Message in a Bottle (November story)

Message in a Bottle

Everyone does it, nobody thinks anything of it. Vanessa and Ronnie never thought twice about doing it, it just seemed the right and natural thing to do. 

They sat entwined on the shingle beach after celebrating their second wedding anniversary with a picnic of fish and chips. It was a clear moonlit night, warm for the time of year. The heavens were full of stars. A soft spring breeze caressed their faces and ruffled their hair as they watched the boats rock gently on the swell. Above the whooshing of the waves the faint pulse of music drifted across from the pier where neon lights chased patterns in the night sky. Vanessa snuggled up to Ronnie.

They’d finished their fish and chips and two bottles of wine and were feeling quite mellow. The smell of chips and vinegar lingered in the air. Ronnie found some paper and a pen. Vanessa licked the salt from her fingers and wrote:

“Please send more wine”

She added their address, put the message in one of the bottles, sealed it and Ronnie threw it into the sea. They cheered when they heard the splash in the darkness. Vanessa sighed, but thought no more about it. It was the sort of thing anyone would do.

Several months later the hot summer sun brought crowds to the beach. Ice-cream vendors and deck-chair attendants did a roaring trade. The promenade filled with people walking and the beach with children laughing and playing in the sunshine.

Vanessa was at first puzzled and then amazed when she received a postcard with a picture of the D-Day landings on the front. The message read:

‘Your bottle picked up in Normandy.’

There was a date which was smudged so she couldn’t quite make it out, but the spidery writing gave a return address in East Anglia.

Vanessa was stunned. She had to take a couple of deep breaths and read the card three times before it sunk in. She remembered throwing the bottle into the sea, the message with her address on it, but had never expected any reply – it was just a joke. She tried to imagine the fragile glass bottle bobbing all the way across the busiest shipping lanes in the world to arrive safely in France. Not only had the bottle survived but someone had picked it up and read the message – amazing! She was dead excited and showed the card to all her friends. They talked about it for weeks.

Vanessa was so bowled over by her incredible luck she even wrote to the local newspaper. They sent a photographer who took a picture of her and the postcard. In a burst of gratitude to the sender she decided to reply so she bought a nice postcard with a picture of Winchester Cathedral on and wrote:

‘Thanks for the card, but where is the wine?’

She thought it funny at the time.

Several weeks later the postman delivered a large cardboard box. It was heavy and Vanessa had to sign for it so she knew it was something special. She almost died when she opened it and found a dozen bottles of wine inside. Not cheap stuff either; there was Shiraz, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon and Rioja. There was no note, no invoice, nothing to say who had sent it. She thought about the postcard, but soon dismissed the idea. She wasn’t fool enough to believe anyone would send an expensive box of wine to a stranger just because they’d asked for it. No, someone was having a laugh.

She rang the number on the box.

 “I’ve received this box of wine,” she said.

“Yes Madam?”

“Well, I didn’t order it. Can you tell me who did and why it’s been sent to me?” She gave her name and address and the gentleman on the other end went to check.

“Yes, I can confirm the delivery but I’m afraid can’t give out our customers’ details. You’ll have to contact them yourself.”

“How can I when I don’t know who they are?”

“Sorry. Data Protection Act and all that.” He put the phone down.

I bet it’s Ronnie playing games, she thought. He’d always been a bit of a joker had Ronnie. He’d pulled more strokes than Oxford and Cambridge boat crews put together. Well, Vanessa thought, I’ll soon sort him out.

She didn’t say anything but that evening she put a clean white cloth on the table and got out their good cutlery and glasses, even though it was only Wednesday and they were just having pie and mash. She opened a bottle of the wine and set it on the table.

When Ronnie came in he called, “Hi, I’m home,” then took one look and went out again. He returned about ten minutes later with some yellow and white flowers wrapped in cellophane. “Sorry love, must have forgotten,” he said thrusting them at her.

Vanessa took them and sniffed. “Lovely,” she said. She could tell he’d got them from the garage on the corner. No smell and a bit straggly but it’s the thought that counts. “Forgotten what?” she said.

