Merde in europe, p.17
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       Merde in Europe, p.17

           Stephen Clarke
 
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  ‘I’m not exactly sure who requested the bug, but I know Elodie has access to all the information. So I have brought you this.’ She fished into a small handbag and pulled out a phone. ‘Use it for any sensitive conversations from now on. My number is in it.’ She blushed ever so slightly. ‘We don’t want Elodie to suspect anything. She must think everything is normal. So use your old phone to call her, and for any call that you don’t mind being recorded.’

  ‘OK.’

  There was a brief, breathy silence.

  ‘It’s all very exciting, isn’t it?’ Manon said. ‘I didn’t expect to be playing the real spy like this.’

  ‘Me neither. It’s much more fun than learning Breton grammar.’

  She laughed, and we looked at each other for a few moments, suddenly aware that we were crammed almost chest-to-chest in a toilet cubicle.

  ‘Did you come here just to give me this?’ I asked.

  ‘Yes. I tried to catch you before you left this morning, but I was too late. So I sat for five hours in the regular train. Via Luxembourg. I suppose I could have waited until you got back to Brussels, but . . .’ She blushed again.

  ‘Wow, I’m honoured. Are you staying in Strasbourg for the evening?’

  ‘No, I must get out of here before anyone sees me. There’s a train back to Brussels in half an hour.’

  ‘Oh, quel dommage,’ I said. What a shame. Maybe, I thought, I could persuade her to stay. How would a Frenchman do it? Ah yes, Jake had explained it to me.

  ‘You know, Manon,’ I began, ‘three days ago, I decided that I didn’t want to drink any more alcohol. But now, if you gave me some champagne . . .’

  ‘Champagne, in a toilet?’ Manon laughed.

  ‘Well, not necessarily here and now, but . . .’

  ‘Anyway, it’s a bit premature to celebrate,’ she said. ‘And I must go.’

  Oh, bollocks, I thought, I’m just not cut out to be a Frenchman.

  ‘Don’t let anyone see your new phone, will you?’ she said.

  ‘No. I’ll call you when you’re on the train, to test it.’

  ‘Yes. I have five more hours to kill. It will be nice to have someone to talk to.’

  She listened to make sure no one else was in the toilets, then slipped out of the cubicle. But before doing so, she gave me a French bise on each cheek and a smile so warm it seemed to make my insides simmer.

  17

  ‘English Channel to be renamed “Anglo-French Pond”.’

  Report in the British press, 2010

  ELODIE HADN’T BOOKED me into the same hotel as all the MEPs. They were in the city’s grandest ‘palace’, five stars-worth of luxury paid for by the taxpayers, whereas I was relegated to a mere four-star business establishment.

  But I didn’t mind at all – in hotels, the bland corporate chic actually makes sense. All I really want from a hotel is a decent bed, a big TV, drinkable coffee, wi-fi and a power shower. If I’m on my own, that is. At other times, a jacuzzi can come in handy.

  When Manon and I left the toilet cubicle, I went back to the hotel, cracked open an Alsace beer from the minibar and lay back on my bed for a muse.

  Elodie was beyond paranoid, I decided. First my computer, now the phone. I’d have to check my apartment, to make sure Cédric hadn’t installed cameras there. Lucky I hadn’t got up to anything embarrassing in the bath. Or in bed, for that matter.

  But the question remained: What could Elodie possibly gain from watching and hearing me do everything that she had ordered me to do in the first place? Was she scared I’d reveal her plans to someone? If so, to whom? And why?

  It was just a shame I couldn’t confront her. It would be nice to see her try to bullshit her way out of it.

  There was one thing I could do, though. A bit of fun that might cause her a satisfying smidgen of pain.

  I got out my bugged phone.

  ‘Hi, Jake?’

  ‘Bonjour, Paul, how are you going?’

  ‘Fine. I’m in Strasbourg, at my hotel. But I need a bit of advice.’

  ‘Yeah?’

  ‘Yes, I’m feeling lonely and I thought you could give me some chat-up lines.’

  Let’s hope Elodie gets to listen to this, I thought.

  ‘Hey, man, formidable news. So you’re forgetting that Man-killer girl? Good idea, she’ll break your boules. You want chat-up lines. Yeah, yeah. D’accord.’

  I could hear Jake’s instincts clicking into gear.

