"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

A Single Man, a short story from Belgium.

A Single Man a short story from Belgium

In the autumn of 2004 I found myself suddenly relocating to Belgium, at the expense of an attractive job offer in Italy. It was one of those major forks in the road, the kind of big decision that could transform a life. Which, for better or for worse, is exactly what it did.

It was a few weeks after my breakup with Lucie when I woke up one morning in my little student room and realised I was actually happy! This was a surprising development on several fronts. Firstly there was my accommodation, a dingy room containing little more than a desk, a sink and a dubious bed that collapsed when I rolled over in the night. Moreover, I had to share the toilet, bathroom and kitchen with a pair of local girls and an eccentric Iraqi called Zaid who spent his days struggling to learn Flemish and living off Belgian social benefits. 

Leighton Travels travel reports short stories.

Secondly, I found myself enjoying my crappy call centre job. Despite the fact that Paktel had proven itself a soulless corporation that treated its employees like cattle. Furthermore, the very mechanics of what we had to do on a daily basis was exceptionally tedious. Customer after unsuspecting customer called in to complain about their faulty printers, cameras and projectors. More often than not the product in question was a matter of months, weeks or even just days old. Foolishly believing their warranty entitled them to a brand new replacement, it was my job to explain that I’d be sending out a second hand piece of crap that looked like it had been dragged through a hedge backwards. Oh, and If they were lucky, our incompetent carrier might deliver the thing in time for their retirement.

A Single Man, a short story from Belgium.

“Where’s my bloody printer!!!” roared Mr. Anderson, a man whose package should have reached him back when Thatcher was still in power. Staring nonplussed at a blank screen that was supposed to shed at least some light on its whereabouts, I was always thankful to have the verbal abuse card to fall back on. “I’m sorry Mr. Anderson, but if you continue to speak to me like that, I have no choice but to end the call”.

Short story from Belgium

A Single Man, a short story from Belgium.

So why then, you may wonder, was I in such high spirits? Well, I’d fallen in love with the city of Leuven and my Paktel colleagues were a colourful bunch who never failed to make me laugh from one moment to the next. I worked in the UK Logistics team next to a Belgian-Scot-Irish hybrid called Ian. I remember him as a don’t-give-a-fuck-biker with a striking array of body rings and tattoos. Responsible for the department’s high-level complaints (of which there were many), he went about his work in an efficient if disinterested manner. Which left plenty of time for online gaming, tattoo sketching and listening to heavy metal on his headphones.

Frodo Lord of the Rings.

“No sir, it’s actually refurbished printer!”

On my other side sat Christian, a gruff young Norwegian who looked like Frodo from Lord of the Rings. Directly opposite him was Rasheka, a coquettish Jamaican girl who, rumour had it, was generally available to anyone who might be interested. I was not interested. My favourite colleague, by a Belgian country mile, was the sweet and kindhearted Caroline Henderson. She was a matronly woman much loved by all at Paktel, an unofficial mother to all and sundry. Although twenty five years my senior, Caro and I got on like a house on fire and she soon became a very close friend.

A Single Man, a short story from Belgium

Nikki: An artist’s impression.

“F this effin’ place!!!” 

The team’s standout character was a fiery young single mum called Nikki. A bleach-blonde Londoner with the most severe case of potty mouth I’d ever seen. Day in day out she’d arrive at the office in a hailstone of swear words. From there she would pretty much “fuck” and “shit” her way through the entire day, not at all shy in letting people know how much she despised the job.

“F this effin’ place!!!” she yelled at regular intervals, slamming her phone down. Flinging her mouse across the desk, kicking the wastepaper bin across the floor. Notoriously unreliable, Nikki would call in sick at least once a week, sometimes more. And while her absences certainly increased the general workload, the office floor was at least a calmer place when she wasn’t around.

A Single Man, a short story from Belgium.

And yet, as angry at the world as Nikki clearly was, she also had a soft side. From time to time she’d bring us all biscuits and cakes and was known to staunchly stick up for her teammates in times of need. All in all, working with Nikki became a kind of love-hate affair and I’ve always considered it something of a miracle that she never got fired.

A Single Man a short story from Belgium

At Paktel with Ian, Caro and Nikki.

