Merde in europe, p.8
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       Merde in Europe, p.8

           Stephen Clarke
 
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  ‘Come up, Paul! First floor!’ Elodie called out.

  She sounded almost happy to see me.

  In the middle of a room that was big enough to house a family of full-size billiard tables, Elodie was standing next to a tall, blond man. He wasn’t, I was relieved to see, the Great Dunking Dane. It took a brief double-take to realise that it wasn’t Elodie’s husband Valéry, either, even though he looked almost exactly the same.

  This guy was a few years younger, and skinnier. The rest was all Valéry, from the ‘I’m-too-tall’ slouch and the long blond fringe that needed flipping dramatically backwards every ten seconds, to the expression of someone trying to remember which century they’re in.

  ‘This is Cédric,’ Elodie told me. ‘Valéry’s cousin. You met at the wedding.’

  ‘Ah, yes, bonjour,’ I said, shaking his limp hand.

  In fact I couldn’t be sure that we actually had met, because there had been a dozen or more Cédric-Valéry clones there, as well as their female equivalents. Theirs was one of those enormous French tribes that expends most of its energies in breeding, presumably so that they’ll always have enough people to pay for the upkeep on their various chateaux.

  The family also had an inbuilt distrust of breeding with anyone who was not already a member of the clan, which probably meant that within a few generations they’d all have identical faces, and two heads. Elodie had been a rare outside contribution to the DNA and, judging by her taste for extramarital Danes, not a wise choice.

  ‘Give the computers to Cédric, Paul,’ she said.

  ‘Shouldn’t I keep one for myself?’

  ‘No, Cédric’s going to check them out. You’ll have one on Monday.’

  I complied, handing over the laptops and the various cables that had come with them.

  ‘OK, off you go, Cédric,’ Elodie said, in French, as if talking to a puppy.

  He went, and I hoped for his sake that he’d inherited enough of the thinly spread family brain cells to switch on a computer.

  ‘Great apartment,’ I told Elodie when we were alone. ‘Whose is it?’

  ‘Yours,’ she said, and threw me a set of keys.

  When I’d picked them (and myself) up off the parquet floor, which now had a tiny key-print in its perfect varnish, I asked what she meant by this.

  ‘It belongs to France. Diplomats usually live here, but this floor is free at the moment, so I thought you might like to stay here while you’re in Brussels. There’s no rent to pay. The furniture is a bit old-fashioned, but it’s liveable.’ She gestured dismissively towards a sumptuous purple velvet settee and its four companion armchairs, a black lacquered dining table and six high-backed chairs, and a Japanese-style screen that partially blocked the view into a leafy garden at the back of the building.

  ‘You can use the garden,’ she said. ‘No drunken English parties, though, please. And promise me you’ll only use one of the bathrooms.’

  A rather prohibitive tenant agreement, you might think, but I nodded my consent.

  ‘Do you remember when we shared a bathroom, Paul?’ Elodie said, which struck me as a weird thing to say.

  ‘Yes,’ I agreed, cautiously.

  ‘Me a student, you just arrived in Paris, you could hardly speak any French except for “café au lait” and “voulez-vous coucher avec moi?”’

  Elodie was grinning at me now, taking me back to more innocent days at our shared flat in the Marais, when I was sleeping with her occasionally and she was shagging as many male models as she could get her thighs around. OK, maybe not so innocent after all, but fun.

  ‘The two of us in that tiny HLM,’ she said. She meant habitation à loyer modéré, low-rent subsidised housing, though it was the poshest block of subsidised housing in Paris, inhabited almost exclusively by the sons and daughters of politicians.

  ‘Don’t you think we’ve come a long way, Paul? Me an MEP, you part-owner of an English tea room in Paris, with this luxury place at our – your – disposal?’

  I still didn’t know what she was getting at, but I guessed that maybe a little gratitude was being called for.

  ‘Well, I’m still accepting your family’s hospitality,’ I said. ‘This place is great, yes. Amazingly beautiful. And thanks for bailing me out with this job. The money is going to come in really useful.’

