Monthly Archives: January 2019

Little Old Wine Drinker

I checked my watch and saw that it just after five o’clock. Time to go, I thought, and scooped up my jacket from the back of the chair. The rest of the guys in the office were doing the same, except David, who was tapping keys and staring at his computer screen. ‘Are you coming, or what?’ I said ‘because I’m off. Now.’
David looked up. ‘Sorry, Chris, be with you in a mo.’ He made a silly face. ‘I just got lost somewhere in cyberspace and forgot the time. Ok?’
‘Come on Spock, or we’ll be late.’

Shelbourne Hotel

Shelbourne Hotel

We walked through the rush-hour pedestrian traffic along Baggot Street and Merrion Row to the Shelbourne Hotel on St. Stephen’s Green. The pavements were colourful and busy in the warm air, the sun still high and bright on this late June evening. Summer had most certainly arrived, and the happy looks on peoples’ faces said wonders for ‘taking the sun’. It was one of those ‘good to be alive’ days and the city seemed to hum to an easy rhythm.
‘Well, what’s it going to be like Chris?’ David asked, a sheen of sweat glinting above his top lip.
I stopped, and he did the same. ‘I told you already, it’s a wine tasting night and it will be fun. What more can I say?’
David was uncertain and he fiddled with the top button of his shirt. ‘Will there be many at this thing?’ he asked a little nervously. He put his finger down the top of his shirt and pulled it a little looser.
I could see that he was uncomfortable but what was I to say. ‘Yes, there’ll be plenty of wine lovers here and, more importantly, there will be lots of good wine to taste. And, sometimes they have lovely cheese. You like cheese don’t you?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Then you’re going to love it.’
‘Sure…..except that.’
‘Except what?’
He looked me straight in the eye, licked his lips before saying ‘I never drank much wine before and …’
I smiled. ‘Don’t worry, nobody’s going to poison you, if that’s what you are thinking. It’ll be ok.’ I leaned closer. ‘And there are always plenty of nice girls at these things.’ I winked, it was the best I could do, and he seemed to relax – a little anyway.

The lobby of the hotel bustled with life. Everywhere people moved about, greeting one another and their laughter reflected the glorious weather outside. If it was atmosphere you were after then we were in the right place, and a good evening lay ahead. It was, after all, the culmination of the wine tasting course that I had been attending for the previous six months, and I was really looking forward to the event. Barbara, one of my classmates, told me that the Last Night was not to be missed, and she had been to three of them. Sadly, my fiancé who was meant to attend, too, had twisted her ankle playing tennis a few days before, and that is how David was here.
I spotted the sign ‘Wine Tasting’ and we headed down a corridor and came to a large room where tables were set out with glasses and baskets of bread. I signed in for myself and David and we pinned our badges to our lapels and mingled with the noisy crowd. Considering that no wine had yet been consumed the rumble of conversation was palpable. Anticipation is a great thing, I thought, and we moved to the table where Barbara and Liz, the fourth ‘member of our team’ were chatting. I introduced David as a work colleague who was ‘new’ to the wine game. They both smiled and said that he would have a great night. ‘Your first time?’ asked Liz wickedly.
David flushed immediately. ‘Yes, my first time,’ was his awkward reply before he took off his jacket and let a low whistle.
‘Liz, you’re terrible,’ I said.
‘First time for everything, eh,’ she quipped and fixed the front of her low-cut dress.
David flushed even more and I thought that he was going to have a heart attack. ‘You ok?’
‘Fine, just fine,’ he said, lying through his dry lips. ‘I’ll be fine, just watch me.’ He nodded, and I nodded back.

Cheers!

Cheers!

