Merde in europe, p.18
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       Merde in Europe, p.18

           Stephen Clarke
 
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  As soon as I had stumbled through the door into the lobby, I bolted for the exit – only to bump into Elodie. She was deep in conversation with her Danish dish. Probably deciding whose room had the best jacuzzi and how much champagne they’d need to fill it.

  ‘Paul.’ She excused herself to her chum and marched me a few paces away. As we walked, she bombarded me with questions: ‘You’re leaving already? The English are all in the bar, right? Did you talk to them? Did you hear anything useful?’

  Instinctively I decided I didn’t want to share any information with the woman who was listening in to practically every conversation I had, whether written or spoken. How, though, could I avoid the issue?

  Luckily, my silent indecision helped me out.

  ‘You’re not drunk?’ Elodie demanded.

  ‘No way!’ I burped.

  She punched my arm.

  ‘Didn’t I tell you to stay sober?’

  ‘Accident. No tea-making facilities in my room. Only a minibar. And then they were forcing me to drink beer . . .’ I held up my hands in surrender to the onslaught of alcohol I had suffered.

  ‘God, Paul, you’re so English.’

  ‘Yes. Come and celebrate with me. Bring your friend the scandalous Scandinavian.’

  Predictably this got her so mad that she frogmarched me – and for once it was an accurate use of the word – to the door and launched me into the street.

  ‘If you’re not on the train tomorrow morning, you can walk back to Brussels,’ she told me, as I waved goodnight and staggered towards the nearest street corner.

  Result, I thought, as I breathed several sighs of relief.

  I had a great excuse to call Manon again. She was going to love my film of Rummage’s concert, and his opinions about oysters.

  What’s more, my minibar would have to be empty by morning, to back up my story to Elodie.

  The party was about to get started.

  18

  ‘Great British banger to be outlawed by Brussels.’

  Report in the British press, 2001 (and most years since)

  I SPENT THE whole Strasbourg-to-Brussels train journey in the buffet car, feigning a hangover and hoping that my large collection of minibar bottles and cans wouldn’t leak into my bag. The previous night I’d decided that sobriety was the best bet, but my hotel bill was going to tell the opposite story.

  When we arrived back in Brussels, I told Elodie I needed to go and lie down, and she seemed relieved to see me disappearing back to my apartment.

  Almost as soon as I was out of the Parliament building, I put my new phone to use, setting up a late lunch with Manon.

  She joined me in an anonymous Belgian café near Bruxelles-Midi, where she recommended the cheap moules-frites.

  I was on my best behaviour. When she said that it was rare to meet an Englishman who liked mussels, I didn’t even smile. I could have done a lot worse than that, because, having been around Jake for so long, I knew that ‘moule’ in French is a slang word for vagina. But Manon’s comment provoked not even a whimper. Like I said, best behaviour.

  Picking through our heaps of shellfish and (in my case, anyway) dunking our fries in the salty marinière sauce, we went over what we knew about Elodie’s trickery – if, that is, there was trickery involved, beyond bugging my phone and computer. The referendum was now only three days away, and both Manon and I were sure that the Brexit was at the heart of the matter.

  I argued that the subterfuge might just have been a sign of over-caution on Elodie’s part, a fear that I was going to cock up her attempts to help the pro-Europe vote, either deliberately or through sheer incompetence. Not very flattering, but plausible.

  Manon was convinced there was something more malevolent going on. Elodie, she said, was a born double-dealer, just like her father, and I had to concede that she was probably right. We needed to put Elodie to the test.

  So we hatched a plan, or conceived it, anyway. ‘Hatch’ sounds as though it just pops out ready-formed. Ours was a plan that would involve careful timing, improvised play-acting and convincing bullshit. If we didn’t get all these components right, then Elodie would be free to finish off whatever scheme she had been cooking up.

  The first part of this plan involved Manon leaving the café at about 5 p.m. so that she could keep an appointment with Elodie. Everyday life had to continue exactly as normal, so Elodie wouldn’t suspect that she too was being observed. She and Manon were due to go to some function chaired by the French ambassador and attended by all the French MEPs.

  ‘Probably an early celebration of the Brexit,’ Manon said. ‘I’m joking,’ she added, but she didn’t look amused.

