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

Car Crash Girl Part II, a short story from Belgium.

Car Crash Girl Part II 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.

In many ways things between Lucie and I began to disintegrate right from the day I arrived in Belgium. Touching down in Brussels, she was on hand to meet me at the airport before leading me outside to meet her father Tom. Slim and tanned, he was as dapper as an L.A. talk show host in his freshly pressed shirt and trousers. Mr. De Smolden smiled, shook my hand and was courteous enough with his rusty English. Nevertheless, there was something about his detached demeanour that suggested life in the family home wasn’t going to be as welcoming as I’d hoped.

Still, as we sped off towards Lucie’s hometown in his fancy car, I told myself to try and be positive. After all, it was only for a few weeks and then we’d be getting a place of our own. Having conquered the trials and tribulations of my adventures in Qatar, Slovakia and India, I mistakenly believed that a couple of weeks in the north of Belgium would be a piece of cake.

Car Crash Girl Part II, a short story from Belgium.

The town of Mol is a pretty little place in the province of Antwerp, some fifty three kilometres northeast of the Belgian capital. Driving through its spotless tree-lined streets, we passed scatterings of charming old cottages, family-owned shops and a traditional wooden-beamed pub. It was all rather pleasant in a harmless, one foot in the grave kind of way.

The town of Mol Belgium.

One foot in the grave: Mol, Belgium.

The De Smolden family residence was in the suburbs, a further ten minutes away from Mol’s town centre. Turning into a quiet country lane, nothing had prepared me for the sight I was about to behold as a pair of mammoth electric gates buzzed open. And then it came into view, a gargantuan structure that was basically a castle masquerading as a house. Beyond the property, I half expected to see a game of Quidditch underway on the stretch of land they called the garden.

“Georgie!!!!” cried Lucie.

All I could do was sit there with my mouth half open, taking it all in. Finally, I turned to look at Lucie, who was smirking at me as we came to a stop on the stone drive. Climbing out, a grizzled old dog called George came padding over to greet us. “Georgie!!!!” cried Lucie, rushing over to fuss him. “He’s been with us since I was a kid”. And then she was leading the way towards the drawbridge of a front door, George trotting happily by her side.

Leighton Travels travel reports short stories.

Car Crash Girl Part II, a short story from Belgium.

Inside, we arrived in a wide, high-ceilinged hallway, with what looked like priceless art hanging from the walls. Suddenly, a palpable sense of despondency swept over me as I spotted her mother standing motionless at the bottom of a giant staircase. A pale hand resting on its iron railing, she smiled at me coldly. Her sculpted grey hair and pursed smile bringing to mind an older, even icier version of Cruella De Ville. 

“If she doesn’t get you, no evil thing will!”

“Hello” she said aloofly, holding her position. “Did you get a good journey?” Doing my best not to show my discomfort, I told her that I had and thanked her in advance for letting me stay. “Of course” she replied distantly, floating away into the kitchen. Standing by my side, Lucie took my hand and gave it a squeeze. “Don’t worry about her!” she giggled, nudging me in the ribs. “She has everything she could possibly need in life but hates the world. This place is big enough that you won’t have to see her much”. Oh how I wished that had been true.

5 Cruella

“Did you get a good journey?”

The summer of 2005 was one I’ll never forget. Lucie and I had lived out an idyllic existence in the picture book countryside of The Scottish Borders. Based at my parents’ cottage with the family dog Inde, we spent our days going on long, rambling walks through the fields and staying up crazy late watching movies.

“If you really wanna go to Italy you should,”

We caught each other up on our childhoods, shared our secrets, revealed our ambitions and admitted our fears. “If you really wanna go to Italy you should,” she said one night, the pair of us sprawled across the living room sofa with a tub of popcorn. “But you should know that I can’t do another long distance relationship”.

Terminally indecisive by nature, I didn’t want to make any kind of hasty decision. Hence I just sat on it, my mind ticking away uselessly. One day, during a visit to the nearby town of Kelso, she came right out with it. “You should come to Belgium and live with me. My dad has an apartment in Leuven, we can stay there. I’ll go to Uni, you can teach”.

Car Crash Girl Part II, a short story from Belgium.

From that moment I knew there was no way I could go to Brindisi. That the Italian job just wasn’t meant to be. Greg would be gutted of course and I’d feel guilty as hell, especially as I’d be letting him down at the last minute. However, the more time I spent with Lucie, the more certain I felt we belonged together. 

“How do you feel about two kids?’’ she asked, running her fingers through my hair. We were sitting on a bench in Kelso Square, watching the locals busying around us. “Jesus, Lucie!” I laughed. “Um… one day yeah!” While some guys might have run for the hills, I couldn’t stop smiling. Because I’d never met anyone like her.

Kelso Square Scotland.

Kelso Square.

