Merde in europe, p.9
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       Merde in Europe, p.9

           Stephen Clarke
 
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  Everyone popped the referendum question, of course, but by now I was up and running, so it never took more than a minute to get the opinion polls out of the way, before we were on to other subjects.

  Not that I always understood what they were talking about, even if it was in English. These eurocrats were living in a world of their own.

  One guy from Portugal asked me where I’d done my Erasmus. I had to admit that I couldn’t be sure if I’d ever done one, not having a clue what it was.

  A Frenchwoman kept going on about her DJ. Her boyfriend, I assumed. But then she asked me whether I was with a DJ, too, as if relationships with disc jockeys might be a common occurrence in Brussels. When I told her that I didn’t know anyone in the music business, she looked at me as if I was a moron, and said, ‘Mais non, Direction générale! Day jay!’ I finally understood that she’d meant ‘DG’, but it was too late. She seemed to classify me under ‘not worth knowing’, and moved on.

  I was feeling tipsy but lucky when I got chatting to an attractive girl with large friendly eyes and a figure to match, who said she was from Estonia. I refrained from asking about her next-door neighbours, the Lithuanians, and managed to remain polite when she quizzed me about the referendum. My self-restraint paid off, because somehow we got on to the subject of sex.

  This was looking promising, my third beer told me.

  I gave her an edited version of my misadventure with the street-corner hooker on my first night in town, which got her laughing.

  ‘I think it’s sick, though, prostitution, don’t you?’ I said. ‘Women forced to have sex against their will, probably getting beaten up by some gangster.’

  I thought it best to stress that I wasn’t at all disappointed about missing out on what the hooker was offering.

  ‘It’s legal here,’ she said sadly. I’d obviously gauged her mood just right.

  ‘Yes, and it’s so open,’ I said. ‘There are brothels in almost every street.’

  This got her looking confused.

  ‘You see the signs everywhere,’ I said.

  ‘Really?’

  ‘Yes, there are two in the street where I live, on completely normal-looking buildings.’

  ‘Signs?’ Now she was staring at me as though I was a pervert who toured the city hooker-spotting.

  ‘You must have seen them.’

  ‘No.’

  ‘You really haven’t seen any of the signs saying “te huur”?’

  She laughed. And then she laughed some more.

  ‘You’re joking, right?’ she said, when she had dried her tears.

  ‘No.’

  After she had explained that ‘te huur’ was not Flemish for ‘the whore’, but in fact meant ‘for hire’, as in ‘apartment to rent’, I had to laugh, too. And far from feeling an idiot, I started congratulating myself. Sharing a laugh is the first step towards sharing a lot more, right? And I’d made myself sound like an innocent – the kind of bloke that it’s safe to sleep with.

  Another couple of drinks and a few more laughs, and it might be time, I thought, to mention that I had an apartment in one of the most beautiful houses in the city, just five minutes’ stroll away . . .

  Which was when a heavy arm slammed down on my shoulder.

  ‘Bon jaw,’ said the body attached to it. ‘Or should I say bon swa.’ It burped.

  I turned to see a familiar face. It was the bearded guy I’d seen at Plux. The one who’d given me the evil eye.

  His accent was as English as soggy chips, and maybe it was the beer on his pungent breath that finally helped me to place his face. Of course. It was the oyster guy from the pub. The one who’d been so pissed off to learn that I was working for the French.

  ‘You want to watch this bloke, he’s a spy,’ he burped at my Estonian friend.

  ‘Bonsoir and au revoir,’ I told him. He was using the classic drunkard’s chat-up technique – barge in and screw things up for someone else.

  ‘He says he’s English, but I know for a fact he’s spying for the bloody French.’ The arm on my shoulder began to get a touch too friendly with my neck. I shrugged it off.

  ‘I didn’t tell anyone about your plans for the oyster, if that’s what you mean,’ I said.

  ‘You didn’t?’ He looked genuinely surprised.

  ‘Of course not. I’m working for the French, but I’m not French. I don’t care about your oysters. I’ve got much bigger shellfish to fry. Or chew.’

  I tried to communicate with a pained expression that top of my list of priorities was a nearby human female rather than any mollusc, but he’d had too much to drink to pick up on subtleties.

