A flock of visitors spills inside the room as soon as the gates open. They’ve paid twenty pounds each for their ticket and most of them intend to drink at least forty pounds’ worth of booze during the next few hours. The more practised aim for the Champagne stands before they get too crowded or run out of stock. The candidates for quick oblivion target the spirits ones.
A young woman is choosing wine for her wedding. She introduces me to her bridesmaids and we start tasting my offering, checking prices and labels as we go along. I show her how to hold her glass to twirl the wine around before sniffing it. She soon masters the technique but she doesn’t like the idea of spitting in public. She ignores my entreaties to at least try it if she wants to finish the day standing up.
Will I ever get married? Some women tie the knot in their fifties. How does Mrs Chris Foster sound? I freeze, wine bottle held in mid-air, shocked such a thought would occur to me.
‘This one is too strong for my taste,’ the bride-to-be says, putting her glass back on the counter.
She pats my arm. ‘Are you alright?’
‘Sorry, I was miles away.’
Why is life so easy for some women? This one doesn’t even look special. What made a man decide to choose her as his life’s companion?
A lad, who looks like he’s already had a skinful, stumbles past my hen party and stands right in front of me, legs well apart for balance. He proffers a wavering dark red stained glass right under my nose.
‘Give us a big one of your most expensive wine!’
Philippe intervenes. ‘May I help you, Sir? My colleague is looking after these ladies.’
‘I’m talking to her. I like older birds.’
Anger rises inside me. I need an outlet for my pent-up frustrations. I push Philippe aside and point at the young cretin. ‘This is a professional tasting for the benefit of people who happen to be interested in wine, as opposed to little pricks like you.’
I jab him in the chest. ‘One more offending comment and I’ll get security to throw you out as hard as they can.’
I jab him again. ‘Am I making myself clear?’
The lad takes a step back, his eyes dazed and his mouth slack. My legs are trembling behind the counter.
‘I couldn’t have put it better,’ Philippe says.
A friend of my victim pulls him back, muttering an apology. Groups of young males at tastings tend to fit the same template: one obnoxious character, one guardian angel to drag the obnoxious one away before he gets hurt and the rest of the gang performing the function of a Greek choir.
Tim appears out of nowhere. ‘What’s going on?’
One of the bridesmaids gives him an appreciative glance and steps forwards. ‘One of these guys was rude to the lady.’
He doesn’t spare her a glance. ‘Do you want him kicked out?’ he asks me.
‘Not right now but it may be a good idea to get the guys from security to keep an eye on him. I’d be surprised if he didn’t cause more trouble before the end of the day.’
He squeezes my hand. ‘Let me know if he comes back.’
Philippe frowns at his departing back. ‘What’s with the knight in shining armour act today?’
I pretend not to hear and turn back to my new girlfriends.
From the corner of my eye, I notice two couples in their late sixties approaching. Even though I’m more or less finished with my bridal party, I keep on talking, praying they’ll move towards Philippe. They have all the time in the world though. They wait for me to be free and they strike. The men attack first, pouring a random sample and engaging in a bit of competitive tasting to show off their wine knowledge. I smile to show my appreciation, and come up with the expected, ‘You seem to know what you’re talking about, gentlemen.’
This opens the floodgates and I’m soon drowning in reminiscences of good, bad and ugly wines. I manage to smile throughout the onslaught. I don’t need to say anything: a few nods are all that’s needed. Just as I’m hoping for a reprieve, one of the wives sidles up to me. I guess she stopped listening to her husband at least ten years ago, especially on the subject of wine, but she seems determined to get a piece of the action.
‘I’m teetotal,’ she says, as if it were the most thrilling revelation I’ll hear all day.
I resist the temptation to tell her I couldn’t care less and keep on smiling.
‘He took me to the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show last summer,’ she says. ‘Today’s payback time. He enjoys his wine so much.’
Her contentment with life and its trade-offs is in such stark contrast with my troubled state of mind that I grit my teeth not to say something I might regret. What if I confided in her that I’ve been thinking of little else but sex today? That my one and only priority for the next hours is to weigh up the pros and the cons of sleeping with one of the most unsuitable men in the wine business?
‘I’m driving,’ she says before asking, ‘Are you French?’ followed by the inevitable, ‘Where in France are you from?’
I wish she’d leave me alone. I’m here to pour wine and give advice, not entertain bored elderly ladies with my life story. My answer to her question will either lead to a detailed account of her last holidays in or near Bordeaux, or to a lament of how much she wishes she could go there one day. I brace myself for ten minutes of passive listening when I spot Jen striding towards me, a purposeful look in her blue eyes.
‘How kind of you to ask!’ I say with sudden warmth. ‘I was born in Bordeaux like many great wines.’
‘And will you grow old with the same elegance?’ the lady says, clearly delighted to have found a subject to rouse me.
The trick works. Jen gestures to me she doesn’t want to interrupt and she’ll come back later. Relief washes over me even though I know it’s a temporary reprieve.
