I try to call Tim at five. It’s four in London and the lunchtime drinks party must be finished by now. His mobile is turned off and I leave him a short message, wishing him a happy Christmas.
In the evening we walk down the road to Notre Dame. Altar servers holding lit torches stand by the entrance. Instead of its usual winter contingent of OAP’s, the Basilica is full of well-dressed families who have come over from Bordeaux for the holidays. The smell of smoke, incense and the ancient white stone of the building mixes with the expensive perfumes of the congregation. The mass lasts an hour and a half and my nieces fidget throughout. Maman ignores them. Her eyes are moist. I guess she’s thinking about Papa and I pat her shoulder. She reaches for my hand and squeezes it.
We rush back home for a light midnight feast of smoked salmon and Champagne. The girls are exhausted and soon go to bed, protesting they want to wait for Father Christmas. When she kisses me goodnight, Charlotte whispers to me she knows he doesn’t exist but she has to pretend for her sister’s sake. I wish we could spend longer together and get to know each other properly.
Maman shakes me awake at seven the following morning. Still half asleep, I fold up the sofa bed as silently as I can and help her to carry the multicoloured parcels she’s hidden in her bedroom and on top of various bits of furniture throughout the house. She ticks each hiding place off a list and soon a respectable pile of presents sits under the tree.
A big sigh alerts us to the presence of the girls behind us. They stand by the door, hand in hand, in matching pink pyjamas.
‘Is it all for us?’ Sophie asks.
‘Wait for Mummy and Daddy to wake up,’ Maman says.
They turn around and run down the corridor to their parents’ room. Five minutes later my brother and his wife join us by the tree, dragged there by their excited daughters.
‘Let me get my camera,’ Maman says.
The distribution begins with the biggest boxes, which are for the girls. The brightly coloured cash register with matching caddy and pretend goodies I bought a few days earlier is welcomed with shrieks of delight while the new clothes are tossed aside without a second glance. Maman was right.
I get books, Benabar’s new CD and a bottle of Chanel 19, always a safe bet.
Maman jumps up and runs out of the room.
‘I almost forgot,’ she says.
She returns carrying a grey filing box.
‘This isn’t really a Christmas present, Christine. It’s your father’s work papers and mementoes. He would have liked you to have them, especially now you’re working for Villa.’
I open the box with mixed feelings. I don’t want to think about Villa right now.
Inside there’s a jumble of papers, notebooks and old newspapers cuttings. I pick up the yellowing front page of an ancient Sud Ouest, the local daily paper. The caption reads, ‘Madame Villa opens new Narbonne bottling site.’ In front of the familiar building’s entrance, stands a much younger Marguerite, my father at her side.
‘It may not be terribly exciting,’ Maman says, a note of apology in her voice, ‘but it was his life.’ She wipes her eyes with a corner of her apron.
I take her hand. ‘It doesn’t matter Maman. It will be really interesting for me.’
Even to my own ears, I sound dubious.
‘Roland, you don’t mind, do you?’ I ask my brother.
He raises his hands as if to push away the box. ‘Rather you than me. You know I have no interest in the wine business.’
Once Roland and his family have gone, I move into the spare bedroom and adjust with guilty pleasure to Maman’s sedate lifestyle. We get up at nine, have a leisurely breakfast and set out to town, always finding an errand to run. We have lunch at twelve on the dot and spend most afternoons walking on the Pereire beachfront or in the pine forests which made the reputation of Arcachon in Victorian times.
In the evening we treat ourselves to one of the many local restaurants or we cook a little delicacy, a bowl of moules marinières, a filet of sole or langoustines with fresh bread and butter. Then we play Scrabble or watch television and eat delicious oyster shaped chocolates before going to bed. I sleep like a baby. Whether it’s the lifestyle or the sea air, my energy levels are rising by the day although my trousers’ waistbands tell me I have put on a few pounds since I arrived.
When I question her, Maman tells me she doesn’t know why Papa left Villa.
‘He never told me. He called from the office in Bordeaux one evening. He was in a terrible state. He said he had to go back to Narbonne on an emergency and wouldn’t be home for a while. He stayed away for six months.’
‘You told Roland and me he was away on business,’ I say.
