A Time's Best Cellar
Ding-a-ling! The small bell above the door chimed as Henrik stepped through the wooden archway and into the antiquated wine shop.
‘Hello? Bonjour? Is anyone there?’ He spoke into the dusty interior.
’Bonjour? Êtes-vous ouvert? He called out again, but no one called back.
He shifted his weight from the balls of his feet to the heels and back again, stretched his hands up over his head which caused his hunched spine to crack like a starting pistol. For the last 7 hours Henrik and his wife had been driving southwards through France in her fiat 500, re-creating a losing game of Tetris with their holiday luggage, and it was just by chance they decided to stop for the night in the little village where the wine shop was.
The wooden floorboards creaked and moaned in harmony as Henrik ventured further into the room.
‘Hello?’ He tried again, switching between English and French hoping that one would get a response. The ceilings were taller than they appeared on the outside and every wall was stacked to the top with green glass bottles. Some glistened in the last of the sunbeams that cut through the dust, others fell dull in the shadows. A lifetime’s supply of wine surrounded him and Henrik felt dizzy with excitement. Presently from behind the shop counter which led off into another room that was too dark to see its contents, he heard shuffling. Slippers on wood with mouse-like pitter patter as an old man hobbled through to greet him.
‘Bonjour! I wasn’t expecting any customers so late!’ The old man said, a wide and amicable smile appeared on his age-dented face.
‘Oh sorry! My wife and I have just arrived.’ Henrik apologised, promptly checking his watch and then being surprised to see it was almost 19:00.
‘There’s no time like the present! My name is Gillian, how may I help you?’
Before Henrik had time to answer, Gillian waved his tobacco stained index finger in the air as though he had just remembered something important and scuffled back into the dark room behind him. Henrik stood and listened to the rustling of paper and clinking of glass coming from the dusty void until the old man reappeared, tightly gripping an antique looking bottle. He gently placed it on the counter for Henrik to admire. Henrik's heart sank when he saw that it was not a French wine but quickly rose again when he saw that it was dated from 23 years ago.
‘Magnifique! I think you will like it! But I must warn you there is something special about it. Would you like to try?’ Gillian’s smile grew even bigger, his teeth were almost the same colour as the cork that he was already unscrewing.
‘Take a little sip first, see what notes you can distinguish.’ His voice had a devilish charm as he handed the filled bistro style wine glass to Henrik and silently watched him as he swirled it under his nose and bought it up to his lips, before taking a polite sip of the mulberry coloured liquid. Gillian could tell by the change in Henrik’s expression that it had worked.
‘I, I can hear music? I remember that song, where is it coming from?’ Henrik stuttered unsure what was happening.
‘Take another sip, just a little to start with.’ Gillian goad him on, and so Henrik did.
‘That smell, I’ll never forget that smell. Hours I spent in that room! What is happening?’ Henrik asked, first excited by his sensory experience, and then a little frightened.
‘Maybe one more sip, bigger this time!’ Gillian watched as Henrik tipped the rest of the glass into his mouth.
‘What is happening?!’ Henrik cried out to him, as his senses blurred and his peripheral vision narrowed to a pinpoint. He closed his eyes and put his hands over his head, he could hear the music getting louder and voices of people he had long forgotten chattering around him. The smell of hot sausage rolls and old books filled his nostrils. His temperature went from hot to cold then warm again as he peaked out from between his fingers to a sight that made his heart race.
When he took his hands away from his face, he looked around marvelling at the tall stone bookcases and the purple and gold crested banners that hung down from the university hall ceiling. Old friends and classmates swarmed around him but were unable to see his presence as he could theirs.
‘This is my graduation party’ He whispered to himself and blinked his eyes. The colours were sepia and the music was growing fainter with every passing second.
‘Look! There’s my wife! She graduated that day too!’ He smiled like a child let loose in Disneyland.
