Merde in europe, p.13
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       Merde in Europe, p.13

           Stephen Clarke
 
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  What the hell do you do with a feline gatecrasher, though? You can’t call the police. And the EU doesn’t have a ‘DG Up’ (Unwanted Pets) – I checked.

  In the end, I took a photo of the moggy, captioned it with my phone number and ‘Found, Trouvé, Gevonden’ – surely everyone in the neighbourhood would understand those three languages – and went out to a little Middle Eastern phone-home shop to print up a couple of dozen posters.

  Half an hour later I was proudly taping portraits of the cat to the front of my building, as well as every tree and lamp post in the immediate neighbourhood. It made a change from all those starry blue flags that usually decorate the streets of Brussels.

  Being a natural pessimist, or fatalist anyway, I also stocked up on cat food, cat litter and the recipients to contain them. And, as extra insurance, I invested in a tin of spray guaranteed to stink so much that cats wouldn’t pee on it. I thought I owed it to the antique sofa and armchairs to protect them from this new, unwanted house guest.

  I gave myself twenty-four hours, and then I’d look for a pet refuge. Or maybe I’d go and have a quiet word with the bloke who’d sold me my hot dog the previous night. My digestion was still trying to work out which animals were in that. He might be in the market for a few kilos of ginger mog.

  14

  ‘God Save the Queen must be sung in all immigrant languages.’

  Report in the British press, 2015

  SOMEONE ONCE TOLD me that gazpacho is named after the sound people make when they suddenly find out that their soup is cold.

  I’m sure that must be true, because it’s exactly what I said when I took a gulp of my spicy mango-and-breadfruit concoction. This wasn’t something I’d cooked up from the tins remaining in my apartment’s food cupboards. It was served to me by a charming Asian girl in a Laotian restaurant.

  I was surprised, not least because when I first saw the ‘Laotian’ sign I instinctively assumed that, being in the capital of Europe, it said ‘Latvian’, and I couldn’t understand why I’d walked into a bamboo-walled jungle of plants, jangly muzak and photos of water buffalo. Global warming hadn’t got that bad, surely?

  It didn’t occur to me that a small, non-European country like Laos might have inspired restaurants in Brussels. Croatian, Estonian, Basque, Catalan, Swabian – those I could understand. These were all communities represented here in the capital of the EU. Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Turkish, too – the usuals. Nepalese, Brazilian and African as well, but Laos seemed too obscure.

  Oh no, Danny the oyster guy explained to me – he was the one who’d issued the dinner invitation – there’s so much disposable income in the city that it has to keep titillating people with new, exciting food. Bog-standard French or Italian is much too boring. These sophisticates want gastronomic adventure. They might spend all day sitting at a desk, but they want to send their taste buds trekking across the Andes, through the swamps of Borneo or even up into deepest Scotland.

  Danny was also the guy who recommended the spicy mango-and-breadfruit soup, or whatever the Laotian word for gazpacho is.

  We were part of a rowdy group that was hogging half the restaurant. The owners had set up a long table to accommodate ten of us, all off-duty badge people. Danny was there with his girlfriend, though ‘girlfriend’ seemed to be a loose term, judging by his admiration for Jake’s seduction skills. She was a Spanish-looking woman called Maria, or maybe Isabella or Sofia – honestly, these days I couldn’t remember anyone’s name if they weren’t wearing a badge.

  There were a couple of other Brits, as well as an Italian guy with stereotypically curly black hair, an impeccably trimmed beard and a loud voice; some Germanic types, both male and female, and Eastern Europeans who were arguing in a mixture of their own languages and Russian. They were all so effortlessly multilingual that it made me wonder why my brain doesn’t get bored with all the free time I give it.

  An older couple came into the restaurant and looked startled to see us speaking in tongues and waving our arms about, like people do when they see a giant flock of starlings massing above their home town – as if to say: These creatures live here? The wrinklies wisely went elsewhere for their peaceful dinner à deux. From what I’d seen so far, once Brussels badge people got drinking and talking, they rarely shut up until they passed out.

