The taxi stinks of unwashed armpits, takeaways and rose air freshener. I’d open the window but I don’t want to be rude. Forth One is blaring out. I can’t recall being asked if I minded the radio being on so loud.
When we stop in front of the Parliament House hotel, I throw the fare at the driver, grab my receipt and dive into the quiet darkness outside. I take in a big lungful of clean Scottish night air. The dry cold is a relief after Bordeaux’s damp, muggy weather.
Despite the late hour, here’s Dave, leaning against the pale grey stone front of the hotel, fag in hand. Was he plucked from Kingston and dumped here, together with the equipment for this weekend’s wine fair? I recoil at the smell of sour wine he exudes. His eyes are even more bloodshot than usual. He lifts two nicotine-stained fingers in salute.
‘Is she coming?’ he asks.
‘I beg your pardon?’
His speech is so slurred, I’m not sure I heard him correctly.
‘Mary. She’s not here.’
‘She has something on this weekend.’
I pick up my bags from the boot of the car.
He flicks his cigarette butt away and follows me in without offering to help.
About twenty people from The Wine Shop are chilling out in the mock Tudor lobby of the hotel. The lucky ones are sprawled in large armchairs of various shapes and colours which have been rearranged in a circle by the wooden fireplace. The other ones are sitting cross-legged on the floor.
They welcome me with the enthusiasm reserved to a long-lost friend. I stop and sniff the air, pointer-like. It reeks of alcohol. They all are in various states of drunkenness, way ahead of me and my airline sized Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc. A wide array of wine bottles stands on a coffee table, and on the floor in the middle of the group. Tim is sitting in a corner, staring at me with that annoying smile, which makes me blush for no particular reason.
Once I’ve checked in and dropped my bag upstairs, I join the party. One of the marketing guys leaves me his seat and I pour myself a glass of d’Arenberg ‘The Footbolt’ Shiraz. It’s Friday night and what better choice than a wine named after a race horse to get me in a festive mood. It smells of ripe raspberries and plums with notes of spice and liquorice and a hint of eucalyptus. The alcohol warms me up. My body relaxes.
‘Have you lost Philippe?’ asks Matt.
‘He’s flying in tomorrow morning. He has a dinner party in London tonight.’
Dave mumbles, ‘I don’t give a flying fuck about Philippe. It’s Mary I want to see.’ He’s sitting on the floor, almost folded on himself, and he’s staring into his glass, which he holds with both hands.
The others chant, ‘Boring!’
‘It’s all her fault,’ he says, pointing at me. ‘She stopped Mary from coming.’
‘What are you on?’ I ask. ‘She had better things to do, full stop.’
‘We had such a great time last year.’
‘You and Mary?’
I can’t keep the scorn from my voice.
He nods. ‘Yessir, me and Mary.’
‘And what did you get up to?’
‘Never! Stop right there.’
‘You ask her.’
‘I know what her answer will be.’
I turn my back on him to indicate the conversation is at an end. He’s managed to irritate me when all I want is to relax and get a little bit drunk, just enough to forget about the nightmarish last few days in Bordeaux. The girl next to me walks off and Tim slides into her empty armchair.
‘How was the rest of your stay?’ he asks.
‘Not great. The export meeting turned into a freak show and my useless boss extended my probation period by three months. On top of it, Marguerite Villa wants me back in Bordeaux next week for Arnaud’s presentation to the board of his plans for The Wine Shop.’
He squeezes my wrist and leaves his hand there. I dare not move.
‘The board meeting: Arnaud will have to stick to the truth in front of you.’
‘How do you think that will make him feel?’
‘He’ll hate you but he doesn’t like you much anyway.’
I wince. Despite not being a huge fan of Arnaud, I resent been told to my face he dislikes me.
Tim continues, ‘This calls for celebration. Let me try and find some Champagne.’
He comes back, minutes later, with two bottles of Pol Roger, which, I suspect, were not intended to celebrate my debatable achievements. I hope whoever’s in charge of that stand has allowed for enough stock or they will run out before the end of the weekend. I drain my red wine and refill my glass with happy bubbles. The alcohol in my bloodstream is working its magic. Tim toasts me, looking deep into my eyes. I feel my cheeks burning and I take a quick sip to hide my embarrassment.
‘What’s Marguerite Villa like?’ he asks.
I’m about to launch into a detailed description of our chairwoman when a shapely blond human missile lands in Tim’s lap.
‘My favourite marketing person ever,’ says the invader in a strong Scottish accent. She cups his face in her hands and starts rubbing her nose against his.
‘Kate, have you met Chris? She runs Villa in the UK.’
‘I hate Villa,’ she says, ‘but I love you. Will you sleep with me tonight?’
‘Kate runs the Princes Street branch. She’s one of our most promising managers.’
Tim delivers his introduction with as much professionalism as one can muster when smothered in a passionate embrace.
