(Copyright © Guy Ellis 1997, 2001 )
I was eight years old when I first heard about the bottle. In fact I was exactly eight, it was on my birthday. We were in the kitchen of our four-bedroom shack in La Punta celebrating it. Dad was sitting at one end of the Formica covered table and Mum at the other. I had one of the sides to myself and faced my two younger brothers, Lazareth and Beetle. It was a hot summer’s evening and the flies buzzed around the chocolate cake like tiny black helicopters attacking the white drops of icing sugar that spelt out Happy Birthday Joel in thin squiggly letters on top. Only the “ay” from Birthday and “oel” from Joel still remained when Beetle started throwing up.
I’d stopped counting the number of pieces of cake he’d had at piece number five. I blamed Mum for our lack of control when it came to anything sweet.
“You know we can’t afford candies,’ she’d say. “Wait until your birthday or Christmas and then you can have something special.”
We could hardly control ourselves around chocolate and sweets we saw them so rarely. The sugar overload was too much for Beetle that time. He was only three but had the sense to turn his head to the side and throw up over Colin, our dachshund, instead of the table. Colin had been faithfully sitting next to Beetle’s chair, snapping up the bits of food that never made it into Beetle’s mouth or onto his face. Colin took the gesture personally and left the room without looking back. After Beetle had finished vomiting, he turned back to his slice of cake that was still clutched in his little fist.
“No,” said Mum firmly. “You’ve had quite enough.”
With that she wrestled the cake from him and started cleaning up the mess. Dad was trying to hide a smile. I could see it behind his hand. He was always trying to be serious and support Mum when she told us off but I knew that he didn’t care what we did. When he was left in charge of us we’d run wild and do what we wanted. So long as Mum didn’t find out it was fine by him. It was Mum that wanted us to be well behaved and grow up with manners. She wanted children she could be proud of. Dad wanted to be left alone with his writing and his books.
“This calls for opening the bottle,” he said.
“No,” she said reprimanding him as if he were one of us. “The bottle is for a special occasion.”
“This is a special occasion. Joel is eight, Beetle was sick and it must be around ten years since we were given it.” He had a smile on his face and I could tell that he was just kidding with her.
She stuck her tongue out at him. “You’ll be put to bed with no seconds if you continue like that Preacher Styx.” She always called him Preacher Styx when she was joking with him. Dad was a preacher before he met Mum. He always used to say that she showed him the light. That celery was overrated. I knew that celery was overrated, I’d only tried it once and hated it.
“Joel drank his own wee.”
This completely ruined everything. I was old enough to understand almost everything that Mum and dad said to each other even when they were speaking in code. I was also young enough to pretend that I didn’t understand anything they or their friends talked about. A week earlier I had overheard them talking with some of their hippie friends about the benefits of drinking your own urine.
Even though this was technically accurate, Lazarath shouldn’t have told them. The three of us had been standing on the bank of the stream that bordered the bottom of our long narrow garden. Lazarath, as usual, challenged me to a long-piss competition. Beetle, as usual, wanted to join in. Beetle always came last by miles. Beetle is five years younger than I am and Lazarath is only a year younger. So when it came to who could piss the furthest, Lazarath was always just shorter than me while Beetle trickled on his feet.
“Let’s drink it instead,’ I said.
“What?” asked Lazarath not believing what I’d just said.
“What?” said Beetle mimicking Lazarath’s question.
“Let’s drink our wee instead of seeing who can make it go the furthest. You always lose anyway. I dare you to.”
“I dare you.”
“I dare you.” Beetle sometimes became a parrot repeating everything that one of us said. We generally ignored him when he did this. We generally ignored him when he did anything. He was only three years old.
I knew I’d have to go first. I’d been curious about doing it ever since I’d overheard my parents talking about it and now I’d put myself on the spot. I dropped my shorts and cupping my hand under my little willy I trickled a handful of the yellow liquid out. Before it had a chance to slip through my tightly squeezed together fingers I brought it up to my face and threw it in my mouth. It tasted awful. It was warm, salty and tangy. I hated it but forced myself to swallow it without pulling a God-this-tastes-awful face.
“Mmm, that’s really nice,” I said licking my lips.
