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Brexit: A love story

Harry Tenant for Quartz
Independence Day.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

June 23, Year of Mossack Fonseca Tax Solutions 1

Neville Smethwick wakes early and leaps from bed to draw his curtains onto a world of birdsong, bunting and beer tents. He hums to himself as he dresses, pulling on breeches, bellpads, a baldric, clogs, his cherished silk-trimmed boater, his tatter-coat. He pauses at the mirror by the door, gives a brief caper, then jangles down the communal stairs, through the small, airless entry-hall, and out into the suburban morning, a briar pipe clamped jauntily between his teeth.

Neville is 28, single, and works in wealth management at Barclays Global Investors, specialising in payment streamlining solutions.2 His clients, whom he knows only as email addresses and bank account details, the occasional shouted telephone call when something goes wrong, are a mixture of Chinese, Indians, Koreans and Emiratis looking to take advantage of England’s low-to-zero tax regime. Neville hadn’t attended university, balking at the fees when he finished school, and is proud to have achieved some measure of success in such a respectable and patriotic line of work.

Neville sees himself as a graduate of the school of life, having grown into adulthood against the backdrop of economic malaise and civil unrest that followed the first, fabled Independence Day, when the pound3 and the stock markets crashed, and British politics lurched from farce to tragedy and back again.

He remembers prime minster May bending to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph, and the bullet that sliced between two padded shoulders, the assassination carried out by dissident Europhiles hoping to delay the invocation of Article 50. He remembers the swift coronation of prime minister Johnson and chancellor Gove, how they’d persuaded foreign secretary Farage to come out of retirement, and how first Scotland and then Northern Ireland had voted to leave the Union. “A baptism of fire,” Neville would say between pints of Spitfire to whoever was leaning next to him at the bar of the White Hart, giving a grin at once plucky and rueful.

He remembers the swift coronation of prime minister Johnson and chancellor Gove.

He’d been a reluctant Morris dancer initially, invited by a colleague, shuffling through his first few hi-nonny-nonnies, but is now one of the most committed and energetic members of his side, recognizing the symbolic importance of such an English pursuit.4 His street is one of modest terraced houses, most of which are subdivided into apartments such as his own, their windows emblazoned with red and white flags, or peppy patriotic posters cut from The Sun. He reaches the end of the street and hops onto a red London bus, where his ticket is clipped by a chipper conductor, who interrupts his whistling just long enough to bid Neville good morning. He descends, 35 minutes later, at Bank.

Walking up Moorgate, under fluttering flags of St. George, past windows busy with banners and escutcheons, he has a clear sense that his life, and his country, are on the up. He bows to a woman dressed as Britannia coming the other way, jingles his bellpads and turns into the elegant oval of Finsbury Circus.5

There is a Maypole in the center of the park, bunting strung between the trees. The bowling green has been rolled and mown and now glows iridescently in the morning sunlight. There are tents and stalls, tombolas and a coconut shy, hook-a-ducks and a steam-driven barrel organ. Neville finds himself nodding in approval. Nowhere in England, not even in the National Heritage Parks of the Yorkshire Dales, the Quantocks and the Cotswolds, will they celebrate Independence Day with quite such authentic Englishness. He lights his briar pipe, admires the framing solidity of Lutyen’s Britannic House that spans one side of the Circus, then takes out his pocket watch.

The festivities aren’t due to begin until midday, and it is only just after ten. Neville decides to stroll down to the river. He makes his way along the mirrored chasm of London Wall, the skyline bristling with towers and cranes. There’s a small gang of guestworkers on the pavement ahead,6 picking up beer cans and crisp packets from last night’s celebrations. They’re mostly Romanians and Poles from the Enclave, perhaps an Albanian or two, he reckons, giving them a wide berth. They’re talking in their own languages, something he knows to be against the terms of their contracts, but he can’t see that it hurts. He smiles benevolently at them and continues down the Minories towards the Tower.

A raven flaps up to peck at the eye of a 48% terrorist, exposing the optic nerve.

