Merde in europe, p.10
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       Merde in Europe, p.10

           Stephen Clarke
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  I gave her one, anyway.

  ‘Which party is it?’ I asked.

  ‘The Eunuchs, of course.’

  ‘Cacarella!’ This was ‘shit’ in Corsican. Like I said, I’d been doing my research. ‘Honestly, Manon, I didn’t know he was with the Eunuchs.’

  I should perhaps enlighten those who have not been following European affairs by explaining exactly who these political castrati were. Their unofficial moniker was, of course, inspired by the name of their rabidly anti-European party – United Kingdom No Capitulation, or UKNOC for short. Apparently it was meant to be a homage to that Great British anti-foreigner Enoch Powell, but it had backfired and now they were commonly known as the Eunuchs and forced to listen to countless jokes about their campaign to ‘dismember’ Europe.

  ‘One of them puts his arm around you like an old friend, and you don’t know who he is?’ Manon’s scepticism was withering.

  ‘No,’ I promised her. ‘A drunk Englishman will put his arm around anybody.’ Then a thought struck me. ‘But what if Elodie knew that they were Eunuch computers? And she wanted to buy them to see if she could find sensitive information on them?’


  ‘Maybe they left something on their hard disk. Maybe Elodie wants to expose them.’

  ‘Why would she want to do that?’

  Oh, cac, I thought. I shouldn’t be telling Manon anything about my true mission to help Elodie influence the referendum. No wonder they call these Frenchwomen femmes fatales – they can get you gabbing your deepest secrets just by sulking at you for a couple of days.

  ‘Well, you know,’ I began to improvise, wondering what ungrammatical French merde I was about to come out with, ‘she is an MEP, so naturally she is against the Eunuchs, so naturally she wants to expose any secrets that are on their hard disks.’

  ‘Pff!’ She gave her trademark French puff of breath through the lips to imply that she was blowing me – and all my opinions – away like a fleck of dust that has dared to land on the sleeve of her Chanel jacket. ‘Political secrets hidden on old computers? You’re more credible when you’re drunk,’ she said. ‘I suggest you get a few beers for breakfast.’

  A joke at last. Maybe she was softening.

  ‘But surely everyone in Brussels wants to expose the Eunuchs, n’est-ce pas?’ I said, trying my best to make it sound like a double entendre. ‘So maybe Elodie is just trying to defend Europe. And by doing that, defend la France.’

  ‘La France? So now you are a French patriot, Monsieur l’Anglais?’

  ‘Have you never heard me sing La Marseillaise? Can’t you hear – I even pronounce it properly. La Mar-say-aze.’

  She gave a grudging laugh.

  ‘I’m not sure that who sings, or doesn’t sing, a national anthem is always the best way to judge people,’ she said. ‘In the past, national anthems have been misused.’

  I couldn’t think of a joke or a comeback to that.

  ‘I’ll see you tomorrow,’ she said. ‘Bon dimanche,’ and she hung up. I was pretty sure she was smiling as she did so, which made me smile, too.

  As I stashed my phone, I noticed that the orange-squeezer barmaid was watching me.

  ‘Vous êtes Anglais,’ she said.

  I nodded and guessed what was coming.

  ‘How do you think your referendum will go?’ she asked.

  I put on my serious, on-weekdays-I-wear-a-badge expression.

  ‘I think we’ll probably vote to invade France and restore your monarchy,’ I told her.

  I honestly think it might solve a lot of Europe’s problems.


  ‘According to a new EU law, the Queen will have to fetch her own cup of tea.’

  Report in the British press, 1999

  STROLLING TO THE Parliament next morning, I wondered if I hadn’t misjudged Elodie. Despite her family genes and past history of screwing me (and most of humanity) around, there was always the possibility that this time she was being straight with me.

  After all, from what I’d heard, she really did want to protect the Breton language, even if there was a bit of self-interest involved. Supporting minority languages was in the EU’s interests, and could also help Elodie’s own electoral prospects.

  And maybe she did really buy those computers so that she could fish out some sensitive info to embarrass the extreme anti-marketeers. Everyone knows that you can’t wipe a hard disk 100 per cent clean. Perhaps she honestly did want to keep Britain in the EU – after all, it sounded as if it was in her own country’s interests, and therefore hers.