  The trouble with a dinner table, rather than a bar crowd, is that you’re stuck with your neighbours, and I’d sat down between Danny and Cédric. Yes, I’d invited my upstairs neighbour along, too. It seemed the diplomatic thing to do. At first, though, he was so tight-lipped that I wished he’d stayed at home. He just sat there eating and drinking – mostly drinking – and apparently making a huge effort to follow the conversation. It didn’t look as though international-speak was his forte.

  This left Danny and the Italian guy opposite me to batter my eardrums with their opinions.

  The Italian was saying that his country didn’t need to take any more African or Middle Eastern refugees, because Italy was already dedicating half its navy’s resources to saving boat people from drowning in the Mediterranean. Britain, Scandinavia and the Baltic nations should take the lion’s share, he said, because they were furthest from the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts. And Brits would vote ‘no’ to Europe in the referendum, he predicted and, even if they didn’t, ‘We must expel them from the EU because they do nothing but ask for special membership conditions.’

  I thought: Special conditions? Isn’t that what the Italians got, when they were bailed out so that they wouldn’t go bankrupt and have to leave the euro? But I didn’t want to start a European war at the dinner table.

  Danny, however, had no such scruples, and said, ‘At least we don’t come crawling with the begging bowl every five years, like you southern Europeans. We’re paying for your bloody navy, anyway.’

  The Italian shrugged this off and moved on to his thesis that the only reason the Belgians wanted Britain to stay in the EU was so that house prices in Brussels wouldn’t fall when all the British MEPs left town.

  He explained that this was a joke, aimed at Danny and me, about the way all Brits are obsessed with the value of their house. I told him I wasn’t, because I didn’t own one, and he looked at me as if I’d just admitted not possessing my own socks.

  ‘His family owns villages. They own wines,’ Danny said, waving his soup spoon at Luigi or Giovanni, or whatever his name was. The Italian recoiled, protecting his shirt, which was as white as a Californian’s teeth. For the moment, at least.

  ‘Why come to Brussels?’ I asked him. ‘Your place in Italy sounds great.’

  ‘Lobbyist,’ Danny answered for him. ‘You fuck with Italian wine, he’ll fuck with you.’

  ‘Yes, you try to make English Prosecco, we break your legs,’ the Italian said, smiling dangerously.

  ‘You try to serve me any kind of Prosecco when I ask for champagne and I’ll break your legs,’ I told him.

  The Italian guy looked for a second as if he was going to cross himself to ward off bad English magic, then he laughed.

  ‘I will send you a dozen bottles that will change your mind, you Franco-Englishman.’

  It sounded like a great offer, but before I could give him the address, he turned away and got into conversation with a Germanic girl on his left.

  This gave Danny the opportunity to broadcast to the whole of central Brussels that his MEP had had a long meeting with some French people that day.

  ‘A bit of funny business going on between France and the UK,’ he trumpeted. ‘You think it’s got something to do with the referendum?’

  ‘Who were the French people?’ I asked, in a soft voice that I hoped would be contagious.

  ‘My guy didn’t say. He mentioned your minority-language project, though, and asked me to find out how it was being financed. Do you know?’

  ‘French government, I think,’ I said.

  ‘Nah. Highly unlikely. France hasn’t even signed the charter on minority lan
guages. They’re dead against giving any kind of autonomy to their regions. Scared the Corsicans will campaign for independence and reclaim Napoleon’s body. Can’t be that.’

  ‘Money straight from Europe, then?’ I suggested.

  ‘Maybe. Perhaps there’s a regional project. Has your thing got a project name? Like Linguapick or Babelbird, or something? These European projects usually get given daft names like that.’

  ‘Not that I know of,’ I told him.

  ‘Mystery, then.’ He shrugged. ‘Which reminds me – did you find out why your boss bought those laptops of ours?’

  ‘No. She’s given one to me to use. Works OK.’

  ‘But why didn’t she just buy new ones?’

  ‘No idea,’ I confessed.

  ‘You’re not exactly well informed, are you, Paul?’ He clapped me on the back, sending a spoonful of cold orange soup flying out of my spoon and across the table towards the Italian’s white shirt. Fortunately, he didn’t notice his faint new orange polka-dot pattern.

