CHAPTER ELEVEN - MERIBEL
Meribel, French Alps, 2 April 2001.
Danny called me up out of the blue in the first week of April with the words: "Frank, you have to be at an urgent meeting. We have a major problem on the energy deals." I was supposed to fly out the next day and return on Wednesday evening, but since the meeting was in Meribel in the French Alps, I decided to add on an extra day and do some skiing. That was how I came to meet Nathan, that one and only time. In a way, I wish we never had met. It would have been easier for me that way.
I was collected on landing in Geneva as promised, and then whisked across to a waiting helicopter. This meeting is urgent, I thought, and I am glad they have at last appreciated my very important person status. This is what big bankers do, and I was the only passenger on the helicopter. Good for them, those exalted few in the top echelons of banking; they might like helicopter rides - I don't. First, there is the clatter of the blades above you and then the vibration of, well, everything including you. It is even worse in the mountains. When you are looking down on the white peaks of the Alps just below you, you realise that you do want those rotors to keep spinning.
When you crash-land in water, you are supposed to wait for the helicopter to submerge, so that the water stops the blades turning, and only then do you exit the craft and swim up to the surface, avoiding decapitation by the blades. What do you do when you come down on a snowy mountain slope and proceed to take an impromptu toboggan ride down to the valley at a hundred and sixty miles an hour? Indiana Jones would have known. I had visions of the scene in The Temple of Doom where he dives out of the doomed Chinese aircraft with an inflatable rubber boat, hits the mountainside and does a rendition of white water rafting without the water.
On arrival at the Altiport in Meribel I was met by an American driving a white minibus. His name was Jude, or at least that is how he introduced himself to me, and I introduced myself as Frank Chardonnay. He struck me as being in his mid forties. He was about five ten, and was as forward in his manner as his belly lay forward of his trouser belt. This was his first season in the Alps, he told me. He was managing the chalet, which included ferrying people around and doing the cooking. His previous life was as a cook on yachts chartered in the Caribbean. He put the emphasis on the second syllable in the American manner. A girl came in to do the cleaning, and baby-sitting he told me winking, but not much else.
The chalet sleeps twenty," he said. "No offence meant, but you're joining a weird bunch. They spend their time sitting in the chalet in meetings and out at hotels meeting people instead of getting out on the slopes. In a manner of speaking, not what you do on ski vacation. Still, you and me can go out this afternoon."
The chalet was in a new development of chalets on the Altiport side of Meribel. It was at most a year old and in stunning condition. The main dining and living area had a huge wooden dining table, an open hearth and sumptuous sofas. It gave on to a wrap-around balcony with views over Meribel and across the valley, stunning. On the two levels above where bedrooms, and down below was a games room, TV room and a terrace outside with a hot tub and open air Jacuzzi. Five stars would be an understatement, I thought. Jude told me that the top storey bedrooms were functioning as meeting rooms this week. He showed me to my room on the second floor, and he suggested I change for skiing and meet him down below. I did as instructed in about one minute thirty seconds - the ski slopes were beckoning - and found him in the kitchen ready to go. He had made a couple of baguette sandwiches with jambon du pays, which we munched as we went down to the minibus. Jude suggested I try on the boots he had hired for me and they were fine.
It was a beautiful day with clear blue skies and glittering white peaks. I love skiing. Jude took us on a route that took us across to Courchevel. Meribel is the middle of three valleys linked by ski lifts; hence, the name Les Trois Vallees, the three valleys. Jude considered Saint Martin de Belleville to be the fourth valley, linked to the other three valleys after the name was coined, which only permitted three. We had a perfect afternoon's skiing. Jude's belly belied his elegant style and speed. We must have covered at least a hundred kilometres before we took our last run back down through the woods. This was a relatively new, and very difficult, piste named after some recently dead French Olympic skier, Jean something or other. We cruised through a couple of icy mogul fields, hit a high speed schuss and landed in the village below, as they say in German, in null komma nichts, breathless, aching, and yes, very thirsty. We had skied non-stop, excluding lift rides, for three and a half hours.
Back at the chalet I went up to my room, changed, showered and came downstairs. I still had no idea of the agenda, which did not appear to have the urgency suggested by the helicopter ride. The fire was blazing and a few nibbles were set out on the coffee table. I found Jude in the kitchen. He opened the window, grabbed a Kronenbourg, which was cooling outside on the sill with a number of its friends, and thrust it into my hand, a process that he repeated as often as necessary, as he cooked and chatted about the Caribbean. It was getting on for seven, when a voice boomed out from the lounge.
"Frank, what you doin' in the kitchen? Makin' toast? Get your butt out here!"
It was Ferdie, who was mixing himself a Bloody Mary at the cocktail cabinet. I had not heard him come down. Some minutes later we were joined by Danny.
Dinner was just the four of us, Jude, Danny, Ferdie and me. The starter was sumptuous, a seafood cocktail in a balsamic vinegar dressing. After Jude had done his welcome to Meribel routine, I told Ferdie how I had been helicoptered in.
