Perhaps I'll never find out.
It started as one of those things that creeps up on you, the first time, when you don't yet know what to expect, and distracts you with various types of unpleasantness whilst all the time tightening its grip on your throat. When your breathing gets laboured, and you realise what's happening - then it's too late.
Have I told you that I love wine? For a few years, recently, I didn't. Oh, boy - you don't want to know about that one. Gruesome. But one day I'll inflict the whole unpleasant saga on you. Actually, this tale is not all that pleasant, either. But wine does come into it too, though perhaps more peripherally.
Do I love wine? Oh my word! If I had to give up wine or sex I'll be hard pressed to decide between them. I hope I never have to. It was bad enough when it was decided for me. Never again, touch wood. And when I found that I could enjoy my wine again, and had got some sort of a palate back, my mind turned to taking up our earlier habit of making short tasting tours into the wine country, bringing back a wide range of single samples to be tried with leisurely dinners before lashing out on case-loads.
So, a few weeks ago, I booked two adjoining motel suites in the heart of the wine country for Graeme and Joanne, and Diana and myself, and we sorted out a driving roster so only one of us would have to be sober at any time. We all arranged long-weekend leave from our jobs and made sure all our deadlines were comfortably met, so we would not be missed on the Monday. We didn't intend rushing back.
On Friday evening Graeme and Joanne came up to the city and I fed us all at home (with Diana and Joanne's help while Graeme and I selected the wines for the evening, of course).
Simple grilled eye sirloin with a herbed grain mustard, sweet potato, broccoli and a little rice. Starters too, of course. Smoked salmon rolled with a few capers in linseed-rye bread. Nothing significant to follow, just a little cubed mango and thin banana with a ball of low-fat chocolate ice-cream and a little skimmed-milk vanilla yoghurt as a cold sauce.
Wines? With the starters the 1993 Burrweiler Bischofskreuz Kabinett. With the steak a 1985 Maxwell Cabernet Merlot from McLaren Vale, that I had been saving for twelve years - well saved, too! Dessert was nicely complemented by the 1992 Chevalier Pierre Oreghegy Muskat-Ottonel. I think we all slept well that night.
The following morning the weekend started in earnest. A late, amiable breakfasting. A slow, chatty drive up the coast and inland to where the grapes were forming in the early summer air. Dragonflies flashing iridescent over the warm waters of the ponds and dams when we stopped under the trees, looking out across valleys and rolling hills, drinking coffee from the flask and nibbling fresh banana and nut cake.
Those were two perfect days. Drowsy, warm, filled with good company, good wine, good food. Well, not absolutely perfect, perhaps.
We really must do more research to find at least one pleasant luncheon establishment that will do a truly light snack in some style. In our brief foray on day one we found no middle ground between pie-and-mash and jugged quail. Well, perhaps a slight exaggeration, but that was how it seemed. One vineyard was written up as serving snacks with pate and cheese at lunchtime, out the terrace. We shot over there, wallet in hand. The carpark had spaces - good sign.
But no tables and chairs. A bench, against the wall, with a large golden Labrador asleep in its shade. Actually, no terrace, either - though the generous copywriter may have been describing where the path went past the building. What gives? What snacks? Ah. The refrigerator, besides holding the current cooled wine supply, also has a few packets of supermarket pate and cheese spread, 'at marked prices'. 'We prefer you eat it outside'. Another blank! However, their wines were good, so the tail of the car rode a little lower as we left there, an hour later, wine samples well packed down, but ourselves still peckish.
Lunch that day was finally solved after a fashion by a salad from a queue-at-the-counter for service, sort of camping-ground-store, style of shop/cafe. Well, by then we weren't so choosy.
The next day the motel packed us a picnic basket for lunch. Once more under the trees. Excellent. Way to go next time, perhaps.
Dinners were fun. I'm not going to tell you where we ate, though. That wouldn't be fair. If that makes no sense, I apologise, but it will become clear soon, I promise.
