Entered for the U3A short story competition, 2017. It made the last five.
I Heard it through the Grapevine
On a recent visit to South Australia, my cousin and I decided to spend a few days in the Barossa Valley to visit the wineries and escape the oppressive heat of Adelaide.
As we drove along an avenue of towering eucalyptus trees, we could see nothing but rows of green vines snaking over the hills into the far distance. The wineries themselves were all tucked away in shady corners between the estates, with leafy courtyards and hidden gardens, pretending they had been there for a hundred years or more. But inside they were air-conditioned with wooden floors and squashy sofas, and the cafés served delicate risottos and antipasti in keeping with the modern image of their products.
After a minibus tour of one of the vineyards we were invited to a free tasting of half a dozen wines. Our hostess was a dark-haired woman with grey eyes of about forty. Her name badge said Mia, but there wasn’t a surname.
‘Now what can I get you ladies?’ she asked. ‘I find most people like to start with a lighter wine like a chardonnay, and then go on to the stronger tastes like a shiraz or a merlot. We grow a variety of grapes here, all with their own distinctive flavours, and we ship round the world too, if there’s anything that particularly takes your fancy.’
We began with a sparkling rosé that I could have stuck with all day, before going on to a couple of whites (‘Can you taste the pears in that?’) and a grenache (‘Intensely fruity’), finishing with a shiraz (‘Our best-selling wine: the grapes have been grown in this area since the middle of the nineteenth century’). It was difficult not to glug down too much of it and I was beginning to feel a bit light-headed.
‘So where are you from in the UK?’ Mia asked eventually, obviously recognising our accents.
‘We both live in Nottingham.’
‘Really? I was born in Derby myself. Which part of Nottingham are you from? We used to go there quite a lot to see my auntie when she was alive.’
I was surprised, because she had a typical Aussie drawl. ‘I live on the west side – Wollaton …’
She raised her eyebrows. ‘No way! We used to go to Wollaton Park all the time. Small world, isn’t it?’
It was more or less the same conversation that you got all over Australia – people had visited Sherwood Forest, or their Uncle Fred had supported Notts County, or they’d seen England play Australia at Trent Bridge back in the day – but this one was a lot closer to home.
It was a signal for us all to giggle, and I took a quick selfie of the three of us before we thanked Mia and took our leave. We realised that we ought to sober up a bit before we went back to the car, so we made our way to the courtyard café for coffee and a mixed platter of serrano ham, brie, black olives and cherry tomatoes. It was so pleasant sitting under the jacaranda tree that we didn’t feel like moving on straightaway. I checked my phone for messages and uploaded a few photos to Facebook while my cousin skimmed through a wine catalogue.
Next morning I had a dip in the hotel pool and came in late for breakfast. My cousin was already in the hotel dining room tucking into eggs benedict.
‘So – more wine tasting today, or something else?’ I asked, pouring myself a cup of tea.
‘There are some pretty little towns round here with galleries and craft shops. Why don’t we just get in the car and see where we end up? No great hurry.’
I was happy with that and we lingered in the dining room until after ten. I logged on to Facebook to see if anyone had reacted to my photos, and found that I’d got some ‘Likes’ and a few favourable comments, mostly expressing envy that I was in Australia while they were suffering freezing fog. Someone seemed to have shared my photos with people from a local wine club. Then I noticed that I’d got a private message from someone I didn’t know. I only had a few Facebook friends and that had never happened to me before.
‘Hello, you don’t know me,’ it said, ‘but I think the woman in your photo at the winery is my sister Marie Stanton. We lost touch a few years ago and I would very much like to contact her again.’ The Facebook name was Vintage Red and the profile picture was a bottle of wine.
‘Hey, look at this.’ I showed the message to my cousin, feeling rather excited.
But she just shrugged her shoulders. ‘Probably some nutter. They don’t even give a proper name. Anyway she wasn’t called Marie, was she?’
‘She was called Mia – it’s nearly the same. She comes from Derby and a couple of my Facebook friends are from there. It really could be her brother or sister.’
‘So what? It’s none of our business. They’ve no right to be messaging you like that, out of the blue, especially if they don’t identify themselves properly. You can’t even tell if it’s a man or a woman.’
I was rather irritated that she wasn’t intrigued. ‘If your long-lost sibling was looking for you, wouldn’t you want to know? It’d be thrilling if we could bring them together again.’
