General Fiction posted November 6, 2014

This work has reached the exceptional level
a tale of love, sadness, deep friendship


by mfowler

Story of the Month Contest Winner 

'Two dozen Powder Monkey, Archie,' I call from the stock room. No answer. I find him staring at the cases stacked on the forklift. He's mumbling.

'2012 Bleasedale, Powder Monkey Shiraz, matured in French Oak, blackberry, liquorice and bitter chocolate, Adelaide Wine Show Gold Medal 2013.' He repeats the litany, oblivious of my presence.

'Hey, Archie, did you hear the order?'

'Sorry, Joe. Sorry Joe. I...I... was makin' sure it was the one you wanted.' Archie always checks, and rechecks. He'll remember this wine in fifty years time if you ask him, although Archie has never touched a drop in his life.

'Hey, Joe. Once I've stacked the 2012 Bleasedale Powder Monkey, matured in...'

'I know, Archie.'

'Sorry, Joe. I like to be sure. Once I've stacked them, do you want me to put out those Bremerton Racy Rose, 2013, made from 50% Shiraz and 50% Cabernet, in the bins.'

'Sure thing, Archie that would be great.'

Archie is invaluable, really. He's my stockroom man at Langhorne Cellars, and he's also my best mate. A best mate, who, in a way, I had inherited.
Ten years ago, I was making a living driving a van around the Lake Alexandrina region.  The work was casual, but I made ends meet doing deliveries for wine companies.

Meeting Archie and Lucy wasn't my finest moment.
I'd just been cheated over payment for delivery by the publican at the Pelican Arms in Strath. As I backed across the footpath, I heard a nasty thud and startled shriek. I slammed on the brakes and  climbed from the cabin where a volley of expletives greeted me.

A large, kind-faced, young man lay moaning on the concrete. An elfin-like girl was kneeling at his side. 'He's dying, you moron. Do something!' she screamed, as if I knew what to do.

My mind, scrambled by the emotions of the moment, froze. 'I...I'm sorry, Miss.' It was all I could manage.

'Archie, ' she called softly. 'Help me. He's bleeding.' She shored up a flow from his forehead with a scarf, but blood oozed through her fingers.

'I'll call an ambulance,' I said, producing my cell phone, unable to enter the number.

'Here,' she snapped, taking charge, 'hold this tight.' I found myself kneeling, pressing the scarf against his head. The girl called 000.

'Will Archie be OK?' the victim asked, grimacing, obviously hurting.

Calling himself Archie threw me for a moment. 'Sure,' I replied with all the sincerity I could muster, 'Archie will be OK.' I found myself talking to him as if we knew each other. But, the girl interrupted our moment almost as soon as it had come.

'Here,' she declared, 'ambulance will be here in ten minutes.' She shoved the phone into my hand and resumed first aid.
After the ambulance left, the police arrived and interviewed me. There were no witnesses apart from the girl and Archie, but they were at the base hospital. My version of events was simple. I didn't see him until it was too late.

Two hours later, I drove up to the hospital because I needed to know if Archie was OK. When I arrived at his room on the second floor, he was sitting up in bed beaming, sporting a large head dressing. The girl was sitting by his side, filling out a menu. 

'Hi,' I offered tentatively, 'remember me?'

She scowled, but Archie said, 'You helped me.'

'No, Archie, it was me that knocked you down.' Her almond eyes sparkled when she looked up from the menu.

'At least you're honest,' she said. I managed a nervous grin.

'I'm sorry, Archie. I didn't see you.' There was little else I could say. Guilt had been eating at me, so I was more than relieved to see this strapping young man with only a head wound. 

'The doctor said I could stay tonight. I have concussion. Do you know what concussion is? Hey, I don't know your name.'

'I'm Joe, Archie. Joe Dylan. I drive a van, delivering wine. That's what hit van, I mean.' Archie laughed.
'No, I hit you,' he said, as if he'd been joking. 'I was running  and I tripped on a stone. I fell right into your van.'

The girl looked embarrassed. 'It's the truth. He always tells the truth. Or at least, he tells what he knows.' I was relieved that the whole incident had indeed been an accident.

'I'm Lucy,' she continued, 'Archie and me, we've just moved into our Aunty's house in Langhorne Creek. Our mother died last year. We've been sharing with friends in Adelaide, but when Aunty Dot said we could have it rent free, we came down here to start a new life.'

'So you're not Archie's ...??'

'Archie's what?' asked Archie.


Archie laughed, but his head hurt, so he had to stop. 'No, Archie's my brother. We look out for each other...I'm Lucy, Lucy Shaw,' she said, 'and this is Archie, but, of course you know each other already.'
I returned the following day and took Archie and Lucy back to Langhorne Creek.  The police had interviewed them at the hospital. They were satisfied no charges were necessary.
The house was on a dirt road near Lake Alexandrina. The view across the burgeoning vineyards and on towards the lake water made this seem an idyllic place for a new life, but the house was ramshackle and in need of urgent repairs.

