Fiction

Two Bottle Blues

When Bradson showed the taxi driver the address, the cabbie pronounced that restaurant to be the best in Sweden.

Bradson didn’t know about that. But as he waited to be taken to the table booked by Matthias, it seemed to him the cabbie just could be right: Bradson saw people he knew—some a little, some well—who were attending the same conference as he, in this Swedish city.

Matthias introduced Bradson to his other guest, a Dr Bertel Hensen. Bradson knew of Dr Hensen, a Danish ophthalmologist who had become more interested in electronics than he was in eye surgery. Bradson congratulated Dr Hensen on the electronic magnifier his company was about to begin producing. Bradson had been shown a prototype at the conference. Now he announced he was interested in importing Dr Hensen’s aid for the visually impaired into Australia.

Matthias said his company was interested in world distribution.

This news was not surprising, though it was disheartening. If Bradson had to import through Matthias’s German company, instead of directly from Dr Hensen, the cost could well be higher, his profit margin lower. Bradson began making mental calculations as to what margins he could achieve, and still remain competitive.

Just then, Richard Youngblood came into the restaurant. He entered at the head of a noisy party of seven or eight and when the maitre-d led his party to their table, Youngblood left his party to go from table to table, loudly greeting people, shaking hands, slapping shoulders. Youngblood was always at these conferences and always noisy.

Youngblood saw them, dropped the hand he was shaking, threw both arms out wide.

“Hey-y-y-y-y!”

“Brace yourselves,” Matthias muttered, as Youngblood descended upon them. Specifically, he descended upon Matthias.

Matthias acquitted himself surprisingly well—which is to say, surprisingly loudly—in the bonhomie business. That lasted until Youngblood left their table. Then he quite soberly said his company had been subcontracting a part of his production to Youngblood’s company.

“His quality control—just awful. He’s about to have his contract cancelled.”

Dr Hensen said: “Looks to me he suspects that already.”

That seemed likely: even by Youngblood’s standards he’d been effusive to Matthias.

“Looks like it,” Matthias said. “Though I don’t know how.”

Then he added: “I do know him—he’ll do absolutely anything to keep the business.”

They ordered entrees and the main courses and Matthias asked for the wine list. The waiter brought the wine list—and at just that moment, Richard Youngblood reappeared at their table.

“This restaurant’s got one bottle—just one!—of Californian Bollinger Chardonnay. You won’t find it on the wine list—I had to ask.”

He shot out a hand so that the fingers were extended.

“Five figures!”

His hand closed. Then shot open again, fingers extended.

“Five!”

Matthias said: “We respect your knowledge of wine, Richard.” He closed the wine list and returned it to the waiter. “But we’re staying on beer.”

When Youngblood left them, Matthias said: “Sorry chaps, you could have been drinking something special.”

Dr Hensen said something to the effect that beer would do just fine.

Bradson said: “Youngblood can filter and flush his own!”

He well understood why Matthias wouldn’t want to be under obligation to Youngblood. But there was more to Bradson’s vulgarity-enhanced pronouncement. Bradson held to an image of himself as being above Youngblood. Above all the Youngbloods of this world.

Even so, Bradson couldn’t stop himself making calculations. Youngblood’s five figures would be in Swedish krona, convert that to Australian dollars by dividing by … four-point-seven, was it? … five? … five was near enough … that produced a range of prices that began at a fortnight’s wage for most and extended to …

Dr Hensen must have been making his own calculations, because just then he said: “I’ve drunk wine that cost more. Much more.”

Perhaps because they had intended drinking wine but were drinking beer—whatever the reason—when entrees arrived, Dr Hensen began telling of events that led to his drinking wine that cost so much.

As Bradson later remembered Dr Hensen’s opening to his story, Dr Hensen had been working at a hospital when he met Eric, the hospital’s electronics engineer. The two decided to start their own company, and their first project was a lens-edging machine that could trace the lens shape electronically, directly from a spectacle frame, without need of a plastic pattern. At the time, no such machine existed. During the years they put into perfecting the electronics, they had to borrow from banks and at times Dr Hensen went back to surgery, Eric to hospital maintenance, to keep going. Other companies—big companies—were developing a similar machine. Eric and Dr Hensen knew they had to get their machine on the market—first.

