Monday, 1 September 2014

A Christmas reflection on whisky, family and memories.

To be fair I was at a low ebb, the last 12 months had been toxic to say the least. Much like the proverbial bus, three had come along in quick succession. In this case the three just happened to be deaths of family members. Firstly, my mum after a short but painful six week illness, then, a few months later my older and only brother in a road traffic accident, then my dad who at the time of writing was still of this world but with only a few weeks left. He was, as Christopher Hitchen’s put it "living dyingly"...and I was on a train travelling North to visit him after an enjoyable but tiring day in London.


 So, there was this guy on the train; sat opposite me. I'd say he was somewhere between 50 and 60 years old. There's a lot of leeway in there but it's not hugely important. He was bald and, in my experience, that adds a degree of uncertainty to the age question (on reflection, he could have been much older). Grey moustache and goatee, cut fairly short, in fact, it was neatly and methodically trimmed. Overweight, but fell into that category of "big bloke"; some might call it fat but that would be a little unkind. In terms of clothing he was travelling light despite it being early December. Jeans, a fawn jacket (draped loosely over an expensive yet worn leather holdall), and a short sleeved shirt festooned with writing that I couldn't make out initially but, after a while, I realised that it was row upon row of the word "Xmas" in different languages (Noel, Natale, Navidad, Kerstmis and so on). Middle-aged man in designer shirt, a little incongruous maybe, some lingering attempt to hang on to the vestiges of youth, perhaps. Anyway, it was a decent enough shirt. 


 We exchanged a fleeting moment of eye contact before settling into the train journey. Carriage life was as expected; the initial hubbub of passengers firing up software before burrowing down to social media activity, hushed shuffles & adjustments of clothing and settings, the well rehearsed rituals of isolation, insulation from conversational contamination, the positioning of elbows, music listening, the extension of the working day etc. Not for me, I was content to let myself drift off into fantasies of one kind or another, those moments of freedom where it's ok to do nothing, to switch off "mainline" and slide languorously into "downtime"; except, "downtime" had become an elusive sanctuary of late, a faraway country, constantly over the horizon or round some distant corner. Moments of genuine rest and relaxation had shuffled inexorably into some labyrinthine backwater of my memory. It wasn't as if I lacked opportunity to relax, it was simply that, when those moments presented themselves, a dull thump and sharp clatter of unresolved and unprocessed "past" would insinuate itself into my failing head. Over time, and through lack of use, I had forgotten the language of R & R. And so it was, on that December evening, that I sat on the train heading north.


 That was until the gentleman opposite began fumbling inside his leather holdall before producing firstly, a small tulip shaped glass, followed by a bottle of whisky. How did I know it was whisky? Well, although his hands were wrapped around the mid section of the bottle I could make out the letters "isky"...in white on a brownish background (I was certain that it wasn't a bottle of "Frisky" although the thought did amuse me somewhat). From what I could see of the bottle it fitted my experience of what a spirit bottle looked like, I'd had a “pleasure” of whisky in my time, and it didn't take a great leap of the imagination to reach this simple conclusion. But it wasn't the whisky bottle that first caught my attention, it was his hands. I hadn't noticed them when he first inhabited the seat opposite, but now...


 His hands were works of art; they were at the same time beautiful and terrifying. Big, powerful, well defined veins sprang from his wrists, flowing under and around cartilage and calloused knuckle, into fingers, purposeful and deliberate. The knuckles were a gnarled chain of worn peaks. Scuffing and scar tissue hinted at potent visceral experiences past, of manual labour, of heavy contact, of pain endured, of reaction to events rather than well thought through planned responses. The nails on the fingers of his left hand (the hand obscuring most of the wording on the bottle), were broken and bitten, like four worn piston heads locked at the end of his arm. In sharp contrast, the nails on the right hand whispered of quieter, more considered experiences. There was nothing rushed about those nails. Well tended, manicured, and shaped with a precision that did more than simply hint at attention to detail. I couldn't help but feel that the right hand was more of a window into this man, a glimpse into processes that went beyond the merely superficial.


