Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.

3.10.11

One day in September.

Cool climate? It was cold. I turned the heater switch to warm and opened the little grates in the dash.

The country at the back of Ballarat was high and green and there was no sky between the ground and the clouds. They seemed to sit on the hills. The rain had stopped. It turned out to be the wettest September day in fifty years but I didn’t know that then. I was driving on a single-lane B road with no line markings. I hadn’t seen a car since Clunes, a small town with verandah-shaded shops hugging the empty winding main street. The streets always wind in old gold mining towns because they grew up around the diggings. No planners involved.

Out of Clunes and on past old mounds of slag overgrown with grasses, and into the green made almost luminous by the teary sky. The Irish came here in their thousands and stayed after the gold rush; it reminded them of home. Now I was higher. The clouds sat; no blue anywhere. Then the green hills started growing trellises bearing curling shoots. Wine country. This road would be packed on weekends with wine collectors’ four wheel drives. The road’s not that bad. You could drive it in a 2CV or a Fiat Cinquecento but you wouldn’t fit much wine in.

Then a sign. I turned the car into a wide, arcing drive on the bald top of a low hill. A square building – a cube - sat a hundred metres in. It was glass on three sides and behind the wall that wasn’t glass was something that looked like a warehouse or a factory. That would be where they made the wine. A line of trees behind the factory partially hid a house. I stopped where a sign said customer parking. The glass door in one of the glass walls had a sign 'come in'. I went in. The building was one vast room with a smaller room in the corner, old display barrels along one wall with bottles on top, and a long table running the length of the glass window at the front. The table was one of those famiglia things made of a slab from a giant tree and cut to fit about fifty people around it. It gave on a view across the low bald hill clear to where Ballarat would be if you could see it. All you could see was green, vast and empty, like Ireland without the patchwork. Someone had built the place for the view and got it right first time. You wouldn't want to be sitting on the wrong side of the table.

I turned away from the view and walked toward the smaller room in the corner. Its door was open. Inside was a table on which sat several bottles, some open, and tasting glasses and a clipboard of notes. On a side bench were winemaker’s paraphernalia and a credit card processing machine. Boxes of wine were stacked around, ready to go.

I called and knocked. Nothing. Then I went around the back to the factory part. I called and knocked again. Nothing. So I walked through a break in the line of trees to the house. A car was in the drive but no-one answered. I went back through the trees and got in my car and drove out of there and onto the single lane road. I could see a body on the factory floor, behind a barrel, or even in the barrel, distended. I could see a shape lying beneath a trellis with an ugly red patch in a crisp white shirt. I could see a hand reach out to snap the door latch shut when I was still inside the small room. I could hear a scraping in the vast room; someone dragging something that was a dead weight. I saw all these things and none of them. I saw green hills and black threatening clouds and more rain running up the windscreen. "Why does it run up the windscreen?" the children always ask. "Why not down?" You have to be a physicist to have children these days. Or is it an aerodynamicist?

Farther down the road, another winery. I crunched up the drive in the rain and stopped and when I opened the car door a fat golden retriever tried to get in the car with me, and then he walked under my feet to the winery entrance and I opened the door and stuck my head in and said, "Is the dog allowed in?" to the man who was behind a counter. "No, we've just had the floors done," he replied. "He scratches it." I’d try socks, but he’d probably eat them. My late father-in-law used to tell the story of a dog he had once who used to eat his teenage sons’ football socks. The story mostly involved the length of time each long sock would take to emerge from toe to cuff in the disgorgement phase from the dog. Sometimes he would help and the dog would whine. Other times he would just let the dog run about the yard trailing sock like a First World War squadron leader’s Sopwith Camel trailing coloured streamers.

I told the man about the murder in the vineyard. "He’s never there," he laughed. "Probably under the tractor." I was working, but I bought three bottles of cool climate pinot noir and three bottles of cool climate chardonnay anyway. I didn’t taste them. I never taste them. It’s a waste of time. Plus I was working.

*

Much later. Now we’re south of Ballarat, heading towards an odd rent in the earth where six billion years ago (could be less, you don’t have to be right about such large numbers; there’s no point) a volcano blew up. Now it’s the Brisbane Ranges and it’s nowhere near Brisbane. Before the rent in the earth are two small towns. The first is Elaine and the second is Meredith. I like to think they were sisters. Both names should be returned to favour. I worked with a Meredith recently but everyone called her Mez. I stopped at Meredith because it was the time of the afternoon when I always start closing my eyes; also, I hadn’t had any coffee.

The middle of Meredith was a crossroads. There was a general store on the north-east corner, a bakery opposite and a café diagonally. I went into the café, called GJs. What’s so hard about buying a coffee? Nothing, unless you like more sugar than they offer. Sometimes they offer one paper tube and you have to ask for more and you feel like a heel, because you know it would be impolite to ask for six, so you leave it to fate. It’s the unwritten rule of coffee: nobody needs more than two paper tubes of sugar. Except me. It’s my dark secret. I hardly ever eat dessert and never sweets or chocolate; but I do like quite a lot of sugar in my coffee. GJs had old-fashioned sugar dispensers on the tables. "Can I have an extra-strong café latte, please." It came out the right colour: tan, with a hint of mocha. The colour of the outside of a coconut.

I sat at the table and gazed out north-east towards the hills in the distance that were old volcanoes, and now there was a mist on them. The coffee had a centimetre of thickly-packed froth that was barely disturbed by the sugar. I came to life. Plenty of sugar and free newspapers. The café had a glass counter and it was filled with coconut ice, lemon slices, chocolate balls and sponges. A child played in the corner. It's school holidays and raining, but not so bad if your mother runs a warm cafe with a toy box in the corner and a stack of home made cakes behind the glass.

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