Everything is happening so fast. First we were put under a night curfew. A few days later M. Macron announced another lockdown. Then, pretty much overnight, I developed a taste for red wine. The Damascene conversion was a bottle of Clos de l’Ours, a local vineyard. It was pricey admittedly, even when bought direct from the vigneron’s shop, but it was a gateway. Now I’m guzzling red.
It’s like finally liking sausages after a lifetime’s aversion. The suddenness and completeness of the conversion I can only put down to an organic deterioration in the brain. Old age, perhaps. Or years of drinking this unpretentious, paralyzing brand of gin that is found on French supermarket shelves: it’s called ‘GIN’.
Saying yes to red makes life easier. Once they recognize a fellow capitulator at the table, red wine people slosh it into your glass without asking. I like that. Red wine people don’t talk endlessly about what they are going to have. Red wine people don’t bore on about loving wine in the same way that hacks never bore on about loving literature. The subject doesn’t come up because it’s taken as read. Red wine people have decided they need look no further. Red wine people don’t sip, they knock it back. Red wine people don’t get pissed, they are beatified. The Provençals hereabouts don’t like white wine because, they say, it gives them a headache. Therefore red wine people, even those who have chosen to remain English, are assimilated.
Not two weeks into my rebirth as a late-stage wino, however, there was yet another dramatic alteration in the tempo and quality of our days. Already I can barely remember a time when I didn’t drink red wine. It happened on Halloween. I was at a friend’s house watching Liverpool vs West Ham on his massive telly with surround sound. His house sits high up at the head of a remote and picturesque valley. By half-time I was already beatified, in spite of being one-nil down to a penalty earned by the usual Mohamed Salah histrionics. He went to ground as though felled by a high-velocity bullet fired by a sniper from the stands. During the break we took our glasses outside to stand and look at the darkened valley.
A cloud, remarkably sinister in shape and texture, hung low over the treetops. The underside glowed with an orange light that defied a rational explanation. In the corner of the night sky left unobscured by this cloud, a very full orange moon was embarking on its climb. With all due respect to the skeptical notion of the pathetic fallacy, the effect of that glowing cloud and brimming moon on the senses struck the both of us as ominous and terrible. No matter how hard one fought against the thought with the intellect, one couldn’t help seeing them as some sort of catastrophic portent.
Like the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, the second COVID wave fast overwhelming Europe was already making the first look like a mere prelude. And if the second wave was deadlier than the first, then why not a third and a fourth as there were in 1919? In the space of two weeks what was hoped by everyone to be the beginning of the end of the pandemic had turned out to be the real beginning, as also happened in 1919. And what of the hideously polarized and well-armed American citizenry going in a few days’ time to the polls? The unthinkable seemed increasingly feasible. And if Americans started shooting each other, would the rising, self-confident powers seize an opportunity for risk-free self-aggrandizement?
Red wine and Mohamed Salah’s blatant cheating were as much responsible for this magical thinking as was the unusually textured and weirdly lit cloud. However, this was also the moment that my friend chose to remember the news that he had forgotten to tell me until now. ‘Oh, by the way,’ he said. ‘Has anyone told you yet?’ From where we stood we could see four inhabited houses. He pointed to this one and then that one. In both houses the occupants were ill with COVID. And in the village beyond were a number of other Covid clusters. In the village beyond that was ‘a whole bunch’ of cases. In the first wave we’d heard anecdotally of one local person only, a German, who had caught COVID. Until that moment it had been possible either to disbelieve in COVID altogether or imagine it would never get as far up into the hills as this. ‘Yep, it’s started. You can close your mouth now,’ he said. I went inside and fetched the wine bottle and sloshed both our glasses full to overflowing. Then the two teams reappeared in the empty stadium, lined up, and the referee blew the whistle to start the second half.