Merde in europe, p.22
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       Merde in Europe, p.22

           Stephen Clarke
 
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‘How did it go with Elodie?’

  ‘Oh, very badly. She is a crazy hypocrite.’

  ‘She seemed to be very affectionate towards you.’

  ‘You saw that? Did Gustav see? That’s what she wanted. As soon as we left the restaurant, she disappeared.’

  ‘Ah. Were you disappointed that she rejected you, Paul?’

  ‘No, of course not. And she didn’t reject me. I’m not interested in her.’

  There was silence. Sometimes I really hate silence.

  ‘What about you and Gustav?’ I asked.

  ‘He’s very seductive. It’s flattering for a woman when a man is so direct. He wants to make love with you and he shows it so . . . honestly.’

  Yes, the smooth, efficient bastard, I thought.

  ‘But I told him that I have just suffered a separation, and I have promised myself not to get involved with a man for three months. Naturally, he asked me when the three months would be finished,’ she added.

  ‘Did you tell him?’

  ‘Yes. He put a reminder in his phone. Very flattering.’

  ‘Seriously?’

  ‘Seriously. Oh, come on, Paul, he’s nothing but a gros dragueur’ – a serial womaniser – ‘I hated him.’

  ‘Really?’

  ‘Of course. Frankly, who gets out their phone to write down the date they hope to sleep with a girl?’

  ‘Huh, yes – disgusting. So cold and cynical.’

  I hoped I wasn’t laying on the disapproval too thick.

  ‘Shall we meet in our Belgian café for breakfast?’ Manon suggested.

  ‘Yes, I could go for a gaufre.’

  ‘You must tell me what Elodie said. Was she mad at me?’ Manon laughed and for the first time in eight hours or so, my intestines unknotted themselves and I was hungry for everything the day would throw at me.

  Breakfast was short but sweet. Very sweet, in my case, with a sugar-coated waffle dunked into coffee that gradually became a black soup encrusted with pastry crumbs and sugar floes.

  This amused and disgusted Manon in equal measure.

  ‘Why do men always have to dunk everything?’

  Now it doesn’t take much of a dirty mind to raise an eyebrow at that. I’d heard the French expression ‘tremper le poireau’, to dunk your leek, meaning – well, the meaning is obvious.

  So my right eyebrow performed the aforementioned vertical movement, and Manon frowned at me in mock disapproval.

  We shared a chuckle about our respective nightmare dates. Manon’s had ended with Gustav practically clinging on to the back bumper of her taxi as she escaped.

  ‘You know, I’m glad you didn’t sleep with Gustav,’ I told her.

  ‘Did you think I would?’

  ‘You seem to be a woman who decides for herself what she wants to do. If it would be fun or interesting, you would do it.’

  ‘Well, that wouldn’t have been fun or interesting. And I’m glad you didn’t sleep with Elodie.’

  ‘That wouldn’t have been possible. Not all men dunk everything everywhere.’

  She laughed. My attempt at a French joke had worked. The day was beginning well.

  Elodie wasn’t in the office when Manon and I arrived – separately, of course. We had already divided up our tasks for this vital last day before the referendum. I was going to keep a close eye on the polls and the news reports. I wanted to check whether Elodie’s press releases or ours were having any effect. Even if my computer was being monitored, it would be a logical thing for me to do. I was meant to be helping Elodie influence the referendum result, wasn’t I?

  Meanwhile Manon was to liaise with the people we had met at the Mickey Mouse café the day before. The only exception was Peter, the DG Communication guy, who was in contact with me by phone. He still didn’t completely trust anyone French.

  Elodie rolled up at about eleven, in a foul mood. It was almost fun to watch. She’d probably had a bust-up with Gustav over the phone. Or, even more likely, been ignored by him.

  I couldn’t resist suggesting that my next task for her could be to lobby for a Breton entry in the Eurovision song contest. That, I said, would win her votes back home.

  ‘Only joking,’ I added, when Elodie didn’t reply.

  She murmured something about me going to get myself sodomised by Astérix the Gaul, and slumped behind her desk.

  After half an hour of her customary phone-poking, she announced that she was going out. We were left in peace.

