Until last summer, I worked for Terrazas de los Andes, an upmarket Argentinean producer from Mendoza. They’re owned by Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy. I spent eight years developing their UK business and sales were booming. I was spending a lot of time in Argentina with clients, prospects and the odd wine writer. Over there I was Dona Cristina, la Francesa, even though I spoke Spanish with an English accent.
I tried to call my parents once a week as I was not able to visit much. Papa’s mood swings were worsening as he approached his seventy-fifth birthday. Some days he would go on at length about the seventeen years he’d spent at Villa growing the company into a major player. That company may not have been his, but it was his life’s work. He’d talk about Marguerite Villa, his former boss, as if they were still working together. To my knowledge, they had not spoken since he’d left.
He never mentioned the six months he spent holed up in a rented studio in Vinassan after leaving Villa, refusing to talk to friends or family. Maman didn’t either and I didn’t dare ask.
He’d come back home one day without any warning, looking gaunt and exhausted. After mumbling some apologies to Maman, he’d gone straight to bed. She nursed him back to physical health but he was a changed man – and not for the better.
He’d become intense and argumentative, always preaching about right and wrong and getting into terrible rages if he felt my brother or I didn’t measure up to his exacting standards, especially when it came to telling the truth. Despite Maman’s attempts to act as go-between, his uncompromising attitude caused many fights during my teenage years as lying and evasion became my way to cope with his intransigence. As much as I loved him, I couldn’t wait to leave home. After business school in Nantes, I moved to London and never looked back.
He seemed pleased I’d followed in his footsteps and chosen the wine business but disapproved of my involvement in Argentinean wines. I couldn’t tell him there was no way I’d work for a Bordeaux company and have to visit him and Maman in Arcachon – where they had retired – every few weeks. Reminding him my employer was French only caused him to rant about globalisation and its evils. His once brilliant mind ran around in increasingly small circles.
He missed me though. That much I knew.
My own professional life rose to unprecedented heights when Oz Clarke’s agent approached Terrazas with a request to feature our Cafayate winery in the “Anything But Chardonnay” BBC series. Cafayate is the best area in Argentina to grow Torrontes, an indigenous white grape variety. Six months later, on a grey April day, I was in Heathrow, about to fly to Buenos Aires with a film crew.
I phoned my parents from the departure lounge.
‘Bonsoir Papa. Sorry I didn’t call last week.’
‘Ah Christine, let me fetch Maman.’
‘I only have five minutes.’ Too late, I could hear him walking away and calling my mother.
I found his need to involve her in everything infuriating. I paced the length of the lounge until he returned.
‘Maman is here. I’ve put the loudspeaker on.’
‘She’s a big girl now. You can refer to me as her mother,’ Maman said. ‘Hello Christine, where are you calling from this time?’
‘Do you remember the BBC documentary I told you about?’ I said.
‘Is it the one with Robert Joseph?’ Papa asked.
A Tannoy announcement forced me to raise my voice.
‘No, Papa. That was the conference in Cahors about Malbec. This one is in Argentina.’
‘Don’t shout, Christine!’ Maman said. ‘Who’s Malbec?’
‘It’s a grape variety,’ Papa said.
‘How am I supposed to know?’ she said.
I covered my ear with my free hand to block out the background noise. ‘Can you have this argument some other time? My flight is about to board.’
‘We’re not arguing,’ Maman said.
‘You’re off to Argentina again?’ Papa asked.
I could hear Maman grumbling in the background, and her receding footsteps.
Papa cried out, ‘Don’t go, darling.’
‘What’s the matter?’ I asked. A door slammed far away in Arcachon.
‘I’ve started writing a journal,’ Papa whispered, ‘but Maman says it would more useful if I helped her with the garden.’
‘Are you sleeping well?’
‘I went for a long walk yesterday. Gardening isn’t my thing.’
‘Papa, I’m all for you writing your memoirs but not if it makes you unhappy.’
He sighed. ‘You know the quote: “One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory.” My memory is far too good.’
I checked my watch. My flight would be boarding soon.
‘I’m sorry Papa, I haven’t got time to talk now.’
‘You never do,’ he said.
British Airways Flight 0247to Buenos Aires is now ready for boarding.
‘Papa, I have to go. What if I promise to come down for the second May bank holiday?’
‘Why not the first one? We haven’t seen you-’
‘Bye Papa.’ There was no way I could take time off two weeks before the London International Wine Fair in mid-May.
