[I’m travelling around so much that, this year, the blog is going to take a summer holiday too. Meanwhile, here’s a short story written and set in Liège twenty years ago, before the euro, before smartphones, before Two Days One Night, and well before the more recent news headlines about that city.]
“Ça va?” asks Pascale as we bump over yet another pothole on the way up a mountain to her parents’ house for Sunday lunch. Actually, a mountain might be too poetic a name for it. It might be a slag heap. There are so many of them, decaying slowly on the outskirts of the city. At first glance they look like volcanic cones full of exotic promise and then close up, all you see is the disappointing reality of industrial decay. I met Pascale last week in an old attic, which has been the local chapel since the council ran out of funds to heat the church. I squeezed in among dozens of Catholic refugees, kneeling on the bare boards. Pascale took pity on me because she thought I was a refugee too, at first. I threw my clothes in the bin the next day. But she was actually closer than she realized.
“Now you can meet some real Belgians,” she says encouragingly to me. “It must be quite hard being British abroad and not being a typically British… What do you call it? A lager loot.”
We have been climbing for several miles and now grace the peak of the hill in Pascale’s battered third-hand banger. I can already tell that her teacher’s salary goes on donations to famine relief and, like most local women under thirty, certainly not on haircuts.
“Bienvenue!” says Pascale, cranking down the window for a healthy breath of fresh mountain air. The entire hamlet seems to be composed of her parents’ house, a strange mishmash of wood, stones, and corrugated iron, with its half-Flemish, half-Walloon name peculiar to this tiny little section of the European map. A couple of scrawny chickens are scratching around half-heartedly. They remind me of the people in town queueing for welfare.
“My parents try and be self-sufficient,” she says, “Well, as much as they can, but it’s not easy since the Big Move up here.”
I follow her gaze out of the window. The sky is the same morose shade of grey it has been for the past six months. Below us, the city spreads out, a silent mismatched jigsaw puzzle. The river curves through it like a dirty raindrop coursing down a windowpane.
“Beautiful view, isn’t it?” says Pascale, fondly. “Especially now that it’s spring. I love the city, you know, the whole buzz of urban life. It really suits me.”
She looks across at me and smiles.
“Coming back here was the best thing that happened to me. Perhaps not for Maman, but…well, our Lord moves in mysterious ways, as they say.”
“In England we have daffodils everywhere in spring,” I say nostalgically, and Pascale wrinkles her nose. She has never been to England and doesn’t much care.
Madame opens the door. She looks like a tiny angel who somehow fell here by mistake. A delicate floral silk scarf is tied just so round her neck, and her hair gleams comme il faut under a diamanté hairband. She glows on the threshold like a fleck of paint against a drab canvas, high-heeled and pearled. Pascale looks nothing like her. Between them they represent the two poles of the modern Belgian woman: fifties floral homemaker and quasi-lesbian chic.
“Pascale, ma fille,” murmurs Madame, kissing her on both cheeks. She looks at me and extends her hand.
“And to whom do I owe the pleasure?”
“This is Jeanne who I met last week,” says Pascale, ripping off her heavy, mud-spattered boots and throwing them down the spotless hallway. “She’s English, obviously. Move, Edouard.”
Pascale whacks a podgy teenage boy over the head with the magazine he is pretending to read. He is dressed the clone of every other teenage boy here: spiky gelled hair, checked shirt, grey skin through lack of sunshine.
“Enchanted,” says Madame delicately, kissing me on both cheeks. I miss the second time and end up kissing her ear. Madame ignores this, professionally.
“Et ça va, mademoiselle?” enquires Madame, wafting the scent of something akin to Chanel, with top notes of dust.
“I thought you said she was my age?” I hear Edouard saying after Pascale.
Madame studies me impassively.
“Pascale, Mademoiselle speaks French, isn’t that so?” she calls without turning round.
