Artwork by Enrique Cropper
The next day George stepped out of the lift, as usual, and ambled down the corridor towards his office. The ‘Please keep this door closed at all times’ sign on the door of Archive 9D greeted his eyes. George couldn’t resist peeping in through the reinforced glass window. The fluorescent lamp in his corner was still lit.
“Strange”, thought George, “have all the others blown?”
He opened the door and flicked the light switch. No response.
“So now it’s not the just the functionaries of the ERA who no longer follow instructions, some of the lights don’t work either!” he mocked gently to himself.
George stepped out and entered his office. As he reached to turn on his computer he flinched at the sight of his office plant. Overnight, all its leaves had withered brown and were now lying dead on the office carpet.
“What next?” cried George, expressing growing frustration at the various dysfunctions of the last 24 hours. “I only gave it some water yesterday.”
The rest of the morning passed without incident. George found the phrase he was looking for and chirped happily to himself about his find.
“It’s amazing how you can cover yourself all over with a handy ‘However’ and a deft ‘duly justified circumstances’ when you need them.”
While George wasn’t the worst at keeping a tidy office, he would seldom clear away working papers immediately after the final version had gone to the hierarchy. But today, the unpleasant whiff of the old file on his desk prompted him to return it directly to Archive 9D.
To avoid any further accidents, before stepping into the fusty room, he put an even bigger wedge of paper in the door. Once inside, he noticed straight away that his files had been displaced to the other side of the room and others had even been left, somewhat messily he thought, on the floor.
“Nobody wanted to tidy up this place before” he grumbled “and now they’re making a right pig’s ear of it!”
Behind him, George heard the door clunk shut and the light went out, yet again.
“Blast!” he shouted “How many times is this bl…?” and reached for his phone once more, this time finding the torch key with no trouble.
As he turned, he saw the room had begun filling with a thick dust. He began to splutter, his eyes wincing in the fog. Then he thought he could make out some sort of human form, or not, or was it a face?
“Good morning, Jorshshsh…” said the figure.
The bad smell was back. George froze.
“Still trying to make Europe bring some good to the world, are you, my dear Jorshshsh? it asked.
“Wichsel, Ernst Wichsel, is that you? Really you? What are you doing here? Now?” stuttered George.
“I’m here telling you now that the whole thing you EU groupiessss like to call the European project, is jusssst an evil, trumped up Catholic complot to bring back the Holy Roman Empire” said the visitor, shaking and wincing, his voice wafting round him like a vaporous grey-brown cloud.
“You fool yoursssselves, and try to fool the world, into thinking that people want what you do, when all you do is give yourselves big, fat-cat ssssalaries and cushy officccces.”
George experienced a queasy feeling of disgust, though he couldn’t find it in himself to be surprised.
“But Ernst, you remember, we worked together on the Y2K bug, back in the 90s. We saved the EU economy from one big computer crash. Surely that was worth it?” pleaded George.
“So touching, Jorshshsh, your naivety was alwaysss ssso endearing to me. You must be the biggesssst dupe who ever worked in this cessss pit!” continued the Ernst being, spitting out swirls of brown-green spray each time he attacked George.
“Well, if I’m a dupe,” replied George, ever open and polite in his manner, “where does that put us? You worked just as long as me, you contributed to the EU project as much as I have, you picked up your salary all the same.”
“Yes, Jorshshsh, but unlike you I never let them brainwashsh me into thinking that what the EU was doing served anyone elsssse than mysssself”. He tipped his head back and let out a gurgling sound, its tone reminding George of Wechsel’s most irritating personal tick in the workplace: the derisory laugh he made when he didn’t get things his way.
“I felt quite the opposite to you. It became clear to me that each and every one of us was just in it for what we wanted. The dirtiessst always pushed the otherssss out and they alwayssss got more. And all the whole EU merry-go-round ever gave back to the nation statessss of the EU was a day out of office, every now and again, for its so-called ‘top’ politicians and civil servants.”
“But the EU brought us peace after the War. The decisions all those people made, who you’re criticising, brought prosperity and promoted equality in Europe, which gave opportunity to a whole generation of young people,” mumbled George.
“Peashsh, ha! Prosssperity, who’s pulling my leg? Equality, give me a break!” squawked Wichsel, “The peash won’t last much longer! Prosssperity only came to the rich who wanted cheap foreign labour for their factoriessss! Equality? What equality? You mean everybody having to put up equally with immigrantsss in every corner of their country?”
