Five o’clock strikes at long last. My feet are sore from shuffling on the spot and my knees ache from standing for too long. Philippe lines up all the empties on the floor in front of the stand while I move the half-full bottles out of sight at the back. I’m not fast enough though and two stragglers rush to me, glass at the ready. I shake my head with a smile and they drift off, searching for a last free shot.
The “wall”, a line of staff from The Wine Shop that sweeps anybody who’s not left of their own accord, walks down the room, getting rid of the last civilians. We can now relax amongst professionals. Not unlike this morning’s visitors, Philippe and I march first to the Taittinger stand for a little aperitif. Anything that’s open can be drunk before we move on but the good stuff will go first. My friend on the stand pours me a generous glass of Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blanc 1998. I slide down against a pillar to savour the rare treat. The fine bubbles rise fast in the glass, producing a beautiful mousse that I tease with the tip of my tongue. The nose is an intense fresh blend of white blossoms, vanilla and almonds. I breathe it in with my eyes closed.
Tim collapses next to me. ‘You sharing?’
His shoulder rests against mine. I feel his hot breath on my neck. I’m almost cross with him for interrupting my tête-à-tête with this fabulous Champagne.
‘A tiny little sip,’ I say, my eyes closed.
‘Come on, be generous. I’ll make it up to you later.’
I open my eyes and take a long hard look at him. ‘How do you propose to do that?’ I ask in my best matter-of-fact voice.
‘How much detail do you want?’ he says and, just like that, my hard-front crumbles and I close my eyes again, pretending to concentrate on the wine. I feel his hand on mine, prising my fingers one by one off the cold glass. He takes two sips and returns the glass to me. A wet kiss on my cheek and he’s gone again.
‘Why do you let him get away with it?’
Philippe is back. He should have stayed with me.
‘Have you tasted the Matahiwi wines?’ I ask.
‘I bought some of their Sauvignon a while back. What are they showing?’
‘A couple of Sauvignons and a Pinot Noir.’
‘Their Pinot Noir is fabulous. It’s got plum and raspberry on the nose and the palate is all smoky undertones.’
His hands are crunching imaginary grapes to accompany his description of the wine. Is it my imagination or is my very serious Philippe getting a tiny little bit tipsy?
After exploring some of the other stands’ vinous delights, we pile back on the bus to return to the hotel. Tim stands once more at the front, not unlike the sexy captain of a pirate ship. My imagination may be fuelled by my alcohol intake.
It takes me less than ten minutes to shower, apply a minimal amount of war paint and slip into my party outfit, a black trousers and flimsy red top combo. I don’t want to be the first of the girls to come back downstairs though and I lie down on my bed with a book.
I manage a couple of pages until I realise I’ve been reading the same line for five minutes without taking it in. ‘Papa, please, protect me from Tim.’
The perfect solution to my woes comes into my head as if in answer to my plea. I’ll call Diana, my friend who lives in Edinburgh, and invite myself over for dinner. She’s had a baby two months ago, which limits the chances of her being out tonight. Then, I’ll pretend exhaustion and crash at her place to avoid any risk of a late-night visit to my bedroom.
I consider my plan for a proud moment. I grab the receiver and put it down.
It would be rude to phone at such short notice. I don’t have a bottle to take with me and florists are closed.
Why should I miss the fun of the party just because of Tim anyway? Am I so infatuated that I can’t trust myself to resist him? There will be enough people around for me to have a good time even if I have to avoid him. I march out of my bedroom and close the door behind me.
I pause for a few seconds on the landing, a niggling thought at the back of my mind and open the door again. The socks and knickers I discarded on my way to the shower lie in the middle of the floor, where I dropped them. I stare at them and slam the door without picking them up.
Downstairs in the lobby, the air is heavy with women’s perfumes: girly Anais Anais competes head to head with blasts of Calvin Klein’s Eternity. The fair’s standard issue black T-shirts have been discarded in favour of fancy shirts for the men and bosom revealing dresses for the girls. Dave, deep in conversation with Philippe, has opted for a baggy sweatshirt in a fetching aubergine shade that matches his complexion.
We board the bus once more. Nobody seems to care Tim is missing.
‘Is everybody here?’ I ask Philippe.