  Next morning I called Manon from the doorway of one of the planet’s most boring buildings, on the street the Flemish speakers call Wet. Appropriately, it was raining.

  Manon took a few rings to pick up.

  ‘Allo?’ she finally answered.

  ‘Bonjour, Manon, ça va? Do you want to join me for a cup of coffee before work?’

  ‘Is that Paul?’ Her voice was as chilly as a Frappuccino.

  ‘Yes, of course.’

  ‘Ah. Non merci. I am débordée today. Thanks to you, as it happens.’

  ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘I suppose you don’t want to tell me anything more about this English plot to ban oysters?’

  ‘I can’t tell you any more.’

  ‘I really don’t care myself – I can live without oysters – but I’ve got to find out who’s behind the idea and then suggest ways to stop it. Fast. The French ambassador has heard about it, and he is furious. He was yelling at Elodie yesterday evening, and she’s been yelling at me.’

  ‘Well, maybe I can help you un petit peu.’

  ‘Un petit peu? No, don’t bother. I have to go, I’m too busy to talk.’

  ‘I’ll ask my British contacts.’

  ‘Just forget it. I have to go.’

  The phone went dead.

  I waited a couple of seconds, then turned to Manon. We gave each other a thumbs-up. She was standing in the next doorway. This call, made from my bugged phone, was part of the plan we’d conceived together the previous afternoon. We needed Elodie to think we were still on bad terms. I had to admit that Manon was frighteningly convincing.

  ‘I’ll get back on the Métro,’ she said.

  ‘I’ll follow in ten minutes or so. Bonne chance.’

  I moved in for a hug. We were partners in crime, after all. I’m sure partners in crime hug all the time. I placed my chin gently on Manon’s shoulder, made sure my backside was sticking out, to avoid any inappropriate pressing, and held the position for five seconds, then let go. All good, clean stuff.

  She trotted through the light rain to the Métro steps and looked back as soon as she got under cover. We exchanged a wave and a smile. Partners in crime, that’s all, I told myself.

  Elodie was at her desk, clicking away on a laptop. I wondered if she was waiting for me to start work, so that she could monitor everything I did onscreen while I was actually doing it.

  ‘Bonjour, Paul. Comment vas-tu?’ She was in a good mood.

  ‘Bonjour, Elodie. Ça va.’

  ‘How was your soirée?’ she asked, somewhat maternally. ‘Less drunk than in Strasbourg, I hope?’

  ‘Yes, very quiet.’ This she probably knew, thanks to a conversation I’d had the previous evening with Jake on my bugged phone. He had told me that he’d found himself what he called a ‘Slovak-Polonaise’, and offered to ‘arrange’ me with one of her friends. I’d said thanks for the offer, but my head was still sore after my encounter with the minibar in Strasbourg. I told him I was going to take it easy, with one of my discomfort-food hot dogs for company. And that was what I’d done, while Manon and Elodie were glugging champagne with the ambassador.

  ‘I suppose I have to work in Manon’s office?’ I said. I looked towards Manon’s closed door and grimaced, as if the forces of opposition were being beamed through the woodwork. ‘Sh
e’s pretty pissed off, because I haven’t been able to tell her anything about the oysters,’ I whispered. Scene one of today’s play-acting.

  Elodie nodded sympathetically.

  ‘OK, but she must not be able to . . .’ Elodie mimed being watched over her shoulder.

  ‘I’ll sit on the other side of the table, facing her. I’ve already told her I’m not allowed to discuss what I’m doing for you. She won’t be insulted. I don’t think she likes the Brits, anyway.’

  ‘I can fully understand that, Paul.’ Elodie gave a self-satisfied grin. ‘I don’t know why I’m trying so hard to keep you in the EU, I really don’t.’

  That makes two of us, I thought.

  I went into the other office and made a big show of apologising to Manon for moving the furniture around. She told me to go ahead – ‘Pas de problème.’ She was a better actress than I was, very minimal. Taking her lead, I stopped talking and made room for my chair between the table and the wall, then opened up my laptop and got down to work. I took the risk of shooting Manon a complicit glance, but she was concentrating on her screen. A perfect performance.

