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.
It was a few weeks after my breakup with Lucie when I woke up one morning in my little student room and realised I was actually pretty happy! This was a surprising development on several fronts. Firstly was the accommodation itself, a dingy box of a room containing little more than a desk, a sink and a dubious bed that kept collapsing when I rolled over in the night. The toilet, bathroom and kitchen had to be shared with a pair of local girls and an eccentric Iraqi called Said who spent his days failing to learn Flemish and living off Belgian social benefits.
Secondly, I found myself enjoying my crappy call centre job, in spite of the fact that Paktel had proven itself a soulless corporation that treated its employees like cattle. And the very mechanics of what we had to do on a daily basis was just as miserable. Customer after unsuspecting customer called in to complain about their faulty printers, cameras and projectors. More often than not the product in question was a matter of months, weeks or even just days old. Foolishly believing their warranty entitled them to a brand new replacement, it was my job to explain that a) I’d be sending out a second hand piece of crap that looked like it had been dragged through a hedge backwards and b) if they were lucky our incompetent carrier might deliver it time in for their retirement.
“Where’s my bloody printer!!!” roared Mr. Anderson, a man whose package should have reached him back when Thatcher was still in power. Staring nonplussed at a blank screen that was supposed to shed at least some light on its whereabouts, I was always thankful to have the verbal abuse card to fall back on. “I’m sorry Mr. Anderson, but if you continue to speak to me like that I have no choice but to end the call”.
So why then you may wonder was I in such high spirits? Well, I’d fallen in love with the city of Leuven and my Paktel colleagues were a colourful, fascinating bunch who never failed to make me laugh from one moment to the next. I worked in the UK Logistics team next to a Belgian-Scot-Irish hybrid called Ian, a don’t-give-a-fuck-biker with a striking array of body rings and tattoos. Responsible for the department’s high-level complaints (of which there were many), he went about his work in an efficient if disinterested manner, which left plenty of time for online gaming, tattoo sketching and listening to heavy metal on his headphones. On my other side sat Christian, a gruff young Norwegian who looked like Frodo from Lord of the Rings, while directly opposite him there was Rasheka, a coquettish Jamaican girl who, rumour had it, was generally available to anyone who might be interested. I was not interested. My favorite colleague, by a Belgian country mile, was the sweet and kindhearted Caroline. A matronly woman much loved by all at Paktel, she was everyone’s unofficial mother figure and best mate rolled into one. Although twenty-five years my senior, Caro and I got on like a house on fire and she quickly became a very close friend.
The team’s standout character though was a fiery young single mum called Nikki, a bleach-blonde Londoner with the most severe case of potty mouth I’d ever seen. Day in day out she’d arrive at the office in a hailstone of swear words. From there she would pretty much “fuck” and “shit” her way through the entire day, not at all shy in letting people know how much she despised the job. “F this elfin’ place!!!” she yelled at regular intervals, slamming her phone down, flinging her mouse across the desk, kicking the wastepaper bin across the floor. Notoriously unreliable, Nikki would call in sick at least once a week, sometimes more. And while her absences certainly increased the general workload, the office floor was much, much calmer when she wasn’t around. And yet as angry at the world as Nikki clearly was, she also had a soft side. From time to time she’d bring us all biscuits and cakes and was known to staunchly stick up for her teammates in times of need. All in all, working with Nikki became a kind of love-hate affair and I’ve always considered it something of a miracle that she never got fired.
On the weekends I spent my time lounging around Leuven. I’d pick up breakfast at a local bakery before heading to a favorite bench on Ladeuzeplein. From there I’d usually go and do some reading over coffee at De Dry Coppen, a tranquil bookstore-café on Schrijnmakersstraat. Or maybe head for Sax, a fantastic record shop on Parijsstraat where I could while away an hour leafing through potential purchases.
Much to my delight I was able to catch live Premier League football games at Time Out on the Square, a multi-screen sports bar run by a bald, butch, fearsome-looking Arsenal fan called Chris. Over time I became such a committed regular he’d gift me free beers here and there and make sure the QPR game was on, even though I’d be the only one who wanted to watch it.
In those early days I received a visit from my old friend Ben, a guy I’d met during my teaching days in Slovakia. On what was a long overdue catch up, we diligently worked our way around Leuven’s impressive Oude Markt Square. There were Stellas at Café Cadi, a pitcher of Hoegaarden at De Weerelt and a dizzying round of Grimbergens in De Bierkelder. I loved the Oude Markt’s relaxed atmosphere, where people drank to be sociable rather than to simply get drunk.
Before long I began acquiring an eclectic group of friends. There was Ash from Sheffield, a plainspoken IT specialist with a voracious appetite for reading. Chris from London meanwhile, (not Arsenal Chris) was an Everton fan and music aficionado in town on regular business trips. There was also Chris from Warwick (neither of the aforementioned Chrises) a deceptively subdued, fiercely intelligent guy finishing a PhD in International Macroeconomics. Most of our meet ups were based around televised football games, though if we were feeling lavish we might go for Indian food at Himalaya, or stop in at Hotel Professor for cocktails.
By this time Lucie had left Leuven to go and live in L.A. Her exit was a huge relief for me, providing the closure I needed to move on and fully embrace my new Belgian life. Consequently I became open to the idea of meeting someone new and had already set my sights on Heidi, a beautiful, raven-haired girl from Finland who worked in Paktel’s Scandinavian team. Vivacious and flirtatious, I found her English accent captivating, the highs and lows of her melodic tones attracting more than a few glances across the office floor.
