I should phone Maman. We speak every Sunday but I spent last weekend with Sam messing around with her kids and I missed my weekly assignment. I feel guilty but I can’t phone her now. She’d know I’m upset, and in trying to make it better she’d make it worse. She refuses to take an interest in my professional life but it doesn’t stop her from making well-meant but useless or tactless comments about it. My current predicament is likely to prompt something along the lines of ‘If the oenologist says the wine is fine he must be right. You’ve always had a problem with authority.’
I’ll try her tomorrow, once I’m home. If she has a go at me for not being in touch earlier, I’ll say I have been busy. I’d feel better if I could discuss today’s events with someone with no vested interest in the matter. Sam would be good. She lets me drone on for hours about work, life, men or whatever bugs me and then she pours forth about her ex-husband and her music. But it’s pointless trying her before the twins have gone to bed.
I look at my mobile for inspiration. It’s still warm from my conversation with André. A greasy film, half make-up, half God knows what, covers the screen and the dialling pad is encrusted with grime. I wipe the display clean with a tissue and pick up a cotton bud from the hotel courtesy pack. I moisten it and run it around the keys, forcing it in the tiny spaces where grey scum has accumulated. Three cotton buds later, my phone looks almost new. I wish I felt the same.
I drag myself to the bathroom. Jen Turner, The Wine Shop’s head of buying, is picking me up at eight. She’s on holiday as a guest of Gerard Bertrand at Château L’Hospitalet, a gorgeous hotel in a vineyard nearby, and we’ve arranged to meet for dinner.
Jen and I first met three years ago when I convinced her to list two Argentinean wines from Terrazas. We’ve shared a few drinks since and have become friends. When I joined Villa’s UK office, we became colleagues, as Villa owns The Wine Shop. I have however nothing to do with the day-to-day running of The Wine Shop.
A quick look at my watch confirms I have no time to change or even shower. My hair could do with a wash. I had no time to go to the hairdresser before my trip down South and a band of grey is showing at the roots. I’m the living proof that some French women miss out on that elusive je-ne-sais-quoi which is supposed to be our birth right. I reach for the bottle of Chanel 19 with a sigh.
Jen is as blond as I am dark. Both in our early forties, we stand at five feet eight in our stockinged feet. Tonight, we look like the before and after of a magazine feature. The soft lights of the hotel lobby can’t disguise the bags under my bloodshot eyes, my sallow skin or my lank hair whereas she looks healthy and relaxed with shiny hair and no makeup. She smells of fresh lilac.
She takes one look at me and raises her eyebrows. ‘Are you alright?’
‘I need a drink.’
She laughs. The blue eyes she uses to petrify a supplier into submission crinkle at the corners and her pale freckled face flushes pink.
I am glad she’s here.
We set off for the restaurant in companionable silence. The sun has gone in, the evening is chilly and we walk fast. The plane trees in the streets of Narbonne have started shedding their leaves but the air still carries an elusive summer scent of hot dust and warm tarmac. Old men are drinking Pastis at the few tables left outside the town’s cafes.
The rich aromas of Mediterranean food greet us when we walk in the restaurant.
‘Smell that, Jen: spices, anchovies, roasted peppers, warm goat’s cheese!’
‘You and your food! Have you ever missed a meal in your life?’ Jen has a British approach to sustenance, evidenced in her skinny frame.
A guitar is playing Spanish music in the background. The waitress approaches us with the constipated smirk, which befits the superior standard of the restaurant.
‘Good evening ladies. May I take your coats?’
I hand mine over. Jen shakes her head.
‘Would you like a table by the window?’
We sit down on elegant brown leather chairs. Jen tries to hang her jacket over the high smooth back but it keeps on sliding down.
‘Are you sure this is a good idea?’ I ask.
‘I had my jacket stolen last year in a restaurant.’
What’s left of my patriotism floods my veins. ‘It’s not the same!’
‘Still foreign to me,’ she says.
Our languid waitress returns. Her well-trained eyes take in Jen’s coat, now squashed at the back of her chair. She points at the garment with a manicured finger.
‘Are you sure-’
Jen cuts her short. ‘I’ll be fine.’
The waitress lifts her bony shoulders by half an inch, not quite a shrug.
‘Tonight’s special is Tielle, a squid pie. Would you like an aperitif?’
I ask for the wine list. She hands over a thick velvet-bound tome and walks away with a twirl of her black skirt,
‘I hate it when they order you around,’ says Jen.
‘Should I risk choosing the wine?’ I ask.
‘If you tell me what’s bothering you.’ Jen can’t resist doing a deal.
‘Why don’t we talk about you instead?’
