Back in the safety of my hotel room, a vicious headache kicks in.: the air conditioning is on full blast again, the note I left for the maid nowhere to be seen.
I pick up my phone, start typing an apology to Jen and stop. Best to wait till tomorrow: in my current state of mind, I’d say the wrong thing again. I’ll buy her flowers when I’m back in the office. What if people think they’re from Tim though? I can’t buy her a bottle of wine; as a buyer, she receives more in a day than she could drink in a month. I’ll have to think of something.
The improbability of Tim and Jen strikes me afresh. Tim is head of marketing at The Wine Shop. He’s Irish with an almost impenetrable accent, which I assume he cultivates as he’s lived far too long in England for it to be genuine. Bright, and brash about it, he has retained the insolence of youth despite being in his mid-thirties. Tall and thin, with an almost feminine grace, an abundance of freckles and a full head of curly pale red hair, he wears the kind of casual clothes that take a lot of effort to look good together. He goes through life as if it were a play, declaiming every comment. Ten or fifteen years ago, when The Wine Shop was a trailblazer in wine retailing, his looks and demeanour would have been spot on. His arrogance now jars with the company’s lacklustre performance.
How did Jen get fooled by such a bird of paradise? And how did he overcome her formidable reserve? A magnum of Bollinger Grande Année?
Seeing how he sizes up every woman he comes across, I had him down as a womaniser preying on silly pretty young things. Jen is pretty but she’s clever and strong. She’s also older than him and a colleague. The excitement of the Queen’s Head gang now makes perfect sense. If I’d had an iota of intelligence, I would have guessed what they’d stumbled on.
The men in my life have never had anything to do with work. I would congratulate myself on never mixing business and pleasure but I know this owes more to luck than strong morals: charmers abound in the world of wine and the plentiful supply of alcohol at professional functions encourages flirtation and more.
I had a boyfriend in Bordeaux when I first arrived in England. This stopped me, but only just, from falling for the South African manager of The Wine Shop’s branch where I worked at the time. He introduced me to New World wines during so-called training evenings, which often lasted well into the night.
By the time the imbalance between outrageous airfares and minuscule salaries put paid to my long-distance relationship, my mentor had returned to Stellenbosch to become an eternal regret and I’d established enough of a local social circle to meet an Englishman with creative leanings at a dinner party. He broke my heart six months later when he left London to go and run a theatre in Edinburgh.
A long flirtation with an intellectual frozen food supermarket buyer followed and came to nothing. My next relationship, by contrast, almost ended up in marriage as my intended happened to have all his limbs, a job, a driving licence and no artistic interest whatsoever. I got bored though and left after eighteen months, a personal record, to hook up with a destitute writer who lasted only eighteen days.
Toothbrush in hand, my thoughts turn back to The Super-Market. I may have overreacted, but how can André discount ninety-five consumer complaints? I need to convey the seriousness of the situation to him. After a longing look at my bed, I sit at the hotel desk and open my laptop.
Over the next hour I try and explain the situation in an email to André. I often complement in writing conversations with colleagues and friends to fix what didn’t work so well in real life.
I should sleep on this email and have a final read tomorrow morning before sending it but I want André to see it as soon as possible. The click of my mouse echoes in the silence of the night. It’s two o’clock in the morning but I’ve done the best I could for The Super-Market and for Villa.
With my visitors gone, I’d planned to spend the morning sorting out odds and sods with local colleagues before flying back to London. This won’t happen now. I force myself to smile all the way to the winery and I turn up the volume of the radio as loud as I dare.
‘Il fait si beau ce matin […]
Envie d’ouvrir la grille aux témoins de Jéhovah […]
Il fait si beau, sur les trains de banlieue qui retardent.’
I take advantage of a passing lorry to whizz past the security guard, reducing formalities to a cheery wave of the hand.
I dump my car outside the entrance and rush inside. I pop into the laboratory to gauge the general mood before going to see André Lange.
Jean Jacques’ assistant greets me without getting up: no kissing today.
‘Happy with the mess you’ve made?’ she says. ‘I had the Japs as top of the pain-in-the-arse league table but I’m going to promote the Brits to number one instead.’
She swivels round in her chair and points her finger at me. ‘I was supposed to be back in Bordeaux today,’ she says. ‘I had to cancel all my meetings as André wanted everybody in the quality team in his office at seven this morning. It was awful. I have never seen Jean Jacques so upset.’