  ‘Thanks for saying that, Paul. It’s good to know I’m helping you out.’ She smiled at me, with what looked like total sincerity, which was not something she showed very often. ‘Now can you do me a favour?’ It was back to business. ‘I’d like some photos of the place. Could we use your phone?’

  I handed it over and she began taking some snaps, including a few of me in the various rooms. She asked me to sit on a huge iron-framed bed that looked as though it had been forged out of a castle portcullis, then to mime drinking a cup of coffee at the breakfast bar in the kitchen – the only modernised part of the apartment.

  ‘Why do you need to have me in the photos?’ I asked as I lay in the bath, an immense white tub standing on gilded lions’ feet. I still had my clothes on, I should add.

  ‘It’s for the website where we put all our accommodation. Some of these old places look a bit scary for young diplomats. We have to make them look fun.’

  I tried to imagine what kind of French diplomat selected his accommodation on the basis of an Englishman being able to lie fully clothed in his bath. But then perhaps I didn’t know much about the French foreign service.

  ‘Hey, can you do a few selfies, too? I used to love it when you’d send us photos of all your stupid expressions in Paris.’

  This apartment really seemed to be bringing out Elodie’s wistful side. I took a couple of selfies depicting an English idiot standing in front of some of the most fabulous furniture made in the late nineteenth century, and then spent a few minutes sending all the photos to Elodie.

  ‘Perfect,’ she said when they pinged into her phone. ‘Now I’ll leave you to move into your new home. Have a great weekend, and if you do use handcuffs on that bed, please try not to scratch the paint.’

  I promised to be careful.

  ‘What are you doing tonight?’ she asked.

  ‘Going out for a drink with some Lithuanian girls, I hope.’

  ‘Excellent, you know what they say about Lithuanian girls.’

  No, but I intended to find out.

  First thing I did, when I moved my suitcase and its meagre contents into the stadium-sized apartment, was run myself a bath. Lying there for Elodie’s photo shoot had reminded me of the joys of a long, leisurely soak. Having spent so long based in minuscule Parisian attics, I’d got used to having only stand-up washes. In a shower cubicle, I mean, not out on the roof.

  This, by the way, is the source of those stupid English newspaper stories about the French not washing. It all started because some bright spark in Fleet Street got hold of a statistic whereby the average French adult spent hardly any time in the bathtub and declared that they didn’t wash at all. Ridiculous. Most of the French people I know well enough to ask about their hygiene habits shower every day, and laugh at us Brits for wallowing in our own dirt.

  But there were no Parisians about, so I was free to enjoy the luxuries of watching a perfectly clean volcanic lake being created just for me in the glistening enamel tub, of dabbing my hand into the rising tide to test the temperature and then lowering myself, toes first, inch by inch, beneath the blood-warm comfort blanket of gently perfumed water.

  That gentle perfume was my only regret – no bubble bath. I’d only been able to nab a couple of tiny shower gels from my hotel room, so I had to make do with a few drops of aftershave in the bathwater. But even if I say so myself, it was a perfume that gave the nostrils something pleasant to quiver about. And it was a nice fantasy to imagine some lucky woman undressing me and finding out that it wasn’t only my chin that smelt good – that evening my whole body was going to be imbued with the French ideal of bottled male sophistication.

  I lay back,
neck deep, and relaxed.

  And started to get bored. That’s the trouble with showering. It gets you used to the functional in-and-out wash, the quick lather followed by the rapid rubdown. Five minutes and you’re done. Any longer feels like a waste of your life.

  Admittedly it was interesting to examine the bathroom tiles for a while – a purple, gold and green vine of what looked like toxic plants, running around all four walls. And the light over the washbasin was a piece of vintage chrome, like something off a pre-war luxury liner. Amazing that it had survived so long.

  But soon I started to wish that I had some rubber ducks to play with, or maybe a submarine. Or at least a real bar of soap to drop in the water and fish about for. You can’t play bathtub games with liquid soap. Well, you can, but I prefer to play them with a girlfriend.

  When my phone started buzzing on the bathroom stool, it came as a welcome distraction. I shook my hand dry and carefully answered.

  ‘Hey, Paul, it goes?’