  ‘Well, what about the computers, then?’ he said.

  ‘The computers?’

  ‘Yeah. Why did you buy our computers?’

  This was getting weird.

  ‘Your computers? You mean lot thirty-four?’

  ‘I don’t know the number, but they were ours, yes. We were selling off some office equipment. Why would a French MEP’s assistant want to buy our computers, eh?’

  He sloshed a beer glass towards my face as if the answer might be in the dark liquid. But I had no answer, because it sounded like a bloody good question. Why, indeed, would Elodie send me out to buy some computers that had belonged to a British MEP?

  ‘So the guy bidding against me was a colleague of yours?’ I asked.

  ‘Yeah, but it got too expensive. We can’t spend that much buying back our own office equipment. Our MEPs’ accounts are picked over with a toothpick, or a toothcomb, or whatever it is.’ He was wilting under the weight of Belgian beer. ‘So how come your MEP can dish out the dosh so freely?’

  Which, despite his drunkenness, was another very good question.

  ‘I don’t know. But how do you know it was me bidding?’

  ‘He took your photo. You know, for someone who’s only been in town a few days, you really get about.’

  ‘Des amis, Pol?’

  ‘Merde.’ I couldn’t think of anything else to say. It was Manon, looking very attractive in a tight dress, with her hair loose, but also looking highly suspicious.

  ‘You are friends with this kind of English political party?’ she asked, still in French.

  ‘No.’ Not a very detailed rebuttal, but the only one that came to mind.

  ‘Well, if you’re not friends, maybe you are working together?’ She looked genuinely disappointed in me.

  ‘Of course not,’ I said, but having a leering English MEP’s assistant propped up on my shoulder didn’t help my argument for the defence.

  I saw that things were slipping out of my control faster than a bar of soap in a giant bathtub. My Estonian friend had got tired of waiting for me to continue our conversation and was now talking to a couple of women. She was keeping one eye on me, but it was a slightly worried one. Who was this guy, she seemed to be asking, who attracted so many accusers?

  ‘He was asking me why I paid nine hundred and ninety euros for his old computers,’ I assured Manon.

  ‘Exactly!’ the oyster guy confirmed, waving his beer glass dangerously close to Manon’s dress.

  ‘I have heard about this crazy expense,’ Manon said, changing to English. ‘And I am asking myself the same question.’ Her suspicious tone suggested that she didn’t like any of the answers she had come up with. ‘Why did you do it?’

  ‘I honestly don’t know,’ I said. ‘It didn’t make any sense to me, either. But Elodie told me to—’

  No sooner had I pronounced her name than it was echoed back at me.

  ‘Elodie? She’s ici? Formidable!’

  A grinning American barged into our group, silencing everyone with his Hawaiian shirt, a suede jacket with what looked like a large bloodstain under one armpit, and a hairstyle that made him look like a sumo wrestler trying to imitate a teapot. His long blond hair had been scooped up into a curved ponytail that was somehow attached at both ends to the top of his head.

  ‘Voilà me,’ Jake announced, unnecessa
rily.

  While everyone, including the unflappable Manon, gawped at him in disbelief, Jake sized up his audience, nodding hi to the oyster guy, a warmer hello to the Estonian and her two friends, and a beam of approval at Manon.

  ‘Wow, respect, Paul,’ he finally said. ‘Is this the femme who will bath with you?’

  Manon’s jaw dropped open.

  ‘Another of your friends?’ she asked me, a certain frost entering her voice.

  ‘Cut it out, Jake, please,’ I begged. ‘This is Manon, Elodie’s main assistant.’

  ‘Hey, great name. “Man on”, right?’ Jake grinned at his leaden wit. Manon didn’t. I groaned my disapproval as loudly as I could.

  ‘You choose your friends well,’ Manon said, the frost in her voice now chilling to liquid nitrogen. She shot a visual icicle at me and made her exit.

  ‘Et vous, ladies?’ Ever the optimist, Jake immediately turned his attention to the Estonian and her companions. ‘You want to come to a bath party? Frotty-frotty, yeah?’