I take a step back. ‘I am sorry.’
‘Who do you think you are, accusing us of not doing our jobs properly? You’ve only been here what? Two weeks?’ Her voice is trembling.
‘I’m not accusing anybody and I’ve been here two months. I’m just doing my job.’
‘Fuck your job and fuck you!’ She returns to her computer screen.
I take a few steps towards her. She fishes a tissue from her bag and blows her nose. I turn around and retreat.
She yells. ‘You’re not supposed to know about this morning’s meeting by the way, but I thought it would make you happy to have got us off to such a great start.’
In the corridor, I stop and lean against the wall for a minute.
I didn’t mean to upset anybody but I’m pleased André has realised the seriousness of the situation. I was right to write that email.
I take the stairs to the second floor two steps at a time. I knock on the closed door at the top. This used to be a meeting room in Papa’s days. A loud, ‘Come in’ invites me in.
The vast Persian rugs, the painted landscapes in golden frames and the matching sofas and armchairs suggest a living room more than an office. A slim laptop sits open on a desk the size of a double bed, next to two pictures. One shows André receiving the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest distinction, from the last but one Agriculture Minister, and the other, André’s third wife, a statuesque blonde, standing next to a palm tree. She’s wearing a tiny sarong and I shiver only to look at her. The ambient smell, a blend of leather, expensive aftershave and wood polish, is that of a gentlemen’s club.
André Lange is short and slight, with small hairless manicured hands and slim feet shod in immaculate brogues. He is sitting ramrod straight in a massive ergonomic chair that could have been designed for the villain in a James Bond film.
He waves at me without smiling – he’s known never to smile -, points his index finger at a low chair across his desk and turns his attention back to the phone.
His hair colour today is solid mahogany. It’s the only thing that detracts from his neat appearance. His resolve not to go grey has not quite extended to securing the services of a decent hairdresser, and his mane is said to change from month to month from dirty brown to almost black and every shade in between. It is the talk of the company, behind his back of course.
‘I couldn’t agree more,’ he says with a flourish of the hand.
My spirits sink. I have heard of this tactic of his: he answers calls or makes them while in the company of a subordinate. The length and nature of the conversation depend on the importance of his vis-à-vis and the message he wants to get across. In extreme cases, he ignores the person seated in front of him. More often, he gestures to them to emphasize salient points of the story unravelling on the phone. A quick debrief takes place afterwards to decipher the call and its hidden message.
‘My dear boy, I’d be delighted to help,’ he says. ‘This is an exceptional situation and we need exceptional people to handle it.’ André doesn’t do conversations; he delivers addresses like a French politician. I wouldn’t be surprised if he broke into the dramatic Françaises, Français with which General de Gaulle started his Second World War appeal to arms.
He stares at me with expressionless pale blue eyes. ‘I know I can rely on you, Xavier. Loyalty is very important to me.’
I take my phone out of my pocket and start typing a random message I have no intention of sending to anyone. André shifts in his chair and raises his well-modulated voice. ‘I’ll tell Marguerite Villa. Leave it with me.’
I resist the temptation to look at him. I hear the click of the handset being turned off. I keep my eyes on my phone.
‘Have you met Xavier?’ he asks. ‘He’ll go far. He has a perfect understanding of the way companies work.’
I look up. ‘I don’t think I have.’
‘Maybe I should introduce you. He’s very good looking, and single. You may be a bit old for him though.’
I let the insult pass.
André swivels around in his chair, picks up a notepad from a drawer behind him and returns to face me. ‘What did you want to see me about?’ he asks.
I flinch. ‘Haven’t you read my email?’
‘Which one? You send me so many, young lady.’
I grip the seat of my chair, ‘The one I sent you last night about The Super-Market.’
He throws himself back in his chair so hard I worry he’ll topple over.
‘The Super-Market! I told my team this morning how furious I am about this ridiculous affair. We need to get the whole thing back under control.’
He leans over the desk. ‘I’ve had to inform Marguerite Villa. You know how important The Super-Market is to us. Not only were they one of our first customers in England, but what happens there could spill over to other clients.’
No mention of Ed or Marcel Villa, André goes straight to the top. My lips pucker to fight the bile that rises in my throat. I swallow.
‘It’s a pity you weren’t here yesterday to handle the crisis yourself,’ I say.
He crosses his hands behind his head.
