Matt hails me as I pass his door. ‘I may not be able to get a new laptop for Philippe straight away.’
I slump in the chair opposite him.
‘With half of my team gone, it may take me, let me see, three weeks to order it and six to set it up,’ he says.
‘What do you want me to do?’ I ask. ‘Grovel?’
He cocks his head sideways. ‘Where do you think we’re heading? Villa can’t expect The Wine Shop to return to its former glory without either cash or people to run the show.’
‘You know why these measures are being implemented as well as I do, Matt. Marguerite Villa will sign another big cheque to bail out The Wine Shop this year and she doesn’t want it to become a habit.’
‘Then she should have hired somebody competent to manage the company. She’s had no shortage of applicants since Villa bought The Wine Shop.’
‘British candidates will never do for her.’
‘What about you?’
‘I know nothing about retail.’
‘Arnaud doesn’t either. At least you worked for The Wine Shop even if it’s a long time ago.’
I mull over Matt’s comment on the way back to my office. His idea, flattering as it is, is born out of desperation. I may win against Arnaud in a popularity contest or even be marginally more qualified to do his job but only a proper retail specialist could do what’s needed.
Even though business was supposed to grind to a halt over Christmas, I am amazed at how much has piled up on my desk and in my inbox in ten days. I decide to deal with all the bitty jobs now to clear the decks for tomorrow.
I answer five emails from Marketing, clarify a promotional invoice for accounts, log in future outgoings on a Tesco promotion, pass on several letters to Mary with instructions on how to answer them, ask her to order some stationery, sign the purchase order for Philippe’s laptop and commit to buying samples of a competitor’s Medoc for a tasting Serge is organising in Bordeaux.
Mary’s been gone half an hour when Tim barges in, ‘Which side are you on?’ he yells from the door.
I stare at him, trying to think where I went wrong.
He strides across the room and leans over my desk, his face inches from mine. ‘Do you think sleeping with me gives you the right to go behind my back?’
‘Stop it, Tim. You’re scaring me. What have I done now?’
He mimics me. ‘What have I done? “Good job, Tim,” he said to me. “I like the labels. Have a good evening.” As if nothing had happened!’
‘Is that Arnaud you’re talking about?’
‘I showed you the labels as a favour. I meant to bring them to him later on, to demonstrate the excellent work my team had done. He’s my boss, in case you’ve forgotten.’
I grip the armrests of my chair.
‘And I’m just a pain in the neck, which you’re happy to use as a go between when it suits and discard when it doesn’t. Yes, I showed your precious labels to Arnaud. He wanted to see them and considering the mood you were in, I thought you would not indulge him.’
I sit back, shocked at my own outburst.
‘Why do you have to meddle all the time?’ Tim asks.
‘You sound just like Arnaud.’
‘Whatever. Go on, tell me.’
‘To show him you’re a good operator despite your impossible temper, and that he should hang on to you.’
He chuckles. ‘You think I need protecting?’
There’s scorn in his voice.
‘Everybody needs protecting every now and again.’
He leans over me, stabbing the desk with his finger. ‘What you do is interfering, not protecting. There’s a big difference between the two.’
He makes for the door.
‘Tim, is that all you came to tell me?’ I bite my lip. I don’t want to cry now.
He hovers, his hand on the door handle. ‘We need to talk but not tonight. I’ll call you.’
I go home and head straight for the wine rack, my healthy living resolutions overridden by my nightmarish day. I discard a Macon Villages from Louis Latour as far too tame for the situation and pick up a Vasse Felix Chardonnay a friend brought round a few months ago.
At 13.5% alcohol, it’s strong enough to numb the pain and it’s from Majestic, The Wine Shop’s arch enemy. Drinking it will feel a little like cheating on Tim.
I throw it in the freezer to get it to the right temperature fast and pick up the phone to Sam.
‘Did he kiss you?’ she asks.
‘We were in the office.’
‘It didn’t stop him before.’
‘We had people around us.’
‘What about when he came to your office?’
‘He was mad at me. Kissing was the last thing on his mind.’
‘He had not seen you for ten days. He should have been all over you.’
‘We’re not animals.’
She says nothing.
‘You think it’s over, don’t you?’ I ask.
‘From what you’re saying, it doesn’t sound too good. Do you want to come over? The boys will cheer you up.’
I decline, citing tiredness and the prospect of a long day in the office tomorrow. The truth is I can’t be near kids when contemplating the end of a relationship. Even though I knew I’d never bear Tim’s children, having him in my life still brought me close to the accepted template, for a forty year old, of being in a loving partnership, with kids thrown in for good measure.
The rest of the evening is a long descent into self-pity, punctuated by fits of crying and of course, drunken singing.
