I hear raised voices coming from the left. Sainsbury’s buyer has stepped back from Ed and Philippe. He looks cross. Philippe glances at me and urges me to come over with a nod.
I take the few steps which separate us, trying to reinstate some sort of smile on my face.
‘James, sorry I have been detained. Thanks for stopping by.’
Ed’s face is bright red.
‘I am not sure I should have,’ James says. ‘This gentleman, who I understand to be your boss, doesn’t seem to understand the way we work.’
‘I merely suggested,’ Ed does his open hands thing, ‘that James postpone his promotional period by two weeks. This would give us a bit more time to deal with his order. Ten containers is a lot of wine.’
James turns to me. ‘Chris, if Villa can’t bottle ten containers in time for the promotion, I’ll have to scrap it. But there are lots of people in this room who’ll be delighted to pick up the pieces.’
I turn to Ed. ‘Sainsbury’s promotional periods are not specific to the wine department. James can’t move them.’
‘Has any other supplier mentioned the bottle supply crisis to you?’ I ask James.
His mouth twitches and he looks up to the right. ‘What are you talking about?’
I explain all I have discovered and the uncertainties our production sites are facing. I should have taken the time to finish my email.
‘Why don’t you import bottles from Spain or Italy?’ James asks.
‘It’s a European issue.’
I am now convinced he knows about the situation and he’s only trying to get to the top of the queue. I wish I could give him priority but I can’t. Even if my relationship with André was perfect, industrial constraints would stop him and me from favouring one customer over another. My best bet is to shut up and wait for James to come to his own conclusion.
He bites his lip but his face tells me he knows we’re facing exceptional circumstances. I hold my breath, waiting for the inevitable acknowledgment.
‘James, may I call you James?’
Why is Ed piping up now?
‘It sounds like we had a small misunderstanding earlier on.’
James cocks his head to one side and waits for Ed to continue. He’s a good buyer. I fear the worst.
Ed puts his hand on his heart and closes his eyes. ‘I don’t want our first meeting to be marred by a difference of opinion. I am going to make a pledge to you. Your orders will be bottled on time.’
James raises an eyebrow a la Sean Connery. ‘Even without bottles?’
‘Even without bottles. . .’ Ed repeats, good little lamb to the slaughter that he is.
I open my mouth but Philippe kicks me in the shin.
‘Thank you so much, Ed,’ he says.
He turns to James. ‘Problem solved. The boss has spoken. Would you like to taste a few of the wines we’re showing today?’
Ed’s face bears the smug satisfaction of the man who has bid all his worldly possessions on red the second before the ball settles on black.
I am shocked into silence.
James whispers to me as he leaves, ‘I am not sure which is worse, OLN or your boss. But a promise is a promise.’
I manage a feeble grin.
Loud laughter makes me look up. Tim’s walking past, arm in arm with a blonde. I always assumed the wine trade not to attract stunners but the bastard always seems to be escorting good looking girls. Do they join for the day or does he have a special talent of sniffing them out? It hurts to see him having so much fun.
Jen pays me a visit and cheers me up a little by promising to knee our friend from OLN in the groin. Sadly he’s nowhere to be seen, unlike Tim who crops up everywhere I look like the ferret of the French nursery song.
‘Il court, il court, le furet
Le furet du bois joli.’
‘Hello young lady, are you from Villa?’ The tall stooping elderly man in front of me wears a ‘Wholesaler’ badge.
‘I am indeed. How may I help you?’
‘I’d like to taste your varietal range, please. I sent my first order last week but I am thinking about adding a Sauvignon. It seems to be all the rage.’
‘Your first order?’
He nods again.
‘May I ask, are you UK based?’ Despite his posh British accent or maybe because of it, my visitor may work for a foreign company and take advantage of the fair to visit some potential suppliers.
‘We’re in Worcestershire. Here’s my card. May I taste your wines now?’ A note of impatience is creeping in his voice.
I stare at his business card, question marks popping in my head like silent fireworks. I know every single one of our prospects and customers and this guy’s most definitely not one of them. I may have been wrong to neglect him but I fail to understand how he can have placed an order with us.
