Chapter 34 – The Truth

I continue reading.

‘I could have told her that parents lie to their children. I misled Christine about the realities of the wine business. Because it meant so much for me, I made it sound better for her, brushing over the long hours and the poor pay. I was so proud when she chose to follow in my profession. Would she be a wife and a mother now if it had not been for all the travelling? Is it too late to put things right?

I never knew Papa worried about me so much. It was always Maman who asked me awkward questions.

 ‘Marguerite was right. What’s true for one person isn’t for another: religion, beauty, everything is relative.

André maintained Manuel died through his own fault. I believe André caused his death as surely as if he’d pushed him into the vat. Marguerite chose to go with André and I didn’t have the strength to fight them. I’d invested so much in Villa. Doing what I was told to do and leaving was the easy option.

I stand up and pace the room. I have no idea who Manuel was but this doesn’t look good.

I didn’t even like Manuel much. He was lazy and undisciplined, argumentative and hot tempered. He didn’t deserve to die such a horrible death though. His youngest son has been in and out of prison all his adult life. The shame of it drove his mother, Maria, into an early grave. I grew fond of her through the years. She never blamed Villa, never contested our version of the story. She soldiered on, bringing up her three kids the best she could.

Manuel would never have died if André had not cut down on the security measures I’d implemented at the winery. All to save a few francs and show off in front of Marguerite. What if the company had admitted liability and paid Maria a decent pension? Would it have helped keep the boy on the straight and narrow? The accident would have had to become public knowledge. There would have been questions asked. André would have been held accountable for his decisions.

I’ll never forget the day I brought Marguerite’s money to Maria. She thanked me. The poor woman had never seen so much cash. She fancied herself rich. A smaller sum, paid over a longer period would have been more beneficial.

But Marguerite was having none of it. She liked big gestures. I remember her instructions. ‘You go. It will mean a lot more to her if it comes from you. She probably doesn’t even know who André is. You give her the envelope and tell her how sorry I am her husband has run away.’ She knew I would do her bidding even if it destroyed me. ‘You’re my secret agent,’ she said and, when I failed to respond, ‘and one of my few friends.’

I looked at her but she was shuffling papers on her desk, already thinking about her next task. A man had died in our care but like in primitive societies, she’d paid blood money and moved on. I fled her office, the bulging envelope held at arm’s length as if it were contagious. I never saw her again after that day.

I fled Maria’s flat in much the same way the day after. She’d opened the envelope and she was passing the banknotes from hand to hand, not even counting them but relishing in their sheer number. ‘Gracias, muchos gracias,’ she said, reverting to her native Spanish. She tried to kiss my hand but the baby started crying which gave me an excuse to leave. Maybe she was not too upset her good for nothing husband had vanished without trace. I felt sick.

I do too. This is awful. I can’t believe what I am reading.

‘The money lasted a year. Maria was a kind and generous woman with many relatives. I tried to help her a little but I had to be mindful of her older son. One day, he must have been fifteen or sixteen, I’d brought some clothes Christine had grown out of for his little sister. His mother was not there. He pushed the bag back into my arms, saying ‘We don’t need your charity.’ When I protested my good intention, he took one step towards me and said ‘I can look after my mother. You are not welcome here anymore.’ He slammed the door in my face. I never told Maria.

I kept on sending cards for New Year with cash inside, always claiming it came from Villa. I don’t know if she believed me or cared. I’d long left the company by then but she may not have known. One year, the card came back with the cash and a note from the son saying his mother had died and he didn’t need my money.

I put the book down and take a big gulp of wine. This explains André’s attitude when I joined Villa.

I leap from the sofa and grab another file. A drawing of the layout of the Narbonne site falls out. I turn it around, trying to find my bearings. Here’s the extension with the new bag in box line and the warehouse. Hatchings mark a row of small fibreglass vats which were moved during the works. The last one looks like it’s been walled in. It’s marked with a cross.

Another document has been scribbled all over. It lists rules and regulations for the Narbonne site. Half of them have been crossed out. One such line is underlined twice in red ink. It reads, ‘should underground vats need to be kept open at any stage, metal crosses will be positioned over their opening to ensure operatives’ safety.

Another crossed out and underlined sentence further down reads: ‘no hosepipes are to be left lying around in the vat room at the end of the day.

I close my eyes. The large room which is built on top of the underground vats sits at the heart of the winery. I have often heard my colleagues in Narbonne wonder why two of its original entrances have been condemned, making it impossible to use it as a shortcut from one end of the site to the other. It makes sense now.

I can imagine Manuel, an anonymous silhouette in blue overalls, walking across the room, maybe carrying a case of wine or a parcel which would have obscured his vision, tripping over tangled hosepipes and plunging head first into a vat full of wine. If he had not knocked himself unconscious, he would have kept afloat for a few hours, maybe more, shouting himself hoarse, but the alcoholic fumes would have got to him eventually and he would have drowned. There are no ladders inside those vats, only sheer curved walls.

