Merde in europe, p.23
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       Merde in Europe, p.23

           Stephen Clarke
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  ‘So you’re no longer in the market for a Lithuanian girl, Paul? It’s a pity, because they can be extraordinary.’

  ‘Don’t worry about me,’ I told him, ‘Manon is anything but ordinary.’

  I flinched as he laughed at full volume against my eardrum.

  It was ten o’clock before we saw something relevant onscreen. Going into an ad-break, a headline flashed up: ‘THE END OF BRITISH LIFE AS WE KNOW IT?’

  Sure enough, the news resumed with the fallout from Elodie’s press release. A journalist, who had clearly been invited because he owned a Union Jack tie and could talk total bollocks, ran us through the shock article that his paper was planning to publish the next morning. Everything truly British was about to be crushed beneath the Brussels jackboot, he said, from sausages to buses, chocolate to bingo halls. Even the Great British penis was going to get the squeeze, because of EU plans to reduce condom sizes.

  The last rumour, I knew, was a completely twisted interpretation of an EU idea that contraception and disease control might be more efficient if people used the right size of condom, so that it would neither split nor slip off. But the anchor-lady was too busy giggling to contradict her guest, and British male viewers were probably left with the impression that a ‘yes’ would be a vote for castration.

  All this had to be true, the man with the patriotic tie said, because the report had been written by a Brit working inside Brussels who had access to secret French papers. It was straight from the horse’s bouche.

  The anchor lady grimaced silently into the camera, as if she’d just seen footage of a gruesome accident. This was distasteful news, she was implying, but it was her duty to break it to us.

  One up to Elodie.

  Peter came over and told me that he’d told me so: it was pointless trying to oppose the rumour-mongers, he said, they were too shameless. His pessimistic rap was only truncated by Danny blundering up and promising us all that he could get ‘giant johnnies’ from a sex shop. In fact he had some in his pocket, if anyone was interested.

  When nobody was, he went to get himself yet another drink.

  Next up, about half an hour later, was a story about minority languages. Manon grabbed my hand and squeezed.

  A woman who was being interviewed at home via Skype, giving us a blurred close-up of her nose and teeth, explained how it was possible for France to get EU funding for its minority languages, because, as in Spain, they were officially recognised as part of regional identity. She read out a list of millions of euros to be spent per French region. France, she concluded with toothy indignation, was going to be raiding Europe’s coffers just to teach people how to swear in its various dialects.

  The news-anchors looked appropriately shocked. Elodie seemed to have won again.

  But then another speaker came on, a young woman apparently straight out of university, all smiles and enthusiasm, to say that this was a great opportunity for Britain. She quoted some meaty-sounding amounts that might be granted to Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Cornwall, to fund their own language programmes.

  One of the anchors asked: What about Liverpool and Newcastle?

  Manon kissed me on the cheek. That question must have come from my press release.

  The young woman laughed and said that any mention of Geordie and Scouse dialects was probably a joke. But she added that these EU regional grants might take the burden off existing cultural funding in the less-privileged parts of England, freeing up extra money for, say, music and theatre. Or even sport for kids. I could almost hear the whole of Liverpool and Newcastle reaching for their voting pens. EU money for football? Yes!

  We had drawn some blood. Ed broke away from his Italian friend’s grasp to come and pat me on the shoulder. I bought him a drink to say thanks for his help.

  When I got back from the bar, I saw that Manon had company. Jake had turned up with a tall, dark woman in tow. She stood a good six inches taller than him and seemed to be looking down on everyone from her olive-skinned, dark ponytailed perch. As I moved closer, I saw that she was dressed in something approaching national costume – a round-necked white blouse, green cardigan and wide red skirt. It was urban wear, but with a bit of the Alps woven in.

  Jake was chatting to Manon, while the new girl was already deep in conversation with the rich Italian.

  ‘Hey, Paul! Man on, man!’ Jake greeted me. ‘So you kissed her? Formidable!’

  Manon glowered and blushed simultaneously.

  ‘Is this giant dirndl a new friend of yours?’ I asked him, to prevent any blunt enquiries about developments beyond kissing.

