I have become obsessed with a demi-john of bubbling, strawberry coloured liquid in my kitchen, checking it each and every hour of the day to ascertain the clarity, to ensure it isn’t overflowing, to wave away the fruit flies which hover around it in multitudes, patiently waiting for any attempt to turn my gorgeous wine into vinegar. My Dad haunts my dreams, as I recall bubbling demi-johns in his man-shed garage in my youth. I recall peering in curiously, observing the sight and sound of escaping bubbles via ridiculous looking curved pipes, topped with brightly coloured lids. Lingering, I was convinced that this forbidden liquid should have been offered to Alice in order to transform her size, her shape and her life.
As a teenager, my Dad’s brews were infamous. To all my student buddies this was the (free) fuel to light up our dancefloor gyrations, drunk in copious amounts shortly before arriving at the door of any club, sporting the latest ridiculous art school haircut and/or outfit and oozing false courage now that the parental booze had been absorbed. I remember too my Dad’s sighs when he saw my haircuts. Every time, no matter what colour or cut, he would heave one of those long-suffering sighs from deep within his soul, albeit with a glint in his eye. “You know I would have given you the money for a haircut, don’t you?” he would announce, adding quickly “although it would probably have been spent in the pub so I guess it’s just as well you became a model, if that’s what you call THAT!”
The Old Man nevertheless frequently shoved a fiver into my hand as I left, saying to keep it a secret from Mum …
The serenity of that garden shed, while I struggled to breathe in 2020, with its homemade wine smells, imbued my sleep with a little peace. I snuggled up there virtually, like the black cat who shared her home with the sounds of Dad’s brewing. The year had begun positively, as I cajoled worried teenagers, with exams just around the corner. I enjoyed the teenage banter while working our way through “The Speckled Band” and Conan Doyle might have shivered from my rendition but we analysed several segments with precision. The snivelling children seemingly inhabited every class I gave, pondered retrospectively. When one of them literally had his fevered forehead on a desk, an inkling of COVID transmission uncurled. About to admonish the little perisher for late night YouTube watching, I saw eyes of absolute exhaustion. It was a little before the outbreak in the UK but we had understood from Wuhan how desperate the situation was.
A week later, not only that child but also his teacher, were laid up in bed, unaware of the severity of the weeks to come. First it was simply exhaustion. Sleep 22 of 24 hours stopping only to gulp water, with sweat pouring off back, face, forehead, even limbs. Those days are still hazy. It was a no tulips year for me and I am fully aware how lucky I was that loving hands forced me to eat soup, to please try a little food, to please drink this tea. If I had lived alone I honestly think I would have slept forever. The pain in every sensitive spot on the body felt electrified by a torturer of Spanish Inquisition style. Branding my back, inserting stomach wounds like spears, twisting muscles, pumping poison into my lungs and stopping blood from easy passage through my veins. Days merged into nightmares with an impossible physics equation lurking in the air, which I had to solve in order to achieve the next mouthful of oxygen. Every single breath was hard won. Indeed the violence caused by breathing, the deep pain in ribs and lungs tempted the will not to attempt to do so anymore.
To see Boris Johnson sail through it on TV was incredible. Either that man has more steel in his veins than I do or my version was exaggerated – plunging from one low to the next, anxiety dissolving into calm acceptance that maybe I would not make it. That sounds melodramatic but truly the will to live deserts you, because the effort is too great. Maybe delirium or perhaps hours spent alone with curtains drawn but in my memory, linger conversations I believe I had, debating whether it was my time to leave. Firm replies. Not yet.
Daily I began to drink water, tea, soup then snack a little and finally sit at a table for a meal, when I spied a flash of red in the garden; strawberries were ready to pick. The first taste was nectar on a tongue which had lost its sense of taste, the nose that was too blocked to function began to notice wafting sweet peas on my doorstep, with calendulas striking a colourful opposite to the darkness in which I had been mired for weeks. The Pandemic harvest was bountiful; I stuffed my mouth with fruit until it stained my lips savouring being alive, relishing the red flesh, and the sweetness that is breathing. Normally the neighbours would have had some but no fruit could be shared so we stored the excess in ice-cream containers, when an image of my father leapt to my mind.
Suddenly a demi-john was sterilised, then filled with daily doses of leftover fruit. Sugar was added, then yeast and I watched the bubbles forming, likening them to air bubbles in the lungs; feeling advice from childhood permeate the flavour of this vintage. Sunshine, strawberries and flies; I was exhausted enough to simply watch the experiment happen. The following day add more and I notice strawberry seeds sink to the bottom. I could almost hear my Dad’s voice over my shoulder tut tutting “Why didn’t you strain the fruit first?”
Too exhausted to reply, I sip some soup and glare at the demi-john, willing it to just be sufficient, not vintage, not excellent, just enough to toast out 2020 with a new year glass of Pandemic Brew. It was magnificent. Sláinte Dad. Goodbye 2020.
(c) Tina Lawlor Mottram