The Vintner’s Story

   'Willis: Importer of Fine Wines' is written in discreet painted letters on the lintel over the shop's front door.
   But SPIRITS the big old-fashioned gold letters say on the wall.
   That's the worst of 150 year-old premises, getting preservation orders slapped on them.
   One night ten years Donnie Kearns got out a ladder and tried to wrench off the word SPIRITS.  (Wind damage, he'd have claimed, and a hazard to the public walking past on the pavement beneath: which just might have convinced the authorities.)
   So, the word remained.  SPIRITS.  And it cursed the place, Kearns felt.


   Shop manager John McLaughlin had a civil funeral when he passed away: a degradable cardboard coffin, and laid to rest in an unmarked spot in a forest, past the Lennie Falls.
   'Mac' McLaughlin had been attached to the wine shop, like the gold letters, for as long as most customers remembered.  (The oldest could go back to Grandfather Willis's time.)  Delivery boy, then junior assistant, then superior assistant, then keeper of the books and packer, then second to Mr Willis himself.
   Willis's was the stuffiest of the wine-shops, which was why they could always rely on trade - not just from the most traditional of the big houses but from the white settlers who aped their betters. 
   As for Donnie Kearns, why he hadn't moved on he didn't understand.  The shop - owned by stiff-backed Willis relatives in New Zealand - got itself photographed by magazines for being so archaic and photogenic (long baize aprons, straw from packing cases left uncollected on the old pine floor, dim lights), and you never did know who was going to walk in (the Richard Burtons once, Bing, Sean, you'd be surprised all who), and every so often when McLaughlin thought you were champing at the bit he would give you a hike-up, promotion, a different title when he called across the shop to you and a little extra in your pocket at the end of the week.
   John McLaughlin was a hard taskmaster.  There was one way of doing anything, only ever one.  He seemed to know every bottle they had in stock, although he couldn't always locate it (which would be your fault, because you hadn't put it in the obvious place).  He shook his head at those wine-dealers (never, surprisingly, wine-merchants) going off on junkets to inspect vineyards and presses and bottling sheds, but avidly read the trade papers himself and held all the information in his memory-bank).


   When Kearns finally decided to make a move, because his  wife Sandra was insisting he should, 'Mac' McLaughlin was furious.  But the man hid it beneath superior smiles and scornful remarks.
   'What d'you think you're going to bring to their operations they don't already have?' he asked him of a rival business.
   That didn't deal with the question of why McLaughlin had wanted to keep him on, if he held his abilities in such little esteem.


   Then came the accident.
   It was called that in the newspapers: 'a tragic accident'.
   A trap door into the basement had been left open, and somehow - for the first time, for the last time - McLaughlin had failed to notice, he'd lost his footing and gone tumbling down into the space, breaking his neck in the process.  Finito, kaput, end of John 'Mac' McLaughlin.
   The newspapers didn't specify if it had been dark or light when the 'accident' happened, or if - just conceivably, although they couldn't possibly know - the shop lights had been switched on again, as per usual, after the 'tragedy' occurred.
   McLaughlin is still there, reminding his successor Donnie Kearns that the hock or the chardonnay is on the wrong shelf, not where it's used to being, and what's the point of not having system and order.
   'Nothing special', a voice very like McLaughlin's will say in Kearns's ear, dismissing a wine which Kearns particularly favours.  (And that, as was ever 'Mac' McLaughlin's way, is that.  End of topic.)
   He never leaves the premises.  Upstairs, downstairs, in the basement.  He's there, round the clock, seven days a week, patrolling the place as he always did: as if what occurred, the 'tragic accident', was only an interruption, a hiccup, a blip, and life goes on in another sense, goes on and on as if even vintners were immortal.

© Ronald Frame


Published in The Herald 2008

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