“Oh, just a little,” I say, offering her a small box of Guylian chocolate seashells with some embarrassment, as I ran out and bought them this morning from the only shop that trades on a Sunday. I was down to a few francs, and the cash machine had run out of money again.
“Alors, come in, sit down, if you please,” says Madame waving me elegantly into what looks like a nineteenth-century film set. She relegates the chocolates to an astonishingly ornate mahogany dresser and tucks them behind a garish Chinese vase. I wish I hadn’t eaten that spare box yesterday afternoon.
“Now,” she says with authority, “Mademoiselle will take an apéritif, of course.”
Edouard shuffles in exasperation and mutters,
“A drink, Mum – she means a drink, in case you didn’t know.”
I accept this – a tiny crystal glass of something sweet and sickly like sherry – and sit down with a bump in a surprisingly hard formal chair, stiffened tight in a shade of what I think is called taupe.
In the half-light of the afternoon I see a faded florid rug, a proliferation of lampshades in all variations of the no-man’s land between brown and green, and a chipped khaki chaise longue, tasselled in olive and beige. The baroque-looking dresser uncurls its carvings around a display of dulled decanters, cracked plates and washed-out china statuettes. An ancient contraption that might be a gramophone is balanced forlornly on a pile of musty books. The elaborate dining table has been laid out in a glorious shade of puce, and above it hangs a murky landscape oil painting in all shades of mud. This suffuses the drawing room with an air of melancholic woe that I have come to recognize, with a heavy heart, as being essentially Belgian. Changing Rooms would have a field day. The place has surely not been decorated since the dawn of electricity. I’ve already lost count of the tassels. In fact, I almost expect some famous Belgian like…like…perhaps Hercule Poirot, to walk in twirling his moustache and say –
“So, what do you think of a real Belgian house, then?” grins Pascale, flinging herself on the chaise longue which cracks wearily and obscures her in a flurry of dust.
Fortunately the old grandfather clock in the corner, stained with age, chooses to chime in just then with a valiant struggle towards one o’clock.
“Oh là là,” sighs Madame sorrowfully, “I really fear it’s not going to make it one of these days.”
Pascale gets up and gives it a whack with some determination. The ticks return at a happy trot.
“Of course, that’s the trouble with shipping furniture back and forth,” Pascale says cheerfully after her mother, who has tripped off lightly to the kitchen, floral scarf trailing behind her.
“Shipping?” I say suspiciously.
“Oh yes,” says Pascale, “All our furnishings had to be shipped over, of course – Edouard! We have a guest, remember, and you’re sitting there reading again.”
Edouard is hunched under a brown velvet lamp, poring intently over the Belgian equivalent of Hello! magazine. It’s called Ça Va? and the cover features a glaringly bad photo of the princesses of Monaco going to the corner shop. Snapped! says the headline. The princesses run out of bread again.
“Bah, I read,” shrugs her much younger brother without looking up. “It’s important. It’s news. Tell her it’s about people like…like La Dee Dee.”
“La Dee Dee!” gasps Pascale, turning to me. I have no idea what she means.
“La Dee Dee!” she repeats earnestly, clutching my arm. “She died! Last year, the princess! Did you cry? Everybody in England was crying, we heard! What happened to the stiff British lip?”
“Now,” says Madame, floating in bearing a hideous swirly flower platter, “Mademoiselle would perhaps care for a little appetizer,” and she offers me a selection of light bites covered in what look like ball-bearings. I take one and, following everyone else’s example, bite it clean in half. It tastes like jellied slime.
“Mademoiselle is of course no stranger to caviar,” smiles Madame as I try to remember the most terribly polite way of enquiring where the bathroom is.
“Mademoiselle appears to be no stranger to food,” mutters Edouard, flicking over another page of Ça Va? The headline screams: Scandal! Princesses eat in Burger King.
“Of course,” adds Madame, studying my face, “one imagines that Belgian caviar is perhaps noticeably different to the English version.”
