The huge vaulted hall in the tiny Provençal village was unheated. I guessed the air temperature to be around 7'C; perfect for champagne but uncomfortable. Seventeen people in coats and scarves turned and looked up when I came in so I hurriedly sat on the only available chair.
'I've got those in my forest!' said the still almost beautiful woman much louder than was necessary for her immediate neighbours alone to hear. She was pointing to clusters of brilliant red berries in the centre of the long narrow table around which eighteen of us sat. The berries, intertwined with ivy and pine cones, ran the length of the table. Tea lights in glass holders shone and empty champagne bottles of very early and various vintages placed chronologically along the table, lent gravitas and a touch of theatre to the occasion. The invitation had said, 'a glass, a knife and a pretty plate.' The interpretation of this instruction lay before each of us. The dark haired lady beside me whom I knew collected brocante and made wall hangings and cushions to sell, brought for herself and her husband crescent moon shaped plates with gold edging, antique champagne flutes and dainty bone-handled butter knives. The two blonde ladies to my right were best friends and signalled this by their unified response of matching flutes each with the capacity of a St Tropez swimming pool, white tea plates, red paper napkins and ordinary knives. I sat humbly between the dark haired lady and the larger of the two blondes. In front of me a cheap frosted champagne glass, a coloured plate from Monoprix with a vaguely North African pattern, a festive paper napkin with a robin on it and a purple Opinel penknife. The blonde lady told me she used to smoke cigars at a cafe next to Monoprix in Aix en Provence but was forced to stop by the presence of lesbian who smoked even bigger cigars and insisted on sitting beside her. I told her I was resolved to go to Aix and seek out the cigar smoking lesbian as soon as possible. It sounded more exciting than going to Les Deux Garçons wishing to be inside but instead ordering an omelette from the snack menu and being exiled to the pavement. 'Les Deux G', she corrected, pronouncing a soft French G.
On a smaller table behind was a basket of bread and a tray of sliced foie gras. Under the table, a case containing 8 bottles of champagne. The great hall where we sat had been in its 400 year history: a penitent chapel, a cinema, a restaurant and a garage. Now it was being converted into a gallery/exhibition space above the Mirabeau wine cave. In my reduced circumstances I'd almost forgotten wine was available in bottles and for me 'award winning' meant 22 euros for a 5 litre bag in box drinkable when heavily diluted with tap water.
After what seemed a considerable length of time and the first instalment of a talk, in French, about the history of Champagne bottles a young man came round with a bottle of champenoise. One bottle between 18 of us. The barely disguised panic in everyone's face was a picture. We've all been to wine tastings before and know the format but it was Christmas and this was the only organised event in the village over the festive period. After 8 of those teensie measures I was sure I could, untutored, singlehandedly man a space flight never mind drive home. We like to drink down here. Some of us more than others and what ensued was a stand off -- each furiously resisting the urge to neck the stuff in one go. My French is merde, a catastrophe. I understood little of Geoffrey's fluent, better than perfect rapid-delivery lecture so I amused myself by watching and making sure I was last finished.
I looked across the table. The scene reminded me of Leonardo's 'The Last Supper'. Geoffrey with his arms outstretched and long hair, albeit grey and ponytailed, was Christ. Bread, wine and foie gras, 20 pieces of silver a head for non members like me. I was disappointed to notice that three along on the right from Geoffrey/Christ was a lady who could hardly have been sweeter.
At last the next bottle came. Moët et Chandon. 'Mo-ay,' purred the blonde woman next to me. 'Actually, I know it's pretentious but it's Moët with a T.' I said. 'Dutch name...' A voice in my head told me to shut up but I didn't. 'The chairman of Moët told me at a lunch party. It was a Royal Warrant Holders' do. Lovely man he was, Viscount Marchwood. Then we staggered across the road to Buckingham Palace to the Garden Party. Dead drunk we were. It's the only way, torture otherwise.' She looked at me. At that moment Geoffrey piped up, 'Moët et Chandon', pronouncing the T softly.
After the 4th bottle the gathering, like all informal wine tastings, hitherto resembling a sudden-death inquiry, became a party at last. No one noticed the cold much, the blonde lady told me with some enthusiasm about the new James Bond film and we shared a joke.
The smokers, of which I was one, repaired to the terrace and immediately compared notes on the temperature of our homes and how many items of clothing we had to wear. Victoria's Aunt Penny won with 17. It may not be universally true but I've found folk with the least money who smoke are often the best laugh. I had no idea how well off my smoking buddies were but none of us turned on an electric heater for more than 10 minutes. I was vilified for keeping a towel rail on in the bathroom ALL day. I excused myself with the fact they all had gorgeous houses and I lived in a tumbling down concrete shack that was leaking and where the washing machine shredded my clothes. 'There's only so much misery one can put up.' They nodded. Aunt Penny handed me a Marlboro Light. 'Come to New Year at La Tarante, 30 euros a head. We're all mad, you'll have a great time.' I thought anxiously about the 30 euros and said I might.