‘Not much to say. Your company is making my life as a buyer a tad difficult but it could be worse.’
‘Not my company, the company you and I work for,’ I say.
With a perfect sense of timing, the waitress returns to our table.
‘Could we have a bottle of Domaine Jones Grenache Gris 2006, please?’ I ask. ‘Hope you don’t mind drinking local, Jen. I don’t feel like Champagne tonight and this is a rare and delicious wine made by an English woman in Fitou.’
‘Seb isn’t bad,’ she says. ‘but he doesn’t really care about The Wine Shop. He is Villa through and through.’
‘You know he hates being called Seb.’
‘He doesn’t want to be called Sebastian either and I can’t get my tongue around Sébastien.’ She mimics a French accent. ‘There’s no way I’m calling him Monsieur Melot.’
‘He’s had an easy time in Burgundy and he’s doing two jobs at the same time, one of which he dislikes. Marguerite Villa put him in charge of The Wine Shop because he’s the only member of her board who speaks good English.’
The waitress brings our wine. The chilled pale liquid tumbles into enormous glasses. Jen and I sigh with anticipation.
‘Will you try the Tielle?’ I ask.
‘No, I’ll go for the veal. I feel sorry for Seb. Nobody likes him.’
‘We’ll have the veal in a morel reduction and the scallops, please. No starters,’ I say to the waitress. ‘I don’t know many people who like their boss.’
‘You never know for sure what people you work with think of you.’ Her face clouds over.
‘Is your job rubbing off on your personality or did you become a buyer because you don’t trust anybody? Try the bread, it’s delicious.’
She takes a tiny bite. ‘The aniseed one is gorgeous.’
I lean over the table. ‘Do you know that the skin of fishermen turns scaly after a few years and that wine buyers grow a forked tongue all the better to cheat their hapless suppliers?’
Jen smiles. ‘Bloody rep!’
‘UK commercial manager, if you please.’
‘I’m impressed. What’s the politically correct term for dustmen? Sanitation workers?’
‘Thanks for the comparison.’
I break into song. ‘Do you really want to hurt me?’
‘Don’t. I take it back. I’ll do anything as long as you don’t sing!’
‘I’ll remember that. Why doesn’t anybody ever let me sing?’
‘I have no choice but to buy my French wines from Villa,’ Jen says.
I pour her another large glass of Domaine Jones.
‘How long have you been a buyer?’
‘Five years. Sometimes I wish I were still on the shop floor.’
‘Is it the job you miss or your twenties?’
‘I hadn’t thought of it that way.’
‘I loved my time as an assistant manager. I’d left France behind and I’d landed a job with the most exciting wine company in the world,’ I say.
‘I always forget you used to work for The Wine Shop. It was great then.’
We observe a minute of silence.
The waitress deposits large square plates in front of us. Jen’s looks like an abstract painting, all splotches of vivid colours.
She inspects her food. ‘Where are the morels?’
I lean over to get a better look. ‘I can’t tell you without a magnifying glass. Try the black squiggle in the middle.’
She dips her finger in the thick sauce and licks it. ‘Morels,’ she says.
I sniff her plate. ‘It smells wonderful for a Kandinsky. Can I try a bit? You were seeing somebody a few months ago, weren’t you?’
Jen and I are both single and our love life, or lack thereof, always features in our conversations.
‘I hate it when people steal my food.’
‘I’m your favourite supplier and you can try my scallops. Look at these plump beauties, hissing their last breath on the hot stone.’
‘God, the French and their food! Do you always need to have it slaughtered at the table?’
‘Don’t worry. I am sure my scallops were killed somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean by kind and considerate Scottish fishermen,’ I say.
‘I am not Scottish, I am Welsh. What’s the obsession with fishermen?’
‘No idea. Is the new man a fisherman?’ It’s good to talk nonsense after today’s horrors.
She toys with her napkin ‘It didn’t last. It was complicated.’
‘I’m sorry. Who’s the good-looking guy I saw leaving your office last Tuesday then?’
‘An Aussie winemaker. He’s a supplier. You can have him.’
‘Does he come in his own box or will you wrap him up for me?’
‘I’m a buyer. I don’t do deliveries.’
I’ve managed to cheer her up. ‘Talking of buyers behaving badly, have you heard about…?’
I whisper the name of a well-known industry figure.
‘I may have. Could we have more wine?’ she asks.
I call the waitress over and ask for the wine list again. She lifts the empty bottle of Domaine Jones half way from the ice bucket and raises her eyebrows.
‘It was a lovely wine,’ I tell her.
She gives me a tight smile.
‘We’ll have the Domaine of the Bee, Les Genoux 2004, please.’
