Low life

The magic of champagne

15 January 2022

9:00 AM

15 January 2022

9:00 AM

The four portraits of four siblings that Catriona had painted from their photographs over four months were framed, hung and lit and ready for a viewing by the loving parents. That so much creative endeavour should succeed or fail at a glance made me terribly glad I wasn’t a painter. At the appointed hour of six o’clock, I was still in bed upstairs, but listening out, as anxious as she was. Then I heard the parents’ optimistic tattoo on the front door.

We needn’t have worried. I heard them spot their children hanging on the rock face, then their overjoyed exclamations at the interpretations and likenesses. She’d captured their two sons and two mile-and-a-quarters’ various characters brilliantly, they said. Glad and relieved for Catriona, I rose and gingerly descended the creaking wooden stairs, my cotton pyjama bottoms flapping around my spindle shanks, to plant a congratulatory smacker on her smiling lips.

‘You’ll stay for a glass of wine, won’t you?’ said Catriona. They said: ‘Well, actually the mother-in-law has agreed to have the saucepan lids tonight and this is the first evening we’ve had to ourselves since before Christmas. So yes, please.’ Catriona rammed the corkscrew into her last bottle of 2019 Louis Latour Pouilly-Fuissé and I put the kettle on for a cup of tea and lobbed a pine chunk on the fire. Then the four of us disposed ourselves in chairs for a cheery natter.

I’d lived with the vicissitudes of those child portraits, as I say, for four months. An upper lip might take Catriona three days, then she’d paint over it and try again. A jawline ditto. The struggle sometimes dispirited her. At every stage she asked for my impressions of the work in progress and she took my comments surprisingly seriously. (I’ve tried to educate myself about pictures a little in order to make plausible suggestions. Henry Lamb and Gwen John are her ideals.) When each portrait was finished, it went up on the wall until finally there were the four in a row. I’d lived with and considered those colourful little shavers for a very long time. What a precarious way to make a living.

Catriona was on cloud nine. The parents too. As a ghost at the feast, I planned to play the invalid card, slope off back upstairs and leave patrons and artist to their wine and excited chatter and perhaps the money-counting. I felt too weak for company and probably looked it in my pyjamas and saggy grey T-shirt. Then I remembered we had champagne in the fridge left over from Christmas and was ashamed for having chosen tea instead of wine. I therefore suggested that we open a bottle to celebrate properly.

First the parents said they were embarrassed because they hadn’t brought anything with them to drink. Then they said: why not? That would be lovely. Thank you! So I went to the fridge and tore off the foil and poured one out for everyone, myself included.

That one glass of champagne was for me a complete shape changer. The effect was like magic. Strength returned. I found my tongue. Instead of feeling negligible I felt considerable. Before the bottle was finished I went again to the outside fridge and returned on the balls of my feet with a second.

‘Oh no!’ they exclaimed. ‘Not another. Surely!’ The dad said he had to get up early tomorrow to fly to Ireland and shoot snipe. Up to his waist in water for three days, he said. Then he said: ‘Oh, go on. Most kind. Super.’ After bottle number two I put on my Rod Stewart wig and Orchestra Baobab through the Bluetooth speaker and danced and skylarked in an ungainly manner until I had to sit down quickly. If they felt misgivings at the sight of an Egyptian mummy with the bandages off dancing a hornpipe, this cultured, cosmopolitan couple didn’t betray any. ‘It’s a pyjama party!’ said the dad.

After the third bottle, I felt so rejuvenated I stood under a spotlight and gave my first ever public harmonica performance. Playing through a microphone with plenty of reverb, I accompanied Alexis Korner singing ‘I Got My Mojo Working’. Physically, I gave it all I had. I was painfully conscious, however, of playing about three bum notes in every five.

After the fourth bottle we were all four of us on our feet dancing to ‘Junior’s Wailing’ by Steamhammer, Catriona running around like an aeroplane doing her rough-house ‘clear the dancefloor’ move. After the fifth I put on some slow ones. ‘Good practice for Ireland!’ I told the dad as we slowly revolved to ‘A Fool Such As I’ by Hank Snow.

The next day I couldn’t speak until teatime. Though I was glad to have celebrated Catriona’s artistic triumph fully and in the best possible manner.

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