It was yet another pleasantly warm afternoon when I jumped into my car ready to head over to meet Richard Leroy. Five minutes later I arrived in Rablay-sur-Layon, and I was soon heading up the Grande Rue, which snakes out of the top of the village, the buildings gradually giving way to vines. I had anticipated finding Richard in one of the houses up among the vines, and I was confident I would soon be nursing a glass of the latest vintage of Noëls de Montbenault. Twenty minutes later, however, that confidence had evaporated somewhat. I eventually located number 52, but it was not nestled among a sweeping vineyard of tightly-pruned Chenin Blanc vines, as I had expected. Instead, I was standing outside a little house much closer to the centre of the village, with not a vine in sight. And what was of greater concern was that, despite ringing the doorbell at the agreed time of 5pm, there was no answer.
Rather than loitering outside the property I wandered up the street a few hundred metres, stopping to admire the little chapel that sits there at a fork in the road. At the front was an effigy of Christ on the cross, cast in metal, perhaps two or three metres high. His feet were enveloped by the coiled substance of a large and malevolent snake; this was a rather macabre interpretation of the crucifixion. As I pondered what went through the mind of the artist as he moulded his vision, other than perhaps a large volume of absinthe, a small blue combi-van – the vehicle of choice for all small-scale French vignerons – whizzed past, at the wheel a large clean-shaven man, with one female passenger.
The vehicle came to a sudden halt in the distance, just outside number 52, where I had been a few minutes before; the man emerged and bounded towards the row of houses, although I couldn’t make out exactly which house he had entered. Could it have been Richard? Possibly, but didn’t he have a beard? He did when I had met him in Angers, a few months earlier. But beards can come and go, of course. I decided to hot-foot it back to the house, but I was too late. A few seconds later the figure reappeared momentarily, before he slipped into the van and accelerated away. I walked back down the road to the house anyway, and rang the doorbell once more. There was still no answer.