It’s raining hard when we leave The Super-Market, which allows André to comment on the British weather and the folly of anybody who chooses to live here. I ignore the dig and suggest we get on to the motorway and stop at the first services for a debriefing.
‘Will I be able to buy a decent coffee?’ he asks. ‘The foul beverage your Rachel made me drink has given me stomach cramps.’
I refrain from telling him the coffee dispensed by the vending machine in Narbonne isn’t any better.
As soon as we’re in the car, he turns to Jean Jacques.
‘Have you ever seen anything like the woman in the lift? What can she have been eating to get to such an enormous size?’
‘She may be ill,’ I say.
‘Imagine being married to that!’
Jean Jacques sniggers in the back.
André continues, ‘Did you notice the shoes Rachel was wearing? Walking boots! In the office! English women are so masculine. No wonder all English men are gay.’
Since they arrived, we have covered the weather, food and drink, British women’s fashion and British men’s sexual orientation. André hasn’t left any cliché untouched.
I left my mobile in my pocket and it rings as we pull into Woolley Edge Services.
I pick up while trying to keep the car on the road. André tuts but keeps his hands in his pockets.
‘Arnaud, can I call you back in five minutes? I am about to stop at a petrol station.’
‘Did you get my message?’
I drop the phone on my lap milliseconds before I pass the police patrol car posted at the entrance of the car park.
‘Arnaud Vidal again?’ asks André. ‘He must like you a lot.’
I glare at him.
‘I must phone him back. Do you mind waiting for me inside?’
Once they’re gone, I lower the window to get some fresh air. The smell of exhausts and cold rain on tarmac provides a welcome alternative to André’s eau de toilette and Jean Jacques’s body odour. I stretch as much as I can, pressing the palms of my hands against the soft ceiling of the car and call my voicemail.
Arnaud’s voice, ‘We need new wines. What The Wine Shop buys from Villa won’t sell in corner shops.’
‘Hi Chris, Mary here. Hope The Super-Market went well. Sorry to bother you but Arnaud seems keen to talk to you. I have told him you’re away but he’s called twice already.’
Arnaud again, ‘I am thinking a Pinot Grigio, a Sancerre, a Rosé, maybe a Bordeaux. Call me back.’
The fourth message consists of an indistinct jumble of sounds. I assume he’s pressed the redial button by mistake.
‘Where the hell are you?’ asks the fifth one and after a beep ‘Can we do a sparkling Pinot Grigio rosé from Bordeaux?’
Another beep. ‘Where are they from, these corner shop people, which countries? We must hire salesmen from the same origin.’
And finally, ‘HR tells me we can’t specify ethnic origin on job adverts. Is it true?’
A mixture of dread and irritation fills my mind as I dial his number.
‘Why doesn’t Villa do a Pinot Grigio?’ he asks the moment he picks up.
I drum my fingers on the steering wheel. ‘It’s an Italian variety, mostly grown in Italy, Eastern Europe and some New World countries. Villa only sells French wine.’
‘Can you find French growers who’d be willing to give it a try? It sells huge volumes.’
‘There’s some in Alsace but it’s called Pinot Gris and it isn’t cheap.’
‘What about Sancerre?’
I wonder for an instant if he is proposing to plant Pinot Grigio in Sancerre but realise he’s moved on.
‘Sancerre comes from the Loire. Villa has wineries in Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Languedoc. It would be difficult for us to source good quality Sancerre in significant quantities. We don’t have the contacts.’
‘Why are you always so negative?’
I close my eyes. ‘You’re asking for the impossible. I am trying to explain to you how things work. What do you need these wines for, anyway?’
‘I told you, to sell to corner shops. We need strong names.’
‘Surely you must have a Pinot Grigio and a Sancerre in your range.’ I say.
‘I want to source these wines from Villa, brand them The Wine Shop and sell them everywhere in the UK. We could hit ten million bottles in a matter of months.’
I pause to absorb the enormity of his plan.
‘This is not what The Wine Shop is about,’ I say.
‘I don’t care,’ Arnaud says. ‘Whatever The Wine Shop is about isn’t working. Our stores are full of wines nobody’s heard of and nobody’s buying.’
I am still digesting his news. ‘What do you mean by everywhere?’
‘Tesco, Sainsbury’s, pubs up and down the country and our own shops of course.’
‘How will you convince Tesco to sell The Wine Shop wines?’
‘They sell pizzas from Pizza Express and coffee from Starbucks.’
I get out of the car and pace the narrow walkway between the lines of parked cars. I yell over the noise of the motorway traffic, ‘It’s completely different!’
A passer-by gives me a sympathetic smile.
‘Marguerite Villa has asked me to turn this business around and I’ll do it with or without you. Goodbye.’ Arnaud’s tone is icy.
I return to the car to compose myself before joining André and Jean Jacques. Sourcing wines from new areas is fine and there’s enough Pinot Grigio around for Villa to buy at a good price. We haven’t got a hope in hell of buying decent Sancerre in bulk though. It’s a small appellation, despite its big name, with few growers willing to sell cheap.
