From 1847 to her death in 1901 Queen Victoria had ruled the British Empire from Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight. Prince Albert, her consort, had designed the royal residence with the aid of Thomas Cubitt, the London architect. Once finished the Italian Renaissance palazzo on the Solent Osbourne House served as a refuge from London court life, where the family celebrated holidays and birthdays for decades.
Back in the summer of 1985 I traveled from Paris to holiday at a rundown hotel on the grounds of Osbourne House. The rooms were full and I shared a cottage with Vonelli, a CIA agent, whose cover was that he was an European art dealer.
No one believed the native Floridian, but the hotel was a special place and attracted special people. One of them was a Danish sailor married to a Saudi princess.
That spring Kurt’s Harley Street doctor's had advised the elimination of vodka from his diet and the bearded sea captain decided to take the cure on the Isle of Wight, which was the sunniest isle of Britain, while his Countessa 31 was being overhauled at the Cowes shipyard after which he planned to sail to France.
"If I can't be on the sea, then I'll drink like a man in port," slurred Kurt with wine-glazed eyes at lazy lunch on the patio.
“You know when your doctor said to stop drinking. He meant everything," suggested Vonelli.
“No, he said a little wine was okay.”
His wife shrugged and Kurt quaffed his wine.
“Plus I only drink from dawn to dusk," laughed Kurt picking up a knife. Fatima took it out of his hands and he added, "The hotel staff have been instructed to only serve me rose wine. Never the hard stuff."
“Good thing he didn’t pick the dead of winter for this regime,” Vonelli muttered, because summer days were very long this far north of the equator and the calendar was nearing the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year. Vonelli was joking, because we were both drinkers.
Just not in the same league as the Viking, who never offered us a sip.
The rose was his.
And his alone.
Every day the broad-bellied sailor sat on the porch in the same kaftan like a beserker back from a raid on Byzantium.
After six bottles Kurt liked to throw knives.
His lovely Saudi wife couldn't be around all the time, but he treated her with kindness like a Norseman enslaved by a princess who had abandoned her kingdom. I admired her devotion and tried to imagine Kurt before he had surrendered his soul to drink.
"He had been one of the best-looking men in London during the 60s and great fun," recounted Vonelli.
"That was twenty years ago."
"And the last ten have been hard."
"Very hard and Fatima has stood by him every step of the way."
"Sounds like Hell."
"She gave up a lot and so did he. Kurt had been one of the best oil tanker captains. He married her and was blackballed from shipping by the Saudis."
"Like he was shipwrecked."
"She was outcast. The Saudi royals don't like their kind mixing with others, so he's lucky he wasn't murdered and so was she. "
"Lucky in love." I was jealous of their sacrifice.
Not for long.
It was a warm summer for England.
After a week his outfit smelled like an animal was trapped underneath his kaftan and we avoided Kurt throughout the lengthening days.
On the morning of the solstice I descended to the dining room for breakfast. The sun was breaking through the trees. Bird songs greeted the early dawn. The sea captain sat with his lovely Saudi Princess wife. Her words were whispers and when Fatima stopped talking he sent her away with a tender kiss.
Once she was out of the room Kurt waved me over to his table.
Five bottles were empty at his feet.
"Celebrating the summer solstice."
"No, my boat has been put into the water. It's stocked for the rest of the summer." He signaled the waitress for another glass. "Have a drink with me."
"Thanks." It was early, but it had been day for a long time and I sat down to toast his departure.
"My wife will be happy to go. She doesn't really like the sea, but I don't drink as captain. Not a drop."
"Not even rose."
"Nothing. What Vonelli say about me?"
Just that you had given up being a sea captain to fall in love with your wife."
"Vonelli doesn't talk much about others."
"He know how to hold his tongue. A good man. Here's to him. Here's to the sea. Everyone thinks my drinking started after the blackball, but I only ever drank on shore. I would have given up the world for Fatima and I did, but better that than to not give up anything for the one you love and loves you. We'll travel over to France down to Spain across to Ireland into the North Sea. Our children will be waiting in Copenhagen. I'll be the old Kurt. Maybe not forever, but long enough to be who I was on the sea. Winter's big seas up north and the darkness spreads across the Northlands like black lava in the winter."
"So more drinking."
Kurt shrugged and smiled, "But no more fucking kaftan. This one is shot. You want it."
"Thanks for the offer, but I'm good."
"Like a bear after an summer solstice orgy."
"I'll leave it in Cowes. The Brits will wear anything."
We celebrated the solstice with his rose reserve. Vonelli joined us. Everyone from the hotel did as well. We had a knife-throwing contest at lunch. No one got cut. By sunset all the wine was gone and we carried him to bed.
His wife thanked us and tipped the waiting staff generously.
“You’re no fun,” he said lying on his bed like a beached whale.
“He’s not wrong.” Vonelli sniffed at his jacket sleeve, as we descended to the dining room. "As Pliny the Elder said, “In vino veritas.” or more simply "In magma vino oblivio.”
In wine truth, but in more wine oblivion.
And that’s the truth.
Especially on the summer solstice for a Viking ready for the sea.