  ‘What about your French mate here? You know anything, mon ami? About anything at all?’

  Danny bellowed at Cédric, and leant across to nudge him when he got no response. Cédric had been hitting the wine in silence and wasn’t at his most attentive. Finally, though, he removed his nose from his wine glass.

  ‘Bonswa, Seddrick,’ Danny yelled in his worst French accent. ‘Vous savez ce que la France fait avec les Anglais?’ This caught the attention of half the table, and several people gazed at Cédric to see what he would say.

  ‘Bien sûr,’ he grinned, and emptied his glass. Into his mouth, but only just.

  ‘Well, are you going to tell us, or what?’ Danny hollered, in English.

  ‘Bien sûr que non,’ Cédric replied and reached for a refill.

  People laughed and returned to their conversations.

  ‘See what I mean,’ Danny murmured in my ear. ‘Secretive bastards. Once you start working with the French, you enter a world of murk. Your conscience gets to be like a goat’s cheese. You feel mould growing on it, and the core grows harder by the day. You know, Paul, you’re starting to smell a bit goaty already.’

  He sniffed my cheek and somehow I managed to stay diplomatic and not punch him on his twitching nose.

  We’d just received our main courses – mine was duck, decorated with sprigs of a lemony herb that smelled a bit like the cat deodorant I’d bought for the flat – when a couple of new dining companions arrived.

  ‘Hey, man, I received your texto!’

  It was Jake, looking very pleased with himself, his arm around the shoulders of a squat woman with pale skin and short black hair. Older than him, too. Not his usual sort at all. He introduced her as Rini, and said she was part Russian, part Finnish and part Inuit.

  ‘We won’t tardy long, because we’re going to have sex,’ Jake announced, instantly stopping every other conversation at our table. At this Rini smiled broadly. ‘Her husband returns tomorrow from voyage, so we must profit of the night. But, Paul, I just wanted to come and say: Excuse me for the intrusion, you know.’

  ‘You’re not intruding at all, Jake. You’re never there. No need to apologise.’

  ‘No, no. I’ll explicate later. We must go now. Rini wants sex.’

  And they were off, waving farewell to their audience.

  ‘Genius,’ Danny said, a bit too loudly. I saw his girlfriend glare at him from the end of the table.

  The rest of the evening went off smoothly, with gossip about MEPs’ bad habits, some unfair cracks about our hosts the Belgians, a short enquiry as to who had stained someone’s expensive Italian shirt, and a few jibes at the French, to which Cédric finally responded by standing up and giving a tuneless rendition of the Marseillaise, made even worse than it normally is by his attempts to translate the words into English.

  ‘Let us go, children of ze nation! The day of glory is arrived! Between us is ze tyranny! Ze, uh, ze thing which I don’t know what it is called is high,’ he wailed, until I pulled him back into his seat and apologised to the waitress for the noise.

  The gathering broke up pretty early – no one wanted a headache at work tomorrow. Though the number of empty bottles on the table suggested that some people would be needing high doses of caffeine in the morning.

  When the bill came, the Italian made a feeble crack about persuading the Germans to pay for us all, but Danny killed the joke by telling him to ‘Get your wallet out, you rich fucker.’ Not for the first time, the Italian winced at our British vulgarity.

  It was only when I left the restaurant that I realised the full extent of my lunacy in inviting Cédric along. He was so pissed that he could hardly stand up, and I had to march him along the street, trying to swing his long legs forward one after the other, to keep up a rhythm.

  ‘Do you ’ear, in our country, ze ferocious soldiers who are mooing?’ he sang. This was more of the Marseillaise, presumably. ‘To your arms, citizens! Form your – how do you call zem?’

  Luckily it was early enough, and there was enough traffic about, to save us from getting yelled at or arrested. I kept him bouncing along, helped by the fact that he was light and not yet totally legless.

  As we got closer to the house, Cédric seemed to forget patriotism and become more maudlin.

  ‘Tu es un chic type,’ he kept saying, meaning that I was a good guy. Though it was scary at first because I thought he was saying something about ‘sick’ and was about to vomit on me.