‘You’ve been watching too many TV programmes where people fall straight into each other’s arms after fifty years apart,’ she said, far from convinced. ‘Personally I can have too much of some of my family, present company excepted. Anyway, we’re not going back there.’
‘We might.’ I’d got the bit between my teeth now and was bent on persuading her. ‘We could easily drive past the winery again and see if we could get hold of her. Her shift ended at two.’
‘Yes, but what on earth would you say to her? It’s actually quite a serious matter. You can’t go blurting it all out. I know what you’re like, diving in – like that time we saw one of your colleagues with a women you knew wasn’t his wife. You would go and say hello, and it was obvious he wanted the floor to open and swallow him up.’
‘I can be subtle if I need to be. We’ll say we really liked the café yesterday and we decided to come again, as we were passing …’
A couple of craft shops and a bit of retail therapy later I had managed to wear her down, and at five to two we were back in the courtyard café of the winery finishing off a delicious Greek salad. My cousin was still resolved to have nothing to do with it all, but I went to linger by the window of the wine-tasting area, trying to peer in through the fronds of a fern, like someone in Midsomer Murders. The last taster had gone, and Mia was washing glasses in the sink behind the counter. In due course she came out, locking the door behind her. I pretended to be searching through my handbag, but looked up just as she was passing. Fortunately she recognised me.
‘Oh, hello again! Coming back for more?’ she asked.
‘We were passing and we thought we’d try your café again. The food’s amazing. Would you like to join us for a cup of coffee?’
She hesitated for a moment and then smiled. ‘Why not? My son doesn’t come out of school for an hour or so.’
We returned to where my cousin was waiting and I ordered three americanos from the waitress. Because we were English we talked about the weather and how long the heatwave in Adelaide was going to last.
‘You’ve got a lovely job,’ I observed to Mia after a while. ‘How did you come to learn so much about wine?’
There was a pause before she replied. ‘My … I was … connected to a wine society back home. So I knew quite a bit before I came to Australia.’ This made me prick up my ears. ‘I was lucky to find an opening here. My husband was working for the vineyard when I met him.’
‘What a difference from life in the UK,’ I said. ‘It’s idyllic here but you must miss home. Do you ever manage to get back there?’
She was slowly stirring sugar into her coffee and didn’t look up. ‘I haven’t been back for eight years – since I first arrived here. I’ve no one in England any more. My mother died some time ago and my father was never on the scene.’
‘So no brothers and sisters?’ I asked, probably too eagerly. My cousin gave me a warning look.
‘I’ve got a sister in Spain. We’re going over in the summer – your summer, I mean.’
‘But no brothers?’ It was a question too far and she started to fidget. Perhaps she sensed I had some ulterior motive.
‘Look, I don’t know why you want to know all this, but believe me I shall never go back to the UK. I’ve got my citizenship and I’m Australian now. I’ve even tried to get rid of my English accent. Just for a minute … you talking about living near Wollaton Park … I got sort of nostalgic … but there are other reasons …’
My cousin put her hand on Mia’s arm. ‘I’m so sorry – we don’t mean to be nosy …’
But by this time Mia seemed to want to get it all off her chest, although she was visibly upset.
‘If you must know I had a partner once – back in Derby. It didn’t work out and I left him, but I obviously didn’t go far enough and he followed me. There were threats and he got violent. It was all pretty scary for a time. In the end he had to back off ’cos he got a police caution, but I thought, where can I go where he can never find me? So I decided to come to Australia. I thought 10,000 miles would be too far even for him.’
She got to her feet, trying to blink back tears, and snatched up her handbag. ‘I’m sorry, I really have to go. Thanks for the coffee …’
And with that she rushed out. My cousin stood up too, intending to follow her.
‘I told you to keep out of it! Vintage Red, my foot! The man’s a bloody stalker and he’s still out there looking for her. Don’t you know how many stalkers actually kill their victims? Thank goodness you didn’t get any further!’
She hurried off after Mia and didn’t come back for some minutes, leaving me to ponder on my own recklessness. I felt sick to the pit of my stomach. Would he still be able to find her from the details I’d given? I knew I hadn’t mentioned the exact location of the winery, but I had to delete that selfie as soon as I could.
Since then I haven’t posted any more photos on Facebook, and of course I never did reply to Vintage Red.
