Chapter 8 – Question Marks

I rush past Dave but not fast enough.

‘Good meeting with your new boss?’ he asks.

‘Sorry, I need to go back.’

‘Of course you do.’

Back in the office, Mary is on the phone again.

‘How was it?’ Philippe asks.

‘Seb is leaving. I’ve met his successor, a guy called Arnaud Vidal.’

‘What is he like?’

‘Scary. Dave says he’s our new boss.’

‘How would he know?’

‘He seems to know everything that goes on around here.’

‘He makes it up most of the time. Call Ed. He’ll know.’

‘I haven’t told him about the problem with The Super-Market.’

‘Maybe it’s time you did.’

He’s right.

I plug the power lead in my laptop and plunge under the desk in search of the nearest power point. I am on all fours with my backside protruding from under the desk when I hear the door squeak open.

‘Hi Matt,’ Mary says.

I freeze.

‘Chris is back,’ she says.

‘I can see,’ Matt says.

I pull out of my hiding place, force a smile on my face and pat my hair back into place. Matt perches on the desk furthest away from me.

‘I didn’t hear you knock,’ I say.

He waves his hands as if brushing away unnecessary complications. ‘I’d hate to interrupt when you are in the middle of something important.’

He starts unfolding a paper clip with great care. With his head tilted sideways, he looks like a bird of prey.

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

‘Matt, it’s always a pleasure to see you but is there any particular reason for your visit?’

Matt remains quiet for a while, his eyes trained on the paper clip, as if pondering if my question is worthy of an answer. He then turns his head to look at a distant point through the window. ‘You’ve just returned from France, haven’t you?’

‘I was in Narbonne though, not in Bordeaux.’

He nods.

‘Any news?’

‘If getting intelligence on your new boss is the reason for your visit, all I can tell you is that I’d never heard of him until five minutes ago.’

He glances at me for the first time since he walked in and then smiles at various objects around the room, a smile which would be more convincing if it was directed at me.

‘What do you think?’ he asks.

‘I don’t know. You?’

He shrugs. ‘He ordered a laptop. It’s an improvement.’

‘Who else has he met?’

‘All the heads of department except Jen as she’s away.’

I resist the temptation to shout ‘Off with their heads!’

‘He’s taking over on Monday. Maybe we should give it time.’

He sighs and slides from his desk with snakelike grace.

I wait until he reaches the door. ‘Matt, before you go,’ I say.

He stops and turns around.

‘Finance sent me a copy of an invoice you signed, recharging nine thousand pounds to Villa UK. Any explanation?’

He smiles. ‘Well done you for spotting it. Your predecessor wasn’t as thorough.’

‘Is that all you can think of as an excuse?’

He shrugs. ‘Seb froze my budget and the guys in sales needed new kit. You can’t expect them to work without proper equipment.’

‘I’ll have to reverse the charge. We may share offices and support systems, but Villa UK and The Wine Shop are run as separate businesses.’

‘Are they now?’

He closes the door behind him.

‘Don’t believe him,’ Philippe says. ‘He’s trying to destabilise you.’

‘It’s working,’ I say.

I turn to Mary. ‘Have you heard anything from The Super-Market?’

‘Rachel sent an email first thing this morning. You’re copied in. They’re going to destroy the stock they’ve got in store.’

‘Ouch!’ I say.

‘She’s asking if we want the stock in the depots destroyed as well or shipped back to France. If the latter, we need to hurry up as she wants everything sorted before December. Once Christmas gets under way, the warehouse staff won’t have time to process returns.’

‘Do we know how much stock is in store and how much in depot?’

‘She’s going to find out.’

I pick up my calculator. ‘If they destroy the equivalent of a week’s sales, that’s fifteen thousand bottles and fifty thousand pounds at full retail price. And there’s no way we can check they only trash the faulty stock.’

‘Is there any chance they’d agree to charge us at cost price?’ asks Mary.

‘Rachel won’t forego her margin and it would be impossible to reclaim the duty on a store per store basis. Yet at £1.33 a bottle, it accounts for over a third of the cost.’

I put both hands over my mouth.

‘Are you alright?’ asks Mary.

‘Fifty thousand pounds,’ I say. ‘It’s a huge sum and André will make sure it sticks to my name even though it’s nothing to do with me.’ 

‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ Mary offers TLC the British way.

Photo by Drew Taylor on Unsplash

‘That would be great, thank you.’

She stands up but stays rooted on the spot as if she’s debating the wisdom of adding something else.

‘In her email, Rachel alludes to a meeting in Leeds. Is it something you’ve discussed with her? I couldn’t see it in your diary.’

‘I was unaware of it until yesterday. To make things worse, she wants me to take André Lange. I forgot to tell him about it this morning or maybe I chickened out, I’m not sure.’

‘You should tell him.’

I show her my hand with the letters “AL” branded on it. ‘I won’t forget. Just let me look at my emails first.’

I scan my overflowing inbox. An email from my friend Sam cheers me up a bit. She asks when I’m back in the country and if I’m free on Saturday evening for a glass of wine. Then my eye is caught by Marcel Villa’s name in the sender’s list. Even though he’s copied in a phenomenal amount of correspondence, I’ve never received an email from him in two months. I click on.

‘Ladies and Gentlemen, bearing in mind our duty of care and the importance of appearances in the current competitive business environment we operate in, I have resolved to appoint a new team to ensure the highest standards are maintained at our head office in Bordeaux, and also in our production centres of Narbonne and Beaune.’

I take a breath and dive back in. That was a long sentence.