  Self-interest is the best reason to help others, right?

  My brain was conjuring up sunny thoughts to match the morning brightness of the sky. I was in a positive frame of mind because I’d managed to escape another skirt-chasing bar crawl with Jake the previous evening. Predictably, he hadn’t rematerialised for the rest of Sunday. He’d texted me to say that he had met, and I quote, a ‘charmant mademoiselle of mixed origins who is a veritable ethnic cock-tail’.

  The hyphen in that last word was obviously an attempt at a sexual pun, the kind of thing he did in his so-called poems, and I felt a surge of relief that I hadn’t been present to listen to the whole monstrous masterpiece that the poor woman had probably inspired.

  So on that Monday morning I was actually looking forward to sitting down and bashing out my little treatise on the downtrodden dialects of Europe. Maybe I really could help Scousers to get themselves a few road signs; and Geordies, too, so that the roads into Newcastle would just be marked ‘Toon’. Millions of Brits driving by every day would know that Brussels cared about them.

  I found the office at the first attempt, but entered to hear Elodie ranting at Manon that she was ‘débordée’ – the most popular word in the French workplace. Literally it means overwhelmed or overflowing, but people with not much work to do use the word to explain that a tsunami of travail is threatening to sweep them and their desk out the window. Could you just sign this piece of paper I printed out for you two weeks ago? Non! (Cue waving of arms and tragic expression.) Je suis dé-bor-dé! There is so much straw on their camel’s back that the poor thing’s spine has snapped in five places. And if you keep on hassling them to sign your piece of paper, they’re liable to go to the doctor and get three months’ psychiatric leave to ease their nerves.

  Elodie threw a file on Manon’s desk. This was no doubt what had caused the débordement. Manon stayed cool, as she always seemed to do, and said she would deal with the file when she had followed up on the morning’s batch of emails from Breton mayors.

  Elodie was still in diva mode when she pointed to a table in the corner of Manon’s office and told me that was where I’d be working. It was a small, metal-legged thing facing a blank wall.

  ‘I’d be delighted to share an office with Manon,’ I said, ‘but it’s a bit gloomy in that corner.’

  ‘Yes, and I’m on the phone a lot. I don’t know if he’ll be able to concentrate,’ Manon said. ‘Cédric isn’t here today, is he? Paul could work there?’

  This only provoked another bout of flouncing.

  ‘If you two want to question everything I do, maybe you ought to get yourselves elected to Parliament,’ Elodie squawked, and made her dramatic exit into the room next door.

  After sharing a quick ‘ooh-er’ moment with Manon, I had to go in and confront Elodie again.

  ‘Any chance of a computer?’ I asked.

  ‘Ah, oui,’ she answered, with surprising calm. I’d been expecting her to prolong the melodramatics, but she got up from her office chair and unlocked a cupboard. Inside I saw the three laptops.

  ‘Here you are, all cleaned up and loaded with new software. French, of course, not Belgian.’ She even grinned chummily as she said it. I didn’t dare retort, ‘Not British, you mean?’ I wasn’t supposed to know where the computers came from.

  I thanked her and handed back her credit card.

  ‘This has lost some weight,’ she quipped, chuckling. Th
e transformation from hell’s fury to mild-mannered comedian was positively disturbing. ‘How was your weekend?’ she asked, giving me something approaching a leer.

  ‘Oh, very good, thanks.’

  ‘Success at last, then?’ Now she was sounding like a school nurse enquiring after my bowel habits.

  ‘Yes,’ I lied.

  ‘Anyone I know?’

  ‘No, just a girl in a bar.’

  ‘The best sort. Anyway, you’re looking much more relaxed, which is excellent news for all of us. Oh, Paul, while you’re here, could you sign this?’

  She unlocked a drawer in her desk – everything was permanently under lock and key – and fished out a slim grey file, much like the one she had thrown at Manon minutes before. Laying it on her desk, she opened it and pointed to the single sheet of paper inside. There was a dotted line at the bottom, and in case I hadn’t understood what this was for, she placed a pen next to it.

