Philippe and I leave Kingston together. No point in taking two cars when airport car parks charge such extravagant rates. Between the two and a half days in Bordeaux for my meeting with Marguerite Villa, followed by the export meeting, and The Wine Shop’s wine fair in Edinburgh, we’ll be away for five days. The fair gives me the perfect excuse not to visit Maman in Arcachon. If I lose my job, it’ll be easier to tell her on the phone.
I drive and talk, trying hard to sound cheerful. I turn up the volume of the radio and sing along to James Morrison’s “Wonderful World”.
‘I have been down so low
People look at me and they know
They can tell something is wrong’
‘And I know that it’s a wonderful world
But I can’t feel it right now
Well I thought that I was doing well
But I just want to cry now’
He turns the volume right down.
‘I’ve told you already. Singing isn’t what you do best and this song isn’t going to lift your spirits.’
‘I’m absolutely fine.’
‘Then you’re a much worse driver than I thought. It’s the second light you jump and you almost ran over an old lady in Surbiton. I’m not letting you drive when we arrive in France.’
Arnaud calls. ‘Where are the labels for my new range?’
‘Have you spoken to Tim?’
‘He’s out of the office.’
I swerve to avoid a cyclist. ‘I thought he was in today.’
‘The girl in his office tells me he’s gone to the bank.’
‘He’ll be back soon then. Why don’t you try him in half an hour?’
There’s something pathological about Arnaud’s inability to wait for anything. He wastes a phenomenal amount of his time and everybody else’s chasing up people. If the person he calls doesn’t answer the phone, he tries somebody else, even though they may not be in a position to help.
The flight is uneventful except for the elderly gentleman sitting next to me, who farts silently but at regular intervals throughout the journey. Since I checked myself in the window seat, I can’t even ask the air hostess to move me to a more salubrious seat. He’d hear me. The plane is full anyway. Philippe sits a few rows back, earphones plugged in, oblivious to my plight.
He remembers his pledge though. When we land in Bordeaux under a low cloudy sky, he refuses to let me add my name to the rental car contract. For a split second, I wonder if he’s been told he’ll have to take me back to the airport earlier than planned.
The beautiful tanned young woman who welcomed me at the Avis counter back in July has been replaced by a dour, thin-lipped older version. Her face, crisscrossed by hundreds of fine lines, is a warning against sun exposure.
The car park smells of exhaust fumes and wet everything. The pine trees have gone to sleep for the winter. Since I’m banned from driving, I fiddle with the car radio. Once I have located Cherie FM, I sit back to enjoy the music. Michel Jonasz’s “Y’a Rien Qui Dure Toujours” – Nothing lasts forever -,
is followed in quick succession by Serge Gainsbourg’s “Je Suis Venu Te Dire Que Je M’en Vais” – I came to say I’m leaving -,
and Alain Souchon’s “L’horrible Bye-Bye”.
Philippe gives an exasperated sigh and asks, ‘Can you try to find something a bit less gloomy?’
‘You can’t blame me for Cherie FM programming,’ I say.
I try to find a jollier soundtrack to our journey. I cut short Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence”, assuming ‘Hello darkness my old friend’ won’t gain Philippe’s approval and settle on RFM.
I sing along to The Ting Things’ “Shut Up and Let Me Go”,
‘I ain’t freakin’
I ain’t fakin’ this‘
Philippe nods along.
Travis’ “Why Does It Always Rain On Me?” heralds a return to doom and gloom.
Philippe reaches across and turns the music off.
My mobile vibrates.
‘I can’t find him.’
‘Arnaud, I’m in Bordeaux and I’m not Tim’s minder. His trip to the bank may be taking longer than planned.’
‘He came back but he’s vanished again.’
I turn my phone off. If I get the sack, Arnaud will have to find somebody else to badger anyway.
