Matthew hates his birthday, and the main reason is that he was born on the day they buried John F Kennedy. "I came into a grieving world," has become a familiar refrain to his friends and family.
The planning of the celebration (or commiseration) always begins a couple of weeks before the day itself with a vague, meandering discussion about whether to stay in or go out. This year it was agreed we would go out for lunch but only if we could spend the evening in, watching reality television, specifically I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!
At a subsequent high-level summit, Matthew posited the idea that the choice of restaurant should be "determined by a further trilateral discussion" (Matthew, Louis and I), but that it would have to lie within a 400m radius of the Porchester Spa in Bayswater, where he intends to spend his birthday morning.
In a mood of optimism I set aside only one hour for that trilateral discussion - in fact it took 172 minutes (which is well down on last year), and the final choice was a Persian restaurant in W11.
It was this venue's lack of a licence that clinched it for Matthew. He said he was "sick to the eye teeth" of paying four times the retail price for wine in restaurants and that this way we could afford a decent bottle from an off-licence. He would pick one up at Nicolas in Westbourne Grove on his way to lunch.
When Louis and I arrived to meet him on the big day, we found Matthew already settled at a table with a bottle of Château de Lamarque in front of him.
"The French manageress of Nicolas told me it was an excellent choice," he said proudly, pulling the cork and pouring, "and for 20 quid it had bloody better be." Then he took a sip.
"Oh hell, it's disgusting! It's bloody revolting. Here, you try it." I did, and for one rare and blissful moment we were both in absolute accord. Matthew was right; the wine was unspeakably awful.
The birthday boy, however, after his initial outburst of revulsion, took the setback remarkably well and it was in a cheery tone that he announced, "The off-licence is only two minutes away, I'll take the wine back. Perhaps it's corked." And then he headed out into the cold winter weather equipped only with the opened bottle, which, for some reason, he held aloft like an Olympic torch.
Five minutes passed before Matthew returned and it was clear from the downward thrust of his brow that the interview with the manageress of Nicolas had not gone well. He shook his head, shrugged his shoulders and raised his palms to heaven all at the same time so that he looked as if he was attempting his very own version of patting your head and rubbing your tummy simultaneously. Then he growled just the one word: "Cecilia". So I started singing Simon and Garfunkel in a misguided attempt to lighten the atmosphere but got no further than "Ceceeeeleeeah, you're breaking my heart, you're shaking my..." before being silenced by a look.
"Cecilia, thank you very much, is the manageress of Nicolas, the off-licence," he said. "Cecilia is the woman who says there is nothing wrong with the wine and that it is perfect. Cecilia is therefore refusing to give me either my money back or another bottle. Yes, you are right, Cecilia is breaking my heart."
Two more tense, silent minutes passed before Matthew stood up abruptly and said, "Right, that's it. I am not taking any more." And, taking the wine with him he set out once more into the street saying loudly to all those who crossed his path, "I require witnesses." Unsurprisingly, none of the strangers Matthew approachedaccepted his offer of a taste of the wine. Matthew gave up and returned to the restaurant and we finally ordered some food, ate and paid. Just before we left he tried phoning Albert Roux's Le Gavroche in Mayfair in order to request an appointment with the sommelier. Happily there was no answer.
We travelled home in our separate cars (always wise) and on his way Matthew (accompanied, for the purposes of verification, by Louis) stopped off at the Holland Park branch of Nicolas in order to badger them about the dodgy wine.
He was very pleased to be told by the sales assistants that the wine was certainly acidic and vinegary while not actually being corked and, encouraged by this result, then sent the bottle over to a friend in north London who is an expert. Later that evening the friend phoned to say that he knew the importer well, that it should have been a good wine but it was a dud bottle and possibly "reductive". Matthew, pretending he knew what "reductive" meant in this context, seemed satisfied and settled down in front of Strictly Come Dancing, with a glass of delicious red from a case he had just opened that was given to him for his birthday by his parents.
"So what are you going to do now?" I asked.
"Do?" he said, "Do? Why should I 'do' anything? I have proved Cecilia was wrong, this has been far and away the very best birthday of my life and I don't mind saying that in its own way the bottle was well worth every penny."Reuse content