Merde in europe, p.2
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       Merde in Europe, p.2

           Stephen Clarke
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  She was looking good, I had to admit – long-legged and lithe, her dark skirt hugging her hips affectionately. Her blonde hair was tied back classily to reveal a face that had matured in the year or so since I’d seen her. Her red lips looked determined rather than pouty, and her eyebrows were plucked and lasered into perfect symmetry.

  ‘Allez, Paul, wake up, we’re late!’

  One thing hadn’t changed, then. She was as rude a bitch as ever.

  ‘Bonsoir, Elodie,’ I replied pointedly.

  ‘Oh, we’ll have time for all that “hello, kiss-kiss, how are you?” stuff in the taxi. You did get a taxi?’

  ‘Of course.’

  ‘Well, let’s get in it. Europe is paying for the meter to go round.’

  I trotted along beside her, walking twice as fast as my body really wanted to, and ushered her towards the chic black Audi with a yellow chequered stripe that was waiting outside the station.

  We wasted a few seconds while she stood by a car door waiting until someone (moi) opened it for her, and then the taxi set off along a narrow, semi-pedestrian street.

  ‘Does he know where we’re going?’ Elodie snapped at me.

  ‘No. Because I don’t.’

  ‘Well, why has he started driving, then?’

  ‘I think it’s one-way.’

  ‘Oh.’ She leant forward. ‘Au parlement européen, s’il vous plaît,’ she told him, almost politely. ‘Le plus vite possible,’ she added, with a note of girlish pleading that she turns on whenever necessary.

  ‘OK, madame,’ he said, and explained that there were lots of traffic jams, so he would have to take a route that would feel as though it wasn’t very direct.

  ‘Très bien, très bien,’ Elodie huffed, instantly reverting to her true impatient-diva personality.

  The driver swung us deep into a criss-cross of narrow roads. Occasionally there came the shock of cobblestones that turned my aching skull into a cocktail shaker, so I tried to focus on the thrill of discovering a new city. It all looked like France, and yet it didn’t.

  It seemed that Brussels architects had been told to design French styles in red London brick, but with all the Parisian curves knocked off. The bricks were often laid in horizontal lines, like hoops on a T-shirt, to make the slim, one-room-wide buildings look fatter. They were low-rise and individual in style, not like nineteenth-century Paris streets, where all the buildings come from the same mould. Here in Brussels there were balconies and bay windows all over the place, pointed Gothic next to flat-topped modernism.

  It was all very cute and provincial for an international capital. Only the chicness of some of the shops gave away the fact that the euro is domiciled here. I guessed that you’d need a tax-free expat salary to pay for some of those makes of shoe or dress.

  There was not much traffic in the side streets, and the only times the driver reduced his frantic speed were to let pedestrians cross the road, even when there were no red lights to stop him. This very un-Parisian habit naturally had Elodie seething with indignation.

  ‘Are you really obliged to stop at every crossing?’ she demanded in clipped French.

  ‘Yes, by law,’ the driver replied.

  ‘But it’s people like me who make the laws!’ she complained.

  Right, I thought, and it’s attitudes like that that are making people say Brussels has got too big for its boots.

  I saw the driver eyeing Elodie in his rear-view mirror.

  ‘Vous êtes française, non?’ he asked.

  ‘Oui?’ she said defiantly, as if it had been an accusation – which it probably was.

  We emerged into a wide, congested boulevard, passing a medieval castle that looked like a miniature French chateau. The traffic jam gave the driver the opportunity to turn around and unleash a stream of conversation about the famous French tax exiles he’d had in his taxi. I could hear Elodie groaning with indifference, so I encouraged him with an interested ‘vraiment?’ or two.

  ‘And there’s another one, really famous, just arrived as an exile this week,’ he said, grinning. ‘Have a guess. A female singer.’

  ‘Edith Piaf,’ Elodie hissed, and never before had the legendary chanteuse’s name been uttered with such vehemence, except perhaps by someone discussing her dubious activities under the Occupation.

  The driver took the hint and went into a sulk. I gave Elodie a reproachful look.

  ‘It’s his fault,’ she said to me in English. ‘He needs to concentrate on driving. I’m late.’