Beetle wasted no time in copying his oldest brother and soon he was wetting his hand and licking the urine off it. He hadn’t mastered the art of catching liquid in one hand yet. Lazarath was hesitant until he saw Beetle doing it at which point he gave it a try. As soon as it was in his mouth he spat it out swearing and put his head straight into the stream and gargled with the water from it. I joined him immediately trying not to choke on the water as I laughed. Lazarath was on top of me in the water trying to hit me for making him do it. Now he’d finally got his revenge by telling our parents.
“Is this true Joel?” Mum asked me.
“It was only a joke,” I replied trying not to admit to the crime.
“Where did you get the idea from?”
I knew then that I’d been rumbled for listening to their conversations and that they’d be more careful in front of me in the future.
“I don’t know,” I faltered. “I think that Julio at school was talking about it.”
Mum didn’t look convinced but didn’t continue her line of questioning and that’s the last we heard of it.
Lazarath avoided me as much as possible after that. When I finally did catch him alone I sat on his head and farted in his ear.
* * *
My next memory of the bottle was the first time I saw it. We’d left Mexico two months previously and had finally finished unpacking our belongings in our new house in Cartagena de Indias. This was the first house I remember living in with glass windows and a front door that could lock. It took weeks (and a lost key) before the novelty of locking and unlocking the front door wore off us. The back door led into a grungy courtyard with weeds growing between the paving stones and was closed in by the stark concrete walls of much larger buildings around ours. Dad had taken a job as an English teacher in one of the four American schools in Cartagena and with it we got the house.
Even though we didn’t have much, Dad wouldn’t let us unpack anything unless we were going to use it. He said that if there was anything still left in the boxes after six months it would get thrown away. He’d read that somewhere and wanted to test the theory out. He’d forgotten that we had so little that anything functional had multiple uses. Within two months the boxes were unpacked and empty.
The bottle was one of the last items to come out of the boxes. It was covered with dust when Mum removed it. With a cloth she carefully wiped it clean and placed it on a shelf next to a bottle of olive oil. It was a green bottle with its neck wrapped in red painted lead. Its cream label had Vin du Pays followed by Cabernet Sauvignon on the next line written in calligraphic magenta and outlined in gold. There was an embossed emblem and in the inside edges you could see traces of dust that Mum had missed when she’d wiped it clean.
I took the bottle down and read the French on the label on the back of the bottle out loud pronouncing each word phonetically in Spanish. Mum laughed.
“You used to be able to speak French,” she said. I knew we’d lived in France before we’d moved to Mexico but I couldn’t remember much.
“Before we moved to Mexico we lived in Marseilles and your French was better than your English. All your little friends would come around and play and you would all speak French together. If I tried to speak to you in French however you’d refuse to talk to me and only talk to me in English.”
I couldn’t remember snubbing Mum and refusing to speak to her. I do remember wishing that I was young enough to still get away with doing something like that now.
“Is this wine?” I asked.
“Yes, we were given it by the old man that lived in the cottage next to ours on the farm in Marseilles. Jean-Pierre told us to save it for a special day. We were going to drink it on our second wedding anniversary but then I discovered I was pregnant with you and so we’ve been saving it since then.”
“When are you going to drink it?”
“When we have something special to celebrate. It’s a very good wine and because it’s red it will keep for a long time.”
“Why does it have crayon marks on the label?”
“The artwork is courtesy of Lazarath when he got crayons for Christmas.”
It was Beetle’s eighth birthday that evening and when dad got home I begged him to open the bottle. Lazarath and Beetle, who hadn’t been part of my conversation with Mum that afternoon, joined in and also begged for it to be opened. Beetle asked if he could have it for his birthday present. Dad didn’t say yes or no. It was Mum who said no. She was quite adamant that the bottle wasn’t going to be opened then. It was being saved for a special occasion.
I tried a few more times over the next few weeks to get Mum to agree on a date to open the bottle but it was no good. She wasn’t going to be sucked into any commitments by me and I became bored of the subject and forgot about it.
