In the autumn of 2004 I found myself suddenly relocating to Belgium, at the expense of an attractive job offer in Italy. It was one of those major forks in the road, the kind of big decision that could transform a life. Which, for better or for worse, is exactly what it did.
“Get out of here!!!” screamed Lucie, slamming her fist down on the kitchen counter. “I’m starving, I need to eat, I can’t deal with anything until I’ve eaten!!!” Grabbing my coat I made for the door, determined not to look back at her as I left. We’d only been living together for a week and I was already getting used to the tantrums. This time I didn’t need to see her wild eyes and flushed cheeks, or indeed the curls of saliva that formed at the sides of her mouth when she was angry. As attractive as Lucie undoubtedly was, seeing her in one of these all too frequent moods was not a pretty sight.
My mind buzzing, I trotted down the stone steps of our apartment building and pushed myself through the entrance doors, out into the crisp afternoon air. Making my way across Martelarenplein (Martyr’s Square), it struck me once again what a beautiful city Leuven was, though this time there was a pang of sadness at the realization that I probably wouldn’t be here much longer
Wondering whether she might be watching me through the living room window, I picked up the pace, passing the towering peace memorial and the picturesque façade of the train station. Turning onto Bondgenotenlaan, the city’s seemingly endless and unpronounceable main street, my head was now thumping. What the hell had happened to the girl I met in England? Why oh why had I been so impulsive? Was there, by some small miracle, any way I could salvage the Italian job? ‘‘You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!’’ bellowed a cockney voice in my head.
Lucie and I met in England just a few months prior in the pretty market town of Woodbridge. We’d been working at an English language camp for Belgian teenagers, myself as head of didactics, Lucie as one of my teaching team. Pretty, energetic and highly charismatic, her English was flawless, a near-authentic American accent betraying not a hint of her Flemish roots.
While she was admittedly a bit too bouncy for some people, I found myself instantly drawn to her. She had a wicked sense of humor, a contagious laugh and incredibly sexy mannerisms. Like the way she tucked her blonde bobbed hair behind her ears when she was talking, more often than not a mischievous glint in her hazel eyes. But alas there was a Spanish boyfriend called Eduardo, so I resolved to try and forget about her, get my head down and focus on the job. After all, we were colleagues and I didn’t want to be unprofessional. Naturally, this was easier said than done. It was Lucie’s first time teaching and she needed a fair bit of support, so I ended up helping her out with lesson planning and activity ideas. ‘‘Thank you so much, you’re a lifesaver!’’ she purred, planting a hand on my shoulder.
The more Lucie and I worked together, the more she reeled me in with compliments and eye contact that seemed to last way longer than it needed to. Or did it? I kept telling myself that I was exaggerating things in my mind, misinterpreting her body language. Then, one evening, after staff drinks in the common room, a bunch of us were walking back to the boarding houses to turn in for the night. When we got to the girls’ building Lucie branched off with Frances, Joanna and a few others. But then she stopped to look back at me from the top of the steps, the heavy oak door resting in her petite hand. With one of her sexy smiles she mouthed something slow and deliberate before disappearing inside, leaving me in a state of bewilderment. Did she just say what I thought she said?! It had happened so quickly and unexpectedly, I wondered if I’d maybe been hallucinating.
‘‘Goede Morgen!’’ Our local bakery was an olde-worlde establishment about a third the way down Bondgenotenlaan. The entire place was decorated in a rustic barnyard brown, a pair of 19th century cardboard children standing in the display window with baskets of eggs and bread. Inside I made my usual song and dance out of getting the brown farmer’s loaf that Lucie liked. In fact, my work-in-progress Flemish was so patchy the woman behind the counter shot me a sympathetic smile and immediately switched to English. I could feel countless eyes burning through my back in the queue, so I paid as fast as I could, dispatched a low ‘‘dank je wel’’ and made a hasty escape.
Ten minutes later I was back outside our front door, taking a moment to brace myself for whatever version of Lucie awaited me inside. Entering the living room, bread in hand, I found her at the desk clattering away on her laptop as if lives depended on whatever it was she was writing. ‘‘You can leave it in the kitchen’’ she said impassively, not even bothering to turn around. “Yes Ma’am” I muttered, dropping the bag onto the counter.
I was in the teacher’s room making a cup of coffee when the phone rang. It was one of those blissfully quiet hours where everyone was in class and I had the place to myself. ‘‘Hello… uh… can I speak with Lucie?’’ A hesitant male voice with an unmistakably Spanish accent, I was so horrified it took me a few seconds to reply. “Sorry she’s teaching now’’ I said, trying to sound neutral. “Can I take a message?’’ ‘‘Uh yeah… tell her Eduardo called’’. ‘‘Will do’’ I said curtly and hung up.
A short while later out in the courtyard, working on the night duty schedules, I looked up as the first batch of kids came pouring out of the languages block. It was a gaggle of boys gleefully ribbing each other, an oafish jeer here, a punch in the arm there. My heart beating fast, I got up, strolled over and ducked inside. Excitable teens flooded past me in all directions as I caught sight of her at the end of the corridor, moving towards me with a pile of essays cradled in her arms.
