André turned from the road, dropping the bike into a lower gear, twisting the throttle, taking the sloping track gently. Through the wrought iron gates, past the closely planted vines to the white house with green shutters and pantile roof. His breath misted the visor as the bike slowed, gravel popping from its tyres. Something felt right about this: the way the vines fell away from the house, the spire of the church beyond, gun-smoke clouds, the metal roof of the winery glinting. He’d arrived: André Arnault. Enologist. That sounded good. Fresh leaves shone on the vines. They were young, grafted onto American root stock. The yellow flowers of hawkbit and the white trumpets of convolvulus showed where the weeds were moving in. It would all need work, and quickly.
A black Mercedes saloon was parked on the forecourt, beside it a battered bicycle and a dusty Peugeot van with a dented wing. André switched off the engine, resting the bike on its side stand. It was a BMW twin: sixteen valves, air-cooled and fast as a snake. He could feel the heat coming off the cylinders against his legs. He hung his helmet from one handlebar and draped his leather jacket over the saddle. Since his last visit someone had put up curtains in the plain two-storey house and there were new padlocks on the winery doors. An old man in overalls was brushing out the garage, pulling his head back from the dust. He paused to watch André dismount.
Lower down the valley he’d passed a scarecrow dressed as Osama bin Laden. The locals must have a sense of humour. The old man put a finger to his nose and blew out a stream of snot before wiping his fingers on his trousers. Maybe not. André gave him a curt nod as he passed.
Raising a hand from his brush, the old man nodded back and muttered something towards the bike. He reminded André of his grandfather, knotted to the land like thorn roots, a real paysanne.
The door opened before André could ring the bell. Gaspard dressed like an American: Nikes, a blue polo shirt pulled tight over his gut and low-slung Levis. He was a head shorter than André with flat ginger curls and moist blue eyes. He held out a damp hand, small in André’s grip. His arms were hairless, his eyelashes pale. He wore a gold watch with a chunky metal bracelet.
– André! You’re on time. Cool! Come in. Ça va?
– Ça va, Gaspard. Good to see you.
He’d insisted on first names. Now he walked ahead of André, slightly bow legged; a walk that made up for his lack of height with its swagger. Like a dog with two cocks, his father would say. Since his last the visit the house had been tastefully furnished with plain modern cabinets and armchairs. The only gesture to tradition were the lace hangings in the windows. The house was new by local standards and stood in just over thirty hectares of vines, west of the village with its square-set church and tidy houses with gabled windows. All built from clean honey-coloured stone. Typical Bordeaux country.
A slim, black haired woman appeared behind Gaspard carrying a folded newspaper. Maybe ten years younger, thirty-ish, dressed in a dark pencil skirt and cream blouse.
– Ah, Ghislaine. Meet André, my – our – enologist.
Gaspard smiled as he said the word, rolling it around his mouth as if tasting wine before spitting. He said it the way André thought of it, with relish. As if he’d been taught a certain pronunciation. As if he’d learned to savour things he had no right to. His wife had a firm nose, small ears set close to her head, strong dark eyebrows that gave her face a slightly severe look. Green eyes, like slate under water. She didn’t smile. Her hand was cool. André noticed a single silver bangle on her wrist above a square silver watch. Matching. Tastefully understated. Expensive, of course.
He thought he noticed a glimmer of amusement at the formal greeting. Maybe she thought him old-fashioned. Maybe he was trying too hard. Her husband was scratching his chest under the polo shirt. He had white scars on the underside of both arms as if he’d defended himself against a blade. It was weird how someone as meaty as Gaspard Hubert could have such a delicate wife. Gaspard turned to her now.
– Coffee, darling. Do you mind? We have to talk.
She smiled then, a formal grimace. No makeup.
– Of course.
Her calves flexed as she walked away. Her voice was smoother than Gaspard’s with no trace of a regional accent. As soon as Gaspard had called him – after that first contact from Gaultier – André had him as a Breton. Cider country. What he knew about wine was questionable. What he knew about making money? Well, that was something else.
Place de L’autel was a typical small vineyard on Bordeaux’s Right Bank. After generations of the land being split into small parcels, younger wine growers were trying to build up their hectares again. Place de L’autel had been sold to pay inheritance tax. The old wine grower was the last of his line and his kids couldn’t wait to part with it. It was tiny by the standards of Bordeaux or Languedoc where André’s father managed a cooperative that drew in over a dozen growers. In Burgundy, where they grew wine on a handkerchief, they’d understand. The only way to get land there was to marry it.
Place de L’autel had been bought up by a garagiste. One of the new breed with new ideas. The idea had been to rip out the old vines, re-plant, reduce output, increase quality, sell the wine on the stock market before bottling, then sell the land at an inflated price. Only in Bordeaux was that possible, where wine was sold as a future – like tin, or copper or coffee. So far, so good, but the new owner had been in a hurry. More interested in growing money than wine. Without the quality – and without a good wine agent to get him into foreign markets – the enterprise had gone under after two poor harvests. And it wasn’t just the harvest that could do for you. The old wine growing families still controlled a lot of Bordeaux. Aristocrats or nouveaux riches who’d blended in after a few generations. War profiteers and grocers, his father called them. They could freeze out newcomers if they thought they were rocking the boat – and it had been rocking for a good few years now.
Truth was, most of the garagistes had made their money doing something else. They could afford to take a long-term view, wait for their investment to mature. It was wine, after all, something that was harvested, that lived and breathed, that was aged to perfection. Or close to it. After all, nothing was perfect. Gaspard was a typical entrepreneur. He was getting rid of a chain of small supermarkets in Tours and Limoges. He didn’t believe in standing still. Better to shift your money around. Some here, some there, some hidden. He was worth millions. Part of the money was going into a new chain of Internet cafés, part of it into wine. The rest into property and…well, who knew what? Somehow, André didn’t want to know.
They moved into the living room. When the coffee came, there were brown sugar cubes in a bowl and a home made almond biscuit on each saucer. André murmured his thanks and again he thought he saw a glimmer in Ghislaine’s eyes.
