I fall into a comatose sleep the minute I sit on the plane and only wake up when we touch down at Gatwick. I reach Kingston upon Thames at five to three. It’s raining.
The Wine Shop’s offices, and therefore Villa’s British headquarters, are located in an industrial estate, three miles from the centre of Kingston, between a recycling plant and a gypsy encampment.
They consist of a decrepit low-rise building, facing a big yard, which serves as a lorry and car park. The lot is enclosed by a fierce-looking fence, topped with barbed wire. The JCBs operating round-the-clock next door provide a constant rumbling background noise and a pervading cloud of fine dust, which, together with the exhaust fumes from the traffic in the front yard, create a nasty-smelling polluting soup. No tree or blade of grass survives here; the place is so built up I have no idea what colour the soil is.
Dave is lounging outside the main entrance of the building when I arrive. He looks like a bald monkey with oversized sunglasses, which emphasise his hairy stick-out ears. His shapeless tee-shirt hangs over his beer belly. His face is even redder and blotchier than usual.
‘Hey Chris! What’s up?’
I make sure I stay out of reach of his morning-after breath. ‘Not much, you?’
‘Big night yesterday.’ He mimics downing a glass in one. His hands shake a little.
‘Why doesn’t that surprise me?’
Dave is one of the most active members of the Queen’s Head gang Jen loathes.
‘Work is manic at the moment,’ he says.
I raise my eyebrows. ‘Clearly.’
He lights one of the many cigarettes that give him an excuse for spending most of his time outside the office. Dave fulfils the unofficial but important role of office gossip at The Wine Shop, as his observation post by the front door gives him an unparalleled knowledge of the comings and goings of his colleagues and their visitors.
A commotion makes us turn towards the lorry being unloaded in the yard. Three dishevelled men leap out of the trailer and run at top speed towards the exit of the compound. The guys from the warehouse pause to watch them but make no effort to intercept them. A few seconds later, a fourth man follows, clutching a bloodstained arm. Still, nobody moves.
‘What’s going on?’ I ask Dave.
‘Illegal immigrants,’ he says. ‘They arrive with our shipments of Soave.’
‘This man is injured.’
‘Even more reason for doing nothing: think of the paperwork!’
I stare at him but can’t think of anything to say.
Dave brushes ash from his sleeve. ‘His mates will look after him.’
‘I’m glad you’ve got such faith in human nature,’ I say.
‘It’s not easy to escape detection in Calais, and then in Dover.’ He waves in the direction of the abandoned trailer. ‘These guys are tough. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve earned their freedom.’
I am pondering Dave’s Darwinian approach to immigration when he asks, ‘How long have you been away?’
He chuckles and turns to return inside. ‘Welcome back,’ he says over his shoulder.
I don’t like his tone.
Mary and Philippe are both on the phone when I walk in. I give them a little wave and collapse in my chair without taking my coat off.
Our office consists of a large square room with wide windows on one side and a much smaller glass panelled room at the back. Four large desks face each other in the middle of the room and the walls are lined with a collection of mismatched cupboards and filing cabinets. A yellowing potted plant is dying in a corner despite or maybe because of Mary’s tender care. Even though we never open the windows, the office smells of industrial dust.
Mary and Philippe offer an almost comical contrast. Short, plump and blonde, with kind blue eyes, Mary, my assistant, has the pale complexion of a Northern beauty whereas Philippe, the sales manager, is tall and skinny, with jet black hair, dark brown eyes and the sallow skin tone of a Southerner who’s spent too long away from the sun. His hooked bony nose gives his face a raffish look softened by brown tortoiseshell glasses. Both are in their late twenties and have worked for Villa for two years.
My desk is piled high with letters, invoices and trade magazines. Multi-coloured Post-it notes cover the rest of the surface. Four bottles of wine stick out of the mess like tall buildings in a flooded village. Two of them are The Super-Market’s red and the third is a Château Camplazens, Marselan I bought from Majestic, meaning to send it to Serge. Marselan is a cross of Cabernet and Grenache and I was wondering if we should add one to our range. I never followed through and now use the bottle as a dummy for mock-ups of potential new labels.
I clear just enough space on the desk to park my laptop.
An English translation for the marketing department in Bordeaux sits on top of one of the piles of paper. Marys has had a stab at it and dotted it with question marks, her way of asking for help. The first sentence of the French text runs to five lines and is so longwinded and tortuous I read it twice without understanding it. It’s followed by a few suggested food matches, which may be common fare in the South of France but would belong to the rarefied atmosphere of Michelin starred kitchens this side of the Channel.
‘Merde,’ I say
‘Sorry about the translation.’ Mary has come off the phone. ‘I meant to do it but I don’t understand the French version.’
I scan the document a second time. ‘I’ll have to rewrite the whole thing.’
‘And justify every word change to our lovely colleagues,’ says Mary.
