The following is a short story I submitted to the Mogford Food & Drink Short story Prize. The shortlist has just been announced and my entry didn't make it, so I'm reproducing it here. It's adapted from the first chapter of my book, although the storyline in this version is quite different.
The last vineyard in Carcavelos
‘Now, this next group of lots requires some explanation,’ said the auctioneer. He surveyed the packed room from his podium, allowing a few moments to let the murmurs subside. ‘The story begins in a vineyard just a few miles west of Lisbon.’
The vineyard owner looked at this woman in her burgundy suit with the wide lapels and padded shoulders. Last week, he’d seen that new television show everyone was talking about. It was playing on the portable set that hung in a cradle in the local taverna. It was the only source of sound in that dark wooden room, and its black and white flicker was pretty much the only source of light. Dallas. That was the name of the show. She reminded him of those women in Dallas.
‘Progress. You can’t resist it,’ she said, pulling a cigarette case from the inside pocket of her jacket and allowing her cleavage to push against her blouse as she did so. These old guys are all the same, she thought. Titillation and tobacco, works every time. And money.
When she struck a match, the flare was invisible in the bright white sunlight of the morning. The woman cupped it to her cigarette, shielding it from the saline breeze that hushed from the ocean behind him. The smoke smelt acrid and sulphurous and tempting. She cocked her weight to one side, and placed her spare hand on her hip.
Behind her stood the symbols of progress. Totemic apartment blocks, many still clad in scaffolding. Perhaps they did have a beauty to them, these concrete piles that punched their way into the horizon. Perhaps she was right.
Perhaps he would have a cigarette.
Then his gaze travelled down the storeys to the foreground. The vines all around them were starting to bud, little green explosions caught in freeze frame. But the oldest plants were diseased and unproductive now, their thick arms showing no signs of life.
‘They were planted by my grandfather one hundred years ago,’ he would have told her, if she had asked. The younger vines were his own progeny. His only progeny. They kept the vineyard fertile. Just.
What would his grandfather think of this new backdrop to his beloved vineyard? Progress? For his generation, Lisbon had been a far-off thing, somewhere to be visited with trepidation once or twice a year. But now the city had come to visit the vineyards, crawling out from its choked centre towards sea. Reaching ever higher, providing the new commuter generation with ocean-view balconies and convenient basement parking.
His son would probably have been one of them, these ambitious young businessmen who fly in jumbo jets and drink champagne and have fax machines in their cars. But he had no son. He stood alone, the sole heir to Quinta da Bela Vista, the last vineyard in Carcavelos. In his lifetime, he had seen the world transform. He had already lived longer than either of his parents or grandparents. Doctors told him smoking was bad for you.
He took a cigarette from the case she was holding towards him.
The capacity crowd was enrapt. The auctioneer saw a few of them lick their lips in anticipation. He put down his gavel and took a few steps away from the podium, towards the centre of the stage.
‘Most people have never heard of Carcavelos – present company excepted, of course. As you know, it is a fortified wine similar to port, but made from white grapes. But did you also know that it was once highly prized? In 1752, the king of Portugal gave it to the court of Beijing as a gift. Seventeen years later, it appeared in the first ever wine auction right here in London, alongside Burgundy and Malaga ... and Hock.’ He stopped pacing the stage at this point and shot a wry glance at the audience, who laughed obligingly. They were in his palm. ‘But fashions and fortunes change.’
The old barn was cluttered up with wine-making equipment. Just like always, he left the door open to allow the setting sunlight to brighten its gloomy insides, and so that he could hear the sea. He walked past the ancient oak casks that reached to the ceiling. As a child they towered above him and he would crane his neck upwards and his mouth would droop open. His grandfather would hold his hand to stop him from tripping over the hoses and buckets that littered the floor.
The previous month, his merchant had visited and talked about stainless steel tanks. Everyone was using them now, he said. You can control the temperature of fermentation in them, and clean them really easily. They would make the wine better. More fruit flavour. It’s what people want these days. We’re not in the sixties any more, this is the eighties, it’s the modern world.
He placed his palms on the old wood and felt its coolness. His grandfather had scorned the modern world. For him, even having electricity had been an indulgence. The wires had been strung up from the rafters, naked bulbs hanging down from them like a frozen luminous drip. A plastic light-switch was nailed to the inside frame of the barn door. It had looked like space-age technology, all shiny and white. Now it was caked in dust and dirt, as if history had claimed it, a fungus slowly eating its victim alive.
Perhaps stainless steel tanks were as inevitable now as electric light bulbs had been back then. Well, it was moot. He barely had enough money to buy corks for each vintage. Investing was out of the question. Go to the bank, his merchant had pleaded. Not a chance. They were already sending him letters in red writing.