Gaspard was talking about Gaultier, the wine agent who’d tipped him off about Place de L’autel, suggesting that André – only in his third year as an enologist, but one of his best students for years – should be brought in to inspect the property and the vines. Gaultier had been a visiting lecture when André was studying for his degree. He’d survived Dien Bien Phu as a teenager, walked with a stick and had a lazy eye where a bullet fragment had hit the nerve. Wine had made him successful, charismatic, and he had connections all over the wine-growing world, from Chile to California, Bordeaux to the Barossa Valley. So André owed him one. And the terroir was promising – well drained gravelly soil with plenty of limestone on south-facing slopes. The last owner had got most things right, planting Merlot vines on the lower slopes, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc a little higher on lighter soil. The winery was well equipped with a new hydraulic press, stainless steel fermenters that were temperature controlled and inspection tables that could be steam cleaned. There was a white-tiled laboratory that doubled as an office with refractometers and a computer. The cellars were in a long hangar-like building, also temperature controlled. The house and the annexe were ‘eighties build. There was nothing of the Chateau here. Everything was modern, built from breezeblocks and cement, but, above all, hygienic.
They sipped the coffee. Gaspard crossed his stubby legs and looked expectant. André’s plan was simple: to reduce production, discarding excess fruit; to de-leaf, discouraging mould; to harvest and sort as late as possible. All by hand. Then to carry out the second fermentation in new oak barrels. The result, if the harvest was good, would be a new-style Bordeaux – rich in berry and cherry flavours, high in alcohol and with a long chocolaty finish. None of that leather and incense taste that the old wines had. The rest would be up to the agent. Gaultier was on first name terms with Robert Parker and a decent score in The Wine Advocate would ensure that the whole batch could be sold before bottling. If not in the first year, then maybe in the second or third. But none of that was André’s concern. He was here to make wine, that was all, to have the free hand that Gaspard had promised him back in April, slapping him on the knee as they sat in the garden with a beer and looked down at the vines.
– I’m in your hands. I know about marketing and finance…
Gaspard took a pull at the bottle, wiping his lips.
– I love wine like I love women – but it’s just as mysterious.
He grinned, showing teeth that were too white, too even. They looked unnatural. Veneered. Expensive.
– But I learn quickly. And what I learn…
He tapped his forehead with the bottle neck.
– …I don’t forget.’
André was watching a white van speed along the road towards the village. He knew already what his father would think of Hubert. An arriviste. A bullshitter. Get rich quick and then fuck off out of it. He was still talking. Talking about André’s future somewhere beyond the veil of heat that made the treeline shimmer.
– Gaultier tells me you’re one of the best. Up and coming. I’ll add 25% to your current salary and 5% of our annual profits over fifty thousand after we’ve settled overheads. I won’t interfere with what you do, if you stick to the job. But I want to retain Gaultier as a consultant. That’ll give us both back-up.
That was sensible. More than sensible; it was a no-brainer. Stay where he was making a mediocre Pomerol with a vineyard that was owned by a multi-national through several subsidiaries. Or be his own man, start something new. His father always said that you couldn’t grow wine in a test tube. You had to put your hands into the soil. That’s where terroir began, that was how to understand it. With the hands. Soil was like sex Gaultier had said in one lecture – it was everything you needed to know and never could.
– Ok, it’s a deal. But I’ll need to start work soon.
– Move into the annexe as soon as you’re ready. Ghislaine will be here in the week to help out. We can hire labour in the village when we need it. Old Raymond’ll help out. He worked for the last owner and knows the ropes. I’ll be busy in Tours for a few months yet, but back some weekends. We’ll harvest in October?
– October, or even early November if we can wait that long. It depends.
André looked up at the sky.
– Timing is everything with wine.
A platitude, but one Gaspard would grasp.
– Cool. Can’t wait. Look after the grapes and I’ll look after you.
And they had clinked bottles to clinch it. André knew that Gaspard liked him because he was a peasant at heart, just like himself. Despite the bullshit and fancy car and the bling, he’d always be more at home with his own sort.
Early July and the grapes were already hanging on the vines. André borrowed the old Peugeot and moved his things into the annexe. Like the house, it was plainly furnished but had its own shower and kitchen area. Apart from tending the vines and cleaning and testing the equipment in the winery, his main job was to watch over the construction of the new oak barrels. The staves had to be toasted to perfection – a light shade of chestnut that would add smoke and complexity to the brambly wine he imagined. That meant hurtling backwards and forwards on the bike to the cooper, leaving the two lads he’d engaged from the village with Raymond, who’d grumble at them when necessary. Eric and Paul. Brothers. Both with bleached hair and gold earrings and wide brown eyes. They’d proved to be decent lads, hard working if you watched them, and willing to learn.
Each day they’d work their way down the vines, weeding, removing leaves to allow air to circulate. Later they’d take out excess fruit. To make a new-style wine it was necessary to return to some – not all – of the old methods. That was the irony. At the cooperative he’d watched his father fume as tractors drew up, unable to unload the fruit that was already badly bruised, watching it stew in the sun. Picking was by machine and machines detached the fruit from the stems, but a lot of that went into the must. Quality control was scant when production was on such a vast scale. They produced five wines from a vin de pays to an appellation contrôlée, but they had no pride in it any more. And the label meant nothing.
The only real way to harvest was by tasting the fruit, then picking, then sorting by hand. It was painstaking and time consuming. To make wine, Gaultier had taught him, it was necessary to become intimate with the fruit. That’s where hygiene started, by rooting out the spoiled grapes and treating the rest as precious. You had to love the vines. You had to immerse yourself in the soil and its history, every stone, every drop of sweat and blood it had soaked up. That was to understand terroir, what it had meant to families before mechanisation. It wasn’t just land and weather and minerals, but everything that had happened on the land and to it. It was history and future together. When you drank wine, Gaultier had said, you’re sipping time and weather, the rising and setting sun, even tasting your own mortality. That had taken a long time to understand. That’s what the cult of Dionysus had been about. Gaultier had taught them about that too, how a libation of blood had blessed the new wine.