 What had begun as a somewhat tentative exploration of the contents of the holdall had metamorphosed into a confident, assertive, almost dexterous celebration of........something. He handled the whisky bottle in an almost reverential manner, his strong hands at the same time vice-like and agile.  It was clearly something special to him and whilst the bottle was not totally unfamiliar to me, it had elements that were unlike any I'd seen before. There seemed to be facets at various points that served to suck in the carriage light, bend and refract it through the dark, lustrous liquid within. The colour of the whisky shifted with the movement of hand and train; at one moment a flickering gold, then to bronze, through ruby, vermillion, coral before trembling to a mercurial burnished ochre, and then on again...


  His left hand tightened around the body of the bottle, the right slid up the neck and embraced the cork stopper. Two twists of the right hand and the job was done. Just as the bottle had absorbed and then transformed the light, the short muffled pop of cork leaving bottle served to call all of the senses to attention, and then fold them, twist them, massage and gently play with them. That dull, innocuous pop resonated around the carriage paradoxically drowning out the thrub and rattle of the train, drawing attention to the bottle, and then alerting other senses to something extraordinary. In the now hushed carriage, perfumes, aromas, and scents emanated from the unveiled whisky, firstly permeating the somewhat stale carriage air before becoming the singular sovereign essence within that space. It was intoxicating; I could feel the chair supporting my back, my head cushioned on the headrest, my legs, indeed my whole body seemed lighter, my breath slowed and deepened, background noise faded and then disappeared altogether.....my eyes closed.


 Colours, memories, exotic fragrances and earthy aromas intermingled in a random sensory seduction. Faint breezes fashioned fallen fruit carpets on burnished autumn forest floors, bittersweet bucolic spring charms fell like rose petals, sea-breeze sands, rock pool memories and salt water spume upended me in a turbulent, tumbler sea...I was not drowning but waving. 
Yellow, hay baled and supine, sun-kissed in sublime, late summer magnificence. An "old gold" signet ring belonging to a grandfather I never knew. Saffron and brimstone wrapped and bubbled in sweetly spiced braziers, and warmth emanated from embers of Christmas fires past. Red, bronze, copper and carmine collided in sunsets long forgotten, unearthing residual traces of conversations long since spoken. I could hear faint whispers from the mouths of lost loved ones. The accents of my childhood reached out from within like a reassuring caress murmuring "It's OK, you'll be fine" 


 Slowly, the kaleidoscope took on a clearer coherence, became tangible, touchable, understandable. I could feel, touch, and smell the memories......and in that moment, I saw my dad holding my hand......my mum wiping my face with a tissue dampened with her spit.....and my brother laughing and running off with a ball. I wanted to play, eager to escape mum's beneficent ministrations, to experience the unconfined, uninhibited freedom so often the preserve of a loving family....to inhabit that time when freedom and safety coexisted.....but that time had gone, and they were gone, and there were no more of mum's tissues, and there was no more brotherly kickabouts, and there would be no more walking with dad whilst holding his hand. 


I could feel a deep, resonant, and profound swell of sadness forming in the pit of my stomach, slowly leeching its way into my chest, becoming cavernous and gaping as it tried to swallow me, whole and helpless. But before my throat and eyes succumbed, I saw my family once again. It wasn't some beatific vision, some angelic scene viewed through pastel lenses in an exotic paradisiacal location. I was at home, about 10 years old, lying in front of our busy, smoky coal fire, watching our black and white TV. I turned away and looked at each of my family in turn, dad (smoking a cigarette in "his" chair), mum (emerging from the kitchen with a freshly baked mince pie in one hand and my 2 year old sister who was holding a ragged doll, secure in her other arm), my brother (lying just opposite me), and my other sister (sat on settee). My sudden turn caught their attention and as I made eye contact with each one, we exchanged the briefest of smiles (all except my youngest sister who was chattering to her dolly)....and that was all. 

  

I sensed the dull commotion of the carriage returning. I opened my eyes, I was smiling, and I felt a serenity that had long been lost to me. My mum and brother had gone, my dad would soon be gone, but they would always be with me. Death's slick timing had muffled my mum's passing, scratched out my brother in an instant, but had not yet sucked my dad from this world....and there was still time to hold his hand.


 It took me a moment to realise that the gentleman opposite was no longer there. I looked around the carriage but he had gone. I looked at the table, empty but for the tulip shaped glass....half full. 

  

(c) Alcock 2013