  As far as I could tell, the British news reports were as yet untouched by Elodie’s hand, or mine. It was the usual stuff, divided between dire warnings about Europe’s plans to end the British way of life, calm reassurances that the status quo was the way to go, and long, boring lists of economic pros and cons. Nothing new yet.

  Meanwhile there seemed to have been an explosion in the number of polling organisations. All the news outlets had a mosaic of pollsters’ logos, each with different percentages for ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘you decide, I can’t be bothered’. Funnily enough, overall the opinion polls genuinely were too close to call. It looked as though Britain’s future might be decided by a few yeses or nos getting lost on their way to the polling station.

  Manon told me that everyone we’d asked for help had kept their word. When Peter sent me a copy of his (anonymous) press release, I forwarded the news to Manon, and she said that was the final link in our chain. We were up and running. It was just a matter of hoping that our propaganda would get picked up and outweigh Elodie’s.

  We grabbed a quick sandwich at the cafeteria, where everyone was abuzz with expectation. There were anxious pro-Europeans shaking their heads, anti-Brits (mainly with French-sounding accents) wishing us a hearty au revoir, and nervous-looking neutrals debating what-ifs. I bumped into Danny the oyster man, who winked at me and said, ‘Plux tonight – it’s going to be massive.’ I gave him a thumbs-up.

  My sandwich was a tasty combination of salad and shrimps, and when we got back to the office, I wondered whether one of the shrimps hadn’t been past its sell-by date. Either that or the mayo had contained LSD.

  Because, during our brief lunch break, Elodie seemed to have gone bald and put on men’s clothing.

  Then I saw my mistake. This wasn’t Elodie; it was her dad, Jean-Marie.

  23

  ‘EU bureaucrats decree that Britain is not an island.’

  Report in the British press, 2003

  ‘AH, POOL!’

  He got up from Elodie’s desk to shake my hand.

  ‘Jean-Mary.’

  His smile of welcome flickered for a second, before resuming normal service. It was a childish thing we did. He often called me ‘Pool’, a mispronunciation of my name as ‘poule’, the French for chicken. In reply, I stressed the feminine sound of his name. Infantile, but I wasn’t going to let him get away with it, especially now.

  ‘Et Manon!’ He came out from behind the desk and grabbed her hand for a stylishly delivered kiss.

  While I was wondering what the mokordo he was doing here, he began questioning Manon about her work. She looked annoyed about his prying, and at first I thought this was because he was stepping out of his role as blackmail victim. The French government had obliged him to organise Manon’s job with Elodie in return for not prosecuting him for tax evasion, right? So surely he ought to be keeping his head below the parapet?

  But then his questions started to get even more detailed, and I wondered why she didn’t just tell him to mind his own business and get back to his tax returns?

  ‘And the passwords worked?’ he asked Manon in French, before turning to me and adding in English, ‘I gave Manon the codes to Elodie’s computer. She always uses the same numbers, since she was at school. She is so charming.’

  So he’d helped Manon snoop into Elodie’s computer? Again I got the impression I was under attack from an out-of-date shrimp.

  ‘Quoi?’ I asked – meaning ‘what?’ I didn’t think it needed a more detailed question.

  Manon
squirmed.

  Jean-Marie, meanwhile, did what he does best, which was to look even smugger than his daughter. His artificially suntanned cheeks widened in a huge grin, his salmon-pink shirt seemed to flush red and his royal-blue tie knot appeared to bulge.

  ‘Oh, you didn’t know, Pool? Manon works for me.’

  The look on Manon’s face seemed to confirm this.

  The shrimp felt as if it was crawling back up my oesophagus.

  If I’d had anywhere better to go, I would have stormed out. As it was, I stood there feeling the events of the past few days ricochet about in my head.

  So Manon had been play-acting, even while play-acting?

  ‘You’re not with the French government?’ I asked her, somewhat feebly.

  She stood there mutely.

  ‘Elle est avec moi,’ Jean-Marie said, attaining even great heights of smugdom.

  ‘Cacarella,’ was all I could say.

  ‘Corsican, n’est-ce pas?’ Jean-Marie said. ‘I have a house there, you know.’ His smugness left the Earth’s orbit and began its journey towards the planet Pompous.

