Andy and Serge are discussing whether a drop of Muscat would enhance the flavour of their Chardonnay when I tiptoe back into the room. It looks like I haven’t missed too much. I prepare to apologise for my absence.
‘Bet it took you ages to speak to a real person,’ Andy says.
I stare at him. What is he talking about?
‘Who are you insured with?’ he asks.
‘The Super-Market. I am with The Super-Market.’
He frowns. ‘I didn’t know they did insurance.’
‘They’ve just started.’
‘Are they any good?’
‘Cheap,’ I say. ‘I’m sorry it took so long.’
My cheeks are burning again. I pick up my glass and raise it in front of my face as if to check it’s clean.
‘I need to catch up with the tasting,’ I say, jotting down brief notes as I go along. Some samples stand forward of the line-up, to indicate Andy and Serge rate them higher than the others. I sit down to decipher the scribbles Serge’s left me on a scrap of paper. Blend 1= 30% Chard. nb 5 + 45% Chard. nb 6.
I turn my attention to the cost spreadsheet on my laptop. Juggling numbers soothes me: figures don’t lie. I enter the price for bulk wine adding 3% for wastage during bottling. I tot up the dry goods: bottle, label, cork, capsule, case, dividers.
Andy turns around.
‘I’m thinking of moving my French entry level range to screw caps. We’ve done the same with Chile and Australia and sales have shot up.’
I nod, keeping my eyes on the screen.
‘We need to get this started sooner rather than later,’ he says.
This is as good as telling me we’ve won his business. His existing suppliers are small producers who only bottle with corks and can’t afford to invest in new equipment. But if our handling of screw caps is confirmed to be the cause of the quality problem with The Super-Market, our bottling practices will need to be reviewed before I grab another slice of business and make a hash of it.
Andy’s expectant look indicates he’s waiting for me to show some enthusiasm. I stretch the requested smile across my face with great difficulty.
Mambo Number Five interrupts us, its jaunty beat in stark contrast with my mood.
‘Sorry Andy, I need to take this one.’
He shrugs. My sympathy capital is draining away fast. I take refuge in a corner of the room, cradling the phone for comfort.
‘Mary? Do you have the samples?’
‘What’s wrong with that wine? It smells horrible.’
‘Thank God! I’ll call you later to explain.’
I go back to my laptop, my head held high. I’m not on my own anymore.
Half an hour later, we break for lunch. We move to the meeting room to ensure food smells don’t pollute the air in the tasting room. We demolish a selection of sandwiches bought from the local bakery, from the classic French jambon-beurre to a more exotic tikka chicken served with lush lettuce leaves. The smell of fresh bread hangs in the air.
All I want to talk about is The Super-Market’s wine but it’s impossible in front of Andy. Serge tries to help me keep the conversation going but we struggle. Andy is watching us and waiting, his red nose twitching with the scent of disaster.
When he asks for half an hour to make a few phone calls, Serge takes him to his office. This gives me a chance to change my ringtone back to a more classical tune and to return Mary’s call to explain the situation to her.
Serge brings me back a coffee from the vending machine. I warm my fingers on the plastic cup and breathe in the bitter smell.
‘Shouldn’t you call Ed?’
‘If I tell Ed what’s going on, he’ll call André to lecture him on the importance of customer service. Do you think it will help?’
He’ll also find something to lecture me on and I’m not in the mood.
Serge sits down. ‘André doesn’t rate him. He is your boss though.’
I take a sip of coffee and pull a face. It tastes disgusting. ‘If I call Ed, he’ll also want to talk to Rachel himself to tell her in his atrocious English, how much he wants to help. It will cost us more in the long run.’
Serge nods. ‘She’s a good buyer.’
‘And he is a lousy salesman,’ I say.
I fidget with my empty plastic cup, squeezing it flat and letting it pop back into shape a few times. ‘Why did you refuse to taste The Super-Market’s wine?’
‘Do you trust me or not?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘Villa works in peculiar ways. You’ve only been with the company four months.’
He has let me down but he means well. It makes a difference.
Andy has been back ten minutes when Rachel calls for the third time. I pick up and close my eyes, ready for the onslaught.
‘I’m furious,’ she says. ‘Your muddled comments led me to believe it would take several tasters to reach a verdict on our wine. I asked three other wine buyers and two of our food technicians to taste the samples with me. Do you want to know what happened?
‘They laughed, Chris. They laughed at me. This wine stinks. Why didn’t you tell me? Now everybody knows.’
‘Let me finish.’ Her voice is ripping my eardrums to shreds. ‘This is going to cost you, and Villa, big time. There are many other suppliers who’d kill for the chance to get their hands on the lines you supply us with.’
Andy is swirling the same wine around and around in his glass and staring straight at me. I press the phone against my ear as hard as I can to try and muffle Rachel’s voice. It hurts.
‘We’re withdrawing all stock of your Vin de Pays from our stores,’ Rachel says.
‘Could we talk about it tomorrow? This is a huge step.’
She sniggers. ‘This is a huge problem even though you don’t seem to see it. And since that problem is now the talk of the department, thanks to you, my boss has asked to meet you, and the people responsible for this mess, here in the office. I’ll send you an email later with a date and a time.’