They did. They bought a second-hand Volkswagen Kombi van which they fitted out so they could demonstrate the machine inside the Kombi. They drove that van to every town in Denmark big enough to support an optician. After Denmark they drove all over Scandinavia. For most opticians, the machine was just too expensive. Though some were sold. Enough for them to take their wives on holiday. That was when they decided if their machine was really to take off, they’d have to take a big step—exhibit at SILMO, the giant optical trade fair held each year in Paris.

“You know what a booth costs there!”

Bradson knew, Matthias would certainly know: they’d both exhibited at just such trade fairs.

The first days at SILMO were the same story—plenty of interest, much admiration, few orders. On the last day, a man who had visited their booth on the first day returned with two other men. They were from a chain of French opticians and they ordered a machine for every one of their shops.

Eric and Dr Hensen had been living and eating near the university—it’s cheaper there—but that night they were set to celebrate.

They chose a restaurant near the Louvre. Until then, if they drank at all, they drank beer. That night they were going to celebrate—with wine.

Neither had been to France before; but they knew France did not have Denmark’s level of taxes. They believed wine to be very much cheaper in France. So neither consulted the wine list—they told the waiter to bring the best he had.

“The maitre-d himself brought the bottle and he was holding it as if … As if he was holding—a baby!”

A tasting was offered, the cork held for each of them to smell while the wine was decanted into a very tall elegant decanter. The empty bottle was placed on the table with the label turned outwards so that other patrons could see what they were drinking.

They had yet to order food, and perhaps that was why the wine list had been left with menus on the table. Eric had decided what he was having, Dr Hensen still deciding, when Eric—just idly, for no particular reason—picked up the wine list. He turned the bottle around so he could see what he was drinking.

“Eric went white. He didn’t speak—later he told me he couldn’t speak. I took the wine list from his hands and I checked the bottle’s label against the list. I don’t doubt I went as white as Eric. For what that wine cost—you could buy a car!”

There was no way they could pay. Neither had credit cards in those days, just travellers cheques. They’d borrowed money—more money—for the SILMO booth, and they’d calculated their expenses to the last franc.

At that moment, Klara came into the restaurant. She saw the two of them, and must have seen the look on both their faces.

“Hey guys—what are we drinking?”

“She picked up the bottle, looked from the label to our faces. Instantly she called over the wine waiter, waved the bottle at him.”

“‘We’ll have another!’ she said.

She had credit cards. She tossed a card onto the waiter’s tray.

“‘Take both out of that.’

“That was Klara: quick grasp, spontaneous generosity.”

Dr Hensen went on to tell that this Klara was daughter of a man who had made millions from shipping. And she was beautiful—there were always pictures of her in the papers, the glossy magazines were full of her. Always stories, too. Some hack journalist had only to get wind she’d helped or invested or loaned money to some man and …

“… you can just imagine what was written!”

Dr Hensen had first met her when she brought her father to him as a patient. There wasn’t much that could be done for him—his vision problems were all age-related—except take the time to explain. The next time they met was when Eric and he had taken their wives on that holiday.

This was a fiord cruise; and by then Klara’s father had died. There were an unusual number of single men on the cruise—no doubt because she was—but she attached herself to their foursome. She proved to be great company. She was extremely well-read, particularly about theatre. Theatre was also Eric’s passion. But Klara had not only seen the whole classic repertoire—ancient and modern—she’d also read all the important expositions and commentaries.

Klara told them now she had her inheritance, she was determined to prove there was more to her than her father’s millions.

What she did was build a factory to produce colour photographic film: high quality and high price. She poured a fortune into promotion and point-of-sale display—in supermarkets there were booths with her picture on the outside, selling only her film. On television, in every newspaper, in all the glossies, there were advertisements; her photograph was—just everywhere!

But there was some problem with production—Dr Hensen didn’t know what; but it was a problem neither the people at her factory nor all the consultants she called in could set right.

The whole enterprise came tumbling down. Even with her millions, she’d over-reached. She owed—everywhere. Soon petrol stations across Denmark and Norway were selling boxes of her film for next-to-nothing, just to bring in some money. She was forced into voluntary liquidation.

Voluntary liquidation?—there was really nothing voluntary about it! Her assets were frozen and legal proceedings initiated. She was summoned to a meeting with her creditors.”

Until this point in Dr Hensen’s telling, Bradson’s attention to the tale had waxed and waned. He kept calculating profit margins. Not only what he could achieve with Dr Hensen’s electronic magnifier—whether he was importing through Matthias or directly from Dr Hensen—but also for optical magnification he was at present importing from Matthias.