George found himself in a whirlwind of thought. Here he was, going quietly about his everyday business, 32 steady years in the European Regulatory Authority, and now finding himself confronted by the memory, the apparition, whatever it was, of a former colleague, ranting and coughing up some dreadful diatribe.
“I can’t, I can’t believe I’m hearing all this” stammered George. “I knew you weren’t keen on Europe but I would never have expected…”
“There you go again” interrupted Wichsel “with thossse oh sssso carefully chosen phrasssses you trotted out every day. ‘I’m not keen’ and ‘I’m afraid’ and ‘Forgive me if I’m wrong.’ Better not hurt anyone’s feelingssss, eh, Jorshshsh. Better not face thingssss as they really are. Freedom of movement meanssss freedom to go round Europe taking a job off anybody you care to, freedom to commit any crime, anywhere you like!”
By now Wichsel was shivering with bitterness, leaving George thrust back on himself, like he could feel a pressure putting him down. Inside, a sense of powerlessness began to erode his soul.
But the psychological distance that Wichsel had opened up between them gave George a moment of respite, a space to breathe. And the more Wichsel raged on, the more chance George had to weigh up who was before him. Wichsel was present but, at the same time, he wasn’t. Wichsel was somehow there, yet unreal. George took in a deep breath and asked.
“So what’s all that between you and me, Ernst?”
George began to recall how trapped Wichsel had sometimes seemed when they had both worked together. He seemed bound by opinions that turned back on themselves. Tied to a generous salary, for a job he didn’t believe in. Mired in his cynicism, which so often spilled over into loathing for anyone different from himself.
“Am I the only one left in this building who ever knew, personally, this neighbour from hell? asked George, inwardly.” He came quickly to the conclusion that so many years had passed since Wichsel’s retirement, it must be the case.
Wichsel was still rambling on about ‘eurocratssss’, ‘neoliberalssss’ and businessss elitessss’, disdain and contempt drooling incessantly from his mouth.
“Ernst, I’d ask you for a coffee” said George with all the sincerity he could summon “but you don’t look in a good enough state come to the cafeteria”.
George’s genuineness caught Wichsel completely by surprise.
“I know at times this Europe thing can get carried away with a false sense of its own importance” George announced, now speaking up to his former colleague, something he realised he would never have done when they were working together. “And I can’t see how you thought it was a complot – if anything, it all seems very improvised to me, ‘escaping by running ahead’, as our Spanish colleagues would say”.
Wichsel continued to mouth words at George but his voice, and the vapour it generated, was gradually weakening and thinning at every breath.
“Europe’s an inspiration, Wichsel, not a cauldron of crime. It’s only a threat if we take it as one”.
Wichsel looked pitiful, perplexed.
“By ‘we’ I mean all of us: me, you, our colleagues and all those Europeans ‘out there’.”
At that instant, George gestured awkwardly towards the door but immediately sensed how ridiculous he must sound using the term ‘out there’ from the confines of a forlorn archive on the 9th floor of the ERA.
The whole appearance of Wichsel, in the meantime, had begun to fade further. The muddy brown hues of the features of the old man at their first encounter were now suffusing with a gentle shade of lilac. Even the staleness of the archive was slowly giving way to a fresher fragrance, which caused George’s nostrils to twitch with expectation.
Slowly Wichsel’s presence dissolved, dissipated, to nothing. George remained focused, holding on mentally to the memory of his old colleague.
“I guess in all that time I worked with him, I never really squared with him like that,” George reflected. “Did we ever go for a coffee together? I can’t even remember.”
George returned to his office. There, staring into the blank screen of his computer, he continued to ponder on the distance he felt sometimes between himself and his friends and family; between himself and his other colleagues around him; and, in particular, between himself and Wichsel, which, for only one brief moment, had been spanned. He sensed a peculiar warmth envelope him and the memory of Wichsel sweeten in his mind.
George came swiftly back to his senses when the telephone buzzed, loud, the display indicating it was his boss.
“George, George, is that you?” asked his boss, leaving George scarcely able to raise a mumble. “Is that text I asked you to send me ready yet?
“Why, of course, François” he answered, adding, in the most nonchalant tone he could summon. “You know, I can still copy and paste as well as the next man. It’ll be yours in just a jiffy.”