|Château du Lac By David A O'Neil|
His watch was still on his wrist trapped beneath his body. He extracted his arm and focussed on the scratched dial. It indicated that it was early morning. Rolling over, he looked at the nearest house. It was little different from the others, a stucco villa, not cheap, a hide-out for the wealthy, where the â€˜bit on the sideâ€™ could nest until the next one came along.
Below the part-screen around the decking he could see a trim pair of ankles moving about and, when he raised his eyes realised that the ankles were now pointed in his direction.
They had appeared right in front of him when he reopened his eyes, to see straight up an amazing pair of legs topped by pale blue panties. He dragged his eyes away and looked at the anxious face peering down at him. An American voice asked, â€œAre you alright? You look terrible.â€ The voice was husky, but he could have listened to it all day.
â€œI was mugged,â€ He managed to say before his temporary clarity ended and the lights went out.
April Toomey was a model. The house she was occupying had been loaned by the sponsor while they worked on a photo shoot on the coast.
The man on the beach was too big for her to manage on her own, so she ran back to the house and called the caretaker and the chef to come and assist.
Both men were burly, and between them they carried the injured man up to the house.
April looked at the recumbent figure thoughtfully. â€œPut him in the second bedroom. Maybe clean him up a little first. I will not call the police until I can talk to him, and perhaps find out how he got here.
She went into her own room and changed her clothes. The outfit she wore was a special, produced by a new designer from the Ukraine, Igor Schwabe.
Ready to go, she poked her head into the second bedroom to see the man in the bed, apparently sleeping peacefully.
Promising herself that she would check up on him when she returned, she dashed out to the car that waited to take her to the shoot.
It was an important occasion for April as this was her first chance at the top level of modelling. The shoot had been commissioned by Mode Magazine, a major opportunity for any model. The fee was in six figures, if it was printed. The basic of $50.000 was the bait to catch the fish. The six figures would evolve from the peripherals.
Her day consisted of â€˜rushâ€™ about and waitâ€™. Like all such sessions it was more tiring to wait than the rush about sessions. At the end of the day, with one week left to go, she dragged herself off to the villa. Marco, the chef, mentioned that the stranger had regained consciousness and was taking sustenance.
Feeling a little guilty because she had forgotten all about him, she went to the second bedroom, knocked and entered. The stranger was sitting up in bed watching the TV and sipping coffee.
His serious look was replaced by a grin as he saw who it was. â€œThank you for this.â€ He nodded at the room and lifted the mug of coffee. â€œI understand you are a fashion model.â€ He said hesitantly.
She couldnâ€™t resist it, â€œLong legs and blue panties!â€ She immediately blushed as she saw the blank look on his face, realising that he had not remembered he had spoken when she first arrived on the scene. â€œYou were mugged?â€ Her question was to cover her gauche comment regarding her panties.
â€œYes. I was giving a guy a light and his girlfriend hit me with her handbag, and I lost interest. It felt like she had a bar of lead in the bag.â€ He fingered his head where a bump had appeared.
â€œHow long have you been on the Riviera?â€ She asked.
â€œI arrived this morning early. I am a carpenter. I was retained by the manager of a pop star to do work on his starâ€™s house. I spoke to Marco about it and he tells me that the house is just along the beach.â€
â€œYou must be talking about David Gill. His house is the third one along. Were you due to stay there?â€
â€œI donâ€™t really know. I was on my way to be briefed when I met the mugger. I had arrived early and decided to walk along the beach rather than hang around the airport, or turn up after midnight at the clientâ€™s house. Iâ€™m told they left my tool bag, thank goodness. Without it I would find working difficult.â€
April looked at the patient keenly, â€œIf you are feeling better, get up and join me for something to eat. If you can manage of course.â€
â€œGladly. The guys looked after me well.â€ He indicated the freshly laundered clothes on the chair.
â€œIâ€™ll see you in a half hour then, for pot luck.â€ April left him and went into her-own room. She undressed and stepped into her shower, hearing the one next door occupied by her guest. She realised that she did not even know his name.
As she dressed she thought about him. He was quite nice looking in a laid back way. Despite being mugged, she thought he could handle himself. Working with wood had kept him fit. At least she supposed that was the reason.
She wandered through to the kitchen and found that Marco had left out tossed salad and quiche, with some sliced ham and bread and a board of cheeses. In the fridge she gathered two bottles of Leffe beer and snapped off the caps in the opener screwed onto the woodwork by the fridge. Her guest appeared dressed in sweatshirt and slacks, and looking better now that his hair was under control. He had scrubbed up well, April thought.
She offered a beer and when he took it, she lifted hers and said â€œCheersâ€
He responded and they sat at the counter and started attacking the food.
His name was Peter Miner and he had been trained as a carpenter. In his bag there were pictures of some of his work. He showed April his book and was surprised at her appreciation of the quality it displayed. â€œI can understand why David Gill retained you.â€ She said. â€œI would retain you myself if I could afford it.â€
Her guest looked around. â€œWhy would you need my services, this place is pretty well set up already.â€
April smiled. â€œThis is not my place. This is the property of the agent for the photo shoot. Iâ€™m here to save money on hotels.â€
Peter looked at her. â€œYou donâ€™t appear to be uncomfortable here.â€
â€œIâ€™m not. I was pleased to be given the choice, despite the journey time for some of the shoots. I would sooner nap in the limo than endure the routine in a hotel, and thatâ€™s what I do.â€
â€œYou donâ€™t live here? Where do you live?â€ Peter asked casually.
â€œI have a house in St Gilles on the N572. Not too far away from here actually. The community here is based around the Port de Bouc.â€
â€œWhy are you not staying there? Wouldnâ€™t it be easier than staying here?â€
â€œTerry, the chauffeur, lives in the village here. It makes it much more convenient since appearances mean a lot in the business. The car parking at the location looks like Millionaires Row at Cannes. My old Peugeot would not really be at home with the Roll Royces and the Bentleys.â€
Peter volunteered that he had spoken to David Gill, explaining about the mugging, and his rescue by April. Gill had reacted immediately.â€œHe told me to give myself a few days to recover. He has two record agents visiting, so I would be dodging people there. He insisted that I wonâ€™t lose anything, because I am already on retainer, and it was his fault I was mugged. He should have had me met when I arrived. I must put my losses on the bill and join him in seven days when I have recovered ready to start work. So, now all I need to do is find a hotel and chill out for the week.â€
The following morning Peter walked the beach and located his clientâ€™s house. He did not call in. One thing he remembered from Aprilâ€™s comment last evening was that her house could do with work.
When she returned, his bag was already packed and waiting in the hall.
April bustled into the kitchen. Marco had the day off and expected April to order-in, so had left nothing out.
Peter had cooked fresh salmon and mashed potato with a dill sauce and samphire for the evening meal. As soon as April came in he warned her that he had prepared the meal, so there was no panic about ordering-in from the nearest takeaway.
April smiled, changed into casual sweater and slacks and joined him in the kitchen. They ate at the bar with a bottle of Chardonnay between them.
The meal was eaten in silence and April put her knife and fork down on her clean plate.
Lifting her glass, she smiled and said, â€œMarco will be jealous.â€
Peter lifted his eyebrow, â€œMarco?â€
April added, â€œThat was as good a meal as I have had since I arrived here.â€
â€œReally!â€ April said with a smile, â€œYou can cook for me at any time.â€
Peter smiled â€œThat is an invitation I will take into consideration.â€ He joined April in clearing up and, after they were seated, he told her of the message from David and asked her about hotels locally.
She looked at him with a small smile. â€œDonâ€™t be silly. You can stay here.â€
â€œYou will get painted as a wanton woman.â€He said seriously.
April laughed out loud, a healthy happy sound that lifted the conversation to another level. â€œYou have to be joking,â€ she spluttered, â€œWanton woman. This is 2017, not 1920. Nobody knows what wanton means. Most people think we are sleeping together already. After all, you have been here all night twice.â€
Peter grinned shamefacedly. â€œI guess I have concentrated on my work a little too hard over the years. Iâ€™m out of practice with dealing with girls.â€
â€œSo, what is the problem? You are welcome to stay as long as I am here. At least another week is on the cards.â€
Peter thought for a moment. â€œYou mentioned that your house needed work. How about I look at whatâ€™s needed, and maybe do what I can during the week. If you give me the address and the loan of your car I will take a look and see what I think I can do.â€
â€œReally? Then I can take you over now if you like. It is no more than forty minutes from here.â€
â€œIn that case Iâ€™ll take my bag. If you approve of my suggestions, I can stay over and get to work in the morning.â€
April thought for a moment.â€Right. We can take some breakfast from here and I will point out where you can get food on account. Iâ€™ll come here tonight, and Iâ€™ll pick you up tomorrow night. I have a day off on Saturday, so there will be no rush coming back. How does that sound?â€
â€œItâ€™s good for me,â€ Peter said and stood. â€œAre you ready to move?â€
April tossed the car keys over to him. â€œYou drive. Iâ€™ll guideâ€ and, picking up her handbag, she followed him out to her aging Peugeot 406, and they set-off.â€
The small town of St Gilles was typical of the area, the houses, old but lived-in, and therefore looked after. Aprilâ€™s house was behind a gated walled garden, with an orchard beside the house. The building was 18th century, and had been the home of the local gentry, taken over during revolutionary times by the Mairie. It had been occupied but not loved.