My pensioners move off, to be replaced with several very thirsty groups. They take it in turn to refill their glasses and then pull back from the stand to carry out loud conversations. Philippe and I shuffle on the spot and pour almost nonstop, dropping one bottle to pick up another, reaching out into the crowd towards outstretched arms and empty glasses. My right shoulder starts to ache and I kick off my shoes under the table.
One blonde tells her friend, ‘The darker the rosé, the sweeter.’
‘I’m afraid not,’ I say.
‘How do you know then?’
‘Read the back label. It should give you an idea of what to expect.’
The blonde looks disappointed with my mundane advice.
‘Can I have a word with you later?’
I almost drop the bottle I’m holding. Jen is smiling at me over the back partition of the stand.
‘No problem. When?’ I say.
‘What about lunch? I’ll send somebody to replace you.’
‘Is she going to give you a hard time?’ asks the blonde once Jen has moved on.
I frown, unsure of her meaning.
‘You don’t look like you’re looking forward to having lunch with her. Is she your boss?’
I kick myself. When will I learn to hide my emotions better?
Matt comes out of the ladies, looking harassed. He calls for reinforcement and goes back in like a man condemned. I guess the first casualties of the day need waking up, cleaning up and sobering up.
The press in front of the stand is getting worse as is the noise level in the room. The temperature has gone up by several degrees and the smell of alcohol is overpowering. Through a gap in the crowd, I spot the lad I chastised earlier. He’s sitting on the floor, fast asleep, back propped up against a pillar and legs akimbo. He won’t cause any more trouble for the rest of the day.
Kate, The Wine Shop’s most promising manager, is walking towards me. She looks unscathed from her night of clubbing.
‘Jen has asked me to relieve you,’ she says. ‘She’s waiting for you in the dining room.’
I don’t ask her how much she’s looking forward to promoting Villa’s wines. She looks grumpy enough as it is.
I greet competitors and former colleagues on my way to lunch: anything to delay my confrontation with Jen. A short and skinny dark-haired man hails me as I pass by his stand. He looks French or Italian. He looks vaguely familiar and I greet him back and keep on walking until I feel a tug on my sleeve.
‘Are you Miss Legerot from Villa?’ he asks.
‘Could I talk to you?’
‘It’s about my brother in law.’
‘Do I know him?’
He looks anxious. ‘He’s a director of one of the co-operatives that supplies Villa in Narbonne. Will you have a moment later? At the party maybe?’
How can I tell him that, today of all days, Villa’s Narbonne winery is the last thing I want to talk about? I agree to a chat later on and walk off, cursing myself for my inability to say no.
Jen is waiting for me in a corner of the room that’s been set aside for lunch. She has a plate of nibbles on her lap. My heart sinks. I’ve avoided the subject of her affair with Tim since our disastrous dinner in the South of France but I remember her excitement when she first mentioned the new man in her life, last June. I wonder how long they stayed together. Does she still care for him? Has she heard about last night and does she mean to warn me off?
I fill my plate at the buffet. I’m not hungry but the food will give me a countenance if the conversation turns awkward.
Jen pats the chair next to hers. ‘Thanks Chris. I don’t want to embarrass you but there’s something I need to talk to you about.’
She pauses, maybe waiting for a reaction. I remain silent.
‘May I ask you a direct question?’
I bring a spring roll to my lips. ‘Go on.’
‘It’s about Tim.’
I put the spring roll back on the plate. I need a large glass of wine, any wine.
‘Our relationship hasn’t been the same since we…since the summer. I thought we’d managed to put it all behind us but, in the last ten days, something has changed again.’
I pop the spring roll in my mouth. ‘In his attitude towards you?’
‘He’s become secretive. He hides stuff when I get near his desk. The other day, I bumped into him leaving Arnaud’s office and he refused to tell me what they’d been talking about.’
I cover my mouth with my hand while I chew.
She slices a prawn fritter with exaggerate care. ‘I’m worried about my job. I love what I do and I think I do it well but I don’t think Arnaud sees it that way. I’m scared he’s planning to get rid of me. I’ve been meaning to talk to you for a while but, I know it may sound stupid, I’ve had the feeling you’ve been avoiding me.’
I feel awful. My infatuation with Tim has blinded me to Jen’s unhappiness.
‘You’ve heard something, haven’t you?’ she asks.
I grab her hand. ‘You’ve got nothing to worry about. Your job is safe or as safe as any job can be in this company.’
Tim strides into the room with a supplier. He’s got to the buffet when he sees us. He takes in our entwined hands and our grave faces. I look at him, daring him to come close. He stops in his tracks, taps his forehead as if he’d remembered something important, turns around and leaves the room.
I don’t like him very much all of a sudden.
Jen’s gestures towards his departing back. ‘Do you see what I mean?’
‘He’s such a coward! Jen, I’m sorry I’ve kept you in the dark. Arnaud has got a project, which he doesn’t want to involve you in. That’s all there is to it.’
It’s so much easier betraying Arnaud’s confidence than admitting to my own weakness.
