Rain is pounding on the cobblestones of Place Luxembourg as people cluster to the bars around the square for an after work drink. Colorful umbrellas alternate with newspapers hastily turned into makeshift headgear and the occasional “Merde!” can be heard when a passing car splashes water on a pedestrian.
Among the suits and ties of the employees walking out of the European Institution buildings one can spot a few quite different fashion choices. A skeleton is walking down Rue des Trèves, followed by a group of zombies passing around cans of beer. In the more residential streets of the European Quarter groups of children are going door to door, trick-or-treating.
At one of the bars lining the square, Petra orders her own Halloween treat, a red martini, from a sulking barman wearing a wizard’s hat.
“A Leffe Blonde please – oh,sorry!”
The man who has just stepped on Petra’s foot is in his mid-thirties, with hair so blond it’s almost white. He smiles apologetically as the barman hands him his Belgian beer.
“Don’t worry, my shoes are quite sturdy.”
The man looks at Petra’s red high heels and raises an eyebrow.
“Sturdy is not the word I would use to describe them” he says.“I mean that as a compliment, of course” he hurries to add, and Petra notices he is blushing a little. She takes a sip of her martini to hide her smile.
“Do you work here, then?” he asks.
He’s obviously just come from the office – he’s wearing a suit and tie and there’s a briefcase resting on his bar stool. He speaks English well, but with a foreign accent that Petra can’t quite place – Scandinavian, or maybe Eastern European.
“Here at the bar? No.” Petra replies, her eyes shining with mischief.
The man’s face reddens – he has very fair skin, and he can’t hide a blush. Petra’s own olive skin tone makes it easier to conceal embarrassment.
“Parliament, Fisheries” she adds, taking pity on him.
“Aah, neighbors then. I work at the Commission,” he says. “I’m Leif, by the way.”
“Petra” she says.
“Excusez-moi” a middle-aged man wearing a red velvet cape and fake fangs interrupts. “Do you know whose statue it is over there?” He waves at the direction of the window, through which they can see, in the center of the square, the statue of a man leaning against an anvil.
“I’m sorry, no idea” he says. “You know, I’ve never even noticed there was a statue there before.”
“It’s John Cockerill” Petra says.
Both Leif and the vampire turn towards her.
“He was a 19th century Belgian entrepreneur and a founder of the Banque de Belgique. You can see his motto, Work and Intelligence, engraved on the base of the statue.”
Some people have more dreams than can fill a lifetime and John Cockerill had been one of them. He’d feared oblivion far more than he’d feared death, but he needn’t have worried; Petra remembered all of it – his eyes shining as he told her each new business idea, his despair when his company had become bankrupt, his hands shaking the last time he’d kissed her, over a hundred years ago.
“Did you hear that, Wilhelm?” the vampire calls out to a nearby table, and Petra snaps out of her reminiscence. “Told you I could find someone who knew the answer – you owe me five euros!”
“So you are not only an expert in fish but in history as well” Leif says, turning to her again. The skin around his eyes crinkles when he smiles. “Very impressive.”
Petra knows she doesn’t deserve the praise. It’s easy to remember history when you were actually there. But the young man in front of her, with his charming accent and his easy blush, doesn’t know who she really is. And besides, a lady never gives away her age.
“I just have a thing for statues” is all that she says.
“So you’re one of those people who go to art galleries, then” Leif says.
“You make it sound like bad thing!”
“I’m afraid I’m one of those people who find statues a little, well, boring.”
Leif sips his beer, his eyes twinkling with humor over the rim of his glass.
Boring! Petra can’t think of a less appropriate word for a statue. What else can move while staying still? What else grows old but never dies? Life at a standstill, that’s what a statue is, life caught in marble or stone, in iron or bronze, out of death’s reach.
“The city of Brussels might disagree with you” she points out. “After all, it’s chosen a statue as its symbol.”
Leif looks at her blankly.
“The Manneken Pis?” Petra tries.
Leif’s blush returns.
“I must confess to a terrible sin” he says. “I’ve lived in Brussels for over a year and I haven’t seen the Manneken Pis yet.”
Petra can’t help but laugh at his sheepish look.
“It’s never too late to redeem yourself” she says, her gaze going to the busses driving past the square. “What do you think?”
Outside, Leif gallantly shares his umbrella as they head towards the bus stop. When they walk past the statue of Place Lux, he turns to look at it, for the first time paying attention. Standing with one leg slightly in front of the other, John Cockerill looks as though he’s about to step off his podium and join the pedestrians around the square. Leif can see him as a successful businessman; he’s even wearing a stone vest under his stone coat, he notices. Leif angles his head to look at the statue’s face, which is surveying Place Lux with an intelligent gaze. And then – no, that can’t be right. Leif blinks. Did the statue just wink at him? He shakes his head. Belgians and their 6% alcohol beers.
Taking a bus with a stranger, Leif has found, can be quite the awkwardness test, but he and Petra pass it with flying colors. Being both expats, albeit from opposite sides of the European continent – Leif hails from Denmark, and Petra, he finds out, is Greek – they bond over their bemusement of Belgium. If someone had told him this morning, Leif muses, that he’d be spending Halloween going around Brussels to look at statues with a woman he’d just met at a bar – well, he’d think they were crazy. But it’s not like he has anything better to do, and he likes the way Petra talks, fiddling with her hair as she tells him about the Manneken Pis.