The two young people went around the house room by room. The lounge was clean and tidy but the fireplace had been boarded up and the focus of the room was all wrong. Peter made a mental note to correct that piece of vandalism soon. The stairs needed attention as several of the balusters were broken and would need replacement. The stairs themselves were in pretty good order, and the whole stairway wound a half circle to the first floor following the curve of the rear wall of the entrance hall, which rose to the roof and a dome of glass panels. Despite the dirt accumulated over the years, it still let in light. There was one bedroom that was habitable, normally used by April. The others all needed some refurbishing of blocked fireplaces and work on many of the windows frozen shut with paint over the years.
There was damp coming through one of the bedrooms where several of the roof tiles had been cracked and displaced. That dictated the first room to be worked on upstairs, after the lounge downstairs was done.
The kitchen on the ground floor was operable and had changed least from its origins. The addition of an oil-fired stove and microwave, plus the ubiquitous electric kettle summed up the alterations. The original table and bar showed the marks of time and use but they were still of practical use.
April left when they had decided the first task to be undertaken. She had a morning call for work. She left Peter to contemplate the work load over the next seven days.
As he lay in bed that night he could smell her faint scent in the bedclothes.
His sleep was peaceful, but he woke feeling a little frustrated for some reason.
He rose, dressed in overalls and, taking his short wrecking bar, he went to the fireplace in the lounge and started work on the place he had selected the night before.
Having covered the furniture with the cloths April had indicated, his initial smash took him through the decorative panel of plasterboard revealing the frame of two-by-two studding on which the board was mounted. The age of the covering was obvious by the condition of the plasterboard. He wrenched the board away in large sections, to minimize the amount of dust produced. Even so, he was soon covered in the grey dust. He wore a breathing mask and goggles until he finished the wrecking of the screen. The framework of the two by two studding merely had to be carefully removed where it was screwed into the ancient woodwork. By lunchtime he was able to look up the chimney and see the light at the top revealing that the chimney itself was clear.
He stopped for lunch and stepped outside to beat the dust from his clothes. Then he stacked the wood in the exposed fireplace and lit the fire. Only then did he go upstairs to the attic, to locate the panel that opened onto the roof area.
He found the chimney by the smoke, and walked over on the flat areas between the tiled roof peaks. He mounted the slope to the smoking chimney and lifted the grill set into the flue. Stripping off the rubbish that had half covered the grill he replaced it, then went to another of the chimneys and removed the cowl. He placed the cowl over the smoking chimney, watched the way the cowl handled the smoke, then satisfied, returned to the lounge. The plaster board he gathered up and dumped in the front garden. He would need a skip for the rubbish, he decided.
He phoned the local council and with some difficulty managed to make his needs known. The skip was promised for the following day by the local transport company in Arles who provided the service.
Inside once more, he concentrated on clearing up in the lounge. The Hoover handled the dust mostly. The furniture was covered with cloths and they were lifted carefully and taken outside and the dust shaken out.
At last Peter was able to see what the house builder had intended with the lounge. The proportions of the room were now re-established and, apart from some damage from the screws used, the carved mantelpiece and overmantel were intact, as was the glass mirror in the overmantel. The furniture in the room had been selected for the period by April. When Peter re-arranged it, he used an old picture to guide him in the typical set up of the period. The result was a balanced room, with the fireplace as the focus.
There was still plenty of wood from the studding and he stacked it beside the fire to keep it going to dry the place out properly. Then he showered in the upstairs bathroom and dressed in clean clothes. Tomorrow he would tackle the roof leak. He sat down on the ottoman facing the fire and fell asleep. April found him there twenty minutes later.
Before she woke him she looked around in astonishment at the difference the removal of the screen had made to the proportions of the room and the actual feel of the place. The warmth of the fire was significant and the slightly damp feel to the place was not present in the lounge at least. She stood in front of the mirror wondering who had first stood here, looking at themselves as she was today. The glass, though intact, was still in need of a clean-up. Peter had given it a once over rub, but intended doing it properly some other time.
He woke while she was still standing there dreaming. He stayed still, taking pleasure in watching her while unseen. She stirred and he stood up, â€œSorry about that, I must have dropped off.â€
â€œThis is wonderful, I had no idea...â€ She broke off nearly in tears and he instinctively put his arm around her shoulders, â€œItâ€™s beautiful.â€ She turned and hugged him.
He smiled, â€œI have done nothing yet. I need to work on the balusters, on the stairs and the leak in the roof, and all the other fireplaces in the house. You have brought the right furnishings for this room, but we must find more before the house will be complete.â€
â€œA start has been made and I was not here to work with you, but I will be tomorrow. Can you use me?â€
â€œOf course, if you insist. Otherwise, I am happy to work on my own, if necessary.â€
â€œThis is my house and I want it to be a part of my life. I will take part even if I am only allowed to clean up after you. They were still together, her arms round his neck and his wrapped around her waist, â€œItâ€™s a deal,â€ he said breathlessly, and kissed her lightly on the lips.
She responded to the kiss seriously, and then stood back. â€œSealed with a kiss. So that is a promise that may not be broken.â€
He nodded smiled and said, â€œLetâ€™s get something to eat. Iâ€™m starving.â€
â€œMe too,â€ she said with a giggle. â€œIâ€™ve got pizza in the car. Fire up the microwave, while I unload the provisions.â€
As she dumped the provisions on the counter in the big kitchen, he looked on with astonishment. I thought I would be staying at the beach and coming here to work each day.
â€œWe finished the shoot today, so Igor told me to get lost as he needed the house for his latest girlfriend. Iâ€™ll have to stay here with you, if you donâ€™t mind. I did get paid so we have money to work on the house and, if you like, you can stay here while you work for David Gill.
Iâ€™ll get a bedroom ready for me after we have eaten.â€
Peter put the pizzas in the microwave and set the timer. He put the plates on the warmer on the stove and started to sort out the salad. A hand intervened and he was steered away from the salad as April took over. â€œYou do the pizza. Iâ€™ll do the salad.â€ And she proceeded to chop up the peppers and scallions, slice up the iceberg lettuce, and tip them into the salad bowl. As the microwave pinged she poured olive oil and vinegar into the bowl and with a wooden spoon and fork she tossed the salad to get the dressing well mixed. Then with a flourish she picked up the big peppercorn mill and ground pepper onto the mix.
Peter served the pizzas, and April put the salad bowl on the table between them.
Peter slept restlessly that night. The warmed sheets and bedding were comfortable enough, but April was sleeping in the next room and he was finding it disturbing.
The following day they were both working. Peter had found a stack of spare tiles in one of the level zones between the peaks of the roof then removed the broken tiles. He found spare wood to replace two rotten planks, before nailing the replacement tiles in place. In the afternoon he took the cover from the fireplace in the damp room, and set the two rotten planks alight in the fireplace. On the roof once more, he located the chimney and again cleared the grill. There was a cowl on the chimney already and soon the smoke was flowing from the chimney and beginning the drying process that would take over a week with the fire burning daily.
The creation of a workshop in the double garage beside the house was the work of day three of the restoration. The skip, delivered the day before, was filling rapidly, though all the wood pieces were now dedicated to the many fires burning throughout the various rooms of the house.
In the workshop Peter was working on repairing the balusters that had been broken and scarred. The small lathe he set up was adequate for reforming of sections that had to be replaced. The repairs were finished by the polishing and in some places staining of the replacement wood. By the end of the week the staircase looked as it once had. All the balusters in place, and looking as elegant as it had when originally installed.
The work for David Gill was done on a week-by-week basis. The weekends were free and gave him the chance to work on Aprilâ€™s house each weekend.
April disappeared two weeks into the summer season and his only information was reports in the fashion magazines. Her name was linked with various people, pop stars and film stars, and she was photographed with many of them. The magazines had her engaged twice, and nearly married once.
At first Peter was worried and seriously jealous when he saw the headlines. Then he reminded himself that he they had no agreed relationship, so he just concentrated on the work, and ignored the reports. He received the odd impersonal email and one phone call as impersonal as the emails.
His contract with David Gill was completed by the end of July, and, having been well paid for his work, he was able to concentrate on Aprilâ€™s house thereafter.
The final work was the filling of the screw-holes in the lounge. This required time and patience, as the screws had been driven into the scrollwork regardless of the ornate hand carving of the overmantel.
He was still working on the filling when April walked in. He heard the car and prepared to go and greet whoever called when he realised the front door had opened and closed, and April was there. She saw him, realising that he was still completing the work he had undertaken.
Not knowing quite what to do or say, she stood, swaying slightly as he walked over to her. He reached out and, to steady her, he put his arms around her as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Her arms went round his neck and they kissed long and seriously.
â€œIâ€™ve missed you.â€ Peter said.
â€œAnd Iâ€™ve missed you too,â€ April said. â€œI worried that all those stories linking me with all sorts of ghastly people would have made you leave in disgust at my conduct.â€
â€œWere the men that bad?â€ Peter asked.
