Artwork by Enrique Cropper
Why sit there thinking of the past
Recounting empty days, gone past, hé hé hé (Becaud)
“Another grey day in Brussels. Yes, a typical Belgian summer, eh” chuntered one nameless colleague to another, as the lift made its way to the 9th floor.
The doors opened with a light ‘ching’. A quick ‘Bonne journée‘ was exchanged and each set off to their respective offices.
George had grown so accustomed to hearing such comments that he had only been able to contribute to the conversation with a polite smile. After all, the Belgian weather had never held him back in his 32-year career (33 in September, to be precise) in the European Regulatory Authority. Quite the contrary.
- Never too hot to interfere with his short walk to and from the lovely station of La Hulpe to catch his daily train.
- Never too cold to freeze up the transport network entirely and cause him, pointlessly, to miss a day in the office.
- Just the right climatic zone for ascending the European civil service and, as his superior put it in his first career assessment exercise, ‘fulfilling his evident potential’ in his preferred area of expertise in financial regulatory policy.
George made his way along the corridor to his office, passing the humming fuse box and the charmless ‘Archive 9D’ he referred to as ‘my immediate neighbour‘ just next door to his office, switched on his computer and logged in, as was his daily habit and obligation. Arrival time: 8.15 a.m.
George was in a good mood. He had been day-dreaming on the train that morning: about the approaching date of his retirement (he was the oldest member of the department and by now well past the minimum age for picking up his pension); about how well the European economy was doing, ‘with no small thanks to the efforts in the department’, as his director kept saying; about how much media attention was being given to the ‘most advanced digitally smart financial regulatory framework in the world’, recently approved by the Institutions, now in the implementing phase; and about who was getting what bits of work in the department to implement the new rules.
“Full day meetings on the procedural details that make our new laws bite!” mused George to himself, “Just the type of task I enjoy most.”
“What’s more” George reflected “the briefings will be easier to write now there has been a political agreement on the text”. He always felt slightly resentful every time his boss asked him to ‘sex up a little’ what he considered to be an objective, impartial and circumspect note.
“Now there’s no more need to pump up every phrase with how this new law will ‘enhance’ this, ‘foster’ that or ‘promote’ the other and we can get down to the real nuts and bolts” thought George, as he gave his office plant a drop of water.
“Not a bad little project for my last couple of years in the service.”
After clearing a few emails and joining in the customary department coffee down in the cafeteria, the day’s work began. George’s head of department had asked him to produce ‘a good first draft by the end of the week’ of the monitoring and inspection chapter of the implementing regulation, sharing the in-joke with George, yet again, that the new text ‘won’t take you long to write, it’s really just a copy-paste of the old one, with some new fancy digital bits’. Though George would usually laugh along with such pleasantries, deep down he wished his boss wouldn’t make so light of the work.
“He’ll end up giving away all our trade secrets, if he’s not careful” George would moan to his colleagues.
Despite the advances of the digital revolution, contemplated in the legislation George himself was drafting, his office was an untidy assemblage of files, boxes and grey storage cupboards, full of what old timers like him still referred to as ‘good old hard copies.’ George always kept a printed version of Regulation 1932/99 close by.
“After all, you never know when you might need it” he often repeated.
He picked up his battered copy to remind himself of its faultless logical structure and began to relish the work to come. As he scanned the articles, his mind drifted on to the last amendment of the regulation he had masterminded in 1999.
“Ah, of course,” George mused, “the big fuss they all made about the Year 2000 problem. All those who thought the cyber sky was going to fall on their heads come New Year’s Day 2000!” he added. “Little did they know all the hard work we did in the ERA behind the scenes to prevent the Millennium Bug from taking hold.”
It was uncharacteristic of George to sing his own praises but he couldn’t repress a giving himself a pat on the back, as he recalled the 3rd Global Meeting of National Y2K Coordinators he attended as a young official back, way back in 1988.
“Now that was a good trip” he grinned, recalling his first overseas mission with the ERA to what was then the exotic destination of Rio de Janeiro.