There is a sudden rattle of gunfire in the corridor. I clutch the edge of my seat in sheer fright, caviar stuck in my throat. Pascale helps herself calmly to another canapé.
“Béatrice!” yells a ferocious male voice just out of sight, followed by the sound of frantic clicking and several muttered curses.
“Jean-Marie is having rather a frightful time with the gun this season,” says Madame to Pascale, “He’s shot nothing but starlings since Christmas. I had rather been hoping for a roast today.”
Pascale catches my eye.
“Oh – don’t worry,” says Pascale licking her fingers clean, “ – Papa misses the shooting… When we were in the Congo Papa would hunt – “
“The Congo?” I repeat, astonished.
“Didn’t I tell you?” says Pascale. “Maman and Papa built this house in the Congo in the sixties. We all lived in the Congo for most of our lives. Did I forget to tell you?”
Well, it would explain why she always talked about the Big Move.
“The Congo is a Belgian colony,” begins Madame, but Pascale interrupts with “Was, Maman, was.”
“I thought you had lived here all your life,” I say apologetically. A picture pops into my head of Madame carried on the shoulders of tattooed tribesmen, sipping sherry and nibbling caviar in her high heels and pearls.
“I came back here as a teenager, but everyone else only came back a few years ago,” continues Pascale. “Did you not see the elephant tusk Papa got?” and she points to a huge curving ivory tusk hanging over my head, holding a fluffy ridge of dust. “Or the tribal dolls?” She shows me the china statuettes, which on closer inspection turn out to be smooth African stone figures.
“They had to ship back the entire house, stone by stone,” adds Pascale, “and rebuild it here in Belgium. This is just how it looked when Maman and Papa first got married out there.”
“But why did you come back?” I ask Madame. She looks away.
“Shootings! Murders!” says a huge hulk of a man, stooping to get through the doorway. “I might even say we were jolly well hounded out! Ha ha!”
There is a flat silence. Edouard flips the pages of his magazine with nonchalance.
“Got a cat today,” says Monsieur, waving the gun. “Hope it wasn’t one of ours.”
“Pascale – Edouard – Mademoiselle – let us dine,” says Madame, rising like royalty. “Enfants – I have placed you there, and there; Jean-Marie,” she turns to her husband, “à gauche and Mademoiselle, as she is our guest from afar,” she smiles sweetly in my direction, “at the head of the table.”
“Who’s this? The new English ambassador?” asks Jean-Marie and laughs in his belly. We go through the little kissing ritual and Jean-Marie grabs his knife and fork.
“Enchanted, enchanted. What’s this spread then, Béatrice?”
“By the grace of God may we continue to always benefit from His providence,” murmurs Madame, and then smiles. “Please, help yourself.”
“Bon appétit, eh?” says Pascale.
“Bon appétit,” agrees Madame, expertly twirling her fettucine like a master craftsman. Jean-Marie and Edouard began shovelling up pasta like forklift trucks. Madame dabs at her lips after every mouthful with a silk napkin.
“What’s this?” chomps Edouard, mouth full.
“Fettuccine aux boulettes,” says Madame simply. “The boulettes,” she adds in my direction, “Are traditionally Belgian.”
“Yes, I often eat boulettes myself,” I reply. It’s a very cheap alternative to chicken, whatever it is, pork or beef meatballs, I’m not sure.
“Indeed?” replies Madame, with a tinge of approval. “It reminds me of the wild beasts Jean-Marie would shoot in the Congo. I always think horse is a rather pleasing substitute for those creatures.”
Horse? I stare at my plate in horror. I never knew I had been eating horse.
“Jeanne studies Romance languages at the University,” Pascale explains, jerking her pasta fork at me.
“And how is Mademoiselle finding undergraduate life?” enquires Madame.
“I – “
Edouard throws his fork onto the table in an expression of teenage exasperation.
“Student life, mum, student life – like she’s gonna know what ‘undergraduate life’ means.”