I text André straightaway to inform him of the product withdrawal but I don’t mention Rachel’s summons.
‘These constant interruptions are frustrating,’ Andy says. ‘What’s going on?’
‘Same problem,’ I say, staring at my mobile’s screen. ‘My neighbour is upset because I can’t get the mess cleaned up before I return.’
I look at him. He shakes his head.
‘It smells,’ I say.
‘Your neighbour sounds a lot like Rachel from The Super-Market. Don’t you know we used to work together?’
I stare at him for a full minute, taking in the spots, the pointy nose and the wispy hair. I am defeated.
Serge is watching us. He’s cocked his head to one side as he does when trying to follow a conversation in fast flowing English.
I put my hands behind my back. ‘I’ve lied to you.’
‘Tell me something I don’t know.’
‘It’s an awkward situation.’
He nods again. I wish he would say something.
‘The Super-Market reported an abnormal level of customer complaints on one of our lines this morning,’ I say. I should have told you but I didn’t want it to affect your opinion of Villa. That’s why I made up the story about the water leak.’ I count the floor tiles between my feet and the table: one, two, three and a half.
‘So there’s no point in me trying to get bargain insurance from The Super-Market?’ he asks.
Is that a joke? The famous British sense of humour? I look up but he is scribbling something in his notebook, not even the shadow of a smile on his face.
He asks for a tour of the winery. He bombards Serge with technical questions. We spend two hours auditing every aspect of our operations in greater details than I would have thought possible. We return to the tasting room to taste the wines we’ve blended one last time. Andy wipes his mouth. He asks me to confirm our prices in writing and to send fresh samples to his office. I feel as if I were watching this happening to somebody else. I’ve seldom felt so despondent after a visit.
Serge’s mobile rings the minute we return to the meeting room after saying goodbye to Andy.
‘Monsieur Lange.’ He looks at me and puts his finger on his lips. ‘I’ll be five minutes.’
He snaps his phone shut and puts it back in his pocket.
‘It was André,’ he says.
‘I’m not stupid, thanks. Is he back?’
‘He’ll call you later.’
‘Did he say when?’
Serge pats my shoulder. ‘You’re not very patient, are you?’
I snort in disgust and settle down to write the minutes of the meeting with Andy.
‘Chris?’ Serge is holding the door open. ‘You’d better go now.’
I rub my forehead. Tiredness is catching up with me. ‘I need to write my report.’
‘Go back to the hotel.’
I frown. ‘What about you?’
‘I’ll look at it tomorrow and I’ll fill in the gaps.’
I get up slowly, collect my papers and my laptop and leave without a word.
In the car, the radio’s playing
‘On vit les uns avec les autres
On dort les uns avec les autres
Mais au bout du compte,
On se rend compte
Qu’on est toujours tout seul au monde.’
I treat myself to a little cry.
My mobile rings yet again as soon as I’ve dropped my bags on the hotel bed. The poor thing must be as exhausted as I am.
‘Mademoiselle Legerot, you’ve disappointed me.’ André’s voice is icy.
Is there anybody I haven’t disappointed today? I let myself slide against the wall and hug my knees.
‘You called me to report an emergency and interrupted an important lunch. I trusted your judgement and flew back as soon as I could. I have complete faith in my team but when there’s a problem, the ship captain has to take responsibility.’
I hear a faint echo. André must have put me on speakerphone. He sounds like he is playing to an audience, in all likelihood the team he’s just referred to in glowing terms. He continues. ‘I’ve tasted your wine. The nose could be neater but it’s drinkable, even more so when it’s been left to air for a few hours.’
I sigh. ‘People who spend £3.49 on a bottle of wine don’t use decanters.’
‘They would have copper coins in their purse though. Putting one in their glass and giving it a good swirl would do the trick.’
‘You and I know that but most wine drinkers don’t.’
‘Listen Chris, may I call you Chris? I am trying to help but you have to make an effort too. If you reject all my suggestions, we’ll never get anywhere.’
I lick my finger and wipe a tiny wine stain from my phone.
André continues. ‘I know you mean well but you haven’t handled this situation very professionally. Your young buyer overreacted, and instead of reassuring her and calming her down, as is your responsibility, you sided with her and turned a minor incident into a major crisis. Now the damage is done, if we have to pay The Super-Market a little something to soothe the young lady’s pride, we’ll do it but that’s as far as I’ll go.’
I scramble to my feet and take a deep breath. ‘Monsieur Lange, with all due respect, our wine may be safe to drink but it smells horrible, which means The Super-Market won’t sell it.’
He pauses before answering me, a little louder than before. ‘Which side are you on, Mademoiselle? Think about it tonight and let’s talk again tomorrow. When are you flying back to London?’
‘Tomorrow lunchtime, from Toulouse. I can be at the winery at seven if you like.’
‘Make it eight. We won’t need long.’
I slump on the bed and close my eyes. I feel sick.
 Copper reacts with the foul-smelling hydrogen sulphide and turns it into odourless copper sulphide.