice was cajoling. ‘I’ll get you a glass of Stolly instead, OK?’
‘Kerry, stop talking like my mother.’
‘Then stop behaving like a child. Why can’t you just grow up, for God’s sake?’ It was a perpetual refrain.
Stubbornly: ‘The wine was Joe’s. I don’t expect you to understand.’
She sighed, exasperated, and turned away.
‘Oh, please yourself. You always do. The way you’ve fixated on that old bugger for all these years, anyone would think he was your father or something, instead of some dirty old git with an eye for little boys. Go on, be a mature adult and poison yourself. If you die they might even do a commemorative reprint of Jackapple Joe, and I could sell my story to the TLS-’
But Jay was not listening. He lifted the glass to his face. The scent hit him again, the dim cidery scent of Joe’s house, with the incense burning and the tomato plants ripening in the kitchen window. For a moment he thought he heard something, a clatter and glitzy confusion of glass, like a chandelier falling onto a laid table. He took a mouthful.
It tasted as dreadful as it did when he was a boy. There was no grape in this brew, simply a sweetish ferment of flavours, like a whiff of garbage. It smelt like the canal in summer and the derelict railway sidings. It had an acrid taste, like smoke and burning rubber, and yet it was evocative, catching at his throat and his memory, drawing out images he thought were lost for ever. He clenched his fists as the images assailed him, feeling suddenly light-headed.
‘Are you OK?’ It was Kerry’s voice, resonant, as if in a dream. She sounded irritated, though there was an anxious edge to her voice. ‘Jay, I told you not to drink that stuff, are you all right?’
He swallowed with an effort.
‘I’m fine. Actually it’s rather pleasant. Pert. Tart. Lovely body. Bit like you, Kes.’ He broke off, coughing, but laughing at the same time. Kerry looked at him, unamused.
‘I wish you wouldn’t call me that. It isn’t my name.’
‘Neither is Kerry,’ he pointed out maliciously.
‘Oh well, if you’re going to be vulgar I’m going to bed. Enjoy your vintage. Whatever turns you on.’
The words were a challenge which Jay left unanswered, turning his back to the door until she had gone. He was being selfish, he knew. But the wine had awakened something in him, something extraordinary, and he wanted to explore it further. He took another drink and found his palate was becoming accustomed to the wine’s strange flavours. He could taste old fruit now, burnt to hard black sugar, he could smell the juice from the vegetable-cutter and hear Joe singing along to his old radio at the back of the allotment. Impatiently he drained the glass, tasting the zesty heart of the wine, feeling his heart beating with renewed energy, pounding as if he had run a race. Below stairs the five remaining bottles rattled and shook in a frenzy of exuberance. Now his head felt clear, his stomach level. He tried for a moment to identify the sensation he felt and eventually recognized it as joy.
Pog Hill, Summer 1975
JACKAPPLE JOE. AS GOOD A NAME AS ANY. HE INTRODUCED HIMSELF as Joe Cox, with a slanted smile, as if to challenge disbelief, but even in those days it might have been anything, changing with the seasons and his changing address.
‘We could be cousins, you and me,’ he said on that first day, as Jay watched him in wary fascination from the top of the wall. The vegetable-cutter whirred and clattered, throwing out pieces of sour-sweet fruit or vegetable into the bucket at his feet. ‘Cox and Mackintosh. Both apples, aren’t we? That must make us nearly family, I reckon.’ His accent was exotic, bewildering, and Jay stared at him without comprehension. Joe shook his head, grinning.