The noisy conversation was broken by the sound of someone tinkling a glass. A hush descended on the room and the course director, Hugh Clarke, welcomed everyone and told us that we would be tasting some fine wines tonight. He gave a few hints of what was to come but not enough for us to guess exactly what that might be. ‘He’s such a tease,’ said Liz and I saw David’s face redden.
‘So if you are all ready, we’ll start,’ said Hugh as bottles of wine wrapped in dark paper were brought to each table. I picked up the bottle and poured wine into the girls’ glasses and then into both mine and David’s. I held my glass out in front of me and swirled the wine about. ‘Nice colour,’ I said and the girls mumbled agreement.
Liz held her glass up to her nose and sniffed deeply. She released a throaty moan of sheer pleasure that had David reddening even more. ‘Smells like ripe berries and…..succulent peaches,’ she cooed and breathed in another nose full of the wonderful aroma.
Barbara took a sip and noisily washed the liquid around her mouth. She leaned slightly back and then swallowed the golden liquid and smacked her lips loudly. ‘That was great,’ she said ‘and a fine way to start the show.’
I also swilled a mouthful of wine and agreed that it was wonderful. ‘Sauvignon Blanc,’ I said ‘and it’s one of the best I’ve ever tasted.’
Both girls nodded agreement while David downed the whole glass in one go, and reached for more. ‘Yeah, that was great,’ he said ‘want some more?’
The girls declined and I told him that he should really take his time and try to enjoy the flavour. He drank the second glass in the same fashion as the first while I ate some bread and looked about the room. A few people waved over and one guy, Dermot, gave me the thumbs up sign. Was he grinning at the excellent wine he’d just taken or did he envy my good fortune in spending time with Barbara and Liz? I held up my glass and pointed to it. Dermot shook his head in response and burst out laughing, spilling wine on one of his table mates.

Grape Expectation

Grape Expectation

Hugh Clarke told us to try bottle number two and I again did the honours. The deep red colour was like the purple in Caesar’s toga and the aroma had all the imperial qualities too. I held my glass up to the light and watched the colour change as I swirled it about, giving the wine a chance to breathe. Barbara did the same and dipped her nose into her glass. ‘Hmmm,’ she said ‘I’m getting something spicy, like…..plums, maybe’
I sniffed also and agreed. ‘Yes, definitely plummy alright. And with a hint of……vanilla.’ I took another sip.
Liz loudly washed the wine about in her mouth before spitting it into the spittoon beside her. She licked her lips deliciously. ‘Merlot?’ she said, raising an eyebrow.
Barbara replied. ‘Yes, and wasn’t it so velvety?’
I spat out and said that it certainly was a fine wine and that Hugh was spoiling us. ‘I told you that it would be good,’ said Barbara breaking another piece of bread.
Beside me David was pouring and drinking his second glass of the purple pleasure. For a guy who, although not the most talkative man of I’ve ever met, he was almost struck dumb and adding hardly anything to the evening. ‘You ok?’ I asked quietly and his reddening eyes showed more than mild embarrassment. He loosened his tie some more and lowered another mouthful of wine. ‘You’re meant to sip it,’ I said.
‘Yeash,’ he replied, the first hint of a slur slipping into his voice.
The next hour passed pleasantly as Hugh Clarke provided us with some of the finest wines any of us ever tasted. Barbara was really delighted with a Pinot Noir from Burgundy while Liz and I were thrilled with a magnificent Shiraz from the Barossa Valley in Australia. The flavour of rich chocolate and fruits was sensational, and my star turn of the night. When Liz said in a very sultry voice that it tasted just so on her tongue David vomited his mouthful of wine over my shirt such was his surprise at her choice of words. He excused himself immediately and went off to the bathroom, his embarrassment more acute than ever.
‘Is he always like this?’ asked Barbara.
I shrugged. ‘I don’t really know, but he’s usually got something to say for himself at work.’
‘Maybe I’ve upset him or something, offered Liz. ‘I mean he’s hardly said a word to either of us all night, has he?’ Her comment was still hanging in the air when David walked unsteadily back to the table.

Bubbly - ab fab!

Bubbly – ab fab!

Hugh Clarke again tapped his glass and the room went quiet. ‘And now for our final bottle of the evening. This will be champagne, and it’s one of my favourites, so I’m sure that you’ll all enjoy it.’ With that the waiters moved about filling glasses and we all enjoyed the bubbly stuff. I had often found champagne gave me heartburn but this stuff that I was drinking was in a league of its own such was the quality. The bubbly was ‘doing the business’ as the din of conversation in the room rose like the bubbles in my glass. Everyone was smiling, apart from David, who had plopped down heavily onto his chair and said loud ‘I’m pissed.’ He then fell off the chair and hit the floor with dull thud.
I put my glass down and with the help of a guy from the table beside us we got David back into his seat. He rocked back and forth before putting his head on the table and passing out. His arms hung down loosely and he looked like a broken puppet.
Liz shook her head. ‘You know the old saying ‘In vino veritas’ – in wine there is truth.’
I nodded. But as I looked at David snoring I realised that Liz was, well, almost right. ‘I think that should be ‘In vino very smashed,’ I said and reached down and shook my drunken friend awake. The girls were still laughing when I put my arm under David’s shoulder and led him away from his first, and last, wine tasting. It was an experience that I didn’t forget and, thankfully, one that David couldn’t remember.
Cheers!