  The girls moved away, attracting the oyster guy in their wake. He was probably just sober enough to realise that a bit of bitching about me and Jake could get him into their good books.

  ‘Jake, do you have to?’ I asked him.

  ‘Do I have to be myself? Yes, always.’ Which was the problem. Jake was always overpoweringly Jake. ‘Fuck them, Paul, they all have ballets in their butts,’ he said, whatever that meant. ‘Come, mon ami, offer me a drink and we will find some – how do you say? – des sirènes?’

  ‘Mermaids?’

  But one thing I didn’t need was a wet woman. I was already feeling as if I’d just been drowned.

  10

  ‘Brussels will force lorry drivers to eat muesli.’

  Report in the British press, 2001

  IT CAME AS no real surprise when I woke up next day to find that I had a raging headache and was lying fully clothed in the bathtub.

  That I was alone didn’t shock me, either.

  One thing I couldn’t understand, though – the headache turned out to be neckache from sleeping with my head jammed against hard enamel. I didn’t have a hangover.

  I went to find out why. An unidentifiable smell took me into the kitchen, where I discovered Jake doing a sort of homeless person’s version of celebrity chef. Wearing nothing but walking boots, boxer shorts and his bloodstained suede jacket, he was emptying various tin cans into a saucepan.

  ‘Found them in the placards,’ he explained, meaning cupboards. ‘You want?’

  I said I didn’t want. Even without a hangover it was going to be hard to stomach a mixture of Bolognese sauce, tinned pears and foie gras.

  I’d witnessed Jake’s indiscriminate eating habits before. It was a result of his bed-hopping lifestyle. He survived by raiding strange kitchens.

  He slopped the mix around a bit, then sat down at the breakfast bar with his saucepan and a spoon. His first taste of the lumpy slop made him gag, but after adding pepper he began feeding himself.

  I asked him how I had ended up in the bath.

  ‘Oh, it was triste, man,’ he said, meaning sad. ‘You said that you refuse to sleep solo in your bed any more. No woman, no bed. Fini!’

  He laughed and waved his spoon in the air. Luckily it was already empty.

  ‘But I can’t have been that drunk, I don’t have a hangover.’

  Jake looked at me with a friend’s concern.

  ‘No, I think you were just fatigued,’ he said. ‘And desesesper – er, desepress, you know, désespéré.’

  ‘Desperate?’

  ‘Yeah, for half an hour I was chasing women for us, but it was the total merde. Finally I had to save us from that Bulgarian guy, and we came chez toi. You don’t remember?’

  ‘Vaguely. Big fella? Long hair and beard?’

  ‘Yeah, crazy because I kissed his girlfriend. I wrote a poem about him – you want to hear it?’

  ‘No thanks.’

  But there is no stopping Jake when the poetry begins to bubble inside him.

  ‘We ran from the big Bulgarian, and I don’t want to be a vulgarian . . .’

  ‘Brilliant, Jake, you’re a genius.’

  ‘But his beard was quite a scary ’un.’

  ‘Thanks, Jake.’

  ‘And I bet his butt was a hairy ’un.’

  My only thought was: Open a window, somebody, please.

  ‘You look deprimed, Paul’ – he meant depressed – ‘but don’t worry. Those girls were all snobs.’

  ‘No, Manon is a highly intelligent woman with quite a mischievous sense of humour, actually, which for obvious reasons doesn’t include liking crude jokes about her name from someone she’s only just met.’ I was still pissed off at that whole stupid scene with her the previous night. In the space of a few seconds, she’d been given irrefutable evidence that everyone I knew was either politically suspect or just plain creepy.

  ‘She’s very belle, Paul, but you always have problems with intelligent women. You make one bad joke and they larg you.’ He meant larguer, the French for dump. ‘Forget her, Paul. Forget all these Brussels political people. Prostitution is legal here, right? Leave it to me.’

  ‘No, Jake . . .’ Now I was starting to get a hangover. Desperate to change the subject, I asked him about his stained jacket. Had someone stabbed him in the armpit, or what?

  His explanation only added to my neckache. Something about buying himself a hot dog at the Gare du Nord, running for the train, having to fish out his ticket to be allowed on the high-speed Thalys and stuffing the hot dog under his arm, where the ketchup . . . you get the picture.

