Merde in europe, p.7
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       Merde in Europe, p.7

           Stephen Clarke
 
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  So Elodie had gone to dunk the Danish.

  But damn her, what was all this crap about going to an auction, when I was meant to be getting some serious work done?

  I pulled out my phone.

  ‘I’m not sure that’s wise,’ Manon said, but I was already speed-dialling.

  Elodie picked up immediately.

  ‘What the fuck do you want, Paul?’ As diplomatic as ever.

  ‘Sorry to disturb your “meeting”, Elodie.’ I attempted to do the speechmarks thing with one hand, but probably looked as though I was imitating a limp rabbit. ‘It’s about your note.’

  ‘Yes, well, it’s simple enough, isn’t it? Even you can read numbers up to thirty-four.’

  ‘But aren’t I supposed to be writing up my stuff about languages?’

  ‘Exactly, so go and buy yourself a computer with the credit card.’

  ‘Oh.’ Her sudden generosity stumped me for a moment.

  On my way back from lunch I’d walked past a shop belonging to a famous fruit-inspired computer company, so I now asked her if it was OK to buy one of those.

  She huffed a hurricane in my ear.

  ‘You’re totally missing the point, Paul. As usual. Lot thirty-four is a computer. Go and buy it.’

  ‘Buy a computer at auction? How do we know it’s not clapped out?’

  ‘Don’t worry about that, Paul, just buy it, please.’

  ‘But it’s an auction,’ I reminded her. ‘What if I don’t win?’

  ‘What if you don’t win? That’s such an English question, Paul. Just go and win. And call me as soon as you’ve succeeded. Which you will do, at all costs, OK?’

  ‘OK.’

  ‘Now please don’t disturb me again today. I don’t work on Fridays. You know that. Honestly, Paul, you’re really starting to put the ass in assistant.’ Like I said, when she wanted to, she could be as peace-loving as Joan of Arc.

  ‘Oh yeah?’ I groped for a riposte. There had to be a jibe about ‘putting the member in an MEP’ that I could use. But she was gone.

  I looked questioningly at Manon, who renewed our physical theatre theme by holding out both hands as if carrying identical plant pots. Voilà, her gesture was saying, I told you that phoning was a bad idea.

  The only positive in all this was that my working day seemed to be over already.

  I took a chance and mimed going out for a drink. But Manon shook her head, did some air-typing and went back into her office. Her most efficient mime yet.

  7

  ‘Smoky-bacon crisps to be banned by Brussels.’

  Report in the British press, 2003

  AFTER A RESTFUL, booze-free early night, I was up early and ambling towards the salesroom in plenty of time for my appointment with the auctioneer. I took the scenic route, keeping to basically the right direction but investigating any side streets that looked intriguing.

  And as I strolled, I realised that Brussels seems to have an identity problem. Not only has it been largely annexed by the EU, but its own personality is also marooned in a halfway house. It’s not quite sexy Paris, not quite drugged-up Amsterdam. Fortunately, though, it sees the funny side of being only half-cool, and has a twisted sense of humour that it expresses in its quirky choice of statues. The city streets are littered with them.

  The most famous is, of course, the Manneken Pis. It’s so weird to have a peeing baby as a national symbol. When I visited him that morning, he was performing for a gaggle of tourists who were all photographing or filming him in a way that would have got them arrested if he’d been real.

  But walking the city streets, I quickly saw that in fact the Manneken is one of Brussels’ more conventional statues. He’s just a cheeky lad taking a leak. Much weirder than the male toddler is his female equivalent, a pigtailed prepubescent girl called Jeanneke who squats, peeing permanently into a puddle, exposing her nudity in a way that only her parents really ought to see.

  Then there’s the dog, Zinneke Pis, a little terrier that dry-pisses against a bollard. I guess the city didn’t want to add water here, in case it encouraged real dogs to imitate him.

  Brussels does possess a few statues that aren’t urinating, but even these are pretty bizarre.

  In the middle of a wide boulevard I came across what looked like a naked hippy with one foot stuck to a giant seashell – a joke, perhaps, about the hallucinogenic effect of eating too many mussels?