She nods. ‘What else could I say? He didn’t want to speak to you or your brother. I tried to protect you both but it was a difficult time.’
‘He kept in touch with you though?’
‘He called once a week from a phone box, pretty much to say he was alive but that was it. He was renting a studio in Vinassan but made me promise not to try and visit. ’
‘Why did you agree?’ I ask
She rolls her eyes. ‘Women of my generation obeyed their husbands. Something terrible must have happened. Your father loved his job.’
‘I remember when he returned home. He used to wake up in the middle of the night and pace around the house for hours,’ I say.
‘He was a shadow of his former self. I tried to convince him to see a doctor but he wouldn’t.’
‘You must have a theory about what happened.’
She snorts. ‘He was a proud and stubborn man working with a proud and stubborn woman. That’s all I know. I’ll never forgive her.’
She doesn’t need to tell me whom she’s talking about.
I manage to speak to Tim twice but he’s too busy both times to stay on the phone more than a few minutes. He tells me he’s spent Christmas with mates, which is his way of warding off any questions he may not want to answer, and remains vague about his plans for New Year. My infatuation with him hasn’t abated so much as being put on hold. Here in Arcachon, where he doesn’t belong, he feels almost unreal.
New Year’s Eve is shockingly tame. Maman and I walk into town at eight. The weather is mild and the night air smells of the sea with wafts of appetising smells coming out of houses and restaurants along the way. ‘Chez Yvette’ is brightly lit and fills in quickly with diners. An army of waiters and waitresses buzz around the place with purposeful energy.
We treat ourselves to a glass of Champagne as an aperitif. A whole bottle would be in bad taste in Maman’s eyes since we have no male companion to justify such extravagance. We tuck into a huge “plateau de fruits de mer” and I order a bottle of Château Malartic-Lagravière, while Maman’s not looking.
She chides me when the sommelier brings it to the table, saying half a bottle would have been enough. She then drinks happily, even commenting I always pick delicious wines. I savour the rare praise, hoping she doesn’t find out how much my refined taste encourages me to spend on a single bottle of wine.
I fly back to London on the second, fortified by my New Year’s resolutions to take things easy at work and with Tim, and to try and look after myself a bit more. My newly acquired steadfastness is put to the test as soon as I land. Mary’s call comes as I am waiting in the luggage reclaim area.
‘Hi Chris, did you plan to come to the office today?’
‘Happy New Year, Mary! I didn’t. What’s up? You sound flustered.’
‘Arnaud wants to see you. Happy New Year to you too!’
‘He’ll have to wait until tomorrow,’ I say, a note of smugness in my voice.
‘He said -’
‘Mary, Arnaud will have to learn I am not at his beck and call. He’s put me under a lot of pressure since he took over at The Wine Shop but I am determined-’
‘Tim’s also popped in,’ she interrupts. ‘He looked upset. There must be something going on next door.’
‘Have you asked Dave?’
I can’t believe I said that.
A beep tells me I have got another call waiting.
‘Sorry Mary, can I phone you back later?
The other call turns out to be four voicemail messages, all received while I was in mid-flight.
Ed wishes me a Happy New Year and reminds me the next Export Meeting at the end of January is the annual get together for all Villa’s branch offices. He proposes to come over next Wednesday to help me polish my presentation. He doesn’t say it’s to avoid a repeat of my dismal performance at the last meeting but I get the message.
My blood pressure rises by one notch as I make a note of calling him later on to try and dissuade him from visiting.
The second message is from Philippe. His car’s been broken into and his laptop’s gone, together with his briefcase. Could I ask Matt to order him a new one and also check if there’s a spare one he could borrow in the meantime? He won’t be in the office tomorrow as he needs to get his car fixed. He’s sorry and wishes me a Happy New Year.
I fling my suitcase from the carousel straight onto my big toe while keeping the phone glued to my ear. I bite my lip in pain and Arnaud’s voice shatters my eardrum. ‘Close the door!’
I turn around.
‘That was not for you,’ he says. ‘I have just told my heads of department of the redundancies we need to make. They are kicking up a huge fuss, your protégé more than the others. They are threatening to expose Villa to the press whatever they mean by it. I don’t mind but I expect you do. Call me. Oh and Happy New Year!’
Tim is next.
