I met Peggy first. We fell into step, two Brits abroad, dragging our carry-on luggage across the orbital road of Nice airport, walking to the hotel we had been sent to by our airline.
Our evening flight had been delayed, and they’d finally given up for the night. We’d be on the first flight to Heathrow the next morning. An air traffic control failure in Brussels caused the original problem. Appropriately timed: it was June 24th, the night following the Brexit vote. It had been such a heartbreakingly beautiful day. Cannes, where I’d been staying, had never looked more sunny, more civilised, more European.
Peggy was bearing up well, considering. Middle class and middle aged, radiating normality and contentment. Like most of her compatriots, nothing brought richer satisfaction than stoically enduring things as they go really wrong. A satisfaction deepened by the fact it was the foreigners who’d got it wrong, this time, with all of those dreadful delays. Never mind – Keep Calm and Carry On!
“I wish they’d have said something sooner at the airport,” she told me, as we climbed the steps to the hotel lobby. “Lovely,” she added, when we got to reception. (Not meaning actually “lovely”, of course – just Britspeak for “I’ve just entered somewhere unfamiliar and don’t know what to do next”.)
She was perkier still at breakfast the next morning. “I’ve been visiting a friend near here for a few weeks – I do it every year.” But the village she’d been staying wasn’t what it was. A few minor disappointments had been enough. Things change, and not for the better. More traffic. More tourists. We didn’t dwell on the fact that we were both pretty much tourists, too. Her polite, mild pessimism and complacency permeated the room like a light summer shower. Nothing more British.
Walking back to the airport, I debated whether or not to mention the vote. Having spent the day viciously complaining about the result with work colleagues, and reading the howls and wails of my Facebook friends, berating the 52% who voted Out – it didn’t seem wise. Of course she’d voted that way.
Eventually, it was Peggy who mentioned it. You just couldn’t trust them, she said. Those European politicians had it coming. But who knows what’s going to happen next. All those scare stories in the media! Cameron and Osborne gone already – good thing too. But they should have known how it was going to go. Out of touch with the people. And so on.
My nerve failed me. I didn’t say anything, just a few oh reallys and yeses. She had said all this in a reasonable and cheerful tone, utterly without malice. She was clearly a nice person. Why be rude and make a scene, when we were all stressed out enough with the delays? But she could have caused so much harm! I thought.
The day at the airport was surreal, delay upon delay. Our 8am flight turned to 10am. Then things got weird. We heard shouts, and a movement of people towards the door. People in camouflage, toting guns. The army, clearing the airport and driving us onto the front carpark, back to the orbital road, almost. A bomb scare. (The crowd included a Daily Mail reporter and some minor celebs, so it all went onto their website.)
Peggy found it a great laugh – Blitz spirit and all that. Though neither of us had been born at the time of the actual Blitz. More foreign calamities. Strange to think how funny we found it, considering what happened along the Nice beach front half a mile away a few weeks later.
Space to think as the hours dragged on in the afternoon. Sitting by myself in Departures, chewing through a bag of unusual Haribo, the kind that don’t get sold in British newsagents. I met so many more Peggys in the drabber, greyer, poorer London of my childhood. The city where your lunch options were limited to the grandma-and-grandpa sandwich shop – sliced white with ham, cheese, tomato, not much else – or the local Wimpy. Of the last few, wheezing routemaster buses and jumping the ticket stall for your irregularly-running tube. The Houses of Parliament and St Pancras blackened and shopworn. Of a sense that Europe was over there, separated from us not just by a few miles of sea, but a totally different Way of Doing Things.
I think it was when I came back from university that I noticed the change. The thousands, then millions of Europeans who had – miracle of miracles – come to stay with us. And made us eat better, think differently. Expanded our cultural (and sexual) possibilities. Made the city more attractive to live in, more exciting, more fun. Made us want to stay, despite the anonymity, the crowds, the ruinous expense. And, for some reason, stayed themselves – working harder than us, paying their taxes, mixing. Where was Peggy then? Moved out of our sight, in a deep suburb, a satellite town. Keeping to herself, but occasionally glancing over. Not liking what she saw.
Well, Peggy had had her say now, I thought. God help us. She’d seen the city, on her journeys up to the west end to see a show; maybe to see a relative, do some shopping; to and through Heathrow. She’d had a good look and thought, no thanks. Enough people like her felt the same way to vote and potentially cause such damage. And now the results were in, and the people who came might not want to stay. Might not have the choice to stay.
People like Mihaela. She was on my row, in the window seat of our flight home, which finally left in the late afternoon. Blinged out and immaculately groomed – a beautiful cloud of black hair. She wore a spotless white blazer and enormous cork wedge sandals with the words MIU MIU rendered in metal and splayed across her toes. Maybe Italian? But something in the accent was off… unplaceable. She played with her phone until it died – sigh! Time to talk to her neighbour on the aisle.