â€œNo, some of them were very nice, and though we were expected to act provocatively on occasion, it was only playacting. Some of the pop stars and actors were expecting me to do more than act. I soon got to know who was who. I slapped several faces in public, and I have finally come home in disgust. I am told I have reached the stage where I can pick and choose work if I want to. I desperately hoped that you were still here.â€
She sat down and relaxed in the lounge with a sigh. â€œI was not allowed to contact you because the paparazzi would have found you and ambushed you at the house. Even emailing you was a problem because they did not allow a personal laptop or Wifi phone. The excuse was hackers once more. I wanted to let you know what was going on when I rang you. But the calls were supposed to be to the house-sitter, or the restorer. The agents were paranoid about phone tapping.â€ She took a breath looking at him anxiously. â€œNow I am here for the foreseeable future. So youâ€™ll have to put up with me, at least until you finish what needs doing. If I never model again Iâ€™ll be quite happy. This stint without a break nearly finished me. No more modelling for a while at least. I have made enough money to never work again if I choose.â€
Peter joined her on the ottoman. As they sat side by side he said quietly, â€œI missed you.â€ He paused, â€œSince the day you left. I guess I knew you would return, though I was not sure that you would want me here when you arrived.â€ He looked at her. â€œNow I know. I can tell you I never want to lose you.â€
She smiled and pulled his head down and kissed him.
When they came up for air he said, â€œI bless the day I was mugged, because it brought you to me.â€ He kissed her lightly on the cheek and on her ear.
â€œIt was the blue panties that did it, wasnâ€™t it?â€
He laughed, â€œYou guessed, and I thought I had covered my tracks over that one.â€
â€œWhat are we to do about work here? We are really too young to retire. Besides we would both be bored in no time.
Peter said, â€œFor me there is no problem, David Gill made sure that his neighbours all saw the work I had done for him. I have plenty of offers and I have taken one or two to vary my life a little. I am becoming known here by my work, and as the partner of you. It does not get talked about in case it upsets me. I am no longer regarded as a stranger, though not one of them, but acceptable, especially now that my French has reached beyond â€˜Frere Jacques.â€™â€ He grinned, â€œIf you choose to work of course you should. If not, I will be travelling around the area with my tool box. I do have a suggestion. Why donâ€™t we visit the Maire and see if he will marry us. I will understa......â€
His mouth was occupied before he could finish his proposal.
â€œThe answer is yes.â€
ChÃ¢teau du Lac Vinery was on the way to Ales, north of Nimes. April had decided that the future she wanted for herself and family was in the wine industry.
The most interesting aspect of this purchase, as far as her new husband was concerned, was the original building and an ancient barn on the premises. Both of the buildings required his expert services, and since April was to be working on the premises, the interesting became ideal.
Peter Miner was an artist with wood, his natural talent for the work had been discovered when he broke his leg whilst training at Taekwondo. His over-enthusiastic efforts had forced him into a period of more or less complete relaxation and out of boredom he picked up a tatty magazine in the hospital day room. He discovered a world of woodworking that he never realised existed. The upshot was that his despairing father, at his witsâ€™ end already caring for his dying wife, bought him a set of tools he could not afford. The toolkit was a general purpose set for carving and joinery.
Peterâ€™s first efforts were directed at hand-carving mitre joints. Not the easiest task, but one that demanded the sort of concentration for which the young athlete was unprepared. He followed the instructions in the tatty magazine while trapped after leaving hospital, recuperating for six weeks. It forced him to rethink his priorities. Once his interest was aroused, concentration followed. He found he was able to produce work that other people admired. When he was fit again he found his stressed father happy to apprentice him to a furniture restorer and joiner in Massachusetts, who specialised in carving and carpentry. Situated in an 18th century church, the apprentices slept on the premises and learned their craft from the master.
The very strict rules set were followed. He ensured his apprentices obeyed them. While the sixteen year old Peter obeyed most of the rules, he and his fellows soon found ways around the most stringent.
Banned from mixing with the local young people without supervision, his renewed training in Taekwondo in the local dojo enabled him to interact with other young people, and thus survive in a world strictly divided between the work he had come to love and the activities he had learned to enjoy. Between them he kept his body in trim and his mind active. His hands spoke for themselves. Aycroft, his master, was astonished at the talent that Peter casually displayed in his work. He had learned the use of tools almost by instinct and could sum up a job within minutes. At the age of 20 he left and spent two years roaming the Black Forest, Paris, and Florence, seeking out artists wherever he could find them. Back in the United States he settled in New York and went to work on the Cathedral, setting up his own workshop in Greenwich Village where he produced art furniture and restorations.
He started to get commissions from the new rich of the city, the brokers and pop stars. The call from David Gill had been the result of one of those contact recommendations. In normal circumstances he would not have accepted the overseas aspect of the contract, but the lure of the south of France on a bitter New York day sent him off.
Now he was married to a beautiful model of world renown. Living in an area where work was everywhere on buildings of antiquity. And here in the home they had chosen was a barn in addition to the house that needed his help to be restored to its original place in the work of the estate.
April found him standing in the entrance to the barn, the sun highlighting the dust motes still floating after the door had been dragged open. â€œWhat do you think?â€ She asked.
He turned and kissed her. He couldnâ€™t help it. â€œI will have it ready to use by the time our baby is born.â€
â€œBut Iâ€™m not pregnant,â€ She said with a nervous laugh.
â€œThe sooner you are, the sooner the barn will be ready.â€ He held her close and whispered in her ear, â€œThere is no one about. How about we start right away?â€
April laughed out loud, â€œIâ€™ll need to start locking the bedroom door when you start talking like this.â€
He smiled sadly and stood back. With an affected droop to his shoulders he turned away. â€œIâ€™ll get back to my work then.â€ He said mournfully.
April never understood why she said it but she did, â€œNow, if you were offering a soft bed and clean sheets I might be persuaded.â€
He whirled around and lifted her in his arms and started for the big house, much to the amusement of the workers gathering together their tools before heading for the vines.
â€œPut me down, you idiot. The people are looking at us.â€
â€œWhat do you think? They have already decided what we are up to, and they like us because of it. They approve and are a little jealous because they cannot be part of what we intend doing over the next hour or so.â€
April buried her head in her husbandâ€™s shoulder, â€œThen get a move on while Iâ€™m still in the mood!â€
The work on the barn commenced with the removal of the doors. On stands, the first door was laid out, and the frames checked for worm before being knocked apart. The major problem with the distortion was the slipping joints where the glue and the pegs had suffered over the past hundred and thirty years. The seasoned wood was not really distorted, though two of the frames were split and would need to be replaced.
Peter got to work and within three hours the outer frames of the door were laid out to be re-glued with new teak pegs to strengthen the joints. The two split frames replaced with seasoned sapele, the African hardwood still legally available. The panels were made up of three centimetre planks of cedar, a wood readily obtainable locally, and new pieces were inserted to replace the cracked and splintered pieces. The hinges had to be resited. One of the replaced frames was where the half metre long iron hinges had been set.
The second door replaced the restored piece on the stands. The restoration of this piece took three days, but Peter was not counting. He acted as if he had all the time in the world.
While Peter worked on the barn April spent time with the vintner on the estate. Henri Pascal had been on the estate all his life. His hopes of marrying the ownerâ€™s daughter had been dashed when she had run off with a Parisian hairdresser who had been holidaying at his villa on the other side of Nimes.
Aware of Henriâ€™s disappointment, the local priest, Pere Paul Roger, had commiserated with him and pointed out there were several pretty girls in the area. Since he was much admired for his growing importance on the estate, he would be regarded as a suitable husband regardless of whom he chose from the selection. Many thought that the priest had chosen for Henri, but in fact they were quite wrong. When Henri finally opened his eyes to the opportunities offered, he settled on Margaret Saville, daughter of the apothecary who owned the chemists shop in Ales.
Henri proposed and was accepted with little obvious fuss. Margaret moved to Henriâ€™s house on the estate, and the settled state of affairs continued until the owner, the patron, died.
The vintner carried on with his work and the whole region waited with baited breath for the daughter to return and take up where her father left off.
The sale and purchase of the estate had come as a shock in the region, where an estate of such stature would be handed down through the same family for generations.
When April had arrived with her new husband, the locals, were dismayed. It was not until the new ownerâ€™s husband had contacted the priest about the restoration of some of the broken icons and pews in the church that they realised that there was a serious flaw in their initial gloomy assessment.
The news that the vintner had been asked to stay in charge of the growing, working alongside the owner to improve the vintage where possible, had a profound impact. People cautiously started to greet the newcomers as they shopped and used the local cafe/restaurant in the area.
For April it was the critical time. She had been disheartened by the attitude of the people when they first arrived. Peter had shrugged his shoulders and said, â€œGive them time. As soon as they realise you are serious about keeping the vintage, they will come round.â€
Henri, when consulted on the matter, said, â€œThere is the big table. We can set it up on the terrace and invite the local priest, the Maire, and the other estate people to lunch. I have eaten your cooking, Madame, and I suggest you make them a meal to remember. I will make sure that they know it was your own cooking. Of course, our own staff will know anyway. Margaret will help out with the cooking and preparation and also with the guest list. Then later in the year we can have a celebration for the workers and their families. It will confirm that you are here to stay, and your genuine interest in the local community. How does that sound?â€
â€œPerfect,â€ April said and kissed him on the cheek. â€œThank you, Henri. That is a fine idea. Now what about the new variety of vines we are planting? How far have we got?â€
Henri replied quietly and nodded his head, a habit of his when things were going well. He was pleased with the way the American lady reacted to common sense.