We were relaxing over an asado at the end of the first day of filming when Maman called. She was crying.
‘Your father has been taken to hospital. The doctor says it’s his heart.’
‘Is it bad?’ I asked.
‘How soon can you be in Arcachon?’
I closed my eyes. The smell of barbecued meat was making me gag. Everybody around me was joking and laughing in a mixture of English and Spanish. Whichever way I went, it would take me at least two days to travel to the south of France.
I left an hour later. The winery’s accountant drove me to Salta. I remember little of those two hours. He booked me in the hotel closest to the airport and told me to try and sleep. I called Maman at six in the morning. It was ten in France. Papa was under sedation. Roland, my younger brother, had come down from Paris the night before, and was at his bedside. The doctors were noncommittal.
The first flight of the day from Salta was at quarter to three, landing an hour and a half later in Buenos Aires. I spent the morning pacing the hall of the small airport, praying Papa would recover.
Once in Buenos Aires, it took me an hour to retrieve my luggage and another one to travel from the domestic to the international airport. The United flight left just after nine o’clock and I made it to Heathrow at seven the following morning.
Papa died an hour later. I was on the bus to Gatwick.
I resigned on my first day back at work. My boss told me the group may be able to offer me a job in France. My friends in the trade said I was insane. Maman was too upset to have an opinion but my brother pleaded with me to give myself time. Everybody agreed I shouldn’t blame myself for not being at Papa’s bedside when he passed away.
My desperate rush from Salta to Arcachon had become symbolic of the distance I had put between my family, my country and myself. I replayed nonstop my last telephone conversation with Papa, wishing I’d been less flippant.
I worked two months of my notice, and on a sunny July morning, ten days into my self-imposed sabbatical, my phone rang at home in London.
‘Mademoiselle Legerot, my name is Jean Tenin. I’m a recruitment consultant based in Bordeaux and specialising in international placements. Are you OK to talk?’
I resisted the temptation to tell him the neighbour’s cat may be eavesdropping on me.
‘Have you heard of Villa?’ he asked.
I opened my mouth but nothing came out.
‘Can you hear me?’
‘Sorry, sore throat,’ I said.
‘Villa took over The Wine Shop, the British high street wine retailer, two years ago. They opened a UK office at the same time.’
‘I’ve heard, yes.’
‘It’s a small office, with two local employees. The current commercial manager lives in Bordeaux but he’s leaving at the end of the month. The European export director now wishes to recruit somebody based in London.’
‘Why not Bordeaux?’
‘The company is committed to growing its UK business with people who have an insider’s knowledge of the market. Did you want to return to France?’
‘I was thinking about it.’
‘Between you and me, it’s something you may be able to negotiate a few years down the line. In the meantime, you would have regular trips to the group’s wineries, in Burgundy and the Languedoc, and to the Bordeaux head office. Do you have a CV you could send me?’
‘Could you spell your email address, please?’ I asked.
‘jtenin@ jtenin.co.fr. I’ll be in touch soon. Hope your throat gets better.’
‘Didn’t you say?’
‘Yes, my throat! Thank you.’
My hand was trembling when I put the phone down. I’d been thinking of applying for a job with a French company, maybe even a Bordeaux producer but not Villa. Marguerite was still at the helm as far as I knew, even though she must be in her late sixties or early seventies.
I’d always blamed her for Papa’s collapse. She’d been more than his boss. Together they had built Villa into the formidable company it is today. He had huge admiration for her, which used to exasperate Maman. He wouldn’t have left if Marguerite hadn’t wanted him to.
The recruiter called me back the following week. He’d be meeting candidates in London within the next ten days. The recruitment process was to be conducted at a swift pace at the request of the client. I felt a pleasant excitement at the prospect of working for an efficient and decisive organisation.
He phoned again the day after.
‘Mademoiselle Legerot, I won’t be coming to London after all. There’s been a change of plan. Could you fly to Bordeaux the day after tomorrow?’
I picked up a notepad and sat down. ‘Who will I meet?’
‘The recruitment is managed by Ed de Waast, Villa’s European export director but Marcel Villa may also want to meet you.’
‘Is he Madame Villa’s son?’
‘Her son and heir,’ he said.
Marcel’s adoption by Marguerite at the beginning of the eighties had created a scandal in Bordeaux’s polite society. Despite being single and never having shown any interest in having a family, she’d flown to South America one day and returned a few weeks later with a good looking seven-year old boy.