  ‘Sorry, Paul,’ Manon said, ‘but I knew you wouldn’t trust me if I said I was working for him.’

  Something in the way she pronounced ‘him’ dented Jean-Marie’s spaceship just a little.

  ‘I am a patriot,’ he said, in English. ‘And a true European. I couldn’t allow my daughter to – how do you say? – rip Europe to shreddies. This great edifice that we have erected since the terrible war of 1945! France, England and even Germany friends again! With the Belges and the Hollandish and all the others, of course.’

  Manon curtailed Jean-Marie’s attack of idealism with an outburst in quick-fire French.

  ‘He is afraid that if Britain leaves Europe, it will destroy his meat-export business,’ she told me. ‘He sells tons of French meat to England now. And imports from there, too.’

  ‘I buy cows from the royal family,’ Jean-Marie said, in English again. ‘I received a medal from your Queen. What a sexy lady.’

  God, I thought, only a Frenchman would fantasise about Her Maj.

  ‘He also thinks that if Britain stays in the EU, it will work with France to reduce the pressure on Calais from all the migrants,’ Manon said. ‘His lorries keep getting held up at the Tunnel.’

  ‘Intolerable, n’est-ce pas?’ Jean-Marie agreed. ‘A few months ago, when I have heard that my daughter is working with the “no” campaign, I was afraid. Elodie is an excellent organiser, you know. She has learnt it from me. I knew she could make their plan a reality. So I was forced to – how do you say in English? – stab her in the backside?’

  ‘You see, everything you and I have done is valid, Paul,’ Manon said. ‘The only difference is that he was paying me.’

  ‘That’s a very big difference.’

  ‘It’s like your footballers, Paul,’ she said. ‘When they play a match, are they trying to make the owner happy? No, they want to win. And for their team. They don’t care a damn about the owner.’

  ‘Eh-yo.’ Jean-Marie made the French noise that means ‘watch what you’re saying’. He shook a finger at Manon.

  But she wasn’t going to be stopped by a waving male digit.

  ‘And don’t forget, Paul, that just by birth I’m playing for the Czechs, the Poles, the Germans, as well as the French. And our team is immense – all the countries in Europe. Much bigger than the business plans of one Frenchman.’

  ‘Ey!’ Jean-Marie objected. ‘Do not – how do you say in English? – sub-estimate my sincerity. You know, Pool, to hire Manon, I had to recruit her from a Socialist. Me, on my knees to a Socialist!’

  I understood his pain. Jean-Marie was so right-wing that he thought OAP bus passes were borderline communist.

  ‘But it was necessary, because I saw how the European situation was developing. You know, Pool, I am a visionary,’ he said, like any politician who gets any decision vaguely right. ‘You think I am just a businessman, but I am a true – how do you say? – strategicist? Strategian?’

  ‘Excusez-nous.’ Manon grabbed my arm and pulled me out into the corridor. We walked in silence until we got to the corner with the massive photocopier and its Alps of paper. She stood me against it and began speaking in quiet but urgent French.

  ‘Paul, you have to believe me, please. I was sent to work for Elodie by that idiot, it’s true, but what he doesn’t know is that I really am working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. When he first explained why he wanted to hire me – because his daughter was organising a secret pro-Brexit campaign – I told my MEP, and we got in touch with the Ministry. They instructed me to accept his offer and act as a sort of double-agent for them. How else do you think I found out about your phone being bugged? That kind of thing is an official secret. So you see, this whole time my aim has always been to stop Elodie. Her father’s not important. He just has to carry on thinking that he is controlling me, that’s all. What I told you about him being investigated for tax fraud was false, but everything else I have told you has been true and sincere.’

  She had given me her most impassioned speech yet, and she certainly looked convincing. But then, as I’ve said before, we guys always want to believe a beautiful face.

  ‘So you really were in Brussels before?’ I asked.

  ‘Yes, I was working for a French MEP who deals with international trading laws. That’s how Jean-Marie heard about me.’

  ‘And you’re being paid by Jean-Marie, but working for the French government?’