For April, life had come good. The tyranny of the rag trade had been insidious. She had actually begun to accept the authority of the leading names of aute couture Haute Haute Couture. By returning to Peter she had grounded herself once more, realising that the high fashion business was a sham. The clothing they designed was just that, clothes designed supposedly for wearing, perhaps for an occasion, or not. Designed for their outrageous features, as such the majority of prized designs were impossibly expensive, and often completely impractical. Behind the impractical was the serious industry producing clothing worn by the working people of the world, still traded from Haute-couture names to department store copies, the backbone of the rag trade.
This knowledge did not mean that she would not use the trade if the mood took her. It was just that she could do so with her eyes open, and not be dazzled by the huge sums of money involved.
Aprilâ€™s little runabout, a yellow â€˜Smartâ€™ car, took her rapidly down the last hill into downtown Ales. Finding a parking place for the little vehicle was not difficult.
Strolling through the market, she selected sufficient salad to accompany the two slices of pork pie, she purchased from the Charcuterie. The chilled bottle of rose from the minimarket completed her collection. A small bottle of dressing brought from the kitchen at home, accompanied the knives and forks wrapped in napkins, and two plastic cups completed the preparations for the picnic she planned.
Basket in hand she strolled to the church in the square, and found Peter working with a wood carving chisel on an inserted fillet of new wood. The flakes of wood gradually being shaved off as the chisel worked to match the curve of the original design. He was aware of her arrival, despite facing away from the open doorway. The trace of her scent was carried on the faint breeze. The light footfall confirmed it. He completed the immediate task before he turned to welcome her with a kiss.
â€œLunchtime already. Wow! The time here seems to slide by before you know it.â€
They sat at one of the pews in the shade. The sunlight through the open door providing ample light to eat by. The salad was tossed in the plastic bag, the lettuce wrapped in the chopped-up peppers and onions mixing with the green of the cress and lettuce, the dressing applying the shine from the oil. It was then served on cardboard plates with the slice of pie.
Both ate with unaffected enjoyment, the common food and the company provided all they needed for the moment.
When the priest came through in time to join them, he found a glass and accepted the offered wine. He looked at them with some affection. â€œMadame and Monsieur.â€ He raised his glass and toasted them. â€œI am happy to see you both. The Roman Catholic priest never questioned their Protestant beliefs, grateful for the fact that it did not prevent Peter Miner from giving his services to the church gratis. There was always something that needed repair and, despite Peterâ€™s speciality at woodworking and carpentry, he appeared to be able to turn his hand to anything that required mending.
The priest thought of the partially completed statue in the vestry. The angel had been deliberately smashed by a Wehrmacht Officer who had found the two fugitive airmen in the church. The priest of that time was shot along with the airmen. The memorial plaque on the wall of the vestry told the story.
As Peter put it, the whole incident cried out for recognition. His attempt at the sculpting in stone of the little angel was a contribution to that end. The pieces of the angel had been preserved and Peter had put them together as best he could and the part-finished statue was the result so far.
April smiled at the priest. Father Roger was a handsome man. He was fit, a broad shouldered body and with no doubt, a healthy six pack beneath his black soutane. He was also only five foot six inches tall. A surprise when the seated man stood. Though many women looked at him speculatively, none had managed to lure him from his chosen path.
Pere Roger said, â€œMy brother will be visiting me next week. He is a doctor with the army. He comes whenever he is in the area. I would be happy if you could join us for dinner, this weekend. Perhaps Saturday?â€
Peter and April exchanged looks, both nodded. April said â€œWe will bring the wine if you agree? There are some bottles of age in the cellars that deserve an airing.â€
Father Roger grinned and bowed. â€œI accept that offer and will look forward to the occasion.â€
April left Peter to his work and wandered through the town, now a little sleepier after the lunchtime period. She stopped and looked into the dress shop in the town square opposite the church. The door was open so she stepped in out of the sunlight. The shop was cool after the heat of the afternoon. She looked around at the tastefully arrayed goods on display. A pretty woman of about her age appeared, â€œCan I help you?â€ she said in French.
â€œI was just looking.â€April said in English.
The assistant said in perfect English, â€œYou are the American lady from the estate, Mosieur Peterâ€™s wife. Thus you are the model, and I should be asking you to help me.â€ She finished with a laugh.
April smiled, â€œYou got me in one, and there I was thinking I could live here and keep a low profile.â€ With an exaggerated sigh she laughed also. She looked around the shop approvingly. â€œFrom the look of things you do not need my help. You have high quality stock here. I have to wonder how you can afford to sell model clothing at such reasonable prices.â€
â€œThat would be because I design my own clothing and make them in the workshop at the rear.â€
April looked closely at a dress that she had considered was of perhaps Yves St Laurent or Dior daywear selection. There was a label that said Sable. â€œThis is your label?â€ She asked thoughtfully.
â€œWhy? Yes. My name is Sabine Maury. I liked the sound of it, so I became Sable, your local Haute Couture provider.â€ She giggled, â€œAs if the metropolis of Ales needed one.â€
April looked at her seriously. â€œSabine, may I call you Sabine?â€ Without waiting to be answered she continued, â€œThese designs are excellent. Did you copy from anyone?â€
Sabine looked at April in amazement. â€œAbsolutely not. I am a qualified designer with a degree in design from the Sorbonne. My designs are, if anything, a protest against the impossible, and outrageous. These dresses are made to be worn as clothing, not as flags to demonstrate the distorted minds of the so-called leaders in Haute couture, who partially cover the bodies of beautiful people, with impractical attire for one-time use at impossible prices.â€
She looked flushed and defiant and then embarrassed, â€œSorry, present company excepted.â€
April laughed, â€œI could not put it better. It is the reason I am learning to make wine, instead of money on the circuit.â€ She added, â€œBy the way, my name is April!â€
The friendship established on that day, opened another door in Aprilâ€™s new life.
The passing of that first year was a revelation for both of them. For Peter, his local acceptance was almost guaranteed by his friendship with Pere Roger. His work in the church had introduced him to the local community, which, plus his improving knowledge of French and use of the language, had impressed the locals.
The dinner invitation from the Priest introduced another friend in the person of Captain Doctor Rene De Classe, the brother of Pere Roger. He had been posted to Marseilles and, in the Military Hospital there, was serving for a six month period before possibly departing for a posting to West Africa. It appeared that the military medical services spent considerable time reinforcing the overwhelmed local medical services in the former colonies.
Rene spoke good English and was a most entertaining raconteur. He had amusing and serious stories of his life as an army doctor, and only bewailed the fact that he never seemed to have time to get to know any women he could get to know better. â€œYou must understand,â€ he said seriously. â€œI love my work, but I have no one to share it with. Mostly, I am in places where respectable women are married already. Meeting you here is great but, forgive me saying this, you Madame are already taken!â€
They all laughed at his droll comment, but there was an element of sadness in Reneâ€™s laughter.
April invited the priest and his brother to dine with them at the ChÃ¢teau, when Rene next could come to Ales. She thought there was a possibility of putting two people she liked together. Perhaps......who knew?
For April there was a certain isolation because of her initial lack of French. This she discovered was remedied by a language course at the college in Nimes. Her latent ability to speak foreign languages was discovered and exploited. Her oral and written command of French combined with her natural charm soon won over the local people.
Sabine and she became close friends following Aprilâ€™s first visit to the shop, and, over the remaining months of the winter, the pair combined talents to produce a range of dresses to present at a showing in Lyon at a charity gathering. The spring venue was booked as well as the services of three of Aprilâ€™s model friends, who agreed to join April in the presentation of the garments for the Childrenâ€™s charity they were sponsoring.
For Peter the work on the barn progressed as there was now a real target date to achieve. Aprilâ€™s part in the charity showing was of the maternity wear, a part of the real life aspect of the show. The other three models were showing the day and evening wear, while the finale would be the wedding dresses priced from fifty to two hundred Euros. The logo Sable was already becoming known in the South of France. In spring it was scheduled to be known throughout the world as the Lyon charity show was being supported by many famous names.
Summer arrived and the results of the fashion show were being discussed in the fashion magazines. The bias was on everyday style. The magazines noted that the show demonstrated wearable style at bearable prices. While the peak of Couture sneered, the real world reacted. Orders started coming in and a trickle became a steady stream.
In the barn there was progress, the roof trusses were all replaced and the damaged planking replaced wherever it was needed. The tiling was being done by the specialist in the region using the recovered tiles from the barn roof. The damaged tiles were expected to be a problem until two of the derelict buildings were finally condemned. They provided sufficient undamaged tiles to complete the roof repair.