I shiver and wonder who found him. Maybe Papa or André himself or one of his henchmen. Could it have been Jean Jacques? If it was, it would explain why he would not balk at lying over a quality issue. What’s a touch of reduction compared to complicity to manslaughter.

Whoever it was would have pulled the body out and moved it to the smaller vat. A year later it would have gone, dissolved in wine. If Papa’s jottings are correct, a year later, the small vat marked with a cross was hidden behind a wall anyway. Only the shoes would be left floating in the wine, and maybe some bits of clothing. Not enough to incriminate André.

Slowly I put everything back into Papa’s box. What should I do, or rather what can I do more than twenty five years after the events? Exhaustion overtakes me and I decide to postpone any decision making to tomorrow morning.

I turn my mobile back on before going to bed. A minuscule part of me still hopes against reason that Tim may try to call me.

I have a text from Mary. She wants to know if I mind if Dave joins Philippe, her and me for a drink in the pub tomorrow evening. Dave? The world’s gone mad. I head for the bathroom and bed.

The ring of my mobile wakes me up. For a few seconds I can’t remember where I am. The massive dose of Nurofen I took yesterday to numb my aching jaw combined with half a bottle of wine and what I discovered in Papa’s diary made for a restless night.

I worry I have overslept but a quick glance at the alarm clock tells me it’s only quarter to seven.  Maybe it’s Mary wanting to explain last night’s strange text? She would not call so early though. I grab the phone with both hands, toddler like.

‘Have you heard?’ asks Serge in a whisper.

‘Do you know what time it is?’ I say.

‘Sorry, forgot about the time difference. It’s big news though.’

‘What is?’ I sit up and rub my eyes open.

‘I am not sure where to start,’ he says.

‘Now you woke me up, you’d better make it worth my while.’

I jump from the bed, struck by a mad idea. ‘Is it to do with Marguerite and André?’

‘You know.’

He sounds disappointed.

‘How did you find out?’ I ask.

‘André called me in last night. He made me promise not to talk to you until this morning though.’

I can’t believe his allegiance is as strong as ever now he knows the truth about André.

‘It took him over twenty years to come clean and he has the cheek to ask you to wait twenty four hours,’ I say.

‘Come on, she’s only been dead a week.’

‘She?’

‘Marguerite Villa.’

I slump back on my bed.

‘Marguerite Villa is dead?’ I ask.

‘You just said you knew’

‘Don’t worry. What happened?’

‘She’s been ill for a long time but the few people who were aware were sworn to secrecy. Do you remember when Marcel left the export committee? She’d gone into hospital that afternoon.’

‘This is why her assistant wouldn’t put me through yesterday. It all makes sense now.’

‘It would have been difficult.’

‘What’s going to happen to the company? Will Marcel take over or will André?’ I ask.

With Marguerite gone, it will be easier for me to bring André down. It may be more dangerous as well as I won’t have anybody to protect me anymore but I can avenge Papa and restore the truth.

 ‘Villa has been sold to an Australian group,’ Serge says.

‘You’re kidding. What does André think about it?’

‘He’s leaving.’

‘What?’

‘The Super-Market incident destroyed his credibility with the local coops. Your friend Thierry hinted to our new owners they could have another Aniane on their hands if André was allowed to stay. He had to go.’

‘Aniane is the village where Mondavi wanted to plant a vineyard, isn’t it?’

‘And where they were told to take their dollars and go home. Same here. Thierry told them keeping André would make their ownership of Villa difficult bordering on unmanageable.’

‘Who’s going to take over?’

‘Too early to say but you have forgotten to ask about Marcel.’

‘Doesn’t everybody forget about Marcel?’

‘Hold on. He’s bought a fashion house in Paris with his inheritance and he’s leaving the wine business altogether.’

I burst out laughing. ‘Good for him. I always felt sorry for him, having to follow in Marguerite’s footsteps. He may have to learn to speak English now.’

‘Why did you say it took André over twenty years to come clean by the way?’ asks Serge.

‘It’s a long story. I’ll tell you another day.’

I put the phone back on my bedside table and throw myself back on the bed. Today looks like it will be an interesting day in the office.

Arnaud calls me just as I am stepping into my car.

‘Feeling better? Good. Come and see me when you arrive.’

I don’t even have time to tell him I know what’s happening.

He’s standing behind his desk when I walk in, piling paper into a cardboard box.  For an instant, I am reminded of Tim on his last day.

‘Are you going as well?’ I ask.

He looks up. ‘Back to Africa. Can’t say I’ll miss this place.’

‘Why so soon?’

‘Villa’s been split up. The kangaroos bought the wine division. We’ve been sold to a Brazilian hedge fund.’

‘We as in the coffee business?’

He nods.

‘Will you do me a favour?’ he asks.

He hands me over an envelope without waiting for my answer. ‘Will you give this to my assistant on Monday? She’s taken today off.’

The envelope is nicely padded. He’s got a heart after all.

‘Will you miss the wine business?’ I ask.

He shakes his head. ‘Nutters, all of them.’ He points at me and adds, ‘you included.’

I could kiss him and I do, a little peck on the cheek before I leave his office, taking with me this last image of a big man, eyebrows raised and a French English dictionary in his hand.

