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.
In many ways things between Lucie and I began to disintegrate right from the day I arrived in Belgium. Touching down in Brussels, she was on hand to meet me at the airport before leading me outside to meet her father Tom. Slim, tanned and talk-show-host-dapper in his freshly pressed shirt and trousers, Mr. De Smolden smiled, shook my hand and was courteous enough in his rusty English. And yet there was something in his detached demeanor that suggested life in the family home wasn’t going to be as welcoming as I’d hoped. Still, as we sped off towards Lucie’s hometown in her dad’s fancy car, I told myself to try and be positive. After all, it was only for a few weeks and then we’d be getting a place of our own. After the challenges of life in The Middle East, the adventures of Slovakia and the trials and tribulations of traveling around India, I mistakenly believed that a couple of weeks in the north of Belgium would be a piece of cake.
The town of Mol was a pretty little place in the province of Antwerp, some fifty-three kilometres northeast of the Belgian capital. Driving through its spotless tree-lined streets, we passed a scattering of charming old cottages, some family-owned shops and a traditional wooden-beamed pub. It was all rather pleasant in a harmless one-foot-in-the-grave kind of way.
The De Smolden family residence was in the suburbs, a further ten minutes away. Turning into a quiet country lane, nothing had prepared me for the sight I was about to behold as a pair of mammoth electric gates buzzed open ahead. And then it came into view, a gargantuan structure that was basically a castle masquerading as a house. Beyond the property, I half expected to see a game of Quidditch underway on the stretch of land that I supposed they called the garden. My mouth half-open as I sat there taking it all in, I turned to look at Lucie who was smirking at me as we came to a stop on the graveled drive. Climbing out, we were greeted by a grizzled old dog called George that had been with the family since she was a kid. Lucie leading the way, we made for the drawbridge of a front door, George trotting happily by my side, panting and licking my hand as we went.
Inside we arrived in a wide, high-ceilinged hallway, with what looked like priceless art hanging from the walls. And then a kind of immediate despondency swept over me as I spotted her mother standing motionless at the bottom of a giant staircase. A pale hand resting on its iron railing, she smiled at me coldly; her sculptured grey hair and pursed smile bringing to mind an older, icier version of Cruella De Ville. ♫ If she doesn’t get you, no evil thing will ♫.
“Hello” she said aloofly, standing her ground, “did you get a good journey?” Doing my best not to show my discomfort, I told her that I had and thanked her in advance for letting me stay. “Of course” she replied distantly, floating away into the kitchen. Standing by my side, Lucie took my hand and gave it a squeeze. “Don’t worry about her!” she giggled, nudging me in the ribs, “she has everything but hates the world. This place is big enough that you won’t have to see her much”. Oh how I wished that had been true.
The summer of 2005 was one I’ll never forget, Lucie and I living out an idyllic existence in the picture book countryside of The Scottish Borders. Based at my parents’ cottage with the family dog Inde, we’d go on long rambling walks through the local fields and stay up crazy late watching movies. We caught each other up on our childhoods and shared our secrets. We whispered our fears and trumpeted our ambitions, laughing and snacking all the while. “If you really wanna go to Italy you should,” she said one night; the pair of us sprawled out across the living room sofa with a tub of popcorn, “but you should know that I can’t do another long distance relationship”. Terminally indecisive, I didn’t want to make any kind of hasty decision. So I just sat on it, my mind ticking away uselessly. One day, during a visit to the nearby town of Kelso, she came right out with it. “You should come to Belgium and live with me in Leuven. My dad has an apartment we can stay in. I’ll go to Uni, you can teach”. From that moment I knew there was no way I could go to Brindisi; that the Italian job just wasn’t meant to be. Greg would be gutted of course and I’d feel guilty as hell, but the more time I spent with Lucie, the more certain I felt we were meant to be together.
“How do you feel about two kids?’’ she asked, running her fingers through my hair. We were sitting on a bench in Kelso Square, watching the locals busy about around us. “Jesus, Lucie!” I laughed, “um… one day yeah!” While some guys might have run for the hills, I couldn’t stop smiling. I’d never met anyone like her, or experienced such an intense infatuation, as if every relationship I’d had up until then had been mere child’s play.