  I settled down to reading my list of British tabloid stories, setting them out as bullet points, checking details online, giving Cédric or whoever was watching my computer a show of passive diligence, waiting for scene two to begin.

  With his innate sense of barging in when he wasn’t wanted, Jake called me on my bugged phone. I’d given him the new number, but appeals for discretion never worked with Jake.

  Manon raised her eyebrows. She must have recognised the ringtone of the old phone.

  ‘Hey, man, got some weird, like, nouvelles for you.’ Jake meant news. ‘My Slovak-Polonaise knows this Italian-Hungary guy. He has told her, and she tells me, and I am telling you.’

  A typical Jake speech, but whatever it meant, I didn’t really want it to continue on this phone.

  ‘Can I call you back, Jake? I’m kind of busy.’

  ‘OK, but do it très vite. It’s à propos of the French. Crazy stuff, man.’

  ‘I really haven’t got time for any conspiracy-theory shit,’ I said quickly. ‘I’ve got two reports to finish up. I’ll talk to you later.’

  I rang off, walked a few paces along the corridor and called him from the new phone.

  ‘What’s this you’ve heard?’ I asked.

  ‘Wow, it all, like – how do you say? – sticks together. It glues. Like, gels, man.’ God knows what he’d been smoking or drinking, but he was at half-speed this morning.

  ‘What does, Jake?’

  ‘My friend tells me that the French are dispensing Europe money for purely French stuff. Like, giving it to patriots for doing some patriot shit. All about the referendum. And my amie mentioned Elodie. She named her. Elodie, man.’

  Something about this sounded very bad. ‘Patriots doing patriot shit’ never sounds good, except perhaps if they’re organising a raffle to save an indigenous butterfly. I’d met some of these French patriots – Yves Remord, for example. His kind didn’t usually go around trying to improve Anglo-French relations in any way. And he’d stomp on any butterfly, home-grown or not, to further his political ambitions.

  ‘What kind of patriot shit?’ I asked Jake.

  ‘I mean, this is only rumour, you know. He-tells-her-and-she-tells-me stuff. But when I have told my fuck-buddy about you working with Elodie, she has said, like: Wow, tell him that the French patriots could be exploiting him. Attention! You know?’

  ‘Exploiting me how? More than by bugging my phone and computer?’

  ‘Don’t know, man. Exploiting is what she said. Something très sérieux.’

  ‘Thanks, Jake. And tell your Slovak-Polish friend thanks for the warning. What’s her name, by the way?’

  ‘Her name? Oh, man, you really expect me to remember everything she said?’

  Typical Jake.

  Back in the office, I had to sit down opposite Manon as though nothing had happened and keep on feigning work, waiting for the real spy action to kick in.

  At around eleven I went into Elodie’s office to ask her if she wanted a coffee. She was bashing with uncharacteristic speed on her laptop.

  ‘Ah, oui, merci,’ she said, giving me a genuine smile of gratitude. She was in real need of caffeine.

  ‘You going out for lunch later?’ I asked.

  ‘Mm, no – no time today, I think. Maybe you can get me a sandwich later?’

  ‘Sure,’ I agreed and went back into Manon’s office to grimace at her. This wasn’t in our plans at all. We needed Elodie out of the office for a nice long Danish lunch.

  While I was queuing up for coffee chez Mickey Mouse I got a text from Manon on my unbugged phone: ‘Tu dois la sortir du bureau. 20 minutes.’

  She meant that somehow I had to get Elodie away from her desk.

  ‘OK,’ I replied, wondering how I was going to do it. It would have been a perverse pleasure to pour coffee all over Elodie and escort her to a dry cleaner’s, but, knowing me, my attempt to stage the ‘accident’ would look too much like a man deliberately assaulting his boss with a hot drink.

  Something less crude and physical was called for. I ordered myself a double espresso to kick my brain into creative mode.

  Arriving back at the office, I set a paper cup down on Manon’s desk.

  ‘Are you ready now?’ I whispered.

  ‘Merci,’ she said, loudly. ‘Yes, if you want,’ she added at minimum volume. She opened her bag and pulled out a set of keys. They were, I knew, pass keys to the office furniture. Amazing, really, but one of the advantages of EU centralisation. Someone with Manon’s connections could get hold of the keys to unlock any desk and cupboard supplied by Parliament.

