Ask any wine enthusiast how their love affair with wine begun, and inevitably you will hear how unexpected events or an improbable coincidence sealed their fate – a girl’s toxic relationship with a sommelier boyfriend, a wine gift after helping a stranger in trouble, or even the unusual circumstances of a neighbour’s death…
Mr Palka, our Polish neighbour, was to die in very unusual circumstances. His death turned out to be inexorably linked with my eventual and lifelong love of wine.
Edinburgh New Town has hardly changed since the late seventies, when we first moved into a small flat in a hilly, but attractive, cobbled street named after the Earl of Dundonald. A world away from the exotic, sun-beaten kasbah-flavoured streets we left behind in Gibraltar. Let me explain that there is nothing new about Edinburgh New Town. Chronic overcrowding and the uncontrolled, stinking effluence of the old city led to the construction of a new town over two hundred years ago. Our flat was built for the servant classes, having none of the usual Georgian features of high ceilings, elaborate cornices or black marble fireplaces. Above us, however, in typical New Town grandeur, lived Mr Palka our Polish neighbour.
Mr Palka, in his early sixties, lived on his own. Like the shiny and self-assured black cat he kept for company, he was always immaculately turned out. A red silk handkerchief and impeccable shoes, his overwhelming trademarks. He was polite to a fault, but never stopped to chat with neighbours longer than social etiquette demanded, and rarely did the subject matter get beyond the weather or some perceived fault in a communal part of the building. From the music wafting down from above and regular deliveries of wine, always in wooden cases, Mr Palka was clearly a man who enjoyed fine living. It was not uncommon to see Justerini and Brooke’s van outside our building, nor the owner of the long-defunct Howgate Wines in Cumberland Street gingerly carrying a wooden case across slippery cobbles to Mr Palka’s flat.
Should you visit the New Town, your attention will be drawn to the fine stone work, the astragal windows with their shimmering glass, stately doors with imposing locks and ominous-looking door knockers. What you won’t see are thousands of arched cellars beneath the wide pavements. Their wooden black doors invisible from street level, each flat allocated a cellar scrupulously recorded in property deeds. Mr Palka, however, appeared to own all our cellars and over the years many owners had consulted their solicitors only to be told that indeed all the cellars had been allocated to Mr Palka’s flat over two hundred years before, and there was nothing to be done about it. His five cellars, guarded by unusually heavy doors and double mortice locks, were rumoured to be filled with expensive French wines.
Mr Palka’s problems started on a fine Saturday morning in early summer. Answering our doorbell, I found him dishevelled, smiling, and holding a set of car keys. He wanted me to drive him to his doctor as his right arm had gone dead. His smile did not hide his embarrassment at his unkempt appearance and undone shoe laces.
Once underway in his classic VW beetle, long before this iconic vehicle had its gender realigned and flower vases placed within, he told me he was confident that his limp arm was a minor problem and he had no intention of cancelling a long-planned holiday with friends who had chartered a sail boat in Ecuador to visit the Galapagos Islands. Would our son look after his cat? I did not answer. My silence, I hoped, expressing my thoughts without having to be over-familiar. In any case, I was confident that his doctor would dissuade him from embarking on such a foolhardy journey as his symptoms appeared more serious than Mr Palka cared to admit. I was impressed none-the-less with his lack of self-pity and determination.
The following week, after arranging for our 10-year-old son to look after his cat, Mr Palka departed for South America where he suffered a stroke on the high seas and died. He is buried in the British cemetery in Lima.
For a few days our dead neighbour became the central theme of conversation in our building. Had he died suddenly? How far away from land where they? Would the heat have made on board living intolerable with a dead body? Would the sharks have eaten him had they buried him at sea? Did he have any relatives? Questions which were never answered.
After our initial shock, our attention turned to the cat. What were we to do with him? Mr Palka had given us a set of keys to his lavishly appointed flat for our son to carry out cat-keeping. He was to be paid on Mr Palka’s return!
A few days later Mr Palka’s solicitor, a jovial overweight man, came to the door and introducing himself, thanked us for looking after the cat and asked if we would we consider taking it in for a few days until permanent arrangements were made. He asked us to come upstairs and take whatever dishes or paraphernalia cats required which we did. As we were about to leave the lawyer called me back. “I think you will find that that Marcus is partial to fine wine!” The lawyer winked and smiled taking a heavy-looking bottle of white wine from one of several cases stacked in the corridor. That weekend we drunk the wine and toasted our former neighbour.
If my Spanish grandmother’s sweet Oloroso set me off on a slow path to vinophilia when I was five, Mr Palka’s white Burgundy pushed me firmly over the edge into wine geek territory when I was past twenty. The wine was a 1966 Meursault from a producer I have long forgotten. I was amazed that a grape could sing such an intricate song of liquid gold, whose lyrics, unaided by added spirits, could easily stand shoulder to shoulder with those Sherries whose words I knew so well.
The cat was collected a few days after the solicitor’s visit. We left for Gibraltar on holiday and when we returned Mr Palka’s empty flat had been placed on the market. We never found out if his cellars were full of expensive French wines. If I am ever in Lima, I will take flowers to Mr Palka. After all, his gift is lasting me a lifetime.