  ‘What is it?’ I asked, naturally enough.

  ‘Oh, just a rental agreement for the apartment. You don’t have to pay anything, obviously, but I need to say who’s living there. Insurance and all that. You don’t need to read it all.’

  She handed me the pen. It felt suspiciously like one of those movie scenes where someone is getting tricked into signing away their life savings. I tried to read the document, which did, as she’d told me, quote the address of my new home, but a lot of extra stuff, too, in French legalese.

  ‘You think I’m getting you to sign for its demolition, with your precious suitcase inside?’

  Snooty bitch, I thought.

  I signed. Satisfied, Elodie shut the file and locked it away in her drawer. She then walked to her door and closed it, an open gesture to shut Manon out.

  ‘I want you to spend today writing up what you learnt about minority languages from our German friend,’ she told me. ‘And I’ve sent you an email giving you the contact information for a meeting tomorrow with DJ Communication.’

  Yesterday this would have sounded like a musical act promoting cultural understanding, but now of course I knew that she meant ‘DG’. My only question was: What the hell was the Direction générale of communication? I phrased it more politely.

  ‘It’s the press service at the Commission,’ Elodie answered. ‘This guy will tell you all the unkind things that your compatriots have been saying about Europe.’

  ‘Great,’ I said. It sounded fun. And at last I’d get to go inside the head office of the EU sect. ‘But why should I want to hear them?’

  ‘This is part two of your mission. OK?’ Elodie widened her eyes at me in case I hadn’t understood.

  ‘OK,’ I agreed. ‘But sorry to be dense – am I missing something here? You want me to go and see this guy and listen to a bunch of nasty things that Brits have said about the EU? That’s it?’

  ‘Yes, that’s it.’

  ‘And what do I do with them exactly?’

  ‘Ffff.’ This was Elodie doing one of her trademark puffs. It struck me that she wasn’t at all used to explaining her actions, or briefing people on why they should do things. To her, we were all her cleaning ladies – we should just start hoovering where she told us to hoover, and shut up.

  ‘You listen to them, Paul,’ she finally said. ‘And then you write them down so that I can read about them. It’s quite simple, really.’

  ‘OK.’ I thought about this for a second. ‘How many do you want? What if there are hundreds of them?’

  I was pretty sure I could hear Elodie’s teeth grinding with frustration. I hoped for her sake that an MEP’s salary package included dental treatment, because enamel had to be avalanching off her molars. She took a deep breath before replying.

  ‘Use your judgement, OK, Paul? Choose the best, the really bitchy ones. Your tabloid newspapers have always loved, how do you say, snipping at Europe?’

  She made it sound like a vasectomy, but I knew what she meant.

  ‘OK, that seems clearer now,’ I told her. ‘You want a best-of compilation. I get it.’

  She smiled with relief.

  ‘Enfin,’ she said. At last. ‘Oh, yes, and you can tell this guy anything you need to about our mission. No need to keep secrets from your compatriots. We can always trust les Anglais, n’est-ce pas?’

  ‘Yes,’ I agreed, warily.

  ‘I have to go out now, so I’ll see you later,’ she said – so much for being débordée with work. Overwhelmed with invitations to have coffee, lunch and extramarital sex, more like. ‘Oh, Paul, by the way, I hear Jake is in town. Is he staying with you? If so, maybe we should add his name to the rental agreement.’

  While I was still recovering from the shock, she grinned and made for the door.

  ‘You can’t keep any secrets in Brussels, Paul.’

  That, I guessed, was why she never left her office with a single piece of paper or even a Post-it lying around.

  It didn’t go down too well with Manon when I asked if she was the one who had told Elodie about Jake staying with me. It wasn’t an accusation at all, but that was the way she took it. I just thought Manon might have mentioned the arrival of my louche American friend in conversation, but she reacted as if I’d accused her of calling in the Gestapo.

  The French hate it when you suggest they might have told anyone in authority anything. It’s their communal hang-up from the Second World War, when half the country was writing letters to the Nazi occupiers to rat on their neighbours for being Jewish, anti-Nazi or just guilty of living in a larger apartment.