I was the nominated driver. That was fine by me. I wanted to taste everything and anything, so I was on a spit-bucket regime from the first, otherwise I would have had even less of a palate before we had scarce begun the range we had come for. And for dinner I would limit myself to just one glass (unless we ate in the motel, which we had already voted against). So my one glass would have to be something luscious I could sip at all evening, without getting bored by it, and without it swamping the food. The choice was easy. On both evenings I took along our sample bottle of the latest bottling of Annandale Fleur, a wine I have been drinking with great pleasure for over fifteen years.
The food, both evenings, in quite different styles of establishment, was at the same time both excellent and a great disappointment. How so?
My mother, bless her heart, used to say 'always buy the best, and you can't go wrong' but her cooking was its own demonstration of the untruth of that aphorism. Maybe I do her cooking a grave injustice. I used to eat what she put before me - in the main. Perhaps if she had cooked cheaper cuts I couldn't have even managed that. But none of us can do everything well, and in so many ways she was so much larger than life for me, and my brother. So, if she wasn't the world's greatest cook, so what?
I don't know what my mother has to do with the high-status and low-status end of the wine-region restaurant establishments. Maybe it will become clearer to you (and hopefully to me too) as we progress.
The first night we ate in an up-market sort of place. Top of the hill. Views all round. New building. All brass and glass and woodwork shone up like mirrors. Air-conditioning (too cold). Cute blown-glass miniature candle-holders. Padded tablecloths. Silver service. White gloves. Responsive help at every elbow. Corkage worth more than the bottle. Booking times carefully scheduled so every new table had exclusive access to the help for fifteen minutes, to get settled and orders taken. Boy, but then? Then you are on your own. Big time.
Graeme is a kangaroo savant. Give him, as Ogden Nash might have phrased it, a kangeroo-merangue, and he is one happy boy. Except, this time, he could have got the meal to the table faster with his own boomerangue, than waiting for the kitchen to find and shoot it on his behalf. I do not claim the service was slow. I merely record and recount. We had one course (each, naturally - savages we ain't), and they rushed us in and out within three hours and seven minutes. As we left, I swear we overheard the staff asking each other, "So, what's their hurry, already?"
The food was true to description, though it was only as you ate it, with the menu before you, that you realised just how the florid phrases were meant to be interpreted. There is no question that the chefs were good at their jobs. The food was excellent. Crisp was crisp. Tender was tender. Juicy was juicy. Flavoured with balsam, or mango, or mint, or whatever, was exactly that. The servings were nicely judged.
I wish I could put my finger squarely on the source of our disappointment. It wasn't the hour and a three-quarters between order and arrival (though with the carefully scheduled arrival scheme that was hard to understand). It was as if too much had been done to make the food even better than food can be got. More flavours. More variety of texture - seared hard on one side, meltingly tender the other. More of more. The gaps in the spectrum of the palate had been filled with clever additions to each dish so that it presented the whole rainbow of taste, and that, in food as in light, perhaps, adds up to a colourless whole.
Perhaps we have become spoilt by our own home cooking style. The open flavour of our steak, mustard on the side to contrast, not imbued throughout to become part. The vegetables, separately cooked, not steamed together, each its own unique flavour. No grey areas between. No merging, no blurring.
Anyhow, for my pains, I had the chicken - seared/tender on seared potato chunks. All spiced and herbed and sauced to a stand-still. Steamed vegetable on the side, garnished and flavoured in clever subtle ways. Then a long wait for coffee, and finally back to the motel, for a restful night - the last for a very long time, though I didn't know that then. Woke refreshed, ready for a good breakfast and more tasting.
The second afternoon, after all the tasting was done, the girls went visiting old friends and historic homes while Graeme and I sat in the shade, enjoyed the view and reminisced about our youth. Finally, we sorted all our purchases, boxed all the wines, and filled the back of the car with them. We decided to leave the problem of getting our clothes back to town until later, when we might have a solution. Probably use part of the back seat and leave one of us to walk. Hell, we are problem-solvers!
With the important part of the packing solved, we headed out for dinner. Somewhere close, but no way as hoity as the night before. The place we found was immediately endearing, in a sort of up-market down-market way.
