The rain beyond our office window battered the view with a force that shook the last of the year’s leaves from the oaks in the valley below. Pam sat opposite me, head dipped, obscured by the computer screens separating us as she committed the figures from a heap of receipts to her computer. Aromas of coffee battled in vain with those rising from the wet Labrador beside me. I smoothed a map of China onto my desk and studied the numbers I had pencilled into the country’s Ningxia province. I circled the number one and Googled the corresponding winery’s website. Thinking I might be able to use its wine at our events, I took down the telephone number so I could arrange a visit. I allowed my mind to wander from cold, grey Surrey to the mountainous border with Inner Mongolia and the prospect of exploring flavours new to me. The room darkened and the dog looked up. I turned. Through the window to our porch I saw the silhouette of a man removing his coat and hanging up an umbrella. I folded the map away, placed it on my in-tray and rose to open the door.
‘Ron, good to see you,’ I said, releasing my hand from a grip honed on the Home Counties' golf courses. He followed me into the office, smoothing back his silver hair as he dipped beneath the door lintel.
‘Tea?’ Pam offered, passing us on her way to the kitchen.
‘Strong, please,’ said Ron. He pulled a chair to the corner of my desk and placed his hands on his knees. ‘So, how’s business?’ I felt like a suspect bracing for interrogation. I wanted to lie and say fine, but there was no point. Although Ron’s visits were something I anticipated with a degree of trepidation, he was here at my request. As our consultant, he had untangled my business reasoning many times over the years. His approach made Alan Sugar seem fickle.
‘It could be better,’ I said. ‘The economy doesn’t seem to be improving.’
He nodded slowly. ‘The economy’s only part of the picture. What are you working on at the moment?’
I glanced at my in-tray. ‘Sourcing new wines for our tastings.’
‘OK,’ he said, raising an eyebrow. ‘But not off into the wilds again?’ referring to my earlier trips.
‘Well, I was thinking of going to China next month.’
‘Are the wines available in this country?’
‘I don’t know, possibly, some of them.’
‘Wouldn’t it be cheaper, at least until things pick up, to forgo the trip and do your research from here?’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘you’re right; I know we should cut costs. But why I’ve asked you here is because we want to add a new revenue stream to the business, something to plug the gap.’
‘Go on,’ Ron said.
I thought momentarily to recount our cheese visit but dismissed the notion, cautious of its effect on his cardiovascular system. ‘I’m not sure,’ I said.
Ron eyed me. ‘Still writing the novel?’
‘Too much of a distraction,’ I said, keen to show previous advice had been taken. Pam returned with Ron’s tea and he pitched us ideas ranging from wine sales to online wine training; each no doubt sound in its premise, but batted away by a heart seeking something the mind wasn’t yet aware of.
‘What of your vineyard idea?’ Ron asked, referring to an earlier aspiration.
'I've not thought about it since I did the maths.’ In fact, choosing not to borrow the sort of money needed to plant a vineyard, build a winery, create a wine, and then wait ten years for break-even point, hadn’t overly taxed my low-grade O-level. 'Besides, I realised I’d soon get bored with my own wine.’
Ron smiled. ‘Well, you need to keep the costs to a minimum until things pick up, and make sure you contact more customers than you do suppliers. I’ll continue to have a think,’ he concluded.
After Ron left, I resumed research for my Chinese trip, but reason soon thwarted my progress and I deleted the image of a rolling vineyard beneath a snow-capped mountain from my screen. I slid the map into my recycling box.
Some weeks after Ron’s visit a client asked us to provide cheeses to accompany their tasting and, mindful of promoting home-grown produce, Pam negotiated the exclusion of Roquefort and half a dozen other French classics, explaining that the British Isles made as many styles. The client warmed to the theme, asking if all the cheeses could come from dairies local to the venue, at the University of Surrey.
‘I can’t believe there’s only one,’ said Pam, frowning at her PC. 'That's ridiculous! You’d think in Surrey, a county the size of Calvados with its four appellations, there would be more than one cheesemaker. We can’t match all of the wines with…’ she glanced at her screen, ‘Norbury Blue, no matter how good the reviews say it is. I’ll have to broaden the search a bit.’
A little later, relieved at having found Hampshire and East Sussex cheese more abundant, Pam printed something off. She wrote on the page and dropped it into my in tray as she left to walk the dog. It was from one of the dairies. She had underlined the date of their cheese making day course. Beside it, her neat script proposed: ‘Joint Christmas present?’