February vanishes in a flurry of client meetings, short visits to France and long telephone calls with Arnaud. He’s become so impatient he doesn’t wait for me or anybody else to get to his office when he needs to talk. He carries out pretend long-distance meetings where he conducts conversations with up to three different people, one in front of him, one on the mobile and one on the landline. All three may be sitting a few yards from his office. If he needs a fourth, he’ll drop the least relevant person and call their replacement. This panders to his liking for secrecy and absolute control as the people he talks to don’t know what the others are saying. It also means he wastes record amounts of my time and everybody else’s. I never know when he hangs up if he’s done or if he’ll call again five minutes later. The small room at the back of the office, where we have lunch and our rare formal get-togethers, has turned into my refuge whenever I have something important to work on and don’t want to be interrupted. Mary knows to tell Arnaud I am on the other line and can’t be disturbed when I have retreated there. She used to say I was out of the office until the day he asked why he could see my car from his window.
We launch The Wine Shop’s new own label range on the first Saturday in March. Bearing in mind the initial concept dictated by Arnaud – to generate maximum volume and margin for Villa regardless of the product sold – the result isn’t too bad: the labels are neutral and elegant and Serge and Jen have sourced decent if unexceptional wines.
The prices are high though and the range lacks that little spark of genius which would get the press on side. The first reactions are muted, with Harpers Wine and Spirits, the industry’s weekly, announcing the launch but reserving its comment until the following issue of the magazine when the wines will be in store. Same in The Drinks Business. Nothing in Off Licence News, which has given The Wine Shop, or what it calls “its elusive management”, a tough time of late. We have missed the February issue of Decanter and it’s too early for March. I can’t see them getting excited about such a motley collection though.
Arnaud has imposed selling targets to all stores to try and meet his self-imposed goal of two million bottles sold in the first year. When I ask him how he reconciles this with the seven million figure he aimed for only a few months ago, I am met with a blank stare.
A central London shop manager, who fails to shift enough of the new range over the first days of the launch, receives an official warning. When he says promoting it would lower his average selling price by two pounds a bottle and risk alienating his more discerning customers, he is ignored.
I try to stay away from the debate. Now I have delivered what was required of me, I hope Arnaud will give me some breathing space and allow me to get on with the rest of my work, if only for a few weeks. I have half convinced him we should test the new range before trying to sell it to other retailers and that a success story will be our most compelling argument. I am buying time and hoping the problem will go away on its own.
Tesco are tendering a half-price deal for next September and I may soon get an opening with Marks and Spencer. In the more immediate future, Direct Wines’ new range is about to go into production as is Sainsbury’s next promotion. Mary tells me bottling dates have been postponed twice already. She’s been told our bottle suppliers have failed to deliver either the correct bottle type or the right quantity several times in a row. This sounds to me like a classic cop-out from our production colleagues and I fear another battle with Narbonne is looming.
France Under One Roof, a one day trade fair dedicated exclusively to French Wines takes place on Wednesday, the 14th of March.
Ed’s coming over. It will give me a perfect opportunity to demonstrate our progress to date to him. I have chosen with care a selection of lesser Bordeaux Châteaux to show on the stand, together with a few of Serge’s special Languedoc blends and some Burgundies from Sébastien’s extensive range. Villa’s handling of The Wine Shop may be open to criticism but it doesn’t mean my side of the business needs to suffer any collateral damage.
With two days to go before the fair and Ed arriving tomorrow lunchtime, I get to the office at seven on the Monday, full of enthusiasm and hope for the week ahead. By eight thirty English time, I have made four telephone calls, which have confirmed a serious shortage of wine bottles in Europe. This hasn’t occurred in over twenty years but in hindsight, it was a problem waiting to happen.
The four main glass suppliers in Europe operate an unofficial cartel way. The American group Owens, which became the market leader when it took over the French BSN, first put pressure on availability when it closed several ovens and reduced its range in order to increase profitability. St Gobain, the market’s number two, promptly followed suit. When it decided to sell its glass business, strikes followed, further lessening the global bottle stock. A major breakdown at a French oven, a similar incident in Spain and a surge in demand in the spring, compounded by customers stockpiling to avoid running out of stock, worsened the situation.
I send a mute apology to my colleagues in Narbonne and set to compose an email to inform our main customers of the situation. When my phone rings, I bury my head between my hands and signal to Mary, who crept in ten minutes earlier, to pick up. What should I write? I don’t want to lose any orders but if we do run out of bottles, even for a short time, I need to ensure customers understand the crisis is global. It isn’t whether I should tell the truth or lie but how to dress up an unwelcome truth in as acceptable a garb as possible.
Mary coughs to attract my attention.
I turn towards her. ‘What now?’
She gives me an apologetic smile. ‘It was Arnaud.’
‘Can it wait?’ I ask.
‘He needs to see you now. He says it’s important.’
‘Bloody hell, I thought he’d grown out of his habit of pulling me in at a whim.’
‘Sorry,’ says Mary
‘Please, don’t apologise on his behalf, you’re making it worse.’
I walk to Arnaud’s office, mulling over the glass shortage issue and feeling cross with myself for snapping at Mary. She’s doing her best to help me and she’s the last person I should be unpleasant to. I resolve to direct my resentment towards a more deserving target but Dave’s not at his usual post. At a stretch, I am sure I can find a way to blame Arnaud for the shortcomings of the glass industry.
I throw myself in the chair facing Arnaud’s desk without waiting for an invitation. ‘You wanted to see me.’
I cross my arms and my legs for good measure. I am determined to show him I have had enough of his bully boy tactics.
He growls. ‘And with good reason.’