  ‘Yes. He’s giving the government a sort of accidental subsidy.’

  ‘And all the rest is true?’

  ‘Yes, I promise you.’

  ‘So your Greek ex-boyfriend – he’s real?’

  ‘Sadly, yes,’ she said.

  ‘And your promise to yourself – no relationships for three months?’

  ‘True.’ She smiled. ‘But I read in the news that the orbit of the Moon is changing.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘Yes, it’s like science fiction come true. Apparently the months are getting shorter. Last month was only three days long. And yesterday was a whole month.’

  ‘What?’ There was a short pause while I did some translation from French to English to make sure I’d got this right.

  ‘Mon Dieu, Paul, that means: kiss me, now!’

  Even in Brussels there are times when translation can wait.

  It was a rather different Paul who walked back into the office a few enjoyable minutes later.

  Jean-Marie was sitting at Elodie’s desk, on his phone, looking understandably deflated. His audience had walked out on their star performer.

  And now Manon was at my side, her lips probably looking slightly less shiny than before, my own gleaming with transferred gloss. Honey-flavoured.

  ‘Alors?’ he asked.

  ‘Manon has explained everything. I didn’t realise you had been so important, Jean-Marie,’ I flattered him. Characteristically, he took it at face value. He smiled philosophically, as if his brilliance was a gift from heaven.

  Manon gave him a strategically edited account of what had been happening over the past twenty-four hours or so. She didn’t have time to go into details, she told Jean-Marie, but she had definitely set wheels in motion, some of which ought to derail a few of Elodie’s stratagems.

  ‘Très bien, all I ask for is results. Now can you come for a quick drink, Manon?’ he asked, using the familiar ‘tu’ form.

  ‘Merci, but not really. We have work to do here. I’ll let you know how things progress,’ she replied with the distant ‘vous’.

  ‘Let’s all meet up for a drink later,’ I told Jean-Marie. I was feeling magnanimous. ‘It should be fun. The cafés outside Parliament will be heaving.’

  ‘Heaving? Isn’t that a word for vomiting?’ he asked. ‘I don’t find that English habit fun.’

  I explained what I meant, and hinted that Plux would be full of female badge people and lobbyists, most of whom liked nothi
ng better than a man with a sharp suit and influence.

  He left with a new spring in his step.

  A few hours later Plux was, as I’d promised, heaving. So far, not at all in the way that Jean-Marie feared, though plenty of alcohol was on its way down throats. The roar of conversation was even louder than usual, the drinking more frenetic.

  This was the night before the referendum, the eve of something massive. It really did feel as though we were surfing on a wave that could smash us head-first on to the rocks or make us world champions. Same wave, different fates, but everyone was looking thrilled by the ride.

  The first time I’d come here, such a short time ago, I’d felt a total outsider. Now I had a badge in my pocket and a eurobabe on my arm. I could raise a glass and say ‘Bonsoir’ to a whole host of people whose business card I carried in my wallet.

  The only person who wasn’t there, so far at least, was the woman who’d introduced me to it all – Elodie. She was still AWOL. Hardly surprising, really, given the unpleasant shocks she’d planned for me and Manon that evening.

  Slowly our small team of undercover agents gathered near one of the TV screens that was broadcasting British news. Apart from the occasional weather update and calls to buy cars, burgers and insurance policies, the imminent referendum was top of the agenda. Poll percentages were permanent fixtures at the bottom of the screen. Politicians, journalists and ‘experts’ swapped places alongside the anchor-people.

  We all drank and waited for news that we had created.

  Danny the oyster man was at the heart of our huddle, alternately cheering and booing politicians, though without much consistency in his allegiances. Beer might have had something to do with that.

  Peter was sipping nervously at mineral water. He was with one of the women I’d seen in his office, who was fiddling with his shirt front a lot as they spoke. I didn’t think it was to cover up the space left by his absent badge.

  Gustav the Swedish Dane was there, and seemed to be making some generous promises about wind power to Šárka, if her body language was anything to go by.

  Ed Fürst and his girlfriend were being monologued by Antonio the Italian, but at least he was plying them with fizz. Ed broke away to come and whisper in my ear.

 
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