  The unmistakable mix of English words and French syntax, spoken with an American accent and the naive enthusiasm of a five-year-old who’s just taken a sip of his dad’s champagne and thinks that his sudden joie de vivre is natural – it could only belong to one man.

  ‘Hi, Jake.’

  This was my American friend who had lived for so long in France that his brain could no longer tell which language it was speaking, and therefore spoke English and French simultaneously. Amazingly he’d found a job as an English teacher, and as well as screwing up his French pupils’ chances of passing any English exams, Jake was a part-time poet whose rhymes were so tastelessly pornographic that the USA would definitely decide to repeal its famous free-speech laws if he ever moved back there. ‘Is Brussels going well to you, Paul?’ he asked.

  ‘Yes, thanks, Jake, it’s going pretty well to me. Working with Elodie is a bit like being a poodle, but she’s set me up in a great apartment.’

  ‘Cool, man. Big bed?’

  This was Jake’s only criterion when choosing real estate. Did the place have a double mattress with a woman on top of it?

  ‘Yes, pretty big. How are you getting on?’

  I asked this question with a note of sadness. He’d recently split up from his wife, Mitzi. I’d been their best man. And I’d actually thought he might make a go of this relationship. He usually started getting itchy feet after the first night, but he’d seemed really besotted with Mitzi, and she with him. Until, that is, she found him in the marriage bed with a six-foot-tall Somali model.

  ‘Yeah, I am reflecting a lot on my culpability.’

  ‘That’s good, Jake, that’s healthy.’

  ‘I think I have taken too seriously the marriage calves.’

  ‘The what?’

  ‘The marriage calves? Les veaux du mariage?’

  ‘The vows, Jake. I think you mean “les voeux”. “Veau” is a baby cow.’

  ‘Right, yes, the marriage voeux.’

  ‘Well, I don’t think they included vowing to shag a model in your wife’s bedroom.’

  ‘But they said we must honour each other. And what bigger honour than an African goddess? You know, I invited Mitzi to join with us.’

  This was the problem with debating the finer points of morality with Jake. It was like discussing stamp-collecting with a rainbow trout. The concept was outside his frame of reference. Even while he was married, he’d been carrying on with his life master plan of sleeping with a woman of every nationality on the planet, and then writing verse about them. He’d got all of the main European nations in his little red book, plus most of Asia and a fair chunk of Africa and South America.

  ‘What have you been up to recently?’ I asked him.

  ‘Oh, I have commenced to work on an epic poem. It is formidable, man. It is inspired by a poor Parisienne who must get a job in a topless bar. It is titled “A Sale of Two Titties”.’

  Suddenly I needed another shot of scalding water in my bath to take away the sting of his poetry.

  ‘You get it, Paul?’

  ‘Sadly, yes. You’re only writing the poem because you thought of the title, aren’t you, Jake?’

  ‘Yes, I confess. But now I have another idea.’

  ‘Really?’ I prepared myself for the worst, or even worse than that.

  ‘Yes, a poem called “Les Bains Louches”.’

  I groaned. This was a painful pun – les bains douches are French public baths, and louche means, well, louche, morally suspect.

  ‘What’s that about, Jake? Though I dread to ask.’

  ‘Well, I just got the idea because your baignoire’ – meaning my bathtub – ‘looks enough big for two or three people.’

  ‘What?’ I tried to clutch my hands over my privates, and almost gave my phone a fatal dunking. ‘You can see me?’

  ‘Yes. I was very admirative of you for playing with your pipi as we discussed. I was thinking: Hey, Paul is become more liberated.’

  ‘Shit!’

  ‘Do not panic, Paul. I have seen it before. You remember, that time with those two girls from—’

  ‘For fuck’s sake, Jake, how long have we been on visual?’

  ‘It came on when you put in extra water. You didn’t realise?’

  ‘No, I must have hit the wrong button. Shit.’

  ‘Calm, Paul, calm. I know exactly what you need.’

  ‘What’s that?’

  ‘Me.’

  ‘Fuck off, Jake, I’m not . . . Although there’s no shame in . . . And I totally support the right of men to . . .’

