- Published: 13 April 2021
- ISBN: 9780143795469
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 432
- RRP: $19.99
The Champagne War
As the new year of 1910 moved closer to its second month, the world marvelled that there had been so few deaths in Paris when the River Seine rose more than eight metres and flooded the city. The water didn’t burst the banks as many presumed; instead it took a more sinister path, rising up through the subway system and overflowing through sewers and any tunnel that its liquid tendrils could discover. Mother Nature, in her stealth, brought the city to its knees and covered its homes with her waters. And yet she had warned them – winter rainfall had been much higher than usual, and other rivers were showing signs of breach. Makeshift bridges had to be built to allow people to move around Paris, and some chose to row up and down its great avenues, even the Champs Élysées. The atmosphere in the city felt almost carnivalesque. The scenes described and photographed for the rest of the world were surreal.
In its gleeful rush to the sea, the River Seine took with it a restless highway of trees, furniture and shopfronts, amid a parade of possessions and the carcasses of animals caught unawares.
It also took three people from the same family with the surname Delancré.
Sophie, its one member left behind, busy in Épernay while her family was in Paris, and furiously regretting a chance to visit her favourite place on earth – the Opéra Garnier – these days never chose to recall the winter of 1910. Her mind, however, sometimes walked where her thoughts didn’t want to travel. It was impossible to clean away her sorrow in the same way Paris had cleansed itself of the flood’s repercussions.
It had been four years of sadness since learning that her parents had been hauled dead from the muddy waters but her brother – a gift from heaven, as her mother had called him, because she’d delivered him in her early forties – had vanished into the swirling depths, never to be recovered. The passing of his life was a tiny event among the broadening drama as more than two hundred thousand Parisians were made homeless over the day of the deluge.
She’d never discovered what had actually happened to put her three beloveds in that muddy water, but she had to presume ten-year-old Olivier had perhaps fallen into the water and her father had leapt in to rescue him; presumably her mother had tried to help and they’d all perished with the ferocity of that water. None could swim so their deaths, she knew, would have been panicked but she hoped swift. The horror taunted her for long winters of loneliness until the bright-natured vigneron Jerome Méa caught her elbow as she stumbled and changed her life as swiftly as the flood had changed her family’s.
They’d only met by chance, for although their fathers knew each other, the children’s lives had never intersected. He’d been born in Avize, about seven and a half miles from where she had been born and raised in Épernay. Four years after her father’s death, she received a message from the elder brother, Louis Méa, who wanted to discuss with the champagne house a new technique the family was trialling for winter pruning.
She noted Méa’s surprised expression, soon dissolving into a sardonic smile that the daughter had kept the appointment booked with senior winemaker Étienne Doremus. Méa proceeded to give her a tour of their chateau . . . not that she had come for that reason. As he did his best to impress upon her through his boastful facts about which king had slept in which wing down the centuries, and in which room Napoleon had presented Josephine with the rose- and violet-scented gloves he’d had crafted for her by House Galimard in Grasse, she realised how thoroughly bored she was by the somewhat paunchy and flamboyant Méa. He had ten years on her at least, and she noted, as he took the liberty of pressing gently on her back to guide her through a doorway, that his hands were small and well-manicured. Would he even know what a vineyard looked like?
‘Ah, now, my dear, do you know what this is?’
Sophie wanted to cut him a withering look and explain that not only could she not know, she certainly couldn’t guess, and most of all that she was entirely uninterested to know, but that would be impolite . . . and this was business. Instead she smiled her query, forbidding herself to speak.
He carried on as though the question were rhetorical. ‘This is where Victor Hugo, when he regularly visited my forebears, liked to write from. He was born but three or so hours from here at Besançon, near the Swiss border,’ he continued. His lightly pitched voice sounded like it enjoyed whispers and gossip. ‘I’m told he worshipped the light in this room . . . I rather like to think he might have penned some of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame here – perhaps been vaguely inspired by our own cathedral at Reims.’
What a pompous ass he was. She couldn’t wait to get away from this ghastly fellow, but diplomacy rode her shoulder and warned her that she needed his grapes, which were unrivalled for quality.
‘Now, my dear, do you believe in first impressions?’
She looked back at him, baffled. ‘I do,’ she said, again forbidding the next truth, which was desperate to come out, from escaping.
‘Oh, I do too,’ he said, and licked his lips, which he tended to suck on, so they appeared redder than they should. ‘And my first impression is that you are a woman of intellect and motivation. You’ve mentioned opera . . . Only the truly intelligent understand it.’
‘And yet opera isn’t about intellect; I like to think it’s all about the emotional —’
He cut blithely across her remark without even an apology, as though he hadn’t heard her beginning to respond to his crass idea, or didn’t care. ‘I should like to escort you to the opera one day, my dear . . . In fact, let me be transparent in these trying times for you and for your champagne house. I should like to escort you to many fine establishments. I feel I can offer you what you most need.’ His pudgy smile made her shudder inwardly.
‘And what is that, Monsieur Méa?’ She wanted to hear him say it.