  ‘Yeah, she’s my Austro-Hungarian. Works for one of the extremist parties. Très nostalgique about her old emperor. It’s bizarre, like dating an Aztec or a Roman.’

  ‘You call it dating, after one night?’ I asked.

  ‘And one afternoon. Long enough to discover that her sort of extremism has its disadvantage. She’s très, très traditionnelle. But she has inspired me. Want to hear my poème?’

  ‘Yes,’ Manon said. She didn’t know him well enough to say ‘no’ or just dash for the emergency exit.

  ‘OK.’ Jake took a deep breath.

  So did I, but for different reasons.

  ‘A nostalgic Austro-Hungarian,

  Is no sexual revolutionarian.

  Sole position: the missionarian.’

  Mercifully, that seemed to be that.

  ‘Great one, Jake. Up to your usual standard.’

  Manon was simply looking confused, which was probably for the best. It wasn’t healthy to think too much about Jake’s poems.

  Fortunately we were distracted when Danny meandered back through the crowd to bellow in my face, ‘Paul, you’re famous!’

  I looked up to see myself on TV, waving stupidly at the camera while lying fully clothed in a bath, and then selfying – if that’s a verb – from a sexy-looking iron-framed bed.

  The male news-anchor was frowning in that concerned manner they adopt when they want viewers to realise that things are more serious than they seem. He was looking deeply disturbed by my ridiculous photos, and began talking us through the revelations that a (fortunately unnamed) ‘British civil servant working for a French MEP’ (this paradox provoked an extra-deep frown from the newsman) had been living it up in Brussels while working for the ‘yes’ camp. Vested interests were obviously at play, he surmised – corruption even. The screen showed a photo of my tenancy agreement, with the rent-free clause highlighted, for all to see that I was a freeloader.

  The co-anchor then led straight into an allegation that this same ‘Englishman in the pay of the French’ had bought a British MEP’s computers and helped the French to hack into them – a segment that was illustrated with stock shots of a shadowy figure typing at full speed on a laptop. You’d have thought I was sending out naked photos of Princess Kate to the French press, or issuing death threats to all of England’s kittens.

  A pollster-type in a stiff collar and tie came on and said this was a nail in the ‘yes’ vote’s French-built coffin.

  Another blow landed by Elodie, and a painful one.

  ‘Merde,’ Manon commented, and she wasn’t only talking about what we’d seen on TV.

  Into the crowded bar, its conversation even louder after the recent revelations, had walked an anxious-looking Jean-Marie and a furious Elodie.

  She barged past Gustav, hardly giving him a second glance, and stopped in front of Šárka. Waving a phone under Šárka’s nose, Elodie unleashed the full force of a Parisian rant, which Šárka could only counter by holding out a hand in my direction.

  I knew what this was about.

  Elodie seemed to breaststroke through the few metres of crowd towards me, and within seconds she was brandishing her phone in my face.

  ‘What is this?’ she demanded.

  ‘An iPhone?’ I guessed, but the joke only made her madder.

  She held the screen motionless long enough for Manon and me to read what was on it. Neith
er of us were good enough at acting to stop ourselves giving a little smile of satisfaction. A story we’d planted had got into the French news.

  When Šárka had come to see us at the Mickey Mouse café the previous day, I’d fed her the white lie that Elodie was all in favour of installing a wind farm in her constituency – a dozen or so giant windmills in mid-countryside. I’d been careful to spell out the name of the site. It was right next to a famous historic monument, a group of ancient stones that might well have been laid out by Astérix and Obélix themselves, and which were rumoured to be the home of Celtic fairies, ghostly Gauls and magical lobsters, or similar Breton creatures.

  All Elodie wanted in return, I’d told Šárka, was an immediate press release announcing the plan, so that she could be hailed in her region as an energy-efficient MEP. True to her word, Šárka had given exactly this to the Breton local newspaper, which had instantly sent it viral. ‘Famous fairies to be blown away by windmills’ was the gist of the story.

  ‘What is this merde?’ Elodie demanded.