  ‘Stop, Paul. I know you’re not gay. What I am saying is that I must come and help you fill your baignoire with European women. I need some more nationalities for my petit livre rouge. I’ll take the next train. What is your address?’

  One day I’ll be able to explain to myself why I told him.

  9

  ‘Kilts to be re-defined as women’s wear.’

  Report in the British press, 2003

  I’D ARRANGED TO meet Ed Fürst that evening at a French-sounding bar near the place du Châtelain. It was a short walk from where I was now living.

  Jake hadn’t turned up yet, so I texted him the name of the bar and told him to meet me there.

  Châtelain was in an area of low-rise buildings, a sort of dwarf Paris, populated by every kind of bar and pub that the Brussels melting pot could brew up – Spanish, Italian, Brazilian, English, even Belgian.

  It was eight thirty by the time I got there, and the place was already teeming with off-duty badge people, all looking casual, mais pas trop – one notch down from their rather dressy dress-down Friday. Stiff-collared shirts and pristine jeans for the men, designer trousers or not-too-short skirts for the ladies.

  I spotted Ed with a small group of people outside the unimaginatively named Café Noir, a half-empty pint glass in his hand.

  ‘Ah, my English friend!’ he called out as soon as he saw me, waving me in. I was greeted warmly by two guys and a woman who immediately asked me the obvious question about whether Britain was going to vote itself in or out of the EU. Oh, help, I thought, I’ll have to get a T-shirt printed: ‘I DON’T BLOODY KNOW’.

  But I did my thing of putting on a studious expression and saying the polls were too close to call, and they nodded sympathetically.

  ‘Anyone want a drink?’ I asked, and somehow they all did, although a couple of them had taken little more than a sip from the one they already had.

  I used the shoving skills I’d learnt in Paris to get to the bar, and returned with a tray a few minutes later, to an even warmer welcome. They’d all managed to down their drinks in my absence. This was going to be a long, wet night.

  I explained who I was, and got the same in return.

  ‘Vadim, Lithuanian, MEP’s assistant,’ a grinning Slav guy told me. Before I could ask about his female compatriots, the woman chimed in.

  ‘Helga, German, translator with Ed.’ She was a classic piece of German architecture, statuesque and blonde, but s
he quickly diverted any unwanted attention by adding that she was ‘the girlfriend of Pierre’. She nodded to the guy beside her, who was a good ten centimetres shorter than her and, presumably to compensate, was wearing sunglasses propped up on his dark, stylishly-coiffed head.

  ‘Pierre, from Paree,’ he said with a strong French accent.

  ‘Are you an MEP’s assistant, too?’ I asked.

  He grimaced as though this was a job on a par with cleaning toilets. And I’ve always had a morbid dislike of people who wear sunglasses after dark, so I was delighted when he replied: ‘No, I am a consultant in bonking.’

  ‘Pardon?’ I said.

  ‘I’m an industrial bonker.’

  He meant, of course, that he was a French banker with an accent.

  ‘Do you charge a lot for your bonking services?’ I asked him.

  ‘Yes, a good price.’

  ‘I’ve heard that people love French bonkers.’

  Helga, who must have realised what was going on, swept in and said something about ‘englischer Humor’. Pierre sniffed and turned away.

  ‘Fun place, isn’t it?’ Ed said.

  I agreed. I was enjoying myself already.

  ‘You should come here on a Wednesday, then it is really lively. There is a food market in the square, people bring picnics. It gets crazy.’

  ‘Here on Wednesdays, Plux on Thursdays, right?’

  ‘Exactly,’ Ed said. ‘Same people, same places, different days.’

  ‘It’s like a holiday camp. I’m guessing you have karaoke on Fridays, wet T-shirts on Saturdays, human sacrifice on Sundays?’

  ‘Oh, every day is human-sacrifice day. We come here to offer ourselves to anyone who can advance our careers. Brussels is all about networking.’

  Bloody hell, I thought. They have plenty of days off, but they never let up for a minute. I was relieved to be a temporary visitor.

  The upside to their constant schmoozing was that people didn’t just coagulate in cliques – they seemed to circulate all the time. In the space of two drinks I got talking to three new groups of people, all as international as Ed’s friends.

 
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