Merde in europe, p.15
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       Merde in Europe, p.15

           Stephen Clarke
 
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  ‘Yes.’ The betrayal hit home. ‘She was right when she said we’d come a long way since Paris. She doesn’t trust me at all any more. She’s become totally paranoid. But then, if you were looking into my computer, you don’t trust me, either. None of you Français trust me. Merde!’

  Having to explain my feelings in French seemed to over-simplify things. Maybe that’s why the French are so good at romance, I thought. Everything becomes so straightforward when they say it. Or maybe it was just because I was crap at talking about feelings.

  ‘I’m sorry, Paul,’ Manon said, interrupting my thoughts. She seemed to be slumping slightly beneath her share of the national guilt. ‘I was obliged to investigate. It’s become very urgent. There are rumours all over Brussels about Elodie doing something suspicious with the British.’

  ‘And you still think I was doing something suspicious? After all our conversations?’

  ‘Sorry, but you’re British and you’re working with Elodie, so I had to check.’

  ‘Why is it your job to check?’

  ‘I’m here representing the French government. Look.’ She went to fetch her bag and pulled out a small ID card. It sported a tricolour band across one corner, a not-very-flattering photo of Manon and a job title that ended in ‘Ministère des Affaires étrangères’. She was a Foreign Ministry bod. So she was the spy, not Cédric. She was a sort of double-O-sept. Sexy, I thought. Unless of course she had a licence to kill les Anglais.

  ‘But Elodie told me that you were imposed here. By her father,’ I said.

  ‘Yes, but not for the reasons she believes. He was told that if he didn’t get me this job, he would be investigated for tax fraud.’

  ‘Ah.’ That would hit him right where it hurt.

  ‘We’re afraid that Elodie’s party is engaging in extra-governmental activities concerning the referendum,’ Manon said.

  ‘She told me that she is engaging in governmental activities,’ I replied, borrowing Manon’s convenient phrase. ‘She wants to keep Britain in the EU.’

  ‘Well, that’s certainly what the French government wants. We don’t want anyone to leave, not even Greece. We want to share all our problems. But we’re not sure that’s what Elodie is working for.’

  ‘But I know what Elodie is doing,’ I said. ‘It’s me that’s doing it.’

  ‘Are you sure?’

  ‘You mean: am I sure I’m doing what I’m doing?’

  ‘I mean: are you sure you’re doing what you think you’re doing?’

  Now I was lost.

  The only solution was to tell her everything I’d been doing. Merde to Elodie’s pleas for secrecy.

  ‘Everything I’ve done sounded logical to me,’ I concluded. ‘Well, as logical as Elodie can ever be. Supporting British minority languages, contradicting false rumours in British newspapers – all that could help keep Britain in the EU. The only really bizarre thing is why she spent so much money on those computers. I still don’t understand that. I can’t believe the Anglais would leave sensitive information on a computer. And Elodie could spy on me using a new one. She didn’t need three old ones.’

  Manon gave it some thought.

  ‘I don’t know what it all means,’ she finally said. ‘But time is short – we have to find out the whole truth.’

  ‘Why don’t you just bug Elodie’s phone?’

  ‘I can’t do that to an MEP. It would be illegal. The most important thing is that I don’t want Elodie to know that we suspect. Maybe you can get a look at her phone or her laptop while you’re in Strasbourg?’

  ‘You know I’m going to Strasbourg?’ I don’t know why I was surprised.

  ‘Yes. She told me. Meanwhile she wants to me look into this merde about oysters. Can you imagine it? Thousands of refugees to house, and she wants me to save a few oysters.’

  I had to laugh, which annoyed her until I told her what Danny was really up to. Then she laughed, too.

  ‘Ah, sacrés Anglais,’ she said, smiling. And yet again I’m ashamed to say that my stereotypical male brain veered back to the subject of kissing.

  Why do we do that, as soon as a woman smiles at us? Jake told me that it’s all down to the Neanderthal bit of our DNA. Our distant ancestors got a smile and a shag every time they came back to the cave with a hunk of mammoth, he said. Arg, grin, bang. So when a woman smiles, prehistoric urges kick in. Which is why, if I were a woman, I’d think twice before smiling at Jake.

