Merde in europe, p.20
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       Merde in Europe, p.20

           Stephen Clarke
 
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  My basic French made it sound like playground rivalry, but maybe that wasn’t a bad analogy for some of the infantile hysteria that the referendum was throwing up.

  ‘That’s what I think,’ Manon said, ‘but from what I’ve read, it looks as though Elodie and her friends believe that if Britain leaves the EU, then all the big international banks will come to Paris. And so will all the brains, especially the French ones that have emigrated to London. France will loosen its tax laws and become the financial capital of Europe. The right wing also thinks that, with Britain out, the migrant crisis in Calais will be solved, because the refugees won’t be able to get into England with EU papers. So they’ll all go straight to Germany, or at least to the south of France. Your friend Remord blames the English for turning the north coast of France into one big refugee camp.’

  ‘But a “no” vote won’t change that,’ I said. ‘The migrants don’t go to England because it’s part of the EU. They go because they think it’s easy to get a job, easy to get unemployment money, and because of the language.’

  ‘I know,’ Manon agreed. ‘If Britain leaves the EU, it might make the migrants more determined to get to Calais. They’ll want to escape the EU quota system. If they can’t stay in Germany, they don’t want Romania or Greece as a second choice. They’ll try to get to Britain. But that’s not what Elodie and her friends think.’

  ‘I should have known it was all an arnaque.’ This was a word meaning ‘scam’ that seems to crop up suspiciously often in French conversations. ‘The Martin family hasn’t said a true word for ten generations.’

  ‘Oh, I don’t think you can blame Elodie’s father for this,’ Manon said. ‘He doesn’t seem to be involved at all. I haven’t seen any emails between Elodie and him.’

  This was hard to believe, but she was adamant.

  Revenge was all I could think of.

  ‘I’ll give Elodie that dinner,’ I said. ‘And then afterwards, when she takes off her culotte, I’ll say: Ha! You think I want to have sex with you?’

  It sounded like a scene from a clichéd French film, but this wasn’t what shocked Manon.

  ‘What dinner?’ she asked. ‘And why would she take off her culotte?’

  Oh, cacarella, I thought. I hadn’t told Manon how desperate I’d been to keep Elodie talking in the corridor.

  I described the scene for her – leaving out the kiss, of course, and being careful to imply that Elodie had been horrified by the whole sordid idea of dinner, with a sex dessert.

  ‘Why would you even think of telling her you wanted to sleep with her?’ Manon demanded.

  ‘I had to do something to stop her returning to her office. I’m not a professional spy like you.’

  This argument seemed to calm Manon down, and I managed to steer the conversation back towards ways of disarming the time-bomb that Elodie was about to unleash on the British press.

  Meanwhile, I couldn’t help wondering why Manon should be so mad about me pretending that I wanted to sleep with Elodie. A bit of pre-emptive possessiveness?

  It wasn’t an unpleasant idea. Jealousy is always so flattering.

  ‘You have an historic opportunity,’ Manon told me.

  My first thought was that this sounded like an advert for apartments in a new dockside development in Hull. But we were back on the subject of what to do about Elodie, apart from sleep with her.

  ‘If you want revenge, you can ensure that Britain stays in the EU,’ Manon went on.

  ‘Well, I’m not sure I have that much power.’

  ‘You do, Paul. We can sabotage Elodie’s campaign so badly that it has the opposite effect and pushes marginal voters towards a “yes”. As you keep saying, the vote is going to be very tight. Just a few per cent will make the difference.’

  This last bit seemed to be true. According to the polls, it looked as though plenty of voters were going to make their decision at the last minute.

  But it suddenly struck me that there were other possibilities.

  First up, leaving aside the fact that Elodie was planning to drop me personally in the zut, was her plan really so bad? All things considered, would it be so terrible if Britain voted no?

  I mean, I’d only been in Brussels for a short time, but I’d witnessed its absurdities for myself.

  At the most basic level, I wasn’t sure that we really needed to fill half of Belgium with commissions, councils, courts and committees.

  And was it sensible for Britain to be paying its share of the fortune spent translating every Brussels hiccup into more than twenty languages?

