Artwork by Enrique Cropper
The fifth week of COVID confinement had just begun and Belgium was in lockdown. It was a fine April evening and George sat looking out from the terrace, towards his favourite part of the garden, where the budding oak tree rose amongst the yellows and the pinks of the newly flowering shrub border. Fatigued by another full day of télé-travail, he clutched his half-full glass of Margaux and took in the evening call of the song thrush, whose rich tones and accents were filling the deep, blue, domed sky that enveloped them both. “Yes,” sighed George, nodding to himself and lifting his glass to take another slow quaff. The fine wine reminded him of an occasion, now many years ago. “That impudent young biologist,” he whispered to himself, and the memory of the conversation all came flowing back into his mind.
That week had been particularly busy for George, doing what satisfied him most: “Another timely regulatory intervention” he was telling himself, as he sat back in the bar round the corner from the office that Friday evening at the invitation of his new boss Guy Lecomte. Lecomte was only a few years older than George, but one who had risen quickly after his “posting in Cabinet” in the European Regulatory Authority. Lecomte, noted George, liked to use more combative language to describe the week’s actions. Even Friday night drinks had started to feel more like a military operations debrief. “We are really just the Fire Service, les pompiers vous savez, of the ERA” George could overhear Lecomte saying to an impressionable young functionary, new to the department. “Another flambée des marches financiers, another quick dowse from the regulatory hose and, hey presto, problem put out, job done, we can hang up our extinguishers and go home.”
By the time his train had reached La Hulpe station, George, somewhat weary after his hectic week, had managed to put Lecomte’s boorish words behind him. “Not so much the fire, as the medical service of the ERA” George had mused, reflecting on the feverish way in which his Director General had barked down the phone just three days before: “George, for God’s sake, can’t you find a remedy to this little problem, before it spreads any further?” Little had George known, as he set off from the station up the hill to his house nestled in the La Hulpe woods, what was awaiting him at dinner that night.
George always had to be careful not to spend too long cooling off in the bar on Fridays, especially the evenings when he was entertaining guests. His wife, Patricia, would have already prepared the table and laid out her special range of appetising salads. Next to the barbecue, she would have left the meat, seasoned in that charming, fresh style that was all hers. “Only thing to do now,” George was merrily saying to himself, his journey nearly done, “will be to slip into something more comfortable, and light the briquettes.”