This is a true story.
That’s how I want to start. I want you to believe, like I do, that what you are about to read really happened. Of course, my immediate problem is that we live in an age where the borders between fiction and non-fiction are as fluid as a country’s maritime borders, in a world where untruths mushroom unchecked in the cavernous recesses of the internet. So if I do open this… well, whatever it is — this piece — with ‘This is a true story’ you’re likely to find it about as believable as that childish phrase, ‘Once upon a time…’ Personally, I have always seen stories as the opposite of reality — fictitious, conjured up within an author’s mind, so how can they also be true? In my mind it would be better to start this oxymoronic true story, this factional rather than fictional account with the words, ‘This really happened.’ It would make more sense.
I was told this bizarre and tragic tale (not the most apposite word, but appropriate when the context is factualrather than imagined) by a work colleague. Despite Juliet D. being as honest and trustworthy a person one could ever hope to meet, I was immediately handicapped by her refusal to introduce me to the people concerned.
‘I have to take account of their feelings,’ she insisted. ‘They’re good friends, and I don’t wish them to be cross-examined by you.’
I tried to explain that my fascination with what she told me lay in the odds, or probability, of such an event ever occurring, its unbelievable-but-true aspect if you will, and although I promised her that my intended article would be an unsensational account for a serious literary journal, she remained unmoved. However, she did finally agree to tell me what she knew, so long as I changed the names of those concerned should the article ever be published.
It took a while for me to understand that everything in Michael Birch’s* life seemed to lead, with almost frightening inevitability, to that one climactic moment, to the barbecue held in his honour in the spring of 2018. My task was simply to follow the metaphorical trail.
The danger in jumping on the predestination bandwagon, however, is that it strips our hero (note my avoidance of the more literary term, protagonist) of any say in his ultimate fate. It also presumes that he was incapable of achieving the perspective which would have allowed him to see any logic to his existence, something that would explain how his choices took him along one path rather than another, on this journey rather than that one, and which finally resulted in him being on the verandah overlooking his back garden and pool on that particular sunny afternoon, for that particular event, at that particular hour.
Admittedly, in this respect Michael was no different to anyone else. No different even to the ants that crawl across a picnic rug, incapable of attaining either the height or the distance — the perspective — that will allow them to see the complete picture: the weave of the tartan pattern, the plates and containers of salads and meats, the glasses and drinks, the sequestered voices of the ghostlike guests who sit or recline in the blinding sunlight on the grass nearby.
The inexorability of our lives is perfectly matched by our willful blindness.
I started my examination of Juliet D’s story from the premise that there would be in Michael Birch’s life, as in most lives, a primary motivation or driving force. In his case, I reached the conclusion, after a great deal of research and analysis, that his was an inclination to postpone his pleasures. As absurd as this may sound, his predilection was anticipation. Although the modern day mantra is to live in the moment, Michael’s preference was to put off for as long as possible the moment when the human body is able to satisfy its craving. Consequently, much of his day was spent anticipating the future, while at the same time holding it at arm’s length. The origins of this tension — his predisposition — seem to have originated from two sources, one parental, and the other religious.
Temperamentally and physically Michael followed after his father. Although a second-generation Italian, a country usually associated with passion and impulsiveness, his father was certainly not a gentleman one would readily identify as coming from the home of la dolce vita. In family photos he resembles, physically, the popular image of an ascetic, while emotionally his life seems to have been structured and orderly, characteristics clearly illustrated by his buttoned-up collars, securely buckled belts and firmly tightened shoelaces. It didn’t take long for me to reach the conclusion that in all of his sixty-four years, the father made just one genuine bid to throw off his inherited shackles, his genetic restraints: at the age of thirty-six, he left the Catholic Church. Sadly, like many newly released long term prisoners, it seems he was too institutionalised to ever find contentment in his life on the outside.
The father, however, insisted that his son be brought up in the Church, despite the fact he himself had left the fold two years earlier, and had done so in a manner of barely concealed hostility. He departed at the same time his wife, Michael’s mother, joined.
Although his mother was a convert, I quickly discovered that she was too intelligent to ever be a proselytiser. She confessed to her son once that the saint she loved the most was Augustine, the one (for there were two) who said, ‘Oh Lord, make me good, but not yet.’ When Michael was older, he regularly witnessed his mother with a lighted cigarette in one hand and a gin and tonic in the other — rather like the statue of Justice atop the Old Bailey, but with outstretched arms that appeared noticeably more tired and sagging. He also became aware of the increasing, and unashamed frequency of her meetings with her Jesuit instructor, and did not find it hard to believe that she had indeed adopted that particular saint as her patron.