“I dunno, must be something.” He waved his arm at the table. “Wine an’ all. What we celebrating?”

“Nothing,” she said, “but we’ve got the wine, might as well drink it.”

“Wine?” he said, a puzzled frown on his face. Then he noticed the box on the floor. “Where’d this come from?”

“As if you didn’t know,” she said.

“No, honest.”

Well, she thought, if he wants to play games. “Must have been the chap who sent the postcard,” she said. “I must remember to thank him.”

“Chap who sent the post-card? You’re kidding?”

“Well, if it wasn’t you…”

The frown on Ronnie’s face deepened. He walked over to the box and inspected it. “Must be some mistake,” he said. “Are you sure it’s paid for? It’s not one of those scams where they send out free samples and you get a huge bill the following week? I don’t think we should be drinking it.” Ronnie looked genuinely perturbed but he didn’t fool Vanessa. She knew him of old. He’d always been a wind up merchant, she wasn’t about to fall for one of his tricks again.

“No it’s okay,” she said. “All above board. I checked. Let’s just enjoy it.”

Ronnie said he still didn’t feel right about it but she’d poured it out by then.

Ronnie kept protesting. “Are you sure?” he said when she opened the second bottle. “I don’t feel right about this. Someone must have made a mistake and we’ll end up paying for it.” He shook his head. “We should send it back.”

 “Can’t,” Vanessa said. “We’ve drunk half of it.” She was almost convinced he knew nothing about it – almost.

Ronnie shook his head. For a moment he looked as though he wasn’t enjoying it. If she didn’t know him better Vanessa might have believed him.

“If you feel so bad why don’t we send something in return?” she said. “A couple of bottles of Scotch or some Brandy. My grandfather used to enjoy a nip of brandy before bed.” 

She never thought Ronnie would go along with it, but he’d had enough alcohol to float a battle ship and by this time he was getting quite broody. He sat quiet for a while deep in thought, or as deep as a man like Ronnie gets. “I’ll send a cheque,” he said eventually.

“A cheque?”

“Yes, to cover the cost of the wine.”

Vanessa thought he was pulling another one of his diabolical strokes but he had a look in his eye that told her not to argue. In fact he was in quite a sulk and it wasn’t like Ronnie to mope.

“If you want to drink wine I’ll buy you wine,” he said, glaring at her. “Anything you need, I’ll get it for you. I don’t want you accepting expensive gifts from strangers. It’s not right. You never know where it might lead.” He looked quite fierce. He took a swig of wine, huffed and got up. Vanessa was shocked speechless when he came back with his cheque book and wrote out a cheque for an amount that would have bought twenty bottles of wine.

She gulped back her disbelief, washing it down with a crisp white Chardonnay. Ronnie wasn’t joking. So it must have been the man who sent the postcard after all. Vanessa’s face reddened at the thought. How stupid and insensitive she’d been. Of course Ronnie was right. They couldn’t accept such a gift from a stranger.

She was afraid their mysterious benefactor might think they’d thrown his gift back in his face, so she wrote a note thanking him for his kindness and hoping he would accept the cheque in the spirit in which it was offered. Ronnie added the cheque and she posted it. Ronnie’s display of pique gave her a buzz though. It wasn’t often he showed his feelings.

A couple of days later Vanessa was telling her friend Lesley-Anne about it. They were having a girls’ night in, settled in front of the TV all geared up to watch a Brad Pitt DVD and knock back several bottles of the good stuff.

“Pass us up a red,” she said, pointing to the box on the floor. Lesley leaned over and fished a bottle out of the box. As she did so a card dropped from the bottom of the bottle.

“What’s this?” she said, handing it to Vanessa. “It must have slipped down the side of the box.”

“Oh my Lord,” Vanessa said showing her the card from the local newspaper. It said:

“Congratulations. You have won the prize for this month’s most inspiring news item. Please enjoy the enclosed with our compliments.

Vanessa’s heart raced. She looked at Lesley-Anne and they both started giggling. “Best not tell Ronnie – ever,” she said.

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