An irregular, irreverent, post-modern account of the surreal, the ordinary, and the bizarre happenings on and around the Felia lavender farm in Crete

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Max's Vintage

I've just finished a new short story for a very good friend so I thought I'd share it with you all, it's about a man and his dog and it's called:

Max's Vintage

Liam is sitting and crouching. He is pulling on his shoes while his back complains. He is getting old now but the day is bright and this lightens his heart. Autumn is on them all - a gentle, Cornish autumn - and the hedgerows are full. A mellow fruitfulness. A richness.

Tying his laces carefully, he pulls the lace once more around his ankle and feels the cold, damp nose on his wrist. Max boy, yes we're off out this morning. It's a beautiful day. We'll be off soon. Give me a few minutes. Max is getting old now too. They have grown together over the last ten years, closer than most humans ever get.

Liam is eighty two years old and Max a mere ten, but Max is a dog, a black and tan Dobermann dog, of a physical elegance that Liam has not had for many a year. And so, they are probably each as close to their natural ends as twins might be, contemporaries at last. You have aged more gracefully than I old boy. We have converged at last. You knew we would. And so did I.

Liam's hand seeks out Max's muzzle and caresses it lovingly. Max presses his whole head firmly but slowly into Liam's hand and senses a frailty there, a slight weakness that he has become familiar with in the last year or so, a hint that he recognises in his own traitorous body. The hand moves slowly up over his head and pauses on his stop before continuing, as he knew it would, to the sweet spots behind his ears. They both luxuriate in this closeness for a while until Max shakes his head free and cocks it to the left. Liam listens too. Ah, Max boy, that's the blackbird. Isn't that a beautiful sound? Fair makes you glad to be alive, huh? Come on, lets be on our way. No beach today boy. We're off up the lane today. The other way. You'll get your swim later. Promise. But Max has gone skittering across the kitchen by now.

With his front paws on the closed lower half of the stable door he is looking out at the buddleia bush, where the blackbirds nest each year and where they have raised at least three broods to his knowledge. He draws a huge volume of air in through his powerful and sensitive nose: buddleia, blackbird, compost, rabbit, fox, grass, rose, bramble. He discerns each separate aroma distinctly but simultaneously. His mind is placing each of the ingredients of this cocktail to its location in the space before him, when he smells Liam coming up behind him. Now that's a smell all its own: warmth, love, respect - so well known now, a smell that goes all the way back to his smallest days - maybe the first smell he was aware of after his mother's. Liam clips the lead to his three row collar.

Out in the lane they are both assailed and overwhelmed by the sight and smells of the rhododendrons, blown now and looking dowdy, frazzled; frayed but fragrant: fragrant to Max at least, though Liam's nose is failing him now. You'll have to be careful Max, the flail will be along for those weeds soon. Next few days. One hand in his pocket he wrinkles the sack that sits there. Max picks up the scent and raises his noble head to turn those gentle brown eyes on him quizzically. Liam laughs. You know boy, don't you? Elderberries it is. You clever thing you. He checks the lane ahead, knowing that Max now knows where they are going, and, assured that they have it to themselves, he unclips his lead.

Max bounds stiffly off nosing the hedges either side as he goes and now and then turning back to check that Liam is OK. This is his only true freedom of movement these days - this, and his capers at the beach. He misses the free stretching, back bending bounding of yesteryear: the onset of arthritis has put paid to those carefree days and on the lead he is all decorum now. No mad headlong dashes. It would not be kind to remind Liam of just how much mobility he has lost himself. More even than he.

They wander along in silent communion, Max leading, until he spies the elder trees and notes that the fruit clusters have turned. He backtracks and comes behind and around to Liam's left. Liam bends only slightly, and from the waist - Max is a tall dog - and Liam reattaches his lead. Here we are boy. You know don't you? He lets them into the orchard. The winds of the last few days have blown apples down and the distinctive smell of proto-cider reeks: Max wrinkles his nose in distaste while Liam has a madeleine moment that transports him back to days of his youth and just-brewed Calvados in the Normandy countryside .

I dreamt last night of elder, Maxy boy, and, in this superstitious county, that is supposed to presage sickness. Not yours or mine, I hope. But then the addle-pated folk hereabouts seriously believe that elder branches can keep vampires at bay. Claim it goes back further than garlic. Fuckwits all. The very same sheep who bend their knee every sabbath, to a god who is so mean that he denies you a soul - or a place in their much vaunted afterlife. Flockwits more like. OK then Max. Let's get to it.

Free to roam again, Max is soon investigating every hedge and shrub (traces of rabbit here and there - a hare was through here last night) checking back on Liam assiduously. But Liam is fine, picking the low-hanging bunches of fruits and plopping them gently into the unrolled sack. The odd purplish, blackish stain seeps damply, darkly through the hessian. The sun is warming their bones and easing the aches in their joints. Is making them feel, momentarily, young again. Max has flushed a pair of wasps from one of the rotting apples and gaily chases them, as they dance just beyond his tender nose. Liam has settled himself beneath an old Pearmain tree and is tucking into a firm, white-fleshed apple, with a relish normally seen only in the flushes of scrumping youth. He is watching Max's game with a smile playing across his face; a smile of pure enchantment. The sack is full and leaking sweetly, stickily, beside him. Max leaps and neatly bites one of the wasps in half.