I don’t take the bait. Instead, I mark the beat with my foot, waiting for a more specific pointer.
‘In case you have forgotten, you and I are on the same side. We don’t have to be best friends but we must be as honest as possible with each other,’ he says.
My jaw almost comes unstuck. How dare he?
He continues before I have time to decide if I should erupt in self-righteous anger or burst out laughing. ‘Why didn’t you tell me about the artist?’
The laughter dies in my throat. I feel myself turning bright red. I uncross my legs and cross them again on the other side.
Arnaud points at me. ‘Ah! Got you there! Your face says it all. Don’t try to tell me you didn’t know.’
His choice of words gives me a small glimmer of hope. I manage to croak. ‘Didn’t know what?’
He leans over the desk, supporting himself on his hands like a gorilla, and spits out. ‘He’s leaving.’
He remains in the same position, staring at me for what feels like a long time, and throws himself back, adding. ‘You didn’t. And I would have sworn the two of you were thick as thieves.’
I manage to articulate. ‘When is he going?’
‘This morning or tomorrow, I am not sure. Depends how long it’ll take him to clear his desk and sort out the paperwork with bloody HR.’
‘Doesn’t he have a notice period?’ I ask.
Arnaud is looking at his computer screen. ‘We agreed it was best if he didn’t work it.’
‘You had an argument,’ I say.
‘A big one.’
Arnaud looks back at me. He’s smiling the sheepish smile of the little boy who’s both relieved to have told the truth and secretly proud of his misdemeanour. ‘I have wanted to put this arrogant git in his place for a long time. My English is much better now.’
‘Why did you argue if he’s the one who asked to leave? You’ve wanted rid of him as long as you have been here.’
‘I make the decisions here. I agreed to keep him when others had to go. I am hardly going to applaud him when he saunters in here two months later to tell me he’s found a better job elsewhere.’
‘Men’s egos! Where’s he going?’
‘One of our suppliers, of course. Silly name. Michelin something.’
‘Bibendum?’ I ask.
‘That’s the one. Why do they call themselves after a tyre company?’ Arnaud muses.
‘Bibendum means “let’s drink” in Latin.’
His jaw juts forward. ‘How do you know all that crap?’
‘I did Latin at school for a few years.’
‘Good for you.’
He pauses. ‘So, you didn’t know anything about the artist’s leaving. Fancy that! You can go now.’
He dismisses me with a little wave of his upturned left hand, his eyes already trained on something more interesting than me.
Why can’t I remember to play dumb when I am with him? Any pointless bit of information I provide him with only serves to fuel his resentment of me, as if we were engaged in a real life University Challenge.
I am surprised he hasn’t taunted me for my support of Tim when his job was on the line. It would force him to remember his humiliation at the hands of Marguerite Villa though. His pride does have some advantages after all.
Now is the time to go and have a little chat with Tim, while my anger still gives me the courage to do so and before the realisation of his leaving has fully sunk in.
I bump into the head of human resources in the corridor. He’s got a thick folder under his arm and looks hassled.
‘Good weekend?’ I ask.
‘What are you talking about? I am so stressed I feel like it’s Friday already.’
‘You wish.’ I laugh and walk into Tim’s office. The music is off and his only remaining colleagues are nowhere to be seen.
He looks up and drawls, ‘Long time no see.’
He pushes his hair away from his eyes in a gesture I remember with a little pang of tenderness and continues to pile folders and loose papers in an empty case of Bruichladdich Single Malt Whisky. I hide a little smile behind my hand. I bet this was not the first box which came to hand in the warehouse but Tim’s too fastidious to be seen leaving the building with a box of The Wine Shop’s Pinot Grigio even if it’s full of his belongings.
‘I hear you’re off?’
I lean on the doorframe with my arms crossed. I don’t trust myself to get too close.
He doesn’t even look at me.
‘Ripper’s told you?’
I nod. ‘He said you had a flaming row.’
My voice is calm and composed.
‘I enjoyed that. It was long overdue.’
He pauses, a file in hand and smiles his cheeky boy smile. ‘Don’t tell me I shouldn’t have. You’d do the same, given the chance.’
The closeness he suggests makes my stomach flip.
‘I would not dream of lecturing you.’
I curse myself the minute the sneering remark is out of my mouth.
‘Are you sure you can resist the temptation?’
He’s now got his back to me. He’s picking books off the shelf behind his desk.
I ignore the question and cut to the chase. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘Should I have?’
He pauses for a moment, cocking his head sideways and lifting his eyebrows and resumes his packing. ‘We’ve not been that close lately.’
I take a long look at him. Never again will I be able to eye him so greedily, to take in his tall lean body, his long elegant hands covered in freckles, his stupid face. My eyes mist over and I could almost pretend he’s looking at me as he used to, with warmth and laughter in his eyes instead of barely suppressed boredom. Next time we meet, I will have lost him completely. I wish I could say something witty, something which would make him smile, but I can’t trust my voice to remain steady. I shrug my shoulders and slink away before the tears come.
By Tuesday, Tim’s gone but it hasn’t sunk in. He could be away for the day or locked in his office. I choose to believe the latter. Even if our relationship’s dead, his physical proximity dulled the sorrow of never again.
Outside, it’s a typical March day, too early to be called spring but not harsh enough for winter. The weather’s unhappy, like me, unsure of what to do next. It tries a few sunny spells early on and gives up. Too much hard work. When I drive to the station to pick up Ed, a desultory drizzle is falling, not sustained enough to be called rain but enough for him to grumble, ‘bloody English weather’.
Still no sign of Dave when we arrive in the office. A small downpour has never been enough to keep him away. Could Arnaud have got rid of him?
Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay