It was the little square of blue sky in the grey Belgian summer of 1979 that made Thomson suddenly say to himself, "Today I am going to get something done."
The little patch of blue, smaller than the big flapping flags, distant as the memory of a holiday past, not quite masked by the concave glass and steel facade of the inhuman Berlaymont Building, reminded him that life was not all traffic and concrete and people pushing by, oblivious of the seasons.
His usual feeling on the short walk from metro to Berlaymont was of sullen regret and sometimes of real nausea at being cut off in his cell in this the brain cell of Europe from fresh air and from the sight of trees. He was hermetically sealed from the sound of birds, lulled into stupor by the hum of air-conditioning and a worse conditioning of the mind from the dreadful inertia of this great European paper mill. Often he had imagined passing the entrance and redescending on the other side to the metro, to the station, to the distant coast and a day at the seaside.
But Thomson was a realist. He knew he could not run away. He must face the problem. He would get something done.
The idea was so novel that he smiled as he entered his office. He had already decided what he would do. Nothing earth-shattering. One man among ten thousand was unlikely to make any radical difference, but what he intended doing was bold enough in its context.
"I will get a letter out," he said aloud, "in one day."
Faced with this self-imposed challenge he felt the return of a lost sense of purpose. What a challenge it was! A letter normally took three weeks from pen to post. To attempt it in a day was audacious. A telex took a week.
Seized with a sudden fever of excitement Thomson picked a letter out of his tray. It was dated over a year previously. The writer had probably forgotten it. But this year’s correspondence hadn’t filtered through to him; this month’s probably still lay unclassified, unopened. Thomson looked at the letter. After all it was the act of replying that mattered, the gesture. He would get a letter out the same day.
The correspondent was asking whether a project qualified for funds. A simple question. Had anyone in the Division been asked it on the telephone he would not have hesitated in replying that it did. It took Thomson three minutes to write thanking Mr. Flanagan for his letter of the previous June 13 and informing him that in principle and subject to certain safeguards his project did indeed qualify for EEC funding. He said no more. His aim was simply to get a letter out.
He looked at his manuscript. It seemed all right. Then he remembered it needed a reference number. The lascivious and hairy division archivist issued reference numbers. A kind of female Rabelais without a sense of humour, Fat Bertha wielded considerable power by withholding numbers from officials she disliked. Thomson had found that by laughing at the coarse stories she tromboned down the corridor he sometimes got a number within a day or two of asking. But since she could never trace any past correspondence, he suspected she made them up haphazardly and, on this occasion, saw no reason why he should not do likewise. Thus in the first half hour he saved three days. He was determined to get his letter out.
When he walked into the typists’ room, two elderly women who were chatting in Italian broke off in mid-sentence and wished him Good Morning in French. He knew one of them typed only Italian, the other Italian and French if pushed which she seldom was. Indicating an empty chair he asked,
"It’s Monday," replied one woman.
"She never gets back until mid-day on Monday," explained the other.
"She spends weekends in Paris. She hates the Belgians," said the first witch with a mixture of envy and approval.
Thomson tried the typist in another section. A girl with her right arm in a sling was chatting to a second on the verge of popping out to a sale. Thomson therefore tried the third girl, a young, happy-go-lucky Belgian called Véronique who chewed gum and dressed according to the latest film she had been to.
"Écoute chérie, tu peux me rendre un service, hein?" asked Thomson with a nuance of the Flemish intonation which characterises much of Belgian French. She smiled big-mouthed, pushed gum and spittle forward between her teeth on the tip of her tongue.
"Bien sûr pour toi," she simpered, but when he asked her to write a letter she reacted more spontaneously. "Tu es fou! Aujourd’hui! Toute de suite!" as if the idea of work on a Monday was madness.
"What else have you got to do?"
"Look, this is very urgent," he begged. "I need it now. Before lunch."
The two other girls stopped their clothes chat and stared. Then they understood: this was an example of the famous British sense of humour. They tittered. Wrong. Thomson was serious. The girl pouted, completely taken off guard by his totally unjust request.
"Okay, for you" she said grudgingly. She took the letter from him and then screamed in pain "Oh ça, non! It’s in English!"
Thomson had foreseen this objection. Sixty per cent of the Division’s correspondence was in English but there simply was no English typist. He pointed out how short the letter was, that he had carefully printed it in block capitals. He put his arm round her shoulder as he might to coax a difficult child. If she needed any help she was just to ring him.
"I’ll help you," said the girl with the broken arm. "I’ll take the left hand; you take the right Véronique, eh?"
"Voila," said Thomson embracing both girls.
Véronique brightened immediately. "It’s not a letter, it’s a duet," she laughed. "Okay, just this once, huh?"
"Thank you, thank you very much," said Thomson, backing out of the door. His plan was progressing well.
When the letter was returned to his desk, however, it contained two faults. Project had been typed without the ‘c’ and safeguard in two words. He caught Véronique, the two-armed if single-minded typist just as she was leaving for lunch an hour early. The others had either not returned from shopping or had left for lunch. Véronique was not pleased to be told the letter was
"What does he want," she asked of the empty room. "He gets a letter in record time, does he expect it to be perfect at the first attempt? Besides," she added to Thomson, "a ‘c’ is on the left hand side. I didn’t type that."
"Eh bien, we both did that," Véronique admitted. Thomson stood there silently. Véronique relented. He smiled his thanks. But an hour later, just before the real lunch break she entered his office and slammed the file down on his desk.
"I won’t be back after lunch. All this pressure is giving me migraine. We’re not slaves, you know."
"Bon appétit," said Thomson who was so pleased to get his letter back, all nine copies of it in white and pink and green and yellow flimsy that Véronique’s troubles barely registered.