As Michael revealed to his wife, Simone, some years later, what struck him most about his mother was that she never appeared to look back on her life with any sense of achievement or satisfaction, never said, ‘Well, I’ve had a good life, I’ve had fun.’ She failed even to regard her children as accomplishments, and rarely spoke about them amongst her circle of friends. Instead she looked inwards and, despite living a life that would be the envy of many sybarites, complained at length about not having done half of what she wanted to do, and — unbelievably — about never having indulged herself.
She laid the blame for her perceived unfulfilled existence at the door of Michael’s father, ‘The Killjoy’ as she liked to call him, and died without any outward display of hope. This would have been disheartening to her Jesuit instructor, who must certainly have taught her that the Catholic faith is built on hope: the promise that, if you are good now, you will receive your reward later, when you die. If you suffer today, on earth, your soul will be indulged tomorrow, in Paradise.
Taking all of this into account, it struck me as obvious that it must have been from his father that Michael inherited the belief that the postponement of ecstasy — whether spiritual, mental, emotional or physical — was desirable, and the embracing of suffering laudable.
By now you are hopefully beginning to form a picture of the real Michael Birch, one that is both sharper and more believable than the often vague, out-of-focus portraits fabricated by the creators of fictional pieces. Ideally, you will also have noted my unwillingness to use the fiction writer’s illusory descriptive techniques: ‘he was tall/short, fat/thin, wearing a Hugo Boss suit/torn Levi’s.’ If you’re still struggling to picture the man, I imagine you can put flesh on his bones by Googling him, or by looking him up on Facebook or LinkedIn, those sanctuaries for the disingenuous and specious that I prefer to ignore.)
Not only did Michael inherit a great deal from his father, I would go so far as to say he ended up marrying his mother. In the early years of his marriage to Simone, when their two year engagement was still sufficiently fresh in her mind, she would invariably raise, when she was with their friends, the subject of sex.
‘It was the Sixties, and everyone was at it like rabbits, everyone but us.’
If this discussion took place after a few drinks, she also tended to reveal (whether with perverse pride or socially inept impetuosity is not clear), that her twenty-two-year old fiancé refused to go ‘all the way’ until the night of their wedding.
‘Why not?’ a disbelieving friend once asked, open-mouthed at this revelation. Such restraint scarcely seemed plausible.
‘He was a Catholic back then, and he insisted we wait. I can’t think why I put up with it. I was horny as hell in those days.’
People told me Simone was never one to mince words.
Michael’s family history is a perfect example of that ‘semblance of truth’ proposed by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Despite Mr. Coleridge’s focus on what he called ‘fantastic tales’, this non-fiction account is also so unbelievable and flirts so outrageously with the attractions of fiction, I am obliged to do all that I can to reinforce the non-fiction credentials of my narrative. By assisting the reader to ‘willingly suspend disbelief’ over my narrative’s seeming implausibility, I hope to ensure the reader does not struggle more than is absolutely necessary with its veracity.
By providing background material about Michael’s parents, I’m indicating, perhaps a little unsubtly, that his fate was the result of nurture rather than nature, that it was pre-ordained, and his decision to have a barbecue on that particular spring afternoon may not have been his decision after all…
During their early years together, Michael and Simone were not well off. By most people’s standards, they were comfortable, but she had expensive tastes, which grew more expensive with age. She developed a liking for dining out at multi-starred restaurants (the Bennelong, Quay and Icebergs), wearing designer clothes (Ho and Zampatti), and going on overseas holidays (the Maldives and Morocco her favoured destinations). She was happy to run up huge credit card debts in order to pay for such luxuries, whereas Michael — true to his nature — tried to counsel restraint. ‘We should maybe buy it next month, darling,’ or, ‘let’s save up until we can pay cash for that,’ but his opposition was lukewarm, and his arguments delivered in a feeble, unpersuasive murmur. Perhaps he felt guilty about his own expensive tastes.
Juliet D. has been very helpful in providing this all-important background material to Michael’s life, and has verified every word I’ve put on paper. She recalls many of the conversations she had with him, and with his friends and family, especially with his wife Simone, and has few problems recalling such biographical details as the names of favourite restaurants, designer labels and overseas holiday destinations. Her recollections have hopefully contributed to the authenticity and believability of my narrative.
Michael Bircher worked in advertising, so was fortunate enough to be able to pay for such extravagances. But, paradoxically, the advertising world is all about instant gratification and short termism, the very opposite of the subject of my study. His colleagues rarely worried about the future, and his clients only concerned themselves with today’s sales and their effect on this month’s bottom line. The long term welfare of the brand was rarely considered.
