Message in a bottle: the struggle to recognise what matters most

61RdC

There are two empty jeroboams in my friend Neil’s wine cellar the labels of both of which are covered in signatures and bon mots from the diners who enjoyed their contents. My name is on both. We drank the wine on nights when Neil was in his pomp – hosting large tables of friends, at his sprawling house in southern France. The latter of the two occasions was convened to celebrate his 50th birthday in the high summer of 2008.

The three-litre bottles – one a 1997 Chateau Mont-Redon Chateauneuf du Pape, the other a 1998 Gigondas – were the splendidly generous top hats on meals that were prepared without care for the cost. Both feasts were preceded by early-morning provisioning at the market, followed by a day of preparations. Four or five members of the sizeable house party would work in the kitchen preparing different parts of the meal listening to Neil’s ‘favourites’ playlist – Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie.

The food on both occasions was enjoyed over several hours by twenty or so of us – perhaps half residents in the house, the rest evening guests from the village or further afield. On the first night, held indoors, two or three of us made speeches, some in English some in French. The birthday event, for which we carried the dining table outside, saw every one of us on our feet to toast our host with memories and anecdotes.

On the interminable drive to Provence with Neil, after he had received a repossession order on his house, my mind had already wandered to the fate of these bottles. Who keeps empty wine bottles, unless you have a sizeable cellar in which they can be secreted in a nook, to provide an occasional reminder of cheery times past? Fearing that the promised visit of the bailiffs the day after our arrival might involve much of the house’s contents being hauled off to a sale, or dumped in a skip, I had decided that hanging on to the empties was hardly rational. Our focus should be on saving the documents, furniture and household accoutrements that were no concern of the mortgage company.

The house has been at the centre of Neil’s universe for nearly fifteen years. It is an over-sized farmhouse in the midst of the vineyards of the Vauluse department. Half an hour north of Orange, it is on the edge of a scruffy, working village which, unlike its British counterparts, sustains cafes, restaurants, a bank and half-a-dozen shops. Neil’s plan was to create a haven for friends and a place to retire and enjoy the Provencal sun. Since then he has sunk more than £200,000 and an incalculable quantity of his own man hours into transforming the building from an uninhabitable hovel to a beautiful home.

I have visited regularly throughout the period that he has owned it, but Neil has rarely joined me to explore the neighbouring towns, or local attractions such at the Pont du Garde and Avignon’s Palace de Papes’. For him, the holiday was for work – so he would start his day in overalls and put in at least eight hours, plastering, tiling, bricklaying, or whatever was the task of the moment.

The potential loss of house comes about after a divorce, periods of under-employment and an occasional inability to control costs. With his home in London weighed down with a mortgage in excess of its value and some worrying large long-term debts, it is easy to see why losing the house in France seems cataclysmic.

I have spent my time with him trying persuade him that its loss does not represent the end of the world, or the culmination of a life wasted. To his repeated cries that his time on earth has amounted to nothing, I have tried to steer his mind back to the empty wine bottles.

The shared good times and the jokes, intimacies, and friendships that those bottles represent came about because of the people that Neil brought together. And the memories of those times remain with each of us, inextinguishable embers whose beneficial warmth will stay with us always. Battling to steer my friend from despond, I tried to persuade him that by creating such magical evenings – and much else beside – he had improved world more profoundly than ever can be achieved with bricks and mortar.

As I tried to apply mental buttress to this paradox, a possible truism came to me. That which seems most solid is actually the most transient and that which seems most transient is that which will endure. Houses, cars, books and any other stuff, will eventually be discarded, will fall apart and turn to dust. Memories have the potential to last forever – even more so if you trouble to pass them on in some way.

Whether Neil or I will ever be able make a conviction of this aphorism remains to be seen. Having rooted out the signed bottles, I am now wondering about sticking them in the back of my car for safe keeping. What would be the point of that – I don’t know – my cluttered home scarcely needs more detritus? But in a microcosm of the torment that my friend is experiencing as his dream evaporates before his eyes, it is hard not to reach for the easy comfort of the bottle rather than enjoying the happy memory of its contents.

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Update January 2014. I wrote the above piece slightly over a year ago. I am happy to say that by some miracle, Neil has hung on to his house and is now keen to offer it for holiday lets. Email me for details, if you are interested.

Picture © Ian Mercader