  The same went for the 200 million euros a year it cost to keep the French happy by shipping all the MEPs down to Strasbourg every month. Who (apart from Manon, of course) cared if the French were unhappy?

  And, perhaps the biggest question of all: Did we Brits really need to have all these shaggers and boozers making extra laws for us, when we already had our own shaggers and boozers in Westminster?

  I tried to explain some of this to Manon, leaving out the bit about not wanting to make France happy. If you work for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that must be your top priority.

  ‘I mean, I’m angry with Elodie for tricking me,’ I said, my French forcing me into wild understatement, ‘but maybe it’s enough if I just stop her using my name.’

  ‘No, Paul, that’s not enough,’ Manon said. ‘You’ve got to face up to the fact that you’re certain to influence the outcome of the referendum. Whatever we decide to do, or not do, it’s going to have an effect.’

  This was also true. I was obliged to make a clear choice.

  Option one was the closest I could get to neutrality. I could help Manon stifle Elodie’s campaign so that she had no influence at all, either for or against Europe. This would be the equivalent of letting nature take its course. But it would also mean missing out on the opportunity to expose Elodie’s double-dealings and thereby help the ‘yes’ campaign.

  That was option two: I had the chance to take sweet revenge by totally screwing Elodie (metaphorically, of course). We could turn Elodie’s campaign against her so badly that it nudged the undecided over to the ‘yes’ side of the euro-fence.

  Manon repeated that she favoured this last idea, ‘as did the whole of France’. It struck me that all the French people in Brussels – Elodie included – were very keen to stress that they spoke for the whole of France.

  As we talked on into the evening in that little Belgian café, I started to see things more and more starkly. I had to make a very quick decision. And it had better be the right one, because it was going to be irreversible.

  Manon and I went our separate ways with a brief, workmatey bise and an all-too-brief hug.

  We agreed to sleep on it before taking any decisions. Or, in my case, not sleep on it at all.

  To get the lesser reasons for my insomnia out of the way first:

  At about one in the morning, some idiot, no doubt under the influence of a Belgian brew, phoned to ask if I still needed to get rid of a cat. He asked this in French. I told him what to do with himself, in Corsican, which proved to be a very effective way of getting rid of nuisance callers. No wonder the French police are so terrified of Corsicans.

  Then of course there were my mental and hormonal rumblings about Manon. Not a priority in this time of crisis, you might think, but anyone who has ever had to confront a rutting elephant or a disgruntled human teenager knows how hard it is to argue against hormones.

  And it struck me during the night, with a mixture of pleasure and pain, that Manon could have used her physical wiles to get me to agree to her plan. If she’d wanted to force me over to the ‘stop the Brexit’ camp, there was a very easy way to buy my support. And she’d chosen not to use it. Which was comforting and maddeningly frustrating at the same time.

  Anyway, those were the two lesser issues preventing me from getting much shut-eye. The main things preoccupying me were three questions relating to our discussion in the Belgian café. These were, in n
o particular order:

  What?

  How?

  And who?

  As in, what exact measures should we take? How could we ensure that they worked? And which of our Brussels contacts could we enrol in our scheme?

  Notice that I’d already got ‘why?’ out of the way. The answer to that was obvious – I couldn’t let Elodie and her family get away with it.

  Bugger Europe, this was personal.

  20

  ‘EU wants to measure how badly workers smell.’

  Report in the British press, 1996

  NEXT MORNING BEFORE leaving for work, I called Manon to share my nocturnal conclusions with her. Despite the fact that it was 8 a.m. and I hadn’t had any coffee, I remembered to use the unbugged phone. Maybe I did have a few strands of James Bond DNA, after all.

  As before, Manon saw things in terms of acting. I think she must have taken classes.

  ‘Elodie is going to be out of the office from mid-morning onwards,’ she said. ‘So scene one will be between you and her, and then we will be free to work on our finale.’

  We discussed the details of our matinée show. My only worry was that Manon seemed a bit too keen on dashing straight from scene one to the ending. Amateur actors like myself need time to get into our roles.