He nods, without looking around.
‘You didn’t check.’
‘I don’t need to. We’re both here. Villa’s staff is accounted for and The Wine Shop’s isn’t my problem.’
I turn my back to him and loose myself in the contemplation of Princes Street’s shop windows. We soon reach Edinburgh’s Castle where the party is taking place. A small group of stores’ staff is waiting for us, Kate amongst them. While her companions greet their head office colleagues with bear hugs and kisses, she stands on tiptoes at the back of the group and scans everybody who comes off the bus. She’s biting the tip of her tongue between perfect teeth and twisting a strand of blond hair with nervous fingers. She frowns when she sees me.
Once the bus is empty, she makes a beeline for Matt, grabs his arm and whispers a question in his ear. Philippe is talking to a guy he met during the afternoon and I leave his side to eavesdrop.
‘. . . to the airport. We agreed he’d better wait for him to board just in case the silly bugger tried to come back.’ Matt checks his watch. ‘He should be with us in half an hour at the most.’
He pats Kate on the bum with a benign grin.
She picks up his hand, moves it away as if it were a slug that had landed on her bottom, and walks off without a backwards glance.
I return to Philippe with a little smile on my face. Whatever Tim got up to on his last visit to Scotland could well explode in his face tonight. The lovely Kate strikes me as a very determined lady.
We troop into a low ceiling room. The bar’s covered with overflowing platters of tapas style food and ranks of shiny bottles. Small tables and chairs are dotted around, to allow us to rest before moving on to the serious business of Scottish dancing.
A few suppliers have already sat down, recreating a map of the vinous world. You could pin the flag of a single nation on each table if it weren’t for the British agents keeping an eye on their principals. How inconvenient would it be if one found out during a wine fuelled exchange with another that he pays 5% commission compared to his own 7%?
‘I’m glad you’re here.’
My little Frenchman has remembered our assignment.
‘Would you like a drink?’ I ask.
‘Later, please. But feel free to have one. Shall we sit down?’
It sounds serious. After a brief hesitation, I pour myself a large glass of water, with ice to make it look more festive.
‘My name is Dominique.’
He shakes my hand. His grip is firm but his palm is sweaty.
‘I’m lucky enough to sell most of what my domain produces every year and that’s enough for me,’ he says. ‘My sister’s husband – he’s called Thierry – is more ambitious. He became a director at the local wine co-operative two years ago.’
I have no idea why he’s telling me his life’s story.
‘The older directors don’t trust your colleague, André Lange. They used to sell only to small companies. It was Thierry’s idea to work with Villa and, to start with, it worked well.’ He wipes his forehead with a vast crumpled white handkerchief.
‘How does this concern me?’ I ask.
‘You look after Villa’s British customers, don’t you?’
‘Since the problem with The Super-Market came to light, Monsieur Lange has stopped buying from the co-op. He’ll only start again if they accept liability for the incident but he refuses to say what the cost will be.’
‘How much is Villa buying from the co-op?’
‘It’s grown to half the total production over the years. One large customer is so much easier to service than dozens of small ones. Right now, the vats are brimming with wine that will be sent to distillation if no agreement is reached.’
He pulls his handkerchief out of his pocket again. His hands are shaking.
‘Co-operatives can’t go bankrupt, can they?’ I ask.
‘They can’t but individual growers can and they will if no solution is found. Thierry and my wife, I mean my sister, will have to leave the area if it happens. He’ll lose his job and become a figure of hate in the village. It would be a disaster for them and for the kids.’
He’s close to tears.
I feel sorry for him. André Lange is a despicable individual.
‘What can I do to help?’ I ask. ‘André Lange doesn’t take his orders from me.’
‘If you could give me an idea of how much the damages will come to, it would help. Thierry is in a terrible state right now.’
Jen knocks on the bar, demanding attention. ‘Good evening ladies and gentlemen and welcome to Edinburgh Castle. On behalf of everybody at The Wine Shop, I would like to thank you again for joining us this weekend. Our customers are, with our staff and suppliers, our most precious asset and the wine fairs play an invaluable part in allowing them to explore the depth and quality of our range. The party tonight is our way to show our gratitude for the hard work you’ve put in today and we hope you’ll be recovered enough to put in tomorrow.’ Polite laughter echoes around the room, accompanied by a few whispered, ‘Qu’est-ce qu’elle dit?’from the French corner.
