Merde in europe, p.4
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       Merde in Europe, p.4

           Stephen Clarke
 
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  ‘Well, actually, that’s not true,’ I said, ‘which is exactly what the British are worried about. These Brussels laws don’t stay in Brussels. They cross over to England and force people to eat straight cucumbers.’

  ‘Why do you care about the English?’ she asked, and luckily I was saved from the danger of revealing my true identity by the pop of the champagne cork. ‘I hope you’re not turning English now,’ she said. ‘I need you to be very, very French.’

  With this she clamped her mouth to mine and began exploring my palate with a sprightly tongue. After a few seconds she broke off and held out a glass for some champagne. Definitely a woman in total control, I thought, apprehensively.

  We clinked glasses and drank. I hoped the bubbles would liven me up for what promised to be a demanding obstacle course. I’ve known a few of these career women and they can be as exhausting as army gym instructors (not that I’ve ever got intimate with one of those).

  She began to kiss me again, which I took as an invitation to return the compliment. Her satisfied moan suggested that I’d been right.

  ‘Just a moment,’ she said, and leant to one side to hit a switch. The lights dimmed to a dull glow that made her white blouse stand out above the dark material of her jacket. That darkness, I decided, had to go. I slid the jacket off her shoulders, and she let it fall on to the couch behind her.

  ‘In Brittany, do the lights ever dim suddenly like that?’ she asked.

  ‘I don’t know,’ I said, more interested in locating the few attached buttons of her blouse than discussing French power cuts.

  ‘It is good to be in constant control,’ she said.

  ‘Yes, in control,’ I agreed. After more than a month without a real sniff of female flesh, I definitely needed to stay in control. I felt there was a serious risk of going too far too fast and spoiling everything.

  ‘Of the lighting, I mean.’

  ‘Oh yes, this is perfect,’ I said, my eyes half-closed as I leant forward to inhale the perfumed cleft between her breasts.

  ‘Of energy in general,’ she said. Which suddenly struck me as weird.

  ‘Excusez-moi?’ I lifted my face from the depths of her cleavage.

  ‘I think it’s best for a region to stay in constant control of its energy supply,’ she said.

  I sifted through her remark, looking for some sign that it might be a lascivious metaphor about sexual performance or orgasm intensity, or anything related to what we were currently doing on her sofa. But I couldn’t find any.

  ‘I don’t believe it,’ I finally said. ‘I have my nose in your breasts, and you’re lobbying me.’

  ‘Engaging in a frank discussion about mutual needs,’ she replied, taking a sip of champagne and then licking her lips, as if to remind me what my needs were.

  ‘And what are your needs?’ I asked.

  ‘Well, to be perfectly frank, I would very much like you to have a serious talk with your boss about aliens,’ she said.

  ‘Aliens?’

  Šárka laughed, wrongly assuming that I was joking. She pointed towards her big wall map, and I now saw that its green swathes were occupied by an army of white windmills, and that the green annexation hadn’t got as far as western France.

  ‘Aliens,’ she repeated, and this time I understood. She was saying ‘éoliennes’, the French word for wind turbines. Presumably she wanted me to help her colour in Brittany with wind farms.

  ‘I don’t have influence with Elodie about that,’ I said.

  ‘I’ve heard that you do.’

  ‘No, I’m working on languages. Breton, Basque, Corsican.’

  ‘Only that?’

  ‘Yes.’

  With this, Šárka suddenly looked more pensive. She still had her shirt half-open, so she was being erotically pensive, but much less focused on matters physical than before.

  ‘Does that really stop us?’ I asked. ‘I mean, you’re a beautiful woman. I don’t mind if you want to lobby me for a few minutes. In fact, I’m all in favour of wind power.’

  This jolted Šárka out of her meditations.

  ‘What?’ she squawked. ‘Make love with you, if there’s nothing in it for me? What do you think I am? A whore?’ She used the vulgar French word pute.

  ‘No, of course not,’ I said.

  Although I was wondering what else you’d call someone who was willing to have casual sex in return for the promise of income. A footballer’s girlfriend?

  ‘No, I am not a whore, and we will not make love tonight.’

