I get an email from Rachel the following day. She’s had all the info back from stores and she’s about to invoice Villa for £27,753. Could I confirm this is acceptable?
Her question is purely academic. Supermarkets deduct whatever they want from suppliers’ payments and the ensuing disputes are lengthy and fraught with pitfalls. Yet I write back stating that, following her mail and previous correspondence on the subject, Villa will honour the invoice she’s about to issue.
Even though the amount is a large one, I am relieved to have a final figure, especially as it’s below the £35,000 I provisioned. Once it’s paid, I hope we’ll all be able to put this unpleasant incident behind us. André may even warm up to me at some distant point in the future. In the meantime, I forward Rachel’s email to him.
My French friend from the Scottish Wine Fair phones me a few days later on a busy morning. He starts by wishing me a Happy New Year according to the French tradition which deems it acceptable to do so up until the end of January.
As I assume he’s not calling to discuss the weather and as I don’t want to spend half an hour on the phone, I tell him The Super-Market has now confirmed they’ll be charging us £27,753 to settle their claim. I get a bit annoyed when he makes me repeat the figure three times. He tells me he’s pleasantly surprised the figure is less than the one I quoted originally. We part good friends and he makes me promise to give him a call if I ever have spare time during a trip to the south of France.
Three weeks later, Philippe and I are on my favourite motorway. The poetically called “autoroute des deux mers” connects Toulouse, where our flight landed, and Narbonne where we’re heading.
‘This drive is like a geography lesson,’ I tell Philippe. ‘We started in the plain and now we’re climbing up to the pass between the Black Mountain and the Pyrenees. Then on the other side, it’s the Med-’
‘-where the weather is often completely different,’ he says, finishing the sentence for me.
‘Have I told you before?’ I ask.
‘When we came down here in September. Word for word.’
‘Am I going gaga?’
‘I’ll only speak in the presence of my lawyer.’
I lean sideways to elbow him in the ribs.
He pushes me away.
‘Watch the road, crazy woman. I’m too young to die.’
‘Maybe you’ve gone through my entire repertoire of anecdotes and jokes in the last six months and I’m beginning to repeat myself?’ I ask.
He lifts his hands in mock protection. ‘There are some I’d rather avoid the second time round if you don’t mind, especially if they involve singing.’
I open my mouth for a biting repartee but am cut short by Veronique Sanson belting out ‘Toute Une Vie Sans Te Voir’ on the car radio. My eyes mist over but I manage not to cry, which represents a vast improvement on past performances.
Philippe looks straight ahead of him, thus avoiding the need to make any comment on the sudden darkening of my mood.
Once the song is finished, he puts on his best tourist guide voice. ‘On your left, the gorgeous city of Carcassonne, one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe, together with Rothenburg ob den Tauber where my boss spent a dirty weekend way back in the eighties.’
I clear my throat to ensure I sound suitably light hearted. ‘When did I tell you that?’
‘You didn’t but you hinted and as I got to know you better, I came to my own conclusion.’
‘Do you think one should separate one’s private life from business?’
‘I do but I am lucky never to have fallen in love with anybody at work.’
I wink at him. ‘Not even Mary?’
‘Keep your eyes on the road. Mary sits opposite me all day. It would be crazy.’
‘Charles Bukovsky wrote “Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must live.”’
We pass Carcassonne, oblivious to its medieval splendour.
‘You shouldn’t believe everything you read,’ Philippe says.
I tighten my grip on the steering wheel and ask, ‘Do you despise me for going out with Tim?’
‘I don’t but you should have known better.’
I shrug. ‘Why do I always come to my senses afterwards?’
‘Maybe because your senses get in the way beforehand?’
‘I’ve missed Carcassonne now.’
‘It’ll still be there when we drive back tomorrow.’
The weather changes, just as I’d forecasted, once we cross over into the Languedoc and we arrive in Narbonne under a bright winter sun.
The export committee meeting, to give it its proper name, is an annual event which usually takes place in Bordeaux and brings together the executive staff of Villa’s foreign subsidiaries, and the export managers based at head office. It aims to create the feeling of a family reunion.