Standing above the moat, looking across to the ancient castle with its casemates and crenellations, Neville feels a surge of national pride, a sense of the long reach of English history. Somewhere, a band is tuning up—fifes and cornets and a military timpani. He hears the first bars of ‘God Save the King,’7 and hums along, his eyes drawn towards Traitors’ Row. Ranged the length of the Tower’s fortified walls are spikes atop which severed heads loll in various states of decay. Neville had voted against the reintroduction of capital punishment, one of the wave of referenda introduced by the Johnson premiership, an attempt to achieve what the prime minister8 called “real democracy.” A raven flaps up to peck at the eye of a 48% terrorist,9 exposing the optic nerve, severing it, and swallowing the eye, before flapping back down.

Neville turns towards Tower Bridge, weaves between the crowds, nodding and jingling, then stands watching the boats on the river for a while. There are gunboats with their ranks of young officers; some Dunkirk Little Ships ready for the re-enactment at four; a Vanguard submarine that may or may not be carrying a Trident nuclear missile. He looks at his watch again, capers and leaps for a group of Chinese tourists, and then heads back up towards the Circus. He takes a different route this time, through the warren of narrow, Dickensian streets behind Aldgate, where, crouched in the shadow of a wheelie-bin, he sees a girl crying.

Neville thinks at first that it’s a child, squatting down there, dissolved in tears. He kneels beside her and makes shushing noises, and it is only when she looks up that he sees she is in her early-twenties, rather beautiful, her face grubby and tear-streaked. He offers her a handkerchief.

– Are you alright? he asks. She regards him silently, then blows her nose. – Can I help? His bellcaps jangle as he shifts himself round in front of her.

–Parlez-vous Français? It’s the only foreign he knows, having had no use for the smattering of French he’d learnt at school. England wore its proximity to Europe as a kind of shameful family secret, and there had even been a Commons Select Committee chaired by foreign secretary Farage which looked into the possibility of dragging the country north-west into the Atlantic. As it is, cartographers from Google Maps to Collins are encouraged to exaggerate the width of the Channel, and all maps now show as a thick black line the Wall that has been erected from Folkestone to Ramsgate.10 The Wall is forty miles long, twenty feet high, and patrolled by home secretary Leadsom’s fearsome National Border Integrity Force.11

The Wall is forty miles long, twenty feet high, and patrolled by home secretary Leadsom’s fearsome National Border Integrity Force.

Neville has never really thought about what life must be like in the Enclave towns of Dover, Deal and Sandwich. There are said to be more than two million refugees clustered along the Enclave’s broken shoreline, stateless and dispossessed, fleeing the series of wars that broke out across Europe after the collapse of the EU and the cataclysmic foreign policy decisions of Trump-era America. England treats the Enclave as Europe’s problem, with foreign minister Farage sending strongly-worded missives to his French and German counterparts, erecting enormous signs in the Channel and along the motorways of northern Europe stating clearly “England Is for the English – You Are Not Welcome – Stay Here.” With Eurostar bankrupt and services running near-empty, the Channel Tunnel was bricked up in the Year of One Direction’s Greatest Hits.

Those migrants who, after a series of physical examinations, are granted guestworker status are ferried through heavily-guarded gates on armored buses that take them from the Enclave to London, to Bristol, to Manchester, to the Manufacturing Zones12 of the north-east, to the National Heritage Parks and Cultural Renaissance Centres. Their work-card implants are clocked in and out, and the penalty for overstaying is six-to-eight months in the G4S-run prison ships that are moored in the Channel, with multiple offenders forcibly repatriated. NBIF guards patrol the major cities in “Go Home” trucks, their scanners tuned to snare any guestworker who tries to slip the noose.