Villa’s head office has had a good clean since my previous visit. If this is the work of the new maintenance manager, his efficiency verges on the superhuman. The classic eighteenth-century facade, which rises three floors above the Quai des Chartrons, has been returned to its original pale golden colour. We drive through the entrance gate and I point at a parking space in front of the main building.
‘Are you serious?’ Philippe asks.
‘This is where I parked last time I was here.’
‘Nobody parks here but Marguerite, the members of her board and André Lange.’
Something else I got wrong without even knowing about it.
‘How are you supposed to know?’ I ask.
He shrugs. ‘You find out, one way or the other.’
Despite our musical differences, he offers to accompany me to my meeting with Marguerite but I turn him down. If I’m about to get the sack, there’s no point in compromising him by association.
I try to do some work but I can’t sit still. I embark on a tour of the building, calling on my Bordeaux colleagues, searching their faces for clues about my fate. Rumours circulate fast. If I am for the chop, somebody here will have prepared my exit paperwork and he or she is bound to have told someone else in confidence. The classified nature of the information will have ensured its rapid spread.
Ed didn’t phone me back after our last conversation and hasn’t returned my calls. He sent me a short email the day before yesterday, saying he and Marcel Villa would be out of the office today. He didn’t explain why and I see it as a bad omen.
I run out of people to distract and make my way to the small lobby outside Marguerite Villa’s office at quarter past five. I choose the more stable of two old-fashioned revolving leather armchairs, resisting the temptation to scratch at the frayed armrests or to spin around like a bored child. The carpet at my feet is threadbare in places, worn out by the feet of many other anxious visitors before me.
Serge could not shed much light on what I should expect from my meeting with our chairwoman. He’s convinced André has either engineered or sanctioned it, which doesn’t bode well. He reckons however Marguerite Villa would not take it upon herself to fire somebody her son appointed.
I almost told Serge about my family connection with Villa, as I think it explains why Marguerite would want to wield the axe herself. Something held me back though. I have not discussed my father with anybody within the company, apart from André. He seems to be the only one who knew Papa, except for Marguerite Villa.
Arnaud views my impending summit with equanimity. Desperate for any kind of information, I paid him a visit yesterday, hoping he may have heard something. He had not but failed to understand my anxiety. When I tried to explain a meeting with Marguerite Villa could only herald disaster for me, he shrugged, saying he’d met her often and had never found her as difficult as reported outside the company. He said she could be cutting, but only with good reasons. I tried to explain The Super-Market’s red saga to him but realised I’d lost him after five minutes.
My phone pings. ‘Be strong Frenchie, you’re our last hope.’ Tim seems to think I can help The Wine Shop’s cause and his, by ingratiating myself to our chairwoman. He sees my meeting as an opportunity to get straight to the top and pass on crucial messages about what’s needed at The Wine Shop.
I am flattered by the faith he has in me but his lack of concern for my unhappiness disappoints me. I’ve stopped counting the texts, emails and messages he’s bombarded me with, about measures he recommends to save The Wine Shop from sinking into retail ignominy and financial disaster. It’s got to the point where he forgets to flirt with me.
The office door opens suddenly, making me topple sideways.
‘Did I scare you?’ asks a deep gravelly voice.
I jump onto my feet.
She’s tiny. I’d forgotten or maybe I didn’t see it when I was a child. She’s thin rather than skinny, with strong muscular legs. Her face retains the remnants of an earthy, sensuous beauty: her full lips, wide nose and searching dark brown eyes with thick eyebrows exude an intelligence and a lust for life, which make her look younger than her seventy years. Her thick white hair is cut in a flattering loose bob. She’s dressed conservatively in a dark grey knee length skirt, a white blouse and a black cashmere cardigan.
She grabs my hand with both hers. ‘God, you’re tall.’
Her skin is dry and papery but her grasp is firm. I take a deep breath and my eyes close for a split second. She wears Chanel 5, my great aunt’s signature smell. I feel like a child again.
‘I ought to change perfume,’ she says. ‘Chanel 5 has become common, now they advertise it on television. But I have worn it for so long, I’d feel naked without it.’