A few days later our summer adventure got even better when an old friend of mine joined the party. A charming Jeff Goldblum lookalike from Nashville, Tennessee, I’d met Jon in Slovakia where the two of us had been teaching English. Striking up a firm friendship, we went on to share a Bratislava apartment and embarked on several trips across Central Europe in our off time. In fact, it had been almost two years to the day since we’d parted ways in the Hungarian town of Siofok. “Off to Belgium huh kid?” he drawled, lighting up a cigarette. We were back in Kelso polishing off dinner at Oscar’s, a trendy bar-restaurant just off the main square. “Do you think we’re crazy?” asked Lucie, dropping her hand onto my knee. “Sure!” smiled Goldblum, taking a swig of his beer, “but no more crazy than say… obsessing over your front lawn or a career in telesales”.
I was so happy that Lucie and Goldblum had hit it off. The three of us had a great day walking into Kelso from the cottage. On arrival, there’d been drinks and pool at The White Swan pub before a wander through the ruins of the abbey and the town graveyard.
.Nipping into Tesco’s for a look at some curious Scottish food products, Jon had been highly amused to discover an alcoholic beverage by the name of Bucks Fizz. The name had been a long running joke between us ever since he’d watched Making Your Mind Up, the hilarious 1981 Eurovision winning song by the British pop band Bucks Fizz. “Ridiculous!” he gasped, wiping the tears from his eyes as he watched the band’s infamous skirt-ripping routine.
But while it was all happy families for a while, the atmosphere changed a little when my mum and dad returned to Sweethope a few days later. Although uncharacteristically diplomatic about the situation, it was clear they were less than enamoured with Lucie, dropping little hints here and there that I didn’t exactly have their full approval. “She’s got a lot of energy!” my mum tactfully commented one day in the kitchen. “So you’re not going to Italy?” asked my dad, peering at me from behind his newspaper. “What are you going to do in Belgium?”
In a fortuitous case of excellent timing, it was time for Lucie to go anyhow and the next day we bade each other farewell on the platform at North Berwick Train Station. “See you in two weeks!!!” she called, the train slowly rolling away. Little did I know it then, but it would be the last day we were truly happy together.
Life at Castle De Smolden was a absolute nightmare! There were emergency crisis talks that very first evening, Lucie’s parents summoning her to the living room. I was not invited. Trying in vain to make sense of their guttural exchanges from behind the door, I could at least pick out the many exasperated Leightons, interspersed more often than not with the easily translatable “niet goed”. When Lucie finally came to bed, she didn’t hold back in leveling with me. “She thinks you’re not good enough for me. She thinks we’re young and stupid, that we don’t know what we’re doing”. As dreadful as Cruella De Smolden clearly was, it would take me a few more weeks to realize that she was spot on with at least one of her statements.
The following morning, I met Lucie’s wiry sister and her fiancé, a stout bespectacled man who looked like a nineteenth century accountant. “Hello” I said when Lucie introduced me. I got a brief smile from the sister, who quickly moved past me on her way into the kitchen. The guy meanwhile merely sniggered, conversing with Lucie in a way that sounded less than complimentary. “What did he say?” I asked after he’d shuffled off. “He said, you don’t even know how to say hello in Flemish”.
A few days later we returned home from a walk in the woods for me to find half my clothes were missing. Unbeknown to me, Mama De Ville had taken it upon herself to dig around in my suitcase to see if anything needed to be washed. Pulling Lucie to one side, she explained that many of my T-shirts were “too old” and that there were “not enough underpants”. As if this wasn’t bad enough, she later brought me a pile of her husband’s boxer shorts, insisting that I take them. Totally humiliated, I refused, telling her that my underwear situation was nobody’s business but mine!