Everyone on our flight had shared the delays, so the barriers were down and conversation was easy. The British Airways captain came onto the tannoy with a jokey recap of the sequence of delays – air traffic failure, slow staff turnaround, queues at the airport, terrorist false alarm – and ended with a “let’s see what happens in the air, then!” The Brits around me shared rueful smiles. Mihaela was outraged. “He’s making jokes!” she said to me. “He’s really a funny person. I mean, why would he say something like that?” How weird it must be for them, living in a country where the default setting is to joke about things, no matter how serious or annoying.
It’s the type of thing regretful In-ers think about. How on earth would someone like Mihaela see us? She lived in London, she said, and her husband had been helping take care of her son, waiting for her to come home. She was working with some kind of ecommerce app – was it marketing? was she a founder? she didn’t really say. She had been in the south of France for the same reason as me: for work, attending a big advertising industry trade show. A rich cosmopolitan, taking advantage of free movement in the EU, perhaps marrying an English guy. She was well-spoken, educated, un-British. A perfect representation of the integrated, open-minded UK that we were leaving behind, I thought.
Think again. Conversation inevitably turned to the referendum. “I think they’re disgusting,” she said. “Those officials in the EU. I mean, it isn’t democracy.” Had they had a vote in France, the vote would be the same – they should have the vote there, too, she said. “I’m from Romania and they have done many things there.” Said in a way that suggested these things were not good things. She was speaking quite loudly. I would have thought in Romania people would feel more positively about it, I said. She was furious at that. “Oh yes,” she replied. And didn’t say anything more. Better not to continue – I was way out of my depth, what did I know about Romania anyway, beyond orphanages, corruption and Ceausescu getting shot in the head on TV? Hardly up-to-date references. So the conversation moved on to something else: I think we talked about apps.
What could it mean? If Mihaela saw the European project with such contempt – despite being such an obvious beneficiary of it – what hope was there? How could I expect enough people to vote In, when what they were voting In to wasn’t that appealing? Was my vote a vote for self-satisfied bureaucrats, a useless expensive parliament erected thanks to French vanity rather than utility, condescending federalists who saw any instinct towards nationalism as something contemptible, even savage? All that aside, wasn’t I being just as narrow minded as I snobbishly assumed Peggy of being – by assuming it was only people like her who had sympathy with the Out side? And what qualified a know-it-all prick like me to generalise like that? Mihaela agreed with her, after all. My own feelings about this awful referendum, furious impotence, confusion, dread, came back – still more strongly. Nothing was resolved.
The plane began its descent into London, and suddenly vibrated. A smell of burnt toast wafted through the cabin. “Please don’t be alarmed, ladies and gentleman – but we have just been hit by lightning,” the captain said, jauntily. “A storm in the south-east this evening.” And we passengers just laughed – in on the joke – Mihaela too, this time. It was all so absurd – a perfect final-act twist for our journey. “That’s my house,” she said, as we passed South Kensington, the dome of the Albert Hall poking up through the gloom. (House? Not even flat? How rich was she?) We high-fived when we finally landed, and went our separate ways, into the airport.
The weather was humid in London – that horrible feeling of being wrapped in a warm, clingy, damp towel. Peggy had an e-passport like me, and we met again in the short queue. We passed under the ‘EU Nationals’ sign, and were through the efficient electronic gates in seconds. “I do miss there being a person looking at your passport,” she said, as we walked past the much longer paper passport queue for the attention of the few harassed border guards on duty. And, past that, the still longer non-EU queue.
Plans for the evening? “My son’s not going to pick me up, but he’s coming to see me at the weekend – nothing planned, really.” I told her I was going to stop in at the little M&S in the Arrivals hall of the terminal, to get some food for the trip home. “I won’t come – I’ve got some bread in,” she said. The vision of her defrosting a sliced loaf from the freezer after some weeks abroad – in Europe, where the people eat tasty bread that goes stale after a day, the kind of bread they’ve taught us to eat and enjoy, after the chemical-loaded sliced pap of my childhood – hurt my heart.
To mark the end of the absurd journey, we did something un-British, and embraced. I caught my haggard, sweaty reflection in the glass wall of the mini-supermarket, scalp showing through in patches from my thinning hair, sunburn from a climate I wasn’t suited to. “It’s silly to say, but it’s nice,” said Peggy, “to get a hug from a young man”. She walked towards the taxi rank. I walked inside, and picked up the most exotic sandwich I could find. The cashier was eastern European. The couple queuing behind me were speaking Spanish. Outside in Arrivals, hundreds more people, hundreds more places.
But it wasn’t the time to comfort myself with fond thoughts of living in a cosmopolitan utopia, where everyone thought like me. Most people, most voters, in this country do not think like me. Peggy and Mihaela were out there in the hall, too.