  I was forced to apologise, and to acknowledge that Manon couldn’t have snitched on me because she had no idea where Jake was staying. And I conceded wholeheartedly that, after the way he’d greeted her, his address was not something she would have wanted to find out. But she wasn’t appeased by all this, or when I said sorry yet again for Jake’s joke about her name and his unwanted offer of a communal bath.

  ‘Forget it. Though I really don’t know why you would think I’d tell Elodie any of your secrets,’ she snapped in angry French. ‘You and she seem to share a lot of secrets anyway.’ Constantly having the office door closed in her face seemed to be rankling.

  I apologised again, as profusely as my French would let me, and sat down to face my wall as punishment.

  For the next hour or so, her computer clicked away behind me as I tried out my ‘new’ laptop. It was clunky but it worked. And a quick dig-around in the deleted files seemed to prove that Cédric had indeed cleaned out the hard drive.

  I got in a session of cutting and pasting from EU reports about the viability of Swabian, Valencian, Manx and all their underprivileged cousins, and managed to look up a useful selection of their dirty words, before I turned around and tried another peace offering.

  ‘I’m going to get a coffee, Manon. Would you like one?’

  ‘Non, merci,’ she said.

  ‘Or tea?’

  ‘Non, merci.’

  ‘Juice? Water?’

  ‘Merci, non.’

  ‘Coke? Wine? A mojito with fresh lime and a little umbrella in the glass, with an EU flag on it?’

  Finally, I got a smile.

  ‘OK, a latte, please, with one sugar.’

  ‘Avec plaisir,’ I said, and got the hell out of there before I ruined the moment.

  I also left the file up on my screen so that, before it went into power-saving mode, she could see that friendly, innocent Paul had nothing to hide.

  Even if in fact, he did.

  I found my way to the Mickey Mouse cafeteria and decided to have a sit-down in one of the colourful chairs before getting back to the office.

  I was flicking through some private emails on my phone when a familiar voice rang out.

  ‘Bon jaw!’

  It was oyster man again, the shellfish superhero. He sat down with me and plonked a large frothy coffee cup on the table. He was looking pretty frothy too, much too jolly for a Monday morning.

  ‘Great fun, that mate of yours,’ he said. ‘W
ish I had his way with the ladies. I mean, asking every single one of them for a shag. It must work occasionally.’

  ‘Yes, it does, weirdly.’

  ‘So, busy day, then?’ He really was getting chummy.

  ‘Yes, I’ve got a report to write. What about you?’

  ‘Yeah, my MEP’s here all the bloody time at the moment. Didn’t even leave for the last Green week.’

  This, it turned out, was neither a week devoted to ecology nor seven days of non-stop broccoli at the cafeteria. It was the name for a week that MEPs generally spent back home in their constituencies.

  ‘Frankly, I’m surprised your MEP is ever here,’ I said.

  Surprisingly, he laughed.

  ‘What, you mean because of his slightly eurosceptic stance?’ he said.

  ‘Eurosceptic? Your party practically wants to bomb Brussels. Electing one of them to the Parliament is a bit like voting for Goering as Mayor of London.’

  This shut him up for a second, but not for the reason I expected.

  ‘My party?’ he said. ‘Listen, I’m all in favour of the EU. Without it, we’d have tomatoes that look like baboon’s backsides, two-legged mutant carrots and cucumbers suffering from erectile dysfunction. Who else cares so passionately about the sexual well-being of our vegetables?’

  ‘So that’s all the EU is, is it?’ I said. ‘An international salad inspectorate?’

  ‘Course not. I’m like you,’ he said. ‘I’m not a party man. I’m doing my job. I’ve been here for ten years and in that time I’ve worked with a Tory, a Green, a Scot and now this guy. He took me on because I know how the place works, not because I want to bomb it. Of course I didn’t say no to the chance of pissing off the French by banning the oyster. Great fun. And I’ll keep on working here whatever happens in the referendum, so quite frankly I’m not too bothered about a British exit. “Brexit”. Sounds like an early-morning laxative, doesn’t it? “One spoonful of Brexit on your cornflakes – your passport to a healthy morning dump.” And you know the funny thing about these Eunuch MEPs?’

  I could imagine a few, but shook my head.

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