  ‘Late for what? We have a meeting, and here I am.’

  ‘You think I would dash to Brussels just for you, Paul?’ She laughed. ‘You’re so cute. No, I have to sign the MEPs’ register before seven or I won’t receive my daily allowance. It’s more than three hundred euros. A poor MEP needs every cent she can get.’

  ‘So you’ve been working all day for the EU in Paris, have you?’ My question came out even more sarcastically than I’d intended, but Elodie just shrugged.

  ‘I’m an MEP. Every breath I take is working for the EU.’ She giggled and repeated the line to the tune of the famous Police song. It’s still very popular in France, and the French really know how to murder it.

  I gazed longingly out of the car window at the neon-green cross of a pharmacie, which, being in Brussels, was also an apotheek. I guessed this was one reason why the EU administration was set up here – the Belgians were already good at bilingual signs before they had to add the twenty-odd new languages.

  ‘Oh, Paul, it’s so refreshing to see you again,’ Elodie said, in a sudden outbreak of friendliness. ‘No one answers me back like you do.’ She looked across at me, almost affectionately. ‘But what have you done to yourself? You look terrible. Have you been drinking?’

  ‘Oh no. Given it up,’ I said. ‘Haven’t drunk a drop since, ooh . . .’ I waved my hand about, as if trying to conjure up an abstinence of anywhere between six hours and six months.

  She laughed.

  ‘Honest,’ I said. ‘I was up all night revising my irregular Breton verbs.’

  ‘That’s not what I’ve heard, Paul. What’s this about you and a prostitute?’ She gave me an accusing grin.

  ‘What are you talking about?’

  ‘The manager called me at dawn this morning complaining about you. Honestly, Paul, a hooker? Haven’t you got a girlfriend at the moment? And why did you take her back to the hotel? I use that place all the time for my guests.’

  Her barrage of questions stirred up some memories that my hangover had successfully blanked out. That woman on the street corner. The half a T-shirt. Those miniature shorts. Oh no, I thought, surely not?

  ‘I didn’t take her back to the hotel, she took me,’ I recalled, dimly. ‘And I’m sure I didn’t . . . I mean, I wouldn’t . . . I’ve never . . . not with a . . .’ I had to admit I didn’t sound too convincing, but I was sure that nothing untoward had happened, even with a brainful of Belgian beer. I’ve never paid for sex in my life. Well, not financially anyway. Emotionally, I’ve had to fork out a fortune, of course.

  ‘I know you didn’t take her up to your room,’ Elodie said. ‘The night porter stopped her.’

  ‘Oh yes, the night porter.’ I got an image of a snarling man in a grey waistcoat. Then one of the same man, suddenly lying down on the job. ‘It was his own fault she punched him. She wasn’t a happy lady. I’d just explained to her that it was all a big misunderstanding and then he waded in. But I had the situation under control.’

  ‘Under control? From what the manager told me, you were down on your knees while she was trying to pull your wallet out of your jeans. The porter gave her twenty euros and threw her out.’

  ‘Twenty euros from my wallet?’

  ‘Believe me, Paul, you should give him fifty as a reward. If one of those street girls had got into your bedroom, you would now have no credit card, no phone, no passport and probably no willy. They’re dangerous. Prostitution is legal in Belgium, but it doesn’t exactly attract the best peop
le. I hope you’ll stay sober while you’re working for me.’

  ‘I told you, I’ve taken the pledge,’ I pledged. ‘And by the way, you still haven’t told me exactly what I’m meant to be doing with these endangered languages.’

  ‘I’ll explain later. We’re nearly there.’

  The small street we were in looked just as shabby-chic as lots of others we’d driven along, but the parked cars were noticeably bigger, with international number plates. Then we hit a wide avenue and the architecture suddenly got glassy, its modern façades peppered with foreign banks and chic cafés.

  We entered a small open square, presided over by a statue of an exhausted-looking politician. On two sides of the square were café terraces hosting a horde of office workers, male and female, all with drinks in hands and smiles on faces. Something about working at the European Parliament clearly made its staff pretty happy.

  ‘Voilà!’ the driver announced.