  ‘Schiss!’ I said, which is ‘shit’ in Alsatian. ‘Cédric will know that we found his thing.’ I couldn’t remember the French for software. ‘He sees everything I do on my computer. So he saw what you just showed me.’

  ‘Merde!’ Manon agreed in French.

  But then I had a brainwave that, for once, had nothing to do with kissing.

  I wrote Cédric an email saying that he had in fact said a few bêtises while he was drunk – he had told me what he’d done to my computer. I added that I was rather insulted that he and Elodie didn’t trust their English colleague, but that I hoped that he had seen enough to know that I was just doing my job. I signed off in French: ‘Bonne journée.’

  Manon laughed as she read it.

  ‘Yes, that will make sure he says nothing to Elodie,’ she said, almost admiringly. ‘He knows she would kill him for revealing their secret. And it reads as though you suspect nothing more than a bit of paranoia on Elodie’s part.’

  I hit Send.

  ‘Brilliant,’ Manon said.

  Then, given that I’d been brilliant in the eyes of the French government, I decided that maybe it was time for us to resume our earlier Franco-British entente très sympathique. We were both leaning over my computer, our heads close together as we looked at the screen. So it didn’t take much effort on the part of my neck muscles to turn towards her and tilt my mouth in the direction of her own slightly parted lips.

  ‘Non, Pol,’ she said, backing away.

  ‘But you . . .’

  ‘Yes, I’m sorry. I told you, I panicked.’

  ‘Can’t you panic again un petit peu?’

  ‘No. It wouldn’t be reasonable.’

  Bloody reason again.

  ‘In reality you’ve got a boyfriend, is that it?’ I asked.

  ‘No.’

  ‘Was it true about the Greek? Have you really ruptured?’ This is how the French describe a break-up. I know because I’ve had to deal with the word many times before.

  ‘Yes, that was true. But I promised myself I wouldn’t get involved with anyone else for at least three months.’

  ‘When was that?’ I had to stop myself consulting my diary.

  ‘Five weeks ago.’

  ‘Merda.’ ‘Shit’ in Catalan.

  ‘And, anyway, we have serious work to do here. Let’s not confuse things.’

  I didn’t see what could be confusing about kissing Manon. Pretty straightforward, as far as I could tell. No grey areas at all.

  But I recognised one of those times when a guy is being called upon to man-up, be mature, respect a woman’s wishes, and all that reasonable stuff.

  ‘You’re right,’ I said. ‘We absolutely have to stay focused on the big issue.’ Luckily I knew the French for this. It was a phrase Elodie’s father used to use all the time. Normally before going off to shag someone from the marketing department.

  ‘Merci, Pol,’ Manon said, stroking my forearm in a strictly non-erotic way. ‘I have to go and see my bosses about all this. I’ll be in touch.’

  It wasn’t until a few minutes after she’d left that I thought: ‘Bosses?’

  So there was a whole gang of French Foreign Ministry spies in Brussels in the lead-up to the British referendum? That was one of the scariest things I’d heard since I got here.

  That evening I was still in something of a daze when I got back to my Art Nouveau palace.

  For the second time that day I was faced with a backside. But this one was hairy and ginger. The damn cat.

  I got out my phone and began hun
ting for the Belgian RSPCA. They have a royal family, too, I thought, so they must have an RSPCA. All royals love animals.

  I heard the front door opening.

  ‘Bonsoir, man!’ It was Jake.

  ‘Close the door quickly,’ I told him as I left the kitchen. ‘There’s a—’

  Somehow I didn’t manage to get the last word out. It was meant to be ‘cat’, of course, but on seeing Jake it had suddenly become redundant. Not that Jake himself looked like one, even if he had been known to adopt predatory feline behaviour towards a group of women. And to show a certain allergy towards bath water.

  No, the reason I didn’t need to say ‘cat’ was that there was already one in the equation, as it were. Jake was carrying a large tabby under his arm. It wasn’t altogether pleased to be in the equation with us, and its hissing finally persuaded Jake to let it jump to the floor and race towards my antique sofa.