‘Sorry to be so blunt. Who’s your contact at Villa?’ I ask.
‘A gentleman called André Lange. He’s a friend of a friend. Us old codgers like to do business together, you see. I assume you’re his assistant, aren’t you?’
I mumble something indistinct instead of pointing out that being a woman doesn’t necessarily mean I am assisting someone endowed with a penis.
Ed rushes to me as soon as my companion has departed. ‘Why didn’t you introduce me? There’s no point for me to come over if I don’t get to meet our customers.’
I could tell him his handling of James has lost him any such rights but in this instance, I have a less contentious motive.
‘I didn’t introduce you because the person I was talking to is under the impression I report to André Lange.’
‘Why didn’t you put him right?’
Ed rocks on the soles of his feet like an impatient toddler as he does every time his position is challenged.
‘Because he’s about to start doing business directly with Narbonne and I smell another dirty trick from our friend André.’
‘Another Siberwines?’ Ed asks.
‘No, this isn’t dumping.’ I say, looking once more at the business card in my hand. ‘This respectable gentleman may unwittingly be part of yet another cunning plan to strip me of all commercial credibility.’
Ed looks lost.
‘Marguerite Villa is a fervent supporter of the go-getting commercial mentality. How do you think she’ll react when told a British prospect had to place an order directly with one of our production sites because he had not seen anybody from Villa UK in months?’
Ed puts his fingertips together. ‘I have to admit it is disappointing. We may have to sit down at some stage and take a look at your priorities.’
I don’t bother answering him. I may have to call Marguerite Villa to beat André to it.
‘I’ll get a sandwich, then,’ Ed says.
I turn round and almost collide into Rachel. ‘Sorry, I was not looking where I was going.’
She looks grim.
‘Are you alright?’
‘I have something serious to discuss with you.’
The article in OLN. She’s taking her business away.
‘Do you mind if I have some water first?’ I ask. ‘Would you like any?’
She declines. I pour the water slowly in my glass and I take small sips, trying to compose myself.
‘Do you know how important The Super-Market own brand is to me?’ she asks.
I relax my grip on the table. This is one of Rachel’s favourite hobby horses but I can’t think of anything we have done to harm her brand since the autumn.
‘And to Villa,’ I say. ‘Your wines represent a big slice of our business over here and I have not given up on your Bordeaux range yet.’
‘I could not give you any more business straight after the latest incident,’ she says. ‘But as your samples showed well and your prices were the keenest, I took it upon myself to put the project on hold for a few months. Last week I mentioned the contract may go to Villa during the buying meeting.’
‘This is great news.’
My sixth sense tells me there’s a ‘but’ somewhere.
‘Do you know Vera who buys Spain and Italy?’
‘I have heard of her.
‘She studied for her Diploma with somebody from The Wine Shop, a guy called Dave. It was either last year or the year before, just before she joined The Super-Market.’
I am getting a bit confused but I keep on listening.
‘They became friends on Facebook. Philippe is also a Facebook friend of Dave’s and Vera became friend with him.’
I look at Rachel blankly. She’s lost me.
‘It means she can see Philippe’s Facebook photos especially when Dave comments on them,’ she says.
The picture with the bottle of The Super-Market red! I remember pulling a disgusted face, maybe even pointing at the label. Philippe sent me the result, mocked up as a Christmas card, wishing me better luck for the year to come. I looked so awful I binned it straight away. Why on earth did he put it on Facebook?
My legs give way. I walk round the table and sit down.
‘I am really sorry, Rachel.’
‘Do you realise how serious this is?’ she asks. ‘The caption says, “Chris’s least favourite tipple”. It makes a complete mockery of The Super-Market.’
‘I can try and explain. Philippe came to visit me when I helped out in the Roehampton store at Christmas. I was tired and still upset by the whole episode with the Vin de Pays red. He took a first picture of me filling the shelves that turned out blurry. When he took the second one, I grabbed a bottle and pulled a face.’
‘What were you thinking of?’
Sex. I’d spent the morning wallowing in my most intimate memories of Tim.