He considered his words; chose one. ‘Tethering,’ he replied, with a slight lift of an eyebrow that looked like a caterpillar moving in a new direction.
Her private shudder turned to revulsion. Of all the words! ‘Er, Monsieur Méa, I —’
He raised the hand of hers she’d wanted him to let go of more than a minute ago, held it up and first sniffed it, making a sighing sound before he kissed it. Slightly wet ruby lips lingered far too long on her skin, leaving it damp as he pulled away. ‘Call me Louis, please,’ he urged. ‘We are friends now and no doubt can be more. We must protect what our two families have built. Our fathers have always been close and their children should cleave to that bond, especially now that your dear parents have passed, rest their blessed souls.’
Revolted, she wanted to wipe her hand against her skirts but instead she gave a nervous laugh. ‘Er, Louis, what about the vineyards? I think it’s important that —’
They were interrupted by the hectic arrival of a tall man, pulling off a cap; his broad face was displaying earnest apology over the panting of someone who had clearly been running. His voice was loud, his huge hands were grubby, and his gaze shifted from Louis to lock on to her from beneath symmetrical heavy eyebrows. If the touch of Louis felt wet, then this man’s eyes seemed to scorch her skin as he landed his attention wholly upon her. He was unshaven and didn’t seem to care much about his dishevelment, extending a hand he wiped on his stained work trousers as if echoing her own thought of a heartbeat ago.
‘I’m sorry I’m late. Louis sent a messenger to fetch me.’
She stared at him, baffled but intrigued. ‘Who are you?’
He laughed, loud and free. ‘Apologies, Mademoiselle Delancré. As well as being an idiot and late, I am also Jerome Méa, brother to Louis here.’
‘My stepbrother has tested my patience with his tardiness since he was born, my dear.’
She blinked, trying to catch up.
‘Different mothers,’ Jerome explained gently. ‘But I don’t bother with the remove. Louis and I are brothers as far as I’m concerned; we share everything.’
She looked back at Louis and doubted he felt the same.
‘My mother died as I was born. Jerome’s mother raised us.’ He tried to disguise it in a matter-of-fact tone but she heard the regret.
‘Ah,’ she said, dawning. ‘I had no idea. I’m sorry you lost your mother at such a tender age.’
Louis nodded and continued, seemingly unmoved. ‘I’ve asked Jerome to take you around the vineyards and show you what our family wishes to do with the vines.’
Jerome grinned at her. ‘I hope that suits, mademoiselle?’
What luck! ‘Perfectly,’ she replied as crisp as she dared, delighted to escape the presumptuous elder brother. ‘Shall we head out now?’
He bowed as if he was hers to command. She could smell the scents of the land emanating from him: earthy and leafy, his skin slightly shiny from toil rather than lip-licking.
‘I’ve had a spread put out in the morning room,’ Louis reminded them. ‘That’s Victor’s room,’ he added with a narrow smile that fought its way through his pale, fleshy face. ‘Do join us later,’ he urged. ‘You and I have so much to discuss, Mademoiselle Delancré.’
It took all of her resolve to give him a smile that was not a rebuke but hardly agreement before she followed the bold stride of the brother as he led her out of the chateau into the fresh bright air of the vineyards . . . his vineyards.
‘Louis owns the house. I own the vineyards. That’s the agreement. We share the spoils.’
She hadn’t asked him to explain but she was grateful for his openness. ‘That’s very . . . er, brotherly.’
He gave her a sideways grin. ‘We couldn’t be more different, I know.’
She sighed her relief at his remark. ‘I would never pick you as brothers. Where do you connect?’ Sophie watched him frown and immediately regretted her boldness. ‘You must forgive me. I should not have spoken out of turn.’
‘You didn’t.’ He laughed, sounding carefree. ‘I have nothing in common with Louis other than our father. And we both did love him enormously. My mother tried to love Louis and I think they were close enough until I came along.’ He shrugged. ‘Blood will out, they say,’ he continued, sounding guilty. ‘I was her true son. I suppose she couldn’t hide that.’
‘Do you get on?’
He shook his head. ‘No. But I love him as a brother. I know that sounds odd to love even when we aren’t good friends. I stay out of his way. I work the vineyards and I’m happy out here. Louis likes being in Reims or Paris at parties and social events. He comes to Avize mostly to check the books or to entertain when he needs to impress someone.’ He picked off a leaf from the closest vine. ‘Someone like you,’ he added.
‘Me? He doesn’t know me.’
He nodded, turning serious. ‘He does. Since we heard about your father . . . and Louis, he has a plan.’
She made the leap as fast as wildfire. ‘Oh no.’
Sophie heard the rasp of his beard as he scratched his face. ‘He sees it as the perfect blend of two families begging to be bonded through marriage. You make champagne. He has grapes.’
It was her turn to fix him with a firm gaze. ‘Except the vines are yours.’
Historically, the Méa family had made their money from many crops, but it was the grape in particular they excelled at. The three famous women of the Épernay region – meunier, pinot noir and chardonnay – were their specialty . . . but chardonnay was Jerome’s.
