When I arrived in Brussels, the supposed end of the European dream was all the media could talk about. General levels of uncertainty had increased, as had violence on public transport – for instance, when one passenger asked another to turn down the music on their mp3 player or mobile phone.
One day, as I was coming back from taking a look at a studio flat that was available for rent in the Ixelles neighbourhood, I saw two groups of youths, numbering about thirty each, throwing bottles of Jupiler beer at each other on the steps to the Stock Exchange. The bottles rolled down to a stall selling fries, into a suffocating limbo of mayonnaise, crudités and burgers, soon to be followed by a stream of blood. The owners of the flats I was looking at kept asking personal questions – one old man even quizzed me about my sex life, asking in a whisper whether the girls I took home were “sensible, you know, discreet”. Like so many other people in my situation, for many years I had been beholden to miserly landlords and exorbitant rents. So, my meeting Elin at a dinner was rather fortuitous. She was Swedish. I walked her home. Although the host had placed us next to each other because we were both translators, we’d got on out of a shared and deeply rooted lack of interest in other people. Elin was translating some youthful poetry by a Nobel Prize winner from Egypt, or maybe it was Turkey. I addressed her formally because I wasn’t sure whether she’d yet reached the age of forty. She told me that she was thinking of moving to the Middle East for a while and offered me her flat while she was away. “What happened”, she said the next day as I was looking for my shoes and she was doing up her bathrobe, one breast still visible, “doesn’t change a thing between us. Remember that.” Belgium was a rather chaotic country at that time – it didn’t even have a government.
In exchange, I’d take care of her cat – Elin handed me a list of instructions from the vet – and pay the electricity and water bills. I also agreed to cover the cleaning costs, which meant paying Teresita, a Filipina, to come in twice a week. “She doesn’t have a resident’s visa. I don’t want to deprive her of one of the few jobs she has. She’s very nice and very Catholic,” said Elin, opening her eyes very wide, as if such an idea were inconceivable. “She sends everything she earns to her family in… Manila? Is that the capital of the Philippines? She has a key.”
Absorbed in my translation work, I made sure that I wouldn’t be there when Teresita came to clean. She was there for three or four hours in the afternoon. For some reason it made me feel uncomfortable, like when you give change to a beggar and make sure not to look at their sores. I’d never had any domestic help before; I’d never been able to afford any. I’d leave a few banknotes on the kitchen table and go out for a walk to see what they were showing at the Ancienne Belgique or to a public library where a Dutch gang sold adulterated cocaine behind the foreign-poetry section.
Occasionally I received an email from Elin asking after the cat. The animal was eating well and slept all the time, but it still treated me with indifference. I told her that some letters addressed to her from Brussels City Council had arrived and that I had opened them, as she had authorized me to do. Although we’d signed a contract – I needed a professional address; this also allowed me to determine Elin’s exact age: she was thirty-nine, ten years older than me – the council wanted confirmation that the persons named in the contract were indeed living in the flat.
“Don’t let them in for now,” Elin answered abruptly in the next email.
“You want me to lock myself in? Am I not supposed to leave the flat?” I wrote back.
“The flat is also in my husband’s name,” she explained in the next email (I wasn’t surprised). “In theory, he lives there with us. He’s called Kees. Please, do what I say.”
I didn’t answer. I imagined her husband as one of those men in suits who filled the terraces of the upmarket bars every Friday along with their ministerial cohorts. (Then, on Sunday, Kees would make macaroni encrusted with a thick coat of breadcrumbs. She was still in love with him, wherever he was.)
Of course, I didn’t lock myself in Elin’s flat, but I began to worry every time the doorbell rang. I decided to move my desk away from the living-room windows. At the time I was translating a nineteenth-century Polish author, mainly at night between ten and four in the morning. Before going to bed I would go into the interior patio and watch, heart in mouth, as the cat walked gleefully along the edge of the third-floor balcony. Standing out of reach, five metres above, it looked down at me defiantly.
The problem wouldn’t go away. First, the bell rang at noon. Then, a few days later, in the middle of the afternoon. I never bothered to find out exactly who it was, whether it was the people from the council, an acquaintance of Elin’s or – why not? – the postman. Soon the bell began to ring every morning between eight and nine, while I was still in bed. I sent an angry email to Elin; she promised to get in touch with the council. Meanwhile, I decided to work in the kitchen, at the rear of the flat, the windows of which looked out over a dark interior brick patio.