I sigh. ‘I’ll deal with it later.’
Under a bundle of Philippe’s expense claims, I find a copy of a six-month-old invoice for IT, totalling nine thousand pounds. “Recharge to Villa UK” is written on each of the three pages. The signature is Matt’s, The Wine Shop’s head of IT and logistics.
I bang my fist on the desk. ‘I knew it!’
Philippe looks up from his computer.
‘Do you remember the nine thousand pounds in our accounts that didn’t make any sense?’ I ask him. ‘The financial department has finally deigned to send me a copy of the invoice. Unless you’ve ordered a couple of laptops and printers and sold them on eBay, it has nothing to do with us.’
‘How did it end up in our accounts?’ Philippe asks.
‘It looks like Matt did a bit of creative accounting. No wonder it took four weeks and several phone calls to get a copy of the invoice.’
‘I was wondering why he was being so helpful lately,’ Philippe says.
I run my finger over the scrawled signature. They Do It with Mirrors, the title of an Agatha Christie, comes unbidden into my mind. Nobody gets killed here but deception and dishonesty pervade every layer of the organisation.
‘You don’t like him much, do you?’ I ask Philippe.
‘He’s an absolute shit,’ he says. ‘He does the bare minimum for us and makes sure his team follows suit. We only get anything done because some of them fancy Mary and I go to the pub with them. If it was left to Matt, we’d be using a blackboard and chalk, and smoke signals to communicate with the outside world.’
‘I’ve got to try and keep him on side though,’ I say. ‘If I upset him, he’ll make our life even more of a misery. It’s not as if he reported to me.’
‘He’s a bastard and a thief.’
‘How do I call him that without turning him against us?’
Philippe smiles. ‘You’re the boss.’
My phone rings.
‘Chris, welcome back. Sébastien Melot here.’
‘Are you spying on me, Sébastien? I only walked in five minutes ago.’
My joke falls flat. ‘Could you come over to my office, please? There’s someone I want you to meet.’
The sudden sense of urgency surprises me, coming from the very laid-back Sébastien. He is unlike most of my French colleagues who assert their authority by demanding their requests, however trivial, takeabsolute priority. It makes for a permanent flurry of last minute meetings and disrupted activities
I scribble “AL” on my hand to remind myself to call André Lange about the meeting with Rachel. Tattooing it on my skin makes me feel like the ordeal is partly over.
‘What did I tell you about your new perfume?’ Philippe asks Mary. ‘Chris took one sniff and she’s off.’
‘It’s not my perfume. It’s your expense claims. Did you see her face when she looked at them?’
I raise my hands in mock supplication. ‘Stop bickering children. Sébastien wants me on urgent business. Mary, when I come back, can we talk about The Super-Market please?’
‘Whenever you’re ready,’ she says, looking as enthusiastic as if we were discussing a tooth extraction.
I walk back across the car park to The Wine Shop offices, singing under my breath,
‘Je rêvais d’un autre monde’
I wave to Dave, who is busy lighting another cigarette. If not of another world, I had dreamt of a simpler life.
‘Notre française! Come in quick and shut the door.’
Sébastien welcomes me with wide open arms across a desk strewn with papers. His looks have deteriorated in the two months I have been with Villa. His long face is marked with deep lines and his skin is dull and grey and speaks of long hours spent indoors. His hair’s is now long enough for a small ponytail and his clothes are crumpled. I doubt he bothers unpacking during the four days he spends in Kingston every week. He is slumped so low in his chair, I worry he will slide to the floor.
His office smells stuffy.
A big hairy blond man in his early fifties, with the leathery skin of an explorer, sits opposite him, his elbows resting on his thighs, his legs wide apart. The cauliflower ears say former rugby man. He exudes strength and masculinity and makes Sébastien look even more insubstantial.
He stands up and crushes my hand in his. ‘Arnaud Vidal,’ he says.
I rack my brain but the name doesn’t ring a bell.
‘Twenty-five years with Villa.’
He’s missed Papa by three years.
Sébastien is playing with a lock of his hair. ‘I feel like a greenhorn with my seventeen years of service.’
‘Chris Legerot. I joined two months ago.’
Arnaud stares me up and down without a word. His eyes stop on the scribble on my hand and his lips curl in a disapproving grimace.
Sébastien bends forwards from his supine position. ‘Chris, Marguerite Villa has appointed Arnaud to take over from me. We wanted you to be the first to meet him but as you’ve been away…’
‘I had no idea you were leaving,’ I say. ‘I’m sure you’ll be missed.’
He winces. ‘Marguerite wants me to return to running Villa’s winery in Burgundy fulltime. It’s been tricky to do both jobs and the team here is very weak.’
He points at the mountain of paper on his desk. ‘They’re good for nothing. They write emails all day long.’
He turns to Arnaud.