The future star squints at me with unfocussed eyes, her lips pouting and her chin thrust forward. In her late twenties, she’s still at an age when she looks good wasted. Her inebriation makes her both childish and sensual, her body language an open invitation to any red-blooded male. I finish my Champagne and wrap my jacket around me, holding the collar tight against my throat.
I’m staring into my empty glass when a fresh tumble of bubbles brings it back to life. I look up. Tim, the young lovely still perched on his knee, is refilling it, whispering, ‘You need only ask.’ His deeper than usual tone of voice sets fire to my face yet again. Emboldened by the booze flowing through my veins, I hold his gaze a tiny bit longer than necessary. The promise I read in his eyes feels like an embrace.
‘Who’s for dancing?’
Kate’s swirling in the middle of the group, trying not to topple over a rogue bottle. A few enthusiasts stand unsteadily and grab coats and bags before making for the exit. Their female pied piper turns at the door and winks at Tim.
‘Good night lover boy, see you tomorrow! Or later if you’re in the mood!’
Tiredness hits me all of a sudden. What am I doing, getting drunk and moping around like a lovelorn teenager? I’m too old for these games.
‘I’m going to bed,’ I say.
Dave sniggers. I attempt to stare him down but my basilisk impression fails to silence him.
‘Let me take you to your room,’ Tim says, taking my elbow. I stand still for an instant savouring the closeness of his body and the smell of his skin.
‘I’ll be fine,’ I say, conscious that we’re providing entertainment to what’s left of the group.
The pressure of his hand increases. He tells our public, ‘See you in a minute.’
We walk away, giggles and comments about how much misbehaving you can pack in one minute following us into the lift.
It’s one of those very small, slow and creaky lift with a see-through door. I lean against the wooden side panel, trying to keep my eyes on the floor. Tim takes a small step towards me and whispers in my ear, ‘I am so pleased you flew in tonight.’
I raise my head and his lips are on mine, warm, salty, tasting of Champagne. Our tongues mingle. I pull back, worried I might taste like an old spittoon. He frowns, and when I fail to react, he enfolds me in his arms and kisses me again.
The jolt of the lift, stopping on the second floor, breaks up our embrace. In two big steps, I have reached my bedroom door. With my back to Tim, I fumble in my handbag for my key, trying to regain control of my senses.
He slides his hands under my shirt and I feel them on the bare skin of my waist, riding up towards my breasts as he presses an unmistakable erection against me.
‘Feel how much I want you?’
My wits have deserted me. Instead of the cutting remark such a corny question demands, I moan, my forehead resting against the door, my eyes closed. His hands are inside my bra now, caressing and squeezing. He turns me around as if I were a ragdoll and kisses me again, harder, deeper, his hands forcing their way past the waistband of my trousers, grabbing my buttocks. I feel weightless, powerless. All the shit of the previous months evaporates and tears come into my eyes. This is payback time, I think, trying to justify the unjustifiable.
Jen’s face comes uninvited into my head. She’s arriving tomorrow on the same plane as Philippe. I push Tim away.
‘This is madness.’
‘I thought you enjoyed a bit of madness,’ he says, undoing the top buttons of my shirt and nuzzling my nipples in turn.
‘I can’t,’ I say.
He grabs my hips and pulls me towards him.
‘Not tonight,’ I add, trying to give myself some thinking space.
He lets go of me so abruptly I stumble. He takes a step back and surveys me with a smile. ‘Tomorrow, then?’ he asks.
I lean against my bedroom door and nod, desperate for another kiss, but he’s gone, bounding downstairs three steps at a time. I totter back to the lift cage, pulling on my clothes, and I stare through the cold metal mesh, trying to follow him with my eyes for as long as I can. A faint chorus of disappointed voices tells me he’s back with the group. I stagger into my bedroom, legs wobbling, and throw myself on the bed, crying with frustration.
I wake up the following morning, whispering sweet nothings into my pillow. My whole body is tingling, aching for sex. The memory of yesterday’s unfinished business hits me. I behaved like a bitch on heat last night. How did I let my professional relationship with Tim take such a turn? Was it the knowledge of his affair with Jen that gave me licence to follow in her footsteps? Why did I think I could indulge in harmless flirting with him when I knew of his reputation? I think of Marguerite Villa’s comment, ‘Sentimentality, that’s your problem.’ If only it was the only one.
Breakfast is a sober affair. Dave has got his extra-large sunglasses on and nurses a salad bowl of black coffee with shaking hands. Matt and his entourage demolish huge helpings of bacon and sausages with grim determination. It’s going to be a long tiring day with more drinking at the end of it, not the kind to be tackled on an empty stomach. Tim is nowhere to be seen, a small mercy as far as I am concerned.