  ‘Merci,’ I said, filling in for Elodie, who paid wordlessly, grabbed her receipt and set off at a canter. Her low heels clicking, she jogged into an immense beige-floored forecourt that was ringed by a curved wall of billboard-sized photos publicising successful EU actions. These grateful recipients of euros were smiling even more widely than the civil servants out in the square.

  There were more eurocrat-looking people in the forecourt, standing in gaggles or heading towards the cafés. Elodie weaved between them and began bounding up a wide staircase into what had to be the biggest glass construction outside of America or Dubai. Honestly, whoever got the glazing contract for the European Parliament building must have retired straight away to the Caymans. Or started up a window-cleaning business.

  ‘Allez, Paul, move, move, move,’ Elodie barked over her shoulder. Now she was my personal trainer.

  At the first set of doors she had to dig into her bag for her badge, and begged the security man to let me through, using a mixture of official authority and shameless biting of her bottom lip.

  ‘He will be out again in two minutes,’ she promised the man.

  He shrugged, apparently blasé about politicians’ fake promises.

  Elodie bundled me into a revolving door, almost threw me through a metal detector gateway and then we were galloping across a wide, marble-floored foyer towards a reception counter, where she finally skidded to a halt.

  The woman behind the desk was chatting amicably to the man she was dealing with, a casually dressed type in jeans – the sort of guy Elodie loves to push around.

  ‘Excuse me, but this is urgent,’ she foghorned in French. ‘I’m an MEP.’

  The casual guy looked around, straight into Elodie’s glaring eyes.

  ‘Go ahead,’ he said in English, clearly used to being elbowed aside by Parisians.

  ‘Oui, madame?’ the receptionist asked.

  ‘I’m going to sign in. It’s not seven yet, n’est-ce pas?’ Elodie held up her wristwatch arm, so that everyone could witness that she fully deserved her daily allowance because she had arrived for work a whole two minutes before the end of the day.

  ‘Seven? MEPs can sign in after that, madame,’ the receptionist said, not quite managing to hide the satisfaction of seeing that Elodie had dashed like crazy for nothing. ‘Until eleven, in fact.’

  ‘Eleven?’ Elodie’s mouth dropped open in shock. ‘But I always sign in before seven. I missed dinner in Paris for this. Only with my husband, but even so . . . Why does no one inform us about these rules?’

  As usual with Elodie – with almost anyone French, in fact – everything was someone else’s fault.

  ‘There is a document, madame,’ the receptionist replied. She turned around, opened a cupboard behind her and, totally deadpan, dropped a paving slab of paper on the desk. ‘MEPs’ regulations,’ she said.

  Elodie reeled back as though she were being asked to take possession of a live badger.

  ‘I can’t drag that thing with me everywhere,’ she said.

  ‘Maybe Louis Vuitton does an MEPs’ regulations holder,’ I suggested. ‘You could claim it as an expense.’

  The receptionist gave me the hint of a smile.

  ‘There is an electronic format I can send you, madame,’ she said.

  ‘Thank you, my assistant will read it and pass on any useful information,’ Elodie said, waving her arm in my direction. ‘Stay here while I go and sign in,’ she told me. ‘I don’t want to badge you through a hundred more security gates. Why don’t you get yourself a visitor’s pass while you wait?’

  She left me standing with the guy she had barged out of her life. An embarrassing moment. He looked me up and down. I was almost as casual as he was – white shirt, jeans and a dark suit jacket – but I had an extra layer of dishevelment thrown in. And he was in possession of permanent plastic ID hanging from a well-worn strap around his neck, while I was just an interloper.

  ‘After you,’ I finally said, to break the awkward silence. ‘Sorry for pushing in. She’s French.’

  ‘Oh yes,’ he agreed. ‘Very.’

  Elodie returned to reception ten minutes later, all smiles, as you would be if you’d just received a few hundred euros in return for one squiggle of a pen. She thanked the receptionist and apologised graciously to the guy she’d pushed out of the way – though I’d since realised he was only there to chat up the receptionist, and would have stepped aside anyway.

  Elodie took my arm like an old friend instead of an arresting officer, and guided me, dishing out smiles in all directions like a princess at a charity jumble sale, back through security and into the fresh air.