  ‘This kaoc’h, you mean,’ I corrected her. ‘Or koniriou, if you mean bullshit.’ Before she could bludgeon me with her phone, I added that the wind-farm story was only as merdique as the stuff we’d just seen on TV about me hacking into English computers.

  This stumped her for a second.

  ‘The same goes for the edited version of my report about false EU rumours that you gave to the press,’ I added. ‘And which you stole off my computer using spy software.’

  I could see that Elodie was not only stumped; she also felt that she was being caught and bowled at the same time. So I hit her with my final googly.

  ‘Do you think the TV will be showing anything about a certain ferry?’ I asked her. ‘A load of Bretons arriving in England to demand linguistic refuge with their EU neighbours?’

  Elodie was obviously wondering how the hell I knew all this. Her suspicions fell on Manon.

  ‘Have you been spying on me?’ she hissed.

  Manon simply laughed off the accusation.

  ‘Until yesterday Manon didn’t know what I was working on, or what you were doing,’ I said. ‘Maybe someone else betrayed you.’

  ‘Cédric? I’ll cut him up and feed him to his cousins.’

  ‘No, do you think he even understood what he was doing?’

  Elodie seemed to accept this argument. She swept an accusing glare over the crowd. Ironically she ignored her father, who was hovering in the background, eyeing up Jake’s Austro-Hungarian friend. Her gaze landed on Gustav.

  ‘What did he reveal while he was fucking you?’ Elodie sneered at Manon, using not only the ‘tu’ form, but one of the crudest French words for sexual intercourse, ‘niquer’.

  ‘I didn’t fuck him.’ Manon used the same word, but somehow kept it matter-of-fact. ‘And all he revealed during our dinner was that he likes to nibble little pieces of pickled herring off women’s bodies. I was wondering: Did he use the sauces, too? They must have been very sticky.’

  Elodie could only squeak with fury. Despite the volume of the chatter and the TV, people had noticed that something confrontational was going on, and Elodie knew it wasn’t cool to lose your cool in front of the influential Plux crowd.

  ‘I think both of you will need to find new jobs in the morning,’ she told us.

  ‘Our jobs are done anyway,’ Manon replied.

  ‘You think so?’ Elodie said, icily. ‘You really believe you can keep your country in the EU, Paul? I don’t know why you bother. Nobody wants you. I am doing everyone a favour.’

  ‘You haven’t been doing me any favours, Elodie. Honestly, all those selfies you got me to take, the bullshit computer auction, even your little speeches about the good old days. You must think I’m a real dickhead.’

  ‘No, Paul. Honestly. You were just the Anglais de service. How do you say? The convenient Englishman. You were an old friend, but I couldn’t let that stop me. This was a battle, I was the general, and I took the decision that you were the one who had to face the music of the cannons.’

  ‘You sound like Napoleon.’

  ‘Merci, Paul.’

  ‘We Brits don’t mean that as a compliment. How the hell did you think I was going to react this evening, when I saw myself on TV?’

  ‘I thought you might see the humour in the situation. That’s what you English are famous for, isn’t it? And I supposed you would be consoled by a pile of euros – of which you have already received half. Isn’t that a consolation?’

  ‘You really think everything can be bought, don’t you? It must be in your DNA.’

  ‘Eh-yo!’ Jean-Marie had been listening to our last exchange and stepped in to defend the Martin honour (not that there was much left to defend). He put an arm around Elodie’s shoulder, which would have been cutely paternal if he hadn’t been directly implicated in spoiling his daughter’s evening.

  ‘Don’t listen to him, ma chérie,’ he told her in French. ‘He’s English. He doesn’t understand Europe. Let’s go, before he says any more bêtises.’

  What he probably meant was: Come away before anyone reveals that your own papa hired Manon to screw up your scheme.

  ‘Yes, let’s go.’ Elodie laughed triumphantly. ‘You stay here, and keep watching the TV, Paul. The battle isn’t finished yet. Look out for that ferry. It will sink the “yes” vote to the bottom of your precious so-called English Channel. We will see who has the last laugh, and whether you English really do have a sense of humour.’