  Further on, there was a man in a hospital robe apparently stepping off a roof – probably a satirical reference to their national health service.

  And fronting an office building near the Commission, probably the most disturbing of them all, a group of Jeannekes who have had their eyes poked out and therefore don’t realise they’re wearing dangerously revealing miniskirts. Straight out of a horror porn film.

  If all these represent Brussels’ self-image as a capital city, I thought, then it’s a pretty screwed-up place. Personally, I blame those brewing monks.

  My map led me out of the city centre and up a cobbled, pedestrians-only slope that was lined with arty junk shops, the kind of stores that look as though your gran has unloaded all her belongings into a shop window and then got confused when writing the price tags, so that she’s added a zero too many at the end of every label. I mean, I wouldn’t mind decorating my sitting room with a leather armchair that was still imprinted with the 3D outline of Gran’s buttocks, but not if it was going to cost me a month’s rent.

  At the top of the hill I entered a street that had decided to divide its retail space fifty–fifty between antique shops and hipster cafés furnished with mismatching old tables. Here, next to a gluten-free haven, I found my salesroom – a warehouse with an entrance half-blocked by a Gothic wardrobe and a giant rusted-iron garden vase. Pinned up next to the doorway was a trilingual sign advertising the auction.

  I wandered deep inside the building, past a cloud of chandeliers that would have blinded the entire city’s population if they’d all been switched on at once, through a room of euro-splodge canvases like the ones I’d seen at the Parliament building, and finally arrived in a section of the warehouse that had been laid out for the sale.

  Wisely, the auctioneers had made the most of their supply of old seats, and a dozen or so people were moving around the room, testing them for comfort. I had to try a wooden bench with a truncated leg and an armchair that tried to sodomise me with one of its springs, before settling on a plywood seat that had been polished by several generations of Mannekens and Jeannekes as they sweated through school.

  I looked around at my potential opponents in the battle for lot 34. They didn’t appear to be an especially tech-savvy crowd, or particularly rich. Mainly middle-aged men in bulky jackets, and one elderly couple who were comparing notes about the catalogue, which was just a collection of stapled A4 sheets. It didn’t look as though prices would be going too high.

  At a small row of second-hand tables in front of us, an overfed man with a bushy white beard and no hair up top was adjusting a bendy microphone, apparently checking that he would be able to swallow it without lowering his head. He, I assumed, was the auctioneer.

  The partition walls of the auction space were made up of office furniture – filing cabinets, desks, a range of chairs, from ‘I’m-the-big-boss’ down to ‘sit-here-new-intern’. All for sale, to judge by the numbered tickets taped on to them, as were the numerous lamps, a jacuzzi-sized photocopier and – yes – on top of a display cabinet containing smaller items, a row of laptops, folded open like loungers on a glass beach.

  I went to have a look at lot 34 and found that either I’d got blurred vision or there were several computers with the same number. The lot consisted of three identical laptops, none of which inspired much confidence in their ability to download anything bulkier than a passport photo. They were black, as thick as a waffle sandwich and bore the logo of a decidedly non-fruity manufacturer.

  I decided to risk it and call Elodie.

  ‘Why not buy one more-rec
ent model, instead of these three dinosaurs?’ I suggested after we’d got past her ‘God, Paul, will you ever stop hassling me?’ greetings.

  ‘Just do what I’m paying you for, and buy lot thirty-four,’ she groaned. ‘Please,’ she added, though I guessed that her one polite word might have been addressed to a man asking if she wanted another helping of pickled herring.

  ‘At any price?’ I asked.

  ‘Yes, well, I don’t expect it will be as expensive as one of those fancy laptops you wanted,’ she said, and then left me to it while she went off to enjoy some more smorgasbord.

  I checked again that I’d remembered to bring her credit card, and waited for the sale to begin.

  At first I thought that maybe I’d gone partially deaf. Then I realised that the auctioneer was talking in Flemish.

