The End of the Line by Malcolm Gluck

It is a pleasant morning. I have eaten a substantial breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs with my Earl Grey. In three hours, all being well, my lover Henri(etta)will throw herself into my arms at Euston – well, a discreet brushing of lips and cheeks will ensue at least.

[private]Even when the sun shines, as now, as the train slips out of the place, Manchester is dreary: I’m glad to be shot of it. Economic necessity forced me to fetch up there. I had been engaged for the Friday and Saturday at the city’s Wine & Cheese Festival, managing the stand on the produce of Lombardy because I am a wine writer with a grasp of rudimentary Italian who also knows from which end of a cow cheese originates (James Joyce called cheese the corpse of milk and it’s a considerable metaphor). This advantage over my fellow booze hacks was evident from the oiks on other stands – given over to Spain, Germany, Portugal and so on. Dull monoglots were in charge there and it showed.

God, I hate wine writers. Their dominant trait is envy. Their major obsession is the source of the next free trip abroad or, the really bedraggled ones, free lunch. Maddened by their mediocrity, impoverished by lack of imagination, eaten up with sloth and ennui, condemned to a poverty the prickliness of which is only occasionally softened by those donated airline meals and retailerfunded fodder, their lives, as self-proclaimed wine experts, are precarious, delusional, comic-operetta-ish: hardly prize catches for the grim reaper against whose final reckoning they divide their lives, as they degrade their livers, into ineffectual instalments of ego-satiation. You think me harsh? Not at all. In describing them I describe myself.

Standard class intercity rail fare brought us to Manchester (apart from two hacks who lived locally) and standard fare, alas, sustained us, though I did manage a slap-up meal, at someone else’s expense, on the first night. My accommodation at the ghastly Rosetti hotel did not run to a funded breakfast as the Lombards didn’t go in for feeding me as well as paying for the bed. Wine? Wine flowed freely of course, as much as we could gargle down our gullets. Naturally, being the pre-eminent Bacchic scribe on display I got the feast referred to earlier but I did have to host a tutored tasting of Italian wines beforehand in order to scoff it. I matched the noble grape varieties of Italy to appropriate dishes. I can now comfortably glow with weight gain. How my colleagues hate me.

My fee for the weekend was £150; and £75 for the tasting. I had hoped for twice these figures, but the Lombards said that if my fee was that high they may as well fly over Nino Bassia from Turin and so I compromised. I always do.

I curse to hell the pushers of the ploughs so energetically trying to grind my bones into the dust when they still so amply buttress my flesh. That I’m at the wrong end of my career, not even in the middle, was forcibly rammed down my throat, possibly unwittingly, at breakfast this very morning at the Rosetti.

Just as I’d turned away from instructing a waitress that hard-asa-rock rolls are bad enough in the morning but that the rock and roll muzak must be turned down, Adam Mears entered the dining room. I was stunned. We breakfasted together. I hadn’t known he’d attended the Wine & Cheese Festival as he was certainly not on any stand. The disparity between our years, and education, was never more evident than in his first remark:

“Christ! This dozy hotel can’t even play music to soothe the savage beast first thing in the morning…”

And I realised that for kids like him (he can be barely 38), electronic pollution, often atonal and always feverish, is the norm. Adam is the leading lad in wine commentating at the moment, far ahead of the decrepit Oz Clarke. He revealed, as he guzzled a bacon sarnie, that he had filled the Old Trafford Playhouse the night before. 336 punters each paying £15 a seat! I felt dizzy. I also remembered that his name had been bandied about by some of the visitors to the stand but I simply ignored it, not realising the bastard was in town. What was he to me? Prior to our breakfast, we had merely exchanged nods and brief salutations at wine tastings. I suppose anyone would have done for him, as a matutinal audience. Lucky me, eh?