Yes, I find it confusing, too. The food was if anything even more original and truly better cooked that the night before. But the building was modest. Much older. Nestled below the road in an old-style, slightly overgrown garden. Screened windows open to the chirruping sounds of the night. A ceiling fan lazily stirring the gentle humidity. Plain candles stuck in their own dripped wax onto small saucers. Stainless Steel. Wooden tables with place mats. No corkage, no limit. A single waitress - but there whenever you needed. Service, prompt. They must have had everything ready to hand and begun cooking as soon as we gave our orders.
Prices? With two and half courses, average, all round, the same as the night before with one. The food, as I said, as good or better. Some very original flavours. I thought I detected a faint edge of aniseed in the chocolate semolina (yep, that sort of menu) and the chef's reply came back to us as "Nope, not aniseed" which of course left us still guessing. We were all tasting each other's dishes, pretty much. I even had a sip of Graeme's rich ruby red. It didn't go well with my dish, however, and enjoyed my glass de Fleur d'habitude.
Graeme found Kangaroo on the menu, and who would ask a close friend to give away the consistency of a life-time. But oh boy, was it tender. The 'juc' was so 'juc'y he needed (but did not get) a spoon for it. More like kangaroo served in soup. Certainly in a soup dish. Diana and I shared a mushroom and artichoke risotto, then she had grilled Hoki, and I ended up with crisped chicken again - I'm damned if I can work out how, for I swear I was looking for variety. This one was flavoured with mango, however. No, I can't remember if the previous night's was, too. You'll understand why not, soon.
After the meal we headed back to the motel, having greatly enjoyed our last evening of freedom, ready for next morning when we would try and finish packing the car for an early start back to civilisation. As the car burbled through the dark, over the rough, rutted, narrow dirt roads, we discussed how styles had changed in the valley since we were last there, years before. Two meals, even of several dishes, are too small a sample, but enough to compare and contrast those, at least. And we had also been reading commentaries and menus as we had been touring. So, biased or not, we did have a topic, and one important to us all, so we discussed it with some fervour.
We felt that competition for the discerning, or perhaps quasi-discerning, diners had driven each restaurant to look for some unique, haute-cuisine or niche style that would ensure their survival in these hard times. If we were right in this guess, they were fooling themselves. Unless you booked way ahead, you couldn't get into any of them. We hadn't gone as down-market as battered fish in newspaper, but I bet there was a long queue there as well.
From what we had eaten during our stay, and from the menus we had seen, we were convinced the valley now had a culinary style best described as over-designed.
Of all the places we might have eaten at, we were also fairly sure this evening's choice had been the best. It was so low-key, certainly with the edge in food, endearing surroundings, service and value. As we drove away, chatting happily, we knew that we wanted to return to the valley again soon, even if only to try the rest of the menu in that charming, quiet, welcoming place. Now, I'm not so sure.
It's five in the morning, so Diana told me later. Suddenly I am awake. My feet are sore, as if I am wearing very tight shoes, or am getting a cramp. I get out of bed and do some stretching exercises, trying to ease the pain in the tendons. It works, briefly, but now an itching begins. Not a surface itch, but a deep-buried one. Diana tells me off for keeping her awake with the light and motion. so I come back to bed, trying to lie still and doze off. But I can't.
I suddenly realise I have been bitten all over my right thigh. Crawl back out of bed. Find the emergency kit. Rub burn/bite cream into the bites. Ah, much better. Back to bed, ready to sleep again. No such luck. Left thigh now. Whatever bit me must have been working its way around. I remembered checking the bed when we climbed in and killing a little crawler (insect spray can provided free send a message!). Obviously I had missed his mate!
And what a busy little mate he had been! I cream a patch and back to bed. Relax. Feel another patch come up. More cream. By now the time the sun was showing at the curtain edge and I have rubbed that cream into every part of my skin not covered with hair. I wish I could use the same ointment on the inside of my mouth.
This is ridiculous! Insects can't bite inside your mouth. What's happening to me? I don't suffer from any allergies. Sixty-something and robust as an oil-drum. After missing so much sleep I'm finally feeling drowsy, just when it's time to start deciding what to leave behind from the packing - the wine MUST get to the city!