"You think that's something, Frank? Well I picked up my plane in Teheran. It turns out I was added into some kind of official delegation, not Iranian by the way, on a special official plane. It was full of senior politicians, businessmen and at the very back journalists. Everyone wants to talk to the head honcho, right, but he comes and sits next to me, like he wants to talk about his student days in California, and not some political bullshit with these other guys, or concessions and payoffs with the business guys."
"So we land in Zurich, but we don't dock at one of those bridges that go straight into the terminal. Instead we do the old fashioned thing of walking down steps to the tarmac. As we come down the steps, this line of about thirty stretched limos sweeps over to us. In hierarchical order the politicos get into the limos. My turn is ahead of the businessmen, and it didn't look like the journalist would get a look in on the limo scene. There weren't enough limos. So, the driver asks me if there is anyone with me, as he opens the rear door, but I'm on my own, so he asks me where I want to go. Then we simply drive off the runway and out into the Zurich traffic."
"You came up here through the snow in a stretched limo? That's incredible." Danny exclaimed.
"I did, but there was no snow on the road. It gets better. So just before Moutiers, they've got these traffic lights. When the traffic gets too heavy on main arrival days they switch them to red. This is to control the flow of traffic up into the mountains. So there we are stuck on this highway, which has been turned into a temporary parking lot. I light up a Havana and wind down a window."
"After a while the would-be skiers, stuck in a temporary parking lot, start getting out and hanging out in the road, like they're watching break dancers down at pier number eight. So I put on my mirror sunglasses, clench the Havana in my teeth, lean out of the window of the stretched limo, and holler, if anybody's thirsty, I'll check out the bar for chilled Champagne."
"And they came running," I said.
"You just bet three thousand percent wrong. They're thinking, like, who is this frigging freak in the limo. But the driver gets out. Turns out he's some Greek kid doing a student job. And you won't believe this. He pulls open the other door, reaches in the bar and pulls out a bottle of Champagne. This could take half an hour, he tells me, before we move, and he'll join me if no one else will. So I get out, and we go round to the trunk. By this time I'm suspicious of what might be in there, what with the stretched limo and all, but it's only my bag and two director chairs. The Greek kid unfolds the chairs, and there we sit, sipping Champagne, right there on the highway, in the fast lane."
"Grand juries behold this, Ferdie," Jude says, "you just pulled one over on Frank with his bullshit about chopper rides."
"Yup, you see, Jude, our host likes us to blend in. You don't hire a chalet like this and then pull up in a tour bus. He just wanted us to be inconspicuous, I guess." As dinner progressed, the level of conversation deteriorated to about two grades below bullshit. It was as we headed upstairs for bed that Ferdie told Danny and me that we would be on together, at eight sharp, down below in the TV room.
Jude prepared a cooked breakfast, which I consumed on my own. At eight I entered the TV room to be greeted by Vermouth. Danny arrived a couple of minutes later. The nub of the problem, Vermouth explained, was that we had to move some funds fast. That was why they wanted Danny and me here together, so that we could work out a plan. It was all connected with a power project in which Vermouth's people had a behind-the-scenes interest.
For a few years in the early nineties private power was the flavour of the month in international financial circles. Emerging market governments wanted to attract foreign companies to build power stations, so that they did not have to use their own money. Concessions were agreed which would make the foreigners very rich, as long as they could trust the governments to honour them. The foreigners would build the power stations and local (often state-owned) utilities would buy the power. In some cases the foreign currency loans taken up by the foreigners were even guaranteed, so they were well and truly home and dry, as long as they could build a plant which worked, and this they knew they could do.
The subsequent problem arose from two underlying polar bears: first, not each faction in the government, be it central or local, would agree; and secondly, governments change. You could be iced out, just like that.
"Right now it looks as if the whole thing has unravelled," Vermouth was saying. "We have to find a way of baling out at least cost to ourselves. The others can fight a rearguard action, and if they win good luck to them. We're getting out." My job was to shift funds out of reach of disgruntled partners etc. We talked it through for about an hour and came up with an ultra-nifty solution. Vermouth thanked me for coming, saying he was very pleased with the result of our deliberations.
Danny stayed on with Vermouth, and I stepped out into the hall. There was this English looking banker type standing there, slim, dark haired, leaning against the pine banister of the staircase, who introduced himself as Nathan something or other.
I said, "Well, Nathan, I've finished here for today. Frank Chardonnay." I reached out to shake his hand, a firm, assuring grip. "It's nine and I'm off skiing, as soon as Jude the cook boy can bring me down to the lifts."
It so transpired that Nathan planned to do exactly the same. He, too, had tacked on an extra day. As we were talking there was a light step on the stair. A pair of slim legged jeans came down, and then the familiar figure and red hair and slender shape of Zara were revealed progressively upwards as she descended. She set about introducing us, and was startled that we would be skiing together. She insisted that she join us as soon as she could. Her manner was almost as if Nathan and I were not supposed to be alone together, and she wanted to chaperone us. Nathan suggested we ski over to Val Thorens and that she should join us there for lunch - we could ski back together. He tossed her his car keys. You drive over. I'm sure Jude will appreciate the drive back, he told her. As we went out to the minibus, I understood what he meant. A deep blue, UK registered, Audi TT stood in front of the garage.