After a few more seconds the creeping darkness took over his vision again and when it re-appeared he was back in the shop. Gillian was chuckling to himself and had already put another glass of blood red wine on the counter top.
‘You should have seen your face! It never gets old watching people transport for the first time!’ He chortled to himself.
‘Was that real? Did that really happen? Gillian, what is this?!’ Henrik demanded with shy bewilderment.
‘Go on, try another one. This one is from 19 years ago. I think you will enjoy it.’ He presented the glass to Henrik who was still confused.
‘First, let me think, 19 years ago…?’ Henrik mused as he went through the same steps as before. Swirling, sipping, listening and finally transporting back to the second most wonderful day of his life.
The morning air felt fresh against his skin as confetti twinkled down like sand in an hourglass over him. It no longer smelled of books and sausage rolls but of roses and lilies as the woman dressed in a glistening white gown strides past him, arm in arm with a handsome man in a suit. Henrik could hear his family cheering and wedding bells ringing as the happy couple got driven off, tin cans attached to their car clattering behind them down the road. The colours were already beginning to fade and too soon Henrik was standing back in the old French wine shop.
‘That was my wedding day.’ He stuttered to Gillian still in disbelief in what he just saw.
‘How can I stay in the memory for longer?’ He continued, picking up a third and more shiny looking bottle that had magically appeared next to the other two.
‘Try drinking a whole glass, but I warn you, you can’t get caught up in the past! There is a lot of the future to look forward to! Try one more.’ He spoke with happy caution as he watched Henrik pour the rose wine, filling the glass to the brim.
‘I see the date on this bottle is for 15 years ago, is that the year I’ll go back too?’ Henrik asked and Gillian nodded. He smiled at the old man before tipping the glass back and swallowing the pinkish liquid in 3 large mouthfuls.
Almost as soon as he finished everything went black. Then pop! Henrik appeared in the white and blue room. The smell was earthy but a strong whiff of disinfectant overpowered it. In front of him was a thin plastic curtain, the type you would find in a shower, and behind it he could see two figures. One was standing up and the other was laying in a bed, propped up and holding something small. Henrik inhaled deeply, this was both the happiest and scariest day of his life. He slowly pulled back the curtain, unsure how much time he would have in the joy of this moment again.
There she was, lying in the bed in a blue spotted hospital robe was Lynda his wife, and cradled lovingly close to her chest, their baby girl Sophia. It was silent in the room and it was almost too hot to be comfortable. As he stared at his younger self who was taking the first look at their new born baby, Henrik began to cry. It was just as beautiful then as it was now. As he wiped the tears from his eyes the colours began to drain away, the white walls overcome with a grey hue, then the people, then everything else, and pop! He was back standing with Gillian.
Henrik was speechless, he was overwhelmed with a cacophony of emotions. Finally he stuttered ‘Can I choose the next bottle?’
‘Yes you can but the time is ticking on, your wife will be wondering where you have got too!’ Gillian spoke over his shoulder, putting the bottles back onto the shelf.
Henrik looked at his watch, he had to bring it closer to his face as the last glass definitely packed a punch. It was almost 10:00! He began to walk around the room, studying each of the dates and the locations printed onto the beige labels.
‘Ah ha!’ Here is a happy one! I remember this!’ He picked up a dark green bottle, covered in thick, grey dust. He blew it off into a cloud and ran his finger over the black embossed print.
‘Perhaps this will be mulled wine?’ He mused to Gillian with a smile on his face.
As if he was now following a ritual, Gillian poured the glass and Henrik swirled, sniffed and swiftly swallowed the contents. Its sweet cinnamon and nutmeg aroma overpowered the bitter taste of the alcohol. Henrik had always had a soft spot for German Glühwein and he held the glass over his mouth making sure to get every last drop from the well used glass.
‘Bells, I can hear bells!’ His hearing was the first sense to switch, then came the cold feeling over his feet and hands.