Mika’s “This is the way you left me” feels particularly apt, allowing me to run through resignation and cheap philosophy,
‘This is the way that we love,
Like it’s forever,
Then live the rest of our lives,
But not together.’
‘I feel as if I am wasting
And I wasted every day,’ except that I change the last sentence into,
‘And I am wasted every day,’ which seems more fitting especially when I come to the end of the bottle.
I arrive in Kingston the following morning, hungover and miserable. The first mail I read makes me feel even worse,
Please find below my flight details for next Wednesday. I fully expected you to call me yesterday to try and dissuade me from coming over. I am pleasantly surprised you haven’t. I attach a few spreadsheets I’d like you to fill in before next week. I look forward to a constructive and positive day together.
Onwards and upwards,
I completely forgot to call him and now I’ll have to endure a whole day with him next week. Even worse, he’s only planned to return to Bordeaux the following day, which means I’ll have to have dinner with him as well.
Mary senses something’s wrong and leaves me well alone. Philippe’s in a foul mood after the incident with his car and spends most of the morning going backwards and forwards between our office and Matt’s.
In the middle of this gloomy atmosphere, a text from Tim arrives.
Sorry about yesterday. Are you free tonight? Tx
I text back with trembling fingers.
I hope it will look cool and detached.
8 o’clock, your place?
I mean to stay in character.
Philippe comments, without looking away from the screen of his replacement laptop, ‘Lovers’ tiff over for now?’
When I open the door to Tim at eight o’clock on the dot, my heart catches in my throat. He’s thrown a light cashmere jumper on his shoulders, French style, and he’s wearing one of his perfectly ironed multicoloured shirts underneath. His eyes look greener than ever and when he kisses me just at the corner of my mouth, my legs turning to jelly.
He’s brought me a bottle of Vavasour Sauvignon Blanc, the connoisseur’s Cloudy Bay.
‘A belated Christmas present,’ he says.
As the bottle is chilled, I assume he intends to partake of it. Not much of a Christmas present then. I decide to keep mine at the top of the wardrobe for the time being. If I don’t give it to him, there’s always eBay.
When I come back from the kitchen, he’s perched on the arm of the sofa as if there was nowhere else to sit.
I hand him a glass.
‘You can relax, I am not expecting anybody else.’
‘No even a gorgeous blonde for later on?’ he asks.
‘Is that what you wanted for Christmas?’
I sit down in the armchair opposite the sofa. Despite the banter, my sixth sense tells me all’s not well. Cold dread seeps into my veins.
He twirls his glass around but doesn’t even smell the wine. His lips are twitching as if he’s rehearsing what to say.
I wait one, two long minutes and break the silence.
‘What’s the matter, Tim? You said we needed to talk.’
His hands warm his glass as if it were Cognac.
‘I thought this was going to be easier.’
My throat tightens.
‘I am getting hard only to look at you,’ he says.
‘You mean it’s over but you still want to fuck me.’
I am trying to sound dismissive but I hear my voice breaking.
‘It’s not like that.’
He looks like a boy of twelve with an unwelcome erection.
‘What is it like, then?’ I ask.
‘There’s someone else, an ex-girlfriend I caught up with during the holidays. She’s a bit like you.’
‘I am flattered.’
‘She doesn’t work for The Wine Shop or for Villa and it makes a big difference. We can have a normal relationship.’
‘I didn’t know we couldn’t.’
‘Working together makes it difficult.’
His sudden sense of propriety incenses me.
‘Is that why you went from Kate to Jen and then to me?’
He shrugs and gives me a half smile, looking again like an impish little boy.
‘You’re right. I am a feckless bastard.’
I burst into tears.
He moves over to the armchair and kneels in front of me, ‘Hey, sweetheart, don’t cry. I don’t want to hurt you.’
‘A bit late for that.’
I collapse in his arms and he hugs me close. I look at him through my tears. His gaze is earnest. He’s convinced himself he’s done nothing wrong. His cock is pressing against me, like a creature with a mind of its own, a creature that still wants me.
‘There’s a connection between us,’ he says as if on cue.
We don’t even make it to the bedroom. Our lovemaking is brutal and desperate. I cry throughout, from the huge well of misery inside me, which has filled up over the last six months.
Afterwards, I lay in his arms, thinking of the faceless new girlfriend he’s already been unfaithful to. He shifts a little but I am a dead weight. I don’t say anything, unwilling to help him make an early exit. He pats my hair like he would a dog.
‘Is it what you wanted?’ he asks.
‘The last fuck or being dumped?’
‘Don’t say that. We’ll still see each other all the time in the office. And you can call me when you want.’
‘Lovelorn Anonymous, good evening. Please, Tim, you know it’s not true. You have already moved on.’