– Would you like a Polo? Neville has found a sweet in the pocket of his breeches and pulls it out, picking off a few pieces of lint, and hands it to her. She pops it into her mouth, smiling. They stay there, squatting, while she sucks her sweet, and the sounds of brass bands and chanting and marching feet come to them distantly through the warm air, the sea-like stirrings of the city. He finds himself wondering what she must be thinking, this European woman, alone in a country celebrating its rejection of her people, her way of life. Neville doesn’t like to think about Europe, about its bombed-out cathedrals and cratered avenues.13 He feels himself no more European than, say Indian, remembering a school trip to Nantes, where he’d sensed the unutterable distance between himself and the pimply French boys and the gorgeous, preppy girls. He doesn’t like wine or strong cheese and thinks European footballers preening cheats.

– Let’s find you someone who can help, Neville says, his voice very soft as he offers her an arm, and helps her to her feet. – My name Neville, he says, pointing at himself.

– Katja, she says, smiling again.

There’s a parade passing down Whitechapel High Street and barriers have been put up. It’s still half an hour until Neville needs to be at Finsbury Circus, and he enjoys the soft pressure of Katja’s hand on his tatter-coat, the sense of doing something rather naughty, to be standing like this with a European on Independence Day. Looking back, later, he’ll wonder at the ease with which he fell into, well, into whatever it was he shared with Katja. Was it the sinister and belated blossoming of a liberal conscience? Some relic of a childhood in a Britain that tried to persuade itself it was open and inclusive and outward-looking? Was it love? He’d never had a girlfriend, you see, feeling like many of his generation that there was something a little fishy, a little European, about romance.

Standing in the sunlight, though, with music and voices washing around them, it doesn’t matter to him that they share no language, that there can be no future for them together, that her implant is bleeping her whereabouts to NBIF officials. It is enough just to be here, with her hand upon his arm.

As the parade fades into the distance, and red-vested volunteers begin to open the barriers, Neville’s EPhone blasts out “Jerusalem.”14With regret, he lifts Katja’s arm from his and answers. It’s Monty, his Morris side’s squire.

– Are you here, Nev? It’s bloody chaos. We’ve just heard that Nigel’s going to attend. Bloody Nigel! Major security beef-up. Biggest jig of our lives, old man. We’ll be dining out on this one for some time, let me tell you…

Neville has wandered away from the crowds, trying to find a quiet corner where he’ll be able to hear. Katja is with him, her hand on his shoulder, and it is this physical contact that conducts the NBIF guard’s Taser from her to Neville, leaving them both sprawling on the floor like swatted insects, Neville’s EPhone blinking furiously, Monty’s voice coming through as if in a dream. – Nev? Nev? Are you there, Nev?

He enjoys the soft pressure of Katja’s hand on his tatter-coat, the sense of doing something rather naughty, to be standing like this with a European on Independence Day.

He comes to in darkness, bodies either side of him, the rattle and hum of machinery. As his eyes grow accustomed to the dim light, he realises that Katja is beside him, and they are in the back of a van travelling at speed.15 There’s the high smell of fear and warm humanity. Katja turns towards him and all he can see are her limpid eyes, and their hands touch, and it is as if they’ve just found each other beneath the rubble of an explosion. He’s about to say something when he feels her lips against his, feels her palm on his bellpad. They stay like that for what seems like hours, pressed hotly together, until the van brakes, inches forward, stops again. The sound of voices, a laugh, the mewling of seagulls. A final judder forwards and the doors are flung open and the NBIF guards are barking out orders and Neville finds himself marched with Katja down towards a large grey building.

He can see the cliffs on the horizon—eruptions of light—once a symbol of Englishness, now ceded to the Enclave. Ramshackle shanty towns stack their corrugated roofs down towards the sea, seagulls drifting above them. Fires smoke here and there, making the air sooty, streaking the sea-haze. Neville can see hundreds of boats flitting across the waves—smaller craft being intercepted by larger NBIF patrol boats, requisitioned ferries chugging the old and infirm back to France or Belgium. And there, far out to sea, like captive Zeppelins, sit the prison boats, dark against the shimmering water.