He considered what the woman was offering. ‘You have the very best views in Carcavelos,’ she’d said, looking out over the shimmering, blissful blue Atlantic. ‘And we’re willing to pay the premium.’ Well, he made the very best wine too. But now, sea views were apparently more valuable. A lot more. He could retire, live comfortably. Travel, see the world.
He walked through the partition to where his bottled wine was stored. A few pallets were stacked with boxes, waiting for customers that didn’t exist. The rest of the floor was strewn with loose bottles, some labelled, some naked, some full, some empty. Intricate weaves of cobweb anchored them.
On a long table, the manual bottling machine lay paused. A roll of Bela Vista labels was loaded into the cartridge, and he turned the old crank handle, watching the cogs and rollers move obediently. As a child, he had sat on the three-legged stool and wiped each newly labelled bottle before placing it carefully in a wooden case. Make sure all the labels are facing the right way in the box, his grandfather had told him. Nobody else will know, but we will know.
To his right lay a set of footprints in the dust. Every day he walked the same patrol. Now he stopped in his tracks and looked around. Old mallets leaning against half-fixed barrels, their heads criss-crossed with scars. Black mould along the edges of the high ceiling like a permanent thundercloud. Everything layered with dust.
He took her business card from his shirt pocket and looked at it. He’d told her he needed time to consider. That he would call her the next morning. Along the opposite wall stood an enormous iron wine rack. He crouched onto his haunches and ran his fingers over the oldest bottles. These were the liquid legacy of his family. Priceless, yet worthless. Maybe they would help.
‘Seeking answers from the bottom of a bottle – we’ve all done it,’ said the auctioneer. He stood at the podium like an evangelist in the pulpit, gripping it with both hands, his long arms locked straight, his loud tenor commanding the room. Reverently, his flock awaited. ‘The oldest vintages of Carcavelos are long gone now, of course. We can only dream of how they tasted.’
The next morning, he could still taste it when he awoke on the floor, face down. Bottles and corks were scattered around him, with wine spilling out on to the floor, turning the dust into sticky black gum. He opened his eyes and groaned, and pulled himself up, clutching his head.
On his knees, he crawled through the dirt to the old brass tap on the wall. The water was cold and spluttered out of the nozzle like a backfiring engine. He winced as he twisted his neck around and opened his mouth. With each gulp he could feel his stomach rehydrate.
Slumped against the wall, the tap still coughing next to him, he tried to focus on his wristwatch. Nine o’clock? About that. He could remember it being nearly midnight. He counted the open bottles. Six?
Well, who cared? If he didn’t, nobody did. It was going to waste one way or another. He got up unsteadily, unzipped and relieved himself where he stood, splashing onto his old boots. It snaked through the dry floor.
‘All those years in the bottle, and this is how it goes,’ he said out loud. ‘Down the drain.’ He remembered the vintages he had opened. The 1904, the 1932. The sweet, honeyed fragrance framed by a musty, dank aroma of old age, decaying yet vivid. Exquisite dried citrus fruits, tangy and sour and shocking. The glutinous, glissading texture as you swallowed, warm with alcohol. His most precious Carcavelos, sat in the old iron rack for decades, waiting for their moment. For someone to show an interest, anyone. Earth to earth, dust to dust, wine to piss.
Outside, the sun was already glaring down, and his face scrunched against the light. He stood still and took some breaths with his eyes closed, that familiar saline air swelling his lungs. Did the commuters living in the luxury apartments appreciate that air? Did they open their balconies and watch the ocean? Did they know the contours of the coast, the movements of the tide? Did they even see his tiny vineyard there? Did they realise the foundations of their buildings were the roots of ancient vines, entombed by concrete?
He scanned the horizon and steeled himself. The business card was still in the top pocket of his shirt. He had decided. He went to the taverna and asked to use their telephone.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, he sold that vineyard. And within a year the developers had starting building the most luxurious apartment buildings ever seen in the region, occupying the most prime real estate in Carcavelos – indeed, some would say in the whole of Portugal. And the views, of course, are simply without equal.’
The crowd was absolutely silent, holding their numbered paddles, ready.
The auctioneer cleared his throat. ‘We can now commence the bidding. Lot number 71 is the first of four stunningly beautiful penthouse apartments in the Bela Vista building. Who will start me at one million?’
Dozens of hands shot up.
In 1983, there were only ten hectares of vineyard left in Carcavelos; the rest of it had succumbed to Lisbon’s encroaching conurbation. This last patch was saved by the Portuguese Ministry of Agriculture, who subsequently established a new brand of Carcavelos. Today, it is still being produced, allowing Carcavelos to live on. Just.