  It sounded, to my linguistically challenged ears, as though he was speaking a random series of syllables and was annoyed that he couldn’t get them in the right order. Either that, or he was a very drunk German.

  I don’t say this with any sense of superiority. I have often been told that my middle-class English accent makes me sound like a mildly shocked nun.

  But you have to appreciate my anxiety as the sale got under way and I realised that I couldn’t understand the most vital part of the proceedings – the numbers. Pretty important when you’re trying to bid.

  Naively, I’d assumed that the sale would be in French, or multilingual. This was the translation capital of Europe, after all, a city where nothing gets done without the presence of at least twenty interpreters.

  My only consolation was that the lot number and a picture of each item for sale were being flashed up on a TV screen in front of the auctioneer.

  I got out my phone again and started to hunt for a list of Flemish numbers with phonetic transcriptions, so that I’d actually be able to pronounce them. Even so, I doubted whether my tongue would be able to generate enough spit.

  But then, as I listened to the sale getting under way, it dawned on me that maybe I didn’t have such a big problem after all. The people bidding on the first couple of lots weren’t saying anything. They were just raising a finger or nodding a head in response to the auctioneer. He was the only one saying anything. To buy my lot, I just had to keep waving at him until he banged his hammer in my favour.

  I relaxed and watched my fellow buyers acquire a collection of ugly desks and unwieldy shelving. The bidding never lasted more than a minute on each lot, so I didn’t anticipate bankrupting Brittany West. I even began to look forward to the pleasure of winning the fight for lot 34. That’s the clever thing about auctions, isn’t it? – even when you’ve emptied your bank account for a load of tat you don’t need, it feels like a victory. And the great thing was, I could go on bidding for as long as I wanted and it wouldn’t cost me a penny personally.

  What could possibly go wrong?

  The butterflies were fluttering slightly by the time lot 33 – a single computer – came up, but they quickly dispelled when it went for ‘fiftig ’, which sounded like fifty euros. Ridiculously cheap for a laptop. And if none of my three computers actually worked, what did I care? It would just prove that I’d been right about spending France’s money on something more reliable.

  My lot started out at the absurdly low price of ‘dirty’ (or something like that – thirty, I guessed). I duly raised my arm and the auctioneer pointed his hammer at me. He said another number, which attracted a new bid, so he looked at me while saying something else and I raised my arm again. Simple.

  After a couple of rounds, we were at what sounded like seventy. I decided to look around the room, hoping to send out the message that I was here to stay and that whoever was bidding against me might as well give up now.

  This was when I noticed something incongruous.

  Sitting in one corner, over my right shoulder, was a guy who was much younger than everyone except me. He was dressed very similarly, too – jeans and a crisp white shirt, rather than the saggy outfits being worn by most of the older bidders. And maybe it was my imagination, but I could almost see the imprint on his neck left by the constant rubbing of a Brussels badge. He had that smartly casual international look about him that I’d seen on everyone in the parliamentary building. Unless I was much mistaken, he was from somewhere in northern Europe, to gather by his light hair and fair skin.

  He was on the phone, but staring straight at me. As I studied him, he nodded to an order from cyberspace and raised his hand to place a bid.

  I was still watching him while the auctioneer called out another number, and I responded with another salute.

  Again, the young guy in the corner spoke to his phone, nodded and put in a counterbid. Again, I raised my hand to outbid him.

  I wasn’t even listening to the numbers now, but I couldn’t help noticing that the tubby auctioneer’s voice was getting more and more soprano with surprise. One or two laughs broke out amongst the other punters. Who, the Belgians were obviously wondering, were these two foreign idiots, fighting for possession of a trio of clapped-out computers?

  I must admit I was wondering the same thing, but I was also beginning to understand Elodie’s obsession with lot 34. There was clearly something special about it. I just hoped it wasn’t a stash of cocaine under the keyboard or anything that was going to get me arrested or mugged on the way out.

  The price climbed into the range of a decent new tablet, and then hit the level where I could have hoped to buy a neat laptop, and still both of us obeyed orders, though I was now shrugging at my opponent with every bid, as if to say: Give up, mate, I’m going all the way.