Actually, I'm not just tired. I know what early-morning tired is like. I've had more than my fair share of double-ended candles, midnight oil, excessive drink and nights of plain bad conscience. This is different. The room seems very far away. I have to get help. I'm pulling on my clothes. Now I can't move. Falling forward onto the bed. Groggy, so groggy. "Please, Diana, get Graeme. I don't know what's happening. I need help." I'm not big, but I'm solid, and my Diana, small and slim, herself convalescing, could never move me. If I lay one arm across her in the night she has a problem shifting it. And now, face down on the bed, never to be moved, everything mercifully going dark.
The blackness lifts for a moment. Graeme is steering me, stilt-legged, the last few feet into the car. More blackness. Another few moments of clarity - I tell him he is headed the wrong way as he pulls up at some medical centre. I see the sign over the door as we stiff-walk up a ramp. Now I'm face-down into the darkness again, on a sofa in the waiting room. Now I'm on a stainless gurney, blue cover on its hard, thin squab. I see that blue cover each time I lose unconsciousness (yes, that's exactly how I mean it) until they let me regain it again. My mouth is swollen. My tongue is up in lumps, getting bigger. It's hard to breath. Pain in my arm. An injection. Dark again.
"Hives, I'm fairly sure. But no vomiting or diarrhoea? Sit up, please, I need to take your blood pressure" - but I can't, don't make me. Oh, all right if I must. Oh but sitting up hurts my stomach. I need a basin. Oh, I never believed I could come to think of vomiting as a pleasure. Thou shalt not kill; but needs't not strive, Officiously to keep alive. Oh, no - no Officiousness, please! If I cannot be dead, then let me at least be unconscious. And if in doubt, I have no problem with dead. Ooh, that eased the pressure. What an interesting lots of colours in the basin.
Why isn't my mouth stinging? Isn't that what vomit does to you? Now where is everyone? Where is the basin? I must have been out to it again. I need a toilet. Hell, it's miles down from this gurney to the floor. Gravity comes to the rescue again. Looks odd from down here. Is one of these doors a toilet? I can crawl quite fast when I have to. Must have got in some practice, once. Lucky the door handles are low down. Lucky that that this is a toilet. Not that it would make much difference. The volcano has struck and the toilet will merely be a convenience. Too busy to enjoy the pun, prefer to enjoy the pan. Can I undo my clothes and get up off the floor? Ah, good.
Now what? Hello Graeme. Why are you in the loo with me? Me sleeping? Oh no. Well, maybe. Of course I can't walk, I'm too dozy. Why can't he hear me?
Oh, I'm back on the gurney. They're waking me up. This must be the doctor. Please don't sit me up. Do let me lie down. Sitting up makes my gut writhe so sore and all my skin hurts and my mouth is horrible. I need that basin. Gee thanks. Wow. I could get to enjoy this vomiting stuff. I wish I were more skilful at it, though. I only seem to be doing half a job each time. Let me lie down. That's better. Blood pressure too low? Leave me be. Ambulance to hospital? I paid a year's ambulance fee so that's a free ride. But no. Not to hospital. Overnight for observation? No way. can't let the side down. "I'm getting better." At least they heard that one.
"Well, the blood pressure is rising again." but the dark descends, and as quickly lifts but - all the people have gone. I keep my weight on my gut - stops it exploding - and the people flick into being again. Another blood pressure check. Then the people flick out of being again. My belly feels better but my chest feels worse. Where's the basin? Can't see it. Can I make it to the sink?
Down off the gurney. Stay upright this time. Grab my way across to the sink. Made it in time. Another delightful vomit. Someone comes in.
"Oh you poor fellow" - nice warm female voice, quite the right attitude. Ignorant though. No 'poor fellow' about it - this feels glorious. I wish I could vomit like this to order. I might have this whole episode over by now. Must be something I ate, otherwise what's my silly body doing trying to reject all its contents, viscera and all?
"Oh, your trousers have fallen down" - the nice voice is observant then - "here, let me help?" What am I to say? All I can manage are the gasping and retching sounds that anyone in their right mind would interpret as 'whatever you think best'. Turns out she is in her right mind after all. Through my ill-practised vomiting I feel my trousers being pulled up.