She walks to her desk. With her back turned to me, she adds, ‘You’ll have to hide your emotions better if you want to survive in business. Is it your mother who wears my perfume?’
I decide my long deceased great aunt may be too ancient for Madame Villa’s taste and acquiesce.
She frowns. ‘That’s odd.’
She gestures at the chair facing her desk. ‘Sit down. I wanted Marcel to join us but he’s disappeared. You can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.’
She looks wistful for a few seconds, picks up a pair of elegant tortoiseshell glasses on her desk and puts them on.
‘How long have you been working for us?’
‘It will be three months at the end of November.’
‘You have caused quite a stir in a short time.’ Her direct gaze rests on me over the glasses.
I look up, unsure of what I should say.
She sits back, her hands crossed on her lap. ‘Do you know what my biggest professional challenge has been?’
I shake my head.
‘People. To find and retain the best. Take André Lange, for example. He’s worked for me for thirty years. I trust him absolutely.’
‘He’d do anything for Villa.’
‘You say that as if you’re not sure it’s a good thing.’
‘I admire his dedication.’
‘It’s important to remain honest, true to yourself.’
She looks at me. ‘Are you accusing André of being dishonest?’
‘Sorry, dishonest is too strong a word. What I’m trying to say is that you should do what’s right rather than what appears to be in the best interests of the company at a given time. It may cost or inconvenience you more initially, but it pays off in the long term.’
She sighs. ‘You remind me so much of your father.’
‘You remember him?’
‘Of course, I do. We built this business together.’
‘He died last spring. It’s one of the reasons I joined Villa.’
Marguerite tilts her head sideways. ‘I shouldn’t have let him go. Did he tell you what happened?’
‘I never asked.’
Marguerite picks up a pen and twirls it between her fingers. ‘Why do you say you joined Villa because of his death?’
‘He was always saying I should work for a French company. I was in Argentina when he fell ill and I didn’t make it back in time to say good bye. When the opportunity to join Villa came along, it felt like fate.’
She examines her pen as if she’d never seen it before. ‘It certainly is an odd coincidence.’
‘Why did my father leave?’
She looks at me and then back at the pen in her hands. Her mouth puckers in a sad little grimace. ‘It’s not a happy story.’ She shakes her head and returns her gaze to me. ‘I have a favour to ask you.’
‘I’d like to know.’
She waves my concern aside. ‘Arnaud Vidal. He’s my last hope as far as The Wine Shop is concerned.’
‘Is it that bad?’
‘I’m not in the habit of losing money. Sébastien is a good man but he’s let the company sink even further than when we took over. Arnaud is energetic and decisive. I have given him carte blanche and six months to turn the business round.’
‘He doesn’t know anything about wine,’ I say.
Marguerite jabs her index finger on her desk. ‘I don’t need a wine connoisseur to run The Wine Shop, I need a businessman.’
‘There are good business people in the wine trade.’
‘Most of them have got jobs and quite a few don’t speak much English.’
‘I am talking about British people.’
She looks at me in askance. ‘Are you suggesting I put a Brit in charge of The Wine Shop?’
I nod, not daring to go further.
She shakes her head. ‘I only appoint people I know to directorships, and I don’t know any Brits.’
‘How long have you lived in London?’ she asks after a few seconds.
‘Coming up to eighteen years.’
‘You like it?’
Marguerite inspects her nails. ‘What would you do if you were in charge of The Wine Shop?’
Her question stuns me. Tim may have been right. I take a deep breath. ‘The Wine Shop is an iconic retail brand. It introduced wine to a whole generation of people whose parents only drank beer or Liebfraumilch. But these people are now buying wine from supermarkets, or Majestic.’
‘They’ve grown more confident. Supermarkets have upped their game in terms of quality and they offer convenience and good deals. Majestic, on the other hand, has been clever with its warehouse concept: by making people buy in bulk, it makes them feel they’re on to a bargain.’
