Serge arrives in Bordeaux just before midnight. After a flurry of phone calls, he joins Philippe and me in the restaurant of the Mercure hotel where we’re staying. While he wolfs down the club sandwich the kitchen agreed to prepare for him despite the late hour, I retrace for him my afternoon conversation with Marguerite Villa. As Philippe and I have finished the 2004 Côtes de Castillon Cap de Faugères we treated ourselves to as a celebration of my survival, I order another one for Serge.
‘She said the money would be wired straight away?’ he asks in between mouthfuls.
I pour myself a large glass of wine.
‘Are you happy about the trade off?’
I snort. ‘Do I have a choice?’
He fishes a piece of bacon from between his front teeth. ‘She’s incredible, isn’t she?’
‘She is. She helped me secure a payment, which should have been authorised weeks ago, in exchange for my support for Arnaud whose ideas and style I dislike. Yet I walk away with a smile on my face and a spring in my step. That’s charisma.’
Serge nods his approval, nose deep in his glass. ‘For a 2004, this is very concentrated. I bet they did some serious thinning out in the vineyard.’
Philippe and I look at each other, shrug and take a mouthful at the same time. The wine is silky and seductive but it doesn’t talk to us of where it’s coming from, like it does to Serge. Papa had the same ability to read into a wine as if it were an open book. I wish I’d inherited it.
‘Come on guys, we need to go to bed,’ I say.
I’m walking towards my bedroom, wondering why Tim hasn’t reacted to the text I sent him after Ed left, when he calls.
‘Hi Frenchie! Sorry it’s late but I wanted to congratulate you in person.’
‘I’m not sure I’ve achieved much.’
His tone hardens. ‘Didn’t you say the old bird treated you like a long-lost daughter?’
‘I may have been overoptimistic. It’s all a bit blurred now. She’s amazing though.’
His voice turns silky again. ‘Have you been drinking, darling?’
‘Not drinking, celebrating. Do you realise how scared I was this morning?’
I wish I could take this last sentence back the minute it’s out of my mouth.
Tim’s reaction is as I expected. ‘Don’t have a go at me. Didn’t your toy boy hold your hand?’
‘Stop it, Tim. Philippe isn’t my toy boy. Can I call you back tomorrow? I am tired now.’
I do an Arnaud on him and cut him off.
Serge catches up with me in the corridor. ‘Are you talking to yourself now?’
‘I’m not. I got a call from a guy from The Wine Shop who thinks he can turn me into his puppet.’
‘A colleague called you at,’ he checks his watch, ‘one o’clock in the morning?’
‘It’s only midnight over there.’
‘Nobody from work should phone you that late.’
Embarrassment silences me. My mind is reeling from tiredness, too much wine and too many contrasting emotions for one day.
‘You’re right,’ I say. ‘Tim is a bit off but. . .’ I can’t think of any way to justify his familiarity so I kiss Serge on the cheek and go hide in my bedroom.
I turn off the air conditioning before I go to bed.
We’re finishing breakfast the following morning.
‘Is Tim still seeing Jen?’ Philippe asks, pushing aside his empty hot chocolate bowl.
‘Tim, as in Tim Foster?’ I say, dipping my croissant in milky tea.
Philippe rolls his eyes. ‘How many Tims do we know who’ve had an affair with somebody called Jen?’
‘Sorry, I’m half asleep. Didn’t I tell you about the monstrous gaffe I made in Narbonne?’
‘They could have got back together since then.’
‘I am sure they’ve not,’ I say.
‘Are these people from The Wine Shop?’ Serge asks.
I nod and take a big bite of my croissant.
Philippe cocks his head to one side and looks at me, sucking his teeth. ‘Tim has been all over you lately. Be careful, the guy’s has a reputation. Jen was not his first conquest in the trade.’
‘You don’t like him, do you?’ I ask.
‘I don’t approve of the way he uses people, particularly women.’
‘Thanks Philippe. You’ve nothing to worry about.’
When we arrive in the office, I feel like Andromeda returning to her father’s court after her near-miss with the sea monster. Some of my colleagues pat my back without a word and others greet me with the serious faces reserved for convalescents. I suspect them to have thought they’d seen the last of me yesterday.
After a round of air kisses, Philippe and I sit next to each other in the second-floor boardroom, which has been set up for the export meeting. Tables have been disposed in a U-shape facing a white screen, which hangs against one of the walls. Blinds have been drawn to cover the large bay windows and brutal fluorescent lights have taken over from the pale winter sun.