  I was almost relieved when Jake had finished his nauseating breakfast and went out to look for a Sunday-morning hook-up. Sometimes, anything was better than listening to him describe his life or mine, whether it was in rhyme or not.

  The one thing I wanted to do on my day of rest, I realised, was sort something out at the office. Well, not at the office exactly, but concerning my new job.

  It struck me as vitally important to convince Manon that I was in no way implicated in any funny business to do with those computers. Like her, I was totally in the dark about why I’d been told to spend so much money on them. I wanted to prove my innocence to her as quickly as possible. As things stood, it was a bit like hoping to make friends with a polar bear, but I was determined to give it a go.

  Not by phoning from the apartment, though. With my luck, I’d just get to the key moment in the conversation with her when Jake would turn up with some lady of ill repute.

  I sent him a message to say I was going out for a civilised breakfast and that ‘ON NO ACCOUNT’ should he bring home a woman intended for my consumption, and that I wanted ‘NOTHING TO DO’ with any business involving prostitutes, legal or not.

  Outside, Brussels was looking at peace with itself, as if it knew nothing about overpriced second-hand computers, an upcoming referendum or even Jake’s presence within its ring road.

  My street was almost empty, and I wandered slowly along the narrow pavement, taking in the details. My own house was spectacular, of course, the kind of place where you hope someone is watching as you lock the front door. But the others all had their individual charms – Gothic chapel windows, intricate brickwork, façades painted cream or light blue, a grand balcony spanning the whole façade, a view through a high-ceilinged lounge to a sunlit garden.

  And, to cap it all, I noticed for the first time that I was in the chaussée Waterloo – Waterloo Road – the perfect place for a Brit to live in Brussels. Hard to believe that the French government had actually bought a building there. I could only imagine that they were planning to buy up the whole street, house by house, and then knock them all down to eradicate the name from the map.

  After turning a few corners I came across a fun-looking café. A trendy place with scrubbed pine tables, industrial chairs, and young waitresses wearing mainly T-shirts and lipstick.

  Unsurprisingly, it was in mid-brunch. Off-duty badge peop
le were helping themselves to smoked salmon and scrambled eggs from a buffet, then sitting down in couples and ignoring each other as they read newspapers or their phones. Toddlers were busy wailing in French that they didn’t like salmon or cold eggs. Luckily for them, there were a few jars of Nutella doing the rounds.

  It all told me exactly were I was – in a Parisian ghetto. So I also knew how to get exactly what I wanted – a simple breakfast of black coffee and a croissant. I sat on a stool at the bar and said a friendly ‘Bonjour’ to a woman who was fighting with an orange squeezer, before telling her what I wanted to eat and drink. She tried to object that it was ‘le service brunch’, but I insisted, in French, that I wasn’t that hungry, and smiled to show her that I wasn’t going anywhere. My coffee and croissant arrived a minute later. If there’s one thing Paris teaches you, it’s to get what you want in life. But only from other Parisians.

  Once the croissant had been dunked and dismantled, I said a silent prayer and called Manon.

  First positive sign – she answered.

  ‘C’est qui?’ she said.

  ‘C’est Pol. Pol Wess.’

  ‘Ah.’

  Slight negative. It was the resigned groan that she would probably make if informed that her tax declaration was being contested on a Sunday morning.

  ‘I would like to explain something to you, Manon.’

  ‘No need. I understand everything.’

  ‘No, that’s why I need to explain.’

  It’s the only way to corner a French girl – hit her with logic.

  ‘Explain on Monday.’

  ‘Please listen now, Manon,’ I begged in French. ‘First of all, I’m sorry about my friend Jake. I told him he’s a trou du cul,’ meaning an arsehole. ‘And I promise that I don’t know why I had to buy those computers. I don’t know why Elodie was OK to pay so much. And I had no idea they were English computers. And this Anglais with a beard is not my friend, in politics or in life.’

  Having to explain in French was making me sound a bit slow and dim-witted, but at least it was clear.

  ‘So you don’t know which party he belongs to?’ she asked, the tone of her question suggesting that she wasn’t going to believe a ‘no’.

 
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