I slump in my chair and push aside the papers that have accumulated on my desk. Mary has unpacked a wine sample for me and bits of polystyrene cling to the side of the bottle. I pick them off one by one and drop them in the bin until a pointed look from Philippe makes me stop. I open my laptop. Mary keeps on glancing in my direction as if she is expecting me to burst into tears any minute.
I want to meet Marguerite Villa and talk to her about Papa, but now she’s asked to see me, I’m scared. Ed, my useless boss, told me he’s only met her once and it felt more like a social call than a business meeting. She refused to look at the presentation he’d spent hours preparing, protesting she didn’t want to encroach on Marcel’s responsibilities. I need to tell Ed about the meeting. He may know what it’s about.
Arnaud has sent me a rare email. His pathological liking for secrecy means he normally avoids putting anything in writing. I open it.
He explains that, while visiting one of Villa’s wineries, he’s come across a new wine concept which could work for Valentine’s Day. He asks me to call him to discuss pricing and volume. I click on the attached image.
The phone rings.
‘What do you think?’
‘Good afternoon, Arnaud. I have only just sat down. Give me half an hour and I’ll come and see you.’
The line goes dead, which, I assume, means yes.
A ping announces the arrival of a new text on my mobile.
‘Hey Froggy, how did it go up North?’
It’s Tim. I am pleased he cares.
I text back, ‘The meeting with The Super-Market was the easy bit.’
I wait a little but my phone remains silent. I sigh and let my eyes drift back to the computer screen.
The picture of a bottle of Saint Amour, a Beaujolais Cru, fills my screen. The flimsy label features a plump Cupid on a bright red background. A Durex branded wrapper is affixed to the neck of the bottle. Arnaud’s new concept consists of a bottle of wine with a condom attached to it.
‘What’s the matter?’ Philippe asks.
A man’s opinion is exactly what I need.
‘Come over here, please. There’s something I’d like to show you. Mary, you too.’
‘Holy Mother of God!’ Mary says.
‘Fuck me,’ Philippe says. ‘Who sent you that?’
I turn around. ‘What do you think?’
‘If it’s a joke, it’s in pretty bad taste; if it’s a come on, I’d run a mile.’
‘It’s gross,’ Mary says.
‘It’s the latest bright idea from one of our French colleagues.’
Mary’s hand flies to her mouth. She still believes anybody who’s more senior than her in the company knows best.
Philippe goes back to his seat with a disgusted look on his face.
I dial Ed’s number. I need to compose myself before I report back to Arnaud.
‘How did it go with The Super-Market?’ he asks. ‘You could have called earlier.’
‘You’re the first person I have called since coming back.’ This is technically true: texting doesn’t count and Arnaud called me before I had time to think about what I should do next.
I give Ed a detailed account of this morning’s meeting, pointing out the awkward situation André has put me in. Ed tries to provide me with solutions, which I reject one by one. We revisit a number of options I have thought of and discarded. It validates my thought process but it also takes half an hour without really helping. If Villa were a harem, Ed would make the perfect chief eunuch: he tries hard but lacks the necessary equipment to perform.
‘Ed, there’s something else. I’ve been invited to meet Marguerite Villa next week, before the export meeting.’
I repeat, slowly.
‘Do you know why?’ he asks.
‘I was hoping you would.’
‘If she wants to see us, she must have her reasons. You can’t expect me to betray her confidence. In my position-’
‘Us?’ I ask.
‘Well, I’m sure Madame Villa means to involve me. I’m your boss. I was busy earlier on. Her assistant is bound to have tried me while I was on a call. I’ll check my missed calls.’
I put the phone down.
‘Does he know anything?’ Philippe asks.
‘Does he ever?’
‘I remember when Marcel Villa announced his appointment. It was the 1st of April. Everybody thought it was an April’s fool.’
‘You never told me.’
Philippe shrugs. ‘His predecessor wasn’t much better but at least he knew about wine. Ed only knows about shampoos and conditioners.’
‘What was his previous role? All I know is that he used to work for L’Oréal.’
‘He was something in marketing.’
‘I thought he’d worked in sales before.’
Philippe shakes his head. ‘Do you remember the football game?’
Ed had organised for a few of us to go and see a big football match in Stade de France in Paris, days after I joined the company.
