I stepped out of the taxi too quickly. I rocked back on my heels to slow myself down and found that the best way to maintain my balance was to lean against the side of the taxi and look up. The sky was hard and black and a few stars glittered, though I could not see as many as I used to see. Once I had looked up, it was hard to look down again.
‘Are you all right, squire?’ asked the driver. A younger man might probably have abused me for bumping against the side of his taxi; this man belonged to an age when drivers were called ‘cabbie’ and customers were called ‘squire’ or ‘guv’nor’.
The question was difficult to answer. Was I all right? It was a very good question. It required thought before I could answer. I gazed at the stars and thought about the question.
‘That’ll be fifteen pounds, squire,’ the driver said.
I realised I had not managed to answer him. I peeled some notes from a bundle I kept in a money clip and paid him a sum of money. I cannot remember how much it was, but he seemed pleased.
‘God bless you, guv’nor,’ he said, as he drove off.
I rocked on my heels again. It was a pleasant feeling. I took in a bit more night sky, while I found my balance, and a bit of the front of the restaurant as my weight shifted back to my toes. A small, discreet sign announced: ‘Les Tripes de Normandie’. It was a very successful restaurant, I had heard. I had never been before. I did not like to go to the same restaurant more than once; perhaps twice if it was very good. There always seemed to be issues, these days, when I went back to places where I had eaten before. I liked the sign. I thought the font used was probably Arial, and the lighting was clever: the lettering was done in neon tubing in an off-white, almost a cream colour, against a polished black-marble fascia.
They said the chef was brilliant. He had constructed a menu which took rustic French dishes and elevated them to art forms. He had appeared on a number of television programmes and was admired and loved by the public. I am quoting from the restaurant’s web site. I am not especially interested in cooking. It is the wine list in a restaurant that catches my attention. When I had inspected Les Tripes’s web site, I’d clicked straight away on to the wine list and seen that they offered a Château Pétrus 1982. I don’t remember the weather in 1982 in western France, but I have read about it. It was a cool spring and then a warm summer that extended into September: long hours of sunshine and not much rain. Conditions were ideal for the Bordeaux vineyards that year. As a result, 1982 is a vintage that seems to have lasted practically for ever. It is a classic. But, you will not be surprised to learn, it is becoming harder and harder to find.
Finding Pétrus 1982 on a wine list is like discovering a diamond lying on the ground. The vineyard only covers 28 acres and produces about twenty-five thousand bottles annually. The grapes are picked, then fermented for twenty four days, then macerated in concrete tanks. After that the young wine is aged in oak barrels for twenty months, and then bottled. After that, all you have to do is wait between fifteen and twenty years, and it will be ready to drink. It is rare now to come across a Pétrus 1982 or indeed any of the earlier vintages; but if you do find a bottle, you need to make the most of the opportunity. It is not cheap: the restaurant web site indicated a price of £3000 a bottle; but, if you are an enthusiast, the price is irrelevant if you find what you are looking for. That is what I always say.
It wasn’t as if I could drink that particular year of Pétrus at home. I have rather a large amount of wine now, which I obtained from Francis Black. Some people would say it is an incredible amount of wine. But it did not include Château Pétrus 1982.
I found I had finished rocking on my heels and decided to enter the restaurant. As I came through the door, they took my coat and said, ‘Mr. Wilberforce?’
I nodded and the waiter asked if he could show me to my table. The restaurant was quite empty. It was still opening up, it being just a few minutes after seven in the evening. I liked to go to restaurants early. It meant that I could stay in them a very long time, if I felt like staying – for example, if there were several different wines on their list which I wanted to try. Then again, if there was only one wine I was interested in, I liked to eat my dinner and drink my bottle or two of claret and be out again before the place filled up and I risked being distracted from what I had come to taste.
I entered a warm, softly lit room. The tables were of dark oak, with squares of white linen laid upon them. Two waiters were still lighting the candles on the tables. Another waiter was straightening the knives and forks with microscopic attention to their alignment, and picking up and inspecting the great, bowl-like wine glasses for specks of dust. A girl was putting the final touches to a large flower arrangement in the centre of the room. An important-looking person in an immaculate navy-blue suit, whom I took to be the head waiter, was standing at the double doors into the kitchen and talking to the chef. A waiter in a white shirt and black waistcoat was standing behind the bar, arranging the bottles on the shelves and flicking them with a duster, so that they gleamed and sparkled in the reflected light from the mirrors behind them. The bar counter was a deep pool of mahogany, on which crystal ashtrays sparkled. This too was given a final polish as I watched, and the ashtrays, which were already clean, were picked up and wiped again.
‘Would you like a drink at the bar, sir, or shall I show you straight to your table?’
I realised I had come to a standstill in the middle of the empty restaurant, drinking in its potent spell, as one does when the curtain rises on a stage set, revealing a perfectly ordinary drawing room which is yet latent with a drama that will soon unfold. I love the early evening in a nearly empty restaurant. I love the hushed silence, the whisperings of the waiters as they wait to be called, the distant clatter and shouts that come from the kitchen as the doors swing open for a moment, and then swing closed again, cutting off the intrusion of noise. I love the glitter of the glasses and the cutlery in the candlelight, the purity of it all, the orderliness.
‘I’d like to go straight to my table,’ I said.
The waiter led me to a corner table and drew the chair back so that I could be seated. Then he gave me a copy of the menu and asked if I would like anything to drink. I asked for a glass of water and the wine list.
‘The sommelier will be with you in a moment, sir,’ said the waiter. I looked anxiously around the room. So much of my happiness depended on the sommelier. Did he really know how to keep his wine? Did he know how to open it? how to decant it? how to pour it? I have known a perfectly good bottle of Margaux be ruined by a careless wine waiter who managed to slosh it into my glass, accompanied by small pieces of cork, as if he were pouring out lager.
My eye chanced upon a large man in