The sky is never the same shade of blue in a 180-degree arc. Today is one such day where ultramarine, navy, Prussian and cobalt mix and merge with Egyptian, azure and sky blue. Although that is my usual choice of beverage, today doesn’t seem like a coffee-drinking day. Certainly not when the eye is gazing upon endless rows of fruit dangling pendulously and lushly — grapes, now in their prime, ready to be picked, or crushed.
It is a vineyard of extraordinary proportion and I, along with my prankster mate Barney, am seated at a shaded table out in the open. When writers in novels write ‘a cool breeze kissed my cheek,’ it sometimes reads a bit corny but that is exactly what is happening. There’s a gentle, velvet-breath breeze blowing and I am being kissed lavishly — on both cheeks as the wind slips one way then doubles back mischievously.
Max, who owns the vineyard, is the third member at the table. He and Barney go back years and Barney claims (away from Max’s hearing) that they’re like cousins, fourth or fifth removed. I take that with a generous pinch of salt. But what I don’t have to doubt at all is Max’s intellect. He is like an Australian version of Stephen Fry, knowledgeable on nearly everything and with a phenomenal memory to boot. He can recall dates in history and events with such clarity as if he were there himself.
It is from this first meeting that I learn what is an aldehyde and what is an acetaldehyde. And what is blue fining and what are botrytised grapes — all this, with sudden swift digressions into Napoleonic times where the Battle of Leipzig nearly ended in disaster for him before the successful Battle of Hanau provided his army a chance to retreat.
Donning another garb
Naturally, Max is opinionated. He reckons that science and technology, the long foes of idealism and conservatism will, with the passing years, pose greater challenges to those philosophies. The point is that his thinking is not merely old fashioned but terribly contemporary as well. All of which doesn’t make sense at all if you get to meet Max outside — that is, away from the vineyard.
Away from ‘home’ he dons another garb entirely. If you happen upon him some 60 kilometres away, seated in an open-air sidewalk cafe accompanied by his two regular tea drinking buddies, Victor and Emmanuel, there’ll be no resemblance whatsoever to the high intellectual Max of the Vineyards. Over here, he sits in silence and lets his buddies keep him informed. And both Victor and Emmanuel enjoy telling him a million things they think he knows nothing about whatsoever. They talk about the trains and complain about their lateness; about the electricity situation and how Elon Musk deserves the highest award the state can bestow. They let him know that Musk is a millionaire — no, billionaire, corrects Victor, “and he’s going to send the first humans to Mars.” And if he cannot do it nobody’s going to be able to not in the near future, adds Emmanuel. Sitting, listening, Max nods and nods as though this is the first time he’s hearing it all.
Back at the vineyard when Barney asks him to explain, Max says, quite simply, “It’s not for me to pose as a Mr Know It All, Barney. Besides, after I lost Kate [his wife] I’ve been so lonely. Ten years of loneliness in this remote place can eat you alive. And you know how hard it is at our age to make new friends and keep them?”
For me, it all has a bittersweet ring to it: to think of the lengths one must sometimes go to, in order to find friendship and camaraderie; and the need to draw a veil gently back and forth to reveal or hide one’s intellect. It’s a recipe for living two lives in one day and apparently that’s how some live it to cope with loneliness.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.