Chapter 33 – Papa

At home and loaded with Nurofen I am too restless to lie down. I pace the living room floor, my mind racing, disregarding my tired and aching body. The first anniversary of Papa’s death is in two weeks. What have I achieved since that mad race out of Argentina?

My throat tightens and my eyes well up again. Arnaud is right. I’m a complete mess. If only I could talk to Papa. I cross my arms and shiver. I’ve turned the heating off during the day and the flat feels damp, chilly and empty. I pick up the box file containing Papa’s papers from the top shelf of the bookcase where it’s been gathering dust for three months and set it down at the kitchen table.

Under the newspaper cutting showing Marguerite Villa and my father in front of the Narbonne winery and a thick file of health and safety procedures for the site I find a bundle of letters tied with a rubber band. The top one is headed Ministère de l’Agriculture. It bestows the Ordre du Mérite Agricole to my father for services to the French wine industry.

I lean back in my chair and remember the ceremony at Villa’s head office. Maman had bought a new red dress for the occasion. Papa had told me the distinction he was about to receive was nicknamed “the leek” and I kept on getting the giggles. I was eight. Marguerite Villa, herself an officer of the Ordre du Mérite, pinned the little medal hanging from a green ribbon on my father’s chest, like an army general decorating a brave lieutenant after the battle.

Under the letter from the Ministère, I find an old fashioned carbon copy of Papa’s resignation letter.

Madame,

Following our conversation on Friday, I am writing to you to confirm my resignation. Considering the circumstances, I am sure you’ll understand my wish to leave the company as soon as possible.

Short and to the point. What could he have done? It must have been pretty bad. The letter makes it sound as if he had no choice but to fall on his sword. But why did Marguerite tell me she shouldn’t have let him go?

All the other letters form part of a correspondence between Papa and André Lange, which covers several months. Most of them are copied to Marguerite Villa. I spread them in a fan shape on the table, catching fragments of text as I do so.

 It has come to my attention that you have, on several occasions in the last few weeks, failed to implement the safety measures, which should be the norm in Narbonne whether or not I happen to be present in the building.

This is from Papa. Another one is dated three months later.

The safety of our staff should take priority over productivity increases. The reckless speed to which you pushed the bottling line today would certainly have caused an accident, with a high chance of one or several operatives being injured, if I had not returned earlier than planned from Bordeaux and slowed it down.

And another one.

I congratulate you on your promotion. As you know it was Madame Villa’s decision to promote you, not mine. I urge you however not to neglect the well-being of your employees in your new position. You may see some of the processes I have put in place as old fashioned and unnecessarily cautious but please remember they are the result of twenty years’ experience in running production sites.

My heart breaks. How hard it must have been for Papa.

Only two of the letters are from André.

Monsieur Legerot,

Madame Villa has asked me to improve the efficiency of the Narbonne site. I would appreciate your support in this project.

And then,

Monsieur,

Madame Villa has authorised me to dispense with some of the more onerous procedures you implemented in Narbonne. Should you have any objections, I suggest you discuss them with her.

Is this why Papa left? Because Marguerite let André have his own way in Narbonne? Did Papa feel undermined to a point where he could not bear it anymore? He was a proud man but not overly so. Villa was his life. He would not have let go so easily.

A slim volume in a tattered cardboard sleeve lies at the bottom of the box. I pull it out and trace the faded gold letters on the cover with my finger: Tasting Notes.

I have not seen this book in years. I bring it to my nose and close my eyes. The leather has lost its smell but the thick creamy paper gives off the metallic tang of dry ink over dusty vanilla. I stroke the cover and open the book on the table.

I flick through the pages where Papa has recorded the best wines he’s tasted. Here’s the Smith Haut Lafitte 61 he made me try. He’s written down: Christine’s first grand cru. I wonder if he realised how important that moment was for me.

Towards the end, the writing is upside down and much more closely packed. I turn the book around.

Fear, not to be confused with caution, is a poor advisor as it obscures one’s judgement. How many of us avoid taking risks at any cost? But is life worth living without risks? I like to believe I have never gone for the easy option.

This looks like a journal. I go back to the beginning.

I am in the dog’s house again, this time for having a row with Rémi. His obsession with the French Resistance drives me mad. Why have so many of my friends become so dogmatic in their old age?

Disappointment washes over me. If Papa wrote these lines later in life, they will not tell me about his time at Villa. I read on for the illusion of spending time in his company.

The two of us went on an outing to Oradour-sur-Glane at his request. In the car he would not stop talking about the “ordinary heroes who saved our country from German rule”. There’s no point mentioning the Allies to him, he’s forgotten their existence altogether.

Image by 42spain from Pixabay

He’d done some research into the massacre beforehand and when I asked him if résistants had been among the six hundred or so people killed by the SS on that fateful day of June 1944 he nodded and said a few freedom fighters had indeed lost their life in Oradour even though the Germans had not been aware of their existence until much later. He added quite forcefully that the resistance could not be blamed for what happened on that day.

We walked the desolate streets of the martyr village for an hour or so and the contrast between the ordinariness of the site and the extreme brutality of its plight moved me deeply. Rémi kept on talking, displaying an encyclopaedic knowledge of the dramatic events of these few days. After visiting the memorial on the other side of the road and examining all the exhibits gathered there, we returned to the car in silence.

 I was mulling over his earlier comment and asked him how he could claim the resistance had nothing to do with the massacre. The kidnapping of SS officer/ commander Kampfe may have been necessary to delay his division’s progression towards Normandy but it was obvious to me it had been the trigger for the SS reprisals in Oradour.