SOMETHING IN THE WIND
Peering through the half-darkness of the shed, Ben fumbled to undo the catch on the battered cabin trunk, feeling for the shot gun. There didn’t seem to be any other way after what had happened. His Dad gone, no fixed address, no job and just about skint. His uncle had slipped him few quid after the funeral and some of that could go on cartridges. He’d go into town tomorrow. Just one would do – then it would be all over. He felt as though there was a black fog in his head, swirling round, making him numb.
Patch gave a warning bark and Ben shoved the gun back down into the trunk before anyone could see. It was Jim Knight the estate manager getting out of his Range Rover.
‘Oh hello, Mr Knight. Just making sure everything’s still here.’
His old motorbike, his chainsaw and the rest of his tools were all as he had left them.
‘I saw the bus in the field and I thought you might be up here. Sorry to hear about your father. He was looking frail when you left, but I didn’t realise it would only be a matter of weeks.’
Ben didn’t say anything. They’d left Sussex in August on a trip to Scotland in the bus. Dad had been looking forward to it, out on the open road again, the bus all decked out like a caravan. It had taken them months to get it shipshape. But within a couple of weeks Dad was in hospital in Inverness and never came out. Of course it had been inevitable – he’d smoked forty a day for years and he’d never got over losing Mum.
It was the middle of October now, the funeral only a couple of days ago. Ben could hardly take it in. He’d driven down from Scotland almost in a dream.
‘You’re welcome to park the bus on that field for a while, but her Ladyship wants to put up horse jumps in there soon. It’s nearer the stables. Anyway you’ll be moving on now, I suppose? Nothing to keep you here any more.’
‘No chainsaw work on the estate?’
‘Nothing doing at the moment. But you can leave your stuff in the shed for a bit. Till you get settled somewhere.’
And where would that be? Ben thought bitterly. All he had was an old bus and soon nowhere to park it. Steven wouldn’t want him in London, in that spare bedroom hardly six feet square. Anyway he felt claustrophobic in the city. Anna lived with some hotshot television producer, so he’d hardly be welcome there. And Jenny had a feckless husband and four kids to deal with. At the funeral he’d felt distant from all of his siblings.
It was only five o’clock, but the light was already fading, dark clouds piling up in the western sky. Jim Knight looked over towards the heath and the woods beyond. ‘Wind’s getting up. Could be a bad one. Batten down the hatches tonight.’
Ben nodded, just to be polite. It was fine for him to talk, with his estate house and his central heating.
Jim Knight gave Patch a pat and got back in the Range Rover. Ben closed up the shed and he and the dog walked slowly back to the bus, parked up off the lane. Autumn leaves whirled and danced as the wind rose. The oak tree behind the bus creaked a little.
They’d be better off down the hill if a storm was coming, but Ben hadn’t the energy to move the bus now. As he opened the cupboard looking for a tin of dog food, Patch sniffed around hopefully. Ben was convinced he was still wondering what had happened to Dad.
Fortunately there was a bit of gas left in the bottle, so he boiled some water and found a Pot Noodle in the cupboard – that was just about all he had left to eat, but it didn’t matter now. Tomorrow he wouldn’t need anything ever again.
Night fell quickly and Ben, dead tired from the journey, lay down with the dog snuggled up next to him.
‘Mr Knight’ll look after you,’ Ben whispered in his ear. ‘You’ll get a garden and proper walks. Better luck than I’ve ever had.’
Patch licked away the tears that trickled down his master’s face.
Life had been precarious ever since his father had thrown up the job at the printing works, looking for freedom from routine and responsibility. He’d been managing director and the family had lived in a big house in an up-market part of town, but on a whim his parents had exchanged it for a village shop up on the moors, and for a few years they’d lived an idyllic life. As teenagers the four of them had roamed the countryside, fishing, camping, skiing in winter.
But there was never any profit in it, and after a few years the family had been forced to move to the south coast, taking on a bicycle shop, then a wool shop, living in cramped little rooms. Gradually the others had left home, but Ben stayed, finding casual jobs here and there: in a brewery, then at the nearby holiday camp.
Eventually Mum fell ill and had to go into a home, where she’d only lasted about eighteen months. That was when Dad got the job of gardener on the estate, and the two of them had lived in a little cottage near the big house. Ben made a bit of money with his chainsaw work.
