I hang about at head office after the board meeting, hoping to catch Marguerite Villa and continue our conversation about my father. Two hours go by but she doesn’t make an appearance: time to go back to my hotel for another solitary evening. I crouch under the desk to unplug my laptop.
‘Why does Marguerite Villa call you Christine? And why does she think you know what it’s like to run a bottling site?’
I bump my head against the desk.
‘Arnaud, don’t creep on me like that. You scared the hell out of me!’
‘I asked you a question.’
‘Christine is my name.’
‘Everybody calls you Chris, and Marguerite Villa only does first names with people she knows well.’
I get up and continue packing my stuff in silence.
‘I am not going anywhere,’ Arnaud says.
I take a deep breath.
‘My father used to work for Villa a long time ago. Marguerite knew me as a child.’
‘Is that why you got the job?’
‘You do know how to flatter people, don’t you?’
He shrugs. ‘It’s the way she operates. Nothing wrong about that. What did your father do?’
‘He was Marguerite’s right hand man. They built the company together and he ran the Narbonne site until he left.’
‘Did she get rid of him?’
‘I don’t know, Arnaud. My father died six months ago. I still find it difficult to talk about him.’
He turns on his heels and leaves the room.
‘Sorry,’ he says from halfway down the corridor.
Arnaud has apologised to me for the first time ever.
I fly back to England the following day and call Sam at work when I land.
‘I am a failure.’
‘One of those days?’ she asks.
‘Make it a week, or maybe a month or three. I’m making a mess of things. I joined Villa in the hope of finding out what had happened to Papa and all I’ve discovered so far, is that it was ‘a sad story’ according to Marguerite Villa.’
‘Give me a minute.’
I hear muffled voices and the sound of a door closing.
‘Could your father have been in love with this Marguerite woman?’ Sam asks.
‘She used to be stunning but Papa would already have been married when they met.’
Her diplomatic silence reminds me my father may have been fallible.
‘Leaving Villa did break his heart.’
Sam makes a non-comital noise.
‘It doesn’t add up though. He wouldn’t have spoken so much of Marguerite in front of Maman if there had been something between them. He only stopped after he left the company.’
‘Fair point,’ Sam says. ‘May I suggest you try to forget about the past and focus on the present and the positive? Your sales figures are good, aren’t they?’
‘They are but the crisis with The Super-Market has spoiled everything and made me lots of enemies.’
‘That’s annoying but surely your professionalism will win them over.’
‘I messed up at yesterday’s meeting too. I lied to protect Tim’s job.’
‘I claimed he’s essential to the business’s survival. The truth is, I’ll lose him if he leaves the Wine Shop.’
‘You don’t know that.’
‘You may be right,’ Sam eventually says. ‘You can’t tell him you saved his job though. He’d feel emasculated.’
I feel worse when I put the phone down than when I picked it up.
I decide not to call Tim, thus postponing the inevitable debriefing of yesterday’s meeting. He doesn’t call either, which I choose to read as a positive sign that he’s not interested in me only because of my position.
When we catch up the day after, at six o’clock in his deserted office, the Edinburgh magic has returned. A welcome snog starts the proceedings on a positive note and I sit on his desk as close to him as decency and the risk of somebody barging in permits. He asks me for an account of the meeting but without the urgency I was dreading.
He caresses my knee while I talk about the disposal program.
‘That’s rich! Did Arnaud present this as a new idea? Matt has been telling anybody who cares to listen for years.’
‘Why hasn’t it been done before?’ I ask.
Tim’s hand slides up and down my leg.
‘It’s expensive and a big hassle. Arnaud will need some of his African accounting talent if he wants to get rid of these stores and break even next year. Would you like a drink?’
I nod. Tim selects an open bottle from the fridge where he keeps what he calls “samples for research purpose”.
‘I’m sorry this is nothing special: a leftover from the Sancerre tasting we did yesterday,’ he says.
He hands me a glass and starts kissing my neck.
I take a large mouthful of wine.
‘Tell me more,’ he says.
I continue my report.
Tim is unimpressed with Arnaud’s project to transfer power from head office to stores. His fingers venture to my bra, which he unhooks with a dexterity that hints at years of practice.
‘Wait until Jen finds out,’ he says. ‘She’ll hit the roof. Imagine the managers don’t take to a wine she’s bought a shedload of. How will we shift it?’