Now an ordinary official in the Commission of the European Communities was not allowed to sign his own letters. In the normal course of events a communication written by Thomson would have gone to his section head for initialling and two or three days later to the Divisional Chief for his signature. It was then returned to Fat Bertha and then sent to despatch section in another part of the zoo. Thomson’s battle was not yet won if he was to get his letter out that day.
The next messenger would not be round until mid-afternoon. Thomson, therefore, defying union rules, carried his file the ten metres down the corridor to his Section Head, an overweight French woman with a sulky expression and an I don’t give a damn attitude to her job, but who really was very cooperative and friendly with anyone who kept work away from her. Relieved that Thomson only wanted her initials she scrawled them without reading the letter, adding with a shrug of her massive shoulders, "I don’t mind killing myself, you know, but Van Dyke is away on mission this week."
Van Dyke was the Divisional Chief, who on the strength of a semester once spent in the United States, regarded himself as an authority on the English language. As a matter of course he returned all letters for amendment. Thomson had developed a technique for coping with this. He put up his clear and simple letters to his chief leaving opportunities for Van Dyke to expand them with redundant verbiage. He then corrected his Chief’s more glaring grammatical mistakes, adjusted the vocabulary and spelling and put them up again. The Dutchman’s authority was thus never challenged, he was happy in his belief that his letters contained no definite errors and although any native speaker could see they were "not English", neither reasoned Thomson, was Van Dyke.
Van Dyke’s absence removed one source of delay but posed a difficult problem. Who was to sign the letter? By mid-afternoon as people were beginning to return from lunch, Thomson hit upon a solution. He would go upstairs. There was one magic word which might do the trick.
Thomson decorated the file with slips of pink paper bearing in all the languages of the Community the word "urgent" in black letters and white paper bearing the word "priority" in red. He knocked and entered the Director’s outer office. The personal assistant continued what she was doing without looking up.
"Is Monsieur Cameleone in?" asked Thomson putting a great sense of urgency, even a little breathlessness into the question. The PA tilted her hair-do and eye-lashes into the vertical and pretended she had only just noticed Thomson.
"I beg your pardon?"
To repeat his question would have been tantamount to dropping a service in the first game. Instead he marched purposefully to the Director’s door. The woman despite her tight skirt and high heels reached it before him and barred his way. It was more than her job was worth to let someone interrupt the Director’s afternoon activities.
"He’s in consultation," she said.
"Adolphe," replied Thomson serving his ace. Adolphe was the Commissioner, the Almighty, the God of the Directorate-General. It didn’t do to invoke his name too often. If taken in vain it could mean the annihilation of a petty official like Thomson.
"Very well," said the secretary, "I’ll see if he is in."
"If he could just sign this letter in the absence of Mr Van Dyke."
Silently the secretary took the file.
"Adolphe," whispered Thomson.
"Adolphe," she repeated crossing herself and in less than a minute returned with the letter. He’s signed it," she said in a human voice.
"Adolphe will be pleased," smiled Thomson wiping his forehead with the back of his hand.
"Merci Madame," he said.
"De rien, Monsieur….Monsieur?"
"Monsieur Thomson," she said staring after him in awe.
Thomson for his part almost skipped down the corridor and back to his wing of the building. He was humming as he entered Fat Bertha’s boudoir, the archives redolent of sweat and sweet perfume. To his amazement Fat Bertha was standing there in her underpants out of which great sprigs of pubic hair pushed towards fresh air. To be fair, she was partly concealed by the drawer of a filing cabinet and doing nothing less innocent than changing a pair of tights. Nevertheless Thomson realised such an encounter could prejudice his whole working relationship with the Divisional Ogress not to mention delaying despatch of his precious letter. Too late to retreat, he stepped forward to support her by the elbow as she poked one toe into a new pair of fish net tights.
"Madame, allow me," he said. "This is the moment I’ve always been waiting for."
"Thank you Monsieur Thomson," she barked, not the slightest bit embarrassed. "You arrived, how you English say it, in the knickers of time."
"I’m only sorry I was too late to help you remove the other pair," he said chivalrously.
"Perhaps that can be arranged," she replied coyly.
"Another time, hein?"
"There’s a greedy one!"
"This letter. It absolutely must go out today."
Fat Bertha froze immediately, fastened her skirt in silence, "I’ll see about that" she said at last. "When a letter goes out is my business, hein. No one tells Bertha what to do."
"But you don’t mind them asking?" Thomson said, kicking himself for his haste and trying to imply as much double entendre as possible.
"Ask as much as you like," she brayed with a toss of her mane.
After much nail-biting Thomson found by the end of the afternoon that she had dealt with the file, false though the number was, and put the sealed envelope out for the messenger to take in the morning to the Despatch Section.
Everyone had gone home. Thomson retrieved the envelope and slipped it into his pocket, intending to post it himself on his own way home. On the metro he took out his wallet to look for a stamp. There was none. At this sickening discovery his euphoria dissipated like mist in a breeze. He saw the events of the day more clearly. True he had beaten the system, by cajoling, by cheating he had beaten the system for a day. He could never repeat it. And then he saw that he hadn’t really beaten it. He had played along with it, compromised. In a sense it had beaten him. Tomorrow he would return. Nothing would be changed.
By now he had passed the stop where he normally left the metro to take a tram to his outlying suburb. He alighted at the next stop, surfacing in an unfamiliar part of the city. He hesitated a moment, took the letter from his pocket and stared at it. Then slowly and quite deliberately he tore it once, twice, put all the pieces together and tore them a third time. He dropped them into a convenient litter bin at a bus stop and strolled off leisurely down the tree-lined avenue which faced him, cheerfully whistling part of the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the European Anthem, Ode to Joy.
(This is a chapter from my book "Some of Them Were Human", available as an ebook)