But by the age of 70 or so Dad just wasn’t up to it any more. Jim Knight had been kind, but after his Lordship learned that Ben had once done three months inside for handling stolen goods, there was no way he would have been allowed to take over Dad’s job, so that they could stay in the cottage. Of course there was no chance of a council house after all that moving around the country. Everything they owned was sold off and the bus had become the only home they had left.
Ben fell into a fitful sleep. When he woke a couple of hours later the bus was shaking from side to side and Patch started to whine. The rain sounded like needles on the metal roof and the wind howled like an animal. Ben had never heard anything like it. It seemed that nature didn’t care if he lived or died, so why should he?
‘Shhh boy, it’s all right …’
He held Patch tighter and suddenly there was a terrific crash. Ben felt as though he was floating on a sea of blackness. No more sound. No more thought. Just nothing.
Much later, when he opened his eyes, he couldn’t understand where he was. It was light, but he was surrounded by debris and the mattress was on top of him. He could hear fists beating on the side of the bus.
‘Ben, can you hear me? Ben! …’
Gingerly, Ben tried to crawl towards the door, and as he did so it flew open and he could see Jim Knight’s anxious face.
‘Thank goodness, I thought you were a gonner!’
Jim reached in and helped the young man out. Ben blinked. The sun was shining and the day was blue and still. The falling oak tree had cracked the roof of the bus like an eggshell, destroying his last shelter.
‘I think I must have passed out,’ he said, running his hands through his hair. What a wind!’
‘Are you alright? You’ve got bruises on your face. Come up to the house, lad. I’ll get the missis to take a look. She’s got the bacon on.’
Ben’s legs felt wobbly but he still seemed to be in one piece. Patch, seemingly unscathed, squeezed out of the door of the bus, and came to nuzzle him.
‘You’re all white,’ Jim said. ‘It’s the shock. It’ll pass in the minute. Nice cup of tea’ll do you the world of good.’
‘Any other damage?’ Ben asked. It was all so calm now, he could hardly believe what had happened. He should have been dead, but he wasn’t.
‘I should say so! There are trees down all over the estate. We can’t even get down to the main road for branches. Good news for you, anyway. That chainsaw of yours is going to come in handy. The work’ll last for months, I reckon.’
‘What’s the use?’ Ben mumbled, thinking of the shotgun. ‘I’ve nowhere to live now the bus has gone. And the old fellow …’
‘Don’t worry about that. I’ll square it with his Lordship. He turned you down before, but I think he realises he made a mistake. He knows you’re a good worker and he respected your Dad.’
Ben was astonished. He was sure his Lordship had it in for him.
Gobbling down the bacon and eggs Mrs Knight served up, he realised he hadn’t had a square meal in days. The radio was on in the kitchen and the storm was the main news. It had been the worst for a hundred years, leaving a trail of devastation throughout south-east England. Everywhere trees and power lines were down and roads blocked. He couldn’t go into town now, even if he wanted to.
Mrs Knight bustled round, filling up his mug. ‘A shame about your bus,’ she said. ‘You can stay here for a while if you like, just till you get some digs fixed up. Madge down the village is looking for a lodger if you want to stick around. Jim says there’ll be plenty of work after last night.’
Ben couldn’t make sense of it. Others had been killed, while here he was with just a few scratches.
Later he went to have a lie down on Mrs Knight’s sofa and immediately fell into a sound sleep. It was late afternoon when the phone woke him.
Mrs Knight looked round the door. ‘Seems they’ve got the line up and running again. It’s for you!’
‘Who on earth wants to speak to me?’
It was his brother at the other end. Steven had Mr Knight’s number in case of emergency.
‘Ben, are you all right? I couldn’t stop thinking about you last night in that bloody bus. It was bad enough here in the flat. Jenny’s been on the phone umpteen times already, but I couldn’t get through to you before.’
‘The bus has gone. Oak tree fell on it, but we’re OK, Patch and me.’
‘My God, you could have been killed! You sure you’re not hurt? Do you want to come up and stay? I should have said something at the funeral but somehow …’
The sound of his brother’s familiar voice, the smell of Mrs Knight’s cooking, and a good long sleep seemed to be reviving him. The dense cloud was starting to lift. He could have died, but miraculously he hadn’t. And people still seemed to care what happened to him.
‘I think I’ll stick around. There could be work going on the estate.’
‘I’ll come down in a week or two to see how you’re getting on. Then maybe you can come up for Christmas.’
Ben smiled for the first time in weeks. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Maybe I will.’