We return to the boardroom for lunch. Somebody has pulled up the blinds, and the cold unflattering winter light falls flat on every surface, revealing dust and cobwebs in the corners. The three cardboard crates, in which the plastic trays containing our lunch have been delivered, sit half-torn apart, in the middle of the room, exuding an unpleasant smell of raw meat and wet cardboard.
Caroline and the export assistant hand the trays around and bring proper wine glasses from the tasting room to replace the plastic cups supplied by the caterer.
Ed passes around a bread basket containing individual rolls. None of the other men volunteer to help, except Serge, who plonks wine bottles on the tables, the cover they wore during the blind tasting cut open.
Wiping floury hands on his trousers, Ed announces we’re more than an hour behind schedule and asks us to try and eat as quickly as possible.
Marcel Villa returns. He takes one look at the content of his tray, pulls a face and clicks his fingers at Caroline who’s just taken her first mouthful. ‘Is there something else to eat?’
She jumps up. ‘Sorry Monsieur Villa, is the food not to your taste? We’ve changed caterers since the last export meeting.’
He waves her away and starts picking at his food.
I move aside my laptop and my notebook and pour Philippe and myself a large glass each from the bottle of Errazuriz Don Maximiano Serge allocated us.
‘What did you think of the tasting?’ I ask Philippe.
‘It’s a shocking waste of Serge’s time.’
‘Look at that colour,’ I say.
The ruby red wine in my glass sparkles in the dim ambient light. ‘Why do the others care so little?’
Philippe shrugs. ‘Maybe because their markets are less demanding than the UK? That wine’s a beauty,’ he says, his nose deep in his glass. ‘I can smell cassis in there and truffles.’
I swirl the wine around. ‘You’re right. I also get blueberry, a hint of pepper and green olives.’ I take a sip. ‘Blackcurrant and blackberry on the palate with just a touch of oak. And enough acidity to maintain freshness and elegance.’
Philippe concludes our joint tasting note, ‘It goes on forever.’
We savour our treat in silence while I investigate the content of my tray.
In a hollow on the left sits a limp green salad with pine nuts and smoked Bayonne ham, topped with a slice of melting foie gras, the richness of the dish contrasting with the white bobbled plastic holding it. The seasoning is served in a dainty glass tube with a cork stopper. In the middle of the tray, two slices of roast beef, bright red with a thin grey surround, sport dainty swirls of mayonnaise, which match the pale yellow of the sliced potatoes nestling against the meat. In the bottom right hand corner of the tray, a portion of anaemic camembert leans against a sliver of sweaty Roquefort and an individually wrapped helping of butter. Inches away, a dense chocolate fondant swims in gooey custard, decorated with tightly coiled slivers of orange peel.
‘These trays are just like Villa,’ I say.
‘The food looks good though,’ says Philippe.
‘I mean they can’t decide if they want to be fast food or a gastronomic feast. Look at us: marketing is pulling in one direction, Ed in another, André resisting anything that could curtail his power and Marcel…God knows what Marcel wants!’
Philippe pores at his food. ‘Who’s the foie gras and who’s the beef?’
I serve him another glass of wine.
A loud yell makes me look up. Marcel is on his feet, dabbing away with a paper napkin at a widening red stain on his shirt and jacket. An apologetic Caroline returns his wine glass to an upright position, the heavy water jug she was pouring from in her other hand.
He shouts at her, ‘You clumsy thing! Do you have any idea how much this suit cost?’
She doesn’t answer, her lower lip quivering once more. He turns on his heels and leaves the room, mumbling, ‘I don’t know why I bother dressing up for that lot.’
I wink at Philippe. ‘Now we know what his contribution to meetings is!’
A blissfully unremarkable presentation on the subtleties of the German market follows lunch, only interrupted by André Lange’s unfavourable comparisons with the results he’s achieved in China. Marcel is still missing.
Three o’clock and it’s my turn to take to the stage. I run through my slides in my head while connecting my laptop with the overhead projector. André sits there, staring at me without a smile. Ed introduces me in a few words, reminding everybody that it’s my first export meeting, the previous one having taken place two days before I joined the company.
I start with an overview of the sales figures to date, which show a conservative two percent progression versus last year. I explain how this reflects the mix of our accounts, with Tesco growing at a sustained pace and some of our more traditional customers losing ground. After a few more generalities, it’s time to move into my forecast for the current calendar year. I turn sideways in order to avoid looking at André whose gaze is drilling into me.
‘Some of you may be aware we’ve recently experienced an unfortunate incident with The Super-Market. We’re still in the process of resolving it and I can only, at this stage, estimate its cost. As it’s a QC issue, I’d expect most of the damages to be borne by the bottling site but I have lowered my margin forecast to allow for the worst-case scenario.’