But hearing of this Klara’s financial difficulties brought Bradson’s attention to sudden focus. He’d had financial difficulties, he’d over-reached, he’d faced creditors. At one point he had thought he would lose not only his business but also his home. He’d kept both. But that had taken years when he worked and worked and did little except work. Friendship withered from neglect, he’d become a stranger to his own children; under compulsion to count every cost, to calculate margins to the exact percentage, his one-time generosity had gone out the window.

Just days before her enforced meeting with creditors, Klara skipped the country.

“During the next years, I received letters from her—from Johannesburg, Hong Kong, Sydney. She supported herself by popular journalism; about what, I don’t know. I suspect something crass that paid—perhaps recycling the sex scandals of film stars. I do know: because she told me in letters, told with a kind of steely pride, and because she sent copies to Eric: she also wrote about theatre. Those articles were not popular journalism. They were published in small specialist journals and I can’t imagine she was paid much for them. Into those articles she poured all of her considerable knowledge, her intellect, her passion. Those pieces were absolutely without compromise.”

His attention at sharp focus, Bradson felt puzzled by his own reaction to this Klara. For sure she had compromised herself—absolutely!—in fleeing her creditors; and yet there seemed to him something … something singularly right … in precisely where she would not compromise. The raw stuff of theatre—its great heroes and heroines—are those who absolutely will not compromise.

“During those years, Eric and I had financial troubles of our own. Big companies had got their patternless lens-edgers onto the market—I won’t say they were better than ours, but they were cheaper. A lot cheaper! Soon we weren’t selling machines. We had other projects, but none of those were ready for production. We stayed out of receivership only by begging time from creditors, while I went back to surgery, Eric to electronics maintenance. Both of us worked around the clock—and then some! Even after we paid off everything we owed, one kept working outside our own company while the other pushed new projects towards completion.

“You can imagine, all that focus upon work and nothing else put strain on both our marriages. Well, mine survived.”

For a time, Dr Hensen was silent. Then Matthias signalled the waiter for more beer.

“This Klara,” Bradson prompted. “She settled in Sydney?”

“No. Though she wrote she’d received offers of marriage in Sydney. She didn’t settle for marriage, either. From Sydney—Auckland. She performed in a play in Auckland—Hedda Gabler, I believe. Then, South America. But she didn’t stay long in Buenos Aires, nor in Rio. And she didn’t stay long in any North American city either, until she reached one place she stayed longer than anywhere—Hollywood.”

Of course Bradson thought. Of course! Hollywood just had to be her destination, her inevitable destination. Hollywood with all of its compromised crassness, it’s chaotic scandals, it’s tinsel glamour. Yet that city had produced pathos, too. Real pathos. Hollywood was so much … So much—her.

“I received a letter from her after she’d been some time in Hollywood. What money she’d had had all gone on rent and on acting lessons and voice coaching. This was the only letter from her in which she asked for money: money to buy clothes. Expensive clothes. Such clothes were necessary, she wrote, so that she could go to places where she’d be noticed, make contacts. Once she was noticed, she’d be picked out for parts. She was sure of that. That was her future—in films.

“Eric and I sent … Well, we sent more than we could really afford. We remembered her generosity and we viewed our debt to her as just one more debt to be paid, like all the others.

“There came another letter. It transpired that her previous letter had been sent to others: to men—women, too—who she had once helped. Those to whom she had given money, those to whom she had made loans when they needed it, some of which had never been repaid, those whose projects she had invested in. Among names she listed, I recognised some who had inherited well, some who had married money, others who had risen in business, one in politics. Our reply had been her only one.

“In this letter she wrote she was not, after all, going to invest the money we’d sent on clothes. No! That money was going to pay for an airline ticket. She was coming home. Her language reinforced the bitterness there in her tone: she was going to shame the shit out of those bastards.

“How she imagined she was going to do that, I don’t know. I can only imagine she fantasised a scene out of opera or Greek tragedy, in which she confronted them all, declaiming J’accuse at one and another and another for their calculating, shrivel-souled miserliness.

“I found out her flight number. Then I contrived for Eric to be away on a work trip to Norway. His marriage hadn’t survived our hard time and … You can work out what I was trying to prevent.

“Near the airport there’s a restaurant that’s quite ordinary—it’s on the second floor of a building right on the edge of a road—and that’s where I took her after I’d got her out from the airport without anyone (so far as I could tell) recognising that once famous face.