The replacement of the roof allowed the barn to be heated within and dried out using a heater normally used for heating the local garage workshop. Peter had the priest to thank for that. The garage workshop had closed for two weeks while the mechanic joined his parents and family at Christmas. The petrol station continued opening through the holiday, but the empty workshop did not require heat and the barn did. The heater was duly rented to the estate, and set up to work 24 hours a day throughout the holidays.
At a vineyard in Luberon the vintner was modernising the system and replacing the traditional wooden vats with stainless steel. The wooden vats were removed intact and shipped to the ChÃ¢teau du Lac vineyard, where they were flushed and installed on the great barrel stands still useable in the barn. While the work in the barn was being done, the restoration works at the church continued.
Peter had put together a team to work in the barn. Now the building was dried out and heated by the traditional heating system restored by the local plumber, paid for by the replacement and installation of the newel post in the plumberâ€™s family house.
The â€˜quid pro quoâ€™ of special works had long been a tradition in Ales. It kept the money flowing to where it belonged, on the quality of life.
The statue of the Little Madonna had progressed to the point where it could be viewed without embarrassment to Peter. In fact he was proud of the result, but unwilling to do such a thing again. It was placed in position on New Yearâ€™s Day, beside the plaque remembering the people who had died the day the statue was smashed in 1942, along with the execution of the hostages who refused to betray the allied airmen.
Everyone in the area attended the dedication, and the inclement weather was ignored. It was a time of uncomfortable wind and rain, a time when everyone waited impatiently for the winter to pass and allow spring to follow. Spring, when the blush of green would return to the trees and the grey gave way to sprigs of blossom, and the leaden sea would become blue once more.
For many the winter in the South of France was regarded as the worst of the year. For April and Sabine it was a godsend. The sewing ladies were available in the warm indoor groups where they could chat and sew and forget the outside weather conditions. The work on the orders taken during the short fashion exhibition proceeded rapidly, though it was obvious, if things continued in this way, they would need a professional team to take over the production of the less expensive items.
Doctor Rene returned and joined April and Peter for dinner. Sabine was invited along with Henri and Margaret, the vintner and his wife. April watched the reaction of Sabine, when she was introduced to Rene. Then she looked at Rene. Turning to Peter she smiled, â€œI told you so.â€ She whispered.
Peter smiled in return, â€œI hope you are right.â€ He patted her stomach beneath the table, â€œHow is Charlie?â€
April removed his hand and squeezed it, â€œOur child is progressing happily. What about the barn?â€
They suddenly realised that their guests were looking and listening to them. April blushed, and giggled, â€œWhat did I say?â€
The table erupted as the by-play between husband and wife was explained. In the relaxed atmosphere, the evening became as intended, a meeting of friends.
The relationship between Rene and Sabine warmed throughout the evening as the pair discussed their lives and the world in general.
For Rene, Sabine was a surprise. He accepted that she was alone because of the bitter quarrels between her father and mother. The effect had been to distance herself from the many would-be suitors in the area. Sadly, very few of the local men could come near any expectation she may have entertained.
In Sabineâ€™s case Rene was different. He was relaxed, and he smiled and listened to her. He seemed to accept that she was a talented designer who could hold her own in business against men. He was also well read, and knowledgeable about world events, and actually realised that she knew where the ex-French colonies in Africa were located. He also listened and made comments when she talked of her life.
The aftermath of the dinner party now well provided for, April, satisfied that she had done her part in promoting the relationships between her friends, concentrated once more on the real world. Discussing her current preoccupation with the dress trade, April sat down with Peter and explained what was happening. â€œIt means.â€ She said, â€œThe market is so big that Sable will rapidly grow to huge proportions. We here will not be able to keep up. Someone has to go out and find a company that can mass-produce some of our models, at a price that will not be too high.â€
Peter thought for a moment, â€œSurely some of your contacts will know what you need, and be able to suggest someone to do the job.â€
â€œTrue, there are some who would do that. But in the business, there are so many cutthroat operators. Finding the right one is almost more difficult that working on your own. The last thing I want is a sweatshop which produces garments at 50 cents that we sell at Eu50.00. That I do not need.â€
â€œI understand. So work out the costs you can bear and we can take it from there.â€
It was in the kitchen at lunchtime that Peter produced the idea that might be the answer.
â€œWhy not lease a computer-controlled cutting and sewing machine. Iâ€™m talking of a machine that can be programmed for different sizes, and shapes. The pattern can be input along with the separate sizes and shapes.
â€œIt would mean that the operator would only have to feed the material into the hopper correctly and bingo, problem solved.â€ Peter smiled.
April said, â€œShow me!â€
Peter picked up the keys from the table where he had flung them, â€œGet a coat and put some shoes on. And he went out of the door without waiting for her. In the yard was the helicopter Peter used when the roads were bad, or traffic too heavy. He undid the tie-downs and released the rotors, he checked the fuel level, and started the engine.
April came out in a rush and jumped into the other seat of the two person machine. Peter started the rotor and watched the tail propeller build up revs. He ascended and hovered just two feet up for a few moments before opening the throttle and allowing the helicopter to gain height. At two thousand feet he pointed the nose north and increased speed to 90 knots, and sat back and relaxed. Both were now wearing headphones. April asked, â€œWhere are we going?â€
â€œLyon.â€ Peter said. â€œThis guy I met during the fashion show was explaining the whole thing to me.â€
â€œWho was the guy?â€
â€œA man called Francois Le Porc. He is retired now, but had a career as a consultant engineer. His hobby was inventing things. The computer part came when he found he could not carry sufficient program in his head. So he studied and became a computer programmer. He designed the copy cutter at the exhibition, while watching the models and examining the dresses.â€
They spent the rest of the journey silent, each involved in their own thoughts.
Francois Le Porc turned out to be a small dapper man, who enjoyed wine to the extent that he was regarded as an aficionado on the subject of vintage country wines.
He greeted April with a deep bow and a real kiss on her hand.
April laughed delightedly, and as he stood she kissed him on both cheeks and said, â€œI am a woman, not a lady. Please remember this.â€
He blushed, â€œPlease accept my apologies Madame. Your manner is of a noblewoman, and you do own a wine estate. What else was I to suppose?â€
Peter and April laughed. Peter said, â€œDo not trust this man, he has ladies throughout France vying for his hand in marriage or whatever.â€
All three burst out laughing and the atmosphere cleared immediately.
â€œPlease tell me, Peter, what is â€˜whateverâ€™? I cannot believe that I am missing out on something.â€
After all three had recovered from this latest comment, they got down to business.
Francois took them to a workshop in the industrial part of town. The door locks had been renewed recently and, as they entered the building, an alarm warned them to switch off before the police were summoned.
After attending to it, Francois switched on the lights revealing a small office. He led them into the workshop behind the screening wall.
In the centre was a low steel table on which stood a sheet covered machine. To the rear of the workshop a similar sheet revealed a bulky machine with a keyboard deck and screen on a small table beside it linked to the machine by an HMDI Cable.
Francois explained, pointing to the machine in the centre, â€œThat is basically a 3D printer. It is in fact much more than that, but I am keeping this simple as I realise you are not experts in this business. Its purpose is to reproduce a perfect copy of any object or picture placed in its reader. Currently, the reader is not attached for security reasons.â€
He swung round dramatically and indicated the second machine. â€œThis is my prototype manufacturing machine, my development from the 3D Printer based on the idea that you suggested when we first met. I confess I had been toying with the notion for some time and had already started to assemble components and materials.
â€œMy main reason for the delay in progress was that I was not certain there would be a market for such a machine. The initial cost for a prototype would be close to E90-100.000. A sum a little beyond my means at present, but from what you say it should not be too difficult to raise.â€
April looked at him keenly. â€œHow confident are you over the problems of conceiving this wonder machine, and what timeline were you setting?â€
â€œFrom what I have already discovered, I estimate a year to a production model. The writing of the computer program is the critical element. The current program I have already written for this small prototype can perform basic standard seaming and cross stitching, but I foresee the need for a more sophisticated program for major production.â€
â€œCan you demonstrate now?â€ April tried not to sound too eager.
â€œGive me a pattern to follow and I can show you a cut and assemble process that is good, though not yet superb.â€
April reached for a sheet of paper from the printer, and with swift strokes of her ballpoint pen sketched out a basic pattern for a pocket complete with double fold seams for the weight bearing end. The shaping and the top ends were prepared for attachment to a garment.
Francois took the paper and placed in the scanner of the copier. From the locked safe located beneath the workbench he took a keyboard which was mounted on the top of a black box of similar dimensions, though one centimetre deeper.
This he linked to the 3 D printer with an HDMI connecter. He plugged it in and switched on. The machine came to life with a faint hum. He typed in dimensions dictated by April then he pressed a button and the scanner operated. After perhaps ten long seconds, the printer began to work. From a slot the paper pattern segments of one side of the pocket were extruded on an A5 sheet, they were followed by another A5 sheet with the second side.
Francois took both sheets to the second machine, and inserted a roll of cotton cloth on a single 60 centimetre spool into two guides. The loose end of the cloth was clamped without any wrinkles in a pair of flat jaws the full width of the roll.