I’m not sure I enjoy the sudden image of an angry Jen while Tim’s hands rampage under my shirt.
After a long kiss, the mention of seven more million bottles being sourced from Villa makes him bang his fist on the desk in anger.
‘Arnaud never mentioned that figure to me,’ he says. ‘No disrespect to you but to shift that volume, we’d need superlative wines at knockdown prices, not something Villa is known for.’
I nod wordlessly. Right now I care more about the progress of his hand on the inside of my thigh than my employer’s reputation.
‘Anything else you need to tell me before we move on to more serious matters?’ he asks, pushing me down on his desk.
‘Arnaud plans redundancies as part of his cost-cutting programme.’
Tim shrugs. ‘I expected as much. Dan has been talking about returning to Australia and I’ve asked him to hang on a bit longer so I can make him redundant if need be. He’ll get cash and I’ll get the kudos.’
He doesn’t even consider that his name may be on the hit list. I find it a little irritating but my skirt is now around my waist, putting me in a weak position to argue.
‘Tim, what if someone comes in?’ I ask.
‘It depends what state of undress they find us in.’ he says.
He unbuttons my top.
‘It also depends what I’m doing to you at the time.’
‘What if it’s Arnaud?’ I ask.
‘Then we must give him a proper show.’
He unzips his trousers and grins at me.
My mobile vibrates and then rings. I try to turn it off and press the wrong button. I hear Serge’s muffled voice, ‘Allo? Allo?’
‘Merde,’ I say.
I grab the phone. ‘Hi Serge. Sorry, I was in the middle of something.’
I try to push Tim away.
He grabs me by the hips, pulls my kickers aside and pushes inside me.
I let out a cry.
‘Are you alright?’ Serge asks. ‘It sounds like you bumped into something.’
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘or rather something bumped into me.’
‘Poor you! Look, why don’t you call me later. I’ve got a big consignment of samples to prepare.’
I should chastise him for not delegating this kind of job but I can’t keep up the conversation much longer.
I drop my mobile and try to concentrate on Tim’s ministrations. We’re moving in time with the swirls of the screensaver on his PC. I close my eyes, trying to recapture the excitement of a few minutes ago. Papers rustle under my body.
‘I hope I am not crushing anything too important,’ I say.
‘Everything on my desk is a priority but I pushed you to the top of the pile.’
I let my head drop to avoid looking at his computer and I find myself staring at Tim’s CV. I let out a little cry.
‘Am I hurting you?’ he asks.
‘I hope you were not thinking of sending that CV,’ I say, trying to keep my voice light and cheerful.
‘It’s only an insurance policy. You never know what’s going to happen next in this mad house.’
I like him a little bit more for admitting, even in an indirect way, that he’s aware of his own vulnerability.
The three weeks until Christmas race by. December is when clients want their orders on time. Everybody is on red alert to pour as much wine as possible down the nation’s thirsty throats during those precious few weeks of incessant partying. Miss it and come January, the media will be enjoining us to survive on half a lettuce leaf and six litres of water a day.
Arnaud has settled into a routine of four or five phone calls a day plus the occasional emergency meeting. He treats me with a little bit more respect since he’s found out my father used to work for Villa.
The revised bulk prices André gave me under duress have enabled me to secure the Direct Wines business, which means Mary and I are working flat out to meet Andy’s deadline for the first delivery at the end of February. As a new supplier, we have to deal with a small mountain of paperwork to reassure our new client we are not squeezing wine out of old socks to fill bottles picked up from the local recycling plant.
The general information forms are tedious but easy to fill in. The product specifications are more challenging as we need the input of our production site’s colleagues. Serge has a marked allergy to paperwork and I have to chase him up when Mary tires of him ignoring her emails and phone calls.
We also have to contend with the antagonism from Narbonne’s quality insurance manager. She blames me for the issue with The Super-Market. Whereas most of the other people involved have now mellowed towards me, she still behaves as if my sole purpose in life is to make her life hell.
She submits me to a half-an-hour telephonic rant when Direct Wines’ winemakers send us a long list of measures they want us to implement to ensure we steer clear of reduction. Meddling fools are the bane of her life and why can’t she be allowed to get on with her job the way she knows best? I could point out Narbonne’s past performance doesn’t put her in a strong position to ignore advice but I don’t.