Seems you can't equate nice voice and right-minded with competence, though. What is the help coming to? I think she wants me to do up the belt or something. No way. I'm still gripping the sink with both hands. It's that or fall. She gives up waiting. No sooner does she let them go than the pants slide to the floor again. That's ok. I'm not going anywhere in a hurry. I keep my firm grip on the sink otherwise I'll be joining the trousers down there. She couldn't know that there's no way I can help. The lucky woman obviously has never had to dress and eject a drunken lover, or has forgotten how. No, the voice is too young for her to have forgotten, so I guess it's never happened. Time enough yet, I suppose. "Oh, you poor fellow." again, and presumaably agrees with my thought that the trousers aren't my major problem at the moment, and leaves me to concentrate properly on holding up the sink.
No, that's not right. I'm back on the gurney. Other people in the room. More blood pressure testing. They sit me up. I don't vomit. What's gone wrong? Why aren't I vomiting? Am I dead? I'd like to be, if I'm not. Please? "If you can manage him in the car he's probably ok to travel now."
Graeme stiff-legging me down a ramp in the warm afternoon. Part way down the ramp there is a sudden flicker of black and then I am strapped on my back, in the car, at speed, through a torrential rain-storm. I'm going to be sick. Car stops. Someone must have undone the straps. The door is open. I'm leaning out, looking into the gutter. It's not moving. The car must have stopped. I can't do much vomit. Damn. It would have been nice. The black turns on again.
I have to have a toilet. Still no sense of talking. The others must be mind-readers. Help, I've been captured by aliens. They have stolen my will-power. Or I'm having an out-of-body experience. Out of my mind might be more like it. Some argument going on - "but you can't do a U-turn here" - "just watch".
More black. The car door is open again. Feet into shoes. Helped to stand. Service station. Toilet door right where the car has stopped. Brilliant design this service station. Toilet in exactly the right place. Right outside the car. Rain blowing puddles everywhere. Tough. Who cares. Seated. Explosion of relief. Oh but - trousers round ankles in the puddles on the floor. Who cares. Do I pull them up? I try not to go to sleep. Maybe I don't. Black again.
"Left at the roundabout" - no, no, right at the roundabout, I can see a tree against the sky, so there's only one place we can be, turn right, right you fool - "It's ok, I'm ignoring him, left it is." more blackness.
I'm on my own bed. Face down. Fully clothed. More blackness.
Toilet. Our hall is narrow. I can lean on both sides at once. Oh the joy of walking unaided. Ha. Who am I fooling? Me, that's who. Nothing else exists, and me hardly, either.
More blackness. Then the lights are on. "Come on, get your clothes off and under the covers, I want to go to bed too." I must have. Next time the blackness lifts it's daylight. I need the toilet. That's better. Have to change trousers though. Timing needs more work. More blackness. More toilet. Timing still lousy. More toilet. More trousers. More blackness. "Drink some water. We don't want you dehydrated"
"Put some sugar and salt in, please." - I know about electrolytes, even when groggy.
More blackness. "Have this pill. Have another drink." Ok. Just so long as you let me sleep. Awake is too painful.
Oh, it's light. Good morning.
"Hello, are you awake then?" Of course, it's morning.
"Morning be blowed. It's Wednesday afternoon." Wednesday? It's Monday.
"Yeah, fine. You're on the mend. Doctor's appointment for you at four thirty. I'll drive you down. You're strong enough for a shower now, in every sense of the words. I'll hang around to see you are ok, but I won't be able to lift you if you fall, so move carefully." I wish I were as clear a thinker as my wife. Even at my best, she is two pawns, three seconds, and an ace of spades ahead of me. Right now it would help if she had my usual strength, though. Actually, it would be sufficient if I had my usual strength.
I get out of bed, stand up, cautiously. Has it been almost three days? Must have. I do feel steadier. There is a light snack and a cup of coffee. It all stays down. No cramps. Everything looks a little distant, but quite steady.