'You know, Joe, that's a Shiraz grape over there,' he enthused, pointing to vines directly across the road. 'They used to have Cabernet Sauvignon in the next vineyard, but they've ripped up the vines.'

'You know your grapes, Archie.'

'Oh, he knows every variety in the place. He can tell you the estates they belong to and even the wines they've produced. It's kind of...his new speciality,' added Lucy. 'You know, Joe, you're the first person he's trusted to tell that to since we've been here. He doesn't do so well with people.'

I felt privileged, because I didn't do so well with people either. That's why the van job suited me. I was my own boss, safely ensconced in my truck, where I had little contact with people.
My new acquaintances seemed comfortable in my company, and the feeling was mutual. Our accidental meeting blossomed into friendship. Before long, I was visiting after work each day to help with repairs. Lucy seemed pleased when I'd come, and my easy relationship with Archie made her happy.
Lucy was very protective of her brother, and they kept away from the local community as much as possible. Within weeks, I was driving them to do shopping and banking; whatever they needed. Archie's obsession with wines flourished. He poured over the catalogues and labels I managed to gather from the wineries and distributors.
On weekends, we would go on wine adventures, driving from estate to estate, so Archie could visit the places he knew by memory.

In time, my feelings for Lucy evolved from friendship to love - a mutual, gentle love - never reaching great passion. I assumed it was because Archie took so much of her energy, and that love was a feeling she had to ration somehow. I had never experienced a loving relationship with parents or a woman, so I accepted what Lucy could give. She made me feel wanted and needed. Archie made me laugh. I supposed my new love relationship included all  three of us.

One day, I picked up Archie for our weekly "trip in the van". Lucy encouraged these experiences. Every Friday, he'd come along and we'd do pickups at the wineries. Archie impressed all of the staff in the showrooms with his wine knowledge, so they always welcomed him warmly. It did my stocks no harm either, as my business picked up dramatically with Archie's ambassadorship. Lucy used the time for shopping forays in Strathalbyn.
That particular day, she took the bus to Strath to see the doctor. "Girl's complaint", she'd said.
As a treat, we stopped at Milang for lunch. We were sitting on the jetty sharing chips. Archie named all the bird species he knew, another speciality in his repertoire.
'Lucy OK?' I asked, 'She's lost a lot of weight lately.'
'That's a black swan. Did you know they keep the same mate? That's like my parents.' I don't think he heard a word. A small flotilla of the birds drifted around the jetty edge; their graceful presence captured Archie's attention. I left him alone and enjoyed the moment.

'Do you want to be Lucy's mate?'  I was gobsmacked by his idea, but it was one I had been thinking about for a long time. As everything between Lucy and I was going sweetly, I did not want to push the issue.

'I don't know. Do you think I should?'

He looked at the swans. 'You could be my friend forever...when Lucy's gone.'

When Lucy's gone. Archie surely was getting ahead of himself. 'What do you mean by " when Lucy's gone"?'

'Leukaemia. She's got leukaemia. She might not get better.'
Archie's truth changed my world in one surreal moment of realisation. Suddenly, I could see what I couldn't see before: the reluctant love, the pallid appearance, the weight loss, the weekly visits to Strath.

'Lucy's got AML, acute myeloid leukaemia. She's probably going to die soon. Like Grandma Shaw. Acute myeloid leukaemia mainly affects the myeloid cells known as granulocytes, but also red blood cells, platelets and monocytes...'

The swans honked impatiently as they scrambled for the chips I'd involuntarily knocked over the edge. Archie babbled on. I was lost in a world of self-pity, anger, and incredulity. How could she be sick? How could I not know? Was she setting me up to look after Archie? Does she really love me?

Lucy's last days were short and painful, collapsing our world. What had been the best months of my life, became a schedule of visits to Adelaide for chemo and radiation, until, one week short of the year we'd known each other, she passed away.

Throughout those last months I lived with Archie. His knowledge of disease and medical procedures replaced wine and birds as topics of conversation, but I needed him as much as he did me.

A few days before the end, Lucy finally told me that she loved me. Loved me more than anyone in her short life; a different love than for Archie and her parents. But, she had been afraid to commit to me when she learned how sick she was and had no chance to get better. 

Months passed before the pain of her death lessened. Without Archie to care for, I don't think I'd have coped. The business would have died without his persistence. 'We've got a load of reds from Cleggett's to pick up,' he'd say, dragging me from my bed of self-pity and grief. Whenever he spoke of her, we felt her presence in the room. I learned from Archie how to live in the present, savouring the memories like a good wine.

In time, I began to understand how Archie's autism shaped his world: We were friends. Lucy still loved him. He loved us and Lake Breeze's reds were the best because of a duck motif on the label.
Much has changed since those sad days. Today, I have a thriving wine retail business in Strathalbyn, specialising in Langhorne Creek wines. Archie lives in his Aunty's house and commutes each day to be my right-hand man.

He's a special guest at the Dylan's each weekend. He's teaching little Lucy about duck varieties this weekend. My wife, Jenny, and I love having him in our lives.


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