  ‘Voilà a great one,’ he said, almost instantly. His instincts didn’t hang around. ‘You meet a femme, and straight away you ask her, “Do you know the origin of the word sex?” OK? You with me so far?’

  ‘Yes, Jake.’ And somehow wishing I wasn’t.

  ‘OK. She is surprised by your question, right?’

  ‘Slightly, I’d say.’

  ‘Yeah. So you tell her, “It comes from the German ‘sechs’, meaning six. It is the number of seconds before I kiss you.” Works every time. Well, almost. Are you writing this down?’

  Jake had misinterpreted my stunned silence.

  ‘Yes, got it, thanks. Any more?’ I prayed that Cédric would also hear this and be idiotic enough to try it out.

  ‘Oh, yeah, full of them, man. Next one: you go to a femme in a bar. It must be a bar where it is interdit to smoke. You say to her: “You can’t smoke in here.” She is surprised, she says, “I’m not smoking.” You say, “Yes, you are, you’re smoking.”’

  Again, he didn’t understand why I was silent.

  ‘You see, Paul, it means she’s hot, n’est-ce pas? Smoking-hot. They adore it. But be careful, it doesn’t function in French. If you tell them, “Tu fumes”, I think it kind of means they stink. Not a good technique.’

  ‘I can imagine.’

  ‘Yeah, you need encore?’

  ‘No, no. Thanks, that should be enough. I’ll try them out tonight. What have you been up to?’

  ‘Oh, I had a bit of merde with the flicks.’ He meant flics, police.

  ‘Nothing serious, I hope?’

  ‘No, I was walking in the park, I needed to go pipi, so I went behind this tree, and this flick came and started on-girling me.’ This, I knew, was a verb he’d invented, based on the French engueuler, to yell at someone. ‘I was like: come on, monsieur de la police, can’t you just imagine I’m a statue? Like, your little Manneken? But he got furious and I had to pay like eighty euros. Frankly, these Belge flicks, man, it says “politie” on their jackets, but they’re not polite. They tell me I’m a “klootzak” and my “moeder” is a “hoer”.’

  I had to laugh at the amoral and yet somehow innocent anarchy that was Jake’s life.

  ‘See you tomorrow, Jake, and thanks for the advice.’

  ‘You’re welcome, klootzak.’

  Next, to put my new, unbugged phone to use. I texted Danny the oyster man, telling him I was in Strasbourg, that I’d lost my phone and he’d need to use this number from now on. I didn’t want Elodie overhearing any more of my conversations with him.

  Danny called me back immediately on the new number.

  ‘Hi, Paul. Phone nicked, eh? By a femme fatale? That’s the kind of thing that goes on during these Strasbourg jaunts.’

  ‘No, I . . . uh, dropped it in the loo, if you really want to know.’

  ‘Ah, browsing while browning, not a good idea. Anyway, what have you got planned for tonight?’

  ‘A drink, maybe. Preferably with the Brits. I don’t really want to bump into the French guys.’

  I told him about my little disagreement with Yves Remord.

  ‘Oh, don’t worry, he’ll probably be out in some fancy restaurant with a tart. That’s what all the French MEPs do. The guys, anyway. The women go straight to the bedroom with their regular lovers. But if you want to see some good Brit action, go and have a look at Rummage. He’ll be in his hotel bar, and pissed as an anal trombone. Great entertainment.’

  I thanked Danny and promised to go along.

  I’d saved the best
till last. Time to call Manon. I lay back on my firm corporate mattress, settled comfortably on a glacier of pumped-up pillows and ran my finger over her name on the screen of my new phone.

  She picked up straight away and sounded pleased to get my call. I guessed that it wasn’t all down to my natural charm. In the background I could hear the telltale signs of an interminable rail journey – a wailing kid, a loud teenagers’ conversation and the slow clickety-clack of a non-express train. But it gave me a kick to think that she’d put up with all that just to bring me the phone that was now enabling us to talk together.

  We had what seemed to me like a long chat – more than twenty minutes, which is a summit meeting by my standards – both of us reliving the thrill of knowing we were outwitting phone-tappers, computer snoopers and general international plotters. It was like in the films, when a man and a woman are thrown together by the need to save the world. Only us two knew what was going on, and it created a real sense of closeness.