This year, Ed has decided to hold it in Narbonne to include “our colleagues from production”. As the travelling budget for the event is astronomical, Ed’s tried to limit accommodation costs by scheduling the meeting from lunchtime on the Thursday to lunchtime on the Friday. It gives those who have travelled from far away the option to treat themselves to a weekend in France. A few years ago, when being away on a Saturday night brought down the price of a flight, it would have been compulsory.
At the gates of the winery, I recognise the security guard from my last visit. I slow down, wave at him, point to Philippe whom I assume he knows and speed up. The shrill sound of a whistle makes me stand on the brakes. I look back. The security guard is gesturing at me to reverse.
‘What does he want?’ I ask Philippe.
‘No idea but you’d better go back if you don’t want him to pursue you into the meeting room.’
I check my watch. ‘We haven’t got much time to spare.’
Philippe gives a fatalistic shrug.
I turn the car around and drive back to the gates. The guard signals for me to park by his shed and to follow him inside.
‘What the hell is going on?’ I ask Philippe again.
He ignores my question and I get out of the car leaving the engine running. I march inside the shed. Before I have time to say anything, the guard points at the car, ‘Engine off, please’.
I open my hands in a conciliatory gesture. ‘We’re employees of Villa’s and we’re due to be in a big meeting in five minutes.’
‘Engine off, please,’ he repeats, looking away from me.
I return to the car, fuming, and I kill the engine. Once back inside the shed I ask, ‘what’s all this about?’
He ignores me and picks up his glasses. He wipes the lenses with great care, checks their cleanliness against the light and puts them on slowly.
‘Passport, please,’ he says.
‘This is ridiculous. You know who I am.’
He looks at me with an impassive face. ‘Last time, you tell me no passport for English people. I believe you. When boss checks reports, he asks why no passport number for English visitor.’
I remember now I forgot to tell André about my white lie to the security guard. ‘I am sorry. Did you get into trouble?’
‘Boss gave me warning. He says he’s boss, not you and not to believe you. Ever. Passport please.’
I return to the car for the second time.
‘So?’ asks Philippe.
‘Paying for old sins with interest,’ I say.
The guard scrutinises my passport with the diligence of an East German border guard from the Honecker days. He copies the number in his register, one digit at a time, his tongue poking between his teeth. I stay silent, aware that the slightest provocation will cost me another five minutes.
Luck’s on my side though, as no other vehicle arrives during the proceedings. The security guard eventually runs out of delaying tactics and Philippe and I are free to go.
Ed’s welcoming his troops when we file in the meeting room.
‘I am disappointed some people have not managed to get here on time when others from further away have.’
He gestures to three Japanese in the corner who bow in unison. I doubt they have understood Ed’s comment. He’s spoken French as everybody is asked to throughout the meeting to ensure Marcel Villa can understand what’s going on.
There’s no point in answering, especially as the rebuke isn’t specific, and Philippe and I squeeze ourselves between the Dutch and the Polish contingent, smiling and nodding left and right.
All the luxury in Narbonne being reserved for André’s office, the meeting room lacks the grandeur of its equivalent in Bordeaux. It’s stark and utilitarian and not big enough for such a large gathering. Square windows with blackout blinds occupy one side of the room and the three other walls are rendered white and bare of any decoration. Tables with metal legs and laminated white tops have been arranged in a U-shape and a motley collection of chairs are gathered around. As space is tight, some people sit outside the first circle as if waiting for their turn to come to the table.
In between foreign clusters arranged around the relevant export managers, my other colleagues are placed according to rank, allegiance and global geopolitics. The marketing team provides a buffer between Japan and China, and Sébastien between Poland and Russia. Marcel and André sit next to each other, welded together by their distrust of each other and Serge flanks André on the other side. Philippe and I link up Holland and Germany thus recreating the alliance of two centuries ago against revolutionary France.