‘How much are we talking about?’ Ed asks, as if we’d never discussed the situation before.
‘As I told you on the phone, it could be anything between forty and sixty-thousand pounds,’ I say. ‘Not taking into account the ill-will factor that may impact negatively on our development prospects with this customer.’
Without looking up from the piece of paper on which he’s been scribbling, André comments, louder than necessary, ‘Narbonne transferred two-thousand-five-hundred pounds yesterday to pay for the return of some of the allegedly faulty wine. This will be the sum total of the production site’s involvement. All other payments will be from the commercial budget, since, as you put it yourself, they will help you secure the customer’s continuing good will.’
‘I never said that,’ I say.
‘Have we established the nature of the problem with the wine?’ asks Ed.
I lean forwards. ‘We have. Monsieur Lange told Rachel, when we went to see her, that the wine is reduced.’ I try to control my voice. ‘I confirmed it by email the following day.’
‘Thus accepting liability,’ says André.
I turn to Ed but he’s massaging the back of his neck, his eyes half-closed.
Marcel walks back in. He’s changed into a clean shirt and suit. He’s smiling and stroking the fabric of his jacket with the palm of his hand. ‘What’s going on in here? My dear André, I could hear you from the end of the corridor.’
‘Miss Legerot has refused to follow my advice and put the company in an expensive fix.’
It’s only the two of us now, eye to eye, sparring in front of Marcel and Ed. The rest of the room has receded into the background.
I turn to Marcel Villa. ‘I’m glad I have the opportunity to discuss this in front of you, Monsieur Villa.’
He raises his hand. ‘Does this have anything to do with your conversation with my mother yesterday?’
‘I suppose so,’ I say.
‘Then, I don’t want to know. Once she gets involved, things become terribly complicated and I can’t deal with the hassle.’ He rubs his temples with his index fingers as if dealing with a horrendous headache. ‘Can we move on, Monsieur de Waast?’
Ed gets up and thanks me for my contribution. I open my mouth to say I am only halfway through my presentation but he gestures for me to return to my seat. When I fail to move, he gets up and prods me until I walk back to my chair. Philippe hands me a glass of water without a word.
Bruno takes over from me and delivers a textbook presentation. His knowledge of his market is second to none, his sales show excellent growth while remaining profitable and he avoids any contentious subject. He answers competently a few questions and sits back down to applause exactly thirty minutes after he stood up.
The contrast with my disastrous performance makes me sink further in my chair. I open my notebook and start doodling, trying to pretend I am somewhere else. I wish I could leave but I can’t give that pleasure to André.
The sound of raised voices makes me look up. The sales manager in charge of Africa is showing mocked-up posters for an advertising campaign. ‘Monsieur Lange, this is a reasonable budget. It will pay for a four-week campaign in three different African countries. We’d never get such a good deal in Europe,’ he says.
‘It’s still a lot of money. Your importer must be pocketing half the agency’s fee.’
‘I have no reason to suspect them of dishonesty.’
‘Come on, this is Africa you’re talking about. They’re all crooked over there.’
My colleague turns to Ed for support. Ed remains silent.
The meeting comes to an end, only an hour later than planned. Ed signals to me. ‘Are you going?’
‘I was hoping to. What time do you want to do my appraisal tomorrow?’
‘I’m not here tomorrow.’
‘Do you want to do it now?’
He glances at André and Marcel, who are deep in conversation by the door. ‘Go to my office. I won’t be long.’
I pop into the tasting room to tell Philippe and Serge I have to stay behind, ‘Sorry guys, more shit coming my way.’
‘I’ll wait for you,’ says Philippe.
‘Please don’t. I can make my own way back to the hotel.’
‘That’s fine. I’ll help Serge clear up. Everybody else has disappeared.’
‘He’s furious, you know,’ Serge says.
‘André? What else could I do?’ I ask.
Serge empties the leftover wine, holding two bottles at a time upside down over the sink. He does his sideways whisper. ‘I’m not talking about your presentation. That was his way of getting his own back.’
I raise my eyebrows. ‘Really? I didn’t notice.’
‘He’s furious about you meeting Marguerite Villa.’
‘You told me it was his idea.’
‘That’s what he led me to believe but I was wrong.’
He puts the last two empty bottles in a case on the floor. ‘He’s told me it’s the first time she’s interfered in his running of the business in all the years he’s worked for her. Why do you think she did that? It’s not as if she knew you.’
I turn around to avoid his gaze. ‘No idea. It isn’t a big deal anyway. The meeting was over in half an hour.’