  Well, only two of us if you excluded her government bosses, of course, who were probably remote-controlling her, but that’s not the kind of thing you talk about when she’s on a train and you’re on a bed, and you can tell from her voice that she’d probably prefer to be where you are. I don’t mean she wanted to be in the bedroom while I was on the train, of course. And I’m not sure she was saying she wanted us both to be in a bedroom, either. It simply felt as though both of us agreed it would have been nicer speaking face-to-face. A warm sensation that you don’t get with every phone call.

  Before we said goodbye and wished each other ‘Bonne soirée’, I took a risk and said it was a dommage that she hadn’t been able to stay in Strasbourg.

  She replied, ‘In other circumstances’, which was a put-down, but a gentle one. At least it wasn’t ‘In your dreams’.

  Elodie called to ask me where I’d got to. The referendum debate was over, she said, and really hadn’t been worth the millions it had cost us all.

  ‘Parliament voted to issue a statement saying that we hope Britain will stay in the European Union, but we don’t care if you leave,’ she told me. ‘So basically we’ve decided to announce that we don’t have an opinion. A useful day’s work, n’est-ce pas?’

  I laughed with her, wondering how she could play this double-game with me – sharing jokes like an old friend, while spying on me as if I was her worst enemy.

  ‘Now why don’t you go out and interview a few drunk Englishmen,’ she suggested. ‘I’ll expect a full report in the morning, OK?’

  ‘And I can expect a full refund on my expenses?’

  ‘Of course. As long as they’re below the limit of a drunk English MEP.’

  Which was fine by me. I wasn’t even in that league.

  And so, later that evening, after a quick choucroûte in one of central Strasbourg’s narrow medieval streets, I strolled into the lobby of Elodie’s fancy hotel, scanning the horizon for hostile French MEPs.

  The lobby was impressive, to say the least. If all the money, perks and self-esteem weren’t enough, that hotel would have convinced anyone to become an MEP. The French really know how to do luxury. Not British-style luxury, which usually involves paying some trendy designer to install uncomfortable chairs, lighting that makes everything look alternately blue and purple, and piped music recorded at an Ibizan beach party. This Strasbourg place was old-school chic, with a chandelier that had been updated to electricity but probably used to light up the same room with candles, and staff so discreet and well-dressed that they must have been trained while that candlelight was still the latest technology.

  There were a few MEPs about, none of whom looked particularly French, and I crossed the lobby towards a wooden archway. The faint roar of after-dinner drinkers led me to the end of a carpeted passageway, where the hubbub got suddenly louder. It sounded very well oiled, an impression that was confirmed when I entered a panelled room full of men and women with drinks in their hands.

  It was an older version of Plux, with more of a sit-down feel. Most of the MEPs were chatting loudly and merrily in padded armchairs, apparently unconcerned about the grave implications of the referendum they had just been discussing.

  Practically the only people standing were in a small gang propping up the bar. They were creating as much noise as all the other drinkers put together. And the gang leader making the loudest racket was Nick Rummage.

  An almost-empty glass of lager in his fist (not his first drink of the night, I suspected), he was playing the persona he depicted for the journalists, except that he was singing a song that would have had the British tabloids dashing into a headline meeting.

  ‘Ne me quitte pas,’ he was bawling, in a fair approximation of Jacques Brel’s tune and accent. He crooned the chorus, then began singing one of the verses, something mawkish about how he’d be his lover’s dog if only she agreed not to leave him. I could only assume that the hotel had promised to keep journalists out of the bar.

  Sticking to the shadows, I got out my new phone and started to film. Or tried to. It was a bit of a cheapie, and kept taking photos of my feet as I fought to get the bloody thing started. Keep singing, Nick, I begged him silently. If he stopped now, I’d have to shout, ‘Encore!’ and beg for another verse.

  Eventually I managed to begin filming my shoes, so I pointed the phone towards him and recorded a full chorus, in which he was joined by several of his colleagues, most of whom had very deep voices for Eunuchs. At the end of it all, they cheered, and the freely sweating Rummage, his shirt half-untucked, drained his glass.

  ‘Remettez-moi ça!’ he called to the barman, demanding a refill in very acceptable French. ‘Pour tous mes amis.’ A generous party leader, it seemed. With whose money, I wondered?

  ‘You’ll have to watch it, Nick,’ one of his disciples said. ‘You know drinks can only make up ten per cent of meal expenses.’