  ‘I need a drink,’ she announced as we descended the steps towards the forecourt and its circle of giant posters. One of them depicted a dusty toddler splashing clear water into his mouth, thanks to the EU.

  ‘Me too,’ I said. ‘Something pure and fizzy.’ I was sure the photo of the toddler had been sponsored by the cafés just outside Parliament. You couldn’t walk past it without feeling parched. ‘Then maybe you can explain what you want me to do with these languages.’

  ‘Oh, nothing much,’ Elodie said. She performed one of those raspberries that French people blow when they don’t care a damn about a subject you want to discuss.

  ‘You’ve brought me all the way to Brussels for nothing much?’ I asked.

  ‘Nothing much is what brings most of us here, Paul. Didn’t you know?’ She laughed at her own witticism. ‘No, what I mean is that the languages project is what I’ve got a budget for, but it’s just a cover for something much more important.’

  ‘Oh yes?’

  ‘Yes.’ She pulled me closer, looking around at the groups of badge-wearing people in the forecourt to see if any of them were snooping. They weren’t – they all looked as though they were indulging in relaxed, end-of-the-working-day chat – but she lowered her voice anyway. ‘I’ve got a mission for you, Paul.’

  ‘Really?’ This sounded either great fun or, knowing Elodie, potentially catastrophic.

  ‘Yes.’ She released my arm and started striding across the beige flagstones towards the cafés out in the square.

  ‘Well, aren’t you going to tell me what it is?’ I asked, jogging after her.

  ‘Not here. I’ll tell you tomorrow morning.’

  ‘You dragged me out of bed just to tell me that?’ My head started to pound again, clearly blaming me for making it work so hard when it could have been resting on a pillow.

  ‘Out of bed at six in the evening?’ Elodie laughed as she waited to cross the road to the nearest café terrace.

  ‘Well, you could at least give me a hint,’ I pleaded.

  ‘OK.’ She shook her head at me, her bothersome child, and leant in close again. ‘You’ve been following the news about the referendum to decide whether the UK leaves the EU or not?’

  ‘Of course.’

  There had been nothing else in the news for months, with everyone trying to predict when it would happen and how it would end. Now that the date had been set, the coverage ha
d risen to blanket level. Even the weather reports were smothered – how many millimetres of rain will it take to affect the turnout?

  ‘How do you think the vote will go?’ Elodie asked.

  ‘I don’t know, the polls are too tight.’

  ‘Well, anyway, I – or should I say we. . .’ She checked again that no one nearby could hear. ‘We, the French, don’t want Britain to leave.’

  ‘You don’t?’

  It seemed hard to believe. Back in Paris, people had been saying that getting rid of France’s hereditary rival in Europe’s power struggle was a highly attractive prospect. It was exactly what Napoleon had been trying to do 200 years ago.

  ‘No, we don’t.’ Elodie lowered her voice still further until it was little more than a tickle in my ear. ‘We need a strong Europe. To oppose the hegemony of the Americans.’

  ‘Ah yes.’ The French love using words like ‘hegemony’ when talking about their biggest bugbear, the Transatlantics. I have no idea what it means, and I don’t think they always do, either, but it sounds good.

  ‘Besides, the British don’t realise what advantages they get from being part of a big European team,’ she said. ‘Britain would never be so powerful in isolation. It would be seen by the world as just another little island, like it really is. A sort of inflated Corsica. You English are closing your eyes to the truth of all this. You are – how do you say? – sticking your head in an ostrich?’

  Only when she was really annoyed did Elodie’s excellent command of English desert her.

  ‘A dangerous thing to do,’ I agreed. ‘And where do I fit in? In your plans, I mean, not in the ostrich.’

  ‘You will help us to stop Britain leaving, of course.’ She stepped back and gave me a French grimace of incomprehension at my slow-wittedness, including a twist of the eyebrows and a crinkling of the nostrils that it would have taken a litre of Botox to smooth out.

  ‘But how?’

  ‘We have a plan, Paul. I will explain in full tomorrow. Now, come and get me that drink. You have started work already. We don’t want to waste Europe’s money.’

  With this, she held up an arm and strode out in front of a taxi that screeched to a halt to let her cross the road. It was a move that would have got her killed in Paris. She had obviously acclimatised to Brussels very quickly.

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