Ed joins in the applause which concludes the performance and proudly announces we’re only running twenty minutes late, quite a feat by our usual standards. He then gives the mike to the export marketing director who proceeds to tell us about the organisation of the international fairs where Villa’s exhibiting this year. We’ll be supporting Prowein in Düsseldorf at Bruno’s insistence, the London International Wine Fair at mine, and Vinexpo, a must attend for the company as it takes place in our hometown of Bordeaux.
Caroline passes round drawings of the stands and fields various questions ranging from the practical – what’s the stand number? – to the controversial – why weren’t we shown these earlier? –. Why does the marketing presentation always seem to awake the worst in the sales team? Is it because they get the awkward slot at the end of the day? Or is it because their attitude is all about knowing what’s best without getting their hands dirty?
Our placid German colleague raises his hand. He’s turned bright red. ‘Why does the sign on the stand read “Groupe Villa”?’
‘This is the new corporate identity we’re going to use from now on.’ Caroline says.
‘Is it the name which will appear in the catalogue?’
‘Of course,’ she answers as if talking to a particularly dim child. ‘It’s our new corporate identity.’
‘But our clients and prospects know us as Villa,’ he says.
‘They’ll have to get used to the new name.’
‘I understand. In the meantime, they’ll look for us under the letter V in the catalogue and they won’t find us.’
Caroline looks at her boss for help.
‘I think you underestimate your clients, Georg.’ He says. ‘When they don’t find you under Villa, they’ll realise you have changed identity and they’ll look under Firma Villa or Gruppe Villa.’
‘With all due respect, I think you overestimate our own importance.’ Georg answers. ‘When our clients don’t find us, they’ll go and pay a visit to one of our competitors. The money we have invested in the stand will be wasted unless they find us by chance. Prowein is a huge exhibition.’
‘He’s right,’ Bruno says. ‘What’s this new nonsense? Can’t you think anything through?’
The discussion threatens to develop into a full blown argument similar to the one we had at the last meeting. Export managers hunt in packs. Now Bruno’s taken the first bite, his peers are shifting in their seats, ready to join the fray.
‘Excuse me. May I have your attention?’ Marcel Villa’s woken up from his afternoon nap.
Even though I expect his intervention to silence my team mates’ criticisms, I am pleased he’s exercising his authority to nip rebellion in the bud. It’s one thing for an ordinary export meeting to turn into a bun fight but our undignified squabbling doesn’t need to be shared with a public.
‘Have you thought about the polo shirts?’ he asks. ‘They’ll have to show the new logo.’
The marketing director takes over as is proper when the future head of the company is talking. ‘As the font remains the same and we’re only adding the word “Groupe” in front of “Villa”, we thought it would not be necessary to buy new polo shirts straight away.’
‘We can’t have “Groupe Villa” on the stand and “Villa” on the team’s polo shirts. It’s confusing.’ Marcel says.
We avoid looking at each other. The confusion is minimal but nobody wants to risk antagonising Marcel.
‘New polo shirts will be ordered for Prowein, Monsieur Villa,’ says the marketing director, kowtowing to the absurd. He turns to us, ‘You’ll all be issued with one shirt per day for your own convenience. This means you’ll be expected to be impeccable even on the last day. Needless to say, it’ll then be your responsibility to wash and iron your shirts for the next fair.’
Having thus re-established his authority, he goes back to his seat.
‘Before you order anything new, shouldn’t we have an open discussion about this new corporate identity?’ Bruno asks, like a dog whose bone has been snatched away.
The marketing director turns towards Marcel in a mute appeal. Marcel fails to react. He’s frowning at his Blackberry as if he’s just found it on the floor and is unsure of how to use it. Then muttering an apology, he stands up and leaves the room.
We look at each other and soon the room has descended into chaos. Everybody is talking at the same time with the kind souls translating the argument for their non-French speaking colleagues adding to the ambient noise.
André gives us five minutes and yells, ‘Shut up. This isn’t the time or the place for this argument. Monsieur de Waast, please bring this meeting to its conclusion. Some of us have got actual work to do.’
Ed does as he’s told and the simultaneous scraping of our chairs’ legs on the floor tells of our impatience to leave the room. I have almost made it to the door when I am stopped in my track by André’s cold voice.
‘Miss Legerot, a word, if you please. Monsieur de Waast, could you join us?’
Philippe takes a step closer to me.
André points at him. ‘Your presence won’t be needed.’
As we traipse behind André, Ed whispers to me, ‘What does he want with you now?’
‘I have no idea,’ I say. ‘He’s been glaring at me all afternoon but I can’t think of what I could have done to displease him.’
‘I don’t know why the two of you can’t get on,’ he says.
I snap back at him. ‘I don’t either.’