‘A bottle. Thank you.’
‘Now she’s got your goat,’ says Jen.
I wave her comment away.
‘This is another local wine made by a Brit,’ I say. ‘A big and rich red from the Roussillon. You’ll love it. I saw a Montes Carmenère on the list. A Chilean wine in the Languedoc! They’ll get a visit from the CRAV soon.’
‘No idea what you are talking about.’
‘The CRAV, short for Comité Régional d’Action Viticole, are the local protectionist terrorists.’
‘Are they the guys who’ve been blowing up wineries?’
I nod. The waitress brings the wine, opens it and places fresh glasses on the table.
Jen grabs the bottle.
‘I was about to pour,’ says our minder.
‘I want to have a look at the label,’ Jen says.
She runs her thumb over the thick creamy paper and puts the bottle down on the table with a thud. ‘You may pour now.’
I wait for the waitress to leave. ‘You’re made for each other.’
‘What is it with waitresses in posh restaurants?’ asks Jen.
I shrug and take a sip of wine.
‘Tell me what these CRAV people are about?’ Jen asks.
‘A lot of people down here live below the poverty line. They get paid a pittance for their grapes or their wine and when they see us driving rented cars, staying in hotels, eating nice food, they think they’re being shafted by the big companies.’
‘I am not involved in buying,’ I say.
‘It doesn’t dispense you from having a social conscience.’
‘Some of these people ought to get out of wine altogether but they can’t think of anything else to do and their vineyards have been in their families for generations.’
‘They wouldn’t attack a restaurant, would they?’ Jen looks around as if she’s expecting masked men to leap from behind the potted plants.
‘I don’t think so. But they’ll end up killing someone by accident.’
‘Have they had a go at Villa?’
‘I don’t think so. Which is odd, now you mention it: it’s such an obvious target. Maybe they’re scared of André Lange.’
‘I’ve heard of him. He is Marguerite Villa’s right-hand man, isn’t he?’ she asks.
I wince. This is how people used to refer to Papa.
‘He sounds formidable. I’d love to meet him.’
‘He’s nothing special.’ I remember our telephone conversation and I shudder. ‘Where were we?’
‘Indiscretions. Is it this Lange guy who upset you earlier on?’
‘Going back to the-buyer-who-shall-remain-nameless…’
‘You don’t want to talk about it?’ asks Jen.
I shake my head.
‘He was found starkers and ready for action in a colleague’s hotel room during a sales conference.’
I’ve got her attention.
‘You’re joking. Who was she?’
‘She got rid of him.’
‘That’s what she says!’
‘Where’s your sisterly solidarity?’
‘No idea what you’re talking about.’
I pour her another glass of Domaine of the Bee.
‘I’ve got an even juicier one,’ I say. ‘You’ll love it.’
Jen pats my arm. ‘I don’t know if it’s the food, the wine or my company but you’ve perked up.’
She’s right. I raise my glass in acknowledgement.
‘You know Philippe, in my team? He went to the pub with your lot last Friday and bets were placed on who was sleeping with whom at head office. Guess whose name came up?’
Jen pulls a face. ‘The Queen’s Head regulars are a bunch of wankers,’ she says.
‘Fine, I’m not telling. Cheese, coffee or both?’ I lean back in my chair.
‘Go on, you win.’
I’m going to make this one last. ‘We’re talking about somebody senior.’
‘I’ll have cheese. Not Seb?’
‘Cold, very cold.’
‘I’ve no idea.’
I’m disappointed she’s not trying harder. ‘The super smug Tim Foster.’
She dismisses my revelation with a wave of the hand. ‘Tim? No way. These guys are a damn nuisance.’
The waitress approaches our table. ‘Was everything alright?’
‘Delicious, thank you. Could we have some cheese please?’
‘Would you like a selection or should I get the trolley for you?
‘The trolley,’ Jen says. ‘Tim is single.’
‘He may be as he may not be,’ I say.
‘How do they know? CCTV cameras?’
‘Better,’ I say. ‘Steamy emails. The scrawny guy from IT read out the best bits on Friday. Philippe says the whole pub was in stitches. Didn’t say who-’
Jen yells, ‘Bastards! They can’t do that. I’ll get them sacked. Oh my God!’
She covers her mouth with both hands.
‘Don’t say anything. Can we go now?’
I wave the cheese trolley and the bemused waitress away, throw my credit card at her and run outside to catch up with Jen. She’s crying. There’s nothing for it but a hug.
‘I’m so sorry. I had no idea.’
‘I tried to keep it quiet.’ She lifts her hands and lets them drop again in an oddly vulnerable gesture. ‘I should’ve known better.’