I make for Jen’s office. I may as well get all my awkward meetings over in one go. She’s on the phone when I walk in.
‘Hold on,’ she says to her caller.
‘Do you have five minutes?’ I ask.
She gestures for me to sit down before turning her attention back to the phone. ‘Don’t send him up just now,’ she says.
She puts the phone down and folds her arms.
‘Where do you want me to start?’
‘Did you sleep with Tim in Edinburgh?’
‘You don’t mind being the last one in a long line of conquests.’
I sigh. ‘As long as I remain the last one.’
We stare at each other for what feels like a very long time.
‘Good luck to you,’ she says. ‘I don’t care about him anymore but the whole thing strikes me as a bit incestuous.’
I could tell her she’s deceiving herself. I could try to justify myself or even apologise but none of it will help.
‘Do you want me to tell you about Arnaud’s project?’ I ask.
When I leave her office, twenty minutes later, I feel a bit better. I have told her the truth, all the truth and nothing but the truth.
As I go downstairs, I bump into the guy with the convertible, on his way to see Jen. Away from his snazzy car, he looks ordinary and worn out.
Matt’s office is at the bottom of the stairs, a perfect vantage point, opposite reception. He signals to me as I pass his door.
‘Hello trouble. Come in here a minute and close the door behind you. I’m not sure I want us to be seen together.’
I ignore the slur and sit down.
‘What did Jack want with you and Tim? He was shouting so much I thought the ceiling was about to collapse.’
Matt’s office is right under Arnaud’s.
‘To rip us apart in order to do justice to his nickname.’
‘Was it because of…?’ He trails off and examines his fingernails.
‘Because of what?’ I ask.
He looks up. ‘Kate’s allegations?’
‘How would he know?’
‘Kate is young and impulsive.’ He shuffles the papers on his desk as if looking for something. ‘You know the saying: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”’
‘She wouldn’t, would she?’ I ask.
Matt picks up a piece of paper and crumples it in a tight ball. ‘I hope not, for your sake and Tim’s. Hopefully she’s learnt her lesson.’
He swivels his chair around and aims the paper ball at his waste bin.
‘That there are men one should never ever fall in love with.’
I wince but he’s not looking at me.
‘Goal!’ he says. ‘Anyway, my turn to go into the lion’s den. Arnaud has discovered he has to pay tax on his company car and on the flat Villa is renting for him. He’s adamant he won’t.’
‘Don’t tell me. He didn’t in Africa?’
‘How did you guess?’
‘I’ll come upstairs with you. There’s something I forgot.’
I wait until I’m sure Arnaud is busy with Matt and knock at his assistant’s door.
‘Sorry to bother you. I’ve a big favour to ask.’
‘As long as it’s neither illegal nor dangerous,’ she says.
‘How is Arnaud getting to Bordeaux tomorrow?’
‘As The Wine Shop’s finances don’t allow for a private jet, he’ll have to slum it on BA’s afternoon flight,’ she says.
‘You look annoyed.’
‘The bastard told me this morning he’s cancelling the Christmas party.’
‘Too expensive. Yet, everything we buy for him has to be top of the range. Did Matt tell you he had to send somebody from IT to his home to install a whole bunch of brand-new televisions and computers? All of them paid for by the company, of course!’
‘My PC is falling apart,’ she says, warming up to her theme. ‘It’s coming up to five years old and I need to call IT almost every week to fix it. And his bleeding fifteen-year-old son gets a brand-new Mac just like Daddy’s.’
I beat a hasty retreat before the sound of her raised voice attracts Arnaud’s attention.
Dave is leaving my office when I get back there and I almost collide into him. Isn’t anybody looking where they’re going today or is it me?
Mary looks engrossed in her work but her cheeks are bright pink and there’s a bunch of roses on her desk.
‘Had a visitor?’ I ask.
‘He was really nice,’ she says.
‘I don’t doubt it for a minute.’
I sit down in front of my computer.
‘Dave told me there’s a story going around about you and Tim spending the night together in Edinburgh. I hope you don’t think that’s what I was alluding to earlier on?’
I shake my head.
‘I told him I didn’t believe a word of it,’ Mary says. ‘Tim is a nice guy but he’s a bit of a joke. You wouldn’t fall for him in a million years.’
I raise my hand to interrupt her before she tells me more than I want to hear. ‘I’m chuffed you have such high regard for me but it’s not justified.’
She stares at me blankly for a while. Her hand flies to her mouth ‘Oh my God! I’m such a fool.’
‘Mary, calm down. I’m the fool.’
‘I’m so, so sorry. I am sure he’s…’ She struggles to find a suitable word, ‘lovely.’
Her feeble endorsement depresses me more than her earlier scathing comments. It’s time to call Serge.
A bubbling sound is the first thing I hear when he picks up the phone. In a thriller, he’d be lying in a pool of blood, his life ebbing away from a gaping wound in his throat while trying to give me the name of his killer. As it is, he’s probably yet again in the middle of a tasting and what I hear is wine swirling around his mouth. A neat spitting noise and the thud of liquid hitting the spittoon follow.
‘Sorry, but Carrefour is arriving in half an hour and nobody’s bothered to taste the samples we’re showing them,’ he says. ‘I can’t believe how little some of the French sales guys care about wine. I tell you what, one day, I’ll leave them to cope on their own.’
‘Why should they bother when they know you do the work for them? Do you want me to call you later?’ I ask.
‘I’m going to be stuck with them till Tuesday evening. Is it a quick one?’
‘I need better bulk prices for Direct Wines. The contract is much bigger than I thought. Do you think André will help?’
