In 2007, Alexander McCall Smith wrote a short story, Brussels for Beginners, which was read on BBC Radio 4. We include it here as we mark Brexit Day – some light relief as we ponder what might lie ahead.
Brussels for Beginners
By Alexander McCall Smith
Tommaso Rossi joined the Italian civil service at the age of twenty six. For ten years he worked in Milan in an office called Division B, where he was responsible for auditing the auditing process in Divisions C and D. He was not required to do the same for Division A – he did not know why this was so, and indeed there were many aspects of his job that he did not understand at all. He just did it, and appeared to do it well, as he was rapidly promoted and given a series of increasingly impressive titles.
Tommaso was unmarried. There had been a rather long-drawn out relationship with a woman who worked in Division C, and that might have led to marriage had it not been for the fact that she was transferred to Division D, in Naples, and they had drifted apart. So when Tommaso’s immediate superior had called him into the office and offered him a posting in Brussels, in the European Commission no less, he had felt at liberty to take the job.
“What does it entail?” he asked. “The usual thing?”
“Yes,” his superior had said vaguely, waving a hand in the general direction of north. “That sort of thing.”
Nothing more had been said, and Tommaso had in due course found himself in Brussels, where he was given an attractive, spacious flat, a substantial relocation allowance, and a comfortable section of a large, open-plan office.
Settling himself behind his new desk Tommaso looked about him. The office was filled by entirely unfamiliar-looking people, most of whom were busying themselves opening mail which had been deposited in their in-trays. He watched what they did. They opened the letters, read them, sometimes annotated them briefly, stamped them, and then put them in the tray marked out. It looked simple enough.
When he opened the first letter, Tommaso was completely unable to make any sense of it. A correspondent appeared to be addressing him by name – Dear Mr Rossi, the letter began – and there was then a reference to a letter that had been written to his predecessor and to which a reply had been made. Now he was being asked whether any progress had been made in the matter.
He had no idea, though, what the matter was, and so he merely scribbled the first few words that came into his mind – refer upwards, he wrote – and then stamped the letter with the large, official-looking stamp which he found on an inkpad at the top of his desk. After that, he put the letter into the tray marked out, as he saw everybody else doing and opened the next letter, which was similarly unintelligible. On this one he wrote – Take no further action – before he stamped it and put on top of the letter with which he just dealt.
It took him all morning to open all the letters in his in-tray and to place them, with a few quick remarks, in the out-tray. Then, just before lunch, a youth with straggly, greasy hair walked past, a youth who looked Hungarian, or Greek, or possibly Estonian scooped up all the letters in the out tray, and pushed them away in a cart.
“Thank you,” said Tommaso.
The youth nodded at him. “Busy day,” he said.
Tommaso gestured to his now empty in-tray. “Any more ?” he enquired.
The youth nodded. “Not until tomorrow morning.” He looked at Tommaso. “You’re on flexi-time, aren’t you?” he asked.
Tommaso nodded. He probably was, and even if he wasn’t, it would clearly be something that he should get on to.
“In that case,” said the youth, “you can go home. You’re lucky. I have to stay here until three thirty!”
“Bad luck,” said Tommaso, slipping into his jacket and preparing to leave.
“Yes,” said the youth. “But one of these days I’m going to be a Senior Fonctionnaire like you. Give me five years.”
So that’s what I am, thought Tommaso. I’m a Senior Fonctionnaire. But what do I function – if that’s the right term? He had no idea. Perhaps it would become clear the following day.
He went out of the office and made his way down to the ground floor. In the lift on the way down a man of about the same age as him, and dressed in a similar style, said, “Will you be at the meeting tomorrow?”
“Yes,” said Tommaso. “What time?”
“Ten,” said the other man. “Room 2456. I expect that it will only take an hour or so. What do you think?’
“No more than that,” said Tommaso. “Maybe we’ll get through everything by ten thirty. You never know.”
“You’re an optimist!” said the other man, smiling. “But what are we going to do about the subsidy rectification?”
“Take no action,” said Tommaso.
The other man laughed. “Very good advice! I like that.”
Tommaso went out into the street. It was early afternoon and the weather was fine. He looked up at the sky, which was clear, and high, and blue; rather like the skies of Emilia Romagna, where he had been born. Except this was not Italy, and it all seemed rather strange.
He crossed the street and entered a small park. There were fellow bureaucrats seated on benches, some talking, some feeding the pigeons. There was a fountain and a statue. Tommaso crossed to the foot of the statue and looked up at it. A man in an elaborate uniform stood proudly on the plinth, one hand on the hilt of a dress sword, the other pointing into the distance. And underneath it the inscription: Leopold, King of the Belgians.
Belgium! So I really do live in Belgium, he thought, and I work in an office which has outside it a large number of flags, one of which is mine. And this is the centre of a great, sprawling enterprise, a new Byzantium, a Second Holy Roman Empire. And here am I, a cog in this great machine, doing … well, he was not sure what he was doing, but he certainly had a desk, and colleagues, and a sense of admittedly undefined purpose.