‘Emails are a big problem over here. By the time my secretary has printed them, typed my answer and sent it back, we often have to start all over again because two or three more people have butted in. It’s a nightmare.’
‘I have requested that all emails be sent to me from next week,’ says Arnaud. ‘The IT guy has promised me I’ll have my new laptop by then. You won’t need to come back on Monday.’
Seb crumples in his chair. His awkward smile reveals teeth which have been estranged from a toothbrush for a long time. ‘That is good, very good. Thank you.’
I force a smile on my face. ‘That’s brilliant, Sébastien. You never liked living over here much anyway.’
He turns to Arnaud, pointing to me. ‘She has lived here for almost twenty years.’
Arnaud stares at him, a puzzled look on his face.
‘She hasn’t lived in France for twenty years,’ Sébastien stresses the ‘twenty’. ‘She likes it here: the weather, the food, everything.’
‘I am moving over here,’ says Arnaud.
‘You don’t want to do that!’ says Sébastien. ‘There are regular flights to Bordeaux and cheap too.’
Arnaud turns to me. ‘We need to talk.’
‘I’m at your disposal.’ I check my watch. ‘I won’t be able to stay too long as I’ve been away but-’
‘Not now. My secretary will tell you when.’
Sébastien opens his mouth and closes it again.
I pat him on the shoulder and walk out of the office.
Arnaud and Seb yell at the same time, ‘The door!’
I close the door on The Wine Shop’s French enclave.
I wish Jen were back. I am curious to know what she’ll make of Arnaud. She may welcome a change of regime. She doesn’t rate Sébastien. Nobody at The Wine Shop does. He won’t be missed.
As per usual music is blaring out of the Marketing office’s open door. I decide to pay a visit to Tim. His office is the only one which doesn’t smell of dust but of a unique blend of printer ink, incense, and pot.
Large lamps dotted around the place change colours with the beat of the music and colourful posters featuring former promotions hang on the walls.
‘Is Tim here?’ I ask the girl closest to the door.
She nods and points towards the back window.
‘Hello Frenchie,’ booms an Irish voice from across the vast room.
Tim skips over to me, phone glued to his ear. He is wearing turquoise velvet trousers and an orange shirt, a sedate outfit for him.
‘Stop calling me Frenchie.’
I still can’t believe he had a thing with Jen but I notice for the first time he has the most startling green eyes I have ever seen.
He covers the phone’s mouthpiece with his hand. ‘That’s what you are.’ He turns his attention back to his phone. ‘Busy now. I’ll call you later.’
I found Tim insufferable to start with. His posturing and constant jokes drove me mad and I avoided him as much as I could. Then we worked together on a small project and I realised how good he is at what he does. He could achieve even more if his creativity was not systematically scuppered by Sébastien. I wonder sometimes why he stays with The Wine Shop.
‘What do you make of the big-game hunter?’
‘Is it Arnaud Vidal you call the big-game hunter?’
‘Who else, darling?’
Tim uses terms of endearment with gleeful abandon.
‘What do you think was his first question to Jim?
‘Is Jim the black guy in the post-room?’
Tim nods. ‘Where are you from?’
‘Jim told him he was from Peckham. Arnaud waved his hands in the air as if to say wrong answer and asked him which African tribe he was from?’
‘Is he deranged?’
‘Jim disappointed him by telling him his family came from Barbados in the fifties and that he was born here.’
‘Why should he care about Jim’s origins? He didn’t ask about mine.’
‘Good question, pet. You assumed Arnaud Vidal had spent his twenty-five years of service to the group in Bordeaux, didn’t you?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘If he’s ever set foot in Bordeaux, it’s been to pay homage to Marguerite Villa.’
‘Where has he been, then?’
‘Africa, working in Villa’s coffee business. From what I’ve heard, he’s lived in Madagascar, the Ivory Coast, Gabon, and Kenya, hence his posting here.’
‘You’ve lost me.’
‘Kenya is a former British colony. Arnaud was there for two years and learnt a bit of English. Not good English but I suspect he may have been economical with the truth when Marguerite Villa asked him if he fancied having a go at running The Wine Shop. The old biddy doesn’t speak English, does she?’
‘I suspect not. I haven’t been invited to meet her since I joined Villa.’
Tim doesn’t need to know I met Marguerite a couple of times when I was a child.
‘You’re too low in the pecking order, ma chérie.’
‘Since you are so well informed, does Arnaud know anything about wine?’
‘He’s knows all there is to know about coffee and both wine and coffee are hot.’
‘That’s a crap joke, even by your standards.’
Tim sits down, puts his feet on his desk and crosses his hands behind his head. ‘Look, Sébastien knows about wine and he’s a waste of space. At least BGH looks like he wants to try new things. He’s already got himself a French-English dictionary!’
‘Tim, are you going to keep on calling him BGH?’
‘Till I think of something better.’
He makes me laugh. I leave his office, singing “The lion sleeps tonight”. In French.