Merde in europe, p.14
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       Merde in Europe, p.14

           Stephen Clarke
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  ‘You said something was dommage,’ I told him. ‘What was that?’

  He looked embarrassed for a second.

  ‘Nothing, nothing. I can’t remember. I was drunk.’

  Despite his dopey look, this was, I reminded myself, a guy who worked in a locked office that no one else was meant to venture into. I decided to push him while he was looking vulnerable.

  ‘Did you find anything on those English computers?’ I asked.

  ‘You know they’re English?’ Again, that look of panic.

  ‘Oh yes, we Anglais tell each other everything.’

  This falsehood had Cédric wilting on his metal pole like a climbing plant with altitude sickness.

  ‘Everything?’ he said.

  ‘Yes. And what are you going to do with the other two computers?’

  ‘Oh, Elodie is keeping them in her office,’ he said, looking brighter. Somehow I’d let him off the hook. I wondered how. ‘If you want to take one, I’m sure it’s OK. Is yours working well?’

  ‘Oui, très bien.’

  ‘Très bien,’ he echoed. Now he was almost frisky, like the current occupant of my kitchen.

  Feeling slightly queasy again, I decided to get off and walk. We were just arriving at a station called Arts-Loi or, as the Flemish call it, Kunst-Wet. What a charming language.

  I walked along Loi (aka Wet), possibly the world’s most boring avenue. It was lined with lots of slightly different but equally boring new office buildings that were just too short to be exciting. The avenue looked artificial, like a computer-generated street in an urban driving game, and I half-expected cartoon people with blank expressions to emerge and start loping along the pavement, firing guns or getting knocked over by a careering urban racer.

  As it was, I was part of a caravan of office workers trooping along the avenue. Walkers were peeling off at regular intervals to disappear inside one of the glass boxes. Only a few of us carried on to the end, towards the Parliament building.

  The trance-like monotony of the march had given me time to decide how I was going to address my worries with Elodie – who was the cause of most of them.

  ‘You’re going to think I’m a bit slow,’ I told Elodie when I walked into her office.

  ‘Going to?’ She laughed without looking up. As usual, she was busy massaging her phone.

  ‘Thanks, Elodie. Is that your French motivation technique?’

  This had been her dad’s strategy. Jean-Marie’s theory of management was to show his underlings who’s boss. His message was: Shut up, obey and maybe I’ll allow you training days so that you can learn to act like a superior bastard, too. The attitude of his employees was therefore: Fuck you, monsieur.

  Not exactly motivational, and yet Elodie had obviously decided to follow in the family tradition.

  ‘Sorry, Paul,’ she said. She looked up. ‘You know I only say things like that because we’re old friends.’

  I knew that wasn’t the only reason – she was also a power-mad control freak – but I smiled as if I forgave her.

  ‘I need you to explain some things to me again,’ I said.

  ‘Yes?’ she said, suspiciously.

  ‘Yes. First up, I have a question about how the language project is useful in this plan to keep the UK in the EU.’

  I could only speak that freely because I’d seen that Manon’s office was empty, and Cédric’s door was closed. Either he was already shut away, or he’d passed out again in the Métro and was now on his third or fourth underground circuit of the city centre.

  ‘OK.’ Elodie placed her hands on her desk in the praying position. I think it’s a pose they teach politicians. It’s meant to suggest sincerity. Except now, of course, it just suggests training in politicians’ bullshit. ‘I thought it was clear,’ she said. ‘If we can suggest to the uncivilised regions of the UK that there is a possibility of EU funding for their local languages, then they will vote to stay in. Right?’

  ‘I know all that. But from what I hear, France doesn’t want to support local languages in France itself. It’s scared that the regions will lobby for independence. So isn’t it a bit of a contradiction for Paris to be commissioning a report into the importance of local languages elsewhere in Europe?’

  ‘Oh, bloody fuck, Paul.’ Her hands weren’t praying any more, and her English expletives were all over the place, proving that I’d struck a nerve. ‘France is not the country that is having a referendum, so what does that matter? And when have the French ever been worried about contradictions?’