Each day André rose at six-thirty, showered, then went into the main house for breakfast. He’d sit down at the kitchen table where Ghislaine had made coffee and laid out bread, croissants and jam. On the first day she’d been wearing jeans and a pale green tee shirt. He couldn’t help noticing that her breasts were small and pointed. Neat, like everything about her. He’d stood awkwardly in the doorway.
– Bonjour, Madame.
She’d smiled then.
– Bonjour André! But Madame? Ghislaine, please.
– Ok. Sorry…I…
– No need to be sorry, but no need to be formal, either. Now: à table…
She ate with deft and refined movements. Breaking the croissants in slender fingers, buttering slices of bread delicately. He eyes caught the light, intensely green under dark hair that was shoulder length. Glossy with health or wealth, or both.
She’d caught him watching her. He smiled.
– If it’s to be informal, may I?
He broke off a hunk of bread and dunked it into the bowl of coffee.
– That’s how we had breakfast on my father’s vineyard when I was a kid. Me, my mother and brother.
She tried the same trick, but dribbled coffee down her tee shirt. When she laughed her eyebrows tilted and her mouth showed rounded teeth that crossed over slightly at the front. Her face lost all severity and her tongue moistened her lips quickly like a cat’s.
All day he was busy with the vineyard. He ate with Ghislaine each evening, then went into the village for a drink, or took the bike for a spin, or called his father, or chilled out in his room listening to rock music on his Ipod. Otherwise, there was a TV and a satellite dish, but he used it only for the news. Days at Place de L’autel passed comfortably enough: little by little the grapes swelled and the vineyard came back under control.
Each day brought another flawless sky. A fortnight passed. A month. One evening Ghislaine appeared with her hair cut short. The next morning she was wearing shorts and a man’s check shirt tied at the waist. Her belly button was decorated with a silver ring piercing. André must have looked surprised.
– I’m going mad around the house, I want to help.
He poured a bowl of coffee and went stupid. Like his father used to say: act numb.
– With the vineyard. I’ll do anything. I need a change from playing mum.
– You sure? It can be tough if you’re not used to it.
There was a flash of thunder across the eyebrows.
– You think I don’t know what work is?
– I didn’t say that.
– You thought it.
– Maybe. You’re the boss’s wife. What would Gaspard think?
– Nothing, probably. Like he does.
André took that one in silence. She dunked her croissant and gave him a grin, quick and impish. It was decided.
He put her to cleaning out the winery, first with a yard brush, then scrubbing the sorting tables. It was heart-breaking stuff, but she didn’t complain, humming as she worked in a pair of yellow rubber gloves. By dinner time she had showered and changed back into a long skirt and tie-dye top and had omelettes ready on the table. As they ate, he sensed her watching him.
– How was your day?
He’d been back to the coopers, checking the barrels. They’d looked – and smelled – gorgeous. He’d run his fingers over the new oak, savouring the smoked vanilla they’d impart to the wine.
– Good. The barrels are nearly ready. They’re the best I’ve seen.
– That’s good.
– And your day?
He gave a wry grin, sorry he’d tried to punish her.
– Good, actually. Did you check?
– Of course.
– Spotless. You can come to work again.
They clinked glasses and he watched a tine green lizard flicker away from the open kitchen door where the rays of evening sun were lingering to tempt it.
The next day, they all worked together, tending the vines. Spoiling them, like fucking orphans, as Raymond put it. André had fitted a new battery to the tractor and he cranked the engine to life. It caught in a puff of black smoke, a sweet rumble. Now and he and Raymond were clearing out a ditch, hoiking out dead leaves and tangles of convolvulus and piling them into the trailer. Raymond paused to lean on his hoe, watching Ghislaine carry a basket of weeds on her hip.
– Well, she can work, I’ll say that. Who’d have thought it?
There was sweat in the cleft of her breasts as she brushed past. He pale skin was taking on the sun. In a few days she’d be burn brown like the rest of them. Raymond spat in the dust.
– When will we see that fucker of a husband?
André was surprised at the venom. He let it pass. He didn’t fancy playing the boss’s man with Raymond. That wouldn’t wash.
– Gaspard? Oh, he’s busy in Tours. Lots of business meetings right now, I guess.
Raymond laughed, then sucked in his cheeks and hooded his eyes.
– You mean the five ‘til seven kind?
It had never occurred to André that Gaspard would have a mistress. But it didn’t surprise him either. Gaspard wasn’t handsome. He was even grotesque – fleshy, corporeal. You could imagine him taking a shit or fucking a woman, but not making love. But he had the energy that made money. Success. And, of course, he had money, the oldest hard-on of them all.
Ghislaine leaned back to scratch the back of her leg. André watched the white mark fade. She brushed past again and he watched the subtle movement of her hips, her slender legs and neat feet. Even in hiking boots she went down the slope with a kind of elegance. Understated, like her bracelet, the sparsely furnished house. Raymond was smiling, showing the gaps where his eyeteeth should have been.
– You think she’s nice, so that’d stop him going for other women? Just because he’s an ugly little bastard? He can buy them like that!
Raymond snapped his fingers theatrically.
– Then he’s a fool.
– He’s a fool all right, of a kind. But then he’s no one’s fool. Never cross him, son, he’s not the kind to mess with.
– Why would I?
– Why wouldn’t you? Reasons are like fish in the sea.
The hoe sliced away a dandelion so that the yellow head fell to the soil. He looked up again as if through afterthought.
– We had a sergeant like him in Algiers. Thebeau. Short-arse. Dead eyes. One day we caught an Arab kid in the souk with three rifle rounds in his turban. Thebeau drove him back to the barracks.
Raymond, leaned on the hoe and stared across the valley. The veins on his hand were silted rivers.
– He was a beautiful kid. And he was frightened. It took courage to do what they did. They found him the next day by the roadside. We were hardened to it by then. But what that bastard had done to him made us all sick. Hubert’s out of the same mould, believe me.
– What happened to him afterwards? Was he punished?
Raymond gave his cracked laugh.
– Thebeau? He was always too clever for that. He got an alibi all worked out in advance. Not that anyone gave a shit about a rag-head kid.
– So? What then? Nothing?
Raymond smiled and spat beneath the vines.
