Cabernet Sauvignon With My Brother
By Owen Marshall
Printed by kind permission of Random House Publishing
Copying is not allowed.
I walked the last two miles to my brother's place. I was lucky to have hitched as close as I did. Along the flat through Darfield and Kirwee early in the morning I'd done a good deal of walking, but then a tractor repair man took me to within two miles. He told me he'd been working on the hydraulics of a new Case harvester which cost eighty thousand dollars.
I love the accumulated heat of the Canterbury autumn. When you rest on the ground you can feel the sustained warmth coming up into your body, and there are pools of dust like talcum powder along the roads. It's not the mock tropicality of the Far North, but the real New Zealand summer. It dries the flat of your tongue if you dare to breathe through your mouth. After spending the vacation working on the coast, I was happy to be back in Canterbury
My brother Raf lived on seventeen hectares of gravel close to West Melton. He had been a tutor in economics at Lincoln, but resigned on a matter of principle. He said it was a form of hypocrisy to pretend to any skill in financial affairs, when the best salary he could command was that of a tutor. Raf said that the most important things to achieve in life were privacy and revenue. At West Melton on seventeen hectares he had privacy, but the income was precarious. Raf's best crop was manoeuvres. He said he received a small but consistent return from manoeuvres. The army paid him for access to the riverbed. Heavy manoeuvres was the better paying crop he said, but harder on the ground.
As 1 walked up the natural terrace to Raf's place, the heat shimmer on the riverbed was already beginning. The stones in Raf's paddocks didn't seem to have become any less numerous. I noticed that because last time I visited my brother, he told me that ploughing only brought them up, and that picking them off was uneconomic. Raf believed that if the ground were grazed naturally, and just a little super added from time to time, then worm action would increase the height of the soil until the stones were eventually covered right over. He said he read a report of French research on it in Brittany Raf had a knack of finding theoretical justification for his lifestyle.
He was working on his motorbike when I arrived. It was an old Norton 500 cc, an enormous single-pot machine, and his only form of transport. With it he towed a trailer large enough for ten bales of hay He left the front tube hanging from the tyre, and came down the track to meet me. 'Ah, Tony,' he said, and took me by the shoulder. 'I hoped to see you before the term began.' His blue eyes seemed bleached from the sun, and his hair and eyebrows were nearly white. 'I told myself you'd come,' he said. Although he was my brother, he was about fourteen years older than me: we were more like uncle and nephew in some ways. I was aware of the emphasis and undisguised pleasure in his voice. 'I've got quite a lot of beer at the moment,' he said proudly 'I sold another dozen lambs last week.' To have revenue to share, as well as privacy, made him feel his hospitality was complete.
'I can't stay the night. Lectures start tomorrow. I should have been in today, really.'
'Well, we've the day together then,' said Raf, 'and you'll get out sometime during the term.'
I went with Raf into his house, and he put into his pygmy fridge as many bottles of beer as it would hold. The kitchen floor had a slant, and when the fridge was operating the vibration caused it to creep from the wall, inch by inch. I could see it, as we sat at the table with our coffee, shuffling up to Raf's shoulder like a prototype robot. 'It takes about seven minutes to reach the table,' said Raf. He tolerated it because it never broke down, just had to be pushed back to the wall every seven minutes. 'I have to switch it off when I go outside,' he said.
Raf felt no obligation to ask about our parents. Not that he disliked them; it was his way of showing that his friendship with me was apart from any other connection between us. He knew I'd tell him anything that he should know 'You seem happy here still,' I said.
'Happiness is related to the level of expectation,' said Raf, and he pushed back the fridge. 'To be the mayor of Wellington, or the second richest farmer in Southland, is a gnawing futility if you can only be satisfied by being Prime Minister. Our education system should be directed to inculcating as low an expectation as possible in every child, and then most of them could grow up to be happy' Raf's spur of the moment principle paid no heed to envy; but then he was working from the premise of his own nature. My brother was one of the minority who didn't compare themselves with others. He was self-sufficient in his ideas and ambitions. He enjoyed simple things, like being able to produce a meal for me from his property We went outside, taking some beer with us, and I helped Raf to fix the front tube. As we did so, he laid out his plans for our lunch. 'If only we'd had rain,' he said, 'then there would have been mushrooms. I've been spreading the spores year by year. Now I get cartons-full at times, and take them in to sell. Everything's right for them now, except the rain.'
'I'm not all that fussed on them anyway' I said, just so that he wouldn't feel my level of expectation had been high.
'I've been saving some rabbits, though, down by the pines. And I've got plenty of eggs and vegetables. We could have chook, but fresh game is better.' Raf thought we should cull the rabbits before we had too much beer, we went off over the stones and brown grass of his seventeen hectares towards the pines. 'You're doing accounting and economics, aren't you,' he said.