  Which was a good point.

  ‘And don’t forget,’ she added, ‘supporting Breton at a purely local level might win me votes. So who cares about the rest of France?’

  Another good point. I decided to let that one rest.

  ‘OK, second question,’ I said. ‘Can you explain again how it’s going to help if I give you a report on all the absurd rumours that the British press have started about the EU? Even DG Communication says it’s never been able to stifle them. What are you going to be able to achieve in so short a time?’

  ‘Ah.’ Elodie was praying again. Perhaps, I thought, for a credible answer. ‘In this, Paul, you have to trust me. To trust France.’ She held her hands pleadingly towards me, which was going a bit far, even for a drama queen. ‘I know it is difficult for an Englishman to trust France, but after all, in history, we French have been the victims more than you English. Who burnt Jeanne d’Arc? Who called their train station Waterloo? Who sent Napoleon to St Helens?’

  I agreed that exiling him in the north of England would have been extreme victimisation, but didn’t say anything as Elodie put on an expression of wounded pride.

  ‘Is it not wonderful, Paul? Even after everything you have done against us, we want to help you. It is, as you call it, payback time.’

  Well, I thought, payback time was something slightly different. That would mean revenge – France burning Helen Mirren or exiling Prince Charles to Tahiti.

  ‘Anyway, Paul, you have to admit that I don’t really need you, do I? If I wanted to find out all this information for myself, I could. N’est-ce pas?’

  This, I had to admit, was true. Nothing I was doing required much expertise at all. Even Cédric could have done most of it. Which was a slightly disturbing thought.

  ‘I just hoped you would be interested in playing your role in our Anglo-French friendship, Paul. In the Entente Cordiale.’

  It had always struck me as strange that this ‘entente’ was only cordial – a word meaning coldly polite – rather than friendly. An ‘entente sympathique’ would have been much more neighbourly.

  ‘Of course,’ I said.

  ‘And, as you yourself have said, you will be richly paid for all this. I am actually helping you out, so what’s the problem?’

  ‘Ah yes, I was wondering about that, too – where is the money coming from? Paris? Brittany? Brussels?’

  She looked as though it would only take one more question to make her pop like an over-inflated balloon.

  ‘Paul, why do you insist on biting the hand in the horse’s bush, or whatever you call it in English? The funding is origine Union européenne garantie.’ She made it sound like the ingredients of a sausage. ‘And I have chosen to spend it on you, OK?’

  I had to admit I was OK with that.

  All in all, I felt as though Elodie had rather skilfully avoided giving me any answers, but that it would have been impolite – and frankly dangerous – to keep on questioning her. Time, perhaps, to let things drop. For a while, at least.

  ‘I should be able to finish a first draft of the list of twenty rumours today,’ I told her.

  ‘Perfect,’ Elodie said, smiling warmly now. ‘Because tomorrow you’re coming to Strasbourg with me.’

  ‘Oh, for the languages project?’


  ‘For the rumours thing?’


  ‘What for then?’

  ‘Shitty damn, Paul! Because I’m paying you
and I need an assistant with me.’ We were back in who’s-boss-around-here mode. ‘Normally I would take Manon, but I’ve asked her to work on something else. There is some rumour that the British want to declare oysters an endangered species. They’re trying to sabotage Brittany’s entire economy. Have you heard anything about this?’

  ‘No.’ Ban their sale, yes. Make them all perfectly round, yes. Declare them endangered, no.

  I could just picture Manon’s face when Elodie gave her this new task. She must have been bloody furious.

  ‘In fact you can be useful in Strasbourg, Paul. Your Anglais friends always get drunk together in the hotel bar. It takes a hell of a lot of Alsace beer for them to blow all their expenses, and they always try to blow the lot. You can mix with them and try to find out something about these oysters. All it means for you is getting less drunk than the others. I hope I can count on you to do that?’

  ‘No problem,’ I promised her. ‘Ever since I moved to France I’ve lost the ability to keep up with English drinkers. Even Englishwomen can outdrink me now. My liver has turned French. It rots slowly day by day, instead of losing big chunks every weekend. So no danger of me getting hopelessly drunk. None at all.’

