Merde in europe, p.19
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       Merde in Europe, p.19

           Stephen Clarke
 
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  ‘After Brussels? Why not in Brussels?’ I asked.

  ‘Well, yes, OK – you can start now by not caring what Manon thinks about you. You’ve got no chance with her, so give up. Why don’t you stick with that girl you met in a bar the other day?’

  ‘It’s complicated,’ I said, although in fact it was perfectly simple, of course. She didn’t exist.

  ‘Somehow you always manage to make it complicated, Paul. Now let’s get back to the office, I have to—’

  ‘There’s something else,’ I blurted out, only just stopping myself from grabbing her physically. ‘Something very urgent.’

  ‘Yes?’ This definitely interested her.

  ‘Yes. Even more urgent.’

  The question was: what?

  ‘The thing is,’ I began, having no idea what the thing was.

  ‘Yes?’

  ‘It’s difficult.’ Which was just about the first true thing I’d said to Elodie all day.

  ‘Well, maybe you’d better think about it and tell me later, Paul.’

  ‘No!’ I hoped I didn’t sound too scary. ‘I need your help.’

  ‘My help?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘With what, exactly?’

  This was what I was wondering, too.

  ‘Well, Elodie, it’s like this. As you yourself just said, I’ve been having some problems with women,’ I went on.

  ‘Yes?’

  ‘Well, it’s worse than you think.’

  ‘Really?’ Her expression suggested this was hard to imagine.

  ‘Yes. It’s, well . . . When I told you I’d met a girl in a bar the other day, I was lying.’

  This had Elodie shaking so much with laughter that I thought she’d jolt the photocopier into action. I took the opportunity to sneak a peek at my watch. It was getting painful, but I was using up the time pretty effectively.

  ‘Honestly, Paul, this is what I mean. Who cares? You shouldn’t tell me this. There have been plenty of weekends when I haven’t got laid, either.’

  She shook her head and seemed to think this ended our conversation.

  ‘Well, the thing is . . .’ I had to find some way to stop her going back to the office. ‘The thing is . . .’

  ‘I wish you’d stop saying that, Paul.’

  ‘Yes, sorry, but the thing . . .’ She raised her hands to strangle me if I uttered the wrong word. ‘. . . I was wondering, Elodie, is . . .’

  ‘Are you going to tell me before I get arrested for murdering an employee?’

  ‘How about we go out to dinner, you and I?’

  ‘What?’

  Elodie’s knees almost buckled, as did mine. What the hell was I saying?

  ‘You know,’ I went on, feeling my internal organs knotting themselves with horror, ‘we used to . . . you know . . . And I thought, if we went out for dinner and . . . you know – candles, champagne, the good old days, who knows . . . ?’

  Elodie’s mouth opened wider with each word, if that were possible. It looked as though she couldn’t make up her mind whether to scream for help or screech with laughter.

  ‘I’ve always admired you, Elodie,’ I trudged on, deeper into the quicksand of my immediate future. ‘And seeing you again, working with you, watching you handle real political power, it’s . . . well, it’s very . . .’

  I thought she might make a run for it, so there was nothing else I could do – I leant forward and kissed her. A good old-fashioned bout of lip suction.

  For a moment I thought she was going to punch me, or lift one of her slim but solid knees where it would do the most damage. But then, as I’d seen before, she made a deliberate effort to control her feelings. She pushed me gently away. I could only assume that, for some reason, I was too necessary to her to cripple.

  ‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I couldn’t stop myself.’

  She looked at me in disbelief, combined with amusement, and a touch of something else that I couldn’t quite identify.

  ‘Well, Paul,’ she finally said. ‘I suppose I should be flattered that you want to take me to dinner. You could have tried to chase me to the toilets, like you do with other women.’

  ‘No, I . . .’

  ‘I’m a married woman now, you know,’ she went on.

  ‘I know,’ I said, ignoring the dealings she’d had with a certain Dane.

  ‘It is not unpleasant to be fantasised about by a man, even if he is English and a bit of an idiot with women.’