It turns out to be a wise decision as I discover another blooper when I check the “ethical form” she’s filled in for The Super-Market. With globalisation, retailers have become vigilant about working conditions at their suppliers’. Despite their reliance on cheap goods, they can’t be seen to profit from child labour or other abusive working practices.
This means all suppliers, whether or not they operate in third world countries, have to fill in long questionnaires about their production plants. They include reasonable questions such as, ‘Do you employ children under the age of sixteen?’, probing ones such as ‘How do you ensure nobody under the age of sixteen works in your organisation?’, and extreme, verging on the absurd ones, such as, ‘Should you become aware children under the age of sixteen are working for your organisation, what procedure would you implement to remedy the situation?’. Answering there’s no need for such a procedure since no child under the age of sixteen could ever work for a French company, is not an option and will earn the company an amber rating for ethical matters.
Reading my favourite colleague’s honest assessment of Narbonne’s ethical stance sends shivers down my spine.
To the question ‘Are unions allowed to operate freely in your organisation?’ she’s answered, ‘no’ and to, ‘Are workers discouraged from joining a union?’, ‘yes’. Whether it’s true or not, it’s not something we should publicise outside the company.
I pick up the phone without enthusiasm.
‘What do you want?’ she asks.
‘The ethical questionnaire for The Super-Market,’ I say.
‘What about it?’
‘There are a few answers I’d like you to change.’
‘It’s my name on it, isn’t it?’
‘So why should I change anything?’
‘Do you want to lose The Super-Market’s business?’ I ask.
‘That wouldn’t look good for you, would it?’
‘Neither would it for Villa and that’s the risk you’re taking by making it sound like East Germany in the fifties.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You can’t say we discourage people from joining a union. Also you’ve written that in some cases, employees’ identity documents could be retained by management. What does it mean?’
‘When André Lange is caught speeding, he claims his car was being driven by one of the warehouse employees. He keeps copies of their driving licenses so he knows which ones are clean.’
‘He needs his driving licence.’
‘Doesn’t the poor sod in the warehouse?’
‘That’s the way it works here.’
‘The Super-Market doesn’t need to know. Please change these answers. If you don’t do it for me, do it for the company.’
I put the phone down.
‘Try banging your head against the wall,’ Philippe says. ‘The pain is the same but at least you can make it stop.’
Rachel has gone quiet. She hasn’t answered any of my emails or returned my phone calls asking for the final cost of the quality problem. I’m not desperate to know but I’d prefer to provision the exact amount in my end of calendar year’s accounts. If I put in too much, I penalise the results of the year unnecessarily but if I don’t, the unaccounted-for loss will carry over and affect next year’s performance.
I catch her on the last Thursday before Christmas.
I hardly have time to introduce myself before she shrieks, ‘Today is not a good day, Chris. I can’t even hear myself thinking.’
‘Should I call you in the New Year?’ I ask.
‘Do that,’ she says.
‘Happy Christmas, Rachel.’
‘Happy Christmas, Chris.’
I catch a mumbled ‘Sorry.’ as I put the phone down.
The day after, I’m stocking shelves at my local branch of The Super-Market. I’m not moonlighting for extra cash, I’m volunteering. Over the busy Christmas period suppliers and head office staff at major supermarkets are requested to work at least a day in store. We’re told we’re helping, even though the welcome I get from the manager of the wines and spirits aisle is less than enthusiastic. But how would I react if I was sent a work experience student on one of the busiest days of the year?
My hope to make the most of the situation by doing some empiric consumer research in the wine aisle goes up in smoke when he assigns me to spirits. I spend six hours standing, crouching and bending over, my fingers sore from fitting security tags on endless bottles. I’m not even able to impress my temporary boss, as my productivity is poor and made worse by punters’ questions. I don’t mind, ‘Do you know where the eggs are?’ or, ‘As you’re tall, would you mind picking up the bottle on the top shelf?’ but I get frustrated with, ‘I can’t see the price for the Smirnoff’ or, ‘Why isn’t the half-bottle on promotion? I don’t want to buy a big one.’
Philippe pops in at lunchtime to cheer me up. He insists on taking some snaps to show the world I don’t mind getting my hands dirty. On a whim, I pick up a bottle of The Super-Market red from the gondola end and pull my tongue at it.
‘I’ll send it to you,’ Philippe says.
Life isn’t too bad when one has a sense of humour.