Arnaud jabs his index finger at me. ‘I will fulfil the mission Madame Villa has given me.’
I’ve been in his office since eight thirty and I’m starting to fidget.
‘I won’t share my success with anybody,’ he says.
I am tempted to ask, ‘Which success?’ but think better of it. I need to get out of here. Mondays are busy days. God only knows what my inbox will look like when I finally get around to looking at it.
‘Is Madame Villa pleased with your work so far?’ he asks.
I flinch. ‘I have not spoken to her since I joined Villa. I report to the European export director, Ed de Waast, who reports to Marcel Villa.’
I am not keen to share my childhood memories of Marguerite Villa with Arnaud.
Arnaud slaps his desk hard and burst out laughing. ‘You’ll get nowhere in the group if you haven’t got access to Madame Villa.’ He pauses. ‘Why does André Lange dislike you?’
‘Do you know each other?’ I ask.
‘He called me on Friday to congratulate me. I mentioned your name and he said I should be wary of you.’
He looks me up and down as if searching for evidence of the threat I could represent for somebody like André Lange.
I shrug. ‘Monsieur Lange has been working for Villa a long time. I am a newcomer.’
Arnaud leans back in his chair, stroking his chin. ‘Your name rings a bell though.’
I open my mouth and close it again. I don’t trust Arnaud enough to tell him my father used to be his boss’ lieutenant.
‘I may be able to help you,’ he says.
I remain silent.
He shrugs. ‘Go now, I need to do some work.’
I knock at Jen’s open door.
‘Have you been in the lion’s den all this time?’ she asks.
‘How do you know?’
‘Dave,’ she says.
‘I thought you hated him.’
‘Doesn’t mean I don’t talk to him.’ She winks at me. ‘Especially when I have been away for a week and he owes me big time.’
‘Well, what’s the gossip according to Dave then?
‘Is Arnaud your new boss?’
I shake my head. ‘He spent the last two hours trying to cow me into submission. He wouldn’t have bothered if he were.’
‘You don’t like him, do you?’
‘Look, I don’t want to put you off him. He means well, and he’ll be more effective than Seb.’
‘I’m due to see him this morning.’
‘I’ll leave you to it then. Lovely tan by the way!’
I make it to the door and turn around. ‘Are you going to the Edinburgh tasting?’
‘We have too many suppliers attending for me not to go. Why do you ask?’
‘No particular reason. Mary tells me it is a good party.’
‘Not one I am looking forward to this year,’ she says.
I escape back to my office.
‘Good afternoon,’ says Philippe when I walk in.
‘Very funny,’ I say. ‘I’ve been stuck in Arnaud’s office since I arrived.’
‘Dave tells me you left twenty minutes ago.’
‘Not you as well,’ I say.
I pick up the phone. ‘Serge?’
A gargle answers me.
‘Are you in the middle of a tasting?’
‘Give me five. I’ll call you back from my office.’
I turn to Mary. ‘Could you please send samples of The Super-Market’s red to Corkwise please?’
Mary repeats the last word of my sentences when she doesn’t know what I’m talking about.
‘The independent lab. Look them up in Harpers’ directory.’
The phone rings.
‘I wasn’t on my own,’ says Serge.
‘Have you seen André since Friday?’
‘He’s not budging if this is what you’re hoping for. Something strange is going on though.’
‘I’m all ears.’
‘Remember the guys you saw in reception and you asked me about? You were right: they’re directors of the co-operative, which supplies the bulk wine for The Super-Market’s red to us. I bumped into one of them this weekend.’
‘The joys of living in the countryside…’
‘Listen to me. He told me André is blaming the co-op for the quality issue.’
‘A quality issue he’s yet to acknowledge.’
‘That’s what doesn’t make sense. How can he blame a third party for a problem whose existence he denies?’
‘Could it be because he is a lying bastard?’
‘He’s not. I’ve worked with him for ten years.’
‘Look, I’m doing my best to help you. But André must have his reasons. You have to be patient.’
I put the phone down wishing I could inspire such loyalty.
It rings again within a minute.
‘Why don’t we deal with Sainsbury’s?’
‘Good morning Arnaud,’ I say.
‘We saw each other less than an hour ago. Answer my question.’
‘I wish I knew.’
‘Have you met Justin King?’
I pick up a blue pen and start doodling on the invoice on top of my to-do pile. ‘I did, fifteen years ago, when he was at Asda.’
‘The Director of the Banque Populaire tells me he’s the boss at Sainsbury’s.’
I give a hat and a big umbrella to the character I’ve drawn. ‘I doubt he’d take my call if I tried to contact him. I talk to the BWS team.’
‘Beer, Wines and Spirits.’ Big clouds are now taking shape on the page in front of me. I change pen to colour them black.
‘In Africa, you go to the top.’ Arnaud’s voice is peevish.
‘Here it’s more a question of how much you want to spend. The higher you go in the hierarchy, the more it costs you.’
He put the phone down without so much of a thank you or a goodbye.
The rest of the week and the next one pass in a blur.