“Ha, ha,” he chortled “back in the office they all thought we had been sitting on the beach with a caipirinha in hand!”
With a start, George returned to the present.
“Where is that phrase we lifted from the original 1973 version?” he muttered to himself. His search proved fruitless. “Maybe it’s still in the old files” he announced to himself, rising from his chair to head next door.
George knew the archive well. It had reached its current state of dilapidated administrative chaos after decades of civil servants haplessly leaving their old paper files to posterity. ‘Regulation 2539/2001. Technical Specification’ said the hand written label of one file. ‘Evaluation ERA 2001/59. Harmonised public sector accounting standards’ said the typeset of another.
George had his own shelf in the corner where he stored his most cherished references, the consequence of a peculiar fusion of administrative circumspection and nostalgic sentiment. The room itself was gloomy and grey, lit by a couple of blurred fluorescent lamps and a constant background odour of old dust and ageing inked paper. It had escaped the last refurbishment and was supposed to have been emptied two years ago, but nobody in the department wanted the job. The matter had been discussed periodically at the weekly department meeting.
“Let’s just bin it all” had announced one day a junior colleague, just back from a training course on ‘Effective action in the office’ but George had countered the proposal with an appeal to the head of department.
“There’s a lot of valuable stuff in there” George pleaded, “it should be sorted out before it’s lost forever.”
The sincerity of his voice, and the sense of doubt it had immediately created in his boss’ mind, prompted the minutes of the meeting to conclude ‘Decision to be made on archive: tidy up in due course.’
George began leafing through the first of his files, bending straight the arches deformed under excess the weight of the paper. He smiled again to himself when he came across hand written notes of former colleagues, now long time retired.
“Oh yes, minutes from the working group meeting” read the title “regarding the speeding up and clarifying the implementation of the excessive deficit procedure. Here it is.”
Just then, the room went completely dark, and George felt a chill on his neck. He flinched, jumped from his chair and banged his head on the rusting metal shelf.
“Damn!” he snorted, “Bloody lights”.
He reached to his phone and found himself fumbling over the touchpad, nervously looking for the torch mode. He paused. The oppressively dusty smell of the room had quickly intensified into a stench of damp, rotting paper pulp.
“God, uh, what, what on earth is that smell?” he stuttered.
“Bloody phone, where’s the bloody torch gone” he complained, as a brusque whoosh of fetid air passed over him.
“What the hell’s going on in here?” he shouted, stumbling, his torch light now flashing in all directions around the room, towards the door.
Out in the corridor all was still. George took a few seconds to compose himself. Rationality kicked in once more.
“I told them to sort those drain pipes out”.
With that, he stuck a wedge of paper in the door, walked calmly in to pick up his files he was consulting, and turned back to his office.
“They’re going to hear about this in the maintenance department!”
George gave little thought to the incident over the rest of the day: the early morning meeting, the briefing to finish, the constant interruption from phone calls and the leisurely lunch with an old friend ensured that. It was only once he was home, and was changing out of his work suit, into something more comfortable, that his wife prompted him to recall the stranger side of his morning adventure.
“How was your day, dear” asked his wife.
“Uh, well, a little up and down, to be honest” he replied and thought on.
“By the way,” he continued “do you remember that old regulation I wrote in 1999?”
He paused, a little anxiety creeping into his voice.
“I was in the archive today looking through my old files and I came across a note with old Ernst Wichsel’s name on it. Do you remember him?”
“Why, Wichsel,” answered his wife. “You mean that cantankerous old cynic who made your life such a misery when you arrived? ”
George thought back to his early days in the ERA. Wichsel had been an old timer in the department, who had retired in the mid 1990s. Wichsel had visited the ERA a couple of time in the first few years of his retirement but nobody had heard from or enquired about him for years. The memory of an incident with Wichsel came to George’s mind. He took a sharp breath and knotted up inside.
“Yes, him” George whispered quietly and headed to the bathroom to freshen up.