It was a boozy, schmoozy atmosphere, late in the evening of the second night of a three-day sales conference in the Palatinate, south-west Germany. Hangovers had been collected, endured, refreshed, and endured once more, and were now being prepared for again with a kind of desperate fatalism. Everyone was talking in voices raised against the blare of the house band: confidences were being shouted into ears at a hundred decibels, noses tapped, winks exchanged.
The third and final day of the conference was going to be a memorable hell, and everyone was numbing themselves for it in advance.
Suddenly one of the star salesmen, a multilingual Belgian who had dazzled everyone with his impromptu flip-chart presentation during the afternoon’s Q&A session, strode up to the house band’s guitarist and asked to borrow his instrument for a few minutes. With marked reluctance, the guitarist disencumbered himself of his red Stratocaster. The band adjourned to the bar. The Belgian – still wearing his business suit, his shirt collar now open and his tie at half-mast – slung the guitar round his neck, thumbed a few discreet chords to check the tuning, and then began to sing.
The alcohol-fuelled barrage of multiple monologues had tailed off as the salesman’s colleagues noticed him adjusting the microphone; when his mouth opened in song, the residual chatter lapsed into a sudden, shocked silence.
‘Ay, Marieke, Marieke, je t’aimais tant,’ he sang, ‘entre les tours de Bruges et Gand. Ay, Marieke, Marieke, il y a longtemps entre les tours de Bruges et Gand.’ [‘Oh, Marieke, Marieke, I loved you so, between the towers of Bruges and Ghent. Oh, Marieke, Marieke, a long time ago, between the towers of Bruges and Ghent‘.]
I had never heard the songs of Jacques Brel before. This was my first exposure to his music, sung by a fellow-Belgian of about Brel’s height and complexion in the smoky, smeary atmosphere of a bar full of worldly people swapping worldly problems. The air bled at every note; and the listeners looked on in a silence close to religious awe as the salesman continued in Flemish,
‘Zonder liefde, warme liefde, lijdt het licht, het donk’re licht en schuurt het sand over mein land, mijn platte land, mijn Vlaanderland.’ [Without love, warm love, the light suffers, the dark light, and the sand scours over my land, my flat land, my Flanders land.]
But it wasn’t simply that I was hearing the work of Jacques Brel for the first time, and encountering for the first time one of his greatest celebrations of lost love. I was hearing, for the first time ever in my life, how a man in a business suit can sing – how someone whose days are given over to mark-ups and discounts and margins, margins, margins can have the soul of a poet and bare it to all and sundry, ripping open the locked cupboards in the long-forgotten corners of their hearts and bringing back for them, whatever languages they may speak, all the joys and sorrows of their own first loves.
I said that the air bled at the sound of the Belgian salesman’s voice. A professional writer should avoid such clichés. It’s what we’re paid for. Let me strive for a better turn of phrase.
The salesman sang Jacques Brel. And the very smoke-wreathes on the yellowed ceiling wept.
© Jonathan Steffen
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