I go home to change at five. The Circle of Wine Writers Christmas party, a good opportunity to catch up with other wine professionals, is taking place tonight. Tim is a regular at such gatherings, which, I suspect, he sees as ideal hunting grounds.
I call him to suggest we go together. He sounds surprised and, after a minute pause, tells me he’s made other arrangements.
‘We don’t want to get people talking,’ he says.
I can’t remember him being that bothered in the heady ambiance of Edinburgh.
As I was hoping he’d escort me, I ignored a call from a girlfriend who’d offered to meet for a drink beforehand. When I phone her, she tells me she’s changed her plans. She doesn’t comment on the fact it’s taken me a week to get back to her but doesn’t linger on the phone either.
I take a long bath to soak away the grime and the sweat of the day. My legs have turned to lead and I am tempted for a moment to go straight to bed. Only the prospect of seeing Tim pulls me out of the bath and out the door.
A heavy rain is battering Chelsea when I walk out of Bond Street tube station. I run all the way to Brook Street, my raincoat over my head. Our host tonight is the Argentinean ambassador. Like an indulgent parent, he’s left us his residence for the evening with the proviso that we leave at eleven. Whether we’ll turn into pumpkins if we ignore his deadline isn’t clear.
While checking in at the reception desk, I am lucky enough to bump into someone I know, which saves me from having to climb the large staircase on my own.
The noise of conversations grows louder as we reach the landing. I must have spent longer in the bath than I meant to. The two salons are packed with men and women shouting amiably at each other. Most of them hold a glass of wine and nine women out of ten have slipped into little black numbers for the evening. I went for a red dress.
My stomach flips as I spot Tim in the middle of the room, thanks to the striking electric blue shirt he’s wearing. He’s in party mode, chatting to a group of people while scanning the crowd at regular intervals to check he’s not missing out on anyone more exciting. His hand is resting on the shoulder of a young woman with fabulous auburn hair, which she tosses in his face every few seconds. I imagine the crowd’s reaction if I ran to them and pulled her away from him by that beautiful hair. At that moment Tim sees me. His gaze rests on me for a millisecond. He fails to acknowledge me but his hand leaves its perch to retreat to the safety of his pocket.
I walk to the bar and pour myself a glass of Zuccardi Q Malbec. When in Argentina… I swirl it in my glass while keeping an eye on the throng. Who do I want to spend time with tonight? The violet and kirsch aromas of the wine distract me for a moment. I take a sip. The silky tannins call for a juicy bit of steak that’s sadly missing from the buffet. How can you have an Argentinean do without steak? That thought reminds me of my last fateful trip to Argentina. I bite my bottom lip. Now isn’t the time to burst into tears.
Albert Moretti appears in my line of vision.
‘Chris, how are you?’ he asks, stressing the ‘are’ in the caring tone of a doctor or a priest, enquiring after the health of a terminally ill patient.
‘Good, thanks. You?’
He presses his hands together and looks around as if he were about to reveal the biggest secret ever. Then he leans towards me and whispers, ‘Things are going very well.’
I usually try to avoid Albert unless I am in exceptionally robust form. He has the ability to look at the bright side of whatever happens to him while denigrating everything and everybody else with great subtlety. The wines he sells taste better than any others, the wineries he represents offer fantastic value for money while being the hottest in their respective regions, and his colleagues excel at their job. I have never met his wife or children but I assume they are exceptional too.
‘I’ve heard interesting things about the new MD at The Wine Shop,’ he says. ‘Sounds like he’s got lots of original ideas.’
I don’t have time to comment before he adds, ‘I’ve always had great admiration for Villa, such an impressive company.’
I nod, waiting for the twist.
‘You, my dear, have been an absolute brick,’ he says. ‘Your job is so very difficult. You really didn’t need that problem with The Super-Market on top of everything else.’
‘How on earth do you know about The Super-Market?’ I ask with a touch more vehemence than I should.
‘Rachel was so upset she needed someone to confide in,’ he says. ‘She really likes you, you know, and it makes the whole thing so much harder for her.’
His warped solicitude is threatening to tip me over the edge. I wave my empty glass at him and flee, hoping to find somebody, anybody I can have a normal conversation with.
Tim’s moved further away from me, his Valkyrie still by his side.
One of Off Licence News’ regular contributors taps me on the shoulder.
‘Chris, just the person I was hoping to see,’ he says, which in journalistic language means, ‘Here’s a story on legs.’
I take a sip of wine. ‘You can’t have been expecting much of your evening.’
‘A French woman with a sense of humour! Who can ask for more?’ he laughs.
The compliment warns me of trouble ahead.
I cross my arms. ‘What can I do for you?’