  ‘Shit,’ was all I could say, and regretted it immediately, in case the cat was bilingual and mistook it for a command. ‘Did you find that in the hall?’ I asked him. ‘The bloody things seem to be attracted to the place. It’s Lourdes for cats.’

  But then reason kicked in, as it so often had already that day. I’d been an idiot. It was obvious that the cats had to belong to the previous tenants. The displaced animals must be returning to what they still thought of as their home. All I had to do was find out who’d been living here before me, and where they’d moved to, and my problem would be solved.

  ‘No, I haven’t found the cat. I’ve imprinted it,’ Jake said.

  ‘Printed it?’ Surely even the newest 3D machines weren’t capable of reproducing mammals?

  ‘No. How do you say – emprunter?’

  ‘Borrowed?’

  ‘Yes, borrowed. This one from Rini’s friend, the first one from Rini. You still have it?’

  I must have been looking confused, because he tried to explain.

  ‘Rini, you know? The girl in the restaurant?’

  I told him that it was the word ‘borrowed’ that had got me stumped, not the name of his adulterous friend.

  ‘Yes, sorry, I must explicate,’ he said. ‘You and moi, we are going to be millionaires. No, not millionaires, silly-onaires. Come.’

  I grabbed the unwilling tabby, earning myself a neat bloody scratch on the thumb, and followed him into the kitchen, even more dazed than when I’d arrived at the flat.

  Jake pointed to the sack of coffee beans he’d bought, which was still lying slumped in a corner, much as I felt like doing myself.

  ‘The other day Rini has took me to this incroyable café,’ he said. ‘She loves a special coffee, the most dear in the world. Like, ten thousand euros per kilo, man. It is from Indonésie, coffee from grains that are shit by an animal. A civet. Like a cat.’

  He said the last three words as though he was Einstein pronouncing his famous E = mc2 for the first time.

  It took a few seconds for the full craziness of Jake’s idea to seep through, like coffee through a thick filter paper. When it finally seeped, it was pungent enough to make me utter a stifled growl, the kind a civet probably makes when it excretes an extra-large coffee bean.

  ‘You mean you were going to feed this coffee to the cats, then sift through their shit and sell the result?’

  ‘That’s a ten-kilo bag, man. A hundred thousand euros.’ Again Jake was back in Einstein mode. Economy equals the merde of a cat squared. Or rather, multiplied by ten thousand.

  ‘Well, for a start, Jake, I’ve read about that stuff, and I’m pretty sure the civets eat the fresh, undried coffee berries, not the roasted beans. And secondly, I don’t want my kitchen turned into a cat-shit factory.’

  ‘I could get some fresh coffee berries,’ Jake offered.

  ‘You can buy a containerload of fresh civets and sift through a ton of fresh shit a day, if you want. But not in my kitchen. Now can you please take both of these animals back to their owners? Along with the tins of smelly food I bought. And take the cat litter, too. I won’t be needing it. I’m planning to carry on using the toilet.’

  I gave the bag of cat litter a frustrated kick, scattering gravel to the far corners of the kitchen floor.

  For the next half a minute Jake stared mutely at his bag of coffee beans, and watched the two cats squabbling about whose kitchen this was. He seemed to be picturing his new-found fortune slipping away.

  ‘Wow, Paul, man,’ he finally said. ‘It looks like you had a really stressed day. Let’s leave these cats in the cuisine for now. I am taking you out for a fucking drink.’

  Which is exactly why he’s my best friend.

  16

  ‘EU will force cows to wear nappies.’

  Report in the British press, 2014

  I WAS ON time at the Parliament building next morning, feeling considerably less stressed about life than I had the previous day. Say what you like about Jake (and lots of people do, often to his face), but he’s great at taking your mind off a crisis.

  He’d dragged me out to a bar the previous evening – a completely ordinary Belgian café, the kind of place the badge people don’t even notice – and cheered me up. Not with an excess of alcohol, fortunately, but by being his usual self.

  ‘Merde to Elodie, man,’ he lectured me. ‘She was always une ambitieuse, and politique has made her a total freak du power. What she does is not against you, it’s not personnel, it’s just what les politiciens do to everyone.’

  It was great to hear him cut through all my problems in so few words. And for once he’d even restrained himself from writing a poem.