  When we got into the entrance hall and I began hauling him upstairs, he repeated this a few times and then started gibbering something about ‘tomates’ – tomatoes.

  Oh no, I thought, here comes his dinner.

  But as he repeated it, I worked out what he was saying. It wasn’t tomates at all.

  ‘Dommage. C’est dommage. C’est vraiment dommage.’

  ‘What’s a shame?’ I asked him.

  ‘Tu es un chic type. C’est dommage,’ was all he answered, before hiccuping and lapsing into silence.

  I heaved and shoved him as far as the top floor, fished his keys out of his pocket and managed to drag him as far as his sofa, where I carefully laid him out in the even-if-I-puke-my-guts-up-in-my-sleep-I-will-live-to-clean-up-the-mess position.

  ‘C’est dommage,’ he mumbled as I left him.

  I wondered what he meant.

  Until, that is, I opened the door of my own apartment and was assaulted by the pong of cat.

  That’s what’s a shame, I thought. Home alone yet again, to be greeted by no one but a bloody cat. I’m turning into a cat lady. I’m a spinster.

  15

  ‘No alcohol sales during the week, says Brussels.’

  Report in the British press, 2005

  NEXT MORNING I decided to go into work on the underground. Apart from anything else, I felt incapable of the twenty-minute walk to work.

  A certain queasiness was on the menu, both as a starter and a main course. Why do continental Europeans always think that Asian food goes with wine? Asian food goes with beer, everyone knows that. Wine and spices are a lethal combination – your stomach thinks it’s Christmas, a time of mulled wine and general excess, and goes into self-protective mode.

  And if the first thing you see when you go into the kitchen next morning is a cat-litter tray full of what looks like shit-flavoured muesli, who wouldn’t be queasy?

  That wasn’t the only reason I was feeling a little delicate, though. During the night Danny’s remarks about Anglo-French goings-on had fermented in my mind. I needed to ask Elodie some questions, and was a bit worried about the answers – or lack of answers – I might get.

  To make things worse, there hadn’t been any calls from cat owners yet. I promised myself that if nothing happened during the day, I’d get on to a pet refuge that evening. Sorry, mog, I told it, as it munched happily on the vile-stinking meat that came out of the can with a cute furry name printed on it, but I’m much too young to turn into a cat lady.

  You
have to laugh at the Brussels Métro. Fondly, of course. The city is trying so hard to be an international capital that it claims to have six underground lines. But in the city centre, they all seem to follow the same tracks. Some lines don’t have any stations to themselves at all, they just duplicate what other lines are doing. Most of the network consists of a circle around the centre, with a little criss-cross in the middle. The rest is just a few short excursions out to the suburbs.

  But I got on a little train that had its face painted orange, and that was fast, clean and airy, so I had no complaints at all, except that the colour reminded me of the damn cat.

  I was just wondering how you transported an unwilling feline with claws and teeth to a pet refuge – drugs, perhaps? alcohol? for me, not the cat – when I recognised one of the passengers. It was Cédric. Funny, I hadn’t seen him walking to the station.

  He was standing up, slumped against a metal pole, looking like a partially deflated balloon. Not that he was ever that puffed-up to start with. I was tempted to go and hang on to him, so that he wouldn’t get dislodged by the speed of the train and start floating down the carriage.

  ‘Bonjour,’ I said, but he seemed to be asleep. Maybe he was on his second trip around the Métro’s inner circle.

  ‘Cédric,’ I said, louder, and he groaned in reply.

  ‘Too much wine,’ he said, needlessly. His eyes struggled to focus on my face. ‘Yesterday evening, I didn’t say any stupidities, did I?’ he asked. He used the word ‘bêtises’, which I’ve usually heard used applied to trivial things.

  ‘Beaucoup,’ I said, and he shot me a look of panic. ‘But you didn’t say them, you sang them. It was very interesting to hear what the French national anthem actually means. I enjoyed the part about watering the fields with impure blood.’

  I realised as soon as I’d said it that this wasn’t the right morning to talk about gigantic outdoor pools of blood, and both of us took a moment to let the repulsive image fade away.

 
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