‘The bastard wants me to lose four people in my department. He may as well get rid of Marketing altogether. Not that it surprises me. He’s a complete arsehole. Did you know about it? You mentioned redundancies when you came back from Bordeaux. Why didn’t you tell me what he had in mind? Call me when you land.’
He doesn’t wish me a Happy New Year.
I phone him back while on board the Gatwick Express and we get cut off six times. In exasperation, I tell him I am coming to the office. I text Mary to let her know and ask her to tell Arnaud, knowing that if I text him, he’ll take it as a green light to call me back straight away.
I get to Kingston at five. I am still technically on holiday.
Dave’s at his usual post, wet fag in hand. ‘You’ve heard?’
‘I may have.’
He makes a cut-throat gesture. ‘Jack’s getting rid of half of head office.’
‘I told Tim you had no idea.’
I dislike the idea of Dave interceding with Tim on my behalf.
‘What about you?’ I ask.
He taps his nose with his index finger. ‘He can’t touch me. I know too much.’
I feel like saying Arnaud may not have realised Dave is actually working for The Wine Shop since he spends most of his time outside the office but I decide not to antagonise him.
‘Happy New Year, Dave.’
‘Same to you, Chris.’
Arnaud is leaning back in his chair, tanned and relaxed.
‘You wanted to see me,’ I say.
‘The artist almost gave me a good reason to sack him on the spot earlier,’ he says turning sideways to his computer.
I sit down. ‘What happened?’
‘I told each Head of Department how many people they had to lose. In some cases I suggested whom they should let go. Most reacted professionally but Foster went ballistic.
I shrug, trying to look like I don’t care. ‘Celtic blood. What’s it got to do with me?’
‘He threatened to get the press on side to stop anybody in this country from buying from Villa.’
My throat tightens. ‘That’s not nice,’ I say, unable to find a better answer.
‘You’d be the first to suffer the consequences.’ He swivels round and leans towards me. ‘Does he know you saved his job?’
I recoil. ‘Why should I tell him?’
He stares at me. ‘You don’t fancy him, do you?’
I thank God I have not seen Tim for a while and I am able to deny Arnaud’s claim without blushing.
He grunts and turns back to his screen. ‘As you’re here now, see where he’s got to with the labels for the new range. I meant to ask him earlier but there would have been little point, the state he was in.’
It takes me a few seconds to compose myself outside the door to the Marketing office. I have not seen Tim in ten days and I would have preferred a more intimate setting for our reunion. Also four people in there are about to lose their jobs. They may not know yet but I do and it makes facing them awkward. I decide to give New Year’s greetings a miss.
A deep breath and I am inside the door. ‘Hi guys, is Tim around?’
‘Happy New Year Chris,’ says the brunette, ‘Beware, he’s in a foul mood.’
I guess he hasn’t told them. I mumble something back to her and walk up to Tim’s desk, repeating Supertramp’s lines to myself like a mantra,
“You’d better gain control now
You’d better show ’em all now
You’d better make or break now.”
He looks up from the notebook on his desk and I am struck by the coldness in his eyes.
‘It’s nothing to do with me,’ I say.
‘You knew, didn’t you? You found out when you went to that meeting in Bordeaux.’
‘I didn’t know the extent of it, I promise.’
‘How do I choose between getting rid of a single mother who badly needs her job and a bright young guy who’s getting married next summer.’
‘I’m sorry, Tim.’
‘So am I. I won’t keep you. I only have until tomorrow morning to make a decision.’
I push my hands deep into my pockets, take a few steps away, pause and turn around. ‘Where have you got to with the new labels? Can I help?’
‘No, I don’t want to give Villa more control than necessary on this project.’
I drop my head and make for the door.
His voice softens. ‘The file’s over there.’
The designer has opted for a neutral black and cream design, as far removed as possible from the usual extravagant aesthetics of The Wine Shop. It looks fine if a bit bland, a fake Chanel straightjacket for the Amy Winehouse of wine.
‘Mind if I take a copy?’ I ask.
‘Do what you want.’ His elbows on the desk, he’s holding his head with both hands, massaging his skull as if trying to rid himself of a headache.
When I show him the designs, Arnaud’s pleased with their classicism. I praise the quality of the work of the marketing team but he silences me with a stare.