Satisfied that all was as it should be, he checked the reels of cotton, and substituted the white reel for red, to highlight the stitching. Then he turned to April and asked, â€œSingle or folded hems?â€
â€œSingle topside and folded lower, double across the bottom please?â€ She smiled as she said this, thinking that the complication may indicate a flaw.
Without hesitation the instruction was inserted with a flourish, using the touch-screen keyboard that had appeared as the patterns were scanned.
Francois turned to April and indicated the on-off switch. â€œIf you please?â€
April pressed the switch. There was a pause, the machine muttered to itself for just a moment, and then it began working.
Quietly, the cotton cloth slid into the machine and the bobbin of red thread began to rotate. The completed pocket began to come out of the delivery slot with short jerks, the red thread highlighting the doubled bottom seam of the pocket. The single seam on the upper side of the pocket and the double seam of the lower were both evident as the pocket was produced. The entire process took 40 seconds, from switch-on, to finished product.
April picked up the pocket the cut ends of the thread extending for three centimetres to the cut. She examined the pocket carefully, the even nature of the stitching took her eye immediately and the spacing of the stitching of the top and bottom hems was even and well within any spec she would have insisted upon. â€œI will fund the E90.000 to start with. But I insist on exclusive ownership between you and me, and no hint of this machine or our agreement to get out of this room.â€ She turned to Peter. â€œIâ€™ll need a sweatshop for the first year, and we will charge accordingly, but I use the term generically. I will need a team of sewers here in France, but they will get industry rates and hours, full legal working conditions. I know it will not be the easiest of tasks. I will not ask you to involve yourself further, as I know that you are pretty busy, and really should not be wasting your time here today.â€
Peter shrugged, â€œWhat are families for? Iâ€™ll get on it, and donâ€™t worry about my time, concentrate on what you are doing. This operation will revolutionise the rag trade. It will also put thousands out of work, so please be very careful about allowing things to leak from this room. There is so much potential money involved in this process, that the people involved will stop at nothing, to either control, or destroy it.â€
Peter looked at them both. â€œNow, are we up to this?â€
Both of the others nodded. â€œFrancois, what about the patents?â€ Peterâ€™s question was vitally important in the circumstances.
The Frenchman smiled, â€œI registered patents last year. They cover the development and the produced article of the modified 3D printer, and the multi-purpose fabricator. Both are in language only an expert could understand, but also there is no part of the process that has not been covered. You may recall the case of the compact cassette. Decca recorded a patent that covered the cassette record device so well that every producer of recorded music and word had to register a royalty to Decca. My patent is an updated version of that landmark Patent.â€
Peter thought for a moment, â€œBut didnâ€™t the industry crack that case?â€
Francois smiled, â€œBy that time Decca was producing CDâ€™s and the cassette as such was overtaken by the Digital revolution.
That produced a new set of conditions and boundaries as the possibilities of the computer age were being explored.
â€œMy patents were created in the computer age, and are subject to regular update as new discoveries are made. For this year and probably the next two, we should hold the advantage, from then on it will be all hands in, and the devil take the hindmost.â€ He paused and considered for a moment. â€œWith finance available, I would expect to have a full scale working machine in six months maximum. It should be running parallel to your sweatshop, for want of a better word, within eight months.â€
The weather had settled into the warm comfortable norm for the region. During the last month in Provence a snap frost had adversely affected the grapes. The season had been disastrous for many of the growers. The neighbouring estate to the west of ChÃ¢teau du Lac, Maison Rouge, was in serious trouble. Henri Pascal volunteered to help out with the replacement of the ruined vines from the ChÃ¢teauâ€™s own stock. A fold in the hills had made the difference for the ChÃ¢teau du Lac. The frost, so disastrous for Maison Rouge, had been induced by the Mistral. But its effect had been minimal in the area occupied by the ChÃ¢teau and the estate, Deux Freres, which occupied the land to the east. Both vineyards were relieved that they had escaped the frost, and both offered help to their neighbours.
Marc Hivere of the Maison Rouge approached April and Peter. â€œIt seems that I will be out of business before the vintage this year. Despite the help you provided, the crop will not meet the limits required for the estate to survive. I have discussed matters with my wife and mother and we have decided that the only alternative to going bankrupt when the season finishes is to sell. I am here to give you first refusal.â€ The words came sadly from Marc. The estate had been in the family for three generations, since the First World War. Marcâ€™s grandfather had been brought up in Maison Rouge, as had Marc and his father.
A casualty in World war 11, Marcâ€™s father had been crippled. He had died when Marc was only twelve. His mother, Marie, had carried on passing the estate over to Marc when he returned from his studies at university. The estate had never quite achieved the status it held under the grandfather. It had therefore been struggling since that time, and though Marc had introduced several interesting upgrades, even without the frost, the estate would still have struggled.
The costs involved in the acquisition of Maison Rouge were high, but the alternative could have been disastrous if it had fallen into the wrong hands. Henri Pascal had mentioned that the problem was not the staff but the vines themselves, and the lack of treatment of the soil. Tired, after many years of use without reinforcement the vines were struggling to survive, losing too much of their energy trying to survive instead of pouring that energy into the grapes.
Henri proposed that they feed the ground for the entire season, trim the surviving vines and plan an overall strategy for the enlarged estate.
Peter finished the barn. The baby Charlotte Elizabeth Miner, was born within the week. The fulfilling of the promise Peter had made was regarded as a good omen on the estate. The first crop of wine under the new owners was produced, and the party for the pickers was held when the baby was introduced to the estate. The wine, pressed and vatted, was labelled Merlot Charlotte in the vat.
As April recovered from the birth, she started taking her part in the dressmaking branch of the family business. Sabine had organised the sweatshop operation, and the first output of the machine production was produced and fed into the retail trade.
That first year had concentrated at three basic models in the range of sizes demanded.
The following year would include small runs of quality designs, not yet in direct competition with the established houses, though certainly dipping into their sales at the lower end of the couture market.
The estate wines were acceptable and the output from Maison Rouge was sold into the collected blend for the area.
The murmurs from the trade about production capacity and costs were causing inquiring looks being directed at the Sable brand.
Peter noticed that April was preoccupied. The baby was with the nanny and they were relaxing after lunch at the weekend, newspapers scattered around the sunroom as both tried to keep up with world and local events.
April sat with a page in her hand gazing into the distance.
â€œA penny for your thoughts.â€ Peter said softly.
April shook her head, â€œThey are not really worth it.â€
â€œWorrying about the rumours in the press?â€ Peter suggested.
â€œNot really. They have no real idea what is going on. I thought they might have found out about our machining. The fact that I have a super productive sewing team seems only to have spurred the sensible ones to try paying realistic wages, and creating proper working conditions, to try matching our quality and economic pricing. Itâ€™s working for some of the smaller operations.â€
â€œIs it the estate?â€
â€œI am worried about the pressure we are getting to produce more of the wine for blending into the area brand. I would like to produce our own unique vintage, concentrate on the viticulture of our own vines, try new varieties.â€ April sounded wistful.
â€œThen why not do it. We are not short of money, the clothes and your own modelling has seen to that.â€ He did not mention that his own contribution from the business he himself was running made a not inconsiderable amount of money. In fact, now he had three other craftsmen and two apprentices working with him, the net income from the woodworking trade was well over six figures, and rising.
April admitted that the directors of the wine co-operative had been pressurising both her and Henri into taking a larger share in the Co-op. â€œI think I am being threatened with consequences if I do not do as they say.â€
â€œAnything specific?â€ Peter asked casually.
â€œJust the introduction of a business man from Paris, a money man, not a wine trade man as such. His manner at the meeting was threatening, although not in so many words. Just his body language was saying or else as he smiled, and soft voiced, asked us to help by considering increasing production. He hinted at the financial advantages that would follow.â€
â€œWhat reason was given for his appearance at the meeting?â€
â€œI mentioned the other day that Macrois Estates had changed hands, Carmen and Jacques Caron decided to retire. Since they had no children, and they had fallen out with their sole remaining relative, they put the estate on the market. This man Georges Roberre represents the new owners, Atlantic Wines. They apparently own two estates in the Bordeaux region as well.â€
â€œLet me think about this.â€ Peter said.
April looked at him fondly, for some reason problems always seemed to get solved when Peter entered the reckoning.
Peter was warming up for his morning session of his taekwondo practice. These days one of his apprentices Max Treville and his senior joiner, Patrick Miller, joined him before they began work. Patrick was a judo black belt and was pleased to keep up his martial art routine. Max was a brown belt at karate. There was no training facility nearer than Nimes, so they trained together through the week and when possible attended the dojo in Nimes.
On the grass beside the ChÃ¢teau the three went through their training routines before indulging in mock fights, practicing a variety of moves from all three disciplines.
The morning session finished, the three entered the ChÃ¢teau and showered, changed clothes and prepared to leave for the work they had scheduled. At the door they found April faced with four men.
Peter held his hand up to stop the others, while they were still out of sight behind a corner in the wall. He could hear the voice of one of the men, silky smooth but cold as ice.
â€œAs I mentioned at the meeting I need all the estates in the area to co-operate in increasing the output of our local wine co-operative. Your estate, as one of the most important in the area, is needed particularly, since the others seem to follow your lead in these matters.