‘And Majestic don’t have to pay extortionate high street rents!’ Marguerite says.
I list action points on my fingers ‘To restore The Wine Shop to its former glory, you first need to flush out all the duff stock which tarnishes the reputation of the brand: all the four-year-old cheap rosés and any wine that is over the hill.’
‘Couldn’t you sell them cheap?’
I sit up straight. ‘If you promote something, you draw attention to it. These wines need to go quietly. Then the range must be cut to make room for new exciting and well-priced wines. Jen hasn’t had any support in the last two years to do it. She’s been treading water while the competition’s moved on and it shows. The range has become unimaginative and dull.’
‘Who would supply these new wines?’
‘It can’t be Villa. The Wine Shop needs to thrive as a retailer in its own right not as a Villa outlet centre.’
Marguerite is looking at me. Is she taking it in?
I unfold my middle finger and plough on, ‘Next, you need to let consumers know what you’ve done to get them back in. There are three ways to do it: well-targeted price promotions, advertising and getting the wine press onside.’
‘Why do you think the British trade press dislikes us so?
I go for the soft version. ‘Villa’s an easy target: it’s a large company, which is perceived as too industrial and powerful to be exciting.’
Marguerite picks up her pen again. ‘Advertising costs a fortune.’
‘Not if we are creative: we could do something viral.’
‘Have you discussed any of these ideas with Arnaud Vidal?’
‘His head of marketing has.’
‘How do you know?’
I feel myself blushing. ‘We talk.’
‘Do you talk to Arnaud?’
I lower my head. ‘He talks and I listen.’
Marguerite points at me. ‘You need to try harder.
I shake my head. ‘He’s got his own ideas.’
‘What do you think of them?’
‘It feels sometimes like he’s trying to do my job and sell Villa wines instead of doing what’s best for The Wine Shop.’
Marguerite smiles at me. ‘Is this why you’re so full of ideas on how to do his job?’
We stare at each other for a while. I look away first.
‘What do you think of the shop managers?’
‘I was an assistant manager at The Wine Shop for a short while when I first arrived in England’
‘I didn’t know that. But that’s part of the problem. We need seasoned retail professionals, not wine enthusiasts who’re here today and gone tomorrow. The Wine Shop seems to be a training ground for anybody who wants to make it in the wine business in the UK.’
I shrug. ‘Does it matter if they’re good at what they do?’
‘It does. You can’t achieve anything in six months.’
‘Isn’t it what you’ve asked Arnaud to do?’
The minute the words are out of my mouth, I regret them. Marguerite looks at me, a deep frown between her eyebrows. I count to three, holding her gaze once more.
She bursts out laughing.
‘I can see why André and Arnaud find you a handful.’
I seem to have got away with murder.
She leans over her desk. ‘Listen young lady, I have another meeting in five minutes so let’s make a deal. The money you need to settle with The Super-Market will be wired today. I’ll tell André to leave you alone. In exchange, I’m asking you to give all the help you can to Arnaud. As you pointed out, he knows little about wine. If you don’t do it for him, do it for me.’
She smiles and stands up, her hand extended.
I get up. ‘Will you tell me what happened to my father?’
She shakes my hand. ‘If you succeed in what I’m asking you to do, you’ll do him proud. He lived and breathed Villa. Remember that.’
I leave her office, feeling a couple of inches taller than when I walked in.
Ed emerges out of nowhere. ‘How did it go?’
‘I thought you were out of the office.’
He waves his hands as if I’d made an irrelevant comment. ‘Did she mention me?’
‘Not that I can recall.’
‘What did you talk about then?’
‘The Wine Shop, André Lange . . . Marguerite said-’
‘Marguerite! May I recommend you stick to “Madame Villa”? Marcel Villa isn’t too happy about your cosy one-to-one with his mother by the way. He’ll join us for your performance review tomorrow evening.’
He turns on his heels, taking my brief moment of elation with him.