Rémi stopped walking and turned towards me, looking as shocked as if I’d said I sided with the SS on that one. Although I can’t remember every word of the tirade he subsequently launched against what he called my revisionist and neo-pacifist tendencies, I was struck by his inability to entertain any challenge to his own vision of the truth.

It made me realise how much I have changed since the days I tried to impose my own vision to André. Would things have turned out differently if I’d shown more flexibility?

I am about to turn the page when the phone rings. I glance at the display, hoping for a random caller’s number but it is Philippe.

‘I have deleted your photo from my Facebook page.  I’m so sorry, Chris.’

‘Don’t worry. I know you didn’t mean to cause any trouble.’

‘Do you want me to apologise to Rachel?’

‘She asked me to call her next week. Not much point in bothering her right now.’

The next page looks like a new entry. Merde! I scan it quickly but can’t find any mention of André. I turn to another page and my heart skips a beat.

I wish Christine would visit more often. There’s so much I need to tell her. She has inherited my intransigence and I worry she’ll get hurt. She was furious when she called today because she found out a colleague of hers lied to their boss to cover a mistake he’d made. I hope she never has to deal with the likes of André. It would crush her.

The entry stops there. I throw the book on the floor in frustration. Something definitely happened between Papa and André, something which had to do with the truth and not wanting to compromise, something which changed Papa’s outlook on life.

The words Tasting Notes on the cover of the diary come across as a provocation. The first lines my father wrote in there had to do with the art of putting the essence of great and not so great wines into words. It looks like he moved on to try and decode in those same pages the meaning of events in his life. Could the whole story be in there?

I pick up the book and open it again.

Wars are almost always started by lies. The case of the Ems Dispatch is of particular interest. Bismarck altered, in what would now be called a sensational press release, the factual minutes of a tense but courteous meeting between Kaiser Wilhem and the French ambassador. Not only did he emphasize the extravagance of the French demands but he turned the Kaiser’s refusal to discuss the matter further into a refusal to meet the ambassador again. The French translation reinforced the inflammatory tone of the message, which was released on Bastille Day. Five days later, France declared war.

Truth and lies again. I could scream in frustration.

Isn’t some kind of deception always necessary to justify military action? How can one otherwise defend sending men to their death even if it is to save others? The plain truth can be too much to handle.

Is that what happened when Marguerite tore my report about André to pieces?  I wish she’d at least waited for me to leave the room.

I read recently that execution squadrons used to be provided with eleven live cartridges and a blank one. Like the blindfold hiding the eyes of the condemned man, it was supposed to make it easier for the soldiers to fire at another human being: little deceptions to make the abominable acceptable.

 I suppose my mistake was to tear the blindfold away.

I leaf through the book in mounting exasperation. There must be more than a hundred pages of closely written text. I must read them all if I am to have a chance of ever piecing together what happened between Papa and André. Despite my dislike of the older man, I don’t believe him capable of murder but could it be what Papa is alluding to?  I am suddenly scared of what I am going to find out.

My phone rings again.

‘Hi Andy,’ I say with false jollity. I have just remembered he never returned to our stand yesterday.

‘I am sorry to hear you’re unwell but this is a genuine emergency. Is there any chance you may be able to come over this afternoon for a chat with my boss? He wants to talk about the new range.’

I stroke the smooth cover of Papa’s diary and slide it back in its worn out sleeve with a sigh. ‘I’d be delighted, Andy.’

Andy misled me, whether on purpose or by accident, I am not sure. His boss didn’t even mention the article in OLN and seemed comfortable with the idea of Villa supplying a new range to Direct Wines. He asked me a lot of questions about the organisation of the company but none which could explain the urgency of his summons. Maybe he’s another Arnaud who can’t wait for anything.

I get caught in traffic on the way back home and arrive after seven. Papa’s diary is on the coffee table where I left it earlier. I dump my bag and my coat in the middle of the room, throw myself on the sofa and grab the book.

Ten minutes later, it’s still lying in my lap, unopened. I need a glass of wine.

After much consideration, I open a bottle of Minervois, Chateau Maris. I bought a case for Papa two years ago. When he saw the label, he frowned and mumbled something about Languedoc upstarts. Maman told me afterwards he’d served it to some of his wine buddies, describing it with pride as ‘one of Christine’s discoveries’.

I pour the wine in one of my prized Zalto glasses, pull the curtains shut, turn my mobile off and sit down again, ready for an ultimate conversation with my father.

I skip the Oradour pages I read earlier. The next entry follows on the theme of lies and selective truth being woven into the very fabric of human life.

I have rewritten the act of contrition: people lie, as opposed to sin, in their thoughts and in their words, in what they do and in what they fail to do. Aren’t most sins based on lying?

I yawn. Papa could be a touch heavy handed with religion. I hope this won’t turn into a theological thesis.

Look at the original sin. God lied first when he said ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’ The serpent then tempts Eve by introducing an element of doubt in a straight forward situation, a classic premise. He asks, ‘Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?’ When told only one tree is forbidden, he cajoles and reassures, ‘You will not die’ and comes up with the first instance of selective lying, ‘You will be like God, knowing good and evil.’

I am struggling to keep my eyes open. The next entry arouses my interest again.

Was Marguerite right to think the truth would ruin Villa? A little cover up, she called it. She listed all sorts of cases when lying turned out to be a good thing. Commerce,’ she said, ‘thrives by lying or at least being economical with the truth.  My product is the best and the cheapest’ is seldom true.’ I must have looked dubious and she went on. ‘Spying relies on lying and yet, it is indispensable to protect democracies. Even the pharmaceutical industry lies when testing new drugs through the placebo method.

She looked pleased with this last one and handed over the cash with a smile.

 The cash? What is he going on about?

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