Monday turns out to be a perfect crisp winter day. Despite my exhausting weekend, I wake up early, alert and impatient to go to work. My office is now the most attractive place on earth as the most exciting man in the world is working next door.
I sing all the way there, skipping any song that fails to match my exultant mood. Desiree’s “Life”, with its upbeat melody, I play three times in a row. Thank God, Philippe isn’t in the car.
Tim and I kept our distances yesterday after Kate’s outburst. I assume those who missed it were told about it later: prime gossip material. Philippe didn’t make any comments and nobody else confronted me. Not that I care about people’s opinion. Right now, I wish I could tell the world about my new-found happiness.
Tim texted me last night to suggest we meet for drinks later on today to talk about my trip to Bordeaux. I felt a twinge of unease at the specific character of the agenda. I resisted the temptation to phone him though, resorting to a stratagem I last used to give up smoking. Instead of telling myself I shouldn’t call him, I postponed the call from one hour to the next until I went to bed.
A long post mortem of the weekend on the phone with Sam took the edge off my frustration. Talking to her about Tim made the whole thing much more real somehow.
I wonder where he will take me tonight. Not that it matters as long as we don’t end up in the Queen’s Head.
The Wine Shop’s offices look glorious against the cloudless sky. The JVCs next door are uncharacteristically silent and the lorry being unloaded in the yard is a bright festive red that sparkles in the sunshine.
Mary is late, as per usual, and Philippe has taken the day off. As I’m back in Bordeaux tomorrow, I’ll only see him on Thursday. I’m in no rush.
I potter around the empty office, make myself a large cup of tea and go through the junk which has piled up in my absence. Mary has sent confirmation of André’s payment to The Super-Market’s haulier. The faulty wine should now be picked up today or tomorrow from the warehouse, a few days short of the Christmas deadline. I address a quick prayer of thanks to Marguerite Villa for coming to my rescue. Rachel has been informed but has remained silent. I wonder if I should chase her up on her Bordeaux tender. If our samples have shown well in the tasting and our prices add up, she may still consider my offer.
Andy Tripp’s name in my inbox speeds up my heart rate. I followed up on his disastrous visit last month without any hope of getting the business. I cross myself before I open his mail. It won’t change anything but it won’t hurt either.
‘Dear Chris, thank you for quoting for our new Vin de Pays range. Your samples showed well against the competition but your prices are too high. Let me know by return what you can do to improve them. We need to move fast.’
This was sent on Thursday. I should have checked my mails. I’ll never forgive myself if I’ve missed this opportunity.
‘Andy?’ I was expecting his voicemail, not the man himself. ‘It’s Chris Legerot. Sorry I failed to come back to you last week. I was in Bordeaux on business.’
‘I thought you were having too good a time in Scotland to bother with business.’
Panic sets in. What does he know? ‘Scotland?’ I ask.
‘The Wine Shop’s wine fair,’ he says.
‘Oh yes, of course, yes.’
‘How did it go?’
‘Very well, thanks! Brilliant, really.’
He laughs. ‘Relax, I’m not after your trade secrets. To get back to the point, I need twenty eurocents off your reds’ prices and a bit less on the whites as they’re in short supply.’
‘What kind of volumes are you talking about?’
‘Ten thousand cases of each to start with, maybe more.’
British wine professionals measure wine volume in nine litre cases, the equivalent of twelve seventy-five centilitre bottles. The French use bottles or hectolitres for bulk. I sometimes feel like a walking calculator, translating from one to the other. If Andy is telling the truth, we’re talking about a contract of more than half a million bottles, which, in addition to what I expect from existing customers, would allow me to beat my volume target for next year.
‘When do you need to know?’ I ask, trying to keep my voice level.
‘Didn’t I say last week in my mail?’
I bite my lip. ‘Give me two hours.’
A quick peek at my original calculation confirms what I thought. I can’t give Andy what he wants with the cost prices I’ve been quoted. I need to ask André Lange for help. I’d better call Serge first. After their tête-à-tête during the four-hour drive back to Narbonne, he’ll have a good idea of what my chances are.
The phone rings before I’ve had time to dial.