'Law. I'm doing law
'I found there wasn't much privacy in economics. I should say that law would be much the same: more revenue probably, but no privacy' Raf stopped, and enjoyed the privacy of his land for a moment. The small terraces and scarps vibrated in the heat. The bird calls were outnumbered by the muted sound of firing from the West Melton butts. 'I've been thinking of going out of sheep into Angora goats,' said Raf. 'I read an article saying they're much more profitable per head, ideal for smaller properties. Three rabbits?' He tagged on about the rabbits after a pause, when we had started to walk towards the pines again. 'Is one and a half rabbits enough for you?'
'I've been keeping an eye on these. There's nearly a dozen here. I've been looking forward to a special occasion so I could use some.' Raf walked in an arc behind the pines, so that we would come from the broken slope where there was gorse and briar. He shot two rabbits quickly with the twelve-gauge, and then had me walk through the pines and flush another out to make the three.
Raf and I sat on the front step of his house, and he cleaned the rabbits, as I peeled the potatoes. He went over the various ways in which the rabbits could be combined with the other food we had. We ate those rabbits several times over before we had lunch. They were good at last, though, with potatoes, pumpkin, cheese sauce, boiled eggs and beer. Repletion made Raf even more relaxed and thoughtful. 'You get plenty of girls at the university I suppose,' he asked me. For the first time there was a hint of dissatisfaction in his voice. 'Girls don't seem much interested in privacy I had a woman out here before Christmas. She did a lot of screenprinting. She seemed to like it here for several weeks, but then she began to mope. She said she found the landscape oppressive. She wasn't a very tall girl, but big where it mattered, mind you.' My brother was at a loss to explain why anyone should prefer the city 'I have to go into Christchurch now,' he said. There was a note of grievance. He saw it as a lack of consideration, the screenprinting girl choosing to go back to town.
'Maybe it's the old house,' I said. 'Women have higher expectations there, I suppose.
'I bought a new bed for us. A brass one, original. It cost me a fat lamb cheque. She hated anything artificial: plastic, vinyl, nylon, veneers, anything like that.' There certainly wasn't much of such material in Raf's house. Almost everything looked pre-war. Even the walls were tongue and groove. 'She was a nice girl in many ways,' Raf said.
In mid-afternoon a visitor came. 'It's McLay' Raf said. 'He's bought the big place up the road. I forgot all about him. He's come to look at my bore and pump.' McLay was a farmer of self-importance: one of those men who walk in a perfectly normal manner, but whose evident conceit makes them appear to swagger. He parked his European car at an angle which best displayed its lines, and his sense of complacency grew as he came closer to the house.
'Seen better days I'd say' he said, and he tapped with his shoe at the decayed boards close to the ground along the front of the house. 'I like a place in permanent materials myself,' he said. 'Always have, always will.' Raf was never defensive about his property. He considered it too much of a blessing to need its weaknesses concealed.
'Most of the exterior is shot,' he said frankly 'We had rabbit for lunch.' McLay was somewhat baffled by that, and suffered a subtle loss of initiative.
McLay would have taken his car to the pump, but Raf said it was easier if we sat in the trailer behind the Norton. McLay found it difficult to maintain his dignity there. He sat very upright, with one hand on the side to limit the bouncing, and with the other he tried to repel Raf's greasy tools, which clattered around us. Raf had one bore sunk into the gravel, and he ran off water to his troughs. When he reached the place he switched off the motorbike, and sat there enjoying the sun. 'Never seems to run dry, this bore,' he said. 'It's with the river being so close, I suppose.' McLay had scrambled from the trailer, and was wiping his wrist on the grass to clean it, after warding off Raf's grease-gun. He felt a need to dissociate himself from Raf's scale of farming
'I'll need to put in perhaps a dozen of these bores,' he told me. 'I've three hundred and fifty hectares, you see, and I hope to irrigate from them as well.'
'I only need to run it for an hour or so each day' said Raf. He lifted the rusted kerosene tin that protected the motor.
'Mine will have to be electric, with remote switches. I won't be able to spend all day mucking about with petrol engines,' countered McLay Raf wound up the starting cord, and pulled with no result. 'Gives a bit of trouble, does it?' said McLay Raf tried again and again. The only result was one cough, which flicked the starting cord up to give Raf a stinging blow across the face. McLay gave an understanding laugh. 'Pity it's not Briggs and Stratton. They're the only small motor, I always say I think you've flooded it.' Raf seized the choke, fully extended it, and bent it across the motor. McLay was quiet. Two veins began to swell beneath the skin of my brother's forehead. They made an inverted Y the colour of a bruise. He tried twice more with the cord, attempts of elaborate calmness, then he went to the trailer and brought back the crowbar. He systematically beat the four-stroke motor until the cooling fins had coalesced with the cylinder head, until the various attached parts had broken away The crowbar made a solid crump, crump sound of impact, and the pipe from the bore rattled in its housing. Some of Raf's sheep stopped grazing to regard him for a while then resumed feeding. McLay had an uneasy smile, and his eyes switched furtively back and forth from Raf to me.