The only thing that could sometimes encourage his agency colleagues to think beyond tomorrow was wine. Many took early retirement to one of the valleys — the Hunter, Clare, Yarra or Barossa — in order to run their own vineyards, while those who were less affluent made do with laying wines down. Both enterprises involved long term planning of a sort, so it was scarcely surprising that Michael, with his personality, also started to lay wines down. He did this for his own gratification — gratification that he intended to realise in a most satisfactory manner at some distant date in the future. When he descended the steps into his cellar, his domain, it was with a stomach-cramping feeling of anticipation, one that closely mirrored how he felt entering a pub at the end of a long bush walk at the height of summer.
He had many fine wines in his collection, but the two bottles he prized most of all were his Penfolds Grange 1979. These were given to him by his best friend Tony Carpenter on the day he and Simone were married. He never asked his friend how much they cost, but calculated they were worth, by the time of the 2018 barbecue that interests us, many hundreds of dollars. Each. Not that he had any intention of selling them. Rather, he had always proposed to drink them on some big, celebratory occasion, and it was simply a matter of choosing which. Originally, he had wanted to open the Grange on the birth of his first born, Jamie, then his second born, Sophie, but both events passed in an exhausted blur of hospitals, a testy lactating wife, wailing babies and sleepless nights, so it had been impossible to find a private moment, a quiet space to concentrate on the appreciation of such a fine wine. Other events, like birthdays, anniversaries or promotion at work, struck him as too everyday, too mundane, and not of sufficient importance.
People did try, regularly over the years, to persuade him to open the pride of his collection. One evening, when his best friend Tony Carpenter and wife Jill were round for dinner, Simone said: ‘I tried to get Michael to open the Grange — our Grange,’ she added pointedly, ‘which he too often forgets.’
Tony became her immediate accomplice. ‘It’s not too late, Mike. It would certainly go well with the lamb.’
‘It won’t have sufficient time to breathe, mate. You, of all people, should appreciate that. We wouldn’t be doing it justice. Anyway, what’s the occasion?’
‘Having Jill and Tony round’s the occasion,’ Simone interjected quickly, slurring her words quite distinctively.
‘Perhaps some of us may already have drunk too much of this very ordinary vin ordinaire to appreciate the Grange.’
‘Oh, don’t be so sanctimonious, darling.’
‘You have to admit, Mike, having us visit your home is an occasion.’
‘Absolutely,’ said Jill, who really wasn’t that interested, but liked to stir.
‘With respect, no, it isn’t. The occasion has to be extraordinary.’
‘I’d like to know what occasion is ever going to be bloody extraordinary enough for you,’ Simone said, flapping her hands drunkenly across the table.
‘I agree,’ said Tony. ‘It’ll have to be something like the end of the world — Armageddon, or whatever they call it. At which point it will be too late to drink anything anyway.’
This dialogue is necessarily hypothetical, but that doesn’t make it fiction. I’ve achieved what I hope is a degree of accuracy by taking advantage of Juliet D’s close relationship with Simone, and others in Michael Birch’s social circle. She clearly remembers his friends regularly trying to persuade him to open the bottles of Grange, and how it was always good-natured — ‘more jokey than serious’ were the words she used. I have simply taken the liberty of trying to provide some colour for this conversation, without altering its essence. If faction is seen as a dramatised presentation of actual events, that is what I have attempted. It doesn’t make the words untrue.
So Michael waited. I imagine him relishing the passing of each year while his two bottles of Grange gathered dust and gravitas in the darkness of his cellar. But finally, almost with reluctance, he decided that he had procrastinated long enough and set a date: he would open the Grange to celebrate his seventieth. He reached this decision on a bush walk.
He was a keen walker. According to his friends the walks that stuck out in his memory were those when he suffered. From what we know of the man, this makes perfect sense. This suffering usually involved running out of water. A little weird, maybe — no, definitely — but then that is what we learn at our mother’s breast: truth is frequently stranger than, yes, fiction. (Just take a quick look at your daily news source.)
It’s impossible to know if this suffering was consciously encouraged, but it does sound as if the shortage of water did make those walks more memorable for him. He certainly liked to regale anyone who would listen with accounts of his hardships.
Some readers may criticise the following as the too obvious piling up of detail in order to make Michael more believable, in other words, using artificial fictional techniques to ‘round out’ a character. Writers who embrace the realism school of fiction commonly fall back on this trick when attempting to mimic life — their ultimate goal. But here, I would like it to be regarded as no more than a reflection of life, the presentation of an unretouched, objective, non-fictional portrait of a real person, as well as a true incident.