* * *
During my late teens the bottle was locked away with all the other alcohol in the house. This was a result of Lazarath and I being caught taking sips from the bottle of Tequila. Our parents had gone to a school play and left us unattended at home. We were now old enough not to need a babysitter and responsible enough (or so they thought) not to abuse their trust. It had started as a dare, as always and by the time our parents returned Lazarath couldn’t walk and I couldn’t talk.
I knew that Dad found it amusing, he found anything to do with drunks amusing, because he had to immediately excuse himself and leave the sitting room and I heard him chuckle as he went down the passage. At first I thought that Mum was furious but I realised that what she manifested as anger was actual worry. She couldn’t wake up Lazarath and couldn’t get any sense from me.
“How much did you drink?” she said looking at the quarter bottle of tequila that was left.
I held up all my fingers in front of her.
“Ten what?” she said. Her face was red and her lips were tense and she was leaning over listening to Lazarath breathe. One of her hands was on his wrist feeling his pulse and she was counting. I couldn’t work out if she was counting his breaths or the beats of his heart.
“Ten what?” she repeated.
I shrugged. I couldn’t remember how full the bottle was when we started and couldn’t remember how many sips we’d had. After that I don’t remember anything.
I woke up in my bed the next morning. I had a splitting headache and later I learnt that it was my first hangover. I found Lazarath asleep in our parent’s bed. Mum had apparently insisted on sleeping next to him all night and Dad had to sleep in his bed. Lazarath slept until two that afternoon and when he got up he didn’t seem to have the hangover I’d had.
Our parents didn’t speak to us about the incident and we didn’t bring it up. Lazarath and I gated ourselves for the following week - the one and only time. Everyday after school we came straight home and helped out with the housework. The bottle along with the few other bottles of alcohol that we had, were locked away in a cupboard.
* * *
On the 23rd July 1962 I turned twenty-one years old. I asked Dad if we could open the bottle and celebrate my coming of age with it. He thought it was a great idea and at the party we had that night the bottle took centre stage. At times I think that my parents were more proud of the bottle and how long it had lasted than they were of their eldest son coming of age. They told everybody about it and how our neighbour Jean-Pierre had insisted that we let it mature for many years before opening it. Dad kept on telling everyone how much will power you needed knowing that a good bottle of red was sitting in the cupboard.
“I think we’ll find that it’s been worth the while,” he said.
Mum’s sister, my aunt, and her two daughters, my cousins, were over from England and staying with us. They’d never been to South America before and we’d only met them when we were babies and so couldn’t remember each other. I immediately became besotted with Katherine. The girls I’d gone out with in Cartagena had all been Colombian and this was the first real English girl I’d met. Granted, there had been plenty of English Americans but they weren’t the same. Their accents were very different from our cousin’s and they never mixed with us. Their parents were ambassadors, diplomats and businessmen and didn’t mix in the same circles as English teachers and housewives. As a result the children of these families were rarely together and often I felt they looked down on us.
Katherine was gorgeous. She was three years younger than me and was going to study languages at Oxford in September and wanted to learn as much Spanish as she could while she was with us. Her willow slender body and long flaxen hair made many head turns when we were out in the streets. Her admiration for me stemmed from my fluency in Spanish and she was always asking me to translate for her.
We consummated our mutual lust for each other between ten and ten-thirty the night of my twenty-first birthday. It took place under the table, directly under the bottle. The tablecloth draped down to the floor and secluded us from the festivities that were going on around us.
“Where’s Joel? Where’s the birthday boy?” I heard several times while I was deflowering my princess.
“Where’s Katherine?” I heard my aunt say but nobody seemed particularly worried and the music and noise continued around us.
The stone floor must have been uncomfortable for Katherine to lie on as she kept on wanting to move around. I’ve never had to lie naked on my back on a cold slate floor with someone on top of me so I wouldn’t know.
Our private little party under the table came to end when Carmen, the five-year-old daughter of one of my Mum’s friends, lifted up the tablecloth and looked underneath it.
“There they are,” she said to someone in the room. “They haven’t got any clothes on.”
I’m not sure how many other faces appeared at Carmen’s little gap in the tablecloth as I was trying out for the who-can-get-their-clothes-on-fastest competition. I won and was fully dressed while Katherine was still putting on her bra.