He met her look with an amused one that gave the impression of being conspiratorial. ‘I can refuse to grow them for you . . . would that help?’
She poked the air towards him. ‘I am not going to marry Louis, not if he were the last man on this earth, not if he offered me the last grape on this land.’
Jerome let out a wild, generous explosion of laughter. ‘I believe you, mademoiselle, but I thought it only fair to let you in on my brother’s grand scheme.’ He ran his hand through thick hair that showed a reddish tinge in the sunlight, which had bronzed his skin so every laughter line, of which there were plenty, seemed more clearly etched. She recalled how pale his brother was and how few creases there were in that smooth skin that she might attribute to the unreserved joy of laughing. This younger man was broad where his brother was simply enlarged from indulgence; Jerome was hard and muscled from his efforts in the fields, while Louis was soft, his skin plump from the good life and little exertion.
‘Is everything all right?’ he asked, noting how she watched him.
‘Everything is suddenly right,’ she answered, more cryptically than she had intended, noting his hooded gaze, which tried so hard to hide the laughing eyes, and how it narrowed further in query. ‘Show me more of your vines and your plans. Let us see how you and I can work together.’
If laughter had been the spark, then their shared fascination for chardonnay was the vital breakthrough. Sophie discovered that afternoon how much she enjoyed his manner of telling her a story about his vines. She knew most of what there was to know about the life cycle of the vineyard, but the way Jerome Méa described what he was doing in his rows of vines, and why, charmed her. He spoke about his vines like they were his children, and his respect and love for the land, the flavour it gave to his precious charges, delighted Sophie.
‘I wanted to show Étienne how I would be giving a more vigorous pruning this year. I felt it respectful to demonstrate for him what I was doing and explain my reasons, especially as my father – if he were alive – would likely not agree with my actions, not after the catastrophe of the disease that has traumatised France’s vines.’
Sophie nodded. ‘So, you’re a renegade, Monsieur Méa?’
He grinned. ‘I’m sure you have your own innovations in mind.’
‘I do.’ She returned the smile with one that was more secretive.
‘As we are both our families’ heirs, we must be progressive and not frightened to take risks.’
‘Santé to that! However, am I to gather that this is a warning we may not get the yield we are used to from your vineyards this year?’
‘Yes.’ She appreciated his candour. ‘Perhaps not as much as usual but by, let’s say, the 1915 harvest, I am prepared to gamble all I have that we will be celebrating one of our best yields, and I believe with all my heart that Delancré will proudly offer one of your finest vintages ever.’
‘The grapes will be that good?’
He put his hand on his heart and promised, his eyes twinkling with amusement, and she felt a genuine vibration of romantic interest in her heart that she’d not felt for any man before. There had been many who had tried to capture her attention but until now she’d felt almost ashamed at her lack of interest. Her mother had counselled her against pushing so many fine young men away.
‘They’re all too earnest, too polished, too sophisticated,’ Sophie had explained. Her mother had sighed that anyone should complain about such commendable qualities. ‘I want someone who makes me laugh. I want someone who is different to me, not from another winemaking family . . . someone who is perhaps my opposite.’
If her parents had felt any despair, they hadn’t shown it, but even she had known that turning twenty-five without any leanings towards an engagement was causing tongues to gossip.
And now, without warning, a grape grower had caught her attention. She’d read romantic novels and wondered at the notion of one’s heart skipping a beat, a hitch in the breath, one’s chest feeling tight when the attraction was strong. They had struck her as clichéd, but to be experiencing all three symptoms both horrified and amused her. So, they were not only the dreamings of novelists; these were real experiences . . . and as that dawning struck, she stumbled in the vineyard. Jerome caught her elbow just as she lost her footing, and in that moment, as she looked up into his open, easily read face, she knew this tall, broad-shouldered man, with his rough stubble of growth, unruly hair and flat cloth cap worn rakishly, was the brother she intended to marry.
York – 1915 The argument had been tame, polite even, but there was no doubt in her mind that if she didn’t make a decision, it would be made for her.
I didn’t dare look at the palm of my hand for fear of seeing the bruising arc pattern of fingernails from the clenching of my fist moments earlier.
He opened the new bag of coffee beans and inhaled, relishing the toasted aroma that his favourite brand of arabica gave off.
The air sagged beneath the burden of the day’s heat and the African sun felt as pitiless as her mother’s gaze upon meeting the man Louisa had chosen to marry.
The two men frowned at the map. It made little sense and one referred to the detailed instructions he’d taken good care to note down.
Jean Farmer took the call, and regretted instantly that she’d been the one to pick up the phone.
This incredible story was related by Lance Corporal Sidney Reed, who was a prisoner of the Nazis during the Second World War at Lamsdorf, Stalag VIIIB / 344, in Poland, and at the labour camp E166 at Saubsdorf quarry, Czechoslovakia.
‘I don’t remember.’ Or rather, she didn’t want to remember, which was not the same thing.
And I could only have seen her there on the stone bridge, a dancer wreathed in ghostly blue, because that was the way they would have taken her back when I was young, back when the Virginia earth was still red as brick and red with life