He shuffles away from me, impatience creeping in his voice.
‘All I can say is that you’ll be in my thoughts.’
‘Right at the back, next to the archives.’
He stands up, a kind, aggrieved man dealing with a bitter, unreasonable woman. He pushes his hair out of his eyes and puts his clothes back on. Once dressed, he takes my hands in his, cocking his head to one side, ‘I hope you do not regret our time together.’
I close my eyes, incapable to add another word. I wrap myself in a blanket and push him towards the door. When we get there, I hug him one last time. His arms close around me.
‘Maybe . . .’ he says.
‘Shut up and go.’
I push him away and slam the door behind him.
I return to the living room, walking like an automaton. I pick up our glasses and the half empty bottle of wine and bring them back to the kitchen. I pour the wine in the sink. I want nothing else from him, delicious as it may be. I throw the bottle in the recycling box so hard it shatters a jam jar. Next, I grab the Hoover and I vacuum the carpet, the rug we made love on, the sofa he sat on. I want to rid my flat and my life of him. When I stop, the air is full of the smell of hot swirling dust but I can still detect a whiff of Safari for Men. I curl up around the warm Hoover and sob my heart out.
The following weeks pass as in a dream or a nightmare. I wish I could return to Arcachon to regain the peace of mind I experienced at Christmas but business has picked up and I can’t afford any time off. If I became sick, I’d have an excuse to run away and hide for a while but even though I look awful, I can’t claim to suffer from any identifiable illness. I soldier on.
I arrive in the office early to ensure I don’t bump into anybody from The Wine Shop and leave late for the same reason. I avoid visiting Arnaud’s office as much as possible and correspond with Tim by email. We have to sit in the same meeting twice but Arnaud’s presence ensures I keep my countenance. Jen’s now joined the new range taskforce, which helps taking the pressure off.
She and I go for a beer at the Queen’s Head after work a few days after Tim and I split up. She’s heard the news from Dave.
‘I never asked before but why did you go for him?’ she asks. ‘I remember you saying he was not your type at all,’
I draw shapes on the wooden table with my finger.
‘Dunno. Maybe because he embodied a certain idea of The Wine Shop?’
She frowns. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I told you why I joined Villa initially, wanting to follow in my father’s footsteps, wanting to do something for French wine. When that went pear shaped, I thought I could do my bit for The Wine Shop. With Arnaud’s arrival that became impossible as well.’
‘Was Tim your reward for trying?’
‘Or my compensation for failing.’
She takes a sip from her Guinness.
‘Do you think it was love?’
‘I’d go as far as a bad case of lust.’
‘It still hurts, though, doesn’t it?’
‘I’m a dreamer…Don’t worry, I won’t sing it to you.’
‘I don’t mind Supertramp. It’s your rendition I worry about. What will you do now?’
‘I will have been with Villa for six months at the end of January. I’m trying to convince myself I should give it a year before I move on. But I may be kicked out at the end of my probation period anyway.’
‘You’ll find something else easily.’
‘I am not so sure and money’s tight. I bought my house last year and I’d rather not lose it straight away.’
‘Are you going to the Australia Day Tasting?’ she asks. ‘It’s a good place to nose around for job opportunities. I can introduce you to a few people there’
I shake my head. ‘I’ve got an export meeting in France on that day. If it’s anything like the last one, it’ll be a complete waste of time but I still have to go.’
‘You have already missed the New Zealand Tasting.’
‘I was not in the mood. Anyway my poor father would turn in his grave if I ended up selling Australian or New Zealand wines.’
Jen purses her lips. ‘Do you have a stand at France Under One Roof? If you want to stick with a French company, it will be your best bet.’
‘I’ll be tied to my stand.’
‘Can you find an excuse to go to Prowein or Vinitaly?’
I pull a face. ‘Not really even though Prowein sounds interesting. Not sure about Vinitaly: there’s something about Verona in April I can’t take seriously.’
‘You’re wrong. It’s brilliant for Italian wines.’
‘I’ll stick to the Definitive Italian Tasting in July. Lords may not be as exciting as Verona but it’s easier to get to.’
‘You have also got Wines of Spain in April, the Wine Fair in May and Vinexpo in June.’
I burst out laughing. ‘You make me think of the “Europe in seven days” trips the Japanese used to go on. Instead of “if it’s Tuesday, it’s Bruxelles”, we have “if it’s September, it’s Wines of Chile, if it’s October, it’s Wines of South Africa”.’
‘Is Claudia still working there?’
‘At WOSA? I think so. Thanks Jen, by the way.’
‘Not giving up on me.’
‘It’s alright.’ She takes another sip of her Guinness, her blue eyes softer than I have ever seen them.