Belgium (Part 2)
By Ed Crane
Guido takes small roads into the countryside. After, I don’t know how many miles, he pulls over and parks on the verge. We’re surrounded by fields. It’s so flat, if you stood on a chair you’d see twenty miles. There’s not a soul or building in sight. I don’t know why we’ve stopped, but I do know Guido could blow my fucking brains out and be in France before anybody finds my body. I feel like Cary Grant, except the maize is green.
‘Jess,’ he says, ‘you have worked for Harry for quite a while. So . . . why now?’
‘Something don’t hang right.’
Guido frowns and squints out at the road ahead for a few seconds, then he smiles, ‘Quelque chose ne va pa?’
‘That’s what I said.’
Guido nods – like it was news he was expecting. He turns the ignition key and the little diesel motor comes to life. He spins the car round in a tractor opening and we head back in the direction we came.
‘We go back to the hotel and get your car. I think you should get it out of sight. I have a somewhere we can put it. After, we talk.’
‘That’s great, Guido ‘cos that is exactly what I intended to do. You saved me a trip to Ostend airport.’
‘A good idee, Jess. I should have guessed you would do something, but my place is better than an airport car park. No cameras.’
It seems to take half the time to get back to the hotel even though we go the same way. When we get there I pick up the Chrysler and follow Guido’s Peugeot out the carpark. This time we go straight onto the motorway and I follow the Peugeot south, down the E303. After about 45 minutes of monotonous driving, a sign with a red cockerel on a yellow background tells me I’m crossing the border into Belgian Wallonia. We turn off the highway onto ordinary roads and soon take narrow country lanes across wide skied flat farmland punctuated with woodland. Fifteen minutes later we dive onto a tree-lined track about three inches wider than the fucking yank-tank. The trees thin and we drive between rows of plastic tent like structures stretched over metal frame tables holding dozens of boxes packed with green leafed plants about a metre off the floor.
Guido stops his car outside an old square building with a high pantile roof which could be either a barn or a warehouse. Its red brick walls glow under the low evening Sun. He gets out and pushes open one side of a pair of two-metre wide doors covered in dull green paint which now hangs in loose flakes. He points inside and I edge the Chrysler through the gap. Guido has to push the mirrors shut so I can get it in. I park between the wall and a pile of rusty farm gear which looks like neglected museum pieces. The bare brick walls go right up to the exposed roof joints, I see light coming through in a few places.
‘Sorry, Jess the other door is very hard to move. I use this building for storage only.’
‘What’s all those plants in the plastic tents?’
‘Strawberries, my friend. Sweet; juicy; very lucrative Belgian strawberries.’
‘I wondered why your contact is, Le Fermier.’
‘It was my sister’s farm, I bought into it when her husband died. We run it together, mostly fruit trees. The strawberries were my idee. Much less investment than tomatoes, but almost as profitable. We keep it small, one full time guy – ex legion – and a few reliable local people at harvest. No need to attract attention by getting too big.’
‘I’m with you mate.’
‘With me. . ? Ah of course you don’t speak, “the Queen’s English.”’
‘Nobody does where I grew up, Guido.’
‘We go to my house, I must talk with you.’
I get in the Peugeot with Guido and we bounce over a different track between fields lined with stubby trees heavy with growing fruit; apples on the right; pears on the left. The track opens out to a wide square. Facing us is a long low building which looks like a stable except it has big round-topped doors and tiny windows. Looks like it could do with a bit of TLC. One door is open. I see an old classic Grey Massey Ferguson tractor inside. It looks spotless. I point to it.
‘You still use that?’
‘Not for work anymore. He was my Father’s. My sister wants to sell him, but I want to keep him. He is worth much money now.’
On the right is another long low building. It’s painted white and has a terracotta pantile roof like all the other old buildings, but it’s in perfect condition – obviously the farm house. On the left there’s a bloody great dark green cladded warehouse, it looks recent. One of the enormous sliding doors is pushed open, inside are stacks of wooden boxes like the bushels they used for fruit on Woolwich market when I was a little kid, but these are much bigger; pallet sized.
Guido swings the car right and we go round the side of the farm house and we arrive on a gravel drive. Guido parks in front of the house. I notice the house is screened from the lane by mature trees; a drive leading onto the road cuts through them.
‘Bloody nice here, Guido mate.’
‘Yes, very pleasant . . . and quiet. Come, we go inside.’
The heavy riveted Oak door swings open, its varnish glints orange light from the setting sun. A woman dressed in expensive looking casual clothes holds it open as we pass inside. Guido’s sister is as short and round as her brother is tall and slim. I’ve seen her before in Paris, but that was years ago - when I was on leave. She was thinner then. She don’t look too pleased to see me, but she’s polite.
‘Hello Jess. It’s good to see you again.’
Her English is near perfect, minimal accent. She was a teacher in France before she got married. We greet each other with the typical Belgian three kisses.
‘Bonjour, Fransijn. I hope I won’t be too much trouble.’
She smiles and shakes her head, ‘Come into the living, I have prepared dinner – Carbonade. I know you like that.’
‘Handsome. My favourite.’
We follow her into the living room. The big Oak beams brush the top of mine and Guido’s head. She guides us to a heavy round table, the wood stained so dark it looks like ebony. The whole room is furnished with traditional French style rural furniture. The pure white plaster on the walls and ceiling between the beams offset the dark wood. By the time we sit down she comes over with two bowl shaped glasses in one hand and clunks two open bottles of Rochefort Trappist beer in front of us from the other one. She goes into the kitchen while Guido pours.
‘Jess. I don’t want to spoil your meal, but before we eat we have to speak about certain things.’
‘Takes a lot to put me off my food, Mate.’ I say, trying to make a joke about something I reckon is serious.
Fransijn returns with a glass of red wine and sits opposite me. She looks at Guido and nods. I must have frowned at something.
‘It’s alright, Fransijn helps us sometimes.’ He says. ‘Jess, these people Harry is sending you to see are very dangerous.’
I go to speak: tell him I know that, but he holds up his hand and I shut my face.
‘After you contacted me I was concerned, there are some very hard people in Anvers these days. I asked around because, of course, I had to understand what you were doing. When we found out who these people are and what they do, I was very concerned. They are animals, Jess. For you, to be involved with them was a big worry for us.’
‘They’re just a bunch of ringers, Harry wants me to persuade them to work with his bloke in Belgium.’
‘I know now you believe this, but I was suspicious, Jess. I had to be sure you were telling the truth. These people are doing much more than stealing cars. It is a “hobby” for them. They deal in people; drugs of course and many other things. One of their specialities is assassination. Killing you, Jess would be like swatting a fly.’
‘Yes, Jess. I am afraid so. We think Harry wants you,’ Guido holds up his hands, he seems lost for words, ‘dead. . . I am very sorry.’
‘Me? Why the fuck—?’
‘We are not sure, but we think the Chrysler is payment. You are not supposed to return to the UK.’
‘And if you hadn’t believed me?’
‘By now the Chrysler would crushed into a cube – with you inside of course.’
I sit there and I laugh. I laugh until I nearly piss myself. What the fuck else could I do?