Jen continues, ‘For those of you who are visiting Edinburgh for the first time, there’s a short guided tour of the Castle starting in five minutes, taking in the Honours of Scotland and the Stone of Destiny.’
Tim walks in as if on cue. He’s wearing black jeans and an eye-watering pale yellow and green paisley shirt, wide open at the neck. I pretend not to notice him.
Jen concludes, ‘The Ceilidh will start at ten and I expect to see you all on the dance floor. We’ll start, in time honoured fashion, with the Gay Gordons.’
She sits back to enthusiastic applause and a few, ‘Who’s gay?’ from the less well-travelled suppliers.
I turn back to Dominique, ‘Is the co-op responsible for the quality issue?’
‘It’s more likely that the problem happened during bottling.’
I frown. ‘Why would your brother-in-law take the blame?’
‘To retain Villa’s business. Lange made it clear he’ll find ways to express his gratitude if the co-op assumes responsibility.’
‘A la Don Corleone,’ I say.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Forget it. Tell your brother-in-law that we may have to pay between forty and fifty thousand pounds to The Super-Market, a bit less if we’re lucky. That’s as much as I know.’
He gets a little calculator out of his pocket. ‘If I put the exchange rate at one forty, that’s equivalent, at cost price, to hundred-and-fifty to hundred-and-sixty thousand litres of the red they sell to Villa.’
I do a quick calculation. Once bottled, that would fill thirteen lorry loads. ‘That’s a lot of wine. I’m sorry’
‘It’s not your fault. Thierry will have to decide what’s best for the co-op in the long run. Do you mind giving me your number?’
I hand him my card. ‘Will you have a drink now?’
He looks at his watch and stands up. ‘I don’t think so. Today has been a long day, quite tiring on the legs. I’d rather go back to my hotel and have a rest. Thank you so much for your help.’
I pat his arm. ‘No worries. Your sister is lucky to have a brother who cares so much.’
He blushes and shrugs. Why is it men dislike being praised for their kindness?
I wait until he’s left the room before going to the bar. It wouldn’t do to appear desperate.
Tim appears out of nowhere, bottle in hand. ‘He’s far too short for you. Have you tried the Anakena Pinot Noir? The tasting note says it’s great with ribs and sticky drumsticks.’
He’s massaging his stomach in slow circular movements and licking his lips as if retrieving the juices of a succulent piece of meat. At least that’s how I choose to interpret his mimic.
‘I’ll have a glass of it without the special effects, please.’
I’m still upset by Dominique’s story.
‘What did the Corsican dwarf want with you?’ Tim asks.
‘He’s not Corsican.’
‘I’m surprised. There’s a distinct Napoleonic look about him. I had him as plotting your Waterloo.’
A superstitious shiver runs down my spine. ‘Please stop, Tim. You’re not funny.’
He takes a step closer. ‘How would you like me to be?’
I look straight into his eyes. ‘Sober and at the other end of the room.’
He looks wounded for a millisecond but the bravura takes over. He bows low. ‘At your royal command, Madam. I’ll see you later.’
Sadness, mingled with tiredness, overtakes me.
Philippe is back from the guided tour. ‘Have you managed to put him off this time?’
His constant criticism of Tim is getting on my nerves. ‘There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.’
He looks worried.
‘Marguerite Villa has invited me to next Wednesday’s board meeting.’
‘Phew! For a moment, I thought you were going to tell me you were having a thing with Tim. Why does she want you there?’
‘Because I know the British market better than most people in the company. The meeting is about The Wine Shop.’
He pulls a face. ‘That’s terrible.’
‘I wouldn’t go that far,’ I say. ‘It is flattering.’
He shakes his head. ‘The closer you get to Marguerite, the more you’ll antagonise André and Marcel. Most people in the company are loathed by one or the other but to get both of them against you is a recipe for disaster.’
‘Let’s talk about something else then. It’s Saturday night, after all.’
‘You’re the boss.’
 What is she saying? in French.
Feature Image by Arno Senoner on Unsplash