  Bloody hell, I thought. Being given an unwanted snog at the photocopier was ‘not unpleasant’? Maybe the ‘Sorry, chérie, but I can’t resist you’ speech was the key to Frenchmen’s success.

  ‘But you have to admit that it all feels very uncomfortable, Paul.’ She was right there. I was in agony. But yet another minute had passed, and we were still in the corridor.

  ‘I know, and I’m sorry, Elodie. Desire can be an uncomfortable thing.’ I cringed at this almost unbearable bullshit, but she didn’t. I could only imagine that she’d had this type of conversation before.

  ‘Let’s forget it and get back to the office,’ Elodie said.

  ‘Can’t I buy you another coffee, to say sorry for molesting you? Or a stronger drink?’

  ‘No, a drink is the first step to dinner, and we all know where that leads.’ She smiled almost fondly and began to walk back towards her office, shaking her head. ‘Honestly, Paul, you are a disaster on legs. But thanks. I feel less guilty now.’

  ‘I’m glad I could help.’ I looked at my watch and prayed that my attempt at self-martyrdom hadn’t been in vain.

  Manon was at her desk, working on her computer. I glanced over to her as I sat down, but couldn’t see her face properly. She didn’t look up to acknowledge me.

  Elodie’s door was open a crack. I watched her unlock her cupboard, get out her bag and computer, sit down. She consulted a phone message, opened up her laptop, got back to typing. Nothing amiss, it seemed.

  For a count of ten, neither Manon nor I reacted, or even breathed as far as I could hear. Then she raised her head, looked me between the eyes and gave a barely visible thumbs-up.

  I began my ritual of clicking about in my browsing history, filling screen time, for Elodie’s sake. I sent her my report on false tabloid rumours, then answered a few innocent emails, waiting until the pre-arranged time for me to leave the office. When it came, I told Elodie I was off to lunch and went, giving Manon nothing but a polite ‘Bon appétit’. She replied without looking up.

  I got a table in one of the Belgian cafés that Manon and I had been using for our rendez-vous. It was a bright, airy place, decorated with beer adverts and framed slogans in Flemish that could have meant anything from ‘Merry Christmas’ to ‘No smoking in the toilets’.

  It was so practical to know that the badge people steered clear of any eating or drinking establishment that was local. If it wasn’t international, they weren’t interested.

  Fifteen minutes later, Manon turned up, as agreed. What hadn’t been agreed, though, was that she wasn’t alone. Standing beside her as she reached my table was the tall, uncomfortable figure of Cédric, who looked as though he hadn’t had much sleep the previous night, or had been drinking, or both.

  I raised my eyebrows enquiringly.

  ‘He walked in when I was opening Elodie’s cupboard,’ Manon explained.

  Cédric was rocking from one foot to the other, which seemed to indicate some sort of brain activity. Even with his goldfish-sized share of his family’s grey matter, he must have realised instantly that something was fishy.

  ‘I told him it wasn’t a good idea to tell Elodie what I was doing,’ Manon went on, ‘because we knew about the phone.’

  ‘I didn’t bug the phone,’ Cédric said, finally emerging from his stupor.

  ‘No, but I bet you’ve been passing on recordings of conversations to Elodie,’ Manon said, ‘or transcribing them.’

  ‘Oui, et ça, c’est un crime, Cédric,’ I told him in my clearest French. ‘Think of your family’
s reputation’ – though as private bankers, I doubted they could sink much lower. ‘Think of your grandmother.’

  Both of us shivered involuntarily at this. I’d met his grand-mère, and she was terrifying. Back at the time of the French revolution she wouldn’t have been down in the front row knitting and cackling as the guillotine did its work, she’d have been up on the scaffold, playing football with the aristocratic heads – and stealing the deeds to their chateaux out of their pockets. ‘Sharp’ didn’t do her justice. She was a human razor.

  ‘He agreed to keep quiet and join us for lunch,’ Manon said. ‘And I think maybe he can help us understand what Elodie has been doing, and tell me where to look in all the stuff I copied off her computer and phone.’

  The three of us ordered some plates of Belgian food and discussed what Cédric had been up to since my arrival.