– My unit was there for two years. He had an unfortunate accident. Never made it home.
André dropped his shoulders into the silence letting his eye drift to a hawk above the church, ascending in slow spirals, an angel of light. He started the tractor and they moved on.
After that, André watched Gaspard carefully. He came home every other weekend, always relaxed, always affable. When things went wrong he stayed cool and sorted them out. On those weekends, André dined in the bar or cooked for himself in the small kitchen. Ghislaine seemed to adapt easily to his coming and going and Gaspard had no objection to her working in the vineyard.
One day, when they were checking equipment in the winery, Gaspard put the pen behind his ear so that his sleeve fell back. André wanted to ask him how he got the scars on his arms, but he has the sense to let it lie. It was now late August and he had the feeling that things were finally under control. Gaspard trusted him to do things properly. The small team they had recruited was working well and most of the crap from the past had been cleared away. He was looking forward to the harvest. In the mornings there was dew on the vines and the air was sharp, drawing mist across the valley. Martins flickered from the eaves of the house to feed, their white rumps semaphoring the long flight ahead.
André had been into town for some spare pressure bolts for the wine press, returning late afternoon, just as Raymond was wheeling his bicycle down the path, limping slightly as he always did when he was tired. Then the boys careered past, waving from their old Cleo with its cracked sunroof. When he pulled up outside the house, Ghislaine was watching from the kitchen window. André cut the engine and unstrapped his helmet. He felt a sudden flush of sweat under his jacket. The day’s heat was pulsing back from the walls of the house, from the glare of the gravel path. She walked out to greet him. Neat steps like a deer. There were freckles across her nose and her skin was tanned. Her top was low-cut showing the parting of her breasts. He could see her legs through the thin skirt as she moved.
– Do you have a spare?
André looked at the bike, stooping to switch off the petrol.
– You mean tyre?
She laughed and jabbed him in the midriff with her finger.
– I mean helmet.
There was a hollow sensation in his stomach.
– You like bikes?
– I don’t know. I’ve only been on a moped, when I was a teenager.
– It’s a hundred horsepower. Sixteen valves. It’s not a moped.
Ghislaine rolled her eyes in mock amazement.
– Well, it’s a big one, I’m sure.
He was thinking about Gaspard. First his wife was working the land like a labourer, now this. Her green eyes glinted. He could smell her scent, feel the subtle emanation from her skin as she stood close, radiating the day’s sun.
– Not here. I’ve got an old one at home.
– If I buy one will you take me out? Tomorrow?
His mouth went dry. He already knew the answer, which was the wrong answer.
– OK. Get something decent in town. Full face. Go to Lafarge’s.
She laughed, showing her teeth.
– Don’t worry, I won’t leave it lying around.
They had a secret. He felt a squirt of acid in his gut. That evening, they ate quietly, lost in separate thoughts. He asked about her children to break the silence. Françoise and Joelle, seven and nine. They were at a private boarding school. She shrugged, as if she didn’t know why. André told her about his parents, about his younger brother, Antoine, studying to be a vet in Poitiers. He noticed her deft gestures as she ate salad, examined the dimple above her collarbone and wanted to drink from it. He watched her piling dishes, each movement making the dress cling to her thighs. His mouth was parched. He gulped water, clinking his glass against the jug. When she turned and smiled, meeting his eyes, dropping the tea towel on the table, he rose, avoiding her gaze. He needed a drink.
André set off to walk into the village, noticing how raw and unfinished the house seemed. There was the scent of soil as it cooled, a sappy odour from the vines. He picked up a caterpillar and watched it crawl over his hand. Its hairs were spikes of glass. He paused to examine the grapes, bloomed with dusky yeast, then crushed one against his tongue. It was tannic and bitter. There were slugs coupling on the path, slugs eating slugs. It was hard to tell which.
The football was showing on the big screen – Manchester United against Real Madrid. He knocked back a few beers with the crowd in the bar. They were getting to know him now. The girls looked curiously at him, but they all had boyfriends and he knew better than to try anything here. When he returned to the house it was after eleven. He tried to step quietly on the gravel so as not to wake her, but Ghislaine had the lights on and he could hear faint voices from the television. He had no idea what she did in the evenings. Sometimes he heard her talking to Gaspard or the children on the phone. She has a different voice for each. A dry tone for Gaspard, a little weary, without surprise, but a bright, questioning tone for the kids, the two little girls who were away at school.
André let himself into the annexe, cleaned his teeth and dropped straight into bed. The little room was hot and it was hard to sleep. He dreamed of motorbikes. Not the smart BMW he had now, but the old Kawasaki 125 he’d learned on. In his dreams it never fired, the starter motor howling in smoking oil. He had to push it home, past fields of maize and tightly braided vines.
He woke at 2.00am, the numbers on the alarm clock glowing green. It was weird how dreams always seemed to take you back home. His head was thick. He needed to piss. Floor tiles were cool underfoot as he padded to the bathroom. He drank a glass of water and thought of the grapes swelling out there in the night, of pressure building in their dark skins. André lay awake for an hour then dozed lightly. When he woke it was to an erection and the beeping of the alarm. The room was smitten by a glowing bar of sun where he’d forgotten to draw the curtains.
At breakfast Ghislaine wasn’t dressed for work. She was wearing cream trousers, a damson silk halter-top. A grey jacket was hanging from the back of a chair. There was a vase of freesia on the table and the room was full of their scent. He must have looked surprised, though he tried not to. She looked beautiful. André avoided her eyes, pouring black coffee, pushing away the jug of hot milk she made for him. The coffee tasted oily and bitter.
– I have to go into town to the bank.
She said it casually, as if it was nothing to do with anything. He drank his coffee slowly, breaking a croissant and dunking it. There was a gold cross on a fine chain between the rise of her breasts. He had a slight hangover. Not bad, but too much to put up with in the sun.
– Ok. No problem. We’ll manage.
She pulled a little face as if he was mocking her.
– I’m sure.
– Do you have any Aspirin or Paracetomol?
– Yes, here.
She rummaged in her handbag, pulling out her mobile phone and checking it quickly for messages.
– Thanks, I didn’t sleep much.