"You drove down?"
"I did. Left work at lunchtime, drove off the shuttle in Calais at three and by nine thirty I was here. My record time, actually."
Nathan had a very pleasant manner. The weather was excellent, and we had had a fantastic morning's skiing by the time we reached the restaurant rendezvous above Val Thorens.
"You're a superb skier," I told Nathan.
"I've been doing it every year since my first school trip when I was twelve. I thought about doing a ski instructor course in my gap year before university but the standard of skiing was too low for me at the instructor school. You get by with your stamina, Frank, but I could help you clean up your style."
"Lucky you, skiing. In my time gap year I ended up on an oil tanker, a crew of forty one, eighteen different nationalities, a tinderbox set for stabbings and who knows what else. I jumped ship in Las Palmas."
We did not ski down to Val Thorens itself, but stayed above on the mountain looking down at this moonscape high above the tree line. These wide-open slopes are for posers, film stars and members of the Royal Family. Me, I prefer zipping in and out of the trees, cutting through narrow gorges strewn with boulders, and taking every risk you can think of, except, of course, avalanches, which are bad news.
"Deux grandes bieres," I said to the waitress, when she finally managed not to avoid seeing us.
"You what?" French has long since ceased to be the lingua franca of the staff in Alpine ski resorts, so I amended this request to two half litres of beer.
After a second beer Nathan suggested we move on to vin chaud. It was then that we saw Zara sweeping down the slope towards us in perfect curves. Far behind, losing ground fast, was Ferdie, who seemed to manage to slide, but not much else.
Descending from the restaurant, we came upon what appeared to be a cross between a ski jump and a motorway speed trap. You launched yourself off the top and went hell-for-leather. As you flashed past the sign at the bottom it indicated your speed. Zara went first and triggered the display at 83 kmh. Ferdie turned to Nathan.
"She likes you, you son of a gun." I had also noticed how she was looking at him in the restaurant.
"I can only dream. Way out of my range," Nathan said, launching himself into the speed test, to hide his confusion, and hitting 71 kmh. My extra fifteen kilos gave me 73 kmh and then came Ferdie. In a manner totally inconsistent with the intended design of the speed test, Ferdie somehow managed to swerve left, head up a wall of snow and take off. He performed an impromptu acrobatic display worthy of the Moscow State Circus, and, manque de filet de sauvetage, commonly known as safety net, fell flat on his back. In true Bond style, shaken but not stirred, he recovered his skis and sticks and skied down to join us.
Zara addressed the troupe, reassembled below.
"After that display, I am enrolling you all in the Girl Guides. I am your patrol leader for this afternoon. Frank, 73 Kmh, Lord help you," she taunted. "Now, let's get down to business after all this pathetic pissing around on the slopes, and as for you, Ferdie, your ski suit is two sizes too small. You look like a matador, not a skier. I might have said you showed excessive testosterone with your acrobatic display just now, except this ridiculous suit had already made that self-evident. You remember the helicopter gunship scene in the original version of Apocalypse Now?"
Ferdie jumped in, presumably to redeem himself, "You mean when the gunships are gliding over the green canopy of the Vietnamese jungle to the roar of Wagnerian music, which the Captain, or whoever, has put on the gunship's music system. Then they drop napalm all over the Viet villages and paddy fields, which explode into flame. They blast away at the villagers, massacring every thing that moves and eventually touch down, pile out of the chopper and finish them all off, men, women and children."
"I don't think the film had quite that degree of verisimilitude, Ferdie, but you've got the gist." While he had been talking, she had removed her backpack, slipped Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries into the CD player and attached powerful external speakers to the side pockets of her backpack.
"I don't do this under avalanche conditions," she said, clicking it on, and turning it up to full volume. "May the good Lord help the other skiers! Let's roll!"
They launched themselves into a black mogul field in a tight group twisting, turning and leaping in unison, as Wagner blared his version of the apocalypse across the mountain with modern electronic assistance. Wagner, the composer who took the fat lady off the stage and introduced theatrical action to the opera. What would he have thought of this powerful rendering of his opera as it shattered the frozen Alpine air?
Ferdie strove to catch them up at the bottom of the piste, while keeping himself from becoming a candidate for the clinic's emergency ward. Further down the slopes, for scene two, Zara decided to switch the CD, saying, "This time, girls, we do a sing along, like we're by the campfire", and they took off screaming out the words of a very un-girl-guide-like classical rock song. Again, we stopped at the bottom of the slope to wait for Ferdie. Nathan seemed to have christened Zara with some kind of joke name for the afternoon, "Zelda". I tried to think whether there was some TV character he was referring to. Then we came to a sweeping track which veered in a right-hand curve across the side of the valley. We could see Meribel, vertiginously far below, as we sped past groups of astonished skiers sounding as if we were Queen in concert in Hyde Park.
It was only years later that I thought back to this scene. If Zara's purpose had been to prevent Nathan and me from talking shop, she could not have done it better.
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