“Pour ce qui est de l’avenir, il ne s’agit pas de le prevoir mais de le rendre possible” | Antoine de Saint Exupery
(“As for the future, it is not a question of foreseeing it, but of making it possible”)
With love and respect to those who try to forget.
Michelle was a very sober 40 years old woman dealing with her emotions after a divorce with a Hollywood scriptwriter and unsuccessfully trying to write her seventh novel. It was supposed to be another bestseller, yet since over a year Michelle hasn’t written even one word.
Endless calls from the publishers were an unwanted reminder of the deadline. She had to find a way to start writing or at least come up with a great story. Undoubtedly the characters of her new novel would be facing their demons in the old French wine estate; there’s no better way to stress the pain when surrounded by exceptional beauty. She just couldn’t figure out what demons she needed to bring back to life to make that story unique.
There were many reasons of her writer’s block. She expressed, however, the same excuse over and over again. She couldn’t write because of the place she was staying in at the moment; her mother’s house in a small village in Burgundy.
Michelle was in between houses. Recently she has moved back to Europe and decided to stay at her mother’s place, at least until the contract for her new house is finally signed. She needed an escape after her divorce, therefore she chose to share her life between the modern house in Hamptons, New York, which was the part of her divorce agreement, and the small almost 150 years old house surrounded by vineyards in South-West France that she bought a couple of months ago.
Michelle had no idea how to put herself in a writing state of mind. Wine seemed the only way to make her relaxed enough to sit down with her MacBook and start clicking. It’s been at least twenty years since she had her last glass of wine. Wine was her mother’s obsession and Michelle was not keen on being part of it.
The woman took one Vougue Verte and threw the pack on the old table made out of wooden wine boxes. She flipped back her short black hair, lit up the cigarette and inhaled deeply. She looked around ineffectively seeking inspiration.
There were many old books lying on the desk, some of them still open. Just behind them there was a chest of wanders and further to the right she noticed the empty bird’s cage, which used to be the house for her green parrot back in the days of her childhood. Her eyes scanned the room and stopped at the old wooden door painted white down the stairs in front of her.
“I’m better than that” she mumbled, turning her head away from the entrance to the wine cellar.
Michelle was not a wine lover. She was neither a wine person, nor any other alcohol lover at all. She didn’t particularly want a glass of wine to be her muse. Smoking cigarettes and drinking coke, in her opinion, were much better choices than creating something under the influence of alcohol. Half a pack of cigarettes later, she was still staring at the blank page on her screen. Wine felt like the ultimate solution.
“Damn it!” she said low and inarticulately. Her fists clenched.
Quis ut Deus?
‘Who is like God?’ – Michelle’s mother’s voice filled up her head. She jumped in her seat and looked around nervously.
Madame Richard-Durand used to ask this question too often, when Michelle was a little girl. Followed by a cuddle and a kiss in girl’s forehead, it was her mother’s only way to show love. The words ‘I love you’ seemed not to exist.
“I am NOT like God!” said Michelle very loud, looking at her mother’s painting hanging on the wall in front of her “What a bunch of meaningless words” regret in her voice was very perceptible; her body tightened.
“If I were God, I wouldn’t let you drink yourself to death and I would turn wine back into water every time you looked at it” – the woman called out, louder and more frantically this time. Her throat constricted, unshed tears stung her eyes.
“God damn it” – her voice echoing against the walls. Michelle got up suddenly and ran down the stairs. She crashed the white doors and entered the gloomy wine cellar.
Little piece of my heart
It used to be her mother’s sanctuary. The place smelled this particular way all underground cellars do – musty with a hint of cork and desperation. For a second, the woman wondered if she could smell her mother’s perfumes, but she let that thought pass her by.
Michelle closed her eyes for a minute to make them used to the darkness. She touched the wall to keep the balance; the old limestone was mouldy and damp.
“Oh, gross!” she looked around with a hint of disgust in her eyes and went straight into a massive cobweb “Damn spiders! I can’t see anything, where’s the bloody light switch, for god’s sake!?!? ”
It’s been almost two years since Michelle’s mother passed away at the age of 59. Madame Richard-Durand used to spend a lot of time in this cellar and her underground office, tasting wines and writing professional reviews to wine & food magazine she created in the late 80s. She was famous in the world of wine and undoubtedly had a gift to talk about it. She loved inviting people for tastings and she adored to share her knowledge with others, including Michelle.
Over the years, however, Michelle’s mother’s passion and devotion to wine turned into excessive daily drinking to lose consciousness. One day she simply didn’t wake up, leaving her daughter in a massive debt and even bigger pain.