The breakfast proceeded amicably enough, though it was evident that he was raking it in and I could barely masticate my black pudding (I always insist on this on the side when I have eggs). There was a time when I would have been invited to address large audiences with a cut of the take. His sudden incursion into, and vulgar ascent of, the world of wine writing has been sickeningly rapid. I was dying to ask him, trying desperately to find a way to enquire without seeming to care, how much he had made last night, but a calculation based on the percentage I used to receive made my head spin. £2000 for the fee, £500 from the sale of the sponsor’s wines, plus sales of his latest wine guide, which eclipsed mine three years ago on its first publication, and he’s probably doing this two or three times a week leading up to Christmas.

Henri has often remarked that a man who eats black pudding in the morning is begging for a quick death and I must say right then, as I worked out the parvenu’s income over breakfast, she would, had she seen into my heart, have called the emergency services tout de suite.

Adam has the facial accoutrements of the good-looking buck, but the whole doesn’t quite add up to the sum of the parts. Taken separately, the nose, the passionate eyes (and those military eyebrows), the sensuous mouth and jut to the chin, the wan flesh, have a sculpted dimension; but thrown together as they are the result is suggestive of a young Clark Gable suffering from a mighty hangover and sun deprivation. He needs a haircut as well. He should develop a worthily veined nose in a decade or so, but will I be around to chortle over it? My own, since you wonder, is not in bad shape for someone who has drunk at least one bottle of red a day for the past 43 years, and only occasionally do I have to

apply cosmetic varnish to it. I can’t claim to have Adam’s sleekness of hair (as once I could), or still productive follicles, but at least I cannot now tear it out in furious handfuls, whatever the incentives

I’m given to take this relief.

The shock, once it had settled on me, was realising I was breakfasting with myself of 25 years ago. I stared at Adam as he smothered more of his toasted sandwich with ketchup and saw readily discernible differences, but it was the attitude, the dynamism (relative), the confidence, the glow, that I could identify with. How horrible. Was he eating my soul as he masticated the bacon? But then he’s been taking sustenance at my expense, agonisingly slowly but surely, over the past half-decade as his meteor has climbed ever-higher, fuelled in its ascent by those who had gone before. I could feel Death settle on my shoulders and cackle “Not long now, matey!”

Why had I never realised all this until now? Was it Mears’s sudden irruption into the dining room? My own sense of desperation that I had no option but to accept the Italians’ terms when a few years ago I would have laughed in their faces and told them to sod off? Do other professionals suffer similar epiphanies of decrepitude? Barristers perhaps? Doctors? Sportsmen (and, I suppose, sportswomen)? No doubt labourers, as they contemplate the newly-arrived, ripplingly-muscled Poles on the building sites, feel the shiver of redundancy. But did any of them have to sit and eat with their replacements?

Adam wasn’t aware that had I had a phial of cyanide about my person it would have been insinuated into his Earl Grey (yes, he’d helped himself to mine and yelled for a fresh pot, amazed that so crummy a hotel could offer such a tea). I was affirmative and charming, as we discussed, or rather I listened to, his tale of theatrical triumph. He didn’t ask what I was doing there and so I didn’t elaborate, feeling it wouldn’t exactly thrill him to be told of cheeses and salamis sliced, of bottles of obscure Pavian red opened, of the Mancunian hordes anxious to get their full money’s worth from the £4 entrance ticket as they stuffed themselves with sausage and red wines.

At Wakefield, soon reached, the conductor reminds “customers” that we must keep all our belongings with us at all times. Mears, I have no doubt, is letting his bacon sarnie go down snug in the back of a publisher’s or impresario’s limousine, chatting up some leggy PR totty as he speeds back home, he to Islington, I to Southfields, that suburb of residual failures and make-dos most of whom have no ambitions greater than Putney or Wimbledon whereas I, before I had to sell up, had a duplex in Regent’s Park once shared with the dazzling Wanda who ran Primax Communications before she went off with Pierre, 15 years her junior, insisting, even as she shut the door (later and more emphatically via her virulent lawyer), on her greater portion of the property sale.