  ‘Could you please stop saying “whore”?’ I begged. ‘Especially with your shirt open.’

  She pulled the two cotton walls of her blouse together.

  ‘I think you should leave. I made a mistake.’

  What can a boy do, except take a few deep breaths to calm his ardour and grab a consoling slug of champagne?

  ‘Bonne nuit,’ I wished her as I made for the door.

  ‘Toi aussi,’ she said, annoyingly familiar again. ‘I’m sure I’ll see you at Plux. Let me know if you obtain more influence over your boss. Then maybe we can . . . talk again.’

  ‘Really?’

  ‘Bonne nuit,’ she repeated, not wanting to make any promises.

  I let myself out into the silent street, wondering what the CCTV guys would make of my all-too-brief visit. Not exactly marathon man.

  I was much less drunk than the previous night, but I felt certain that my headache next day was going to be just as painful, albeit for different reasons. Brussels, I had already decided, is the kind of place that can give you a vicious hangover every single day.

  4

  ‘According to the EU’s animal waste directive, it is illegal to bury dead pets unless you have pressure-cooked them at 130°C for half an hour.’

  Report in the British press, 2000

  NEXT MORNING AT ten to eleven I was all spruced up in a new grey suit and reporting for duty at the European Parliament. Or trying to, anyway.

  ‘This is a visitor’s badge dated yesterday,’ the security man explained. The headache I’d woken up with grew a notch more intense.

  ‘But I’m the new assistant of Madame Elodie Martin,’ I argued.

  ‘This is a visitor’s badge dated yesterday,’ he said, and I sensed a theme developing.

  ‘Perhaps if I talk to the receptionist, I can arrange things.’

  ‘Sorry, monsieur, but entry is impossible with a visitor’s badge dated—’

  ‘Yesterday?’ I guessed. He nodded. His eyes stopped focusing on me and looked out into the forecourt. I no longer existed.

  Backing off, I phoned Elodie, who gave one of her trademark huffs to imply that the whole universe – planets, stars, black holes and whatever deity was out there – had decided to annoy her.

  ‘Stay where you are,’ she barked.

  ‘So you’ll come and . . . ?’ But she was already gone. ‘She’s coming to fetch me,’ I told the security guy, who didn’t seem at all worried by the imminent arrival of a barking French MEP. He probably didn’t know Elodie that well.

  In the event, it wasn’t Elodie who came out to rescue me. It was the beautiful Manon.

  ‘Bonjour,’ I said pleasantly.

  ‘We have to go to the other entrance,’ she replied. As polite as Elodie, I thought. French diplomacy schools must give classes in tactical rudeness.

  Manon turned on her heels. She’d changed out of her stilettos, I noticed, into some leather flatties, and was looking more worklike today, less party-chic. Still highly attractive, though, behind her aggressive façade.

  I followed her around the building to an almost identical set of revolving doors, where a flash of her badge and my own passport got us inside.

  ‘So you work exclusively for Elodie?’ I asked, just to make conversation. I took a risk and used the friendly ‘tu’ form.

  ‘Yes,’ Manon said, with a little grunt at the end, as though I’d enquired whether the Pope was still practising his usual religion.

  ‘
I thought perhaps you were also working with that Minister.’

  ‘Cholpin?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘No.’

  ‘Oh.’

  Scintillating stuff. I decided to shut up while Manon went through the procedure of getting me another visitor’s badge. Whatever I’d done to annoy her, apart from being born, I clearly wasn’t going to change her opinion of me just by showing interest in her everyday life.

  But none of us standard-issue males like to be disliked by a beautiful woman, so as soon as we were in forced proximity in the lift, I tried a different tack.

  ‘Please tell me what I’ve done to annoy you,’ I asked.

  ‘Nothing,’ she said, looking up at the ceiling.

  ‘Is it because I’m English?’

  ‘What?’

  ‘The French sometimes don’t like the English.’

  She shrugged.

  ‘Especially when we’re causing trouble with the European Union,’ I said. ‘You know, the referendum.’

  ‘Pff!’ she said, as if the referendum was a fly trying to settle on her croissant.

  ‘Maybe you think I’m a spy? You know – why is an Englishman working for the French?’