‘‘Hey!’’ she sang with a sunny smile, “how’s it going?” I paused for a moment to weigh up my options, figure out the best way to deliver the message. ‘‘Well… your boyfriend called earlier, I guess he wants you to call him back’’. I hadn’t planned on sounding so unimpressed, but in the heat of the moment that was exactly how I felt. ‘‘Oh’’ she said flatly, the smile instantly vanishing, her eyes dropping to the floor. Then, without warning, she took me by the arm and pulled me into a nearby classroom, closing the door behind her. ‘‘Look, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about me’’ she stammered, “I’m gonna finish with him today, I think he knows it’s coming. You and me… obviously we should be together, I just have to deal with this first”. She’d gotten herself so flustered I reached out to hold her, something I’d been longing to do for days. And so we stood there in the dark classroom, our arms wrapped around each other, neither of us speaking. It was only then that what she’d said began to sink in and I allowed myself a broad smile.
“You don’t need to micromanage me!’’ I snapped, massaging my temple through thumb and forefinger. “Apparently I do!’’ growled Lucie, hands on her hips, the queen of indignation. “You’re just so blasé about it, someone’s gotta make things happen. If this is gonna work you need a job and soon!” We were sitting on a bench on the marvellous Ladeuzeplein, Leuven’s largest square, dominated by the stunning University Library. Gazing up at its neo-Renaissance exterior, I wished I could disappear inside, find a book and lose myself for a few hours. I’d suffer Chaucer… Browning even… anything that would get me out of this discussion.
The job search wasn’t going well, Lucie hadn’t been wrong about that, despite the fact that I was a CELTA qualified English teacher with two years’ experience. With literally zero opportunities in Leuven itself, I’d been forced to branch out to Brussels, a twenty-minute train-ride away. But while things there had initially looked promising, the jobs on offer turned out to be far from ideal. Every school I went to offered up the same depressing package: a disheartening mix of part-time hours and insulting salaries that made the cost of travelling to and fro barely worthwhile.
The worst of the bunch was Berlitz, a Dickensian workhouse of a center where the teachers trudged around like despondent orphans. My interview with the director of studies was equally grim. A cold, detached woman with cropped jet-black hair and gothic makeup, she ran me through an exhaustive list of rules and regulations without once cracking a smile. I’d pretty much stopped listening by the time she explained that my pay would be equal to that of a Brussels toilet cleaner. “Thanks, I’m speaking with a few institutes’’ I told her with a placid nod.
With the teaching landscape looking bleaker than a Glasgow housing estate, I knew that Lucie would push me towards the call centre job in the nearby town of Diegem. It was the one company that had more or less guaranteed me a position. Two arms? Check! Two legs? Affirmative! Great, you start on Monday. “Don’t you think you should take the Paktel job and see what happens?” said Lucie softly, rubbing my arm. I was so fed up with everything I just smiled and nodded in agreement, conceding that for now it did represent the only way forward.
I was almost asleep when I heard a light knocking on the door. ‘‘Yeah?” I rasped, popping my head above the covers. And there was Lucie slipping inside, quietly pushing the door to. “Hey!” I said brightening up, rubbing my eyes as she kicked off her shoes. “It’s done” she whispered, climbing into bed and snuggling up next to me, “I’m so relieved!”
She’d told me all about Eduardo over lunch that day, how she’d met him while studying in Barcelona, that long distance relationships were just as hopeless as everybody said. “I don’t think we should do it right away, but we should do it soon!” she announced suddenly, throwing her legs over mine. Wow! I thought to myself, the only word I could conjure up in the moment. “Oh and we need to be discreet, I don’t want people to think of me as the girl who’s doing the deputy”. We both laughed at this, but then it struck me that soon, as she put it, the course would be over and I’d be on my way up north to see out the summer at my parents’ place. I had absolutely no idea what Lucie’s plans were, but the thought of her not coming with me was unbearable. “So …” I said, feeling a heady rush as we lay there together, “…have you ever been to Scotland?”
“I’m so excited!’’ she exclaimed, hugging my arm and gazing out the window. We were on the train up to Edinburgh and I was visibly glowing, thrilled by the events of the past fortnight. When I’d asked her to come home with me she hadn’t hesitated for a second. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” she cried, performing the cute, fist-pumping dance that always got me laughing. Finally, after a week of having to keep our relationship discreet, we were free from the restraints of the summer camp and able to do as we pleased. With two glorious weeks until she had to be back in Belgium for Uni, there was much to look forward to. We’d be staying at my parents’ place in the middle-of-nowhere rural Scotland, an hour outside Edinburgh. Even better was that we’d have the place to ourselves, as my mum, dad and brother would all be out of town.
The conductor had just announced Edinburgh as the final stop when my phone started ringing. “Good afternoon Leighton, it’s Greg’’ said a smooth Californian voice. I sat there racking my brains as to whether I even knew a Greg. “Oh! … Hi!” I said, the penny finally dropping, “how are you?’’ There followed some polite beating around the bush, before he delivered the news that just a week ago would have left me ecstatic. “Nina and I have discussed everything and we’d love to offer you the job. How do you feel about coming to Italy?”
‘Car Crash Girl Part I’ is the first tale of my short story collection Based in Belgium.