I don’t anticipate anything revolutionary from this meeting, only a dreary repetition of the last one on a bigger scale. Marguerite Villa’s absence surprises me though. Despite her avowed intention to have Marcel replace her at the head of the company, I would have expected her to preside over such a large gathering or at least to join us for part of the proceedings. Maybe she’ll turn up later.
We go through the German presentation in a benign mood. Something makes me feel uncomfortable though. The chair’s admittedly a bit hard and we’re squished around like sardines but there’s something else. Only when I meet André’s gaze do I realise he’s staring at me with barely suppressed hatred. What have I done now? I rack my brain but can’t think of anything.
A long expose in halting French on the ordeal our Russian office endured to ensure Villa’s compliance with the latest regulation on fiscal strips puts the room to sleep. It fails to distract André despite pointing the finger at the shortcomings of some of the staff in Narbonne, something he doesn’t take to lightly in normal circumstances.
When Ed grants us a ten minute break, I stay in my seat, waiting for André to attack. When I look up, he’s left the room. This puzzles me. What can be the problem if he’s not even willing to confront me about it? Serge has vanished as well, which is even stranger as we have not exchanged a word yet and I would have expected him to come over for a chat. I assume he’s been dragged away by his boss, or he’s up against it and trying to catch up. He could also be avoiding me if he knows why André’s on my case. What I call courage and he, foolhardiness, isn’t his strong point as I have found out before.
The young head of the Polish office comes up to me with a beaming smile.
‘Hello, we have not met before. I am Zbigniew but call me Zeebee. You’re the London office, aren’t you?’
‘I am indeed. How do you do?’
‘There’s an idea I want to discuss with you.’ He plonks himself next to me, clearly determined to seize the moment. ‘A lot of Poles live in England.’
‘We have created a French Table Wine brand. It’s bottled here and it sells well in Poland. Why don’t you try and introduce it in your country?’
I don’t think I have ever met somebody with such a radiant smile. It makes it difficult to remind him that despite the presence of a sizeable contingent of his countrymen and women in my country, as he calls it, the vast majority of the population still happens to be British. And that Brits left French Table wine behind sometimes in the Eighties. I try to play for time.
‘Do you have a visual you could show me?’
He jumps on his feet and returns seconds later with an A4 picture of a nice ordinary bottle of red plonk. He’s still smiling broadly.
‘You should have a chat with Philippe.’ I tell him. ‘He deals with the Cash and Carries where Polish corner shop owners get their supplies from.’
‘You don’t mind?’
‘No, be my guest.’
He pumps my hand with boyish energy. ‘Thank you so much. I think we’ll do big business together.’
I am relieved when he leaves me if a bit guilty to have passed on the responsibility to disappoint him to Philippe. I massage my jaw which was beginning to ache from trying to match his Cheshire cat grin.
People are now trickling back in the room. It looks like I missed out on the break.
The next presentation, from the new head of the Chinese office, fascinates me. In what I understand to be the spirit of this get together, he explains the cultural differences between France and China, and how to make the most of them in a nice way to sell our wine. He then proceeds to reveal impressive progressions, cleverly expressed in percentages as he started off from a tiny basis.
André’s still glowering at me, uncharacteristically failing to bask in the reflected glory of his pet market. Could I have upset him by asking for the bottling of The Wine Shop’s Pinot Grigio to be brought forward? Or is he annoyed I didn’t consult him on the date of Marks and Spencer’s forthcoming visit? Surely, he knows I was not given any choice in the matter. These are trifles anyway. None of them justifies the icy stares he’s been subjecting me to.
It’s my Dutch friend’s turn to go to the rostrum. He treats us to a slick and well-honed review of last year’s business, packed with so many props I am amazed he didn’t exceed his luggage limit on the flight down here. His grand finale is a short film taken during Amsterdam’s gay pride at which the company sponsored a float.
Possibly enticed by the lively music, André stops staring at me to watch the show. If I was not so worried about his attitude, I’d burst out laughing. His eyebrows rise higher and higher until they almost meet his hairline. When a dancer, clad in a tiny pink swimsuit which leaves little to the imagination, crosses the screen and waves happily at us, he gets a coughing fit and Serge has to slap his back to calm him down.