When we walk into André’s office, I have the disagreeable surprise to find Marcel Villa sprawled on the sofa. He’s still engrossed in his Blackberry but doesn’t express any surprise when he sees us. This means he was expecting us and probably knows what André has against me. My crime must be heinous for him to be involved, considering how fraught his relationship with André is.
I fall into a chair more than I sit, my legs failing to support me. Ed indicated when he visited me in Kingston that we’d take five minutes with Marcel during the committee meeting to confirm me in my job. Another crisis with André is bound to jeopardise this plan. And whenever I have thought of leaving Villa, it’s always been of my own accord, not pushed off because I haven’t made the grade.
‘I’ll be direct.’ André says, looking at Ed. ‘I can’t work with Mademoiselle Legerot anymore.’
‘Direct indeed,’ Ed says. ‘May I ask why?’
‘She has no understanding of the most basic rules of business.’
‘You surprise me. Chris came to us highly recommended by her previous boss. He praised her business acumen.’
‘She must have left it behind when she joined Villa then.’
‘Can you give us an example?’
‘I don’t have to look far. Look at the mess she’s made of the incident with The Super-Market.’
‘I understood the matter to have been resolved.’
‘It was, until Blabbermouth here compromised everything.’
Ed’s adopts his penguin pose: feet and palms of his hands splayed open in perfect symmetry. ‘I’m afraid, you’ve lost me.’
‘Once it became clear this young lady would agree to any compensation The Super-Market demanded without even trying to negotiate them down, I arranged for the total cost of the incident to be borne by a third party. What did I find out yesterday?’
‘The brother-in-law!’ I exclaim. ‘Did the co-op refuse to pay?’
Ed looks from André to me and then back as if he were watching a particularly mystifying tennis match. Marcel’s cocked his head on one side and is staring at me in what I can only describe as a speculating way.
‘They will honour their commitment but they will not pay a penny more than what we have been invoiced. And they insist on seeing a copy of the invoice,’ André says, exaggerating every syllable.
‘Why is that a problem?’ I ask
André slams his fist on the desk. ‘Nobody’s ever doubted my word before, apart from your father, as you well know.’
I don’t but now isn’t the time to ask for clarification.
‘This could ruin my reputation and Villa’s.’
‘You’re not Villa, you know,’ Marcel says.
André is too overcome to mind the trap.
‘Down here, I am. They would have paid us £45,000 without discussion and that stupid cow told them they could get away with £27,753,’ he says.
‘Why should they pay us more than what’s owed?’ I ask.
‘It’s business. You take as much as you can and you leave the rest. And if you don’t understand that, you’ll never get far, just like your father.’
I am shocked into silence.
Ed looks bewildered by André’s angry outburst. It looks like his natural cautiousness is battling with his desire to do the right thing. I am pretty sure he doesn’t understand the situation though, and is mystified by the references to my father.
Marcel’s looking at me with a sideways smile. I feel as if he’s spurring me on.
I turn back to André. ‘Thank you for the masterclass Monsieur Lange, but I’d rather not go far than turn into a bully like you. It was wrong in the first place to shift the responsibility of the problem on to our suppliers but it would have been even worse to take advantage of the situation and make a profit off their backs.’
I turn to Ed and Marcel. ‘I may have been hopelessly naive in talking freely to the brother-in-law of the co-op’s director but I have a clear conscience, something Monsieur Lange hasn’t had in a long time.’
André lunges at me but Marcel’s bag trips him and sends him sprawling. I can’t remember that bag being there five minutes ago.
‘André, try to retain some dignity, please,’ Marcel says. ‘Don’t forget you’re Villa down here.’
He turns to me. ‘Mademoiselle Legerot, I agree with Monsieur de Waast. You have done a good job for us in England these past six months. I am glad to say you’ve passed your probation. Congratulations.’
He stands up and leaves the room, whistling the first bars of “Le Blues du Businessman”.
André gets up slowly.
‘Right, I am afraid, Monsieur Lange, you’ve heard Monsieur Villa,’ Ed says. ‘I hope you’ll join me in wishing Chris many successful years with the company. In time I am positive the two of you will learn to work together.’
He grabs my arm and we half-run, half-tumble out of André’s office and down the stairs. I am shaking so much I have to sit on the bottom step when we arrive in the reception hall.
Ed wipes his brow. ‘There will be hell to pay.’
‘Why does it always have to happen to me?’ he asks.
I prefer not to comment. I’m relieved he’s feeling so sorry for himself that he’s forgetting to ask why André should know and refer to my late father.
I can’t get André’s words out of my head. ‘Nobody’s ever doubted my word before, apart from your father, as you know.’
Marcel vanishes after saving my skin and texts Ed a few hours later. He’s had to return to Bordeaux unexpectedly and won’t be able to attend the second day of the export committee. André sends word he won’t join us for dinner.