Henri is some relief after six years of relative celibacy, if such a state can be relative, but I do miss Wanda and her experimental attitude to carnal relations. And I miss her money. Henri, my junior by only ten years (as Wanda was all of twenty-three), has the illusion I am still a celebrity and somehow close to wealth, and what can I do to disturb that delicious conceit? Wanda was the sort of woman who would turn up to a wine tasting with a pitbull pup, wearing a pearl-studded collar, in her arms. Henri keeps a single infuriating goldfish, reminiscent in its grasping for air of Jancis Robinson, and often I think of battering and deep-frying it as well I might when the time comes for me to quit her shores for ones more curvaceous, less tense. I wonder what she has in mind for a late Sunday lunch?

It’s no consolation to solve the witless Observer crossword between Wakefield and Stoke-on-Trent. Adam Mears has got to me. Does the grim reaper always announce his forthcoming appearance by adopting the guise of youth? Or am I uniquely able to sense his imminence?

Christ, I feel so bloody morbid! Worse than a fishbone stuck in the throat, like some giant liverfluke cruising through my entrails intent on slow destruction, I feel my doom. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not this side of Christmas. And one of the nastiest aspects of it is that I cannot believe that all my contemporaries are not witnesses to this slow living-death of mine. I cannot escape. I have to move in the same world as Adam Mears or fade away even earlier.

Suicide is an option, I suppose. Or perhaps a jail term for an exotic and notorious crime which would enable me to pen a lucrative memoir a few years after I served my term? I could rape Jilly Goolden perhaps. Burn down Hugh Johnson’s Essex mansion. Or what if I became a darling of the Guardian crowd? Murdered the head of wine-buying for Tesco? Crippled the supplier of Penfold’s vineyard chemicals? Rammed a Sainsbury’s juggernaut with a mechanical grape harvester?

It’s a horrible thing to be forced to have breakfast with one’s assassin. Worse, to see that the assassin has no inkling of his role in the murder; his arrogance so complete, his smugness so selfassured, that, like some mediaeval prince, he accepts without consideration the deference that he absorbs as his due as casually as he takes the air he breathes.

It gets worse. At Milton Keynes the train stops, lies stationary for five minutes, and then the unctuous conductor announces that further progress is impossible due to engineering work on the line. Was it not known before we left Manchester that engineering work would halt our career prematurely? To Virgin perhaps. Not to me, of course.

The train empties of passengers on to Milton Keynes station and coaches are said to await outside to take us down the M1 to London. They have been waiting there some time, inevitable in their planned appearance, the drivers knowing that no train on a Sunday can go from Manchester to Euston due to engineering work. This is why Mears had a car laid on. His PR totty knew all about Virgin trains.

Her time will come. As will his. Their knees will creak one day, as mine do; their faces will ripple with unearthly grey wrinkles like an elephant’s arse, as mine is threatening to do; their trains will one day stop at Milton Keynes and they will be forced, too mean, too damned bereft of regular income, to spend money on a shared taxi, to wait in line for a coach to Victoria whilst one’s closest friend waits at Euston.

Henri will be dialling my mobile to wonder where I am, unaware that my phone has unaccountably packed up and that I cannot either make or receive calls; and so I mingle with my fellow passengers, many cursing their fate at the hands of the rail company, and make my journey along the motorway trying to cheer myself up with thoughts like “will I be recognised?” or “will someone flourish a copy of my latest wine guide and ask me to sign it?”.

Of course not. My time has been. My time has gone. I can feel the slow grinding of the plough as it glides over my bones, throwing up fresh earth in which the Adam Mearses of this world can plant and grow their reputations. It is small recompense to be the fertiliser. I would rather be the pesticide which poisons.

As the coach draws into Victoria, I see Henri waiting. Unbelievable! Demonstrating the unique flexibility of the feminine mind she must have telephoned about train times and so discovered my diversion by road and where this miserable charabanc would end up. She is an angel.

When I get home I shall give her fish a pinch of breadcrumbs and attempt sex. With Henri that is. I have a platonic relationship with the fish. I have a platonic relationship with life.

It won’t last forever. Life I mean. Some comfort in that.[/private]

Malcolm Gluck has written 41 books on wine and for sixteen years wrote the "Superplonk" column in The Guardian. His first foray into fiction is Château Lafite & Other Stories, available at Waterstones and Amazon. Two more short story collections are planned. He lives alone in Hampstead with a bicycle and 5000 books (not written by him).

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