“Hurry up,” I hissed at her.
“I’m going as fast as I can,” she whispered back.
Everyone was waiting for us when we emerged. I could see Lazarath, Beetle and Katherine’s younger sister giggling behind some adults. Dad had his hand over his mouth so he obviously found it funny but that was unfortunately not the case with Mum and her sister. Mum kept on saying how sorry she was while her sister looked like she was going to explode. Katherine was led away by the arm as soon as we stood up. Mum looked at me and shook her head. She then walked over to the table, picked up the bottle and disappeared into the kitchen with it. Dad followed her and tried to calm her down.
“This is no longer a special occasion,” I heard her say to him. “He’s a bloody disgrace that son of yours.”
* * *
Lazarath’s twenty-first came and went and so did Beetle’s. Our cousins didn’t come over from England to help us celebrate either of them and the bottle wasn’t opened. Over the years Beetle and I started our own families and Lazarath married into an instant one. Our parents were proud grandparents and doted on their grandchildren at the family events we always seemed to be having.
Our children, when young, viewed their cousins as the enemy and it was necessary to keep a close eye on them to prevent injury. I found Beetle’s youngest feeding Husky Chunky dog food to my youngest. This, it turned out was a panacea as he hadn’t been eating properly and suffered from bad eczema. By putting him on diet of dog food we managed to increase his weight and completely eliminate his eczema. We managed to hide the fact that he was eating dog food from him until he was five and a half when he caught me dishing it out of the tin. He refused to eat anything after that until he was shown where it came from. A trait that used to drive us to tears in restaurants.
When our children grew older their antagonistic views to their female cousins changed and I was continuously being quoted as an example of what not to let the cousins get up to. The years went by quickly and soon the children were having twenty-first birthdays and my mind returned to the bottle and what had happened to it.
One day I called my parents.
“What happened to the bottle?” I asked Mum as soon as she answered the phone.
There was a pause on the line. “What bottle dear?”
“The bottle, the one you were saving for a special occasion. The one from Jean-Pierre in France with the crayon marks on the label.”
“I don’t remember what happened to that dear. I think your father drank it one night.”
My heart sank. I’d suddenly become obsessed with the bottle again and was hoping that it still existed and I’d get a taste of it when it was finally opened.
* * *
Years later Dad went senile. It started with the Jehovah’s Witnesses and this is how the event was relayed to me.
It was Saturday morning and Mum had gone shopping with my wife. Mum didn’t like to drive by herself in the streets anymore and always enjoyed Maria’s company. Dad had been left alone at home. There was a knock at the door and Dad answered it.
“Good morning sir, we’re Jehovah’s Witnesses and we were wondering if we could come in and speak to you.”
This all took place in Spanish so what you’re reading is my translation of what I heard from Mum who heard it from the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Gentlemen, what took you so long? I’ve been waiting for you for years. Please come in.”
Dad led them into the sitting room and sat them down and gave them ice-cold lemonade from the fridge. The Jehovah’s Witnesses evidently knew Dad as they started addressing him as Señor Styx.
“Señor Styx, we have these pamphlets that explain all about Jehovah.”
“My sons, my children, my disciples, I am Jehovah. It is me for whom you are working. I don’t need pamphlets explaining who I am. Make yourselves comfortable and I’ll tell you how it all started and how it’s going to end.”
Dad used to be a preacher and knew the story from beginning to end and in great detail. He loved telling stories, any stories, and now he was convinced that his disciples had come to listen to him.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses tried to leave but Dad was much quicker than them and had the front door locked and the key in his pocket before they could get there. They were released three and a half hours later when Mum unlocked the door from the outside with her key and laden with groceries. She said that she was almost knocked over as the three young men rushed out the front door. She sat Dad down and gave him a stern talking to after that.
* * *
The coup de grâce came when the local constabulary had to pick up Dad one morning. They had received some calls from the houses on the street in which they lived. Dad had been seen walking down the street wearing nothing but a string vest and holding his cock in his hand. I believe that the police transcript in their report is a fairly accurate account of what happened:
We stopped Mr Styx and asked him what he was doing.
Mr Styx told us that he was looking for his girlfriend.