“There you are you little…” Michelle finally found the light switch, yet nothing happened when she switched the lights on “you got to be kidding me! C’mon! Switch yourself on!” – the woman yelled nervously, frustration in her voice. She clicked the switch for at least fifty times before eventually the lights went on.
The cellar she knew so well in her childhood appeared in front of her adult eyes; it looked exactly as she remembered: damp, dark and full of wine bottles, yet it seemed much smaller and spiritually lifeless.
The old candle holders with half burnt candles were placed throughout the cellar, never to be lit up again. The plants in the pot opposite the tiny windows and the flowers in the ceramic vase, they were all dead.
“So many bottles… abandoned… ” Michelle’s voice broke with emotion when she was approaching the rack with wine bottles covered with dust “you are gone, you’re really gone…”
Michelle didn’t shed a single tear neither after her mother’s death, not during the divorce case. She’s been famous not only for her novels but also for her heart of stone. She didn’t attend the funeral. When she received a message with the details of her mother’s funeral she threw it to the bin unread. Her anger was stronger than the pain of loss; at least that’s what she’s been telling herself since.
She couldn’t believe her mother left this world without notice, with no apologies, without calling back for so many years. Even if Michelle knew that it was her who made the contact impossible. Despite blocking the incoming calls from France in her phone and rejecting to accept every recommended letter with a French stamp that arrived at her doorstep, she was hoping her mother would find a way to get through to her.
“You could lie that you missed me, you know? You could say you were sorry, but you never cared about me, did you?” – Michelle asked quietly, not waiting for the answer. “I was slowing you down in your career, wasn’t I? That’s why you sent me to my grandparents, to America.”
The woman put her hand up to protect her face from the spider webs that were hanging down from the ceiling. “It is unfair that you went to your eternal rest” regret and anger in woman’s voice “It is unfair that I had no chance to tell you how much I hated you”.
Raspberry lipstick state of mind
“Gosh, they are ugly” – said Michelle, suddenly looking at the desk on her left. There was an old set of glasses on the silver tray that attracted her attention. Each glass had an engraved pattern with white flowers on its edge. She took one glass and looked at it carefully – “why would anyone create such a thing? They are so ugly, that it feels wrong to pour anything in them”. She laughed, but her heart was filled with bitterness.
Next to the desk, along the wall, there were some old wine barrels; once full with wine, yet now empty. Michelle used to hide behind them when she was a little girl in order to listen to the love stories her mom and her girlfriends shared during their regular Friday wine-nights-in. This is where she learned that the one-night-stays are fun and love hurts. This is where she saw her mother crying, only that one time, just after her father, the biggest love of her mother’s life, left her for another woman when Michelle was about 5 years old.
Michelle blew away the dust from the barrel and leaned on it. She looked closer at the old and dirty wine glass and noticed a trace of a lipstick on its edge. “Your famous lipstick. Rouge Coco Flash. ‘Amour’ shade, wasn’t it?” Michelle took a deep breath and sat down on a chair, not paying attention to dust and dirt anymore.
“How could you give me away? Did I really mean nothing to you? You were my best friend; you were the most important person in my life… Why mummy? Why did you choose this over me?” She burst into tears.
It seemed like it would take ages to calm down, when suddenly something attracted Michelle’s attention. It was an unusually shaped bottle of wine. Covered with dust, it was lying on the floor between the barrel and the leg of the table. Michelle was warily observing her discovery for a couple of minutes before she picked the bottle up.
She dusted off the label to see what wine her mother had been drinking just before she died. It was a bottle of Vin Doux Naturel from Maury, a fortified wine made in Southern France.
“Queen of Grenache” Michelle smiled sourly. There was a hint of disappointment mixed with surprise on her face “Damn! I don’t remember you being a big lover of sweet wines!”
Michelle looked around the cellar and moved closer to a wine rack full of bottles. As she couldn’t see wine labels through the thick coat of dust, she decided to dust off all of them. The woman knew that each bottle contained an exceptional wine and some of the bottles were worth thousands of Euros.
Notwithstanding, many of the bottles had no labels at all. Madame Richard-Durand had special agreements with most of the owners of the famous wine estates in the area, which was her biggest secret. Over the years she collected best quality wines, many of them in no-name bottles, in exchange for positive wine reviews in her magazine and promotion of these particular estates.
Despite the enormous amount of dry wines, Michelle was astonished of how many sweet wines were there stored in her mother’s wine cellar. Best Sauternes were maturing alongside Selection de Grains Nobles from Alsace and a few bottles of Essencia Royal Tokaji, from Hungary. There were also some of the finest Ice Wines from Austria and Canada, bottles from Barsac and fortified wines made in Maury.