Simone told Juliet D. that Michael always set off on a bushwalk with a two litre bottle of water, even at the height of summer. He made no allowances for the rapidity with which the body dehydrates. It was his habit not to take his first drink for at least an hour, and even then he would restrict himself to just one mouthful. He would hold the liquid in his mouth for a few seconds before swallowing. With his lunchtime sandwich, he would drink a little more. Over the course of the day the water in his bottle gradually diminished, and on hot days and long walks — upwards of twenty kilometres — there might be nothing left for him to drink over the final stages. He became decidedly dehydrated.
Juliet D. thought he took perverse pride in this self-inflicted suffering. He liked to recall, she said, the great explorers of the past, Leichardt, Stuart, Burke and Wills, while simultaneously declaring that what he had to endure was, by comparison, of little import. Certainly, his tongue might stick to the roof of his mouth, his lips might be dry and his voice hoarse, but he only had to bear such minor discomforts for an hour or so. The heroic explorers from the past suffered such agonies for months at a time.
These details are paraphrased from a long discussion Juliet D. had with a close friend of Michael’s, also a member of the local ramblers’ club, and one who frequently went bush walking with him. This man revealed that Michael would torture himself further by imagining the drink he would have when his walk finished.
‘He always ordered a pint of lager. He liked to watch the drink being poured, once explaining to me that he almost salivated at the prospect of the imminent flood. When the pint was placed on the bar in front of him, he invariably refused to raise the glass to his lips. Instead, he would wait for the barman to hand him his change. With great patience, he would study the condensation slide down the outside of the cold glass, the amber bubbles dance and the foam prick.’
This friend insisted that while Michael waited, he liked to imagine taking huge, desperate gulps, picturing the cool liquid as it cascaded down his parched throat and slaked his thirst. ‘He waited longer than you thought it was possible for any person to wait in those circumstances. It was obvious he relished the pleasure and satisfaction that was to come.’
Michael said to his friend that the anticipation was unbearable, yet also claimed it was better than the fulfilment. He claimed to have never forgotten reading, as a boy, the words of Colonel Fawcett: ‘Did the hound find its greatest pleasure in the chase or in the killing of its quarry?’ He believed the answer was obvious.
On the morning of the barbecue to celebrate his seventieth birthday, Michael’s sense of anticipation was surely the most acute he’d ever experienced. His sense of longing must have been tangible. He was about to savour several glasses of one of the most desirable and delectable wines in the world.
The start of his day was far from promising. Simone gave him breakfast in bed, but the pastries from the city’s most renowned bakery were not to his liking. In compensation (as she confessed to Juliet D. many months later), she went down on him. ‘We were married in ’69, so it did seem appropriate, but I worry now that he was aware I did this only because it was his birthday, rather than because I loved him.’
In the middle of delivering this special birthday present, the phone rang, and she insisted on answering. It was Tony Carpenter, who wanted to be first to wish Michael a happy birthday. Although touched by his friend’s consideration, the opportunity to appreciate his wife’s rarely proffered gift was lost, and her later attempts to reignite his interest, failed. (‘Well, he was getting on, I suppose,’ was the excuse she offered Juliet D.)
I think we can presume that Michael felt, as he shuffled downstairs to decant the Grange, that he’d been wound up taut and not been decanted himself, so to speak.
When he switched on the light in the cellar, the bulb blew. ‘I think we’re out of them,’ Simone shouted down from their bedroom.
He carried the two bottles up from the darkness into the light, being careful not to disturb the dust on the glass. In the kitchen he was withdrawing the first cork as slowly and gingerly as if defusing an anti-personnel mine on some sun-scorched Middle Eastern road, when the phone rang. Simone yelled downstairs: ‘It’s Sophie.’
‘I’ll call her back.’
‘She wants to speak to you now. She’ll be in the hairdressers for the rest of the morning.’
He put down the bottle and picked up the downstairs’ phone.
‘My, you sound grumpy’ were his daughter’s first words.
‘Not depressed about being so old, I hope?’
‘I was joking, Dad!’
Back in the kitchen, he savoured the moment. After uncorking both bottles, he inhaled deeply. An intense chocolate and berry fruits aroma… with a hint of liquorice and mint… youthful, yet complex… Heavenly! He cautiously decanted the contents into two carafes. He held them up to the light to admire the deep brick-red colour, then placed the empty bottles on a shelf so they would be on display when his guests arrived. The carafes went next to them, safely out of harm’s way. (Only Michael could have been strong enough to resist taking the tiniest sip.)