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High Point

 

Church in Clonskeagh

Church in Clonskeagh

The recent news that Big Ben would be silent for the next few years, as the famous Great Westminster Clock Tower and bells underwent refurbishment, brought back a fond memory. Being there had been a high point, but only one among many such ‘high points’ that I have experienced.

Since I first climbed the steep, iron ladder in my local church in Clonskeagh many years ago I have been fascinated with the views from such tall buildings and the perspective each offered. At the end of that maiden ascent, my first ‘high,’ I was filled with nervous excitement as I looked out over the Dublin Mountains; all the way into the city and across the blue waters of the bay to Howth. It was better than I had expected, and I have never lost that sense of anticipation of what it was like ‘going to the top’.

Over the years I have had the good fortune to visit many places and always tried to make time and climb to the top of local towers and steeples.

Torre di Lamberti

Torre di Lamberti

From the top of the Torre di Lamberti in Verona the red-tiled roofs stretched below me like the cover on a great jigsaw box. The skyline of New York was stunning in the early, morning light from the top of the Empire State Building, and the Golden Gate Bridge was a tiny speck in the distance from the observation platform of the Campanile at Berkeley. However, a nighttime climb to the top of the Arc de Triomphe where a cold, whipping wind brought some unease, the lights of Paris sparkling in their pre-Christmas splendour made it worthwhile.

Sometime later when I worked in Westminster, I used to walk past and invariably looked up at its most iconic landmark, the Great Westminster Clock Tower . Being part of the Palace of Westminster there is a high level of security but my boss, thankfully, arranged for me to join a group of sightseers. I was excited and, on the appointed day, strained my neck looking up at the famous tower as it lay against a clear, blue sky. High above, the north clock face sparkled as the hubbub of anticipation spread among the group.

Our guide led us into a small entrance where he told us about the history of the tower and its impressive statistics. It stands 315 feet high and the four clock faces were the largest of their kind in the world when erected. Each is twenty-three feet across and is made of over three hundred pieces of opal glass. The minute hand alone is fourteen feet long, and looked every inch of it when I passed by and looked down through the gap in the face and imagined Richard Hannay hanging from it in the climax of film The Thirty Nine Steps. Higher still, and onto the last of the 334 limestone steps, we came into the small belfry where five bells silently waited. There are four small bells that ring on the quarter hour and the Great Bell, better known as Big Ben, which strikes on the hour.

Great Westminster Clock Tower

Great Westminster Clock Tower

‘Right, ladies and gentlemen,’ said our guide ‘it’s almost noon, so please get ready for a lot of noise. It’s pretty loud.’ He grinned, placed his hands on his ears and some of the group copied him. I was standing about four feet from Big Ben, with only a wire mesh preventing me from reaching over and tapping it. It’s huge, weighing over thirteen tons and is over seven feet tall. Up close it’s truly impressive but the sound, when it came, was awesome.

First came the quarter bell and some people cheered, their eyes lighting up excitedly. A woman beside said something but I couldn’t hear her, while all around people were giggling. Then there was a slight pause before the hammer struck Big Ben for the first of its twelve rings. The noise was deafening and I felt my chest and head almost explode with the din. After seven or eight rings I started to laugh, and couldn’t stop. The woman tapped me on the arm and shouted ‘What is it?’

‘I was wondering where Trevor McDonald was,’ I cried, wiping tears away. The sound was incredible but the bell’s purity of tone left only a fond memory. I still enjoy going ‘to the top’ but the experience of visiting Big Ben will live long, and loud, in my memory. Ding dong indeed!

Verona, from above

Verona, from above

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Filed under Dublin, Ireland, short stories, Verona, westminster