I work as a freelance financial and energy journalist.
The last four years have brought a spring bonus, which I call The Belgian Job. Not a huge deal, no Michael Caine, but a bit of extra dosh, and a trip to Brussels on Eurostar once a year.
Last week it recommenced. I started telephone interviews that I work up into profiles of Belgian exporting companies. I like the Belgians. They have a good splash of British irony and self-deprecation in the humour. Less arrogant than the French.
Last year I took Maureen to Brussels, and we managed to get 24 hours together seeing parts of the city. Not a proper holiday break, but she loved it, especially the food and the spectacular murals.
And joint memories of a beer to die for, Le Fruit Defendu.
If I go alone, I like to get out at the Gare Midi railway station and then walk up through the Muslim quarter to Grand Place.
Then meander north-east through the city, via the Royal Park, to the Palais de Bruxelles. Imagine the corruption within those walls over past centuries.
And across to the business district, where I meet with the insurance company that provides the work.
The first time I tried this I got caught short. The whole shenanigan of getting up early in the UK and having to get to London, grab something for breakfast and sit next to a stranger on the train plays havoc with my bowel movements. I’m usually as regular as clockwork, but the forced agenda brings blockage.
With Grand Place looming in my sights, and no idea where I might find a loo, I was experiencing that nagging pressure that portends a major explosion. Wasn’t sure about the coffee shop facilities, but knew that the sole location where I could take a dump with certainty would be a bar. I found one, and ordered lager with some peanuts. So that I could legitimately ask: “Ou sont les toilettes?”
It was a decent lager. Not the delicious high-alcohol Trappist fare but refreshing and fruitier than I expected. Two thirds through, I could wait no longer. The smallest room was upstairs. The spiral staircase seemed never-ending, and I prayed that the traps would be unoccupied. The plural turned out to be wildly optimistic, as it was just one room with a lock.
And it was locked. Before panic set in, the door opened and a big bloke walked out. There was a film of sweat on his brow. It could have been a three-eyed maniac with a sack of children slung over each shoulder for all I cared. Time was God. I almost fell into the room, locked the door, and knew that only a swift undoing could prevent my undoing. Got my cheeks on the seat just as my world fell out. It kept falling out. Jeez. I was so glad that the Belgian jobbie flushed down.
Washed my hands, finished the beer and set off. It felt great to walk in the fresh air again. I sat in the Royal Park for a while, loving the sunshine, the joggers and the birds singing.
20 minutes before my meeting, I started off again, but with growing feelings of tiredness. The beer was kicking in.
The interview lasted about one and a half hours, in a warm room. By the end I couldn’t stop yawning, which must have looked rude. I explained that I had stopped for a lunchtime beer, and saw the four guys smiling quietly. You Brits and your alcohol, eh?
But they kept employing me, and I go back on March 1st. No beer stops planned this time but I will never forget the toilet at the top.
Funny the things we remember.