The idea of a big range of own label wines scares me. This is what supermarkets do, not specialist wine merchants. The quality would have to be out of this world and the prices dead keen to make an impact. They’re not going to be either, not with the margins Arnaud needs to keep the business afloat. And why would Tesco or Sainsbury’s want to sell The Wine Shop branded wines? Presenting such a mad project to them would be a waste of time and jeopardise my professional credibility.
But what if I’m wrong? What if I have been so long in this business I have lost all ability to think outside the box?
Papa would know. Even at the end of his career, he retained a great enthusiasm for new ideas. He’d be able to help me stand back from the constant whirlwind that is Arnaud and assess his ideas with the objectivity which eludes me at the moment.
I rest my forehead on the steering wheel. Who else can I turn to? Jen? She’d go straight to Arnaud, asking what he’s playing at. Tim? Are my reasons for wanting to involve him entirely business-like? I have found myself thinking about him more than I should these last few days.
I step out of the car again to try and find André and Jean Jacques inside the building. The latter’s sitting on his own, his hands between his thighs, at a table inside Costa Coffee. He’s looking at two cups of coffee, which look more like salad bowls to me, with a disconsolate frown on his face.
‘Did you need that much perking up?’ I ask.
Monsieur Lange was unsure about sizes, so he went for large. He’s gone to get some more cash.’
I allow myself a little chuckle until I realise André will blame my absence in his hour of need for his overspend. I order a cup of Early Grey and sit down. Ten minutes later, André hasn’t come back. Thanks to Jean Jacques’ unnerving capacity to stay silent in company, it feels like half an hour.
‘Where do you think he’s gone?’ I ask.
Jean Jacques pulls the corners of his mouth down and shrugs without a word.
I take a sip of my tea and stand up. ‘I’ll go find him. Text me if he comes back.’
A queue has formed at the cash point but there’s no sign of André. I pop into WH Smith but he’s not there either. He can’t have gone to the loo again. I am beginning to worry something’s happened to him when I spot a Marks and Spencer Simply Food. I walk in on a hunch even though I can’t think of a reason why he’d need to go shopping now.
André has collared one of the shop assistants. As soon as he spots me, he gestures for me to come over.
‘I’m asking this man where I can find the wine department but he doesn’t seem to understand me.’
‘We’re on the motorway,’ I say.
The shop assistant looks from André to me and back as if he were watching a tennis match.
‘You can buy alcohol in shops and in restaurants on French motorways,’ André says.
‘It doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. I don’t like seeing somebody having a drink and getting behind the wheel straight afterwards.’
André looks at me as if I smell. ‘You’re so foreign,’ he says.
He leaves the shop without so much as a thank you or a goodbye to the bemused shop assistant.
I back out, saying, ‘Sorry, sorry, I am so sorry.’
André is right, no self-respecting French woman would apologise in threes.
‘What did Arnaud Vidal want?’ he asks me as we return to Jean Jacques.
‘He has a new project. I’m not sure about it.’
He frowns. ‘Marguerite Villa rates him.’
‘I am doing my best to help.’
I cross my fingers behind my back.
‘He’s been handed the opportunity of a lifetime with The Wine Shop. Even though coffee has brought her wealth, Madame Villa’s true love has always been wine. She’s never transferred anybody from one business to the other before,’ André says.
‘What if he fails?’ I ask.
‘He’ll be sent back to a smaller African country than the one he came from.’
‘If he succeeds?’
‘I don’t know.’ André sounds glum.
‘What will happen when Madame Villa retires?’ I ask.
He shakes his head. ‘She won’t.’
‘I thought she was in her seventies.’
‘She’s in robust health and Villa is her life,’ he says.
‘Still, it’s an age when anything could happen. My father was only a few years older than Madame Villa.’
I avoid looking at him but he ignores my hint.
‘Marcel will take over.’
‘Does he want to?’
André checks his reflection in a shop window. ‘Loyal and experienced people would help him.’
I wonder how Marcel feels about the prospect of moving from his mother’s tutelage to André’s.
We sit down next to Jean Jacques, who looks relieved to see us. I wonder what he would have done if we’d gone without him. He probably would have stayed huddled in his chair until asked to leave at closing time.
‘Monsieur Lange, I’d like to talk about our meeting with The Super-Market,’ I say.
André smiles at Jean Jacques. ‘Do we have to?’
‘I want to ensure you’re happy with what we agreed with Rachel.’
He winks at Jean Jacques.
‘What did we agree, Chris?’
‘We agreed that the two consignments she complained about were reduced.’ I sound petulant even to my own ears.
‘Did I say that?’ he asks Jean Jacques, stroking his chin.
‘Monsieur Lange, you did,’ I say.
He points his index finger at me. ‘I told her I thought straight away, reduction was the problem. I didn’t say it was my final conclusion.’