  She laughed at this absurdity.

  ‘You French can be very patriotic,’ I said. ‘You still blame us for our barbecue with Joan of Arc.’

  ‘I’m only half-French,’ she said.

  ‘And what is the rest?’

  ‘A quarter Czech, a quarter Polish, a quarter German.’

  ‘That makes a hundred and twenty-five per cent. So you’re a sort of super-femme.’

  I winced at the way I sounded like a Parisian chat-up artist, but at least I earned a glimmer of a smile.

  ‘My family got complicated after the war,’ she said.

  ‘My family’s all English, but they’ve always been complicated.’

  She laughed and looked me in the eye for the first time.

  ‘What have you come here to do, Anglais?’ she asked, making my nationality sound like an insult. Which, to many people in Brussels, I guessed it was. But at least she’d called me ‘tu’, which had to count as a diplomatic victory.

  ‘The same as you, I suppose. We’re both working for the same MEP, right?’

  ‘Yes, but what specifically?’

  This was all getting a bit interrogatorial, if that’s a word. I wasn’t sure how much I was allowed to tell her, even if she was part of Elodie’s team, so I recited my usual chorus.

  ‘I’ll be working on endangered languages mainly. Breton, Basque, Corsican.’

  ‘Is that all?’

  ‘I don’t know. Do you think it’s not enough? You think I’m going to get bored in Belgium?’

  She laughed again. I got the impression that she was enjoying the interrogation, as if it was a game in which she scored a point for every bit of information she squeezed out of me.

  ‘And what do you do specifically?’ I asked her.

  ‘Oh, everything.’ She smiled as if she also got points for evasive answers.

  The lift announced the sixth floor, apparently trying to make it sound as boring as possible in three languages, and we emerged into a corridor that instantly explained the lift’s lack of enthusiasm.

  We hear so much about European excess and MEPs’ over-spending that I was expecting chandeliers, mosaics and medieval tapestries. But this featureless corridor of identical doors and unpatterned carpets could have been the head office of Bland Drab & Stodgy Ltd. If it had been a paint company, this would have been the beige department, recently redecorated after somebody complained that the previous beige was a bit too racy.

  The only things dispelling the dullness were the large luggage trunks standing beside a few of the office doors, as though several occupants were about to go on a world cruise. Even so, to make sure this wasn’t too exciting, they were all using the same standardised grey luggage.

  Most of the walls were bare and boring, too, except for a couple of posters of Eskimos looking confused amongst melting ice floes. These were signed ‘The Greens’, and the mention of that particular colour reminded me of the posters I’d seen in Šárka’s office the previous evening. As I watched Manon’s shapely form striding along in front of me, I felt suddenly depressed about my motley relations with the whole of womanhood.

  Elodie didn’t raise my mood. She was sitting behind a large desk, prodding at her phone, and only gave me a brief glance before turning to Manon.

  ‘Didn’t anyone tell him how to dress?’ she demanded.

  Manon looked at my suit, crisp white shirt and subtly silky tie and shrugged.

  ‘He looks OK,’ she said. ‘For an Anglais.’ If she was joking, she kept a masterfully straight face.

  ‘No, he doesn’t. You don’t dress like that on Fridays, Paul,’ Elodie told me. ‘You dress more casual when the MEPs aren’t here. It’s – what do you call it in English? – undressing Friday. Take your tie off, or everyone will stare at you.’

  I obeyed. Now I understood why Manon was looking less chic. And why the few men I’d seen in the entrance hall had been tie-less, some even in jeans. I was such an obvious outsider.

  ‘OK, sit down, Paul. And give your passport to Manon. She’s going to get you a permanent badge.’ Elodie switched to French. ‘Manon, could you close the door on the way out, please?’

  I noticed that even though the two women were more or less the same age, both used the ‘vous’ form, with Elodie playing the respectful yet distant boss, and Manon the standard employee. There was some serious hierarchical stuff going on.

  As Manon closed the door, she gave me a look as if to say, ‘Secret meeting, eh? Told you so.’ She definitely knew there was more to my presence than preserving Breton verbs. But what was the problem with that? As far as I’d understood, Elodie’s ‘mission’ was favourable to France, beneficial to Europe, and Manon was presumably on the same page as Elodie, so pourquoi the huffiness?