One day I pushed the computer away and started to make lunch. I was thinking about the Polish author’s strange predilection for having his characters engage in extended, exhausting sessions of lovemaking when suddenly, as I ate lunch, I heard a creak in the entrance hall. I thought it was the council workers trying to force open the door. I gathered myself and coughed a couple of times (to build up my courage?). When I went over to the stairs I saw a pair of small, bare female feet followed by small female body. I’d completely forgotten what day it was. The woman stopped next to the cat’s litter tray and waved with the same hand in which she held a pair of slip-on shoes. Then she started to laugh, covering her mouth with her hand.
“My name is Teresita.” She put the shoes on the floor and held out her hand. She was speaking in English. “Isn’t this funny? My name is Teresita.”
I told her who I was. She calmly went into the kitchen and looked for something in a washing-up bowl I’d never noticed before that was full of cleaning products. She made an unreadable face and looked at a Coca-Cola clock above the microwave. It was a quarter to two. I watched her from the table as I finished my chicken sandwich.
“Fifteen minutes,” she squeaked.
Then she took a napkin, banana and a half-empty water bottle out of her bag. She hopped onto a chair on the other side of the table; her legs must have been dangling free in the air.
“Help yourself to anything in the fridge,” I said. “A drink, beer, yoghurt… there’s also some tea.” I had none of these things.
She laughed, shaking her head. “I’m fine with a banana. I like to eat a banana in the afternoons,” she told me.
I took a fork and knife from a drawer and cut up what was left of my sandwich. “Do you have a lot of work?” I asked.
“A lot of work, no work at all… A lot of work, no work at all,” she answered in a sing-song voice with a smile.
I got up to get an apple and started to peel it. “Elin might be coming back next week,” I said.
“Lovely, oh, Mrs Elin is lovely…” she drank from her water bottle and looked at the cat, who had just come into the kitchen to see what was going on. The animal arched its back and shook its tail frenetically as though it had just received an electric shock in the anus. Then, without warning, it ran up to me and jumped onto my lap. I thought that it was attacking me, but it just stayed there with its chin on the table. Teresita finished her banana and started to clap.
“This is the first time,” I said. “She’s never done this before.”
“Do you like cats?” she asked me, wiping away tears of joy.
“They’re excellent company but also very independent.” That was as much as I knew about cats.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” She lit up and stared at me as a dense cloud of hashish formed around her head.
“Wacky tobacky,” I said, smiling.
“Do you like cats?”
“No, no, no,” she answered with a face. “They’re dirty and pee everywhere.” As she waved her arm to indicate everywhere, she spilled ash from her joint onto the table.
She jumped back off the chair to get a Chouffe beer glass, which she used as an ashtray. She had the smallest feet I’d ever seen.
“Do you always eat on your own?” she asked.
“Alone, or just you and the cat, or just you and him,” she said, pointing to the computer but careful not to touch it, as though it might explode.
She stuck her tongue out at the cat and smiled. “It’s not good for a man to eat on his own. It’s not healthy.”
“I like it,” I replied automatically. “I like peace and quiet.”
“But people who eat alone grow mean and grumpy,” she took a long drag and put the joint out in the Chouffe glass. “You need to respect the food.”
“Who says?” I asked.
She went quiet. Then, suddenly, she exclaimed, “Two o clock exactly! Time to get to work.”
She slipped on her shoes and started running around all over the place. She filled a couple of buckets with hot water in the kitchen sink and disappeared into the bathroom and then through the door into the living-room. Through the misted glass Teresita’s movements looked ethereal. I went on working on my translation. I’d got stuck in a description of a House of Dreams from the Polish author’s book. In a border town, where in February the snow falls like a funeral shroud, a Russian lady called Natalia, née Golanova, moves in. She hires several men to clean up a property she has rented. They’re the only unemployed people in the town: cripples, a group of Finns – no one knows where they came from – and several who are dying of lung cancer. The rest of the town spends all day in the mine. One afternoon a pair of drunk miners help to hang a sign on a clean, refurbished wall: NATALIA GOLANOVA’S DREAM HOUSE. Whistles, applause and uncertainty. It is rumoured that Natalia has a hoarse voice, that she is skilled in medicine and can control the weather. These rumours are enough for some of the miners to grab their crotches in anticipation of imminent pleasure. But women are forbidden to enter the rooms of Natalia Golanova’s Dream House (all of which are singles). A sign on the door declares that the beds are the latest thing in ensuring a good night’s sleep, straight from St Petersburg. And it is true. The springy, soothing mattresses provide a very unusual form of good night’s sleep. Less than two months later the men start to meet up every Sunday in Natalia Golanova’s Dream House. On the front porch they share their dreams, most of which are just accounts of coitus in which Natalia’s lithe body helps them to predict the fate of Poland and the Russian Empire in the light of the latest psycho-physiological theories.