‘Direct, as ever.’ He chuckles. ‘I’ll be equally frank then. Could you help me secure an interview with The Wine Shop’s new MD? I’ve emailed him but I’m getting nowhere.’
My heart sinks. ‘He’s busy, that’s why he hasn’t come back to you.’
‘Is it true he hardly speaks any English? If that’s the problem, I can bring a translator along.’
‘English isn’t the main issue,’ I say, wondering how to move away from the subject of The Wine Shop. This is supposed to be a party.
‘What is it, then? I’ve heard he’s been tasked with selling the business.’
I try to keep it light. ‘Are you thinking of making an offer?’
‘How much do you think would secure a deal?’
‘More than you or I can afford.’
I turn away from him, desperate to escape.
He follows me. ‘Villa has been running The Wine Shop at a loss for two years.’
‘Quand on aime, on ne compte pas.’
Jen appears out of nowhere.
He turns to her. ‘Some French suppliers claim their products are being delisted to make space for wines from Villa.’
Her blue eyes turn cold. ‘Disgruntled suppliers will always find ways to justify their poor performance. The Wine Shop’s policy on new listings hasn’t changed: we choose the best wines at the keenest possible price and our shelves aren’t elastic,’ she says.
She grabs my elbow and drags me away.
‘It looked like you needed rescuing,’ she says.
I grin back at my tormentor. I wish I had her ability to cut my losses and run.
‘There’s somebody I need to introduce you to,’ she says. ‘He could be the solution for our Pinot Grigio.’
‘Are you thinking of squeezing him into a bottle?’ I ask, taking a well-deserved gulp from my glass.
‘Don’t be flippant. I am thinking about Arnaud’s new range. We must ensure the wine is as good as can be. This guy has quality bulk Pinot Grigio to sell.’
I try to locate Tim in the crowd but can’t see any blue in the surrounding sea of black outfits. If I’d known the evening would turn into a succession of business meetings, I would have stayed in the bath.
Tim is still nowhere to be seen when we all get chucked out at eleven. I am too tired and dispirited to take the tube. I jump into a taxi and finally shed a tear to Razorlight belting out, ‘Who needs love?’ on Capital Radio.
The following day, Maman picks me up from Bordeaux airport in her brand-new silver Renault Clio.
She used to rely on Papa to take her everywhere as she was too nervous to drive the top of the range company Citroen XM he kept after retiring. It’s the first thing she sold after his death. I thought at the time she was taking her revenge on the car for making her feel inadequate for so many years.
She boasted of her car-free status for a few months, claiming she preferred walking or taking the train to driving. Summer turned into autumn, the weather got wetter and her daily shopping trips to Monoprix or Leclerc often left her drenched by a sudden downpour.
She never admitted to having changed her mind but a panicky email from my brother Roland informed me in November that she’d bought a car. He was worried she may have forgotten how to drive. Had she said anything to me?
I admitted I had not spoken to Maman for a couple of weeks.
He emailed back a few days later saying she’d been taking driving lessons and everything was fine.
As we leave the airport, Maman keeps on glancing at me while nattering away about her Scrabble group, the long walks she takes every day by the sea front and the problems she’s been having with the owner of the house next door and his wayward tenants. Despite the driving lessons, I’m worried she’s going to send us into a ditch.
‘What’s the matter, Maman? Do I have something on the tip of my nose?’
‘Have you seen a doctor lately?’ she says.
‘I am not ill.’
‘You look awful. Have you been eating properly?’
‘Maman, can you please keep your eyes on the road?’
‘Do you sleep well?’
She sighs. ‘You work too hard.’
‘Maman, you’ve been saying that since I left university. That’s what it’s like now. If you slouch, you get kicked out.’
‘I’m not saying you should slouch, I’m saying you should keep a sense of proportion. At your age, you have to look after your health. Think about Papa!’
‘What about Papa?’
‘The doctors said he’d worn himself out. He’d still be with us if he’d taken it easier.’
I shrug and turn to the window.
A sharp swerve from the car tells me she’s thrown me another withering look. ‘Shrug all you like. I lived with him for forty odd years. You’re just like him but without a wife to slow you down and look after you.’
‘The idea of a woman waiting for me at home with dinner on the table does appeal but I’m sorry, Maman, I’m not that way inclined sexually.’
‘That’s not what I meant and you know it.’ She throws me a concerned look. ‘Are you seeing someone at the moment?’
‘Nobody you’d approve of.’
‘What’s the point then?’
‘Do you really want to know?’
‘If you think that kind of attitude is attractive in a woman, you’re deluded.’
I turn towards her. ‘Maman, whatever I say, it’s always wrong with you. But since you mentioned Papa, may I ask you a question?’