“I told her Eric and I considered we truly owed her what we’d sent and we didn’t want it repaid. Then I told her how close Eric and I had gone to going out backwards. It was only now we were able to move forward with a new project. I did not say the money we’d spent was all the money we were prepared to give, nor did I labour the cost of lawyers, or litigation.

“After I said what I’d prepared myself to say, she sat some time without speaking. Then she asked if I still lectured patients on the connection between macular degeneration and smoking—while offering them a cigarette?

“That’s exactly what I had done when she’d brought her father to me. I’d wanted to put them both at their ease, you know, while I explained his condition … Well, when she said that, we both laughed. I laughed less at the shared recollection than in relief: I wasn’t going to have to spell out to her this-far-and-no-farther.

“Laughing, I said I could take the hint. I offered her a cigarette. Her chair was beside a window and while I was fumbling through pockets for my lighter, she looked out the window. Whatever she saw caused her to shut off her laughter abruptly. When she turned from the window, she took the lighter from my hand. She flicked on the flame and sat staring at it. She did not light the cigarette. She asked if she could keep the lighter.

“When I stood to pay the bill, I contrived to look out the window. Below and on the opposite side of the road was a petrol station. There was a billboard advertising photographic film, at a price that was … that was next-to-nothing … Of course that film could not have been her film; but in seeing that, her quick grasp must have grasped what her return home would really be like—so very far from her fantasy. Not a scene out of an opera or high tragedy—a degrading procession of court appearances, of haggling lawyers, of accountants scavenging over assets that were rumoured still to exist, of public disclosures of so much that ought to remain private. Pictures of her, stories about her, would be on television, in all the newspapers, fill page after page in the glossies.

“I never saw her again; though I did see my lighter. At least, I think it was mine. I told the police, when they came, it was mine. Truth is, it was difficult to tell. The chrome plating had blistered due to the heat and the part where you flick on the flame had completely melted.

“A scene out of opera? Oh, yes—she’d succeeded. And in the most awful way. Petrol—”

Dr Hensen broke off his telling. He seemed incapable of finishing his story. At least, with words. He sat for some time without speaking, then he made a two-handed gesture of lifting something—some container—above his head and pouring the contents over himself. He mimed holding out the lighter, flicked on the flame …

Their main courses were long since finished. A waiter came towards them—no doubt to offer sweets or cheese—but just as he reached them, so did the maitre-d. He was holding a bottle as if … as if (Dr Hensen’s earlier phrase recurred to Bradson) as if he was holding a baby!

A step behind the maitre-d and framed by the maitre-d on one side, the waiter on the other, was Youngblood. He was beaming as he shot out a hand with all fingers extended. He silently mouthed the words, Five figures! Five!

Clearly Youngblood had calculated exactly what those figures amounted to, and he had counted that as a cost he just had to pay.

Seeing that bottle, Bradson’s imagination superimposed upon it Klara’s hand waving a bottle at the waiter, Klara’s fingers tossing a credit card onto a tray; and onto Youngblood’s silent mouthing’s, Bradson added a voice saying We’ll have another and Take both out of that.

Klara’s generosity had not been calculated. When she’d had wealth, she must have seen her wealth as a cup overflowing, a cup she was so eager to hold up to others for them to drink.

Yet—the world has scant space for acts of spontaneous generosity: that was one life-lesson Bradson wished he’d never had to learn. He supposed Dr Hensen hadn’t wanted to learn it either. He had, though. Emphatically, he had. And that must have been what came at Klara with the force of revelation when she’d looked out that second-storey restaurant window.

Evidently Matthias felt he couldn’t refuse the bottle now that it had actually been brought to his table. He went through the ritual of tasting, smelling the cork, accepting. The maitre-d decanted the bottle, the waiter poured.

Bradson drank Youngblood’s wine and he drank more than his share—the moment Richard Youngblood turned from their table, Matthias emptied his glass into Bradson’s.

Along with Youngblood’s wine, Bradson swallowed down a revelation of his own: he was not above Richard Youngblood nor all the Youngbloods of this world—he’d done his share of counting and calculating. To survive, he’d had to.

Well, he had. He’d survived. Time and again he’d been congratulated, he’d had pronounced to him that survival was itself a victory.

Victorious was not how he felt, not with the aftertaste of the Klara’s story staying with him long after the aftertaste of the wine. He knew what survival had cost. Now it seemed to him the more that he’d counted and calculated, the poorer he’d become.

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