She placed her hand on his forehead, a cool touch, then brushed back her hair with mock seriousness. Her armpits are shaved, but dark with stubble. He wants to put his tongue there. To lick against the bristles. He could never understand why women shaved there. Or elsewhere, for that matter. He preferred the scent of skin to the smell of perfume.
– You seem ok.
– I’ll live.
André swallowed the tablets then tipped the milk onto the last of the coffee and gulped it. He walked out, lacing up his boots against the low garden wall, aware of her watching behind the kitchen blind. Or maybe that was his imagination. A thrush hopped ahead of him and the grass was thick with bluish dew. He loved this time of year, when there was just a hint of autumn, when the vines were maturing, the grapes swelling. Swallows gathered on the power lines, yearning to make the journey they’d inherited through their genes. Like desire. Or land. Like terroir. The air yielded wood smoke, burning leaves, the scent of change. The season was turning on shortening days.
That evening Ghislaine served a guinea fowl casserole with sautéed potatoes and haricot beans. There on a side table was a square box in a Lafarge carrier bag. André had deliberately worked late until the sky was streaked with sunset. It was dusk outside as they finished eating.
– Is it still ok?
André nodded, pushing his plate away.
– Thankyou, that was great. You’re starting to cook like my mother!
He must have said it on purpose. She didn’t look too pleased. She gave a little shrug.
– I didn’t mean that. Don’t tease!
She glanced towards the carrier bag, as if he ought to be pleased. He was.
– Yes it’s fine.
– I’ll get changed.
He nodded, feeling his throat close up again. He went outside to check the bike until
Ghislaine appeared in jeans and a tee shirt, carrying a white Bell helmet. She looked at it, frowning.
– Is it ok?
– Yes it’s great. Good make. British. Take this.
He handed her his leather jacket and helped her do up the zip. She turned the cuffs back, laughing.
– It’s huge.
– It’s safer.
He helped her fasten the helmet buckle, then put on his own helmet and gauntlets, showing her how to climb up onto the pillion seat and put her feet on the pegs. His voice was muffled.
– Hold tight to me. Don’t lean over on the bends. Just relax.
She gave him the thumbs up. He felt her arms go around his waist and belly, their helmets bumping together. He started the bike and her hands tightened in a little surge of panic. They nosed down the path to the road. The bike felt cumbersome with her weight on it, tricky on the gravel. André took a left, away from the village, twisting the throttle in a show of power. The road was straight and he eased up the gears until they were cruising at sixty, a steady blast of air pushing against his chest. They hit a series of bends and he swung the bike through them, dropping the gears, feeling her hands tighten and relax, watching the hair on his arms ripple into goose pimples.
They came to a crossroads and he paused, then swung the bike left again, away from the river, climbing through pine woods. A few cars passed, their headlights dim in the half-light. He thought he saw an owl rising from the road then entering the trees. They passed a boy freewheeling down the hill, no lights, no hands, his face split by a delighted grin. André pulled out of a bend, feeling the brutal power of the bike as it took on the hill in third. Then fourth, then smoothly into fifth, hurling straight as a slingshot. He thought of pistons hurtling, the camshaft turning, the driveshaft, blurred spokes, tyres scorching the road. They approached another bend and he touched the brake, feeling pads grip disks, the bike slow. It was a miracle it all kept working so perfectly.
They rode for twenty kilometers without stopping, sinking into the clotted dusk of the next valley, through hamlets and villages, past lit bars where smokers stood outside, heads turning after them. They caught the scent of tobacco, bread from a bakery, sour dung from a farmyard. Then they were following the silver loops of the river, a thin moon to the east, the swollen sun still falling. The headlight bobbed against walls and trees. They rode in a bubble of golden light. Finally, in the closing dusk, not far from home, he pulled into a layby, patting her thigh. She dismounted awkwardly, catching her knee in the small of his back. She was fiddling with the helmet strap, her eyes dark with excitement or fear. He couldn’t tell.
She flashed him a little smile, intent on the jacket zip.
– Amazing! I love it!
He laid his gauntlets on the saddle and rubbed his arms. The engine ticked as it cooled.
– You’re cold?
She came up behind him, rubbing his arms gently, electrifying them. He tried not to turn around. He could smell her skin, her hair. His heart fluttered at his ribs like a bird at a window. She smiled, dangling the helmet from one hand like a veteran. They watched he sun dropping into the wooded hillside opposite, then climbed back on the bike.
He woke with the memory of Ghislaine’s knees against his thighs, her arms around his waist. They’d parted in silence the night before, almost as if they’d quarreled, dismounting and removing their helmets, lingering towards the house. They said goodnight casually and she’d thanked him for the ride, then he’d lain awake for hours, imaging her footfall in the corridor outside, bathed in expectation. The slightest sound put him on high alert. Then he’d fallen asleep in the early hours to fitful dreams of the wine harvest. Everything had gone wrong: late workers, the press seizing, rain, and a grey fungus spreading over the grapes. Then vats of grapes fermenting and splitting open in a stink of sulphur.
At breakfast, Ghislaine greeted him with a wry expression, deliberately distant, putting the coffee jug down with a bump. There were dark smudges under her eyes.
– You look tired.
She didn’t answer, but sat down, pulling a plate towards her.
– I’m ok. I hope I didn’t keep you up late.
Did she mean that? Did she know he’d lain there, expectant, counting hours pass in the chimes of the church clock? Her face was impassive as he ate, dunking her bread expertly in the coffee.
– No it’s ok. I didn’t sleep very well. Bad dreams about the harvest. Weird.
– You’re getting anxious. It’s natural.
He spread a thin glaze of apricot conserve over the bread, dipping the corner into his coffee.
– Do you need me today?
– Only if you want to work. We can manage. And Gaspard will be back this weekend. He usually does enough for two.
That was true. He wasn’t just thinking of things to say. The Breton knew how to graft.
– Not this weekend. He has to be in Dieppe for some reason.
– Ok. Well, we’ll still manage.
André had been to Dieppe with a school trip when he was teenager. There was a little horseshoe beach where three hundred Canadian boys had died in the war, gasping out salt and blood. There were long wooden groins rotting in the sea and green weed on the pebbles. Then cliffs that overlooked the beach where the German machine guns had been waiting. A diversionary raid, so they’d all been sacrificed.