I hear another gargle and spit.
‘I don’t know. I can’t understand his problem with you. I know it doesn’t make any sense but it’s almost as if he’s scared of you.’
‘André Lange, scared of me? Are you mad?’
‘I told you it doesn’t make sense but he said something odd during our drive back from Bordeaux last Thursday.’
‘What did he say?’
‘I can’t remember exactly: something about Marguerite’s long memory and loyalty to people who’ve sacrificed everything for her. I don’t understand how it applies to you.’
‘Neither do I,’ I say. ‘What about my prices? Should I tell him I’ll come and get him if he doesn’t give me the cost prices I need?’
‘I wouldn’t go that far. Let me think.’
More gurgling sounds follow. It’s as if Serge needs to keep his taste buds moist in order to think. Maman hits the roof when I drink tea while talking to her on the phone. She’d hate a telephone conversation with Serge.
‘Tell him Castel is best placed to get the business,’ he says. ‘They have just beaten us to a big deal with Albert Hjein in Holland. What he won’t do to help you, he’ll do to thwart them.’
‘You’re a star. Have fun with Carrefour!’
I check my watch. Eleven thirty. Time is passing so slowly today, I don’t know how I’ll get to tonight without going mad with frustration.
I allow myself a little chuckle. André, scared of me? That doesn’t make any sense at all.
It’s lunchtime in France: too late to call André but the perfect time to catch my mother. I last called her ten days ago.
The conversation starts well. We compare and contrast the weather in Kingston and Arcachon with short and long-term forecasts for both places. I present her with a rose-tinted version of the latest developments at work and manage to soothe her maternal concerns about my workload and the amount of travelling I’m doing, both of which she considers excessive.
Then, she spoils it all. ‘Have you decided how long you’ll stay at Christmas?’ she asks.
‘But Maman, Christmas is-’
She finishes my sentence. ‘In four weeks.’
Delicious visions of lazy afternoons in bed with Tim silence me for a while. I can almost smell the fat cinnamon candle ablaze in my bedroom, contrasting with the foul, cold weather outside.
‘Are you still here?’ Maman asks.
‘I was thinking.’
‘Your brother is coming with his wife and girls. He suggested you and I come and stay with them but I prefer all of us to be in Arcachon as it’s the first Christmas since your father passed away. I said I’d give the blue room to the children. You don’t mind sleeping on the sofa bed, do you?’
A cold draught extinguishes the sweet-smelling candle of my fantasy. ‘How long are Roland and Bea staying?
‘They have to go back on the twenty sixth. He can’t take the whole week off. He works so hard, poor boy. Would you like to stay for New Year’s Eve? We could book a table “Chez Yvette” and treat ourselves.’
I love Arcachon, but it’s glum in the winter and the programme Maman is suggesting fails to excite when compared with an indulgent week in Tim’s company.
‘When do you need to know?’
‘You don’t sound very enthusiastic.’
I cross my fingers behind my back. ‘I need to check with my team how we’re going to manage the holiday period, that’s all.’
‘Villa can’t expect you to work over Christmas. I know it’s a long time ago but in your father’s time, production sites closed for the whole week. Things can’t have changed so much.’
I stop listening to Maman’s reminiscences.
The afternoon passes at a snail’s pace. Tim suggested we meet at 6 o’clock at a pub close to mine.
He’s on his mobile when I get there and I sit down opposite him, not wanting to interrupt. He is complaining to Matt about Arnaud’s telling off, and saying how unhappy he is about the new range we have been entrusted to develop. I go to the bar to get drinks.
‘I hope this comes up during the board meeting,’ Tim is saying when I return. ‘Chris will be there.’
I can’t hear what Matt is saying but I don’t like the way Tim is smiling.
‘She’s our best chance to get Marguerite Villa to overrule Arnaud,’ he says.
He winks at me, reaches out across the table and squeezes my hand.
While he mulls over various options in what begins to feel more like a business briefing than a lovers’ rendezvous, I keep on thinking about my telephone conversation with Maman and the Christmas holidays.
After what feels like an eternity, Tim finally bids goodbye to Matt.
What’s on your mind?’ he asks.
‘I am trying to decide whether I should spend my Christmas holidays here or in France,’ I say.
‘Won’t you want to be with your mother now she’s on her own?’
‘She has lots of friends and my brother will be visiting,’ I say.
He frowns. ‘Christmas is for families.’
He makes no mention of his own plans and I don’t ask.
When I suggest we repair to my place for something to eat, he checks the time and tells me he’s meeting a friend in half an hour. Even though he adds it was arranged two weeks ago, I’m disappointed.
He stands up and kisses me lightly on the lips, joking he wants his champion on top form to defend The Wine Shop’s best interests in Bordeaux. I put my coat on slowly, trying to delay the time for goodbyes. He grabs me by the waist, looks deep into my eyes and whispers in my ear he’s looking forward to a full debrief on my return. Then he kisses me deeply, turns on his heels and runs off.
I go back home, feeling like one of these cold war spies whose minders used sex to manipulate.
A long telephone conversation with Sam reassures me Tim needs to take stock of the situation after our intense night together and it would be unwise to pressurise him to spend too much time with me so early in the relationship. I bow to her superior knowledge of a man she’s never met and retreat to my empty freshly-made bed with a large glass of Errazuriz Wild Ferment Chardonnay and Liz Jensen’s “The Ninth Life of Louis Drax”. I like a book to reassure me there are worse destinies than mine.
The wine does such a good job of soothing my jangled nerves that I finish the bottle.