The monthly Sunday lunch at the Fernway’s had always been popular amongst a group of Clara’s shareholders. In days’ past, these occasions had been far bigger affairs, including children and grand-children and, in summer months, had spilled out onto the lawns, with the inevitable, impromptu games of cricket and croquet.
Today’s occasion was a far smaller and altogether more sombre affair being the first gathering since the death of Simeon Havering. Gathered around the large dining table, were just the directors and their respective spouses. An informed observer would have noticed that both Cynthia and Nigel Havering were absent. Both Charles and Simeon had been much loved and respected members of the family, serving as senior board members and then chairman for over 30 years between them. Yes, there had been fraught times over the years, when difficult decisions had to be made, but the unifying sense of direction, of approach, of fairness, ensured the relationship between the family members had held.
The meal finished and the port circulated, the tapping of a knife against glass brought silence. Clarissa raised her glass
“To a lost generation of dignified and honourable men.” She proffered, “Charles and Simeon!”
“Charles and Simeon!”
“Bloody good men!” Said Oliver.
“Family men!” supported Peter, “Men one could always rely upon to do the right thing by us!”
“Looks like those days are gone forever!”, snarled Marion.
“Too bloody true!’ agreed Clarissa.
“Hang on a moment,” came the calm response from Basil Fernley-Whittingham “shouldn’t we be supporting Nigel? Man’s no fool, just look at the qualifications and experience he’s got! He’s put forward a clear plan and it seems to me that a) we are long overdue a new approach and b) it looks to me like a very sensible and well thought out plan that, over time, we’re all going to benefit from. Shouldn’t we be supporting him?”
“Well, it certainly seems like young Melissa is doing alright supporting him in the short term!” snapped Marion.
“Well,” responded Basil rising to his feet and addressing Clarissa, “Thank you for a delicious lunch, m’dear. I rather thought that given the sadness of the occasion, we could have maintained a more respectful tone!”
“Now, hang on Basil!” Peter shouted from down the other end of the table.
“Come on Diana,” Basil said holding out his hand to his wife, “time to go, the rest of the family have obviously a lot more grieving they need to do.”
With a slight bow, he ushered Diana out of the room.
“Bloody turncoat!” spat out Oliver, as soon as they had left the room.
“Well, I always said that Basil was rather more interested in himself than the family.” Said Marion, reaching for the port and refilling her glass to the brim. “Now what the hell are we going to do about this situation?”
A few miles away in Havering Hall, Nigel and Cynthia had just moved through to the drawing room to take coffee, after one of Cynthia’s lovely Sunday lunches.
“And how is the delightful Melissa?” she enquired as they settled into the armchairs, “I would have thought that you might have invited her to join us.”
“I think she said that she was away this weekend visiting one of her chums from university. By the way Mama,” he enquired, pushing the unfinished glass away and changing the subject a little too rapidly, ”where did you get this horrible wine from?”
“Oh, it’s one of the Clara’s range, dear, a Cotes du Rhone. You know I can’t drink wine any longer. I bought it when I popped into the Ripon branch this week. Don’t you like it? Is it off or something?”
“It’s not off, it’s just pretty awful. Unlike the coffee, Mama, which is as delicious as usual.”
“Good. Now what about Melissa? I was thinking of asking her over to join us for dinner next Saturday. Or perhaps to stay for the weekend?”
Caught unawares, Nigel didn’t wish to attempt to explain his relationship with Melissa and the reasons underpinning it.
“Not a good idea, Mama. I’ve got a helluva lot on at present, what with the preparations for opening in Chester plus a few other major problems. In fact, I might be across in Chester next weekend. I need to spend some time there and get a real feel for the place before we finish the design and start on the alterations.
The following day driving into York, Nigel couldn’t put the subject of the wine out of his mind. The margin situation was bad enough but the quality was quite frankly awful! Gods knows what the customers must think if the rest are as bad as that bottle. He made up his mind that the situation had to go to the top of his list of urgent problems.
In one of those curious coincidences, going through his mail, Nigel came across an invitation to a wine fair taking place in Harrogate that same week. So, it was that later that same afternoon, he headed off to Harrogate. But first he called into the branch in Ripon, had a quiet word with the manager (telling him he wanted to check the quality, following a complaint he had received from a customer) and tasted all five of the wines they served. Each was, to Nigel’s taste, a very poor example of the wine it purported to be.
Once in Harrogate, he wandered around the many stalls offering tastings from a vast array of wines from around the world. Wine was something that he particularly loved and took an interest in and he could have spent the rest of the day wandering around tasting hundreds of wines. However, in an effort to make the best use of his time, he drew up a small selection of merchants that specialised in classic wines from both France and Italy. He made a clear decision that (although very tempted) he would avoid the most expensive wines, as to do so would have spoilt his palate for the task in hand.
Two hours later and he was astounded. What he had found was that it would be very easy to improve the quality of wine served in their coffee shops and to save a great deal of money at the same time. Even more astounding was that, being new and therefore unknown in the trade, he had been able to visit the stands of both of their existing suppliers. An initial, informal chat revealed that (even without attempting to negotiate) it would be possible to buy their existing wines at far lower prices than they currently paid. Once tasted though, the quality still trailed far behind the other merchants’ wines he had tasted at similar prices.
On his way back to the exit, temptation got the better of him and he stopped at the stall, whose wines he knew came from the very highest quality vineyards in their respective regions. After tasting a number of superb examples of la crème de la crème from Burgundy, he decided to purchase a case of Mersault. He was just completing the order, when something caught his eye.
From where he stood in the canopied stall, he could see between the stacks of wine cases that had been artistically and appealingly arrayed to create the illusion of an expensive wine cellar, through to a bar cum restaurant behind. There, in deep and animated conversation were Peter Chancellor and Oliver Rathbone seated either side of a chap he didn’t recognise. Given the venue and the occasion together with the problem he was attempting to get to the bottom of, he made sure he couldn’t be seen and took a number of photographs of the trio with his phone.
On the way out, he picked up a number of copies of various wine magazines that were placed around the stalls. Back at Havering Hall, he made himself a pot of coffee and started thumbing through the magazines, looking at reviews of various vineyards and wines. It was in one of those usually boring pages of groups of the great and the good attending some dinner or other, that he saw staring out at him a man who seemed familiar. Checking his phone, it was clear that it was the same man he had seen earlier with Chancellor and Rathbone. The description of the group underneath identified him as Penn Saunders of Superlative Holdings.
He poured himself a second cup of coffee and tried to sum up where he was.
He knew now, building on Melissa’s investigations, that Clara’s were overpaying heavily for a substantial chunk of their purchases. He also knew from his own investigations that the quality of the wine they were buying was pretty sub-standard stuff, freely available at much lower prices than they were paying (despite their large volume). It was now indisputable that both Peter Chancellor and Oliver Rathbone were involved in some ‘arrangement’ with the owner of the ultimate holding company of their two wine suppliers.
A deeply important decision,Nigel knew…was now urgent.