She shakes her head. ‘Not now, Christine. You’re here for ten days. We have time.’
The arrival of Roland, Bea and their two girls the following day turns Maman’s tidy home into a chaotic campsite. I feel like a refugee, my suitcase tucked away in a corner of Maman’s bedroom during the day and brought into the living room in the evening when I’m allowed to unfold the sofa bed for the night.
My nieces rule the household. They jump on my bed in the morning after laying waste to their parents’ bedroom, they decide on the activities for the day and get into a paroxysm of excitement whenever Christmas is mentioned. Maman packed me off to Monoprix straight after my arrival to buy them toys, pointing out the sensible outfits I got them from Gap didn’t constitute proper Christmas presents.
On the third day of the holidays, I find Maman and Charlotte, the older girl, huddled over my laptop and trying to log in.
‘What are you doing?’ I ask.
‘She wants to play a game,’ Maman says.
I push them aside and turn the machine off. ‘My laptop isn’t a toy.’
‘I’ll be really careful, Auntie Chris. I use Papa’s work computer all the time at home,’ Charlotte says.
‘Then your Papa should have brought his own laptop. I’m sorry but I have all my work in there and I don’t want anybody to mess it up.’
‘She’ll be careful, Christine. Sophie’s gone shopping with her parents and she hasn’t got anything to do,’ Maman says.
I turn on her. ‘I said no. My work’s more important than a child’s entertainment?’
She squares up to me. ‘Your work is more important to you than anything else, even your own family. Just like your father.’
She wipes a tear and takes Charlotte’s hand. ‘Come on, I’ll find something you can play with. Auntie Chris doesn’t like sharing her toys.’
I make for the door, rattled by her reaction and the unfairness of the situation.
‘I’m going for a walk.’
‘Don’t be too long,’ Maman says. ‘Your brother will be back soon and the girls need to eat at twelve. Could you bring a baguette back as well?’
This means I have got to go into town rather than towards the beach. In two days, I have been sucked back into the dependence of childhood. My presence is required at set times for meals and any attempt to break free, even for a short time, is immediately curtailed. I have exchanged one type of slavery for another.
I call Mary who’s manning the office over the holiday.
‘Is everything alright?’ I ask.
‘It’s quiet this morning. It feels like everybody’s taken the day off.’
‘Please, go at lunchtime. It’s Christmas Eve.’
‘Thank you. With Arnaud gone to France for the holidays, our friends from The Wine Shop are having an unofficial Christmas drinks party at twelve. Dave has invited me.’
‘Wish everybody a happy Christmas from me.’
‘Have you heard from Tim?’ Mary asks.
‘I haven’t. I’ll give him a call later. Keep an eye on him for me, will you?’
‘I’ll do my best,’ Mary says.
She doesn’t sound too sure.
I return home sans baguette. The queue in front of the boulangerie stretched for two blocks and joining it would have made me late for lunch. Something tells me I’ll have to go back later anyway to collect the traditional Yule log Maman ordered weeks ago.
Despite my rational explanation, my failure to obey the simple instructions I was given is greeted with irritation.
‘I’m asking you to do one thing and you can’t even do it,’ Maman says. ‘Your father was the same. No patience whatsoever. You know how it ended’
‘I don’t actually,’ I say, but she’s left the room.
As it turns out, there’s enough bread to feed an army. I resist the temptation to point out my baguette was not needed after all. With Christmas Day a few hours away, Maman doesn’t need any excuse to blow her top.
She distributes various last-minute jobs between my sister in law, my brother and I, causing me once more to marvel at the remarkable inefficiency that plagues otherwise organised people when on holiday. She then retires to her bedroom for a nap, in anticipation of this evening’s midnight mass while Bea, helped by the girls, attempts to set up the table for tomorrow’s lunch to Maman’s exacting standards.
Roland suggests we go for a walk.
‘How’s the job going?’ he asks.
‘Tougher than I thought it would be.’
‘You can’t have been expecting a bed of roses.’
‘Why not?’ I ask.
‘The French wine industry is a mess and there’s no reason why Villa should be an exception.’
‘Is that why you decided not to get into wine?’
‘And the fact I wanted to make my own way, and not follow in Papa’s footsteps.’
‘Do you think that’s what I do, follow in Papa’s footsteps?’
‘You’re so like him. Much more than me.’
This is received wisdom in the family.
‘Do you know why he left Villa?’ I ask.
‘God, no! I was a child at the time. What about you?’
‘He never told me. To be fair, even though I was older than you, I was not interested either.’
‘You should ask Maman.’
‘I’ll wait until you’re gone. She’d rather spend time with the girls right now.’