Serge appears out of nowhere as we’re sitting down.
‘May I?’ he asks, pointing at the chair next to mine.
‘Are you sure? What if André changes his mind and decides to join us?’
‘I’ll run to him, of course.’
‘Let’s hope he doesn’t, then.’
I pour him a glass of Villa Pouilly Fuissé, keeping my eyes on the bottle.
‘Why didn’t you warn me he’d try to get rid of me?’
He sounds genuinely shocked.
I look up. ‘Is this condemnation or praise?’
‘He’s bloody clever but I still don’t understand his problem with you.’
I don’t feel like going through the whole story again.
‘Don’t you know the latest?’ I ask.
‘I know what he told me, which could be different from what he told you.’
‘He accused me of scuppering his chances of cheating our suppliers out of nearly £20,000.’
Serge’s loyalty to André reasserts itself. ‘You shouldn’t call it cheating. It is money we paid to The Super-Market.’
‘It isn’t. He meant to charge the co-op almost twice as much as we’ve been charged.’
The Japanese delegation looks at us in askance from across the table. I shouldn’t have raised my voice.
Serge answers me in a whisper. ‘You’re kidding me. Bastard . . .’
‘My thoughts entirely but you still haven’t answered my question.’
He pauses for a few minutes. ‘I owe you an apology.’
I sit back and cross my arms. ‘Go on.’
‘André called me to his office, two or three days ago. He wanted to know if I’d discussed the email from The Super-Market you forwarded to us with anybody. When I said I had not, he asked me if you knew anybody at the co-op.’
‘You told him I’d met Dominique in Edinburgh?’
‘He said he’d thought as much. But it gets worse. When you mentioned this guy to me, his name didn’t ring any bells.’
‘Not another liar.’ I say.
‘I am afraid so. The person you met is Thierry, the co-op’s director. He doesn’t have a brother in law. André was delighted you’d been fooled.’
I screw up my face in disgust. ‘Why did Thierry or Dominique or whatever he’s called, tell him?’
‘He didn’t. He would not reveal his sources, which is why André suspected me first. It’s only when I mentioned you’d met someone called Dominique, Thierry’s brother in law, that André told me no such person existed and you were the source of the leak.’
I feel myself welling up. ‘Why did he lie to me? He seemed like such a nice man, so down to earth, so genuine. Is there anybody who can be trusted?’
Sege pats my hand. ‘I don’t think he meant any harm. He only knew you worked for Villa when he approached you. You could have been André’s partner in crime.’
‘I am getting fed up with all this deception. Does anybody ever tell the truth?’
‘What about you?’
I never told Serge about Tim. I don’t want to disappoint him.
‘What do you mean?’ I ask.
‘André told me you’d suggested the co-op refuse to pay us anything. He said you’d overstepped your responsibilities and needed to be taught a lesson.’
‘And you believed him?’
The Japanese glance at us again, smile and bow. I take it as a polite yet clear warning that I am being too loud.
‘I tried to warn you.’
I cross my arms again. ‘How kind! What stopped you from not just trying?’
‘I called you in the office but you were out. I told Philippe I wanted to ask you exactly what had happened in Edinburgh. He said it had gone pear shaped and you wouldn’t want to talk about it.’
‘Oh my God.’
Serge stares at me.
‘He was referring to something else, wasn’t he?’ he asks.
‘As I’m sure you’ve figured out.’
‘I wondered at the time but didn’t want to probe. It’s none of my business after all.’
I try to return to the matter in hand. ‘I don’t approve of André’s bullying of the co-op but I would never presume to interfere. All I did was tell Thierry how much The Super-Market had billed us for the QA issue when he called me a few days ago. I had no idea André would try to overcharge them.’
Serge doesn’t answer and eats his starter in silence. I push my food around my plate. I’ve lost my best friend in the company because I’ve slept with a clever cretin in a moment of weakness and it has complicated an already impossible situation.
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ Serge asks.
I try not to look at him. ‘I didn’t realise the importance of that phone call.’
‘This is not what I am talking about and you know it. I thought we were friends.’ He’s patting my hand again. I am sure everybody is watching us.
I give him the short version. ‘I knew you’d disapprove so I didn’t tell you.’
‘You should have. I am not good with people but I really enjoy working with you, more than with anybody else, apart from André of course.’
He winks at me. I shake my head. Kindness always makes me cry and I am trying hard not to right now. Maman would say there’s a time and a place for everything.
‘If you don’t stop right now,’ I say, looking at my untouched food, ‘I am going to burst into tears and we’ll have a hell of a job convincing the others we’re only discussing business.
He squeezes my hand one last time. ‘Remember what I’ve said. Don’t doubt me ever again.’
‘How could I ever?
Marguerite Villa doesn’t show up the following day either. When I ask Ed why, he’s as puzzled as I am.