Serge drops his bag next to me. ‘I need to go and prepare the tasting. I may be a while. Tell me if I miss anything important.’
‘I’ll be your eyes and ears,’ I say.
Two members of the export marketing team are huddled by the Toshiba overhead projector, ensuring it’s in good working order. The third one totters in, carrying a huge cardboard box. Like magicians and con artists, marketing people need lots of props for their presentations.
The four other European sales managers have already taken their seats and are chatting to each other and checking their emails while sipping dilute coffee from plastic cups and eating mini croissants and pains au chocolat.
What Villa calls Europe includes Africa, a peculiarity that’s justified by the coffee’s interests of the group in that continent. Asia is André Lange’s territory, for which he reports directly to Marguerite Villa. He attends the export meetings only in his capacity as industrial director.
The States and Canada used to be handled by a close friend of Marguerite. Since his sudden death, five years ago, his two sisters have become embroiled in a ferocious legal battle with Villa and the business has gone to pot. This explains the absence of these countries in the organisation chart: I’ve been told any reminder of that unfortunate situation upsets the old lady so much, that it’s been deemed more reasonable to ignore the American continent altogether.
One accountant delegated by the finance director and one of the export assistants, a stick thin lady in her late fifties with an impeccable bouffant hairdo, also sit around the table. She belongs to the generation when a woman living in rural France, however bright, could only aspire to a secretarial job. I’m the only woman in the room with managerial responsibilities. I am single whereas my five export colleagues, including Ed, are all married and have children.
It’s now five to nine.
‘How come none of the bosses have arrived yet?’ I ask Philippe. ‘I thought we were supposed to start at nine.’
Before he has time to answer, Ed rushes in, sweating profusely. ‘Sorry guys, I was with Marcel Villa.’
Bruno, one of the other European sales managers, leans over Serge’s empty seat. ‘Ed insists meetings should start on time but Marcel does his best to make him late. Then he himself arrives a few minutes later to show he’s the boss, which means André Lange turns up even later. If André arrives before Marcel, he leaves at the first opportunity, only to return after Marcel has arrived.’
‘Sounds like playgrounds politics,’ I say.
Ed wipes the sweat off his face with a large white handkerchief. ‘Could you please all stop whatever you’re doing?’ His looks have not improved since the summer. The skin of his face is dried up and shows red patches of what looks like eczema peppered with some angry acne spots. His big blue eyes are bloodshot, giving him the look of a demented sick baby.
‘Since most of you are here, we’ll get started,’ he says.
He reads the order of the day, announcing with quiet confidence we’ll break at ten thirty, then at twelve for the comparative tasting Serge has organised, which will be followed by lunch. We’ll start again promptly at two thirty in order to be done at five thirty.
An anonymous voice pipes up, ‘Make it seven thirty if we’re lucky.’
Ed folds his arms across his chest. ‘I’m going to ignore that childish remark. Will you now please turn off your mobile phones and your laptops unless you’re about to present. I’m sure some of you are expecting phone calls but this is what voicemail is for. As I’ve said on previous occasions, it’s rude not to listen to your colleagues’ presentations.’
A rumble of discontentment runs through the room, accompanied by the sound of various machines shutting down. I seem to be the only one delighted to go incommunicado for a while.
‘Now I have your attention, let’s start with an overview of our results to date and how they compare with the department’s objectives.’
Bruno leans forward, his elbows resting on his thighs. ‘Which objectives are you referring to, Ed? The ones that were agreed in January with your predecessor, or the revised version you sent us in April without any consultation?’
Laughter ripples through the room.
Ed puffs himself up. ‘Which ones do you think, Bruno? Is my predecessor chairing this meeting?’
In the silence that follows, the Eastern Europe sales manager picks up the gauntlet. ‘Bruno’s got a point. Your revised figures do not add up, especially as you’ve not increased any of the supporting budgets.’
Another one joins the fray. ‘April’s far too late in the year to get my distributors to up their targets. I told you weeks ago.’
Bruno adds ‘Look, whichever route to market you look at, there’s no way you can change the rules four months into the year. Can we have a show of hands to see who’s happy with the new deal?’
Nobody raises their hand.
‘Who’s in charge of this meeting?’ Ed asks, wiping his hands on his trousers. ‘Now isn’t the time to discuss your objectives, whether you are happy with them or not.’
Bruno eyeballs him. ‘When would be a good time? I’ve tried to talk to you about this for months.’
Voices rise in support. Ed turns around this way and that on his short bandy legs, trying to keep the mob at bay, hands raised more in supplication than in appeasement. Everybody is talking at the same time and the noise level is deafening.