  ‘It’s OK, Paul, you can stop now. You’ve convinced me.’ She stood up. ‘You can work in Manon’s office. She will be out all morning. I have to go. If I don’t see you again today, rendez-vous here tomorrow at nine with your toothbrush and a spare pair of underwear. I assume you have one, Paul?’

  ‘Maybe you could bring two pairs of yours? One for me?’

  She shot me a look: this is an MEP you’re talking to. I riposted with a smile: this is your old mate Paul, whom you taught to make vinaigrette in a Paris kitchen while you were totally naked.

  Finally, she cracked a smile.

  ‘Like I said, Paul, we’ve come a long way.’

  There was nothing on her desk, so she checked all her locks, grabbed her handbag and left.

  All I could do was finish up the jobs I’d been given and see how the game played out. If the worst came to the worst and Elodie and her French masters were up to some funny business, I would hand over all my info about computer-buying and contradictory French attitudes to minority languages to Peter at DG Communication and persuade him to use it somehow. And I’d put the corrected rumours out there myself. That’s what social media are for, aren’t they? Letting the small guy talk to the whole planet. And right now I was feeling particularly miniature.

  So, alone in the office, I had a quick look through what I’d written about minority languages and decided it hung together well. It was, as Elodie’s dad used to say about marketing presentations, ‘like a skirt should be: long enough to cover the essentials, but short enough to hold the attention’.

  No doubt about it, I thought: the Scots, the Welsh, the Cornish, Corsicans, Basques and Bretons alike would love what I was saying. If they got their kaoc’h together, the EU money could come raining down.

  Then I got stuck into the surreal world of British rumour-mongering. There were some classics still on the loose.

  The story, for example, that the EU wanted to close British off-licences on weekdays. Several papers had reported this as fact. The truth, though, was that the Commission had merely asked member countries for suggestions to reduce binge-drinking in the week, which was affecting Europewide productivity because of working days lost. No matter: ‘Brussels says no booze before Friday night’ was the kind of headline that Brits were being fed.

  Another cracker was that there were ‘600,000 migrants on benefits in the UK’. The guys over at DG Communication had studied this one in detail, but never dared release their results. In fact, they said, there were less than 200,000 asylum seekers in the UK. It was true that there were 60,000-odd EU citizens on jobseeker’s allowance, but most of them had earned the right to benefits by paying British taxes first. The most startling thing for me was that, of the three million or so EU nationals resident in the UK, about 300,000 of them were French, lots of them earning shitloads of money and paying equally large shovelfuls of tax. Perhaps that was why the DG hadn’t published the truth – one-third of a million Frenchies established in Blighty? That’s more than Napoleon ever dreamt of. Best to leave that scare story out of my report, too, I decided.

  One I did keep, though, was the brilliant misinterpretation of France’s favourite bit of world politics, the Common Agricultural Policy. According to certain sections of the British press, the CAP was being used to subsidise bullfighting. Yes, British taxpayers’ money was being gifted to Spaniards who wanted to stab cattle.

  This story was pure art for art’s sake. The journalists had taken the notion that all Spanish farmers are eligible for EU subsidies, and combined it with the fact that some of them produce bulls for bullfighting. Ergo, the EU finances the torturing of animals.

  For once, the term ‘bullshit’ was wholly appropriate. The reporters might just as well have said that the EU subsidises other rural pursuits, like getting pissed and falling off your tractor into a pile of dung. Which I suppose, strictly speaking, it does. On second thoughts, I decided it might be best to leave that one off the list, too.

  In any case, there were plenty more headlines to choose from: British chocolate to be called ‘vegelate’; EU to ban church bells; Brussels to impose 50 per cent Mother Christmases in department stores. All pure fantasy.

  I took a quick coffee break to decide whether I should be laughing or crying. Choosing a soothing blue seat in the Mickey Mouse bar, I got out my phone and opened up a message that Jake had sent me an hour or so earlier. I usually need to be seated and full of caffeine to read anything he’s written.