Luckily for me Heidi and I connected from day one, mainly due to our ability to talk and laugh about anything. A pet topic was classic TV shows, particularly the Australian series Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, a Heidi favorite. “Click click click!” “What’s that Skippy? The kids are trapped down the old mineshaft?” She would often goad me into acting out that scene and I ended up doing it so many times she started calling me Skippy, our conspiratorial closeness raising multiple eyebrows at work. “Ere Leighton!” scoffed Nikki one day between calls, “Are you doin’ Heidi or what?”
Unfortunately Heidi and I weren’t doing anything, though we spent a fair bit of time together. One night, during a movie at my place, I finally plucked up the courage to ask her out on a proper date. But then, at the exact moment I was on the verge of pulling the trigger, the conversation changed direction and she began confiding in me about a Paktel admirer called Ronny. “He wants to be more than friends!” she whispered, leaning in so close I could taste her perfume. “He’s a nice guy but I told him I’m not interested in anyone right now. The last thing I want is any kind of relationship, you know?” “Yeah, of course!” I said through gritted teeth, feeling bitterly disappointed but also relieved that she’d saved me from making an idiot of myself.
With all hopes of some Finnish fun biting the dust, a week later I found myself on a date with a Belgian girl called Ella, who worked behind the bar at Time Out on the Square. I’d spotted her reading Stephen King’s The Shining, so we ended up talking horror for an hour before hitting the cinema together. Reminding me of a Mean Girls era Amanda Seyfried, Ella was easy company and the date went well. But after a few weeks of hanging out I could see it wasn’t going anywhere. She didn’t seem to get my sense of humor at all (maybe it was the language, maybe it was a cultural thing, maybe I just wasn’t funny), while there were also moments when she would descend into an unbearable quietness, to the point where it became so awkward I didn’t know what to say. Finally, with any rapport we’d had petering out to the point of nonexistence, Ella confessed that she’d recently spent time at a pshychiatric facility and wasn’t ready to start dating! Though I tried not to show it, I was absolutely stunned. “Makes sense” laughed Nikki the next day, handing me a lump of her sugared waffle, “she’d have to be fucking crazy to go out with you!”
With the summer sun giving way to a chilly autumn, things went quiet on the dating front and for a while I lost interest. Then, out of the blue, I found myself hosting a beautiful Danish visitor! Sine and I first met on a ferry from London to Denmark in 1998. I was twenty years old, while she was just seventeen! It was my Uncle David’s stag weekend and I was dressed up in a charity shop outfit of appalling 70s gear: an Afro wig, bell-bottom trousers and a dodgy, home-knitted jumper. Looking back on it now and I think it was a miracle she didn’t run off at the sight of me! Somehow we got talking at the disco and I discovered she lived in a small town near the port city of Kalundborg. Later on we relocated to her cabin where Sine and I got to know each other better. Before disembarking in Denmark we exchanged contact details and ended up becoming long term pen pals.
Some four years later I took a trip out to Denmark to see her. But any hopes of romance were dashed when she told me she’d been going through a difficult time and wanted things to stay platonic. Since then our contact had been sporadic, but when Sine got back in touch to say she wanted to come to Leuven I was genuinely excited! Hopelessly idealistic and naïve, I thought it could be the beginning of something, that perhaps our time had finally come. And while it didn’t quite work out that way, it was still great having her around. I showed her all my favorite Leuven haunts and we took a day trip out to Brussels. When Frodo threw a party at his place in Leuven I took Sine along and she met the Paktel crew. There were winks and nudges from Ian, an “ooh she’s lovely!’’ from Caroline and genuine warmth from her fellow Scandinavians, including Heidi who seemed really happy for me. It was just after midnight when we made our excuses and headed home. I’ll never forget Ronny Stopping me in the doorway as we left, clamping a beefy hand on my shoulder and saying “Do what you have to do!!!”
By the time Christmas came around, Sine’s visit had dissolved into a seemingly distant memory and I was alone again, at exactly the wrong time of the year. With a sense of loneliness setting in I began seeing Helena, a Paktel Swede who I didn’t even find that attractive. “Oh Leighton, you’re scraping the barrel now!” growled Nikki, while the next day even Heidi was moved to weigh in. “Skippy, you do know Helena really likes you?” she said with a cocked eyebrow, a disapproving tilt of her head. We’d only been on a couple of dates, but I knew I had to put an end to things before it all got messy. When I gently let her down that same evening she just glared at me with a quiet, controlled fury. It was the last time she even looked at me, let alone talked to me.
On the bright side, the Helena debacle served as the wake up call I’d so badly needed. Taking stock of the past months, I realized having a girlfriend wasn’t essential, that I should focus on the positives of my strange and amusing Belgian life. “No new flavour of the moment?” cackled Nikki one morning, “are your dandy days over?” “You’ll meet someone Leighton,” chirped Caroline, “it’ll happen naturally, just when you least expect it”. Good old Caro, she always had a way of making you feel better. “Thanks” I replied, popping my headphones on. With a deep breath and a steely resolve I returned to the disgruntled Mr. Boreham, who’d been impatiently waiting on hold. “I’m sorry sir,” I said robotically, “but according to our records your printer is still in transit. I’m going to look into this for you and call you back”. It was a full thirty seconds before I was able to speak again. “Mr. Boreham, if you continue to speak to me like that I have no choice but to end the call”.
‘A Single Man’ is the third part of my short story collection Based In Belgium.