The grief over my father’s death took my mind off men for a while, that much is true. But I’m lying to myself when I say I’m too busy at work to think about dating. The truth is Tim and I have been gravitating towards each other for a number of weeks now. I’ve pretended not to notice, even when prompted by Philippe, to avoid facing up to the fact it would be a disaster to fall for him. Last night put an end to my pretence.
The object of my thoughts is standing outside the hotel, mounting guard by the bus that will take the staff from The Wine Shop to Murrayfield where the tasting is taking place. It used to be held at the Balmoral but a few cases of abject drunkenness, blamed on members of the public, put paid to that partnership. Piles of puke outside bedroom doors jarred with the luxury image they are keen to project.
Tim is ticking names off a virtual list as people troop out of the front door and into the bus one by one, or in small groups. The idea is to ensure nobody is left behind, however comatose they may be. Call it morning after’s solidarity.
‘Are you ok?’ he asks as I walk past. I give him a tight smile.
I must talk to him later and explain we can’t be anything but friends. We work together and a relationship between us wouldn’t work anyway. He needs a trophy girlfriend, a blonde stunner he can parade around. I’d soon tire of his flamboyant style and his need to be the centre of attention.
Once even the worst affected by last night’s carousing are on board, we leave behind the cobbles of Carlton Hill, the initial twists and turns of the journey causing some to moan and clutch their stomachs. Tim stands at the front of the bus, chatting to the driver, his body absorbing every bump like a surfer’s.
He’s so damn sexy. What if I spent just the one night with him? What happens in Edinburgh stays in Edinburgh, goes The Wine Shop’s saying. I wouldn’t be the first one to make the most of the Scottish wine fair. Nobody would get hurt. We’re both single, as far as I know.
The Georgian magnificence of Queen Street gives way to the austerity of Roseburn Street and ten minutes after leaving the hotel, we turn into the stadium’s grounds. Murrayfield is huge. From the outside, it looks like a concrete monstrosity dumped by aliens amidst the elegant buildings of Edinburgh. Like a column of ants, we climb the massive staircase and file into the Thistle suite.
Four rows of white plywood cubicles line the huge room: one against the windows, one against the wall and two, back to back, in the middle.
Philippe is putting the finishing touches to our stand.
‘Good evening?’ he asks.
I flinch but I know his question to be innocent. He hasn’t seen any of last night’s crowd yet. I plunge into a cardboard box to pick up a poster.
I answer in pure Jesuitical style, ‘You?’
He nods. ‘Pretty good. We went to Côte, in Wimbledon. Good food and good value.’
‘How many spare labels do we have?’
‘Mary put in more than a hundred of each. Should we open the bottles now?’
‘May as well. The fair opens to the public in ten minutes.’
Philippe uncorks bottle after bottle and I taste each of them to check the wine isn’t corked.
If I sleep with Tim tonight and anybody finds out, we’ll be prime gossip material for weeks to come. Arnaud wouldn’t find out though. He’s too distant from his team for any of them to confide in him. The story of our romance may spread to people outside the company however and go back to Villa that way. That would be disastrous. I think of Papa and I shudder.
Jen arrives. She works the room with Tim, moving from stand to stand, greeting and thanking producers and their agents for supporting the event. Not only have they paid two thousand pounds for their stands but they have also donated the wines that will be tasted or drunk over the two days. In addition, they are spending the weekend serving thirsty customers instead of chilling out at home or catching up with their Christmas shopping. This makes Arnaud’s absence conspicuous and much commented upon. As Villa’s sole representative, with Philippe, I’m ashamed of the lack of respect it shows towards The Wine Shop’s suppliers.
Tim reaches our stand. He grasps the bottle I’m opening. ‘Let me do that for you.’ His hands are warm and caressing as they envelop mine for a split second.
He turns to Philippe. ‘Have you got all you need?’
Maybe we could have a discreet affair? It’s a long time since I’ve been so attracted to a man. I gawp at the triangle of pale skin that shows above the neckline of his T-shirt. His hands stroke the bottle with long, sensitive fingers. I know a liaison between us is bound to end up in tears, mine in all likelihood, but I don’t care. I want my Carpe Diem moment even if I have to pay for it later. He’s the last delicious chocolate in the box and I don’t mind getting sick.
‘I believe so,’ Philippe says. ‘What do you think, Chris?’
‘What?’ I’ve no idea what he’s talking about.
‘Do we have all we need?’ He gives me a probing look. ‘Are you sure you didn’t party the night away? You seem a bit distracted this morning.’
Tim pipes up, saving me from having to answer Philippe. ‘Somebody will relieve you around lunchtime so that you can grab something to eat and have a break. Have you got the details for tonight’s party? It’s up at the Castle and they’ll be Scottish dancing.’
He must be repeating the same message at every single stand. His parting shot, however, is just for me or so I hope. ‘I look forward to seeing you there.’
‘Smarmy git,’ Philippe says under his breath, bringing me back to earth with a thud.