  ‘Have I done something to annoy Manon?’ I asked Elodie, who carried on jabbing at her phone.

  ‘You annoy all women eventually, Paul. Maybe she’s just good at seeing the future.’

  ‘She was asking me what exactly I was going to be doing here. Doesn’t she know?’

  Suddenly Elodie’s phone was less fascinating.

  ‘What did you tell her?’ she demanded.

  ‘Just some stuff about endangered languages.’

  ‘Good.’ Elodie turned to stare at the door as if Manon might be eavesdropping, and lowered her voice. ‘She’s not supposed to know everything about the mission. I think that’s why she’s been acting a bit strange recently. She knows I’ve got something going on and she’s annoyed at being excluded. She’s too ambitious. I wish I’d never taken her on. But I had to – Papa owed her mother a favour. I can guess why that was. Huh!’

  I could guess, too. Elodie’s dad, Jean-Marie, was one of those Frenchmen who’ll use any argument to get a woman into bed – or, more often, spreadeagled over his desk. ‘Your daughter wants a job in Brussels? I can arrange that, madame. You want planning permission to start fracking underneath the Louvre? No problème. Now if you’ll just bend over . . .’

  ‘Why don’t you want Manon to help with the mission?’ I asked. It felt weird calling it that, as if I was going to be parachuted behind anti-EU lines and hooking up with pro-single-market resistance fighters.

  ‘I have my reasons,’ Elodie said, in a way that suggested further questions weren’t welcome.

  ‘And are you going to tell me what I’m not supposed to tell Manon?’ I asked.

  ‘Yes. Of course.’ She looked at the door as if to check that it was still closed, and then turned to me. ‘As I told you last night, the plan is to get Britain to stay in the EU. To do that, we need to influence British public opinion, so your job will be to help us.’

  ‘And how exactly?’

  ‘That, Paul, is something I will explain to you when the time is right.’

  ‘Isn’t the
time right now?’

  ‘No, it isn’t. And I decide when it is. The referendum is in less than two weeks. Every part of the mission has to be perfectly timed.’ She spoke very slowly, as though to a chimp that was having trouble learning to grunt once for apple and twice for banana. ‘Sorry, Paul,’ she added, clicking out of her woman-of-mystery role play for a second. ‘It’s not up to me. I’m just trying to follow orders from Paris.’

  ‘OK, I understand. So you want me to start with these languages?’

  ‘Yes, right. Exactly.’ Now I was being a clever chimp. ‘I’ve set up a meeting for you at the Commission.’

  ‘The Commission? What’s that, compared to the Parliament?’

  ‘Oh, we decide things, and they do them. Or they suggest them and we vote. The Commission is full of career civil servants, anyway. All in love with Europe.’

  She handed me a business card, and I read the small print.

  ‘A German translator?’

  ‘Yes, take him out to lunch and he’ll give you enough bla-bla to write a quick report about these stupid languages.’

  ‘Stupid? So you don’t actually care about them at all?’

  ‘Well, Breton, yes, because they’re my electorate, but personally, the others? Bof!’ She gave the French language’s verbal shrug its full power. ‘If you only knew how much it costs to put up road signs with names in two languages. God, just to change one letter in a place name, France spends millions a year. Who gives a fuck if Perpignan is called Perpinyà in Catalan? It’s the same place.’

  ‘Shall I put that in the report?’

  She laughed, then abruptly stopped.

  ‘You, Paul, will do exactly what I tell you to do. Please. Perhaps I was being a bit, how do you say, frivolish? Frivolatious?’ I nodded my approval of this excellent new word, and she went on. ‘Frivolatious about these languages, because they will help us with the bigger mission. If your report can convince the people in Scotland or in – what do you call it? Le pays de Galles?

  ‘Wales.’

  ‘And Cornouailles?’

  ‘Cornwall.’

  ‘Yes, if these provincials all think they will get money from Brussels for extra teachers for their silly languages, they will vote to stay in Europe, no? We could even get money for that weird patois they talk in the north of England.’

 
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