A few days later our summer adventure got even better when an old friend of mine joined the party. Jon is a charming Jeff Goldblum lookalike from Nashville, Tennessee. We met in Slovakia where the two of us had been teaching English. Striking up a firm friendship, Jon and I ended up sharing an apartment in Bratislava before embarking on several trips across Central Europe.

“Off to Belgium, huh kid?”

When Jon arrived in Scotland, it had actually been almost two years to the day since we’d parted ways in the Hungarian town of Siofok. “Off to Belgium huh kid?” he drawled, lighting up a cigarette. The three of us were in Kelso polishing off dinner at Oscar’s, a trendy bar restaurant just off the main square. “Do you think we’re crazy?” asked Lucie, dropping her hand onto my knee. “Sure!” smiled Goldblum, taking a swig of his beer. “But no more crazy than say… obsessing over your front lawn or a career in telesales”.

Car Crash Girl Part II a short story from Belgium

Lucie and Jon at Kelso Abbey.

I was so happy that Lucie and Goldblum hit it off. We all had a great day walking into Kelso from the cottage at Sweethope. On arrival, we played pool over drinks at The White Swan pub, before wandering through the ruins of Kelso Abbey and the graveyard.

Heading into Tesco’s to show Jon some curious Scottish snacks, he was highly amused to discover an alcoholic beverage called Bucks Fizz. The name had been a long running joke between us ever since he’d watched Making Your Mind Up, the hilarious 1981 Eurovision winning song by the British pop band Bucks Fizz. “Ridiculous!” he eventually gasped, wiping the tears from his eyes.

“But soon you will find that there comes a time…
…for making your mind up!”. 

Car Crash Girl Part II a short story from Belgium

Car Crash Girl Part II, a short story from Belgium.

The carefree atmosphere we’d had evaporated when my mum and dad returned to Sweethope a few days later. Although uncharacteristically diplomatic, it was clear they were less than enamoured with Lucie. “She’s got a lot of energy!” my mum tactfully commented one day in the kitchen. “So you’re not going to Italy?” asked my dad, peering at me from behind his newspaper. “What are you going to do in Belgium?”

“See you in two weeks!!!”

In a fortuitous case of excellent timing, it was time for Lucie to return to Belgium. Thus, the next day, we bade each other farewell on the platform at North Berwick Train Station. “See you in two weeks!!!” she called, the train slowly rolling away. Little did I know it, but that would be the last day we were truly happy together.

Short story from Belgium

Car Crash Girl Part II, a short story from Belgium.

Life at Castle De Smolden was an absolute nightmare. There were emergency crisis talks that very first evening when Lucie’s parents summoned her to the living room. I was not invited. Trying in vain to make sense of their guttural exchanges from behind the door, I could only pick out a number of exasperated “Leighton this” and “Leighton that”, interspersed with the easily translatable “niet goed”.

When Lucie finally came to bed, she didn’t hold back in leveling with me. “She thinks you’re not good enough for me. That we’re young and stupid and don’t know what we’re doing”. As dreadful as Cruella De Smolden clearly was, it would take me a few weeks to realise that she was spot on with at least one of her statements.

“He said, you don’t even know how to say hello in Flemish”.

The following morning, I met Lucie’s wiry sister and her fiancé, a bespectacled man who looked like a nineteenth century accountant. “Hello” I said when Lucie introduced me. I got a brief smile from the sister, who quickly moved past me on her way into the kitchen. The guy meanwhile merely sniggered, conversing with Lucie in a way that sounded less than complimentary. “What did he say?” I asked, after he’d shuffled off. “He said, you don’t even know how to say hello in Flemish”.

“you don’t have enough underpants”.

A few days later I returned home from a walk in the woods to find half my clothes missing. Unbeknown to me, Cruella had taken it upon herself to dig around in my suitcase to see if anything needed washing. Pulling Lucie to one side, she explained that many of my T-shirts were “too old” and that there were “not enough underpants”. As if this wasn’t bad enough, she then brought me a pile of her husband’s boxer shorts, insisting that I take them. Totally humiliated, I refused, telling her that my underwear situation was nobody’s business but mine!

Car Crash Girl Part II a short story from Belgium

Car Crash Girl, a short story from Belgium.

A few days before we were due to leave for Leuven, Lucie and I were called into a meeting in the kitchen. In a move I’d seen coming from a mile away, Tom told me that I couldn’t stay at the Leuven apartment for free and that I would need to pay rent like a normal tenant. I said that I was more than happy to pay my way, which promptly led to the subject of employment.

Above all, Cruella was deeply concerned that I hadn’t found a job. And she definitely wasn’t shy in expressing her anxieties. “What kind of situation is this?” she asked Lucie. “Is he trying hard to look for a job?” “What will the neighbours say?” All I could do was sit there like the village idiot waiting for Lucie to translate, everyone talking over and around me. As Lucie and I made our way upstairs to bed, her father took me to one side. 