  With this, she turned and sailed out of the bar, accompanied by her father, who, with masterful hypocrisy, was saying, ‘Great words, ma chérie . . . but what’s all this about a ferry?’

  The cross-Channel ferry from Cherbourg wasn’t due to arrive in Poole until late. Before it docked, the news programme had time for another couple of referendum items.

  First, a story about the EU paying France a fortune to build wind farms. The French, it was reported, were accepting so much cash from a Brussels-based energy lobby that they had even agreed to erect windmills near national monuments. The journalist with the Union Jack tie declared that the money was almost certainly going to go straight into French farmers’ pockets, and predicted that only half the wind farms would actually ‘see the light of day – or rather the breeze of day’. Cue a studio chuckle, and an acknowledgement that the ‘no’ camp would be loving this.

  I had to admit that Elodie and her people had been very quick to retort with that twist on Šárka’s story. As Elodie said, the battle was far from over.

  Again Peter came across and commiserated with me. Ever the euro-pessimist, he seemed sure Elodie was going to win the war of words.

  Almost immediately, though, there was good news.

  First, an intriguing teaser in which an obviously drunk man was giving a bleeped-out speech in a pub. A few minutes later, after the adverts, we got the full story.

  I gave Peter a friendly punch on the shoulder for doubting me. It was my film of Nick Rummage in Strasbourg.

  Despite my shaky camera work, the coverage it got was gleeful. Everyone in the news studio – anchors, politicians and experts alike – thought it was hilarious to see the head of the anti-Europeans singing in perfect French, boasting about his cushy job within the EU’s cosy walls and even issuing veiled threats of violence to innocent Brits in the Dordogne. The clip ran again and again, with each word relished, subtitles added at key points, and freeze-frames on Rummage’s flushed and drooling face.

  ‘The Eunuchs have lost it – no pun intended,’ said a grinning pro-Europe politician, before the anchor gravely announced that they’d invited a UKNOC party member to comment, but had received no reply. They cut to another ad-break.

  Manon and I exchanged a kiss.

  ‘Now it all depends on the ferry,’ she said.

  I nodded. Dealing with that had been our toughest call. We were far from sure that we’d get a result.

  Our co-conspirators all came over to shake hands and pat backs,
or in Danny’s case, sing in French, about the Rummage film. No one in Brussels liked Rummage. Even his allies were said to hate him really.

  The TV anchor-man announced that they were just getting ‘astonishing footage’ of a ferry that had arrived in the south of England. It was, he said ‘a whole new migrant problem on our doorsteps’.

  We all stopped talking and watched.

  Sensing the tension emitting from our small group, other people near the TV screen shut up, too. The silence seemed to spread as the white ship docked at a floodlit quay, so that when the car port began to open, there was little more than a low hubbub of conversation in our section of the bar.

  The camera pulled back for a wide shot. This late in the evening, the port area was deserted except for people waiting for the ferry. The journalists amongst them were easy to spot. They were the ones carrying cameras, lights and sound equipment.

  A group of about a dozen foot passengers began to walk down the ferry’s car ramp, preventing the vehicles from disembarking. It was clearly some kind of demonstration. The camera zoomed in. Some of them were carrying placards. The voice-over said that these were rumoured to be Bretons, coming to demand refuge in Britain.

  Manon’s hand squeezed mine even tighter.

  We could hear the Bretons chanting. One of them broke away from the group and started walking towards the cameras. It was a middle-aged guy in a striped fisherman’s jumper, and he was looking very pleased with himself.

  But before he could start issuing his demands, there were shouts from the ferry, and the camera panned over to investigate. When it focused, everyone watching our TV gave an involuntary laugh.

  Rolling down the ferry ramp, rather like tanks emerging from the landing craft on D-Day, was a small squadron of mobility scooters. A tight V-formation of electric-powered four-wheelers, all painted glossy red, accelerated at the Bretons, forcing them to scatter, and headed for the barrage of cameras at top speed – just over walking pace.

  The old people hunched over the handlebars were all wearing baseball caps and sweatshirts emblazoned with the Union Jack. The commentator said that it was probably a reunion of the 1948 London Olympics cycling team.

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