We asked Mr Styx where he’d last seen his girlfriend.
Mr Styx then pointed to his penis and told us that he’d last seen her on the end of it.
We asked Mr Styx for a description of his girlfriend. According to Mr Styx she is taller than Constable Gonzalez, who is 1m 92cm, has long blonde hair, enormous breasts and is seventeen years old.
The transcript continued with a few more ludicrous comments that Dad had made. I went down to the police station to pick him up and he was released to me on my promise that it wouldn’t happen again.
Dad was oblivious to what was happening around him and Mum was despairing more and more by the day. With my brothers I suggested that we get them some professional help to come in and look after him. What surprised us most was Mum’s suggestion that they move into a home for the elderly. She already had a few friends that lived in such a home and enjoyed visiting them.
“I’ll be around my other friends and there’ll always be someone at the sound of a bell to help me with father if anything happens.”
I’d always thought it was a cruel condemnation when children put their parents into a home and it was only then that I realised how lonely their existence had become once we’d left home.
So our parents moved into the Los Amigos de los Viejos de Santa María de Sanchez Gomez and we set about selling their house, their furniture and their belongings. In the storeroom were the boxes and bundles they’d collected over their lives that had no value to anyone except themselves and maybe their offspring. In one box I found an old tin soldier that I recognised as One Eyed Nelson. There were photos of us as children and we argued as if we were children as to who would get to keep which ones. Dad’s manuscripts of books never published and notes about stories never written were tied together in bundles. I took them vowing to read them, edit them and try and get something of his published. To date they are still tied in the same bundles I found them in.
It was in the last box that we pulled out that we found the bottle. The sitting room was already littered with the contents of all the other boxes when Beetle walked in with the last box. I rummaged through it and pulled out two old T-shirts, a comb (Why do people save combs?) and a box of paper clips before I spotted the green slender neck covered in red painted lead. I pulled it out and rubbed the dust off it. Most of the label was still visible and the crayon marks could just be made out.
Lazarath and Beetle were both staring at it. They knew exactly what it was. We’d spoken about it over the years (until I thought it had been drunk) as if it was a family heirloom of priceless value.
“Shall I open it?” I asked.
“We had better not,” Lazarath said. “They’re keeping it for a special occasion.”
“And when do you think that special occasion will happen?” I said.
They both looked at me and nodded. It was an unspoken and implicit agreement that our parents would never open the bottle and celebrate anything with it. Dad wouldn’t remember it and Mum thought it was gone. I went to the kitchen and brought back a corkscrew, three glasses and a knife.
Using the knife I carefully cut a line into the lead at the top of the bottle and flipped it off like a bottle top. I examined the cork. It was perfect without so much as a blemish. The corkscrew sunk into it without resistance and the cork slid out with a gentle pop. I looked at the bottom of the cork expecting to see a dark red stain but instead there was none.
‘We have to let it breathe,’ Beetle said.
‘It can breathe in the glasses,’ I replied. “We’ve waited...,” I paused as I tried to work out how many years we’d waited to open the bottle, “...a lot of years to open this bottle. Let’s waste no more time.”
I put my nose to the bottle and took a deep sniff. “I hope it’s all right,” I said. “It smells a little bit acidic.”
I started filling the glasses and we all looked on in surprise. We were clearly expecting a red wine to be coming out and not a white.
“I thought green bottles were for red wines and clear bottles were for white wines,” Beetle said.
“Me too,” added Lazarath.
“So did I,” I said just as confused as they were. “Maybe that has only become the rule recently and in those days it was the other way around, or maybe all wines came in green bottles in that part of France.”
I pushed a glass over to Lazarath and one over to Beetle and held mine up to the light. The afternoon sun reflected in the wine and gave it a tinge of green.
“To Mum and Dad, the best parents anybody could ever have,” I said holding my glass up to my two brothers.
“To Mum and Dad,” they said in unison and we clinked our glasses together and put them to our lips.
Lazarath was the first to spit his out covering the wall next to him. Beetle and I were less discerning and covered the table in front of us with a fountain of the liquid.
“I’d recognise that taste anywhere,” Lazarath said. “It’s bloody urine.”
Word Count: 4735