The grey building grows larger and larger as they approach until it seems to rear over them, blocking out the milky sun. Katja and Neville hold hands as they make their way through vast metal doors and find themselves in a cavernous space illuminated by long banks of strip lighting. The queue of guestworkers snakes towards grilled windows in the far distance, regulated by metal barriers and truncheon-wielding NBIF guards. Those who try to sit are prodded back to their feet. There is no talking, just the shuffle of exhausted steps, the occasional barked order from the far end of the warehouse.

Looking back in years to come, when he has risen to a position of some professional prominence, Neville will count these two hours as the happiest of his life. He and Katja stand facing each other, clasping hands, moving forward with the queue in a kind of slow waltz. They are ignored by the other refugees, prodded half-heartedly by the guards, but they might as well be alone.

With Eurostar bankrupt and services running near-empty, the Channel Tunnel was bricked up in the Year of One Direction’s Greatest Hits.

He stares at her grimy face, at her shapeless blue work overalls, grasps her small, hard hands in his, sees those watery eyes turned up towards him, and he feels proud and brave and joyful, senses deep shifts in his inner world. – Neville, she says, under her breath every so often, and he repeats her name back to her, and his bellpads jangle cheerfully as they move towards the cubicles at the far end of the room.

When they get to the end of the queue, they are directed to adjoining windows. Neville briefly explains the mistake of his being here to a bored-looking female guard, shows his Conservative Party membership card and Barclays Staff I.D. He starts to tell the guard about Katja, about how he needs an interpreter, that he won’t allow her to be sent away. – Neville… He hears her voice, sees her being dragged away by a guard, and it is as if flesh has grown between them and is tearing. He shouts her name like a command, an invocation, but she is now being held by two guards, her arms behind her back, and Neville feels large hands grasping him, and as the doors swing back on themselves he catches one last glimpse of her, of her watery eyes, and then she is gone.

The van deposits him at London Wall at dusk, ale-coloured evening light falling about the skyscrapers. Hot-faced revellers in St. George waistcoats and pork-pie hats spew out of the pubs onto the pavements, there’s music and laughter in the air, the sound of distant cheering. Neville makes his way to Finsbury Circus, where the fête is in full-flow, flaming torches flickering over the heads of the crowd, the bunting fluttering in the breeze. A brass band oom-paa-paas, and families mill around the stalls, a top-hatted man calls out announcements from a raised stage. Neville finds Monty, gives him a brief explanation, leaving out all mention of Katja, and finds a pewter mug of warm bitter pressed into his hand. They have one dance left, Monty tells him, a six-man jig.

The rising roll of a drum and silence falls over the crowd. The man in the top-hat and red coat bellows into his microphone and there, on the raised platform, is foreign secretary Farage. He’s glistening, triumphant, a pint glass lifted towards the audience who bray and clap and hoot. Around him stand ruddy, vainglorious men, fellow party executives and politicians who are also sweaty, ale-drunk, exultant. Just behind them are armed police officers, unsmiling, alert. Farage makes a fierce, slurring speech, which Neville has trouble following. It ends with Farage, his head thrown back, his molars visible, screeching a toast to King Harry! and Independent England! that summons a loud roar from the crowd.

There’s the exhale of an accordion and Neville feels Monty pushing him into a clearing that has formed in front of the stage. With a loud – Hey! they begin to dance, swirling their handkerchiefs, capering and prancing, letting out yells. It is only half-way through the dance that Neville realises that he’s crying. He can see that Farage and the other politicians are looking at him peculiarly, and he tries to continue with the dance, tries to recall the steps of the jig, but every jingle of his bellpads only reminds him of Katja, and he stops, sobbing properly now, and blows his nose on the handkerchief he’d been twirling.

The accordion wheezes to a halt and Neville drops the handkerchief. Farage looks down on him like a disappointed headmaster, Monty reaches out a hand as if to stop him going. Neville edges his way slowly through the crowd, past the tombola, past the coconut shy and the hog roast and out of the park. He unbuckles his bellpads, lights his briar pipe and sets off, full of purpose, into the darkness of the London night.

Alex Preston is the prize-winning author of three novels, most recently In Love and War

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