‘Snow, I can feel the snow! It’s freezing, aha!’ He shouted out loud, now unafraid of sounding crazy and too caught up in the euphoria of Christmas as a child.
‘I was eight years old when my father surprised me and my brother by taking us to Switzerland to go skiing for Christmas!’ His entire body shivered from the cold air blowing into him and he could feel the snow crunching under his feet as he stepped towards the window of the car, its bright headlights acting as a stage for the engorged snowflakes which were falling heavily. The car door opened and his older brother exploded out from it, closely followed by a child him. Although his hearing was the first sense to switch, it was also the last to fade away and soon Henrik faded back into the wine shop, still listening to the innocent screams of him and his brother playing in the first snow that they had ever seen.
He was back in the room with Gillian who was looking peacefully drowsy.
‘Gillian, my dear friend, can you join me on another journey?’ Henrik slightly slurred as he started to comb through another shelf of bottles.
‘I’m afraid I can’t do that, they are only for you to enjoy!’
At first Henrik was disappointed, but as his hands found a more recent bottle of Chardonnay, he felt that it was right to go alone.
He walked slowly over to the counter and picked up the corkscrew and proceeded to pour this glass himself. He held the flared base of the glass tight against the wooden surface considering the date he had picked. Then keeping his silence he went back and picked up the bottle which stood three sections down, dated a few months before. March 2017.
‘Do you have a second glass I could borrow?’ He meekly asked Gillian who nodded and pointed under the other side of the counter. Henrik reached over and stood it next to the full glass, he opened the second bottle and stood them next to each other.
‘This is the day my mother died, it was a mix of old age and dementia. The second glass is when I last saw her. Not the her who she became but the her who remembered me as her son. I have always treasured that day.’ Henrik rolled with emotions, unable to distinguish the happy from sad and a agathokakological sentiment absorbed him.
‘Henrik, are you sure you want to do this tonight? It’s getting very late,’ Gillian could sense the impending melancholy encroaching with more alcohol.
Without answering Gillian’s question, Henrik tipped the glass forward in a cheers movement and gulped it back with little hesitation.
The summer air swirled around him with a symphony of laughing and water splashing, the gritty texture of sand under his feet made him aware he had left the French village and was standing on the beach.
‘Golden cap bay. You used to love it here.’ Henrik spoke to himself, watching himself and his mother walking along the sandy pebbles, both staring down looking for tiny fossils hiding on the shoreline. In the distance he could see his daughter, Sophia, all grown up playing in the Dorset sea, jumping over waves. Happy that he could relive this precious moment again, he closed his eyes to everything swirling around him before opening them back up in the little room.
Long sighted reaching for the second glass Henrik stumbled forward into Gillian who was leaning against the doorway then.. Smash! The sound of breaking glass from an unlabelled bottle resonated around the room. He looked up shocked and stared at Gillian who was already on his way to the broom that stood next to the till.
‘What does this mean?’ He frantically asked the shopkeeper. ‘I didn’t see the date!’
‘This means it’s probably time for you to go home! Here, I have collected some cheese and bread for you to take back to your wife, hopefully she won’t be too upset with the state you are in!’ Gillian’s tone started off stern but filled with boyish jest by the end of his sentence. His smile emits onto Henrik who was still staring at the smashed bottle like a mirror on the floor. He took the little parcel of food from the old man and gave him a hug.
‘Thank you,’ Henrik said gratefully, steadying himself on the doorframe before exiting. Then he waddled out of the shop and back to his hotel.
‘Linda! I’ve had the best evening, there is a shop where you can time travel by drinking wine! And there is this funny old man and he gave me some cheese for you!’
Henrik crawled into the bed warmed by his wife. Although French cheese and bread is a good place to start, in the brief moment before he dropped into a loud snoring sleep, Henrik wonders if he needs to work on his explanation, doubting if his wife will believe him or not. He considers how life is too short for arguing and also for bad wine.
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