“And how is Mademoiselle finding student life?” enquires Madame, unperturbed.
“I am finding it interesting, actually,” I say enthusiastically. “Particularly the translation. We have to translate fairy tales into French.”
Madame nods with gravity.
“It’s not always easy because the French vocabulary is a little bit – “
I struggle to find the right word, which seems appropriate given what I am trying to say.
“No – I was thinking – “
“More elegant than the English.”
“No…” At what point does it become rude to disagree with the host too often? “Too – ah – limited.”
Edouard snorts into his pasta.
Madame pauses diplomatically, while Jean-Marie wipes dripping sauce from his mouth with his sleeve.
“Perhaps the fact that Mademoiselle finds it limited is related to her being a novice in the tongue,” she says at length. “When I was teaching French in the Congo –“
“I say, Béatrice, any more rabbit sauce?” asks Jean-Marie cheerfully. “All this shooting gives one the most tremendous appetite.”
Later, Madame offers coffee all round but when she gets to me she says, “I suppose Mademoiselle would prefer a cup of English tea?”
“Get down the old Chinese teapot, Béatrice!” barks Jean-Marie and there is great curiosity as the squat china teapot, sticky with dust, is wiped clean. Edouard puts down his magazine and turns the pot upside down inquisitively.
“I’ll go and boil some water on the stove,” says Pascale, digging out a musty package from the back of the ornate dresser. “We bought this years ago from an English shop in Kenya.”
There is confusion over at what point the dried tea leaves go into the pot, but when Madame carefully lifts and pours the brewed tea (“When will it be ready? Is it ready yet?”) it flows, weak and wan, into the china cup.
“Voi-là!” says Madame proudly. ‘Now you can feel just at home. When we were in the Congo, I used to serve tea like this to the English diplomats.”
I wait for the milk but it does not appear, so I sip the tea, avoiding the floating leaves. Edouard is looking at the cup, glassy-eyed with Sunday afternoon boredom.
“Don’t you miss your old home?” I ask him.
“Bah, I suppose,” he shrugs, scratching himself. “It’s better here though. Better nightlife and stuff. Maman can’t get over it, though.”
“Well, why did you leave?” I ask again. “What happened?” but Madame gently floats in.
“I suppose one should really close the curtains,” says Madame, pulling a heavy pair of beige drapes with a dated floral motif across the windows. She looks fondly at her son.
“Edouard, my little cabbage, you can take no chances with your complexion.”
“Mother!” squirms Edouard behind his magazine. “We’re in Belgium now, not the heart of bloody Africa.”
“Béatrice!” shouts Jean-Marie, fiddling around with the gramophone. “Shall we dance, chérie?”
The tortured tones of a French love song fill every corner of the house, which is beginning to warm in the yellow spring afternoon.
“Jacques Brel,” says Jean-Marie, handing me a well-worn record cover. “The voice of Belgium. The greatest singer who ever lived.” He shakes his head, wonderingly. “I’m afraid the French simply cannot compete with us in this regard.”
“Les Français, pah,” mutters Edouard, and spits on the faded rug.
“I’m too old for dancing,” says Madame, coming in to clear the plates wearing some kind of elaborate frilled apron, mascara slightly smudged round her eye.
“Nonsense, Béatrice!” says Jean-Marie, grabbing his fragile wife around her hourglass waist, “We’ll dance how we used to,” and he waltzes her around the old rug, banging his head on the tasselled lampshade. Jacques Brel warbles and cracks, singing about lost love and lost hope.
Pascale is looking at a photo of her newly-wed parents clutching each other in sunhats on the verandah of a familiar, but sunnier, house.
“Maybe they can go back?” I say to her.
“They can’t go back,” she says.
That evening back in halls as I’m stirring milky tea, a couple of Congolese exchange students walk past, complaining about the cold. I go down to the kitchen, and throw the boulettes in the bin.
© Joanna Rubery 2017