“She has always these ideas and… well, then she gets boring. Nothing stays”.

I had noticed a change in Lucie throughout our days at Doom Towers. Obviously under pressure from her parents, she’d become increasingly moody, less affectionate and very impatient with my lack of progress on the job front. I assumed things would pick up once we got to Leuven. That reclaiming our privacy and shaking off the wicked witch would help us get back on track. In contrast, things only got worse, and she started flying completely of the handle again over almost nothing.

There was a huge row over the fact that I’d arrived in Belgium with minimal savings. “If I’d have known you were broke, I wouldn’t have let you come!!!” she screamed one night, an outburst that left me speechless. In another eruption, she claimed that my arrival in Belgium had brought nothing but bad luck! This was a reference to the fact that George the dog had passed away. Which obviously had nothing to do with the fact that he’d been fifteen years old.

Car Crash Girl Part II, a short story from Belgium.

Before long, I came to realise that Lucie and I were fundamentally different people. That the adrenalin of our summer romance had blinded us both, casting a paper-thin band aid over the gaping cracks in our incompatible personalities. I was far too passive and thoughtful for her liking, while from my side I felt she had too much of her evil mother in her. Soon enough, I got tired of being managed, judged and criticised at every turn. Of being told that I lacked ambition, used too much toothpaste and couldn’t cut potatoes properly. 

By the time I’d started the call centre job at Paktel, I was already planning my escape. “I think we should live apart,” she announced one day. We’d been walking in miserable silence through Leuven’s postcard-perfect Grote Markt, her statement bringing us to a stop in front of the magnificent town hall. I loved that building, a stunning giant wedding cake structure that looked like something out of a Tim Burton movie. 

The Town Hall Leuven Belgium.

Leuven Town Hall.

“Ok…” I managed, my heart beating fast, a huge wave of relief sweeping over me. “I mean… I still wanna be with you” she said unconvincingly. “But maybe we need some space, take a step back”. Oh yeah some space, I thought, that’ll stick some wind back in the sails. I think she knew as well as I did that it was over. And yet, for whatever reason, we both seemed reluctant to come out and say it.

Car Crash Girl Part II, a short story from Belgium.

I moved out of Lucie’s apartment the next evening while she was out at the cinema with a friend. Wandering the streets rather hopelessly, I stumbled upon a cheap room for rent in a student building on Jean-Baptiste van Monsstraat, a short walk from the train station. My quarters were small and basic, but clean and functional. I had to share the kitchen and living room with two Flemish girls and a mysterious Iraqi man called Zaiid. It’ll do, I thought, and that was that. 

The night after I moved in, I walked to a local internet café for a catch up with friends and family. “How are things with Lucie?” asked my mate Steve. “Well… the whole thing’s been a car crash from start to finish” I admitted glumly, the scale of the disaster only just beginning to sink in. “Come home!!!” cried my mum upon hearing my predicament. But I really didn’t want to be a quitter. 

Jean Baptiste Van Monsstraat Leuven.

Jean Baptiste Van Monsstraat, Leuven.

I guess most people would have packed up and left. But as down in the dumps as I was, I found plenty of reasons to hang around and see how things panned out. Firstly, there was the job at Paktel. Despite my initial fears, it wasn’t all that bad. Secondly, my colleagues were a young, multicultural bunch trying to find their way in Belgium, just like me.

Car Crash Girl Part II, a short story from Belgium.

Moreover, there was Leuven itself, a delightful little city that continued to charm me on a daily basis. I especially loved the laid-back café culture, with its cobbled squares and narrow streets. I found a sports bar that showed Premier League matches and an Indian restaurant that did a mean Chicken Tikka Masala. There was even a cool record shop on Parijsstraat. Thus, after chewing it over for a few days, I decided to give life in Belgium a go and stay in Leuven. 

‘Car Crash Girl Part II’ is the second installment from my short story collection Based in Belgium.

Leighton Travels logo travel reports and short stories.

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6 Comments

  • Mary Phillips

    Good ending, both to the story and the relationship! Enjoyed Part II.

    January 17, 2016 - 5:13 pm Reply
  • Staples

    How many pairs of underpants did you have?

    January 17, 2016 - 5:38 pm Reply
  • natty4t

    Reblogged this on natty4t's Blog.

    January 17, 2016 - 8:14 pm Reply
  • Eromonsele Emmanuel

    Whoa! This was deep Leighton. Love is never really as it seems at first. I’m happy you learnt something from the experience and self worth! That’s a cool bonus.

    April 10, 2020 - 6:06 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha, yes! These kind of life episodes teach you a lot. Thanks for reading!

      April 10, 2020 - 9:03 am Reply

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