‘How was Edinburgh?’
In the same way I got flustered by Andy’s allusion to the wine fair, for a surreal moment, I wonder if Arnaud is asking me about my night with Tim.
I lean back on my chair. ‘You’d have enjoyed it.’
‘I have better things to do with my weekends,’ he says.
‘As have your staff and suppliers.’
‘Spare me the lecture. I know what goes on during these things. It’s not all hard work.’
I return to a more business-like position. ‘What can I do for you?’
‘I need to see you and the artist this morning. I’ve no idea where you’ve got to with the new range and I have to know before…’
I’m expecting him to say Wednesday but he lets the end of the sentence trail away.
He adds as if it were an afterthought, ‘You must tell me about your meeting with Marguerite Villa.’
‘Would you like me to come over now?’
‘Let me call the artist first, he’s not always at his best on Monday morning. God knows what he got up to in Scotland!’
I do not comment.
He’s now going to interrupt Tim and ask him to join him in his office straight away. Then he’ll keep him waiting while he gets me to come over. It would have been simpler to check if Tim was in and to drop us a mail to suggest a meeting for eleven o’clock but Arnaud, like André Lange, is partisan of the maximum disruption strategy. It makes him feel busy as he’s doing lots, efficient as he gets what he wants and important as he gets it quick. He doesn’t care that we’re going unprepared into a meeting, at a time that’s possibly inconvenient for Tim and for me.
Mary walks in while I’m on the phone to Arnaud.
‘How did it go?’ she asks. ‘I tried to call Philippe last night but his mobile was turned off.’
‘You did a great job. The spare labels helped a lot.’
‘I mean the party. What’s the gossip?’
She takes a look at me and backtracks. ‘Sorry, you may have been too busy to notice but there’s always shenanigans happening at the Scottish wine fair. Forget about it.’
I’ll have to tell her but I can’t right now. Dave’s allegations come back to me.
‘Talking about gossip, Mary, you may want a word with our resident slouch. He had a drunken go at me for keeping you away from Edinburgh this weekend.’
‘I know it sounds ridiculous. He claims the two of you had a bit of a thing going on last year even though he was a bit vague on the details.’
The phone rings. I pick up, muting the handset with my hand. ‘I told him what I thought about his attempts to blacken your name in your absence.’
I lift my hand off the handset and turn away from Mary. ‘Arnaud?’
‘My office. We’re waiting for you.’
I turn back to Mary. She looks close to tears.
‘Hey, what’s the matter?’
She shakes her head.
‘Is it Dave?’ I ask.
‘I was pretty drunk. And he wasn’t drinking and smoking that much last year. All we did was kiss,’ she says.
I nod, trying not to look too surprised.
‘I hate disappointing you.’
She’s sitting very straight in her chair, her hands shredding a crumpled tissue in her lap. The tip of her nose has turned bright pink.
How can I tell her I’ve done much worse?
‘Mary, it’s alright.’
She looks up at me. ‘You sure?’
‘I’ll tell you something later.’
Who should I bump into outside but Dave. After his three-day bender, he looks like an ad for a temperance movement. He’s changed into clean clothes but they are shaped like the radiator I assume they dried on. They make him look like he’s been trampled on. He hasn’t shaved and the whites of his eyes are the colour of diluted urine. Today of all days, he should wear sunglasses.
‘I need to apologise to you,’ I say.
He waves his fag in my direction and tries to dissipate the smoke with his other hand.
I feel angry with him all of a sudden, for being such a wreck, for not trying harder and for letting Mary down. ‘Even though you were telling the truth about Mary, your lack of discretion was far from chivalrous.’
He looks at me and I realise he had no idea what I was talking about earlier.
‘What did she say?’ he asks.
‘She admitted you snogged.’ I say, as if reporting facts in a court of justice.
‘She never lies.’
He looks me straight in the eye. ‘I know that. I was drunk and upset. I’ll apologise to her.’
It’s the first time I hear him alluding to drunkenness without boasting about it.
I decide to push my advantage. ‘Dave, do you enjoy killing yourself slowly?’
‘Who says it’s got to be slow?’