‘Do you like coffee?’ he asks.
I frown. ‘I’m fine, thank you.’
He rolls his eyes. ‘I’m not asking you if you want a coffee. I’m asking if you like coffee.’
‘I’ll have an espresso after a good meal and the odd latte but I prefer tea,’ I say.
‘We’re the same.’ He sounds triumphant.
God forbid, I think.
He leans forwards as if he’s about to share a secret with me. ‘I drink Nescafe. The real stuff is too strong for me.’
He pauses for a few seconds as if embarrassed by the inadequacy of his taste buds. ‘Your pretty young buyer, what’s her name now?’
‘Rachel?’ I volunteer, wondering what her looks have to do with the matter in hand.
‘That’s the one. She asked us to improve the blend for The Super-Market’s red a few months back. Before you joined the company. Did you know that?’
I frown. ‘I may have seen something in the file.’
He points at me. ‘It was a colossal mistake and I should have stopped her. Those people who buy The Super-Market red didn’t like it when the taste changed. Do you know why?
I shake my head.
‘Because wine to them is what coffee is to you and me: just another drink they don’t want to think about.’
‘Are you saying people are complaining because The Super-Market red has become too good for them?’ I ask.
He straightens his already straight tie knot and nods. ‘It shows a complexity that goes far beyond what can be expected of a generic Vin de Pays. Its aromas are actually not unlike those of a young Syrah.’
‘You mean, reduced.’
Reduction is the most common fault in Syrah.
André winces. ‘Don’t be negative.’
‘How come complaints started coming in a few days ago if Rachel changed the blend last spring?’
He raises his hands in a helpless gesture. ‘I don’t have all the answers.’
‘I can’t see her taking the blame,’ I say.
I’m brave enough to tell him the truth but not to meet his eyes and I deliver my verdict to the blonde in the photo instead. She keeps on smiling. I wait for her husband to explode.
He pauses again.
‘I’m telling you what I think happened, but if you think the truth isn’t acceptable to your client . . .’
I look at him. I’ve no idea where this is going.
He concludes. ‘It’s a commercial decision and as such, it’s up to you what you do next. As director of a production centre, I can’t assume financial liability for a problem which isn’t of our making.’ He looks at his watch. ‘Now I’m sorry but I have another meeting in two minutes.’
I stand up, swaying a little.
‘Make sure you keep me posted,’ he says. ‘Our customers’ satisfaction is my top priority.’
I close the door behind me with exaggerate care. I’m not sure if I should laugh or cry. André has foisted on me the responsibility of the whole problem and I’ve no doubt this is how he explained it to Marguerite Villa.
I’ve only taken shallow breaths while in the lion’s den. I run down one flight of stairs, stop on the landing, and take a few deep breaths.
‘Il avait un tout petit zizi
Et un gros cul
Le père Ubu’
I sing all the way to Serge’s office to cheer myself up, not too loud though.
Serge is in the middle of a tasting.
‘How did it go?’ he asks, his nose deep inside a glass of white wine.
I recount my exchange with André.
Serge puts his glass down and shakes his head. ‘It doesn’t make sense.’
‘What do you mean?’ I ask.
‘I expected him to give you a hard time to start with but I don’t understand what he’s playing at now.’
‘Have you tasted the wine?’ I ask.
‘You have to be careful. While André maintains his position, nobody here will be allowed to give you any information, or to do anything for you without his say-so.’
I collapse on a chair. ‘I’m only trying to do what’s right. Surely you understand that. If I explain André’s stupid coffee theory to Rachel, we’re dead. Does he want me to commit commercial suicide?’
Serge picks his glass up again, takes a sip from it and spits. His eyes dart sideways towards me. ‘I’m afraid he probably sees you as expendable.’
I have no time to answer. A short beep alerts me to a text from Rachel:
‘Meeting The Super-Market House Tues 13.11 @ 10. Please confirm by return. R’
Damn! I’ve forgotten to mention Rachel’s invitation to André. I can’t return to his office now.
‘What is it?’ Serge asks.
I shake my head and leave the room. I am not sure I can trust him anymore.
I arrive in the reception area just in time to hear, ‘Monsieur Lange will see you now, gentlemen.’
Five men with tanned faces and forearms get up and shuffle towards the stairs to André’s office. I assume they’re suppliers. I wouldn’t spare them a glance except one of them is clutching a bottle of The Super-Market red. It’s half empty.