Marcel had been scrutinised for any physical resemblance to his adoptive mother and some excitable biddies had commented on a long holiday Marguerite had taken at the approximate time of his birth.
I was fourteen and gloriously selfish at the time but I was intrigued. Even though Papa had left Villa two years earlier, I had asked him what he thought. In doing so, I was breaking the unspoken family understanding that Villa’s name should never be mentioned in our home.
‘She must be lonely,’ he had said.
Maman had gone berserk.
As usual at the end of July, the plane was full of holidaymakers accompanied by hordes of unruly children. The smell of fried bacon and omelette, which dominates early morning BA flights, was soon superseded with a pungent mix of duty free perfumes and children’s vomit.
We landed under a perfect blue sky to the delight of my fellow travellers. Their excitement was contagious and I smiled at the customs officer who checked my passport, and at the machine-gun wielding soldiers who’ve become a feature of French airports.
The sun was shining and I was coming home. I was happy, even though it was my first time back in Merignac, Bordeaux’s airport, since Papa’s death.
The elegant young woman behind the Avis counter could have starred in an advertisement for the region. She sported the exquisite light suntan only locals have a chance of perfecting and which looks so much better than the bright red or mahogany complexion some Brits see as evidence of a successful holiday. I found myself almost closing my eyes in delight when she also turned out to have the perfect local accent, an elegant version of the Southern vernacular.
Outside the terminal, advertising boards praised the merit of several Bordeaux brands: Calvet, Blaissac, Dourthe, Malesan and Villa. Under the odour of kerosene, petrol and the hot metal of hundreds of cars, I smelled the salty sea breeze and the distinctive scent of the Landes pine forest, reminiscent of my childhood.
My interview was scheduled for eleven thirty. I drove around the Rocade, Bordeaux’s very own M25, taking in the landmarks, an endless succession of cheap hotels and furniture stores, and singing at the top of my voice:
‘J’espère, j’espère, j’espère oh oui, j’espère
C’est mon caractère, j’espère.’
I arrived ten minutes early at Villa’s head office in the centre of town and asked for Ed de Waast.
The prim lady in reception told me Monsieur de Waast was sorry but would I mind if our meeting was postponed by half an hour. I took one look at the sparsely furnished waiting room and went back outside.
I took a few steps in the midday heat, looking at the white buildings around me. This was a much more impressive setup than the modest office on the Quais des Chartrons which Marguerite inherited from her family, and where she and Papa had worked all those years ago. I somehow ended up in the designated smoking area next to the bike shed. I was feeling rather stupid standing there without the excuse of a cigarette, when I noticed a group of people walking to the car park. They stopped and started every few minutes, talking and gesticulating aplenty. Two women split from the main party and came towards me. They nodded a greeting as they reached the shelter and lit up.
‘I can’t believe we’re going to let a bunch of Krauts teach us how to do our jobs,’ the older one said, blowing smoke through her nose. I turned my head to remain out of reach of the noxious cloud.
‘Why do we need foreign audits on top of French ones?’ her colleague asked.
‘To keep foreign auditors busy, I suppose. When I think of the extra work, I feel sick.’ She punctuated her comment with a phlegmy cough. ‘This new German business is less than a third of what we do with Carrefour and I bet you they’ll be three times as much trouble.’
They took a few drags in silence.
‘I’ve heard Japanese customers are the worst,’ said the young one.
‘All export customers are a nightmare,’ said her friend.
Another polite nod in my direction and they were gone, leaving me to mull over this insight into the mentality of my future colleagues.
I had been waiting for forty minutes when a call on my mobile summoned me back inside.
Ed de Waast looked like a giant pistachio. Short, with a prominent belly, he was wearing a pale green suit and matching tie. His head was too big for his body and he was almost bald, except for one thick lock of red hair at the nape of his neck, the lone survivor of the full head of curls he must have sported as a young man. He had the enormous blue eyes of a toddler, now incongruous in his middle-aged face. A strong whiff of Intimately Beckham for Him emanated from his unimpressive physique. He looked very different from the confident manager I’d expected to meet.
He started apologising the minute I shook his cold, flaccid hand. ‘My meeting overran, and now Marcel Villa is nowhere to be found. I’ve left a message with his assistant. Let’s go to the meeting room.’
Over Ed’s shoulder, I saw a tall handsome man with deep brown eyes and dark wavy hair. He was walking towards us. He came as close as he could without being seen by Ed and cleared his throat in a theatrical manner.
Ed jumped on the spot. ‘Monsieur Villa!’