A select few were invited to savour the Grange before the other guests arrived; everyone else was to come at two o’clock. Michael hoped the favoured few would be sparing in their drinking, and that some might abstain altogether. He mentally calculated the odds: his daughter Sophie and her husband Doug, and his son Jamie and his girlfriend, would drink as much as he poured for them and not appreciate it in the slightest. His brother Mark, proudly ocker, would probably insist on sticking to beer, and his sister-in-law Jacqui barely drank alcohol at all. He would give his sister, Annabelle, half a glass and she’d be suitably grateful. Finally, there was Tony, who would appreciate the Grange without a doubt, and his wife Jill, who at least understood she couldn’t swill it like a cleanskin. Simone often didn’t drink until the food was out of the way and she could relax, so, with luck, he could anticipate — and anticipate was the operative word — almost a bottle to himself. Which he thought was fair enough: after all, it was his birthday.
I confess to having made up the above paragraph, but only after Juliet D. agreed with me that such musings and calculations would have been both understandable and eminently consistent with Michael’s personality.
The group sat on the veranda in the shade, around a table laden with empty glasses and plates of appetising nibbles, and a nearby table covered in as yet unopened presents. Michael persuaded Simone to leave the kitchen for a few minutes. ‘Stop stressing, darling,’ she snapped as she hurried from her preparations to join them outside.
No one was sure whose idea it was to have everyone sit, almost formally, as if at some kind of religious gathering. Perhaps people sensed it was the correct thing to do on such a special occasion. Michael emerged from the living room with the two carafes held aloft, like a prize fighter, fists raised, heading for the ring. There was a broad smile on his face, as if he appreciated this was the culmination of a dream — almost a pre-orgasmic moment. Some of those present said later that he uttered a kind of celebratory whoop as he made his way towards the table. Spontaneously, everyone rose and applauded, mobile phones clicked, and Annabelle started singing ‘Happy birthday’. Others joined in. Michael modestly lowered his eyes, lowering the carafes at the same time. He shook his head as if in protest — but it may simply have been because of the glare reflecting off the pool. The guests were encouraged to sing louder.
Everyone was grinning, mouths open, and Michael raised his head too, mouth also open, as if to mirror those of his guests. ‘He was definitely singing along with us,’ said Simone, ‘and that made me really happy. To be honest, it was very moving.’ That was the moment her husband stumbled. He pitched forward slowly, as if he had all the time in the world, but was particularly keen to greet his guests.
Tony was the first to realise something was amiss, and reached out to support his friend, but with commendable foresight, made to grab the carafes instead. However, one of these carafes, held tightly by Michael, fell with him onto the decking and smashed, the Grange and shards of glass flying into the air in a kaleidoscope of tiny red rockets and lustrous diamonds.
The barbecue was cancelled. Guests were turned away at the front door by a low voiced, stricken Tony Carpenter. The original group stayed on for the rest of the afternoon and early evening to provide moral support, not just for each other, but for Simone, who was in a state of shock.
‘The excitement must have been too much for Dad,’ Sophie sobbed. The more authoritative verdict of their GP was, ‘A massive coronary.’
Later, there was a brief discussion about what to do with the remaining carafe of Grange. It was finally decided, by Tony primarily, but with the numb acquiescence of Simone, to keep it for the wake. ‘It’s what Mike would have wanted,’ said his best friend, doing his utmost not to salivate at the prospect. It would have been unseemly, the body of his best friend still lying on the sofa in the front room.
By now you will have decided whether you’ve just finished reading about a real event, an implausible one without doubt, but one that Juliet D. claims falls into the unbelievable-but-true category. You will otherwise feel that you’ve finished reading a piece of fiction, something that was made up, convinced that to store a wine for almost forty years only to have a heart attack the moment you’re about to drink it is simply beyond belief. And this literary magazine’sinsistence that it be placed in their Fiction rather than amongst their Non-Fiction pages, as I requested, will doubtless reinforce your verdict.
Does it matter? Personally, I’ve never understood what all the fuss was about with Demidenko, Irving, Frey, Malley and the others. So-called factual accounts of events are as full of lies as so-called fictional ones. And who cares whether one reads what has been created inside an author’s head or whether it was created inside the Supreme Being’s head?
It’s interesting either way, or it isn’t. It happened, or it didn’t.
* All names have been changed at Juliet D’s request. Which, of course, strongly suggests that Michael Birch’s real name, whatever it might be, is the name of a real person, not a fictional character, otherwise why would the author go to the trouble of changing it?