A few days before we were due to leave for Leuven, Lucie and I were called into a meeting in the kitchen. In a move I’d seen coming from a mile away, Tom told me that I couldn’t stay at the Leuven apartment for free and that I would be expected to pay rent like a normal tenant. I said that I was more than happy to pay my way, which promptly led to the subject of employment. Cruella was deeply concerned that I hadn’t found a job yet and wasn’t shy in expressing her anxieties. What kind of situation is this? What will he do? What will the neighbours say? All I could do was sit there like the village idiot waiting for Lucie to translate, the three of them talking over and around me. Closing the evening’s debate, her father took me to one side as everyone made tracks for bed. “Leighton… we have no problem with you, but I know Lucie… this will not work. She has always these ideas and… well, then she gets boring… nothing stays”.
I had noticed a change in Lucie throughout our days at Doom Towers. Obviously under pressure from her parents, she’d become increasingly moody, less affectionate and very impatient with my lack of progress on the job front. I thought things would pick up once we got to Leuven, that reclaiming our privacy and shaking off the wicked witch would help us get back on track. But instead things got worse, as she flew off the handle again and again at the tiniest provocation.
There was a huge row over the fact that I’d arrived in Belgium with minimal savings. “If I’d have known you were broke, I wouldn’t have let you come!!!” she screamed one night, an outburst that left me speechless. In another eruption, she claimed that my arrival in Belgium had brought nothing but bad luck, a reference to the fact that George the dog had passed away, which obviously had nothing to do with the fact that he’d been fifteen years old.
Before long, I came to realise that Lucie and I were fundamentally different people, that the adrenalin of our summer romance had blinded us both, casting a paper-thin band aid over the gaping cracks in our incompatible personalities. I was far too passive and thoughtful for her liking, while from my side she had too much of her evil mother in her. I was tired of being managed, judged and criticized; of being told that I lacked ambition, used too much toothpaste, couldn’t cut potatoes properly, had to do this and shouldn’t be doing that.
By the time I’d started the call centre job at Paktel, I was already planning my escape. “I think maybe we should live apart,” she announced one day. We’d been walking in miserable silence through Leuven’s postcard-perfect Grote Markt, her statement bringing us to a stop in front of the magnificent town hall, a giant wedding cake of a building that looked like something Tim Burton had dreamed up.
“Ok…” I managed, my heart beating fast, a huge wave of relief sweeping over me. “I mean… I still wanna be with you” she said unconvincingly, “but maybe we need some space, take a step back”. Oh yeah some space, I thought to myself, that’ll stick some wind back in the sails. I think she knew as well as I did that it was over, but for whatever reason seemed reluctant to come out and say it.
I moved out the next evening while she was out at the cinema with a friend. Wandering the streets rather hopelessly, I stumbled upon a cheap room for rent in a student building on Jean-Baptiste van Monsstraat, a short walk from the train station. My quarters were small and basic, but clean and functional. I had to share the kitchen and living room with two Flemish girls and a mysterious Iraqi called Zaiid. It’ll do I thought, and that was that. The night after I moved in I walked out to a local Internet café for a catch up with friends and family. “How are things with Lucie?” asked my mate Steve. “The whole thing’s been a car crash from start to finish” I admitted glumly, the scale of the disaster only just beginning to sink in. “Come home!!!” cried my mum upon hearing about my predicament.
I guess most people would have packed up and left. But as down in the dumps as I obviously was, I found plenty of reasons to hang around and see how things panned out. Firstly there was the job at Paktel. Despite my initial fears, it wasn’t all that bad and my colleagues were a young, vibrant, multicultural bunch trying to find their way in Belgium, just like me. And then of course there was Leuven itself, a delightful little city that continued to charm me on a daily basis. I loved the laid-back café culture, with its cobbled squares and narrow streets. I’d found a sports bar that showed Premier League matches and an Indian restaurant that did a mean Chicken Tikka Masala. And so, after a period of deliberation, I decided to stay. Jon would have laughed in my face, but that crappy old Bucks Fizz song turned out to have some wisdom to it: “Soon you will find that there comes a time for making your mind up!”
‘Car Crash Girl Part II’ is the second installment from my short story collection Based in Belgium.