Thanks to the randomness of corporate packages, we were sitting two rows in front of Asda’s French wine buyer. I greeted him but kept my distance as he was with a competitor. Ed spent half of the match in a yoga twist, yelling back comments at the poor man. I never took such an interest in the beautiful game as I did that day. To add insult to injury, Ed berated me, as we were leaving the stadium, for failing to exploit such an excellent commercial opportunity. Philippe mimics him to perfection.
Cheered up by the reminiscence, I grab my notepad and announce my intention to go and see Arnaud before something else crops up.
Dave is at his post, fag in hand. ‘You didn’t bring back the big French cheese, then.’
‘He asked me to send his regards. How on earth do you know André Lange was over here?’
He winks. ‘I know everything.’
I take the stairs two at a time, and knock on Arnaud’s door.
He pushes a thick book in a drawer as I walk in. It looks very much like a dictionary.
‘If you need any help with translations, please ask,’ I say.
He pulls up his sleeves slowly and deliberately as if he is about to punch me. His arms are covered in thick blond hairs that curl over his watch. ‘You took your time.’
He points at my notebook.
‘Why did you bring a pad? You’re not a bloody secretary, are you?’
‘I take notes whenever I attend a meeting. How do you expect me to remember otherwise?’
‘I don’t like people who write everything down.’
‘I am afraid that’s the way I work. Brain of an alcoholic,’ I say.
Grumbling something I don’t catch, he plants his elbows on the desk and joins the tips of his fingers together.
‘How many bottles can we sell?’ he asks.
‘Of the St Amour?’
He clicks his tongue as if my question were stupid.
‘I am afraid-’
‘What is it this time? I thought the Brits were famous for their sense of humour.’
I mumble, ‘It’s not funny.’
‘Speak louder, I can’t hear you.’
I take a deep breath and look him in the eyes. ‘It’s not funny. Alcohol and sex, it’s tacky.’
He shakes his head. ‘I’ve never worked with somebody as negative as you. I was warned but still…’
‘What do you mean?’ I ask.
He closes his eyes and waves his hands.
‘I don’t have time for gossip. I’ve prepared a presentation on our new range for your customers. Let me show you.’
He frowns and presses a few keys on his laptop, the tip of his tongue poking between his teeth. If I was not perturbed by his earlier comment I’d be tempted to burst out laughing. The contrast between his thick fingers and the dainty keyboard is comical. Rumour has it that Matt, having been shouted at a few times in the early days of Arnaud’s tenure, took special care, when selecting the requested top of the range machine, to find one with the smallest possible keyboard.
The PowerPoint runs to forty-five slides, not a good start. The title page is basic and to the point. In black characters on a white background, it says “The Wine Shop’s solution for…” I assume the prospect’s name is to be added.
The next slide proclaims “The Wine Shop offers choice of the range”.
‘Someone walked over your grave?’ Arnaud asks without looking at me.
I shake my head.
A few slides further, a line in bold makes me wince again, “You know food, we know wine.”
‘Who is this targeted at?’ I ask.
‘Isn’t it obvious? Tesco, Sainsbury’s, The Super-Market, all that lot.’
I try to imagine Rachel’s reaction to this particular slide but the image gets so vivid, I shudder and close my eyes to dispel it.
A few slides on, a new title catches my eye, “Fridges.”
I frown and point at the screen.
Arnaud sighs and rolls his eyes skywards, ‘In Africa, I launched a successful programme whereas we would supply coffee machines for free in exchange for an exclusive supply agreement. I want to do the same here: supply customers with fridges and fill them with our wines.’
When I open my mouth to intone the familiar ‘We’re not in Africa,’ he throws in his killer argument, ‘don’t tell me it can’t be done in England: Coca Cola does it. I have seen some of their fridges in corner shops and even in your precious Tesco.’
He throws himself back in his chair, hands behind his head.
I remain silent, trying to sort out my objections in some sort of priority order – “we’re not Coca Cola,” being a strong contender for number one – when he asks, ‘When do you think you could make the first appointment?’
I could point out he has no authority over me and that there’s no way I’ll go and present some half-baked megalomaniac scheme to my customers. The problem if I go down that route is that he’ll retaliate in kind and make every single one of my dealings with The Wine Shop as difficult as possible. Also, there’s a fair risk he’ll go ahead with his crazy project with or without me. By remaining involved, I can try and limit the damages he causes to both The Wine Shop and Villa. It’s a classic case of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer.
The obvious flaw in his scheme hits me.
‘What about the wine?’ I ask.
‘What about it?’
‘The new range you want to sell; what is it?’