  Elodie was at her desk, fingers prodding and swiping at her phone. She was looking even smarter than usual today, her blonde hair gleaming and pulled tightly back, her cream blouse silky, just a shade darker than the pearls caressing her collar bone.

  ‘Bonjour, Paul!’

  She shot me a predatory smile, the look of a charcutier welcoming a pig to his workshop.

  ‘Bonjour, Elodie.’ I played it casual, as if nothing were the matter. I wished I could nonchalantly light a cigarette to prove how steady my hands were. And to stop them twitching with impatience to strangle her. ‘Did you read my report about the false rumours?’ I asked.

  ‘Yes, of course. Thanks, Paul, very useful. I liked your little English jokes. Très drôle.’ She sounded friendly, but looked as devious as a cat with a goldfish bowl and a fishing rod.

  ‘Great. I was wondering whether I should prepare the press release? It ought to go out today, surely?’

  ‘Thanks, but it’s being dealt with.’

  ‘Who by?’

  ‘Oh là là, Paul, don’t you mean “by whom?” Really, it’s your language.’

  As if she had answered the question, she went back to her screen.

  ‘By whom, then? If it’s being done by French people for the British press, maybe I ought to have a look. You know, a pair of English eyes.’

  ‘Honestly, Paul. Do you know how many qualified translators there are in Brussels? Do you think I can’t find one?’

  ‘No, of course not. But I’ve spent years reading the tabloids.’

  ‘Looking at the photos of girls with naked breasts and no brains? Your ideal woman, Paul.’

  Ignoring the slur, I ploughed on.

  ‘I’m not sure your average Brussels translator knows how a British tabloid works, Elodie. They spend most of their time reading reports about sewage disposal in the Adriatic, and stuff like that.’

  ‘Which is a good metaphor for your British press,’ Elodie snapped. ‘The shit they say about France! Now please, Paul, trust me to know how to find someone to write a press release, and leave me to my work!’

  ‘OK, just trying to be thorough,’ I said. ‘I know that DG Communication won’t help you write it, so I thought I could help.’

  ‘Mais lâche-moi les couilles!’ she suddenly screeched. It’s a very common French phrase, but not one usually used by women. Loosely translated, she was telling me to let go of her testicles. Well, I thought, if any woman has them, it’s her.

  Elodie’s outburst seemed to prove that she was feeling the pressure as much as I was. And for the tenth time in a few days, I saw her almost physically getting a grip – not on her testicles, but on her outward calm.

  ‘Paul, I can only think that your positively anal obsession with work this morning must be explained by your lack of female company. Or friendly female company, anyway,’ Elodie added, nodding towards the wall of Manon’s office. Manon was in there rounding up our anti-Elodie troops via mail and message.

  ‘Why don’t we have that dinner tonight?’ Elodie said, suddenly all smiles. ‘I’m not promising anything more, of course. But some decent food in a quiet restaurant will do you good. Perhaps I can give you some advice. Or pay a waitress to sleep with you.’

  Was I imagining things, or did I hear a phone being dropped in Manon’s office?

  ‘Oh. Sure – great,’ I managed to say.

  All things considered, it would be a good idea to keep Elodie occupied that evening. Though it occurred to me that she might be thinking exactly the same about me.

  I wondered if we both drew the line at keeping each other occupied all night.

  When Elodie went out, I devoted a full fifteen minutes to convincing Manon that I had no intention of distracting Elodie from her propaganda campaign by handcuffing her to my bed. She had been giving me silent looks ever since she’d overheard that dinner invitation.

  Once we’d got all that out of the way, Manon and I adjourned to a corner of the Mickey Mouse cafeteria, where we set up a little HQ consisting of a small posy of coloured chairs around a coffee table.

  I sat on turquoise, Manon on yellow, and for the next hour or so we held short briefing meetings with friends and contacts we’d invited along. I was grateful that I’d played the Brussels game and kept everyone’s business card. All of my new acquaintances had stepped up to the plate when we told them what was at stake – Danny, Ed Fürst, Peter Marsh, even Šárka the lobbyist.