I opt for a more reasonable answer. ‘It was a moment of madness.’
‘Ask Philippe to take that photo off Facebook as soon as possible and give me a call next week. I haven’t got time to taste anything right now.’
She’s off before Ed comes back and just as he does, Tim takes another turn by my stand like a Jane Austen heroine, arm in arm with another blonde. At this rate, he will have covered a half-marathon by tonight.
Philippe gives me a sandwich and I bite into it with all the frustration I have accumulated since the morning. A sharp pain shoots through my lower jaw. I probe my teeth with the tip of my tongue and my suspicions are confirmed. A large filling my dentist warned me about has fallen off. I can’t resist having another try and I am rewarded by a second stab of exquisite raw nerve pain.
I am falling to bits. This job is killing me and I have ignored various reminders to visit the optician, the dentist or my GP over the last nine months.
My phone vibrates the minute I step outside the hall to call the surgery. Arnaud must be back from France.
‘Didn’t you say you were friends with most wine writers?’ he asks.
‘I may have.’
He laughs. ‘If that’s what your friends are like, I don’t want to meet your enemies.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I say.
‘I don’t care about the bastards but what about your customers?’
‘I’ve had better days.’
His sympathy feels like another evidence of my utter failure. I wish I had the strength to ignore it.
‘Do you want me to have a word with the artist?’
‘What’s Tim got to do with it?’
‘He’s got to be the mysterious source the OLN guy refers to. Jen swears blind this has nothing to do with her and Philippe isn’t the type to go behind your back.’
I lean against the wall. He’s right. Who else could know so much about The Wine Shop and Villa? I feel sick.
‘Leave it,’ I say. ‘He’s gone now.’
‘His last month’s salary isn’t. It’s your call. You’re around tomorrow?’
‘I need to go to the dentist but I’ll be in the office later.’
‘Rather you than me. Call me when you’re in.’
The line goes dead before I have time to answer him. Some habits die hard.
A restless night and an hour in the dentist chair give my resolve to appeal to Marguerite Villa time to strengthen. André’s dislike of me continues stronger than ever if his latest meddling is anything to go by. Villa’s UK business is at risk of falling apart and I can’t rely on Ed to help. I hum the French singer Rose’s depressing ditty under my breath: something about the game being over.
I lock myself in the meeting room with a glass of water and my notes and tell Mary only to come in if the building goes up in flames. I grimace a few times to stretch my mouth, still numb from the anaesthetic.
When Marguerite Villa’s assistant picks up, I introduce myself and ask to speak to the old lady.
‘She’s away at the moment. What is it regarding?’ she asks.
‘When is she coming back?’
A tiny pause. ‘I am not sure. Would you like to leave a message?’
‘I’ll try her on Monday.’ Marguerite never leaves the office for more than a few days.
Another pause. ‘She may not be back.’
I try to think of a justification for a lengthy absence. ‘Has she gone to China?’
‘Are you sure you don’t want to leave a message? ’
‘I’ll think about it.’
I have underestimated André. His silence of the last few weeks was not a lull in the hostilities but a battening down of the hatches. He’s barred my access to Marguerite. I am on my way out.
I push the door to Arnaud’s office without knocking. I am past caring.
‘You wanted to see me,’ I say, slumping into the chair opposite him.
He frowns. ‘Are you ill?’
He examines me, not unkindly. ‘You look terrible,’ he says. ‘Are you sure you don’t want me to dock Tim’s pay?’
I probe the corner of my mouth with the tips of my fingers. The effect of the anaesthetic is receding and the mangled nerve of my damaged tooth pulses out a dull pain through my jaw.
‘Not worth it. It’s against the law anyway.’
‘The law! If we were in Africa- ’
One look is all it takes to silence him.
‘Go home,’ he says.
He points towards the door. ‘Go home,’ he repeats, separating each syllable. ‘Take a couple of painkillers and go to bed.’
My eyes fill with tears. It doesn’t take much at the moment and his unexpected kindness is enough to set me off. I stand up and wipe my eyes.
Arnaud shuffles papers on his desk and pretends not to notice.