Come here boy. That's it. Sit beside me. No - the other side, lemon. That's it. Now Maxy, why did you kill that wasp? That wasn't very nice, was it? He wasn't doing you any harm - was he? Max turns a pair of sad eyes on him. They burn like lasers. Max is contrite, and lays his head in Liam's lap, sniffing the sack surreptitiously. Liam regrets the reprimand and leans slowly back against the tree trunk. He savours the moment. Are we having fun Max? I think so, don't you? Now I'm going to close my eyes for a while. You stay here - alright? Nudge me in a few minutes and we'll go back.

Back home they are sitting on the sun terrace. Ann has the kettle on for tea and Max has a big stainless steel bowl of cold, clean water just tucked in behind the herb border, where the sun has begun to cast a shadow. The sack is open before Liam who crouches Arab style - a habit he picked up in his youth and has never questioned. He is picking the stalks from the firm fruits and discarding the bruised and crushed fruits into a bowl: Ann will make jam from these. The rest are destined to become wine. A late bee buzzes past them breaking the silence and Max looks quizzically at Liam. The herb border fills Max's nose but still he can smell the sick bee. Liam laughs and chucks Max under the chin. It's OK boy. No problem. Let him be! Liam looks up and checks the length of the shadows. Half an hour more here and then I'll take you to the beach. Half an hour will see this lot off. I'll sort them out when we get back. There's time yet, boy.

Ann brings out the tea on a lovely red lacquer tray, that they picked up in an out of the way second hand shop last summer, and settles herself into a little plastic chair. Are you alright crouching like that? Don't fuss darling, you know I'm happiest this way. She strokes Max's head that rests still in Liam's lap. You two didn't overdo it did you? No, we're fine. Liam chuckles. We had a little nap in the shade, thanks. We're fine, and I promised Max his run on the beach. Half an hour's work left here - no more. Will you come?

Max has settled himself on the ground between them. He is looking up and clearly following the conversation. Like the pair of them he is wondering how life could be better and deciding that it cannot. Stretching his front paws out he settles his head between them and closes his eyes. His other senses though are on full alert. The sonorous tones of their voices and the smells of the garden in late afternoon soothe him. The sweet smell of crushed elderberries cloys above all the other scents. Ann and Liam have fallen silent. Time passes contentedly to the gentle rhythm of Liam removing the stalks from clusters of fruit.

You're awful quiet Liam. Are you woolgathering, or are you thinking? Thinking dear. About? Remember I dreamt last night of the elders? Well, as I dozed in the apple orchard I dreamt again of elders. I know I was among the elders, but still and all don't you think it odd? I asked Mrs Potts down at the post office about that, this morning, when I was picking up my pension. You did say the locals had all kinds of superstitions about elders. Well, she said that dreaming of elders presages an illness or bereavement. I'm sure she did - daft old bat! What did I tell you about this being the shallow end of the gene pool? How did such bloody retards end up in control of such a beautiful place? They'd have burnt her as a witch a few years back.

Max sits up at Liam's raised voice and watches their body language. He is used to heated discussions and the odd outburst of ranting but he always likes to check. Ann stretches her hand out and strokes him down his neck and chest. It's alright boy, the old boy is just cross at some stupidity. Max collects his feet together into a text book sit, and sympathises silently with Liam. He too, hates stupidity.

Liam unlocks his knees and slowly unfurls himself from his Arab squat, and while he hears only notional creaking, Max actually picks up the very real sound of bone grinding on too-thin cartilage, and sees a shadow of a grimace pass briefly. Hands firmly placed just above his buttocks, Liam is finally unfolded and arches his spine gently backwards before straightening completely. Liam's second sacroiliac joint cracks loudly - to Max - and he catches a whiff of stale sweat: a familiar smell and a particular favourite; a friendly smell and all Liam's. Ann does not wear perfume but her own scent is always masked by something else, whereas Liam always, and reassuringly, smells of Liam. Max licks his testicles and checks his own scent, but does not get up. He is enjoying his family.

Ann drinks the last of her tea and watches Liam, waiting for him to speak. But he stays stubbornly silent. She stretches her hand out to stroke Max behind the ears once more and he almost purrs: a deep and satisfied grunt escapes him. His hind paw comes up to rake behind his ear slowly. Sorry old boy. We shan't be going to the beach today. We're going back to the orchard. Those fruits are just right for winemaking and we're going to make hay while the sun shines - or at least collect berries while we have light left. And this one is going to be for you. Liam sidesteps to where Ann is sitting. I've made up my mind, love. I want to memorialise Max and we can't know whether we shall all do this again. He is getting on, you know. I'm going to have some labels made up to mark this vintage. I know it'll be a great one. And it's going to be Max's vintage, so that when he's gone (a tear breaks loose and dampens his cheek) ... and we both know it's got to happen some day ... then we can raise a glass of Max's vintage to the wonderful memories we shall have. And this is going to be one of them. Despite his aching thighs he squats and pats Max's head. Come on lad. I'll grab the sack. You get the lead, and then let's get cracking. Max is up and ready before him. Lead in mouth, he nudges Ann into action and heads to the gate, looking back and moving forward.

Ann waves them off at the gate and watches, until they reach the bend, through eyes that stream. She recalls a film she saw just after the war, before she even met Liam: A Boy and His Dog. Yes that's them. In this moment they both seem strangely young again. She turns and retraces her steps, drying her eyes on her apron as she goes.