His cockiness has returned but, for a brief moment, I glimpsed the man behind the ape, the man who may well be in love with Mary.
I feel myself blushing as I walk into Arnaud’s office. I wish I’d had time to see Tim alone before the meeting.
He’s sitting in a chair opposite Arnaud’s desk and he winks at me. The vivid pink and red stripy shirt he’s wearing would look garish on anybody but him.
Luck is on my side as Arnaud has his back to me. He’s standing at the window, legs apart and arms crossed, surveying the car park.
‘Bloody hell, look at that!’
Tim and I join him at the window. The yard is empty, except for a tall guy unfolding his convertible’s top with the utmost care. He looks like a rep.
We exchange a puzzled look.
‘What should we look at?’ I ask Arnaud.
He points an accusing finger towards the unsuspecting petrol head. ‘I bet he’s one of our suppliers.’
I shrug. ‘Looks like it.’
‘Have you seen his car?’
‘What about it?’
‘BMW, Mercedes, you name it. Bloody agents! They’re rolling in it and they’re bleeding us dry.’
‘That’s got nothing to do with us. The Brits love their cars. Mr Average out there may well live in a poky little flat. But when the top comes down on a sunny day, he’s king of the jungle for a few hours.’
Arnaud turns towards me and puts his hands on his hips. ‘Do you have an explanation for everything?’
I raise my hands in self-defence. ‘I aim to please.’
He returns to his desk and I sit down next to Tim.
‘Where have you got to?’ Arnaud asks.
I nod at Tim and he starts unfolding images of wine bottles. ‘A few years ago, Threshers developed a range of own label wines called Radcliffe’s, which covered most of the better-known appellations.’
‘I told you it was the way to go,’ Arnaud says.
‘All the wines were supplied by respectable companies but, as their names were not mentioned on the labels, Radcliffe’s turned out to be another range of classic names, fairly similar to what supermarkets offer.’
Arnaud frowns. ‘What’s wrong with that?’
‘They have a lower cost structure. We need a point of difference to justify higher prices. It’s not enough to claim our quality is better.’
‘What’s the big idea, then?’
Tim takes a deep breath. ‘We thought we could develop a range called “The Wine Shop in partnership with”. We’d seek out one, if not the top producer for a given wine, and develop an exclusive blend with him. He’d gain added exposure for his name and we’d get instant recognition, especially with the trade press.’
Arnaud bangs on the table. ‘Is that what you’ve been plotting for two bloody weeks?’
Tim and I look at each other and nod in unison, like naughty schoolchildren.
‘Where did I say I wanted to source the wines from?’
I step in. ‘From Villa and that’s no problem for Bordeaux or Burgundy. But when it comes to other areas, we don’t have the credibility.’
He yells, ‘I don’t give a flying fuck about credibility. I told Marguerite Villa I’d pull this white elephant out of the red and I’d grow sales of our wines tenfold in this country. Now you’re either going to help me do it or you’ll find yourself working in partnership with another company. Get it?’
‘I don’t report to you,’ I say.
‘No but he does,’ Arnaud says, pointing at Tim. ‘Now, Madam, I am going to spell it out once more for you and our bird of paradise here. I want a range of ten wines including a Pinot Grigio, a White Zinfandel, a Chardonnay, a Bordeaux and whatever best sellers you can pull out of our sales figures. I want them supplied by Villa and I want them now.’
I grip the desk with both hands. I am trembling with fury. ‘What do you want the labels to say? “Kamikaze by The Wine Shop”?’
Arnaud leans forwards. Our faces are six inches apart. ‘You will do what I ask or else. Now go!’
Now isn’t t the best time to tell him I’ve been invited to Wednesday’s board meeting in Bordeaux. I leave the room without a backwards glance, Tim right behind me.
He looks upset. Yelling at people and calling them names during business meetings may be acceptable to French people but it goes against the grain this side of the Channel. I turn to him. ‘Thanks.’
‘What for?’ he asks.
‘Giving me the strength to stand up to this bullying bastard.’
‘Are you sure it was the right thing to do?’
I stare at him. Is he upset because of Arnaud or because of me?
‘I’ll call you later,’ he says without looking at me and he walks off.