My kid vomits his way through the night of the referendum. Sometimes life gives you all the metaphors you need. I move around with towels and glasses of water by the blue light of the laptop open on the kitchen table. The kid sleeps in my arms, moaning. Things I took for granted are in danger: the great happiness of feeling London as the centre; the sounds of St Pancras Station; the coherence of my little family’s many national identities; walking paths in Cornwall; Erasmus exchanges. I remember when there was none of it in, say, Sutherland, where my Scottish grandparents lived — no cucumbers, let alone coffee or Ikea. The phone beeps: my German partner is sending messages of official despair from the LSE European Institute party where they are all sitting it out, watching their jobs disappear.
I rage against the people who have undervalued the loveliness of things. I rage against the people who did not give these people something better to vote for: Nordic style taxes; proportional representation; democracy in the House of Lords. Then the midsummer dawn comes and I try out the darkest thoughts: perhaps these people would not mind the loss of the coffee or Ikea or the cheap flights or the well-funded university. Through the feverish kicks of my son, I try to imagine this hatred as directed towards me; try thinking about the fishing industry and the possibility that better beds are made in Britain. The one my son just vomited on is an Italian sofa bed, bought to make four people sleeping in a tiny North London flat possible. Am I one of the people they hate? My life is European, but it’s not affluent — does that make the difference?
With morning proper comes the German partner, unsnapping the LSE badge and tuning in to Nigel Farage, growling about independence day and the resignation of David Cameron, that wife standing all primly dressed beside him. Nothing to say. We drink coffee and face the day of frantic media contact in our pyjamas, nursing the sick kid’s body. Out there in North London there are unlikely to be many happy people (only 20% here in this multicultural place voted to leave), but I’m still afraid to go out. When I do, it’s to the Greek greengrocer, who tells me about a monument in his parents’ town to the Greek Jews who died in the war. You don’t need a university degree to see where this is all going, he says: no good ever came from the people being fired up by the Right. I buy Greek honey with thyme and mangoes and wine.
Mixed in too, is my daughter’s birthday, which falls two days after the referendum. She was born in Berlin; has grown up in Copenhagen and Ann Arbor and London. She belongs nowhere but Europe, which for her means not being American in the friendliest way: not liking Hamburgers, not minding getting naked in front of friends; being happy to drink wine with her parents; a kind of independence coupled to trains not cars. She spends her birthday at London Pride and a performance of Romeo and Juliet with her friend, reading her Muslim friends’ posts on Instagram: “last time I get up for an old person in the Tube. they can bloody well use the legs they walked to the polling station with.”
Somewhere there’s a message from my mother, away at a Scottish country dancing retreat. You must be very disappointed, she texts. This message confirms my vague feeling of fear around where she stands. She belonged to an old nuclear disarmament-reclaim-the-night-left, but lately she’s opposed to the migrants; the kind who come in clinging to lorries and don’t really want to work. She writes letters of complaint about the European companies building windmills in Perthshire. She really is a smart woman, Oxford educated, but only a degree or two away socially from Boris Johnson (she’s heard he’s a blast at family dinners). Lately, having moved radically down the class ladder, she’s inclined to see the welfare state, freedom of movement, and free education as things that led her astray, rather than institutions to fight for. Quite possibly she has forgotten the form her grandchildren take. You can see how this hurts, as dawn comes.
All day long, up and down the country the ripples run, our Scottish English friends come to lunch and we talk about the referendum over the heads of our sick children; our Belgian ones text, my Danish student in London worries about her status here, my German friend thinks that her daughter won’t take her place in Oxford; my English colleagues count their research funding draining away. I have never lived in a country: I was born in a commune, grew up in a colony, came of age in university towns around the globe, and Berlin just after the wall came down. I landed so happily back in a London hardwired by European connections. I don’t even know what a nation feels like: the idea of one makes me feel lonely.
In the evening we call the National Health Service hotline because the kid is worse, ranting about the teachers at his London school blocking his thoughts of Denmark. Like I say: sometimes life serves up literature. The heavily accented doctor on the line listens to his breathing and decides to send a team around. A team? Haven’t they heard the £350 million a week was a lie? And so the little crew of green suited people turn up and sit around on our Italian sofa bed, now folded up, and look at the kid sleeping again in my arms, and for a long time the night moves very slowly. Soon we realise it’s not medical: they are just resting on the sofa, waiting for the next the council estate emergency. Can we use the bathroom? We offer tea. There’s no hurry; one of the team takes half an hour to fill in a form. How do we feel about Brexit? Just shocked, to be honest, says the lead paramedic. The one filling in the form looks up: I forgot to vote, she says. The third one, Baltic maybe, lays aside his phone: it’s not my country.
Christina Lupton: Grateful when it works