As I already told you M. Roberre, I am not interested in your proposal and I will not therefore be signing any paper of agreement. Please do not bother approaching me again. She made to close the door, but found one of the other men had his foot in the way.
Aprilâ€™s voice rose slightly, â€œPlease remove your foot.â€
â€œMake me.â€ The growl was harsh and the threat blatant. â€œSign the agreement and Iâ€™ll consider moving my foot.â€
â€œIf you do not move your foot, I will call my husband.â€
â€œSo call him!â€ The gravelly voice sounded eager.
Peter waited no longer. Passing his tool bag to Max, he strolled round the corner to the open front door. â€œHi, love. Visitors? Or is it the dreaded religious duo come to convert us?â€
â€œSomething like that,â€ April said. â€œThe man wonâ€™t remove his foot.â€
â€œSurely not. Tell me why wonâ€™t you move your foot? Are you crippled, need help perhaps.â€
The door was blocked by a man taller and bulkier than Peter. His boot was across the sill of the front door, and it showed no sign of moving.
Peter stroked his jaw smiled and rammed his heel down the manâ€™s shin, slamming his boot down on the offending foot. The offending foot moved as the man grabbed his shin and cursed.
â€œNow, that is no way to talk in the presence of a lady,â€ Peter said. â€œApologise, or I will have to smack you!â€
The man lowered his foot to the ground gingerly, found that it still worked and turned to Peter. â€œThat was a mistake, smartass.â€ He bunched his fist and lashed out. He missed his target and received a resounding slap across his right cheek. He staggered back, shocked but not really hurt. He flung himself forward swearing at the slim figure in front of him. In the background April was shouting to Roberre, â€œCall off your dog, before my husband hurts him.â€
Roberre shrugged, looked at the two men and stood back. One of the others leaned forward and whispered, â€œChavez is going to get slammed in a minute, and, much though I cannot stand the pig, I think you need him working rather than in hospital. Shall I step in?â€
Roberre said, â€œYou think it necessary?â€
â€œThen go to it. Quickly, please we have other calls to make.â€
Patrick and Max had gone out of the back door and were now watching from the corner of the building. When the second man made to join the fracas at the door. Pat ran forward and tapped the man on the shoulder. Surprised, the man swung round to face the two metre tall Jamaican who said smilingly, â€œI suggest you stay out of this. Peter can take all three of you without raising a sweat. He is my friend, so letâ€™s agree not to bother him, or I will have to interfere.â€
The man made the mistake of reaching for the gun under his jacket. Patrick grasped the gun hand and crushed it in his. â€œI said you did not need to do this. Now I have to persuade you.â€ He plucked the automatic from the numbed hand and tossed it into the bushes. His other now conveniently folded into a fist connected with the manâ€™s jaw with a sickening click, indicating tooth damage. Pat then allowed the man to collapse at his feet.
He turned to Roberre, and his remaining companion. â€œAnything to say?â€ He asked mildly.
Both hastily shook their heads.
â€œDonâ€™t move,â€ Patrick said. â€œWe need to talk.â€
Meanwhile, at the doorway Peter had ended the discussion with the intruder, who was swaying on his feet looking completely bemused and bleeding from his nose and his mouth. His fists were completely unmarked, having failed to encounter any part of his opponent.
Peter and April approached Roberre. April spoke, â€œI suggest that you inform your masters that their move into this region was a mistake. I believe that the estate you purchased will not find the staff to harvest this year, or any other year, while you are attempting to control the other growers. I would be sad to see a traditional business fail after so many years. But I will do it if you do not cease your operations.â€
Roberre looked at her in astonishment. â€œDo you know who you are threatening?â€
â€œI would rather not, but if you must tell me, go ahead.â€
Roberre opened his mouth and then thought the better of it. He turned and found Patrick standing right in front of him. â€œArenâ€™t you forgetting something?â€ Patrick said mildly.
Roberre turned back to April. â€œI think you are making a mistake. My employer likes this region and is making his home here. I do not think he will consider moving just because your husband beat up one of his staff.â€
â€œI merely suggested that he does not operate in this area, unless he runs his estate and leaves the local co-op to carry on as it always has. In that case there will be no problems.â€
Roberre turned to leave.
Patrick said, â€œWe are waiting for your apology before you leave here.â€
Roberre looked surprised, â€œWhat did I do?â€
â€œYou tried to bully a high profile neighbour, and her internationally famous artist husband.â€
Roberre looked surprised, and turned to April, â€œI apologise for my approach. I was not advised of your situation. I will inform my employer of the situation. He may contact you direct.â€
April nodded and watched the group make their way to the car and drive off.
â€œI believe we need to hold a meeting with the other vineyards to sort this matter out. I am not prepared to give up the idea of a ChÃ¢teau Du Lac vintage wine, probably a Merlot, perhaps a Pinot Noir. We have both growing in the estate. I have already decided that the Maison Rouge will grow Grenache, It is an adaptable wine and used in blends of ChÃ¢teauneuf-du-Pape, Cotes du Rhone and other labels.
â€œHenri has been trying for some years to isolate sections of the estate to grow specific varieties. There will still be excess that can go to the Co-operative for the Gard region wine, once the Vin-de-pays-du-Gard, now IGP Gard.â€
The message went out and, with the exception of the Macrois Estate, all the other owners attended.
April detailed the approach made by Roberre and the subsequent action with the bully at the door. The protests were loud and promises made, but one man stood up and said.
â€œI do not have the protection that you could call upon, Madame Miner. What can I do if threatened the way you were?â€
â€œIf you see them coming call us for help, There are people on all our estates who are loyal to the label. The cars they drive are identifiable. If any are seen entering an estate, call each other and go to the estate, picking up as many others as possible. There will be no bullying with over fifty people at the door. Think strong and we will win.â€
â€œWhat if they attack the vines?â€ A voice from the rear of the room asked.
Peter answered, â€œWine does not flow from damaged vines If itâ€™s wine they want, they will not destroy the vines that produce it. The fact is that we need the co-op, and we are willing to supply it. We just need to control our own wine production taking consideration for our own needs first. The co-op has not suffered from shortage before. Why should it expect to run short now? I suggest someone with an interest in the IGP wine wishes to increase production for financial return, nothing to do with the nurture and development of better wines. That is our aim. I do not wish to stop the production of the regional wine and I do not wish to stop people who are happy to supply their entire output to the Co-op. I just want to stop people being forced to supply wine to put money in someone elseâ€™s pocket.â€
A man at the rear of the room quietly left after hearing the speech made by April.
In the drawing room of the Macrois Estate house Michel Lagarde listened to the report of the man he had sent to ChÃ¢teau Du Lac to report on the meeting of the other wineries in the area.
Having heard the man out, he sent him away and turned to Georges Roberre. Have you worked out yet that this is not Paris? Here there is nowhere to hide. Every-thing you do is seen by someone.â€ His tone was mild but there was no doubt of his meaning.
Roberre shrugged, â€œI guessed it was worth a try.â€
â€œLuckily, you only went to three places. Now I will have to repair the damage. The reason I did not want this to happen is that I have no plans to take over the Co-op. This is my personal property purchased with money left to by my late mother. Your attempts to add this estate to my fatherâ€™s holdings in Bordeaux were without my authority. My aim is to settle in and make friends. So you will be happy to hear that you are returning to Paris, and I will start the round of apologies for your conduct, and, where possible, make friends of the other estates. If my father takes issue on the matter, you have my permission to tell him what I have said on the subject. Now get off back to Parisâ€
The telephone in the house rang, and when answered the voice at the other end enquired for Madame Miner.
April took the telephone from the maid. â€œThis is April Miner. Who is calling?â€
The voice at the other end was warm and friendly. â€œMy name is Michel Lagarde. I have just arrived in the area having purchased the Macrois Estates. I understand that one of my employees, Georges Roberre, has been sticking his big feet where they do not belong. I am ringing you to apologise. I have made no plans for this estate, having just arrived and having no idea how an estate of this type is run, I was hoping to get the help and advice from the local wine growers. I now discover that one of my fatherâ€™s city security men, sent to check up on the security of the estate, has been doing a little freelancing, to gain brownie points, I presume. He has been sent back to Paris where he belongs. I have left my father to deal with the matter. Meanwhile my abject apologies. I am hoping to invite all the wine families in the area to a get-together at Macrois this week end. I would be grateful if you would attend as I believe that, if you are coming, others will come. Lunchtime drinks and buffet I think. Would that be acceptable to you?â€
â€œWe will look forward to meeting you M. Lagarde, at the weekend.â€
â€œMany thanks, Madame. Please, the name is Michel.â€
â€œUntil Saturday, Monsieur.â€
April put the phone down thoughtfully. Then she called Peter and informed him of the phone call and that she had agreed to the invitation to the weekend party.
She then called Alison Brown, a lawyer friend in her office in Aix-en-Provence.
The receptionist in the office apologised and said that Alison was visiting her brother at ChÃ¢teau St Etienne, in Luberon. She gave April the number without question, being aware that the two women were close friends.
April rang the ChÃ¢teau St Etienne and spoke with Clemence Brown, the owner of the Estate.