By the time Raf had finished, the veins in his forehead had subsided, and he wiped the sweat away with a sense of achievement. 'Never underestimate the perversity of objects,' he said. 'Never let them get away with it. A switch won't function, a fitting or tool won't work, then before you know - open revolt. Don't give an inch. Did you hear what I said, McLay? Never underestimate the perversity of objects.'
'I'd better be on my way now' said McLay There was an increasing air of placating wariness about him, as he realised the full extent of my brother's eccentricity
'I'm going to use a windmill here,' said Raf. 'I should really have fitted one long ago. We're going to have to get back to wind power a lot more in this country.'
McLay rode back in the trailer without attempting to speak against the noise of the Norton, and when we reached the house he went off with a minimum leave-taking. 'An odd sort of chap. Didn't you think?' Raf said. There was no irony apparent in his voice.
Raf brought out more beer, and we sat again on the front step to drink it. The rural delivery car went past his gate without stopping. 'At Lincoln,' he said, 'the postman was a woman. She used to pedal about in yellow shorts, and her legs were very strong and brown.' He paused, and then said, 'So very brown' in a wistful way 'She used to like me making puns about her having more mail than she could deal with. I have to go to Christchurch now' The inconvenience of it rankled. 'I thought I might have had a letter from the Agriculture Department with information about goats,' he said. 'I intend those to be my two priorities this year: goats and the windmill.'
My brother's prevalent attitude to life was one of convinced cheerfulness, yet the non-arrival of the department's letter concerning the goats, and the poignant recollection of the Lincoln post girl's legs, had brought him as close to depression as I had ever seen him. The drink too, I suppose. We'd had quite a lot to drink. I felt it was a good time to tell him of my present. 'I brought you a present.
'Cabernet sauvignon. It's only New Zealand, but it's a medal winner, and four years old. I remembered you liked it best.'
The secret of Raf's joy in life was his appreciation of all the pleasures, irrespective of scale. He got up from the step in excitement. 'What a day!' he said. I got the bottle from my pack, and we had an uncorking ceremony Raf put the bottle on the step to breathe and warm. 'We won't have any more beer now until after the wine,' he said. 'We don't want to be unable to appreciate it. Afterwards it doesn't matter.
'I'll have to go at six or seven. I don't want to have to hitch into Christchurch in the dark.'
'Right. I'd take you in, but I've only got one helmet, and the lights on the bike aren't going.'
Raf seemed to have forgotten his disappointment about the goats and other things. His thin face was alive with speculative enterprise again. 'What to have with the cabernet?' he said. 'We can't drink a good wine with just anything.' The full sophistication of a mind which had achieved honours in economics was given to the problem, and while the world grappled with the exigencies concerning inflation, corruption, guerrilla warfare, spiritual degeneration and environmental pollution, Raf and I sat amidst his seventeen quiet hectares at West Melton, and discussed the entourage for our cabernet. My brother was a great believer in immediate things.
We had peas and baked potatoes, tinned red cabbage and corn. We ate it from plates on our knees, as we sat on the front step. Raf talked to me of his experiences on the continent, and how bad the vin ordinaire was in the south of France. He had some good wine glasses, and we raised them to the evening sun to admire the colour of the wine. Raf invited me to forget university and join him on his goat and windmill farm. 'Economics is a subject that destroys an appreciation of spiritual things, said Raf.
'Law I'm doing law'
'Same thing,' said Raf. 'Probably worse.' He became so carried away in trying to persuade me of the deadening nature of formal studies, that he absent-mindedly kept the last of the cabernet sauvignon for himself, and so I fell back on beer. 'If you'd seen some of the places I have - Bangkok, Glasgow Nice - then the value of privacy would be clear to you. Space brings the individual dignity Tony. Herd animals are always the least attractive. Have you noticed that? I think that's one of the main reasons I want to move from sheep to goats. Goats have individuality it seems to me.'
'A goat suits a name.'
'That's my point.' Raf sat relaxed on the step, his shingle land spreading away before him.
Just on twilight Raf took me down to the West Melton corner on the Norton. He drove carefully conscious of the drink we'd had. 'Come out and see me soon,' he said. 'I meant what I said about forgetting economics, and joining me here to live.' I watched him ride off, without lights, and cautious of the power of the motorbike. I could hear it long after he was out of sight, and I imagined my brother riding up his track, over the stones, towards his disreputable house. To resist the maudlin effects of the wine and the beer, I lay down in the long grass, out of sight of the road. I rested my head on my pack, and slept for an hour or so.
So I ended up hitchhiking into the city in the dark after all. I was lucky though, for after walking a few minutes, I was picked up by a dentist and his daughter. Her name was Susan. We talked about cars, and I tried not to breathe on Susan, lest she think me a typical boozy student. The dentist said he'd been having trouble trying to get the wheels balanced on his Lancia. 'Never underestimate the perversity of objects,' I said. The dentist liked that, and so did Susan. They had an appreciation for a turn of phrase. Raf would have enjoyed its reception. It isn't often that incantations are effective beyond the frontiers of their own kingdom.