The next day, before the start of the meeting, he spent an hour going through the mail that had appeared overnight in his in-tray. He read the letters, which seemed to him to be particularly opaque, although one or two at least made some sense to him. These were letters in which people – other officials – asked for money – or enhanced budgetary allocations, as they put it. Tommaso wrote APPROVED on these letters, stamped them, and put them in the out-tray. Then he made his way to Room 2456, where some twelve others were already assembled at the table, papers laid out neatly in front of them. Tommaso was about to take a seat down at the bottom of the table, when a well-dressed and rather attractive woman who had been talking to somebody in the background came up to him and cleared her throat politely. “Excuse me, Mr Rossi,” she said. “You are actually in the chair this morning. Mr Kafka has been called away and cannot chair the meeting. As the next senior person, it falls to you ….”
“Of course,” said Tommaso, and he moved up to the head of the table.
The woman who had prompted him to take the chair, now sat down beside him. “We haven’t met,” she said. “I’m Tina. I’m from Stockholm. I’ve taken over from Mr O’Malley, who’s gone back to Dublin.”
Tommaso had no idea who this Mr O’Malley was. “I see,” said Tommaso. “So we’ve no longer got O’Malley. He’ll be missed.”
“That’s what everybody says,” said Tina. “They said that he managed to double the Irish allocation in six months.”
“Quite an achievement,” said Tommaso. “I wonder how he did that.”
“I heard that he just deducted it from the British allocation,” said Tina.
“I see,” said Tommaso. “Very clever!”
“Yes,” said Tina. “It’s called the centrifugal transfer principle, where resources move outward to the geographical edges of the Union. There’s also the North-South gravitational rule, which ensures that money flows smoothly from Germany to Southern Italy and Greece.”
The other officials were now all seated and looking expectantly at Tommaso.
“Now then,” he said. “I suggest that we start with item one on the agenda. Does anybody wish to begin on that one?”
A hand went up at the end of the table. “That matter needs to be referred,” a small man in a dark grey suit said. “The Poles are keen to have a re-assessment.”
Tommaso nodded. “I think that’s right,” he said. “I suggest that we refer it.”
“To the Deuxième committee,” suggested Tina.
“Deuxième or even Troisième?” asked Tommaso.
“Troisième,” said somebody from the foot of the table. But then another voice said, “No, deuxième – definitely deuxième.”
“Deuxième it will be,” said Tommaso. “Now what about item two?”
“We need to hold back on the allocation in this case,” said a man sitting on Tommaso’s right.
“Why?” said Tommaso.
“Because the figures have not been approved by the Commission,” said the man.
“In that case,” said Tommaso, “I would suggest that we refer this downwards, subject to the satisfaction of the certain conditions.”
“Which will be?” asked the man.
“The same as normal,” prompted Tina.
There were murmurs of agreement, and they passed on to the third item on the agenda.
At the end of the meeting, Tommaso looked at his watch. The meeting had taken rather longer than he had hoped, as it was now twelve o’clock.
He turned to Tina. “You wouldn’t be free for lunch, would you?” he asked.
She smiled. “Why, I think I am.”
They went off to a restaurant not far from the office, and sat down at a table in the corner. A trolley was wheeled over to them, and from it they chose a selection of cold meats, accompanied by asparagus salad. A bottle of chilled Alsatian wine was produced, sampled, and approved. There was soft French, or possibly Belgian, or possibly Dutch music in the background.
“I must say that I was very much reassured by your presence at the meeting,” said Tommaso. “Thank you for keeping me right on everything.”
Tina blushed. “But I have a confession to make,” she said. “I had no idea what we were all talking about.”
Tommaso made a gesture of disbelief. “Nonsense,” he said. “You struck me as being quite on top of everything.”
Tina shook her head vigorously. “No, I’m being honest,’ she said. “I really haven’t got a clue what’s going on. And it’s been like that since I came to work for the Commission. It really has.”
Tommaso stared at her. When he replied, his voice was lowered. “But, you know, that’s exactly my position too! I have no idea at all.”
“Then thank heavens that we’re both on the same project,” said Tina.
Tommaso was silent for a moment. Then, “What project are we on?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she whispered. “But I suspect that very few of the others know either.”
“So what shall we do?” asked Tommaso.
“Why, we continue,” said Tina. “And then, after about six months, we can both apply for promotion. I’ve heard that one can apply to become a European Union ambassador. You’re sufficiently senior for that, you know. I heard that the Bogotà post will be coming up before the end of the year.”
Tommaso shrugged modestly. “Oh well,” he said. And then he added, “What exactly do European Union ambassadors do?”
“They authorise projects,” said Tina.
“I see,” said Tommaso. “Not very difficult.”
“Child’s play,” said Tina.
“Would you like to be a … “
“First Secretary?” She smiled encouragingly. “Thank you.”
Tommaso took a sip of his wine. The European project was a great one, and he was at its very centre. “I feel so … so central,” he said.
And Tina agreed with him. She felt central too.
Reproduced with the kind permission of the administrators of the Alexander McCall Smith website.