Irina Papancheva

(excerpt from Brussels Naked, a novel)

1000 Brussel Stad


Looking back through the prism of time, I see how circumstances could give impetus for taking actions you would have not even considered if things had been different. If Jan wasn’t away on holiday when I returned to Brussels in August; if the city, outside of the old town, wasn’t totally deserted like a stage before a performance; if it wasn’t cool and raining and – and this is certainly the decisive one – if things at home were different.

I remember wandering around the empty streets from the Métropole hotel to Sablon and feeling emptiness settling inside me. I didn’t want to go to the places where I usually hang out with Jan, so I picked one of the restaurants at Sablon, checked my notes from the day and had a proper Belgian dinner. Most of the visitors were couples, I think I was the only person dining alone. I called Heather. Her flat, terse answers. Everything’s alright. We’re having dinner so not a great moment to talk to the kids. Yeah, of course, smakelijk…


At first, I took it as a relationship crisis. It happens to every couple, right? Not unusual after eighteen years together. But crises are temporary, they have a start and an end. What we had been living in didn’t feel like a crisis anymore. It felt like life. That’s what it was. This is where you’ve got to and it’s not going to change, not going to change, not going to change… Heather and I lived in a spacious house in Frankfurt and apart from the moments when we had activities with the children and acted and probably looked like a normal family, we related to each other like strangers. Even this wasn’t correct. Strangers are neutral. There was nothing neutral about us. We had a common past, but, perhaps, both of us saw the other as the one depriving them of the chance for love, tenderness, understanding and connection in this life. The thief of all the other possibilities which would have certainly been better. No matter what, for me she was the mother of my children. They would not have been here, nor would they have been the way they were without her. But I feared that she perceived me as the insensitive guy who imprisoned her with three kids in a foreign country. As if the help wasn’t there. She got all the help a woman could get. Cleaning, au pair service, what was there to complain about? Having too much free time, basically. Stuck in life?! How many people on this planet could dream of being stuck in such a way…?

The couple at the table next to mine talked quietly. He held her hand across the table, she smiled at him and her eyes radiated tenderness.


I went out and walked back to my hotel. It was cool, I was all alone and somewhat lost in this empty city. In my room, I flicked through the channels, but nothing caught my attention. One of the channels showed Pretty Woman. I got a glimpse of the scene where they lay in the bathtub, Julia Roberts spreading her endless legs around Richard Gere. I switched it off.

It had been so long since I’d been touched. So long that I’d almost forgotten how it felt like to be looked at with tenderness, like that couple in the restaurant, no matter how pathetic it might sound, but I felt jealous of this guy…

And then in the spur of the moment, I opened my laptop and wrote: Escort in Brussels.

Multiple entries appeared. I clicked randomly on a website on the first page. It was a website where both girls and agencies advertised their services. Hundreds of photos of nude young women, blond, brunette, red-haired, long hair, short hair, thin, plump, large and small tits, all sorts of poses, supposedly provocative, but actually openly vulgar. A couple of women had put photos of a man’s cock half inside them, disgusting! I was just about to close when I noticed a photo of a dressed woman. Not just dressed but elegantly dressed. She was wearing a black skirt to her knees and a white blouse. College style. Her face radiated intelligence and purity. Black long curly hair, green eyes, tanned skin. Laura. “A classy experience” was her label. Two hundred euro per hour plus taxi costs. What was a woman like that doing on such a website? Was that a joke? Before I knew it, I was dialling her number.

‘Bonsoir,’ soft, distant voice.

‘Hello... am I speaking with Laura?’

‘That’s correct.’

‘I’m looking for… a classy experience.’

‘You are at the right place.’

‘Excellent. Will you join me at the Métropole hotel then?’

‘With pleasure. I’ll be there in fifteen minutes. Which room number?’

‘I’ll meet you in the bar. I’m wearing an orange tie.’


Exactly fifteen minutes later, she entered the bar and fixed her serious look on me, sitting by the bar and helping my confidence with Irish bourbon. She wore a sleeveless evening dress, green like her eyes, wrapping her body, and medium-high heels. A dark blue scarf was covering her shoulders. She approached me, bringing an air of calm confidence.

‘Hello, I am Laura. And you must be…’


‘Nice to meet you, Herman.’