‘I told you on the phone, big names, Sancerre, Chateauneuf du Pape, White Zinfandel, Pinot Grigio. Wines people recognise and are comfortable to buy in any environment.’
‘These wines don’t exist at the moment, do they?’
He dismisses me with a flutter of his hand. ‘They soon will. I have told my marketing guy, you know, the artist, to talk to you about labels and all that stuff.’
‘Why do you call Tim the artist?’
‘The way he dresses, the way he walks; I’m sure he’s gay.’
I open my mouth and close it again. There’s little to be gained by challenging Arnaud’s vision of the world.
‘Arnaud, we can’t present products that are yet to be created.’
‘Why not? It’s the concept that matters!’
‘British wine buyers are swamped with offers of new products. They’ll never commit to listing something they can’t taste first.’
‘Send them something to taste then.’
‘Do you mean something random?’
‘Of course not, something good! You’re even thicker than usual today. Is it André Lange?’
‘How do you know?’
‘The guy at the door, Dave.’
If I were not so exhausted, I’d burst out laughing.
Arnaud leans forwards and slows down his delivery, ‘We want to get listings. I’m sure we have got some decent Sancerre on our shelves. Ask Jen, or if you must, try a few and send the one you think is best.’
‘I can’t do that, Arnaud. It would be unethical.’
He frowns, pulling down the corners of his mouth. ‘I don’t see how. It’s business.’
‘Not as it’s practised here.’
‘If this offends your principles, just get a move on and make sure my new range is ready as soon as possible. How long do you need? Two weeks? Four?’ The finger wagging starts again. ‘I tell you what; I insist on it being ready for Christmas. I have looked at last year’s figures and that’s when we sell the largest volumes.’
It’s my turn to speak very slowly now. ‘Arnaud, this is impossible. We’re in November. A new range takes months, not weeks to develop. Also, wine happens to be made once a year, not when it suits.’
‘You and the artist deal with it. I have left Jen out of the loop, by the way. She’s turning into a royal pain in the arse. If we involve her, she’ll try to persuade us to buy from her usual sources rather than from Villa.’
‘She’s paid to source the best wines for The Wine Shop. You can’t blame her for doing her job.’
‘I’m not blaming her but I’m not involving her. Don’t go blabbing.’
‘I don’t blab. I simply can’t understand how you can launch a major new range behind your buyer’s back.’
I have let my anger show and Arnaud reacts, his sausage index finger pointing at me. ‘I’m the one making the decision here and I don’t care if you don’t like or understand them. Jen has no company loyalty.’
‘That’s not fair. She’s ultra-loyal to The Wine Shop.’
‘Precisely! Villa’s paying her wages even if it says The Wine Shop on the payslip.’ He put his hand on the phone. ‘Have you got all you need?’
I stand up. ‘Will you send me your presentation? No rush but it needs tidying up.’
‘I don’t want you to change everything.’
‘The English needs improving.’
He shakes his head. ‘That’s not a priority. Get started on the range.’
I leave Arnaud’s office, closing the door with exaggerate care behind me. I rub my temples with the tips of my fingers to try and sort out the jumble of thoughts in my brain. As I turn around, I bump into Tim who’s standing in the middle of the corridor, arms folded across his chest.
He smiles and says, ‘Try banging your head against the wall, it doesn’t solve anything but the pain is different. Have you got a moment?’
I nod and follow him to his office. ‘Were you waiting for me?’
‘Yes. I tried to call you but Mary told me you’d gone to see his nibs. She asked me to mount a rescue operation if you hadn’t come out by six o’clock.’
‘I’m ever so grateful.’
‘She had to leave early tonight. I can’t let you return to your office and spend time on your own with young Philippe at such a late hour. I have no choice but to entice you to my den.’
Jen’s image comes into my mind uninvited. ‘Are you a safer option than Philippe?’
He turns around. I only just manage to avoid colliding into him again. I am staring at the hollow at the base of his neck. A vein is pulsating there under his skin.
‘What do you think?’ he asks.
I am too flustered to think of a suitable repartee. The ring of my mobile saves the day.
Tim throws his arms in the air, ‘Here’s the French lover!’
Serge continues, blissfully oblivious to his new nickname. ‘I hear you’ve had the royal summons.’
‘How do you know?’
‘André told me.’
‘How does he know?’
‘Marguerite Villa told him. He speaks to her every day, sometimes several times a day.’
‘Did he say why she wants to see me?’
‘That’s why I am calling. She wants to talk about The Super-Market’s red.’