â€œMy Name is April Miner, from ChÃ¢teau Du Lac, near Ales. I am a friend of Alison. Her secretary tells me that Alison is staying at the Estate with you.â€
â€œApril Miner is a name I have heard Alison mention on many occasions, she is staying here. She and Edouard are in the pool at the moment. I will call her.â€
â€œOh no. That would be unkind. I envy you the pool. We are still discussing the construction of a pool here. My daughter will be learning to swim in the local pool at Ales.â€
Clemence said immediately, â€œWhy not come up and see us. We have plenty of room here and the pool. We also have two youngsters living here so your daughter, Charlotte, I believe, would not be entirely surrounded by grown-ups. From what I hear our husbands have a lot in common.â€
â€œWe would love to see the St Etienne Estate. Alison has mentioned it. However, if Alison could call me when she comes out of the pool, I would appreciate it.â€
â€œI will let her know. For now, adieu.â€ Clemence put the phone down thoughtfully. April sounded just a little anxious. She turned and went out to the pool where Edouard was hopping about the edge, his artificial leg in his hand, threatening to use it on the two youngsters, Pierre and Veronique, who were laughing and dodging his efforts.
She walked over to Alison, who was relaxing in a sun lounger chatting to Marc, her brother and Clemenceâ€™s husband.
Alison turned as Clemence arrived, â€œI was just reminding my brother that we could not all enjoy a life of leisure.â€ She stopped as Clemence spoke, â€œApril Miner called asking you to ring her back, I think sooner rather than later.â€
Alison sat up. â€œIâ€™ll call her now. It will allow me to get away from your irritating husband for a while.â€
Clemence added, â€œPlease invite April and her family here. I think they would enjoy the pool, and they sound like people I would like to know.â€
Alison grinned. â€œI think you would. Iâ€™ll mention it.â€
April picked up the phone when it rang. She was relieved that Alison had phoned back so quickly. In a few words she described her conversation with Michel Lagarde, â€œAfter the visit by Roberre it made sense that Lagarde would try to mend fences. What I was wondering was, who is Lagarde? I know he comes from Paris. It is rumoured he is a member of one of the mobs. Is there any way you can find out for me?â€
Alison thought for a moment, â€œI have contacts in Paris. Iâ€™ll see what I can find out and Iâ€™ll let you know. Meanwhile, Clemence Brown asked me to let you know that the invitation to come and visit is there, and she would really like to meet you and Peter.â€
â€œI would like to know her and the family in ChÃ¢teau St Etienne. Having spoken to Clemence we will certainly come and visit, though this weekend we have the invitation to Macrois Estate, from Michel Lagarde. Hence my call.â€
â€œIâ€™ll get in touch with my Paris friends, and call you back.â€ Alison put the telephone down and returned to the poolside. There, she opened her handbag and pulled out her cell-phone. She thought for a moment then punched the speed dial. The answer was immediate. â€œEric Robert at your service. How are you, Alison? It has been too long.â€
Alison smiled. â€œEric, you do know I am a respectable married woman now, so listen and lend me your expertise. What do you know about a man called Michel Lagarde? He has just bought a wine estate in the Ales area.â€
â€œMichel Lagarde, son of Armand Lagarde, Mob boss here in the metropolis, he is University educated, Sorbonne and Oxford. No criminal convictions and as far as is known, refuses to have anything to do with fatherâ€™s occupation. Money came from motherâ€™s family. She was briefly married to Lagarde Senior, from a family of considerable wealth. Father forgave her and brought her back into the family fold. Michel was the result of the brief association. The son sees his father, I believe, though has not joined the mob.
â€œFather bought wine estates in Bordeaux, son found an estate in Provence. No apparent link between the two. Watch out for their heavy man Georges Roberre. He is a nasty piece of work.â€ Eric stopped and took a breath. â€œThatâ€™s just about it. I can dig a bit and see if there is anything more I can tell you. But as far as I can see, young Michel is clean.â€
Alison thanked him and, as she cut the connection, she thought seriously about what she had heard. Then she dialled April at home. She passed on her news about Lagarde. April was grateful and promised she would be in touch with Clemence about a possible visit in two weeks.
When she put the phone down, April was relieved that she had spoken with Alison. She decided that they would give the new neighbour a chance and see how he approached the problem of growing wine.
Saturday lunchtime and the throng who invaded the Macrois estate were being fed and wined in the accustomed manner. The long white linen tablecloth was spotless where it was not covered up by the plates of food. The drinks table had wine, white and red. In addition there was a collection of spirits, ranging from scotch to tequila. There were two guitarists playing softly, and a buzz of conversation creating a social background to the sunny occasion.
Michel Lagarde turned out to be a tall personable young man with dark curly hair and dark eyes. April commented, â€œHe could model for the trade without audition, or question,â€ was the way she described him to Peter.
â€œShould I be jealous?â€ Peter asked.
April looked at him critically. â€œNo. You will do for me. You are not as pretty, but I reckon you could also model without question, and I like the hint of rough edges that show. Your lack of manicured nails, your real working shirts, and the non-regulation unripped jeans you are wearing.â€
He laughed, â€œOops. I forgot to put on the designer set you proposed I wear.â€
April laughed with him, â€œI was mistaken. Your outfit is perfect for the occasion. I see far too many choking collars and stuffed shirts here to go with the Sunday best dresses. Itâ€™s difficult to get the message across that less is best on some occasions. Even our host is at least dressed casually.â€ She looked across at Michel Lagarde who was chatting with the Maireâ€™s wife. His outfit was of tatterstall shirt, open necked with cuffs turned back, beige chinos topping the slip-on sand-colour moccasins he was wearing.
â€œStudied elegance.â€ Aprilâ€™s verdict was complimentary. â€œConsidered perfect for the occasion, in Vogue and Country Life, just slightly over the top for this actual occasion, but a good try in the circumstances.â€
â€œYou still do not quite trust him, do you?â€ Peter observed drily.
Rene and Sabine joined them at that moment. Rene grinned, â€œI guess that comment was referring to our generous host?â€
Sabine looked and judged. â€œA little pretty for my taste. Would I kick him out of bed? Iâ€™m not sure.â€ She looked serious as she spoke.
Peter grinned at the look on Reneâ€™s face. He looked directly at Sabine, â€œWhere would I come on your list?â€
â€œIâ€™ve never really considered, after all you are married to April, and thatâ€™s competition I can do without, thank you.â€
Peter and April could not hold back any longer. Both startled the nearby people by bursting into laughter at the look on Reneâ€™s face.
Sabine relented and patted his cheek then gave him a light kiss. â€œI guess I will have to make the best of things and put up with you, lover. Do think you can bear it?â€
Reassured, Rene said quietly, â€œI can stand it if you can. Sorry, April, I donâ€™t seem to be available at the moment. Another time perhaps.â€
There was silence for a moment, as the others realised they had been had by their friend. Then they all laughed together. The neighbours shrugged, â€˜foreignersâ€™ and dismissed them as mad.
Speaking to their host, Peter and April discovered that he had been researching viniculture, and had already recruited a known expert to direct the future operation of the Estate. The previous owner had run the estate and the vines to his own taste, but having departed, there was no one to carry on. The expert was known to many of the other guests. Claude Delage had been apprenticed to the Rothschild estate in the Bordeaux region as a young man, and, after travelling the old world and the new, was a safe option in any vineyard.
He was also, as far as April was concerned, a stuffed shirt, perhaps even a pompous ass, who regarded his own opinion being, of course, more valid than any other.
April had met him when she was contemplating purchasing ChÃ¢teau du Lac. His advice on that occasion had been biased by the fact that a friend of his, also wished to buy the estate.
April had not been deceived. She had, after all, seen the auditorâ€™s figures, and read the recommendations in the wine publications.
Michel was attracted by the cool beauty of April Miner. His own girlfriend was a model who had briefed him on the situation regarding April. He was therefore prepared to accept the alert and knowledgeable lady who stood in front of him today. Better-looking than the pictures he had seen and obviously close to the man accompanying her, the increasingly famous sculptor and woodworker, Peter Miner.
Having a drink at home after the party, April confided that Michel Lagarde was not just a pretty face. In fact she had become quickly aware that he was an extremely astute young man. â€œI think that, having arrived here, he will quickly realise that any criminal activity with the growers will become counter-productive within a very short time. The product of a wine region can only stand debasement to a minor degree before losing its exclusive market. Estate-produced wine lives on its reputation only as long as the standard is maintained. The price is dependent on quality and supply. Both factors are finely balanced, and maintaining that balance gives vintners white hair, and consumers, satisfaction.â€
Peter looked at his wife with approval. His luck in meeting her, and the way things had developed between them, never failed to bring a smile to his face and an almost baffled unbelief in the way fortune had favoured them. He was currently delighted to hear her speak as she had, on the subject of the wine trade. Without losing her model poise, she had spent her time on the estate, walking the vines with Henri, in old jeans and boots, absorbing information on every aspect of wine production she could glean, from his lifetime of experience.
Between Henri and April a bond of respect, on both sides, had been established.
Peter thought about her comment and only then spoke, â€œI have the impression that the arrival of this gangsterâ€™s son could be an asset to the community?â€
* * *