‘Jules CHAPARD, a long serving member of staff here in Bordeaux, has therefore been nominated, with immediate effect, to supervise all cleaning rotas. I trust this will boost morale and help us to achieve our results. With my very best wishes, Marcel VILLA.’

I have another read. Should maintenance be the direct responsibility of the company’s heir apparent? And why does he write family names in capitals like in old fashioned French school registers?

A few lines below, I find an email from Ed. He’s forwarded Marcel’s message to the export team within two minutes of receiving it and he’s copied Marcel in.

‘Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d like to draw your attention to Marcel VILLA’s recent email, which I’m forwarding to you. Maintenance matters are often overlooked in large organisations and I’m delighted with Marcel VILLA’s personal involvement in the matter. I hope that, each in your own capacity, you’ll do your very best to help with this new initiative. I’ll send a message of congratulations to Monsieur CHAPARD on behalf of the export team and assure him of our support in his future mission. Onwards and upwards, Ed.

PS: Don’t forget to update your monthly forecasts by Monday at the latest. There will be a prize draw with six bottles of wine to be won at the next export meeting but only for those who’ve submitted on time.’

I feel vaguely nauseous.

I take a deep breath and press the speed dial for André’s mobile. After three rings, I get his answering machine.

‘Monsieur Lange, this is Chris Legerot again. I’m afraid there’s been a new development with The Super-Market. Rachel has invited us to visit her and her boss in Leeds in two weeks’ time. I’m sorry it’s such short notice. Could you please call me back?’

I put the phone down as soon as I’ve finished my sentence as if there was a risk André would come on the line mid-message. I sit back and stretch, luxuriating in my lucky escape when my mobile vibrates.

My heartbeat speeds up and I hunch forward, tensing up.

‘Chris Legerot.’

‘Arnaud Vidal asked me to confirm your meeting with him next Monday at eight thirty in his office.’

‘Monday?’

‘He said it should take two hours.’

I repeat. ‘Two hours.’

I put the phone down. ‘I’ve been summoned.’

Mary and Philippe nod in unison, keeping their eyes on their screens.

I open a new email from Ed. It’s the latest company organisation chart, marked confidential.

It is huge and impossible to read without the magnifying function of my computer. I look straight at the top, which only shows two boxes sitting on top of each other: the upper one names Marguerite Villa as Chairman of the group, as can be expected. The one below is blank. Surely that is where Marcel’s name should be.

‘Mary, do you have Villa’s previous organisation chart? Not the one we received today.’

‘Didn’t you get it when you joined?’

I shake my head.

‘Don’t send it to me. Just tell me who is second in command to Marguerite, please.’

Mary squints at her screen.

‘I’m not sure. There is a box under hers but without a name.’

I search for Marcel Villa in the rest of the chart and find him on the next level down, together with eight others. His box is the only one without a title. Still no mention of Arnaud. Does that mean he is the mystery man at the very top?

André Lange shows twice, on the same level as Marcel, once as export director (China) yet not reporting to Ed, and once as “director” with no other qualifier but an impressive number of direct reports. This confirms what I understand of his importance within the company.

While I am at it, I look at the rest but even though I double and then triple check the export markets listed I can’t find any mention of the States or Canada. I make a mental note to ask Ed if both countries are considered by Villa as former French colonies, the one explanation I can think of.

The chart also shows Ed reporting to both Marcel and André, something I was not aware of. I start mulling over these anomalies when I notice an even bigger one:  Villa doesn’t have a human resources department. I inspect the document again, unable to believe a company employing thousands of people can do without but I have to accept the evidence of my own eyes.

I shiver.

Philippe stands up.

‘Somebody walked over your grave? I am off to M&S. Do you need anything?’

I compose myself. ‘Could you get me a Mediterranean salad, a small seeded roll and some oranges, please? While you’re there, would you mind grabbing a bottle of milk? And maybe a lasagne for tonight?’

Mary chips in. ‘Could you get me a sandwich as well, please? And an apple. A yellow one, not a red one.’

Philippe sits down and picks up a pad and a pen.

‘Start again. If both of you want me to do your weekly shop, I’ll have to write it down.’

‘Do you mind? It means I can wait till tomorrow to do a proper shop,’ I say.

‘As long as you pay me back.’

‘I owe you £3 from last week, I’ve not forgotten.’

‘He won’t let you forget,’ says Mary. ‘I swear he has some Scottish blood.’

Philippe wags his finger at her. ‘You may not get any lunch today if you badmouth me.’

I smile at his retreating back and at Mary.

I call Ed to give him an update on The Super-Market and to tell him about my meeting with Seb and Arnaud.

‘Have you seen a ghost?’ asks Mary after I put the phone down.

‘I’m confused. Ed knows nothing of Arnaud Vidal’s appointment. He says his name means nothing to him.’

‘If he comes from the coffee business, it’s not that surprising, is it?’ Mary always has an excuse for everything and everybody.

I swivel round in my chair to face her. ‘I’m not saying he should know the man but I was expecting him to have heard of his posting here.’

 She shrugs. ‘Talking of The Wine Shop, will you go to the Edinburgh wine fair?’

‘When is it?’

‘Last weekend in November, in time for punters to stock up for Christmas.’

‘Do I need to go?’

‘It’s hard work but the party on the Saturday evening makes up for it.’

‘What about you?’

 ‘I’d prefer not to go if it’s OK. I’ve got something else planned that weekend. You could go with Philippe.’

‘Does everybody from The Wine Shop go?’

She blushes. ‘Most people. Sébastien never went.’

I wonder if everybody includes Tim. He must be fun to party with. All of a sudden I’m looking forward to the end of November.

Photo by Hello I’m Nik 🎞 on Unsplash

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