If Marguerite Villa had chosen her son for his good looks, she had done well.
‘Monsieur de Waast,’ he answered with a little bow. He turned to me with a wide smile, ‘Madame Legerot?’
I looked him in the eye but there was nothing there apart from the polite boredom of a powerful man meeting yet another potential subordinate. We shook hands.
Marcel turned to Ed, ‘Where are you taking us for lunch?’
The combination of the casual question and the formal vous, instead of the tu now in use in most French companies, made Ed sound like a bell boy in an upmarket hotel rather than a senior executive.
‘I was thinking we could have a chat in the meeting room first,’ said Ed.
‘You think far too much, monsieur de Waast. I’m hungry.’ Marcel threw a bunch of keys at Ed and marched towards the exit.
Once in the car, a top of the range Porsche Cayenne, Marcel turned to me.
‘So. . . Madame . . . Chris, isn’t it? Or would you rather be called . . . well, never mind. . . did you, did you have a good flight, or maybe you took the train?’ He tapped Ed on the shoulder. ‘How did she get here, Monsieur de Waast?’
I bit my tongue and let Ed answer.
The restaurant was close by. Once out of the car, we kick-started a proper if superficial conversation. I kept on reminding myself I was there for an interview and not just for lunch. We ordered three entrecotes with fries and a bottle of Villa wine to wash them down. Ed picked up a notepad from his pocket and put it next to his plate with my CV. The page was covered in tiny scribbles. I braced myself for a long list of questions.
‘Chris, thank you for visiting us in Bordeaux,’ he said. ‘Monsieur Tenin tells me you’re interested in joining us as UK commercial manager.’
Marcel cut in before I had time to answer, ‘Why are you not working?’
‘I used to work for Terrazas, LVMH’s Argentinean subsidiary,’ I said. ‘My father was taken ill while I was out there. I couldn’t make it back before he died and decided I needed a job with less long-haul travelling.’
‘I never knew my father,’ Marcel said.
I looked at Ed but he appeared to be engrossed in my CV.
‘I am sorry to hear that,’ I said.
‘Nor my real mother. I’m lucky Madame Villa adopted me.’ He sounded as if he were challenging me to contradict him.
‘I’ve heard your mother is a remarkable woman,’ I said.
‘Indeed.’ He fell silent, rolling the breadcrumbs on the tablecloth into a little sticky ball. Ed and I were watching him and waiting.
He squeezed his creation flat with his thumb, sighed and looked at me. ‘Are you a remarkable woman, Madame Legerot?
‘This is an unfair question, Monsieur Villa,’ Ed said.
Marcel ignored him. ‘Do you want to join Villa?’
‘You speak English?’
‘I’ve been living in England for eighteen years,’ I said.
‘How much do you want?’ He rubbed the fingers of his left hand together in the universal sign for money, his upper lip curled up as if he’d detected a bad smell.
‘Sixty thousand pounds?’
‘Write that down, Monsieur de Waast,’ said Marcel. ‘When can you start?’
‘If I may -’ Ed’s eyes were blue mirrors of incredulity.
Marcel turned to him. ‘What now?’
‘Monsieur Villa, this is something, maybe, we could explore a bit further and discuss together, before-’
Marcel shut him up with a wave of his hand.
‘We need someone in London by September, Monsieur de Waast. Madame Legerot seems keen and I’m going on holiday next week.’
Any illusion I’d entertained that Marcel’s decisiveness was due to my professional abilities crumbled on the spot.
I spent the weekend with Maman in Arcachon. We shared a bottle of Bouvet Ladubay Crémant de Loire to celebrate my new job. She had a small glass and I drank the rest. She kept on shaking her head, saying life was bizarre and was I sure about joining Villa.
We tried a new restaurant that had opened for the summer season and went for long morning walks on Pereire beach, enjoying the sunshine and the smell of the pine trees. We talked. I wanted to ask her if I could have a look at what Papa had been writing before he died but I didn’t find the right moment.
I returned to London with the feeling we’d turned a corner.
An email from Ed de Waast arrived the day after my return.
On behalf of Monsieur Villa and myself, I’d like to thank you for your visit to Bordeaux last week. We have now met all the candidates shortlisted for the position of Villa UK commercial manager and I am pleased to let you know we would like to invite you for a second interview.
Monsieur Villa, being otherwise engaged for the next few weeks, has asked me to finalise an appointment. May I suggest we meet again next Thursday at two at the Hammersmith Novotel?’
Marcel Villa wasn’t copied in.