‘It is a big deal to André.’
‘And to Marcel, according to Ed. I have antagonised the two most powerful men in the company thanks to a meeting I never requested.’
Philippe and Serge nod in perfect unison.
I drag myself to Ed’s office and settle down to wait. A copy of Elle lies on his desk, a Post- it note marking the page of an advertorial Villa sponsored. I glance at the picturesque vineyard and the benign elderly winegrower brandishing a bottle of Villa’s best-known brand. French advertisers always seem to portray growers who look like everybody’s ideal grandfather.
I turn to the horoscope page. I don’t believe that rubbish but I still read it. If it’s good, it cheers me up. If bad, I try to ignore it. ‘Cancer: The situation triggered by the recent clash between you ruler and the uncompromising Pluto.’ I chuckle. I thought he was called André, not Pluto. ‘Remaining in your sign until June…’ Just what I need. ‘Beware of certain individuals who are blaming you for their problems…’ What nonsense!
I check Tim’s horoscope. ‘Gemini: Recent changes have enabled you to break away from restrictive situations. Venus moves into your sign towards the end of the month.’
‘What do you think of the advertorial?’ Ed asks.
I put the magazine down.
‘Really?’ He’s beaming. ‘Do you think it would work in England?’
‘I mean, excellent for the French market.’
‘Ed, I’m not trying to be difficult on purpose. British people have their own perception of wine, full stop. If we try to force French concepts down their throats, it won’t work.’
‘Point taken. Look, I don’t want to be here all night and we need to get through this appraisal thing. I’ve had a chat with Marcel and André and we’re unsure of the best way forward.’
My heart skips a beat.
‘You’ve proven your abilities in some areas. There’s no doubt you’re hard working and dedicated. But this business with The Super-Market is upsetting everybody.’
‘Ed, you can hardly blame me for a quality issue.’
‘True, but with Marguerite Villa getting involved…’
‘How is that my fault?’
‘I’m not sure. I don’t understand why she asked to see you, to be honest. However, I’m not comfortable confirming you in your job as things stand. What I’m proposing is to extend your probation period from three to six months. This will either allow things to calm down or-’
‘Or you’ll be able to get rid of me on the cheap.’
He nods. ‘That’s pretty much it, I’m afraid.’
I manage not to cry until I’ve left his office.
‘Is it that bad?’
I freeze. Marguerite Villa catches up with me. She puts her index finger under my chin and pushes my face up. ‘You must toughen up, girl or they’ll eat you alive.’
I nod, tears rolling down my face, incapable of uttering a single word.
‘By the way, I want you at the board meeting next Wednesday,’ she says. ‘Arnaud Vidal will give us his initial impressions on The Wine Shop. I’d like your feedback as you seem to understand the Brits more than you do your fellow countrymen.’
She winks at me and she’s gone, leaving me to contemplate yet another poisoned chalice.
As well as the expected missed calls from Arnaud, I have a voicemail from him, which is unusual. The tone of it, however, is in character. ‘Marguerite Villa tells me I should rely on you more but you’ve been impossible to get hold of all day long. I’m off tomorrow but I’ll see you on Monday.’
In the tasting room, Philippe is polishing glasses. He explains, ‘André asked Serge to drive him back to Narbonne. He couldn’t refuse. I promised I’d finish tidying up.’
‘You’re an absolute gem,’ I say.
I slump in the passenger seat of the car. Philippe turns the radio on. I turn my face to the window. I’ll tell him about Marguerite’s invitation, but not right now. The tune of yet another French pop ditty distracts me from my thoughts.
‘Quand je serai grand je serai Bee Gees
Ou bien pilote de Formule Un.
En attendant je me déguise,
C’est vrai qu’les costumes me vont bien.’
I burst out laughing.
The car swerves as Philippe takes a concerned look at me. ‘Are you alright?’ he asks.
‘Did you hear that? “When I grow up, I’ll be a Bee Gees or a Formula One pilot. In the meantime, I like to dress up. It’s true that all suits fit me.”’
‘What’s so funny?’
‘It’s a song about Marcel Villa! The suits! Listen!’ I collapse in heaps of laughter.
‘Quand je serai grand tout sera facile,
Enfin je saurai qui je suis.’
‘He’ll know who he is once he’s grown up!’
Tears are streaming down my face.
‘You are very tired,’ Philippe says, the shadow of a smile on his face.
‘En attendant je me déguise,
En chantant dans ma salle de bains.’
‘I can see him now, all dressed up and singing in his bathroom, using a toothbrush for a mike.’
Philippe shakes his head. ‘You need a stiff drink.’
I’m still having hysterics when we pull into the hotel’s car park.