‘Very pleased to meet you, Laura. Would you like a drink?’

‘You should know that I am paid per hour and my working time is starting now.’

‘I saw it on the website… no rush. What can I get you?’

‘Still water with ice and lime.’

The waiter brought a bottle of Evian, poured the water over the ice cubes, and went away.

‘What service would you like?’

Her green eyes, fixed in mine with an innocent ease, as if we were discussing business. Which we were.

‘Where are you from, Laura?’

She paused for a moment, then said: ‘Slovenia. And you must be Dutch.’

‘Great observation. What made you guess?’

‘My sixth sense, I suppose.’

‘Hmmmm… and what else is your sixth sense is telling you about me, Laura?’

‘That it was loneliness what made you dial my number.’

She said it calmly, her voice staying soft. No challenge, nothing. I sat there caught off guard.

‘Very interesting. I’m becoming wary of asking you questions.’

‘I’ve heard that Dutch can bear frankness.’

‘You’ve heard right. Yet such directness is striking, especially when coming from a beautiful stranger.’

Her face stayed relaxed as if she had not heard the compliment.

‘But no worries, I can handle it, I can handle many things…’

‘Can you? So, what have you handled so far?’

And again, the way she spoke was not challenging, not provoking but neutral, interested without being eager.

‘Good question. The overwhelming love of my mother, grandmother and aunt with me being the only child in the family. The joys of a dysfunctional marriage. And the tricky dynamics of the European Central Bank. Not too bad, huh?’

‘Overwhelming love – in which way?’

‘In its abundance and unconditionality.’

‘Isn’t that what true love is about?’

‘What do you know about true love, Laura?’

‘I beg your pardon?’ Her eyes turning dark.

‘Sorry. A clumsy attempt for a joke.’

‘Let’s start with the Mother.’

‘I didn’t know I was setting myself with a psychotherapy session.’

‘Shall we go to your room then?’

‘The Mother…My appearance provided her with the opportunity to experience motherhood. Happy to be a mother and to do all the things a good mother does according to the guidebooks from the seventies…She was focused on applying her perception of a happy family. However, destiny played a bad joke with her with my father’s death when I was fourteen. End of the happy family, end of the concept of happiness. The Mother succumbed to her grief and made me the reason for her existence. Being a reason, however, doesn’t necessarily mean a happy reason… As a good Catholic, she felt obliged to live for me. Until the birth of my first child achieved a miracle. I saw her face lighting up after all those years of darkness…but it wasn’t for me.  Ha ha, I must sound pathetic.’

‘Not at all. Your grandmother must have helped during those tough years.’

‘Indeed. She stepped in and took over from my mother so that she could be undisturbed in her suffering. A widow herself, she was there to cook for me and check whether I’d done my homework. But other than that, I could be what I wanted. Being her only grandchild, she loved me no matter how I acted or reacted… She would not get angry, she would not criticise me. She would just look at me with her pale eyes and say softly: “My lovely boy.” I would try hard to evoke a different reaction. No joy.’

‘So, the abundance of love can cause as much suffering as its absence.’


‘How does the Aunt fit into the picture?’

‘The Aunt is my father’s sister. A childless lesbian. I was the missing element. On weekends they would take me out and imitate all the things that ‘normal’ families do: the cinema, playgrounds, sweet shops, buy me things, ask about school and my friends. But what I remember most was the way my aunt looked at me: her eyes flooded with tenderness. For her, I was a little God. The Child-God. She was close to my father, too, and when, later, he died, I became the living continuation of the missing brother. One more projection to bear.’

‘There are worse things in life, Herman, than being loved.’

‘Are there? Tell me. Like what?’

‘I am afraid my time is over, Herman.’

She got up and stood still.

‘I feel a bit awkward. You threw me immediately into deep waters. I haven’t said these things to many people, you know. You might consider a career switch.’

‘I enjoyed talking to you, Herman.’

I took out my wallet and gave her four fifty-euro notes. She carefully put them in hers. Then she lifted her hand and brushed the tips of her fingers on my cheek. They were soft. She turned and walked towards the exit. A moment later, she was gone. I sat alone with my almost finished bourbon in dismay. Has any of this happened? Or have I hallucinated? But I could still feel the delicate scent of her perfume, the gentle touch of her fingertips on my face. 











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