He wondered what kind of business Gaspard had there. He liked to spread his assets, keep on the move. He’d made it back three or four weekends so far. They’d worked together on Saturdays, catching up on progress, even doing some maintenance jobs together. André had kept out of the way beyond that, making his own breakfast and eating at the local bar or créperie most nights. It had become a routine. He’d even started to like the guy. He had charm, made himself interested in things. Like he said himself, he was a quick learner and André had enjoyed teaching him about the vines, showing him the new barrels and explaining how they’d been scorched for the wine. He was good with his hands, confident with any machine.
It was Friday and it had been a long week. André decided to work the morning, then take the afternoon off to do some personal stuff. He needed some new clothes and a haircut. He’d ride into town and take a little down time. What Antoine called me time. But just before lunch Ghislaine appeared, dressed in cut down jeans, a tee shirt and work boots.
– Changed your mind?
He was cleaning the leaves from a blocked drain at the winery as she came up behind him.
– I got everything done.
– I’m going in to town. Would you like me to cook tonight? I could get some things?
Ghislaine gave out a little spurt of laughter, leaning against the winery wall. Down among the vines Raymond had stopped working and was pretending to clean something from the blade of his hoe. He lit a cigarette and spat.
– So you’re not just a mean biker. You’re a mean cook?
– I can do most things.
– Ok. Surprise me!
It was carelessly said. Thrown back over her shoulder as she he turned away and approached Raymond with a bright greeting. He noticed she had a tiny dark birthmark on the back of her right leg, how brown her skin had become where the sun had touched it. He remembered that first formal meeting when she’d worn a dark skirt and cream blouse. She was like another woman, then. Now she seemed to glow, lit by the summer.
At two o’clock he sent Eric and Paul home early. They were touchingly grateful. When he spoke to Raymond he noticed how unmoved his eyes were, chipped from river pebbles.
– I’m going in to town for a haircut and a few things. Knock off early. We’ve done a lot this week and it’s too hot.
He pointed down the rows of vines where the weeds they’d pulled were withering in the sun. Raymond was taking a bunch of grapes off a laden vine, the curved knife glittering. He tossed them in the basket beside him, his boot crushing one like a cockroach as it rolled towards him.
– We’re wasting a lot of fruit.
– No we’re not. It’ll make a better wine. Trust me.
– It’s not me who has to trust you, it’s Hubert.
– Don’t worry, we’ve got back-up, we’ve got Arnault.
Raymond laughed. He took the stub from his mouth to gob a ball of phlegm after the grapes.
– That ponce? Do you think Gaspard’ll beat up on that monied bastard if things go wrong?
He chuckled coldly, far-off water in a well.
– That’s not how it works. Believe me. Watch your back, son, that’s all.
The old man patted him on the shoulder, passing in the smell of garlic and sour sweat, grunting as he lugged the half full basket.
André gave a wave to Ghislaine as he turned to go. Her tee shirt had fallen away from her shoulder as she stooped at the vines. Her skin gleamed where she’d put on sun cream. She wore a baseball cap to shade her eyes and worked like a country girl now. You’d think she’d been born to the land and not to…but André realised that he had no idea what she’d been born to. Who she was or where she came from. He knew less about her than he knew about Gaspard. Apart from her touch. He knew that. She’d touched him, lit another mystery. Gaspard had said that hadn’t he? About women being mysterious. Like wine. He fetched his gear and fired up the bike. The jacket smelled faintly of perfume.
André got back at five-thirty with short hair, a couple of new tee shirts and some groceries. There had been grey strands in with the brown that fell onto the barber’s sheet. He’d wandered the town square wondering about flowers, but that had seemed ostentatious, risky. When he got to the kitchen it was deserted, but there was a bunch of blue campanula in a simple glass vase on the table. The Peugeot was parked outside, but the house seemed deserted. He’d bought fillet steak and shallots, broad beans and baby carrots, cous cous and two good bottles of Bergerac, a white and a red. Then some cheese: a blue Fourme d’Ambert, some Epoisses and some fresh Chevre. With wine, cheese was half the story. For starters he’d toss a green salad with olive oil and anchovies. He made the salad first, pouring in the oil from the anchovies as a dressing, prepping the vegetables and dicing carrots to mix with the cous cous. He popped out the broad beans into a pan and got the skillet ready. Then he put the white wine in the fridge and went for a shower, washing away the dust and pomade, putting on a clean shirt and jeans.
When André got to the kitchen, he expected Ghislaine to be dressed for dinner, but she was wearing combat trousers and a cotton sweatshirt and carrying the helmet.
– Can we ride first?
It wasn’t really a question. Still, he hesitated.
– Please? I need to cool down.
He put the salad and steak back in the fridge. There was already a big moon rising over the village when he fired up the bike and she climbed behind, clunking helmets. A flock of jackdaws puffed out from the church steeple like smoke from a censer. Swallows darted over the vines. A dark ribbon of cloud rose at the horizon. André remembered that he’d missed the weather forecast that evening. They rode towards the cloud, feeling the air cool, following the ridge of the valley as it rose from the river. Ghislaine’s hands were light around him, tensing as they cornered, relaxing as they pulled clear.
This time he stopped near a forest trail. The bike smelled of hot metal and oil and cow shit that had caked onto the exhaust. He leaned it on the side stand and they laid their helmets down. She unzipped the jacket, smiling, her lips glossy. He wanted to put his mouth to hers, to feel her hands on his neck. She was wearing a perfume he hadn’t noticed before. Faint honeysuckle. It reminded him of something. Someone. She shook her hair out, fluffing it with her fingers. They walked the woodland path, past stands of primroses and cowslips where shadows deepened between the trees. They didn’t speak. Silence arced between them like stifled lightning. They paused to watch the sunset and his breath was tight in his chest. He saw her swallow awkwardly and tried to meet her eyes, but she was already heading back, walking casually with that neat turn of the hips. They reached the bike, tilted and cooling on its stand as a furtive breeze was whipping at the larch boughs. By the time they were halfway home, drizzle was darkening the road.
