A few weeks ago my father turned a very sharp, fit and healthy 84. His grand-kids insist that he is, in fact, Colonel Sanders, and every time I see him now I feel like racing out and buying a bucket of chicken.
His year of birth is etched indelibly in our minds because of several bottles of 1933 very special Para Port that he never got to drink.
There bottles were stored in perfect conditions at the far reaches of the household cellar, where the bearers and joints hung low to the bare earth, a space generally consigned only to pointy nosed rodents and smallish, long tailed marsupials.
It was Dad’s expressed intent that these special bottles of port be shared on his 50th birthday with family and friends. There is nothing more exhilarating than wriggling out and blowing the dust off a bottle that has been loyally mellowing in its own deep dark musty stillness for half a century.
Dad checked on his commemorative stash back in the mid 70’s, when he was still in his 40’s, and it was at that time that he made a grim discovery. There was only a mouthful left in one of the bottles. The treasured contents had been all but looted.
The cellar immediately became a crime scene. Being a lawyer, our father was forensically inclined, and appropriately skilled at cross examination. I don’t recall seeing the cellar taped off, or white chalk outlines drawn around the strewn bottles, but we all felt at the time that a “line up” might be imminent.
A list of suspects was quickly drawn up, and no-one was above suspicion.
The list included anyone who had access to the cellar or who might have had occasion to be in the garden, and certainly anyone with a known interest in fine port. Children under the age of 10 (there were 3 of them, aged 9,6 an 1) were initially ruled out, although they might later be required to help Dad with his inquiries. I was 11 at the time, and my elder brother 13, so we would be required to give a statement, separately of course, so that our testimony would not be co-authored.
The fortnightly gardener, Marcelo, unwittingly became the prime suspect, as he could be placed at or near the scene of the crime, and may have had motive, as Dad openly held the view that Marcelo had totally annihilated the Agapanthus bushes at the back of the garden. In truth, the plants all thanked Marcelo for being cut back to within an inch of their lives, but their resulting nudity was open to conjecture. Perhaps, in an act of unbridled retribution, Marcelo had found himself in the cellar (there was an unlocked garden entrance) guzzling away, with a middle fingered salute, singing opera style, with his handkerchief still tied (at the corners) around his head, and traces of freshly slashed Agapanthus clinging to his sweaty forearms.
Common sense later prevailed on the gardener theory, however, because Marcelo was a kind, honest, gentle man who did not have a nasty bone in his body, despite the ease at which he took to plants with razor sharp shears. So it was going to difficult to finger Marcelo for the crime, and the investigation therefore continued without a solid lead.
The subject was subsequently raised at the dinner table one night and it yielded fruit. Young eyes quickly exchanged glances across the table, and the clatter of knives and forks was suddenly drowned out by the sound of children nearly choking on their lamb chop tails. Eventually a full confession was made. As it turned out, the deed was carried out by a devious couple of little trouble-making pirates. One of my siblings and a cousin of ours often played in the garden area near the cellar, and over many occasions, spanning possibly years, they would venture into the cellar and help themselves to a ritualistic swig from one of the port bottles. No big deal, they figured, it was only just a taste, and surely no-one would notice. It tasted good, a bit like that cough medicine, and it warmed their stomachs. Just a swig though, better put the bottle back, and leave some for next time. It was a little bit of mischief that got out of hand only by the duration with which it continued undetected.
I don’t remember Dad being particularly happy about the loss of liquor but I do remember him being far more moved by the forth righteousness and honesty displayed by the child in question, and a sermon may have followed from the end of the table, espousing the virtues of always openly owning your mistakes, and doing the right thing when it counts, and how good is that Yorkshire pudding, is there any more left in the kitchen?
My sibling cheekily said to me last week that if it had been public knowledge that Marcelo was the prime suspect, moves could have been swiftly made to properly fit him up for the crime. A pitchfork could have been left leaning suspiciously up against an open cellar door, and perhaps a sweaty “smoking handkerchief” left at the site of grim discovery, there beneath the joists and bearers, at the far “marsupial” reaches of the household cellar.
Now, quite correctly, all these years later, a bottle of fine Para port was presented to Dad on his 84th birthday by the same sibling, with “1933” handwritten on it (and dad’s age of “84” on it as well, just in case subtraction is no longer attractive or available). I don’t know if it was suggested to Dad at the time, but it only makes sense that he put the bottle down until his 100th birthday so he can finally fulfill his wish and crack it open with family and friends. Maybe he can pull the cork it when he receives, in his words, his “Telegram from Camilla”.
This time the bottle and its contents should be safe. Our parents no longer have a cellar, their kids are in their 40/50’s, and Mum and Dad do all the gardening. He would do well, however, to keep it out of reach of the younger grandchildren.