André still refuses to admit The Super-Market’s red is faulty. As I can’t accept liability on behalf of the company without his agreement, I remain evasive with Rachel who’s becoming increasingly frustrated with me.
Corkwise confirms my assessment of the wine but Serge pleads with me to keep the information to myself for the time being.
Ed tries to help, demanding answers from André and, I quote, “a more proactive attitude, worthy of a collaborative frame of mind”. André sends him packing. Marcel Villa, when informed, refuses to get involved, saying his mother is on the case.
Arnaud uses me as an unpaid directory enquiries service as well as a sounding board for his ideas. He calls me up to ten times a day, always on loudspeaker, never introducing himself and dispensing with courtesies such as ‘how are you?’ or even ‘good morning’. He then puts the phone down on me without saying goodbye.
I sometimes try and second guess when he’s coming to the end of a conversation to beat him to it. It doesn’t always work.
If my landline is busy, he tries my mobile and vice versa. If he can’t get through on either, he calls Mary. I overhear him once while on another call.
‘Where is she?’
‘Hello. Good morning. Is this Mr Vidal?’ Mary asked.
‘Is she in?’
‘I am afraid Chris is in a meeting.’
‘Tell her to call me when she’s done.’
She’s terrified of him as is half of The Wine Shop’s staff. He’s had the whole team in his office one by one, starting every single interview with the same question.
‘What do you do?’
One well-brought-up employee misunderstood him and answered,
‘How do you do?’
He paused and pointed at her.
‘I ask questions. You answer. What do you do? Your job?’
Jen asks me if Arnaud is only rude in English or also in French. I confirm his manners are poor in both languages.
Yet he’s more popular than Seb. He engages with his team albeit in a blunt way and his ambition to turn The Wine Shop’s fortunes around echoes with the wishes of everybody in Kingston.
It puts me in an awkward situation. I’d like to share in some of my colleagues’ new-found optimism that they have, at last, found the leader who will return the company to its former glory, but I doubt Arnaud’s crude tactics will be enough to regain the interest of British wine drinkers. They have moved on and it would take a huge outlay of well-funded marketing genius to entice them back to The Wine Shop, where they started on their road of vinous discovery, back in the eighties.
It’s even worse when I talk to other people in the trade as I must toe the company line and pretend all is well at The Wine Shop. It reminds me of the 1935 song “All is very well, Madam the Marchioness”, my great aunt used to sing. The marchioness of the title calls her servants during her holiday, to be told all is well except for the death of her grey mare. She then learns it died in the blaze which destroyed her stables. The fire had spread from the main building where it was started by the Marquis who shot himself after finding out he’d lost his entire fortune. The chorus,
‘Tout va très bien,
Madame la Marquise.
Tout va très bien, tout va très bien’
is repeated between each revelation. The song was written to deride the attitude of most French people towards Germany in the mid 1930’s.
Arnaud is no Hitler but I wish I could find it easier to delude myself it will end well for all concerned. Despite the amount of time I devote to answering his questions and foiling his creative outbursts, I am not privy to his rescue plan and sometimes wonder if he has one.
I spend the weekend trying to avoid children intent on ransoming me in the name of Halloween and drive to Gatwick airport on a grey Monday afternoon to pick up André and Jean Jacques for our meeting with Rachel the following morning.
‘Do we have far to go? André asks, making himself comfortable in the front seat of my car. His pungent eau de toilette and his coffee induced halitosis force me to breathe through my mouth.
‘About four hours, depending on the traffic,’ I say.
‘Can you turn that off,’ he says, pointing at the car radio. ‘I can’t understand a word.’
‘They speak too fast.’
He makes a pillow of his raincoat and falls asleep. My mobile rings while I’m negotiating the M25 traffic.
‘How much does a moped cost?’ Arnaud has had a new idea.
I am in the process of admitting my ignorance when the phone goes dead. Twenty minutes later, it rings again. André is still asleep.
‘How many corner shops in the UK?’
‘Fifty thousand?’ I say, keeping an eye on the Mercedes overtaking on my right.
‘No idea. Maybe twenty thousand. Why?’
‘If they each sell a bottle of wine a day, that’s seven million bottles a year.’
‘Assuming they’re all licensed.’
‘What’s a licence?’
I explain you need a licence to sell alcohol in the UK.
He grunts ‘Are you sure?’
When I refuse to dignify his question with an answer he hangs up. We make it to Leicester before he calls back.
‘Thanks.’ I smile at the rear-view mirror.
‘Most of them are licensed. They sell a lot of wine. The one, down the road from where I live, tells me he shifts two cases on a Friday evening.’
‘Arnaud, you live in South Ken. That’s not representative of the UK.’
André is awake. He taps me on the arm, pointing at a lorry in front of us and signalling I should overtake.
‘The shops around the office do well too,’ Arnaud says.
‘Why the sudden interest in corner shops?’
‘We should sell them Villa wines.’
‘We do through Booker and Bestway.’
‘Never heard of them.’
‘They’re cash and carries. They sell to corner shops.’