No sign of Dave outside. Maybe he has been let go in the general mayhem and Mary’s taken pity on him and invited him to join us tonight. She’s a great one for lost dogs without collars.

She and Philippe look up when I walk in. News travel fast.

‘What do you know already?’ I ask.

Philippe counts on his fingers. ‘Villa’s been sold to an Australian company, Arnaud is packing and everybody is leaving with a fat cheque except us.’

‘I like your ability to summarise,’ I say.

‘Somebody called John Westfield called for you from Bordeaux ten minutes ago,’ says Mary. ‘He left a number. Don’t they have an office in Guilford?’

I sit down. ‘Look, I haven’t got a clue what’s going to happen but I’ll try as hard as I can to protect your best interests.’

I put my hand in my pocket and pull out the envelope Arnaud’s given me. I put it on my desk and pat it gently.

‘Today my faith in human nature was restored,’ I say.

‘You always were insanely optimistic,’ Philippe says under his breath.

‘Have you heard from Ed?’ I ask.

Philippe and Mary nod in unison.

‘He is on the last transport out of town,’ says Philippe. ‘He asked me to apologise to you for being a little distracted on Wednesday but he was waiting to hear about the size of his severance payment.’

‘Will he call back?’ I ask.

Philippe shakes his head. ‘I think it’s a case of grab the cash and run.’

I shrug. ‘Good riddance.’

I can’t help being a bit dismayed by the ease and the speed with which everybody is casting off.

‘Are we still going to the pub tonight?’ asks Mary.

I’d forgotten about our planned outing. ‘What’s this about Dave joining us?’

Mary blushes crimson.

‘You’re not-’

She nods. ‘You don’t really know him. He’s given up smoking for me.’

I raise my hands in surrender. She’s right. What do I know?

‘Sorry Mary, I’ll trust your judgement on that one. I’d better call this John Westfield now.’

The phone rings. ‘Rachel,’ mouths Mary.

‘Put her through,’ I say. ‘I am sure John won’t mind.’

‘Congratulations,’ says Rachel. ‘I hear Villa has gone global.’

‘You are well informed. I trust this is good news for our trading relationship.’

‘We do a lot of business with your new owners and this is the reason for my call. Considering you’ll now be operating on a much larger scale, could you have a look at reducing your Bordeaux quote?’

I burst out laughing. ‘Rachel, I can’t believe you. The news of the takeover isn’t even official yet and you’re already trying to take advantage.’

‘It’s my job, isn’t it?

She sounds a bit miffed.

‘I don’t even know if I still have a job,’ I say.

‘Sorry, I may have been a bit hasty.’

‘I’ll keep you posted, I promise.’

The phone rings again the moment I put it down,

‘Congratulations Chris!’

‘Good morning Albert, how on earth do you know what’s going on and why do you think it warrants congratulations?’

‘Have I ever told you my wife is French and comes from Bordeaux? Her cousin is a nurse and works at the St André hospital.’

I burst out laughing.

‘Don’t take it the wrong way but I’ll call you back later Albert.’

Time to call Mr Westfield.

His voice has that faint trace of transatlantic accent which reeks of an expensive American education. I’d assumed him to be Australian.

‘Sorry I didn’t call you earlier. The phone’s been red hot since the news spread.’

‘No worries. How soon can you be in Bordeaux?’

‘When would suit you?’

‘Could you make it Monday?’

‘I’ll be on the first flight. How long do you need me for?’

‘End of the week? We have lots to talk about. The winemaker, Serge, speaks highly of you. You know how we value those guys in the New World.’

I pause, a bit surprised by his earnest tone.  ‘May I ask what’s going to happen to The Wine Shop?’

He pauses. ‘We’ll talk about it when we meet. This takeover could be the chance of a lifetime for you, Chris. I’ll see you next week.’

He puts the phone down so fast I wonder if he’s taken lessons from Arnaud.

The chance of a lifetime indeed. I’ll have to tell him about Manuel though. The truth needs out. Arnaud’s gesture earlier showed me redemption is always possible even at the eleventh hour. It won’t be easy but I have to stop this cycle of duplicity if it costs me my future.

I grab Arnaud’s envelope. It’s become my talisman, a symbol of what’s pure in business. I can’t believe he’s been so generous. There must be at least a hundred pounds in there.

The envelope has come undone just a little. I would have sealed it with Sellotape but trust a man not to pay attention to details.  I pull the flap up and it opens without any resistance. I take a quick peek inside and I collapse on my desk in a fit of nervous giggles.

Arnaud’s parting gift to his assistant consists of his last expense claim.

I think of Manuel, of André, of Papa: all dead or out of my life. This is a new start for me. Who do I think I am to want to put old wrongs right? All successful people have skeletons in their closets. Mine will be in a vat. I may have to reconsider my strategy for next week.

 ‘Mary, Philippe, turn off your computers, we’re off to the pub,’ I say. ‘Lunch is on me. And Mary, ask Dave to join us, considering he’s a reformed character.’

THE END

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