Shower, drying very gently. The eruptions have decreased but I don't want to risk starting anything up again. Dress, choosing my silkiest shirt and pants, to avoid irritating my very tender skin. Find my biggest shoes and my thinnest socks. My feet are still very swollen. Dress up warmly. It's a mild day but I feel somewhat chilled. Into the car, down to the surgery, into the waiting room, all under my own steam. Marvellous. "Doctor will see you now." Wonderful.
"Well, I don't see you often. An allergy, Diana said. I think that was what brought you here last time. A twig flicked your eye when you were pruning. You thought it was just bruising and irritation. But the eyelid swelled up more than that would explain. Late onset. Not too uncommon. Tell me what happened this time." So I do.
"Yes, I agree. Hives. Urticaria, and a very severe reaction. Nasty. You were very lucky someone was nearby and a doctor not too far away. Too generalised to be plant contact though. More likely food or drink. But by your age it's not too likely to be something you have never had before. More likely to be some new combination. In the, say, six hours before the symptoms appeared, what did you eat and drink that might have been in unusual combination?" Well, I've never before had artichoke, chicken, Hoki, kangaroo, chocolate semolina and four kinds of ice cream, with white wine, all in the one meal.
"Of course, but it need not be the main ingredients. It could just as easily be the smallest pinches of herbs or spices and a sip of the red wine - but still the combination. We could send you for allergy testing on every individual component, and still draw a blank. Combination, I'm sure. You should write to the restaurant and ask them to provide you with a bare list of all the ingredients. Now you are sensitised the same combination will definitely trigger you again. But with this list in hand it will be much easier, then, to identify the particular combination." Again? If it hits me again, and it's worse, how will I fare next time?
"Well, I would advise you not to go looking for the combination. Self-experiment is definitely not indicated. Your normal diet and lifestyle should be no problem, but don't go hunting for the exotics. I'm prescribing prednisone for the inflammation, fexofenadine for the allergy symptoms, and an automatic adrenaline injector gun for you to carry at all times as a life-line. Next time it hits, you'll have the gun. Just flick the safety off and jam it into your thigh. Then use the time that buys you, to get emergency help as fast as you can. Without the gun, you'll never reach help alive. Your throat will close, blood-pressure fall, and there you will be - gasp, faint and be gone. Just like that. When you feel that happening, shoot first and ask questions later. Quickly, while you are still conscious." Well, I remember then how fast my strength went so that I collapsed on the bed - though that was several hours after the itching started.
"Typically, you won't get that warning next time. The next six months or year will be the most dangerous. Get the gun. Of course, it's been sixty years until you hit that one weird combination. It might be another sixty before it happens again." I'm not a brilliant statistician, but I know the fallacy of pretending the expected value is a sensible confidence limit. Especially when your life depends upon it.
I've written to the chef. Gee, I'm glad I went and thanked him personally, that night, for our lovely meal. Somehow it made it easier to explain why I need his help now. Because of my stupid body's reaction to some ordinary, delightfully and doubtlessly hygienically prepared, and most pleasantly served combination of food, wine, spices, herbs - or all of the above.
Which are the foods that react so?
Perhaps I'll never find out. A Russian Roulette. One of the 64,000 combinations of ingrediants for that evening of foods and wines we had that night, all of which I tasted. One bullet and the 64,000 dollar question. No wonder it took 60 years for the number to come up. But now the doctor tells me that they have put another round in, spun again, and handed it back to me.
So I keep the adrenaline gun with me. Always. It is my one chance to shoot back.
Actually, when I lie down to sleep, and turn out the light, it's not a revolver that I sense in the dark. That's just a way to understand the odds, the unemotional numbers.
But there is something there, hidden, blended with the black. Malevolent, deathly still, ready to spring and grasp my throat, first chance it gets.
Black as the night.
And now my sleep is always fitful. I drift unwilling into the dark domain and see then the golden glow of its eyes unblinking in the black and I wake shaking, aching with fatigue, unable to avoid drifting off once more and again with a start, come sweating awake, and again, and again.
I keep the adrenaline gun under the pillow. Where I can reach it in the dark. I have to be ready when it springs. For I have recognised it at last.
Patient, patient Panther.
Copyright © 1998 Peter Leon Collins