  As we spoke, I enjoyed an unhealthily tasty plate of stoemp, a dish that sounded as though it might be a horrifically truncated limb of some sort, but was in fact creamy mashed potato with little pieces of leek mixed in, topped off with a sausage that was delicious enough to be English, the whole construction sitting like an iceberg on a sea of gravy. It was exactly what a man needed to calm his nerves after a blood-tingling morning.

  Manon went for an only slightly lighter chicons au gratin – endives under a cheesy crust, which also had a name in Flemish that no one southwest of Brussels would be able to spell or pronounce.

  As if in sympathy with me, Cédric opted for stoemp. Making the most of this atmosphere of a communal feast, we tried to pick his brains, or what brains there were.

  ‘Where did she get the money to employ me?’ I asked him.

  ‘I know she got an award from a charity called Europe Avenir,’ he said.

  ‘Avenir’, I knew, meant ‘future’.

  ‘Interesting,’ Manon said. ‘MEPs are obliged to declare gifts worth more than a hundred and fifty euros. A watch, say, or a handbag.’ As usual I had to fight down the urge to ask why any handbag could cost that much. ‘But they don’t have to declare cash. So if you want to give an MEP a perfectly legal bribe or, for example, enough money to carry out a project without supervision, you give the MEP a prize.’

  ‘Was it a French charity?’ I asked Cédric.

  He shrugged.

  ‘She just said that the award was for “services to the economy”.’ He shrugged again, and chewed on stoemp.

  ‘What does that mean?’ I asked Manon.

  She had obviously caught Cédric’s shrugging bug.

  ‘I don’t know who Europe Avenir are,’ she said, ‘but with a name like that, one thing is for sure – they don’t want to leave anything about Europe’s future to chance. No room for democracy or any merde like that.’

  We tried to get Cédric to explain why Elodie had been spying on me, and what her real motives were. But the overall picture in his mind was predictably blurred. He’d simply been told to make sure the bugs on my phone and computer were working OK, and to keep an eye on me, informing Elodie if I seemed to be revealing sensitive information to anyone except her.

  Cédric didn’t speak great English, so he’d been forwarding to Elodie any emails or conversation that he had doubts about. She’d moaned at him for ‘débording’ her with trivia, he said, but she had had a good laugh at Jake’s chat-up lines.

  ‘Maybe we can go out with Jake for a drink sometime?’ Cédric asked me. He wasn’t so stupid after all.

  After lunch, all of us left separately, though I stuck close behind Cédric to make sure he returned to work. He had to keep up the appearance of normality, as we all did. I watched him disappear into his cubbyhole, then went to sit at my own desk to kill time while Manon trawled through the files and messages that she’d copied.

  This she was doing at her apartment. She’d called in to tell Elodie that she was feeling sick after her lunch. I heard Elodie’s side of the conversation.

  ‘What did you eat . . . ? Really? I’ve told you before – avoid that Belgian merde . . . OK, hope you feel better soon.’ She hung up. ‘That will teach her,’ she grunted to herself. Such compassion.

  For three whole hours I tinkered with my sentences, turning commas into full stops, trying out different-coloured bullet points. Not just killing time, but boring it to death.

  And then, at last, Manon sent me a text on my new phone, giving me a brief summary of what she’d found out, at which point I was the one suffering from stomach cramps. It was a low blow, even by Elodie’s subterranean standards.

  It was much more than a stab in the back. It was as if she’d tricked me into sitting on a load of multicoloured drawing pins, then posted a photo of my bouquet-like backside on Facebook so that everyone on the planet could ‘LOL’ at it. And as Manon explained each different drawing pin that Elodie had used, the humiliation stung more and more.

  19

  ‘British toilets to be replaced by “euro-loos”.’

  Report in the British press, 2013

  MANON SUMMONED ME to one of our Belgian cafés, and by the time I arrived she was trembling under the pressure of everything she wanted to share with me. And almost as soon as she began her whispered revelations, I was trembling, too.

  In a nutshell, I had been shafted once again.