  Our conversations were urgent and businesslike. The orange seat opposite us got red-hot.

  Each of our co-conspirators listened to our horror story about Elodie, and agreed to bring their own expertise to the table. They would, they promised, take immediate action to help counter the damage Elodie was hoping to inflict. I couldn’t help scanning the horizon as we talked. If Elodie had walked in on any one of our conversations, I was sure she would have picked up a chair and added the red of my blood to the already lurid colour scheme.

  We’d taken the risk of holding the meetings in the cafeteria because we had no time to lose. Only forty-eight hours or so until the voting in Britain began. And in any case, we knew that Elodie was out for the rest of the day. If she got to hear about our Mickey Mouse sessions, it would be too late for her to do anything about them.

  Of course these brief impromptu meetings attracted attention despite the size of the cafeteria. I saw that we were provoking envious conversations. A succession of badge people appearing for a few minutes, nodding a lot, talking quickly and then leaving with a hearty handshake? How come we’re not in the loop, they seemed to be wondering? Haven’t we been handing out enough business cards? Have we been under-schmoozing?

  At last one of them plucked up the courage to sidle over to our corner and ask. I recognised him. It was the Italian guy I’d met at a restaurant one night. I hadn’t taken his card because he seemed too much of a toni. That’s dickhead in Lombardian.

  ‘Hi – John, isn’t it?’ he said.

  ‘Yes,’ I confirmed, guessing that my badge must be hidden from view.

  ‘And hi, er?’ He held out his hand to Manon.

  ‘This is Elodie,’ I lied.

  ‘Ah, la bella Elodia.’ Like I said, a toni.

  ‘What is all this?’ He pointed to the orange chair that had recently welcomed a trio of Brussels backsides.

  ‘Speed-networking,’ I said.

  ‘Ah.’ This seemed to be an intriguing concept.

  ‘Yes, we’re part of the MEPs’ assistants’ speed-networking network.’

  ‘Ah.’

  ‘You must have heard about the European network of speed-networking networks?’

  ‘No.’ A look of mild panic.

  ‘We’ve got funding from th
e EU’s new networking DG. Haven’t you heard about it?’

  ‘No.’ Spicier panic.

  ‘DG Nessie.’

  ‘Wow!’

  ‘Give me your card, I’ll hook you up.’

  ‘Thanks.’

  The Italian whipped out an impressively embossed card. Antonio Spumante. So he was a genuine Toni, and from a truly famous wine family.

  ‘Sorry, we have to keep on networking or it stops being speedy,’ I told him. I could see our next arrival on his way in, trying to spot us. ‘I’ll be in touch.’

  The Italian stepped aside to let Peter, the British guy from DG Communication, sit down. Then he went back to his small group of friends or associates, looking sceptical but slightly impressed.

  Peter was grinning as if I’d got him tickets to see England in the World Cup Final – and not against Germany or Brazil, but someone like Moldova, half of whose team had gone down with flu, while the other half had been bribed to let in goals. In any case, his delight suggested that enjoyment was guaranteed.

  I’d called him previously to convince him that this, at last, was the right time to step in and defy the British press. I’d also hinted that we might be playing dirty enough to get a result. He’d immediately agreed to come and talk.

  ‘I’ve been rooting around,’ he said as soon as he sat down. ‘And I’ve heard an incredible rumour. Someone’s put it out there that there’s going to be a ferryload of French people turning up in England on the night before the referendum. Bretons claiming UK residency. They’re going to be demanding Breton-language teaching in local schools, Breton-speaking nurses in hospitals, et cetera, saying it’s their right, according to European law. All bullshit, obviously, but brilliant propaganda.’

  ‘Kaoc’h.’ Never had the word been used more appropriately. This was something new. It added another operation to my long list.

  ‘You think Elodie Martin, our MEP, might be behind this?’ Manon asked Peter in French.

  ‘Pourquoi pas?’ he replied, with a très French accent, and went on to tell us that he’d traced the story back to a communiqué by some people called ‘L’Avenir de l’Europe, ou quelque chose comme ça’.

 
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