André rode carefully. Light rain was always the worst, the most treacherous. It raised a patina of grease on the road without washing it away. He was a fool not to have checked the forecast. It was probably just a summer shower, but the last thing he wanted was rain when the vines needed a few more days of sun. Luckily, the shower was localised and hadn’t reached Place de l’Autel. When they turned the driveway and approached the house Ghislaine’s hands tightened around him. The downstairs windows were brightly lit against the dusk and Gaspard’s Mercedes was parked in the driveway. He was sitting on the low garden wall with his legs crossed smoking a cigarette, watching the clouds gather.
André parked the bike with exaggerated care. Ghislaine took off her helmet and handed André the jacket. Then she ran towards Gaspard and kissed him lightly on the cheek, her short hair falling over his face. André’s heart was hammering at his throat. He stroked away the goose pimples on his arms. Shit, shit shit! What a fucking mess! By the time André had got his helmet off and walked over to where they were sitting, Gaspard was smiling.
– What have you done to Ghislaine? She’s put on weight.
André smiled and took his hand. It was sweaty at the palm and the scars on his arms seemed suddenly livid where they’d been stitched.
– Oh, she’s been working with the rest of us. Tending the vines.
– Well, it suits her.
Ghislaine laughed, putting her hand on his shoulder and touching her head to his.
– You always wanted a woman who was some use didn’t you?
Gaspard said something in reply, but André was only half listening. Gaspard would have seen the food in the kitchen, the wine in the fridge. Not that anything had happened. Had it? Something and nothing, maybe. They’d ridden up with his wife’s arms around him. He realised he was being spoken to.
– …André’s cooking tonight. Will there be enough for three?
– Sure. I’ll just clean up and make a start.
She made it sound normal. Easy. It was weird Gaspard hadn’t mentioned them riding the bike together. Unless he’d said something to Ghislaine in those first few seconds. André was going to have to tread very carefully from now on.
At the house, he rinsed his hands and face quickly. Ghislaine and Gaspard were still in the garden, seated on the wall, her head resting on his shoulder. André washed the steaks, patting them dry, then fried them with thinly sliced shallots. He’d de-glaze the pan with a little wine to make a sauce, then steam the cous cous, mixing in butter and steamed baby carrots. He called them to table and they started with salad and bread, following it down with white wine as André updated Gaspard on the harvest. As the evening went on, André gradually started to relax, avoiding Ghislaine’s eyes, trying not to see her hand touching against her husband’s as they ate and passed things to each other. Like man and wife.
It was a bright morning with a fresh airstream, but no rain. André caught the early forecast on the television. They were in for a few days of high pressure. Gaspard was helping André strip down the tractor engine, changing the oil and filters. He was surprisingly deft. He noticed André watching him.
– I started out as a mechanic. Trained at a Citröen dealership in Lille.
– I’m impressed.
– Don’t worry, I like to get my hands dirty.
They knocked off at lunchtime and André took the bike for a long slow ride, following the river towards the coast, studying the other vineyards, the harvest that was ripening everywhere. He imagined Ghislaine on the back, clinging to him, her legs apart, her breasts warm under his leather jacket. He shook the thought off, focusing on the harvest that could make or break him. So far it was looking good. But he couldn’t figure out Gaspard. He couldn’t really understand why Raymond had taken such a dislike to him. Instinct? Prejudice or envy, more like. It was no use telling himself they’d done nothing wrong, he and Ghislaine. They’d come so close that the air was thick with it. The road swept away under the bike and that feeling nagged at him. A feeling that wouldn’t go away: desire and fear mixed together.
Gaspard left on Sunday afternoon and on Monday he and Ghislaine had breakfast as if nothing had happened. Mealtimes became more formal, as if she was holding something in check. She still came to work in the vineyard, but she spent more time with Raymond or the brothers. There was a subtle avoidance of André’s company. It was a relief. It felt as if every day he could put between himself and that last bike ride would wipe away what had nearly happened. Sometimes he thought he saw Raymond watching them with a kind of cynical amusement. Fuck him. It was time to get his head down, to work on the harvest, to pull clear of all that that stuff.
By late August the new barrels were delivered and stood ready. By early September the wine press had been serviced and cleaned. They’d sterilise it again before pressing. Gaspard had hired a local man to supervise crushing the grapes, whilst André would keep an eye on the whole operation, moving from the fields to the winery. They had casual labour lined up to pick and load. Raymond would drive the tractor, Gaspard would be on hand as a gofer and Gaultier would drop by once the first fermentation was under way.
By mid October the final growth hung heavy on the vines, carrying its bloom of wild yeast. Mornings began with a pall of mist that burned away under the autumn sun. There’d been a run of clear weather, then three days of showers and distant thunder had made everyone in the valley nervous. Every day André sampled grapes from different points in the vineyard. The sugar content was running at an average of 22 parts. That would yield an alcohol content of about 13%. But sugar wasn’t everything. Every day he tasted the grapes too, testing the thickness of the skins against his palate, looking for the appearance of noble rot. On October 28th a run of hot weather was forecast, followed by a weather front from the west. The grapes had begun to take on a slightly wrinkled appearance, like raisons. Now sugar was peaking at 24 parts. Raymond watched André crush grapes in his mouth and spit out the skins.
– We harvest the day after tomorrow. Thursday. I’ll call Gaspard now.
André left Raymond to supervise the last cleaning of the press and sorting tables and went to the phone. No need to check with Gaultier. This was his call. In three days the new wine would be fermenting in the vats; in three weeks, a secondary fermentation would be taking place in the new barrels, smoothing out acidity, drawing out the flavours of tannin and oak.