‘Because it’s a crackpot idea and he knows you’d fight him tooth and nail.’
‘I can’t or I’d lose my job. Also, I hope to limit damages by remaining involved.’
‘What about Tim?’ she asks.
‘Same thing, I suppose.’
‘Can you tell me what it’s about?’
‘I’m not supposed to but, if you come to my office on Monday, you may stumble upon some documents that will enlighten you.’
She hugs me. ‘You’re a mate. I knew I could trust you.’
I’m glad she thinks so. I’m not so sure myself.
I walk back to my stand in a foul mood. My yearning for Tim remains but it’s tarnished by my chat with Jen and the inescapable truth that, once I’ve given in to him, he’s likely to revert to form and behave towards me like the cad he is. I feel like a dog whose food bowl has been snatched away.
His hands are on my waist, making me shiver. ‘What did Jen want with you?’
I give him the gist of our conversation. He takes his hands off me.
‘Do you realise she’ll go ballistic when she finds out about the new range? It’s contrary to all she believes The Wine Shop to be about.’
‘It is,’ I say.
‘I know but there’s no point antagonising Arnaud at this stage and that’s what she’ll do. There are other ways to influence him.’
‘You can’t believe he’ll backtrack?’
‘He did for the outlet shop he wanted to open at head office. Remember the one with the giant banner?’
He tries to take hold of me again. I pull away. ‘Stop that. Jen is a big girl. She’s quite capable of making her own decisions.’
The stand’s heaving when I get back there. Kate’s been replaced by one of The Wine Shop’s sales managers. I’m relieved I won’t have to engage in polite chitchat with her. I apologise to Philippe for having been away so long and step back behind the counter while he goes off to lunch.
The early afternoon lull brings some good people, including a tall guy who stays talking to me a wee bit longer than his limited knowledge and interest in wine can justify. Maybe I should move up to Scotland. Tim is in his element, chatting to groups of pretty girls, and guiding them from stand to stand as if through a human zoo.
Philippe returns from lunch and we brace ourselves for the final onslaught of the afternoon. Considering how little the spittoons are used, I’m amazed by the number of people who still look sober. Voices are getting louder though, accompanied by extravagant body language. Young women screech and hug each other with enthusiasm. Old men get red in the face and talk at each other like angry cockerels.
A couple start kissing with great enthusiasm, right in front of me. I let them be for a while but the abandon with which they paw at each other soon starts getting on my nerves. You don’t wave a steaming plate of food in front of someone considering a hunger strike.
‘Could you get them to move aside, please?’ I ask the girl’s friend, who is inspecting her fingernails, waiting for her friend to disentangle herself. She pulls a face, as if unsure of her powers of persuasion.
I insist. ‘Look, I’m delighted they’re so much in love but they’re blocking access to my stand.’
‘Don’t know about love. They’ve just met,’ she says, chewing her gum.
I manage a tight smile. ‘The magic of wine!’
‘Nah, she’s had whisky. I told her not to go mad, but she never listens.’
The object of my concern is now having her breasts massaged by her new paramour. I look at the bar sized ice bucket at my feet, now full of icy cold water.
‘I wouldn’t,’ says Philippe, a note of warning in his voice.
‘You’ve no sense of fun whatsoever.’
My little bride comes back, all pink-cheeked and excited, and barges past the lovers. ‘I didn’t want to go without telling you. Your wines are the best we’ve tasted today.’
She’s swaying on her feet. I hope she’s planned a quiet day tomorrow. I’m getting a sympathy headache from talking to so many drunk people.
A new surge of thirsty punters tells us it’s four o’clock and the spirits stands have closed for the day. This is the twilight zone when jaded and abused palates search for yet more stimulation. Sensible conversations and offers of product information are now surplus to requirements.
‘Hey Janet, come over here. Try this one.’
‘I don’t drink red.’
‘Try it, it’s bloody good.’
‘But it’s bloody good!’
Similar scintillating dialogues are repeated ad nauseam around the room. This is the moment when we, the professionals, are at our most sober and look down our educated noses at the worse for wear crowd in front of us. Very soon, we’ll be equally intoxicated but it’s different when it’s your job.
Matt walks by, his face like thunder. ‘Have you seen Tim?’
‘Not in the last half an hour.’
‘He’s not answering his mobile and I have an emergency.’
My imagination starts to conjure scenarios involving local beauties.
‘What’s the problem?’ I ask, trying to ban the explicit images assaulting my brain.
‘The young cretin from my team. I’ve just caught him in a clinch with a member of the public, wearing his staff T-shirt, no less.’
I grimace. ‘Ouch!’
‘I’m sending him back to London straight away but I need to find somebody to take him to the hotel to pick up his stuff.’
And he’s off. Jen and Tim have had their comeuppance after all. The little twerp that made fun of their steamy email exchanges a few months ago has demonstrated his own lack of restraint. Yet everything would have been alright if he’d thrown himself at a willing supplier or colleague a few hours later. The Wine Shop’s rulebook has many surprising quirks.