On the weekends I spent my time lounging around Leuven. I’d pick up breakfast at a local bakery before heading to a favourite bench on Ladeuzeplein. From there, I’d usually go and do some reading over coffee at De Dry Coppen, a tranquil bookstore café on Schrijnmakersstraat. Or maybe head for Sax, a fantastic record shop on Parijsstraat where I could while away an hour leafing through potential purchases.

A Single Man, a short story from Belgium.

De Dry Coppen, Leuven.

Much to my delight, I was able to catch live Premier League football games at Time Out on the Square, a multi-screen sports bar run by a butch, bald, Arsenal fan called Chris. Over time, I became such a committed regular he would gift me free beers here and there. He also made sure the QPR game was shown, even though I’d be the only one who wanted to watch it.

A Single Man, a short story from Belgium.

In those early Leuven days I received a visit from my old friend Ben, whom I’d met during my teaching days in Slovakia. On what was a long overdue catch up, we diligently worked our way around Leuven’s impressive Oude Markt Square. We had Stellas at Café Cadi, a pitcher of Hoegaarden at De Weerelt and a dizzying round of Grimbergens in De Bierkelder. I loved the Oude Markt’s relaxed atmosphere, where people drank to be sociable rather than to simply get drunk. It was a million miles away from the aggressive drinking culture back in Britain. 

A Single Man a short story from Belgium

With Ben in the Oude Markt. November, 2004.

Before long, I began acquiring an eclectic group of friends. There was Ash from Sheffield, a plainspoken IT specialist with a voracious appetite for reading. Chris from London meanwhile (not Arsenal Chris), was an Everton fan and music aficionado in town on regular business trips. There was also Chris from Warwick (neither of the aforementioned Chrises), a deceptively subdued, fiercely intelligent guy finishing a PhD in International Macroeconomics. Most of our meet ups were based around televised football games. Although we also spent plenty of time sampling the city’s excellent restaurants. One of our favourites being the wonderful Himalaya with its excellent Indian dishes.  

A Single Man, a short story from Belgium.

Hotel Professor Leuven Belgium.

Hotel Professor, Leuven.

By this time Lucie had left Leuven to go and live in L.A. Her exit was a huge relief for me, providing the closure I needed to move on and fully embrace my new Belgian life. Consequently, I became open to the idea of meeting someone new. What’s more, I already had my sights set on Heidi, a beautiful Finnish girl who worked in Paktel’s Scandinavian team. Vivacious and flirtatious, I found her English accent captivating, the highs and lows of her melodic tones attracting more than a few glances across the office floor.

“Are you doin’ Heidi or what?”

Luckily for me, Heidi and I connected from day one, mainly due to our ability to talk and laugh about anything. A pet topic was classic TV shows, particularly the Australian series Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, a Heidi favorite. “Click click click!” “What’s that Skippy? The kids are trapped down the old mineshaft?” She would often goad me into acting out that scene. In fact, I ended up doing it so many times she even started calling me Skippy. Our conspiratorial closeness raised multiple eyebrows at work. “Ere Leighton!” scoffed Nikki one day between calls, “are you doin’ Heidi or what?”

Skippy The Bush Kangaroo.

A Single Man, a short story from Belgium.

Unfortunately Heidi and I weren’t doing anything, despite the amount of time we spent together. One night, during a movie at my place, I finally plucked up the courage to ask her out on a proper date. But then, at the exact moment I was about to pull the trigger, the conversation changed direction and she began confiding in me about a Paktel admirer called Ronny. “He wants to be more than friends!” she whispered, leaning in so close I could taste her perfume. “He’s a nice guy, but I told him I’m not interested in anyone right now. The last thing I want is any kind of relationship, you know?” “Yeah, of course!” I said through gritted teeth, feeling bitterly disappointed. But also relieved that she’d saved me from making an idiot of myself.

“The last thing I want is any kind of relationship, you know?”

Short story from Belgium.

With Heidi at a house party in Leuven.

With all hopes of some Finnish fun biting the dust, a week later I found myself on a date with a Belgian girl called Ella. She worked behind the bar at Time Out on the Square. I’d spotted her reading Stephen King’s The Shining, thus we ended up talking horror for an hour before hitting the cinema together. She reminding me of a Mean Girls era Amanda Seyfried and the date went well, so we started hanging out regularly.

“She’d have to be fucking crazy to go out with you!”