  ‘This evening chez toi I will explicate. Towards 19 p.m.? At later,’ he’d written, freely translating his thoughts from French into gobbledygook.

  I still didn’t understand what there was to explicate, or even explain. He had always shagged anything that had more legs than an oyster and less than a hippo – and no feathers, of course. So what if he’d gone and shacked up with a married woman while her husband was away? Nothing very new there. Until he’d got married himself, it was more or less his whole lifestyle. And I really didn’t mind if he wasn’t at my place every morning to mix up one of his fetid breakfasts. So why this sudden need to explain?

  Refreshed, but none the wiser, I went back to my office, to be confronted by a skirt.

  It was made of what I took to be cotton, with perhaps a touch of linen in the weave. Grey-blue, almost turquoise, like the Mediterranean on a day with muted sunlight. A very pleasant vista.

  The buttocks inside the skirt were fidgeting slightly, as if they were in a hurry to do something.

  ‘Manon?’ I said, and the buttocks flinched.

  She turned around.

  ‘I was just . . .’ she said, but we both knew what she’d just been doing. Nosing into my computer. The screen was lit up. She’d been consulting something.

  That was impossible, I thought.

  ‘You know my password?’

  ‘I watched you over your shoulder,’ she admitted.

  ‘Cacarella,’ I said.

  There was a heavy silence in the room.

  Then suddenly, everything changed. I could hardly breathe, because someone else’s mouth was stuck to my own. A firm mouth, yet enticingly soft. Meanwhile my breathing was also being restricted by the female chest that had been slammed against my ribcage. There, too, everything was firm, yet enticingly soft. I closed my eyes and relished the sensations.

  But then reason kicked in. Which is one of the reasons I hate reason.

  No, I told myself. Kissing Manon was what I’d been wanting to do pretty well since the first time I saw her. But now it was wrong. Wasn’t it? Yes. I’d just caught her doing something highly suspicious. Hadn’t I? The memory was fading as her lips did their work, but I still seemed to recall something about a computer, a password, snooping on me.

  I grabbed her arms and pushed her away. Softly but firmly.

  She was staring at me, wide-eyed.

  ‘Sorry, I panicked,’ she said.

  ‘Do you do that every time you panic?’ I asked. ‘We must go and do some dangerous sports together. But why . . . ?’ I pointed to my computer.

  ‘I know, it was wrong. Sorry to spy on you, Paul, but let me show you something.’ She leant over the computer and clicked into a window. ‘Look at that,’ she told me.

  I felt she was trying to distract me from the central issue here, which was: why the hell was she prying into my computer? But I did as she asked, for the next minute or so.

  ‘Mokordo!’ I finally said. ‘Shit’ in Basque.

  As she clicked around, I realised that I was looking at some kind of software that generated a copy of everything on the computer. Not just a history, but a sort of film of my screen, showing emails sent and then deleted, songs listened to, photos viewed (a bit embarrassing that one, thanks to Jake). Everything. And all of it was being permanently streamed to some outside source.

  ‘Do you know who installed that software?’ Manon asked.

  ‘You?’ I hazarded.

  She almost hit me.

  ‘Look at the date it started working,’ she said.

  I did. It had recorded the first-ever things I’d done on the screen, including a cringeworthy Skype with my mum along the lines of ‘I was wondering when you’d do me the honour of calling. I hope you’re not eating microwaved rubbish, you look as though you’ve got a hangover.’

  This meant that the spyware had been installed as soon as Elodie had got the computers, presumably by her cousin-in-law Cédric. Which had to explain why he kept saying ‘Tu es un chic type’ and ‘C’est dommage’. I was a nice bloke and he felt guilty spying on me.

  ‘So Cédric is a kind of Q?’ I said, meaning the guy in James Bond who provides all the gadgets.

  Manon looked confused, and I quickly realised why. In French, ‘Q’ is pronounced the same way as ‘cul’, meaning arse.

  ‘A scientist spy,’ I explained.

  ‘No, Paul, he installed it, but any fool can download this software from the internet. The real question is: why is Elodie doing this to you?’

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