André’s loud voice silences everybody, ‘What’s going on in here? Monsieur de Waast, is this an export meeting or a cattle auction?’
Ed straightens his tie. ‘We’re having a discussion, Monsieur Lange.’
‘It sounds more like a riot.’ He scans the room and his face darkens. ‘Where’s Marcel?’
‘He’s on his way,’ says Ed. ‘I was with him five minutes ago.’
‘It doesn’t take five minutes to get here from his office. I’ll go get him.’
André slams the door on his way out.
Ed stretches his arms open, Christ-like. ‘Can I please ask you to calm down? I’ve taken your comments on board. It’s a pity you didn’t voice them earlier as it may now be too late to convince Monsieur Villa to revert to the original figures.’
Protests erupt once more around the room. Ed sighs and starts tapping away on his laptop. A huge spreadsheet appears on the screen behind him.
Furious questions ring out.
‘I can’t see anything.’
‘Where do these figures come from?’
Ed puts his hands together as if in prayer. He bows a little. His neck has turned red and his shirt collar looks far too small. ‘I’m going to proceed with my presentation. For the sake of argument, let’s assume the figures I’ve used are correct.’
Amidst the rumble of dissenting voices, I hear the ping of a mobile being turned back on, the modern protest par excellence. Ed flinches. He squares up his shoulders as if he were gathering courage to confront the offender and scans the room.
Two of my colleagues take their laptop out of the bags where they’d dropped them a few minutes ago.
Ed turns back to the screen, defeated.
He is commenting on his first slide when Marcel Villa saunters in, as if on a catwalk, followed by a grim André Lange. Ed stops and waits for them to sit down.
‘Good morning everybody. Please don’t mind us.’ Marcel offers by way of an apology. ‘Did I miss anything?’
‘I was about to embark on the comparison between actual sales and targets,’ says Ed.
Marcel inspects his manicured fingernails. ‘Isn’t that what you’d planned to start with?’
Ed looks like he’s going to cry. ‘It is indeed.’
Marcel frowns and looks at his watch with an exaggerated sweep of the arm. ‘I thought this meeting had been going on for half an hour?’
Ed massages his forehead as if to repel a budding headache. ‘May I carry on?’
He’s hardly turned back to the screen when André’s mobile goes off.
André pushes his chair back with a loud scraping noise, stands up and leaves the room, phone glued to his ear.
Ed manages to talk for forty minutes with no interruptions. Few people appear to be listening. Marcel is fidgeting. His gaze scans the room and he suddenly points at the Eastern Europe Sales Manager’s laptop, demanding in a loud voice, ‘Could you turn that thing off?’
‘I’m presenting in five minutes, Monsieur Villa.’
Marcel mumbles something indistinct and returns to the inspection of his fingernails.
Ed concludes his monologue with an apology for the fact we’re now behind schedule. He suggests we skip the break and move on to the Eastern Europe presentation straight away. He says anybody who’s got urgent phone calls to make can do so now. Bruno leaps from his seat and leaves the room.
‘I have deducted Siberwines’ figures from my total, which is why they’re different from Ed’s,’ the Eastern Europe sales manager says.
‘Since when can you pick and choose your customers?’ asks Marcel Villa.
‘They’re not my customers. I have never even been to Siberia.’
Ed lifts his left hand. ‘We have discussed this before, Monsieur Villa. Siberwines buys otherwise unsalable wines directly from Narbonne at less than cost price. It’s a way for André Lange to eliminate worthless stock from his inventory. The problem is that it shows as loss-making sales in the export department’s stats.’
Marcel twists and turns in his seat. ‘Where’s André when we need him?’
Nobody answers his question. He frowns and bangs on the table, shouting, ‘This is not on! I am sick and tired of Monsieur Lange’s abuses of the system. He doesn’t run the company, you know!’
I keep my head down to avoid looking at Marcel.
He continues venting his fury. ‘I’ll talk to him. Let’s move on.’
He gets a comb out of his pocket and runs it through his hair in little jerky movements.
From the corner of my eye, I notice Philippe’s now rubbing his forehead. Under his hand, his eyes are closed and, like me, he’s trying hard not to burst out laughing.
Ed signals to my colleague to continue and we embark on a second presentation based on skewed figures. Bruno slides back in his seat twenty minutes later.
‘That was a hell of a phone call,’ I say, looking straight ahead.
‘Ten containers, at least. Are you enjoying the circus so far?’ he says in the same deadpan tone.