‘Not seven million bottles. I say we get half a dozen guys on mopeds to call on all corner shops, pay them on commission and if it fails, you get rid of them after six months.’
I grip the steering wheel with both hands. ‘Why me?’
‘I can’t hire them at The Wine Shop, I’d have a riot on my hands. You do it. Where are you now?’
‘On my way to see a client.’
‘Come and see me when you’re back and we’ll sort out the details.’
The line goes dead. I grab a pen and scribble “7M btles” on my left hand while trying to keep the car on the road.
Jean Jacques is still snoring in the back seat.
‘Who was that?’ André asks.
‘The Wine Shop’s new boss, Arnaud Vidal.’
‘The African? Talented guy, isn’t he?’
I look at André. He is staring ahead, his face as inscrutable as ever.
‘I didn’t know you two had met,’ I say.
He chuckles. ‘You don’t know everything.’
He is lying.
‘Arnaud is creative,’ I say.
‘Will he succeed?’
I shrug. ‘He only arrived two weeks ago.’
It is the first time André asks for my opinion. I glance at him sideways. There’s a deep frown between his eyebrows and he is tapping his lower lip with his index finger.
‘Madame Villa likes people who deliver results,’ he says. ‘I do.’
‘I haven’t met her yet,’ I say.
He pauses and looks at me. ‘Yes, you have, Christine.’
I keep my eyes on the road and grip the steering wheel tight. My mother is the only one who calls me Christine now. Even my brother uses Chris.
‘You knew my father, then?’
‘He hired me.’
A thousand questions swirl through my brain.
‘Your father was devoted to Madame Villa and utterly loyal to the company’
I nod. I feel like crying and now isn’t the time.
‘I saw his obituary in Sud-Ouest. You joined Villa very soon afterwards, didn’t you?’
‘Does Madame Villa know who I am?’ I ask.
He chuckles. ‘Madame Villa knows everything. But she’s passed on some of the day-to-day responsibilities of the business to her son and she found out too late you’d been hired. Marcel never knew your father.’
‘What do you mean, too late?’ I ask.
‘Are we there yet?’ Jean Jacques asks.
The smell of his rancid sweat wafts over me.
André grips my arm and whispers in my ear. ‘There’s nothing to be gained from stirring up the past.’
He turns around. ‘You snored,’ he says to Jean Jacques. ‘Give me your phone. My battery is dead.’
He stays on the phone for the rest of the journey.
Dinner is torture. I’m desperate to continue my conversation with André but Jean Jacques proves impossible to shake off. All attempts to agree a strategy for tomorrow’s meeting with Rachel also fall on deaf ears.
My choice of white wine, a Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc, fails to please my companions. What I call exotic and herbaceous, Jean Jacques describes as the stink of overcooked asparagus. André says that if this is the best Kiwis can do, Sancerre has nothing to fear. The two of them snigger in complacent agreement. Despite having no loyalty to New Zealand, I feel like screaming. I’ve heard so many similar comments from stick-in-the-mud French people about Australian wines in the days before Jacob’s Creek, Penfolds, Wolf Blass, Hardy et al proved them wrong.
Both men send their meat back for being overcooked and complain about their vegetables not being cooked enough. They make loud disparaging comments about the décor, the cutlery and the other guests. I spend the entire meal apologising to the waitress.
Breakfast is worse. I’d hoped to enjoy my cereals in peace by going downstairs as early as possible, but I’d forgotten my colleagues are still on French time. We sit together like prisoners on a virtual chain gang. André spends most of his time barking loud instructions in French into his mobile to the annoyance of people around us. I catch a few British sighs and raised eyebrows but nobody’s bold enough to ask him to stop.
Jean Jacques is mute. He eats little, chewing every morsel of food for ages and swallowing as if his throat is on fire. I try not to look at him as his anxiety is so palpable as to be contagious. My resentment towards him is turning into pity.
We’re walking towards the entrance to The Super-Market’s offices when my mobile rings. It’s Ed. ‘Chris, where are you?’
‘Good morning Ed. We’re about to go and see Rachel and her boss.’
‘Who’s “we”?’ he asks in a high-pitched voice.
‘Monsieur Lange, Jean Jacques and myself,’ I say, turning towards my colleagues.
‘Don’t you think I should be there? I only found out about your meeting this morning when I called the London office.’
‘I’m sorry Ed, I thought you’d discussed it with Monsieur Lange.’
‘As if!’ he says. ‘We’ll talk about this when you’re next in Bordeaux.’
I am next in Bordeaux for my probation appraisal, which coincides with an export meeting at the end of November. The last thing I need is for another item to be added to the list of my shortcomings.
‘Was that your young boss?’ asks André. ‘He sounded upset.’
He looks very pleased with himself.
‘Didn’t you tell me you’d discuss today’s meeting with him?’
‘Did I? You know what, I may have forgotten.’
He saunters towards the revolving doors, dragging Jean Jacques behind him. He pauses as we pile in and turns towards me. ‘Don’t worry, he’ll get over it.’