  I should never have trusted Elodie. It’s like old Breton ladies probably tell young farmboys – if you have been stung once by a bee, why on earth would you cover your head in honey and stuff it into a bees’ nest?

  What it boiled down to was that everything I had done for Elodie in Brussels was going to be turned against me – her plan wasn’t to swing the British referendum result towards a ‘Yes, please’, it was to convince the Brits to vote a resounding ‘Fuck off, Europe.’

  According to emails that Elodie had been exchanging with a group of French people, including my good friend Yves Remord, she was about to reveal to the British press that an Englishman (guess qui) had been working for France while living in a massive luxury apartment – with a signed rental agreement and selfies of said Brit in a bathtub as proof. All rent-free, despite the fact that I was getting paid a fortune (well, at least that bit looked good) for betraying my country’s interests.

  Apparently I had been advising the French government how to screw even more money out of Europe to subsidise its many semi-independent regions. Working with one of France’s most patriotic, anti-British political parties (touché, I really ought to have thought twice about Elodie’s affiliations), I’d advised them how to obtain millions of euros with which to pay for the teaching of obscure, defunct French dialects. My strategically-edited report proved this beyond any doubt.

  Not only this, but I had been spying on British eurosceptic politicians by buying up their computers for an absurd amount of (taxpayers’) money and retrieving secrets from their hard disks. Judging by emails that Manon had read, I was to be made the villain in a news story she wanted to create about France spying on the anti-EU radicals, which was guaranteed to whip up fury in certain sections of the British press.

  My worst crime, though, was my co-authorship of a report that Elodie was planning to release, itemising the crazy new laws that the EU would be free to inflict on Britain if the referendum vote was a ‘yes’.

  It looked as though Elodie hadn’t waited for me to send her my report on the false tabloid stories about EU laws. She’d grabbed it, half-finished, from my computer, using the spyware. She’d then cut out all my partly written explanations and kept only the bullshit rumours, leaving the reader with a top-twenty chart of the best reasons for Brits to vote ‘no’ and thereby save the British sausage, the kilt, Waterloo Station and even the good old English water closet from being flushed away by Brussels.

  Also faithfully preserved were my occasional comments about how brilliantly creative the rumours were, so that it looked as if the report was praising the journalists. ‘Creative’ is usually taken to mean brilliant, but of course if you’re creating havoc, then it’s not quite so positive.


  All in all, Elodie was dropping me right in the mokordo.

  I felt certain that the British tabloids were going to be having orgasms about all this, as were some of the main TV and radio news programmes. On the morning of the referendum, everyone in Britain would wake up to an irresistible call to get the hell out of Europe. Crowds were going to flock to the White Cliffs of Dover to start paddling the island further away from the continent.

  And all thanks to me.

  It was much worse than those old stories of sailors having to weave the cat-o’-nine-tails they were to be whipped with. I’d cleaned and loaded the rifles of my own firing squad, and then painted a massive bullseye on my forehead.

  My first conclusion was that I was a dickhead, and a blind one at that.

  Why hadn’t I listened to my own doubts about my two ‘missions’? I’d been all too aware that they both involved transcribing what anyone else could have found out. Even Cédric could have copied out the names of minority languages and downloaded British rumours about Europe. What Elodie really wanted was for me to do the jobs. Not only were British journalists more likely to believe reports written by one of their own (in English, too, so they were easy to read), the anti-Europeans would also have a brand-new hate figure to use in their Brexit campaign. Those evil French europhiles had recruited a treacherous Brit – moi.

  My second conclusion was an even more obvious one. When Manon had finished laying out the painful truth before me, I could only think of one word.

  ‘Bitch!’ I also translated it, into French, Corsican and Breton. ‘Salope, puttana, gast. Who does this to an old friend? Has Elodie forgotten what I did for her at her wedding?’

  Manon laughed bitterly. ‘It looks as though she’s even forgotten what she did at her wedding.’

  ‘But why is she doing this? Isn’t it true that France wants to preserve a strong Europe? Even the anti-Anglais? Aren’t you all terrified that Britain and the USA will be in an anti-French gang?’

 
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