“There are many theories, of course, but the most well-known is that it is the statue of Duke Godfroy of Leuven. The Duke’s army was in battle against the Lords of Grimbergen, when the Duke himself was only two years old. He was able to contribute to the victory, however, by urinating on the enemy troops…”
Half an hour later they’ve traded Place Lux for her big sister, the Grand Place. As they walk towards Rue Charles Buis they pass several witches and ghosts, not at all out of place in the Gothic square, as well as a couple of sexy nurses and a pair of geniuses dressed up as mussels and fries, the Belgian national dish. Empty cans of beer litter the cobbled streets and suddenly someone behind them kicks one of the cans. Leif turns his head, startled, only to find himself face to face with Death, features hidden under a black cloak, scythe at hand. Leif looks back one last time as they leave the square behind and sees that Death is still looking their way. He suppresses an inexplicable shudder.
“Do you have Halloween in Greece?” he asks Petra as they continue their walk towards the Manneken Pis.
Petra shakes her head.
“No. Well, we have Carnival, but that’s in February. And in Denmark?”
“Not when I was a kid. But now it’s catching on.” He grimaces. “I feel old saying that. Any moment now I’ll start saying things like back in my day and the youngsters these days.”
Petra refrains from commenting, since she is technically several thousand years old and that can lead to awkward questions. I feel old saying that. Well, of course he would be starting to feel old now. Humans don’t live long, do they? His life will be over like the whisper of the wind rustling through the leaves of a tree, like a beautiful sunset that’s over before you’ve even finished snapping pictures.
She lays a hand on his arm, stopping him as they walk past the Maison de l’Etoile.
“Do you know this one?” she asks, pointing at the statue of Everard T’Serclaes lying on his deathbed, sculpted on the facade of the house where he died in 1388.
“Um – you have to rub the arm and it will bring you luck, right?”
As they both look at the monument, Everard T’ Serclaes opens one eye, then the other.
“Not the arm” he groans as Petra approaches. “Everyone goes for the arm, and they keep having to renovate me.”
Petra places a hand on his cheek instead.
“Hush” she murmurs, glancing at Leif standing a bit further away, but he doesn’t seem to have heard.
“Is it that time of year, then?” Serclaes says, his bronze eyes focusingon a pair of teenagers dressed up as vampires. “When the monsters come out to play?” He turns his head incrementally to meet Petra’s gaze.
“Now, then, Everard, don’t be bitter.” Petra says. “I did only as you asked. You’re the one who begged not to die.”
Statues can’t sigh, of course, but Everard T’Serclaes’ monument could almost convince you of the opposite.
“I know, I know.” he says. Another tiny movement of the head, this time towards Leif. “And this one? Did he ask, as well?”
But Petra doesn’t answer. Instead, she walks up to Leif again.
“Shall we?” she says. They walk down the street in the direction of the Manneken Pis, leaving Everard behind, forever breathing his last on his bronze deathbed.
“It’s smaller than I thought it would be” Leif says, as they look at the bronze sculpture of a little boy relieving himself. He and Petra are huddled together under his umbrella, rain falling in earnest around them again.
“That’s what she said” Petra says with a grin and Leif bursts out laughing. He feels jittery and drunk, even though he didn’t even finish his beer back at the bar.
Petra leans her head forward, their lips almost touching, but then she pulls back abruptly. Leif’s heart sinks in disappointment before he sees that she’s smiling.
“Not in front of the Duke!” she whispers. She takes his hand and they turn the corner giggling like schoolchildren, out of the little statue’s sight. This time she doesn’t pull back; Leif’s umbrella drops to the pavement, the rain forgotten. Petra’s lips taste like salt and martini, and his hands are in her hair and his back is against the brick wall – his jacket will be ruined but he doesn’t care. It’s as if time has stopped for a moment – or maybe they’re the ones not moving, caught in a standstill while the world keeps spinning by.
He doesn’t even notice that his legs feel heavy until he realizes he can’t move them. There’s a tightness in his chest, a cold weight that spreads to his outstretched arms, reminding him of diving in very cold water. Except this is heavier than water – it’s like lead, pinning his legs into place, making movement impossible. Petra breaks off the kiss and Leif’s lips half-form a question, but he can’t seem to speak.
“I’m sorry” Petra whispers. “I couldn’t resist.”
She turns around and heads back down the road, walking quickly past the Manneken Pis – an accident, when Petra had been making the statue of a handsome young soldier, and how was she supposed to know that just behind him was a little boy relieving himself in the bushes? But then, if the little boy had lived to grow up, he would have long been forgotten. And look at him now, promoted to a Duke through urban legend, living forever as the landmark of an entire country.
Petra blends in with the dressed-up monsters returning from Halloween parties. People are terrified of monsters, aren’t they, but they keep inviting them in, imagining stories about them, keeping them alive in their memories. When will people learn, that if you make something up you can’t expect it not to exist?
Back at the corner of Rue de L’Etuve and Rue des Grandes Carmes people walk past the brand new statue of a young man in a suit, rain glistening on smooth gray stone, briefcase and umbrella by his feet, arms outstretched as if to greet a lover, eyes wide in surprise. Few of them look twice; only the occasional local might wonder whether the statue appeared overnight, or whether it’s always been there, and it was just a question of paying attention.
Banner Image: Manneken Pis – pixabay.com