I remembered that I’d dreamed of Elin. I couldn’t quite remember how her body looked, and that’s always frustrating.
Then Teresita burst into the kitchen. She had a pink rubber glove on her left hand, making her chubby fingers look like deformed penises. She looked at me like someone supervising a sick child with a gun.
“Do you need anything?” I asked.
“There’s someone at the door,” she said.
My mind went blank for a few seconds. “People who eat alone grow mean and grumpy,” I said to myself.
“We won’t answer,” I’d included her without realizing it.
“Would you like me to answer it?”
“If you do, you and I are going to have a serious problem.”
I told her about the letters, the council and their inspections. She instinctively shrunk back under the boiler and rubbed her thumb over her lips, trying to work out what to do. Now she was barefoot again.
I gave her a glass of water. She drank it looking straight ahead, as though her corneas were dry or she suffered from a hyperactive thyroid. She said, “I don’t like it”, but didn’t say what.
The bell rang a second time.
“Would you please give me one of those cigarettes, Teresita?”
I lit it. After I’d had a couple of puffs she grabbed it off me and inhaled deeply, her elbows stuck out on either side.
“You can stay for as long as you like if that will help.”
“Does Elin say so?” she asked indignantly, stubbing out the recently lit joint. She had suddenly turned against me. “Why are you in this flat?”
I went over to reassure her. I put an arm on her shoulder, trying to convey affection and trust. Trying to be worthy of the flat. How old was Teresita? Thirty-five, fifty-five? Did she have children? I was starting to hate Elin, imagining the subject line of the email in which I refused to go on paying for the cleaning.
“Mr Kees is so lovely,” she pronounced it similarly to kitsch. “Do you know him? Sometimes he calls, and we have long conversations.”
Sick of all this, I took a decision. “Leave it for today; don’t worry about the money,” I took some notes from my wallet. “You can stay here for as long as you like. They won’t bother you here.”
She scurried off and locked herself in the bathroom with her bag. Several minutes passed without a sound. During that time I filled the cat’s bowl with food. Then, scared, I knocked on the bathroom door. She opened up without looking at me, in her street clothes, wearing trainers and a shiny hairband. Her cheeks were rosy, as though she’d just come out of the changing rooms of a famous tennis club. She took the money I’d left on the kitchen table and tucked it somewhere under her shirt.
“Come with me,” she ordered.
I went with her to the front door. She gestured to me to open it. After I did so she told me to go to the corner to check for council staff. I went out and walked down the street to the metro station. Then I came back. In front of the house, in the little square that housed the consulate of a recently formed Asian country, a priest was trying to deal with a black beggar who was spinning round and round on skates. It looked as though there might be a fight until the priest caught sight of Teresita and me.
Teresita asked me if she could ask me a question. She had been sitting on the curb. “Aren’t you ashamed?”
I felt like asking her what she and Kees talked about, but there wasn’t time. As I was getting ready to ask her about the nature of her conversations with Elin’s husband – if she read tarot cards, did his star chart or gave him little religious homilies – she grabbed her knock-off bag, turned her back on the plaza and quickly walked down the street, staying close to the wall. After she was swallowed up by the escalator of the Brussels metro I saw the priest and the beggar coming towards me. As they came closer I saw that, in fact, the priest was another beggar in a tattered cassock, as though he had stepped out of a post-punk parody. They broke into a run, so I hurried back to the flat and nervously locked it behind me. It was only a matter of seconds before they started to ring the bell. I left the intercom off the hook, concentrating on the metallic racket coming from the street. One of them said “Boo!” – as though he were trying to scare a child – and burped. A few seconds later a peal of laughter indicated that they were walking away, like everything else I didn’t care about during my period of mean, grumpy solitude.