She rapidly scanned the wine labels and chose the bottle that was her mother’s last choice. To her surprise, it was one of the cheapest bottles from the collection. “I’m wondering, mummy, whether this sweet sanctuary took you to heaven…?” Michelle paused for a second, walking towards the stairs “…or to hell?”
What we’ve got here, is..
The chaos in the living room hit Michelle the very second she entered the house. There was no space to put the bottle neither on the coffee table nor the buffet. Therefore she threw the bottle on the sofa, next to the pile of her clothes she took out of the suitcase when she arrived to France a week earlier. There was a bag with unpacked shoes lying on the floor that she accidently stepped on.
“What a mess” said Michele, moving away yesterday’s newspaper, two espresso cups from this morning and an empty pack of Vogues. She placed the bottle in the middle of the cold marble table and threw herself heavily on the sofa.
“Pour ce qui est de l’avenir, il ne s’agit pas de le prevoir mais de le rendre possible” Michelle read the label out loud with a perfect French accent and a smile on her face “It’s time. I want to know what wine was your passage to paradise”.
The woman filled the glass to one third and lifted it up, exhaling deeply. “Cheers” she looked at the portrait of her mother hanging on the wall in front of her ”Cheers to you, wherever you are”.
Michelle looked closer at the glass, swirled it in order to air the wine and took a sniff. Rich, ripe red and black fruits aromas were cheerfully coming out of the glass. The bouquet was concentrated and fresh at the start. A few seconds later Michelle remarked some caramel and coffee notes as well, and a hint of plum confiture.
Knocking on heaven’s door
Michele was about to take a sip, when she noticed a cardboard box behind the old armchair. She put the glass away and got up. The box was full of old letters tied up with burgundy coloured cotton ribbons. On top of them there were a sketching book and an old photo album.
“Oh no!” the woman closed her eyes and shake her head lightly “I don’t think I am ready”. She lit another cigarette and carefully opened the photo album. The first photo, she as a one year old baby sleeping in the wooden wine box, made her laugh. She flipped the page.
“I remember this jumper; you made it for me when I was six years old” She sentimentally touched the yellow woollen sweater in the photo and turned the page. “Wow! That’s from our holidays in Arcachon! I loved the French sun! And those exceptional sand beaches, I need to go and see if Dune du Pilat is still there” she chuckled.
Another page. “Marshall, oh Marshall, I miss you so much! You were the best dog ever!” Michelle smiled and raised a glass, putting away the photo album “Cheers!” The woman took a sip of wine.
Her mouth filled up with ripe blackberries and dried sweet plums. She didn’t expect the wine to be so delicious “What a balance!” Michelle took another sip and smiled “One more glass and I should be ready to see your sketches.”
What I need is for you to believe in me
Three glasses later Michelle was still staring at the sketching book lying on her laps. Her nose was red and her glass almost empty. She had a peaceful smile on her face. With a cigarette in her right hand, she carefully opened the sketchbook with her left hand.
There was the house from Michelle’s childhood on the first three drawings made with graphite pencils. “Look at those details” she brought the page closer to her eyes. The trees seemed to be dancing with the wind and she could smell the garden flowers.
She turned the page and her face froze in shock. It was her, when she was around seven years old, playing in the snow with Marshall, their Labrador. It was the last winter before she moved to America. Again, the picture looked rather like a black and white photo than a drawing.
Next page. She was about thirteen years old; it was a picture from her birthday photo, made with coloured pencils. Michelle looked so real in those sketches, she couldn’t believe it’s possible one could have such a talent to draw like that.
“Damn, mummy, I didn’t know you could do this” Michelle filled her glass up with Maury that was still left in the bottle “those sketches are beautiful”, she added, smiling gently.
The woman spent next thirty minutes turning the pages and expressing the admiration to her mother’s art; to that part of her mother she didn’t know existed.
Michelle was still holding the glass in her hand, when she fell asleep in her mother’s armchair. The same one, her mother used to fall asleep when drunk every evening for the last twenty years.
The sketching book fell on the floor and opened at the last page.
Michelle couldn’t see the small note written there, saying:
My dearest Michelle, if you ever see this. I hope you know how much I loved you. Will you ever forgive me? You are always in my heart. With love, mama
Photography: Private Archives ©Ela – GCE; Featured image – CC0;
Mention: Originally this story was created as an entry for Monthly Wine Writing Challenge in 2017 as my personal interpretation of the theme ‘Memory’(#MWWC34). The idea of the challenge, run by The Drunken Cyclist, was to promote the creative writing among wine people. I rewrote and republished this short story in 2020.