That night it was chilly in the annexe. André was planning to spend the winter at home. A few weeks away, at least. He was too agitated to sleep, thinking of ripe fruit being picked. He saw it being lifted from the vines to baskets, then to the trailer and the winery to be sorted. He saw the hydraulic press bursting their skins, the sugar-saturated juice running towards the vats. Then a faint scratching sound outside his door, the handle turning softly. When Ghislaine got in beside him she was naked. Her hair was long again and he could feel her bracelet scratching his spine. Then her mouth was hot against his, tasting of honey and coffee. Without speaking he ran his fingers over her breasts and hips, the curve of her back, the unbearably soft skin of her thighs. Cherie! She was whispering, her breath warming his ear. Cherie! André put his leg between hers, pinning her hands, and she was laughing softly. Then Raymond was there, looking on, leaning on his hoe and smiling, his eyes luminous as a wolf’s. When André touched himself against her it was over. He came in slow, hot spurts. When he woke, it was to cold sheets damp from his sweat. At the window, mist was evaporating from the vines. Then, as he turned to check his clock, the crunch of Gaspard’s tyres on gravel. André piled the sheets into the laundry basket and went for a shower, his head splitting.
The harvest was completed in three days of steady graft, dawn to dusk. There was a curious sense of closeness, even Gaspard taking on a fatherly presence, cajoling the younger workers, joshing with the women, getting things done. In the end, less than an eighth of the fruit was discarded after sorting. The berries that went into the crusher were as good as André had seen. His father had harvested two week ago and it had been the usual mess. A real fuckup, but its done. What do you expect? Gaultier made a flying visit, clapping André on the shoulder, nodding approvingly at Gaspard before shooting off to another vineyard.
The yard was cleaned up, the casual workers paid off, the whole operation dropping down to tickover as fermentation began. From now on, control was the issue. The temperature in the vats and in the winery itself was governed by thermostats linked to a computer. André had estimated ten days for the first fermentation before running the must into barrels for the malolactic process. In the end, it ran to twelve days before all the barrels were filled. He’d worked for over two weeks without a break. Gaspard had promised to be around for a week or so and André showed him how to look after the wine and check the temperature, which was automatically adjusted. It wasn’t difficult. He showed him the thermostats.
– Here, Gaspard, I’d check them twice a day. Just in case. You can also use manual control, if need be.
– No problem, boss. Now, pack your stuff and take a break.
Gaspard has insisted that he took a few days off, went home to see his family. The next day he got the bike ready, checking the gearbox and fork oil, putting a change of clothes into the panniers. Before he left, Gaspard called him into the office.
– First, take this.
He stuffed an envelope into André’s leather jacket.
– What’s that?
– A bonus. Cash. You’ve worked well beyond the call of duty.
He took André by the arm and led him to the desk.
– And I’d like you to sign this.
– Which is?
– A new contract for next year. Plus three percent on your salary. Same commission.
– But what if the wine…?
– What if the wine’s shit, eh?
– Gaultier’s sampled it. He told me it’s very promising. You did everything right. I don’t want you to slip away from us just yet.
André signed. He remembered Ghislaine’s face his in the woods, the scent of her skin. He remembered where he’d smelt that perfume. On the Paris subway once, standing next to a beautiful middle-aged Parisienne who was watching a Japanese busker play the cello. She’d smiled at him and walked away, heels clicking. Ghislaine. He shook away the thought of her, signed and took the money. André shook hands with Gaspard, kissed Ghislaine chastely on both cheeks. He’d trembled with cold on that first ride and she’d rubbed his arms to warm them.
– Be careful on that thing.
Gaspard was pumping his hand.
– Yes, be careful.
She said it wistfully, as Gaspard turned into the house, her voice clotted.
André started the bike as they watched from the doorway. Man and wife. He thought of the wine in the fermenting vats, its smell of fruit and carbon dioxide, its subtle chemical changes. André made the sign of a telephone with his gauntlet.
– I’ll call.
– Relax. Don’t worry. You’ve earned a rest.
Gaspard had his arm around Ghislaine’s shoulder as he pulled away. She gave an apologetic little wave and he gunned the bike.
He rode for twenty minutes in a daze of tiredness, sunlight strobing through poplars. It felt good to have the bike under him, to be alive, to have the future. Sun struck against his visor burnishing its tiny scratches. The road ran down steeply to the river, coiling into a series of bends. In half an hour he’d be on the motorway. In three hours he’d be having a beer with his father and uncles, discussing the harvest, talking about football, the new wine. André changed down, feeling the heat from the cylinders against his shins. A lorry laden with grapes was coming up the hill, two young women seated up behind the cab, the breeze fluttering their tee shirts against their breasts. He changed down again, pressing the brake lever. The handbrake felt soft, then it was pulling against nothing. The bike kept going. Too fast. He tested the brake again and looked down. A spray of fluid shone across his right boot. He pressed the footbrake hard and the back wheel slewed on the slick, throwing him into the path of the lorry. A girl’s hand went up to her mouth as the bike bucked and he hit the road.
André fell into the taste of berries breaking against his tongue. There was the scent of Ghislaine on his jacket, the heat of her body, her knees against his thighs, the swart stubble under her arms. Then the woods at dusk: blue shadows cooling like molten iron poured between the trees, a silence that howled and tore at them. He remembered long notes drawn from a cello, an echoing subway, footsteps, a man’s black hair swooping over his face.
When he rolled into the road, gravel scarred his visor, blinding him. The bike slid away, a spray of sparks into the long screech of the lorry’s brakes. He knew the meaning of terroir. It was the land and everything that had happened to it. Present, past and future. Everything that had and could happen. Everything that might come of the land, its fruits, the labour of human beings on it, their generations. Then there was no more to remember or to do or say. His mouth was numbed. No pain, but something beyond. The bike shimmered in petrol vapour, evaporating. There were footsteps and voices fading towards him. A blur of wild flowers on the verge. Convolvulus, pale as the smocks of choirboys. And there was life bursting in his mouth, its brief aftertaste. Terroir.
Graham Mort is a poet and author of radio drama and short fiction. A former freelance writer, he is now professor of Creative Writing and Transcultural Literature at Lancaster University. He has published nine full-length collections of poetry and won a number of literary prizes, including a major Eric Gregory award for his first collection, A Country on Fire. Visibility, a volume of new & selected poems, appeared in 2007. He won the Bridport Prize for short fiction in 2007 and the Edge Hill Prize in 2011 for his book Touch. His latest book is Cusp, a poetry collection published in 2011 by Seren.