  Time to bullshit some conversation and make sure Elodie was out of her office long enough to let Manon do her stuff.

  I went to give Elodie her espresso, with a Speculoos biscuit to sweeten her up. She broke off from her typing.

  ‘Ah merci, Paul.’

  I closed the door to Manon’s office behind me.

  ‘Can we drink our coffees in private? I need to have a quick chat with you.’ I nodded towards the corridor.

  ‘Is it urgent?’

  ‘A bit. Sorry.’ I did my best to look embarrassed.

  ‘Shut the door, then, let’s talk.’

  ‘I’d prefer . . .’ I tilted my head pleadingly towards the corridor again, wishing that I’d learned hypnosis techniques.

  ‘What’s it about?’

  This time I nodded towards Manon’s door.

  ‘Oh God.’ Elodie grumbled, bowing down beneath the responsibility to perform human-resources counselling for her underlings. But, even as she complained, she was getting out of her seat. It occurred to me that the bitching between me and Manon might actually amuse her.

  She locked her computer and bag away in her cupboard and followed me into the corridor. As soon as we got to the nearest corner, I dived straight in.

  ‘I’ve been hearing some worrying things,’ I said.

  ‘Yes?’ Elodie looked disappointed. This wasn’t bitching, it was work.

  ‘I know who is trying to ban the oyster.’

  ‘Yes?’

  ‘It’s the Brits. The Eunuchs.’

  ‘Quelle surprise. Have you got any proof?’

  ‘Not really, no. But I just remembered: the other night in Strasbourg, they were laughing about it.’

  ‘OK, but why don’t you just tell Manon what you heard?’

  ‘That’s the problem. I don’t trust her,’ I said. ‘There’s something not straight about her.’

  ‘Ha!’ Here, at last, was a topic that really interested Elodie. ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘Well, she’s suddenly gone cold on me. I offered to find out about the oysters, and she didn’t want to know.’

  Elodie thought about this. I wondered if she’d already heard my staged phone conversation with Manon.

  ‘Has she said anything negative about me?’ I asked.

&
nbsp; ‘Well, when you first arrived she wanted to know why I am employing an Anglais. I told her: at least I chose you. You weren’t forced on me by Papa. She didn’t like that.’

  Elodie was warming to her subject. She even leant back on a huge photocopier that was taking up half the width of the corridor, not just with its own bulk, but with the mountain range of paper boxes next to it. There was more photocopy paper by this one machine than I’d ever seen in my whole life. More proof of the EU’s capacity to churn out wordage.

  I knew that I had to keep churning it out, too, for twenty minutes, so I spent a few precious seconds looking silently embarrassed, working down the clock like a footballer hoping to protect his team’s slender lead.

  ‘Manon didn’t mention that I followed her to the ladies’ toilets, did she?’

  ‘What?’ Elodie barked a laugh.

  ‘Good. Because I stayed outside.’

  She laughed again.

  ‘No, she didn’t mention this, Paul. Please tell me more.’ Now Elodie was hooked. She finished her coffee and lobbed the empty cup into the waste-paper bin.

  I began to spin out the story of how I’d tried to plead innocent to the charge of being a British Eunuch, through a toilet door. I gave Elodie all the dialogue, almost word-for-word, and had her chuckling with delight. As long as the minutes were passing, I didn’t care that I came out of it looking like a boubourse.

  ‘Oh, Paul,’ she groaned after the lady had emerged unexpectedly from the ladies’ loo. ‘You and women – it’s such an unequal match. We win every time. I feel so guilty.’

  ‘Why would you feel guilty?’ I asked, innocently. Both of us knew she wasn’t doing anything blameworthy to me, n’est-ce pas?

  ‘Oh, well . . .’ She looked flustered for a moment. She’d said too much. ‘I was just remembering when I got you into trouble with Papa by inviting you to live with me. And then your old girlfriend, what was her name? Alicia?’

  ‘Alexa.’

  ‘Ah yes, she bounced you around like a rubber ball, didn’t she? Poor Paul. Please take my advice. After Brussels, you must stand up for yourself. Stop acting like an idiot around every woman you see.’

 
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