  He carried on reporting events into his phone and looking grimly determined, but then, with one movement, he suddenly put his phone away and walked out. He’d given up.

  Amid a chorus of gasps, the breathless auctioneer slammed down his hammer and pronounced the price slowly enough for even an Englishman to understand.

  ‘Negenhonderd negentig,’ he said, his voice straining as though Flemish numbers didn’t usually stretch that far.

  Nine hundred and ninety euros for three bog-standard old PCs. Surely the stupidest computer deal since 1976, when some impatient friend of Steve Jobs apparently sold his 10 per cent stake in Apple for 800 dollars.

  Oh well, I thought, I was only obeying orders.

  Though I seemed to remember, from my history lessons, that that excuse didn’t always go down well.

  8

  ‘Brussels rules that oysters must be given rest breaks during transport to market.’

  Report in the British press, 2012

  ONCE, WHILE I was working for Elodie’s dad, Jean-Marie, in Paris, he asked me to take some British clients out to dinner.

  ‘Where should I take them?’ I asked, not knowing the city too well at that point.

  ‘Oh, where you want – here’s a company credit card,’ Jean-Marie said, coming over all rich and generous because there was a woman in the room.

  Being a literal kind of bloke, I therefore took my three guests to a world-famous restaurant, the kind of place where portions are as big as a mouse dropping and the bill is the size of a private jet, where the wine couldn’t be more expensive if it was liquid gold, and the star chef emerges from his kitchen at the end of the evening to shake or kiss the hand of everyone crazy enough to pay his prices.

  I had to go and get a hamburger afterwards, to fill the yawning gap left by the droplets of vaporised duckling tongue and kumquat-flavoured ice suppositories, or whatever it was that we’d been served, but at least my guests were happy.

  Jean-Marie was less so. As soon as he found my credit-card slip on his desk next day, he sent me a one-word email consisting of the French for ‘what’ in capital letters, followed by so many question marks that I thought he’d passed out with his forehead on the keyboard.

  ‘QUOI????????????????????????????????’

  This was more or less exactly the reaction I got from Elodie when I told her about the price of her c
omputers, except that she replied down the phone, so that she sounded like a duck giving birth to an ostrich egg.

  Though unlike Jean-Marie, who had threatened to dock me a year’s salary, Elodie calmed down with what I ought to have recognised as suspicious speed.

  As soon as I told her why I’d been forced to bid so much, she began to ‘hmm’ to herself and asked me: ‘Did you talk to this guy?’

  ‘No. He stormed out when he realised I was going to keep on raising the price.’

  ‘Hmm,’ she said again, and sounded strangely satisfied with the outcome.

  ‘Who do you think he was?’ I asked.

  ‘Oh, I don’t know.’

  ‘Do you know why he was willing to bid so much?’

  ‘For the same reason as me, because he wanted the computers. Now stop asking silly questions, Paul, and bring them to me.’

  ‘At the Parliament.’

  ‘No, I’ll text you an address. Take a taxi and get here as soon as you can. Ring bell number two.’

  I just hoped that it wasn’t the Danish embassy. I really didn’t fancy seeing a post-coital Viking.

  As it turned out, the taxi took me to one of the most beautiful buildings I’d ever seen. I knew Brussels was famous for its Art Nouveau, but this place was a house-sized Klimt painting, a shimmering palace of gold and cream.

  It was tall and slim, with a roof of blood-red tiles, and its façade was decorated with mosaics of sinuous foliage and nymphs combing angels’ hair. There was an immense bay window on the first floor, with a balcony of curvaceous iron railings, and the sculpted front door looked like the entrance to a wood-sprite’s city residence.

  All in all, I had the feeling that the architect had got through a large quantity of opium and flouncy shirts while designing it.

  I rang bell number two and was buzzed in.

  The entrance hall was as sublime as the façade, all geometric tiles and sheened wood panelling, topped off with an ornate gilt-and-crystal chandelier that would have given my Flemish auctioneer an orgasm.

 
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