My throat tightens. ‘But this is what Rachel expects me to confirm in writing!’
He shrugs. ‘It’s your responsibility.’
I pause, too overwhelmed for words.
André continues ‘As for the haulier invoice you want me to pay in advance, I’d rather wait until we know how much they’re going to charge for the wine they’re refusing to return. Also, it’s not the company’s policy to pay suppliers in advance.’ He leans back as if he were sunning himself, an unlikely prospect indoors, in a cafe on the M1 in November.
I grip the table. ‘They’re not refusing to return it. They’re unable to!’
‘When there’s a will, there’s a way. Why can’t their delivery vans return a few cases to depot?’ he asks.
‘They’d have to pack the bottles in leftover cases, which would take a long time. The vans, as you call them, return to depot empty and there’s a strong likelihood breakage would occur in transport. Also, The Super-Market’s IT system is not designed to allow returns.’
André mumbles, ‘When in doubt, blame technology. I do it all the time.’
I feel like I am reeling in a strong combative fish. ‘The transfer I have asked you to sign is for the return of the stock, which is in depot. Since we don’t deal with transporters in this country, nobody will agree to help us unless they’re paid in advance.’
‘Let me think about it when I am back in the office.’ He stands up. ‘We’d better make a move now. I don’t want to risk missing our plane.’
I drain my tea, which has long gone cold, and follow them back to my car, walking as slowly as I can.
André shouts at me, his hand on the car door, ‘Hurry up! We’re getting wet.’
I sigh and unlock the car. I am not looking forward to another four hours of enforced intimacy with André and Jean Jacques. I like my car free of litter and sweet smelling and it now smells of them. I climb in reluctantly. I wish I could leave them behind and drive away, all windows open, until the last olfactory trace of their presence has gone.
André fiddles with the air conditioning control, without asking for permission, and settles for the ride. While he’s not paying attention, I turn the car radio on again and switch to my Ipod. A French ballad may restore some harmony between us.
‘Demain, je vais sauver le monde . . .’
That song about saving the world is poetic if a touch naive. A snort from André makes me glance at him. He looks angry. He can’t hate pop music that much. I look away.
‘Is this what you want to do, Chris?’ he asks. ‘Save the world?’
‘Isn’t it a worthwhile ambition?’
‘You should know better.’ The bitterness in his voice is unmistakeable. I glance at him again but he’s turned his head towards the window. Jean Jacques has fallen asleep in the back and is snoring again, with his mouth open. The song continues without any further challenges from André.
I am tempted to go straight home after depositing my cargo at Gatwick but decide against it. I have too much to do in the office.
Matt is taking measurements of the car park as I drive in.
‘What are you doing?’ I ask.
‘Jack’s orders,’ he replies.
Everybody at The Wine Shop now calls Arnaud, Jack. It started with Tim calling him the big game hunter, BGH for short. Dave, who apes everything Tim does, misheard him and BGH became BFG. There’s only one tiny step from one Roald Dahl story too another and The Big Friendly Giant turned into Jack and the Beanstalk and then Jack, a name with a short, sharp sound, which suits Arnaud much better than the urbane moniker he was christened with. I struggle not to call him Jack to his face.
‘He’s asked you to measure the car park?’ I ask.
‘He wants to hang an advertising banner for The Wine Shop’s wines on the fence which separates us from the cash and carry next door.’
‘Does he think people who’ve driven all the way here will see the sign, do a U-turn and go and buy wine from The Wine Shop?’
‘He wants to build a prefab next to the fence to sell wine here.’
‘Don’t tell me: he’s seen it done in Africa.’
‘How did you guess?’
I leave him to his new task. Our relationship has improved since we sorted out the small matter of the £9,000 he’d wrongly recharged to Villa. He’s been helpful and pleasant since.
Mary jumps up from her chair when I walk in the office.
She exclaims, ‘Hi, hi, Chris!’ as if my arrival was the highlight of her day. She trots to the filing cabinet behind her, opens it, closes it without taking anything out and returns to her seat.
‘Ants in your pants?’ I ask.
She doesn’t answer.
‘Mary, are you alright?’ I insist.
‘What about you? Did you have a good time?’ she asks the photo of her baby niece that sits on her desk.
‘I went to see Rachel with André Lange and his partner in crime. In which parallel universe could this constitute a good time?’
She blushes and her eyes mist over. ‘Sorry, I wasn’t thinking.’
‘What’s wrong with you?’
Without looking up from his computer screen, Philippe says, ‘Marguerite Villa’s assistant called ten minutes ago. The old bird wants to see you as soon as possible. Mary had a bit of a job explaining you couldn’t go to Bordeaux this week but that you’d be there for the export meeting next week anyway.’
Mary looks at me like it’s the last time. ‘You’re seeing her next Wednesday at five thirty. I didn’t have to change your flights.’
Feature Photo by Quaid Lagan on Unsplash