  We also got on to the subject of Manon, of course. Here, Jake was encouraging but maddening at the same time.

  ‘She was kissing you? Spontanément . . . uh, spontanuitously . . . Like, without you asking? Oh, you were so close, man!’

  ‘Close to what?’

  ‘Close to sex. You just had to use the French technique, Paul. All you had to say was this: Oh, ma chérie, you tell me that you must not fuck a man for three months, but . . .’

  I tried to explain that using words like ‘fuck’ to Manon might not have got me close to anything except a cold shoulder, but I quickly gave up and let him go on.

  ‘You say you will not have sex for three months, OK, bla-bla-bla,’ he said, getting back into character. ‘Well, ma chérie, three days ago I promised myself that I will drink no more alcohol. But for you I would break that promise. If I had a bottle of champagne now, I would drink a glass with you and it would be my best drink ever . . . She would say, Oh, Paul, tu es si romantique – and, boom, you fuck her on the office table.’

  ‘Thanks, very romantique, Jake.’

  But in a twisted way he was right – I’d probably given up too quickly. Maybe Manon secretly wanted me to crush her in an irresistible embrace, instead of saying in my hopeless English way, ‘Oh, OK then, sorry to have bothered you.’

  I just didn’t have the French guys’ technique. I’m sure they learn it in the cradle. It’s like skiing – I seem to fall flat on my face every time, while others glide effortlessly down the pistes. Jake was right. If I’d come on with the French charm, Manon might well have been bouncing on my iron-framed bed before she’d even realised what was happening.

  ‘Zut,’ I said. That’s ‘shit’ in Norman French, which is of course where the expression ‘Zut alors’ comes from. I was learning some fascinating stuff from all this minority-language work.

  ‘I don’t know how you get away with it, Jake,’ I told him.

  ‘I know what I want, man, that’s all, and I tell them. And I don’t chase after difficult women, like you do.’

  This was true. His demands were simple – he just wanted his women human.

  ‘Of course I have ideals,’ he went on. ‘ My ideal woman is a nymphomaniac with an apartment in the Marais. Though I wouldn’t say no to Bastille or the Quartier Latin.’

  ‘What about your shagging-a-woman-of-every-nationality thing? I thought your ideal woman was any citiz
en of a country that’s not in your red book.’

  ‘That’s just sport. A man must keep himself amused until the ideal woman arrives. You know what the song says: if you can’t be with the one you love, fuck the one you’re with.’

  ‘I’m not sure that’s exactly what the song says, Jake.’

  ‘It’s what it means, man. I bet you think “White Christmas” isn’t about drugs?’

  Somehow, listening to Jake’s bullshit always makes me feel slightly better about myself.

  I ended the night by texting to Manon – completely sober – that I was glad we were on the same side. And she replied immediately: ‘Moi aussi.’

  Things weren’t so bad after all.

  I thought about this as I waited for Elodie the next morning, loitering outside her office door. Everything was locked up, including the connecting door to her office from Manon’s cubbyhole. The mouse wouldn’t be playing while the cat was out of town, it seemed.

  Elodie turned up almost on time.

  ‘Good, Paul, you look presentable,’ she said as she granted me the honour of brushing her cheeks with mine and saying ‘Mwa’. She seemed her usual self – brusque and mildly insulting, but not looking at all suspicious. Cédric obviously hadn’t told her anything.

  She double-checked that the doors were locked and said, ‘Allons-y, we’re late.’

  ‘Don’t you need anything else?’ I asked. She was carrying nothing more than a slightly oversized handbag.

  ‘No, I keep a change of clothes at my office in Strasbourg.’

  ‘And is there no trunk to carry? I thought MEPs always went to Strasbourg with those huge boxes full of documents and stuff.’

  ‘Oh no, Paul, no need. This is a special session. You’re lucky. Nothing to carry for me.’

  With this, she shooed me towards the lifts, explaining that there was a railway station beneath the building exclusively for the use of MEPs and a very few select staff.

  ‘We get a direct private train to Strasbourg,’ she said, as we emerged into a corridor crowded with suits and briefcases. ‘But usually the assistants and translators go on the regular service, which takes five hours and goes through Luxembourg. Can you imagine?’ She grimaced.

 
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