Sadly though, it didn’t take Ella and I long to see that we weren’t compatible. Primarily, she didn’t seem to get my sense of humour at all. Possibly it was the language, or maybe it was a cultural thing. Hell, perhaps I just wasn’t funny. There were also moments when she would descend into an unbearable quietness. Finally, with any rapport we’d had petering out to the point of nonexistence, Ella confessed that she’d recently spent time at a psychiatric facility. As a result, she understandably felt unready to start dating! Though I tried not to show it, I was stunned. “Makes sense” laughed Nikki the next day, handing me a lump of her sugared waffle. “She’d have to be fucking crazy to go out with you!”

With the summer sun giving way to a chilly autumn, things went quiet on the dating front and for a while I lost interest. Then, out of the blue, I found myself hosting a Danish visitor! Sine and I first met on a ferry from London to Denmark in 1998. I was twenty years old, while she was just seventeen! It was my Uncle David’s stag weekend and I was dressed up in a charity shop outfit of appalling 70s gear. I sported an Afro wig, bell-bottom trousers and a dodgy, home-knitted jumper.

A Single Man, a short story from Belgium.

Looking back, I think it was a miracle she didn’t run off at the sight of me! Somehow we got talking at the disco and I discovered she lived in a small town near the port city of Kalundborg. Later in the evening we relocated to her cabin where Sine and I got to know each other better. Before disembarking in Denmark we exchanged contact details and ended up becoming pen pals.

Short story Belgium

With Sine on the ferry to Denmark, 1998.

Four years after we met on the ferry I went to Denmark to see her. But any hopes of romance were dashed when Sine told me she wanted things to stay platonic. Since then our contact had been sporadic. So I was more than a little surprised when she got back in touch to say that she was coming to Leuven. Hopelessly idealistic and naïve, I thought it could be the beginning of something. That perhaps our time had finally come. And while things didn’t quite work out that way, it was still great having her around.

“Do what you have to do!!!”

I showed her all my favourite Leuven haunts and we took a day trip to Brussels. When Frodo threw a party at his place in Leuven, I took Sine along and she met the Paktel crew. There were winks and nudges from Ian, an “ooh she’s lovely!’’ from Caroline and genuine warmth from her fellow Scandinavians. Including Heidi, who seemed really happy for me. It was just after midnight when we made our excuses and headed home. I’ll never forget Ronny stopping me in the doorway as we left. “Do what you have to do!!!” he boomed in his deep voice, clamping a hand down firmly on my shoulder.

Visit The Grand Place Brussels.

With Sine at The Grand Place, Brussels. A Single Man, a short story from Belgium.

By the time Christmas came around, Sine’s visit had dissolved into a seemingly distant memory. And so I was solo again, at exactly the wrong time of the year. With a sense of loneliness setting in I began seeing Helena, a Paktel Swede who I didn’t even find that attractive. “Oh Leighton, you’re scraping the barrel now!” growled Nikki, while the next day even Heidi was moved to weigh in. “Skippy, you do know Helena really likes you?” she said with a cocked eyebrow, a disapproving tilt of her head.

We’d only been on a couple of dates, but I knew I had to put an end to things before they got messy. When I gently let her down one evening she just glared at me with a quiet, controlled fury. It was the last time she even looked at me, let alone talked to me. I suppose I deserved it.

A Single Man, a short story from Belgium.

On the bright side, the Helena debacle served as the wake up call I’d so badly needed. Taking stock of the past months, I realised that having a girlfriend wasn’t essential. That I should focus on the positives of my strange and amusing Belgian life. “No new flavour of the moment?” cackled Nikki one morning. “Are your dandy days over?” “You’ll meet someone Leighton,” chirped Caroline. “And it’ll happen naturally, just when you least expect it”. Good old Caro, she always had a way of making you feel better. “Thanks” I replied, popping my headphones on.

With a deep breath and a steely resolve I returned to the disgruntled Mr. Boreham, who’d been impatiently waiting on hold. “I’m sorry sir,” I said robotically, “but according to our records your printer is still in transit. I’m going to look into this for you and call you back”. It was a full thirty seconds before I was able to speak again. “Mr. Boreham, if you continue to speak to me like that I have no choice but to end the call”.

‘A Single Man’ is the third part of my short story collection Based In Belgium.

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1 Comment

  • natty4t

    Loving the pics Leighton! I adored hotel professor and the whole vibe of Leuven. Thomas had a cocktail called Custard’s Last Stand. It was ming and he was gutted as ours were fab!

    January 24, 2016 - 10:07 pm Reply

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