  ‘I can’t eat that much,’ Nick replied. ‘God, I love this job,’ he slurred. ‘If we vote “no”, I’m going to become a Froggie, get myself elected as a French MEP. Buy a house in the Dordogne, then campaign to kick out all the English immigrants. Go home, you fuckers, back to England! Make the Dordogne truly French again!’

  This had all his followers howling with laughter, and attracted disapproving glares from the seated areas. The small group of rowdy Eunuchs was performing the minor miracle of uniting the whole European Parliament on one issue: the sooner these uncouth English slobs leave the EU, the better, the looks seemed to say.

  It all made for a wonderful short film, and I made sure it was safely stocked in the memory of my new phone.

  Now to get in even closer. Heading for the bar, I switched the phone over to record sound only.

  I took a chance and went straight towards Rummage.

  ‘Do I count as one of your amis?’ I asked him.

  ‘Depends,’ he said, squinting at me as if trying to recall my face. ‘Which way do you swing?’

  I guessed this was a question about my attitude to the Brexit, rather than an invitation to his hotel room.

  ‘Well, maybe I ought to vote to stay in, otherwise you’ll lose the job you love so much.’

  ‘Very sporting of you,’ he slurred. ‘Donnez une bière à ce monsieur,’ he told the barman, and I ordered a half-litre, which the metric-loving French sportingly call une pinte. ‘And will you lose your job too, if it’s a No?’ Rummage asked me.

  ‘No, I’m strictly temporary.’

  ‘Temporary what?’

  ‘Researcher.’ I thought it best to be discreet.

  ‘Oh yes, more research, that’s what Europe needs right now,’ he said, piling on the sarcasm. ‘Research into what? How many migrants it takes to fill the Channel Tunnel? How many MEPs it takes to change a light bulb? Thanks to the EU, you can’t change just one – you have to change the whole bloody lot, over to energy-saving bloody darkness.’ It sounded as though he had clicked into campaign mode.

  ‘No,’ I said. ‘Oysters.’

  He
burst out laughing.

  ‘Donnez une autre bière à ce monsieur avec un grand whisky,’ he ordered the barman, even though I hadn’t got my first drink yet. ‘Et la même chose pour moi.’ He finished his own beer in one efficient draught. ‘So you’re the chap doing that?’ he asked me, burping in my face. He’d obviously got me mixed up with one of his own team. ‘Have you worked out how to get them banned yet? Best way I heard was that guff about transport. Drivers have to stop and give them rest breaks and fresh water. Excellent scheme!’

  He clapped me on the shoulder.

  ‘Yes,’ I agreed. ‘One question, though: Do you want all this to be public knowledge before the referendum?’

  ‘Ooh, ah.’ He seemed to be in pain. ‘Finer points of strategy. I don’t do much of that myself. Especially not when I’m pissed.’

  All our drinks arrived at the same time – three beers and two whiskies. Following Rummage’s lead, I took a long swig of lager, then downed the whisky.

  ‘I bloody love oysters, don’t you?’ he said. He grabbed my shoulder and pressed his face close to mine so that the air I was breathing was about 50 per cent alcohol. ‘My sex life wouldn’t be the same without them. Not because of all that aphrodisiac’ – it took him three attempts to pronounce the word – ‘nonsense. No, it’s because a woman looks so bloody sexy when she’s slurping them down. Ohmygod.’ He groaned beerily. ‘Hey, Tim!’ Rummage turned to one of the other men propping up, or being propped up by, the bar. ‘Let’s oyster some orders.’

  Tim, a flushed forty-year-old with a five-day blond beard, was predictably confused.

  ‘Oyder some orsters,’ Rummage tried again. The booze had finally taken control of his tongue.

  ‘You what?’ Tim joined us, and closed one eye to examine me. ‘You’re not a journalist, are you?’ He looked down at my phone-holding hand. He seemed a bit too sober for my liking.

  ‘No, researcher.’ I slurred the word as best I could.

  ‘Researcher for whom?’ Tim asked, confirming with his use of grammar that he wasn’t too drunk to ask some embarrassing questions.

  I lifted my glass inaccurately to my mouth. One half-inhaled mouthful later, I was bent double, coughing up beer. I put my glass on the bar and croaked, ‘Excuse me, back in a sec’ and staggered away, spluttering.

 
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