Are you scared? Would you readily admit you’re scared? Openly? Or hesitatingly, in a quiet voice, half-hoping no one heard? Would you confide in someone, eyes down and face turned away, your mouth forming the words – I’m scared?
I don’t. I don’t say it. I don’t let the words take shape, because once they do they come alive. I muzzle them, I muffle them, I drown them out with other words like faith, because faith smoothes the edges of fear enough so it doesn’t take that shape that keeps me up at night. But I’m awake at night anyway, because I’m scared.
The fear is Britain-shaped. It’s a fear-shaped Britain. It traces the borders of an island kingdom that was once my home. Borders that were, then, nothing but lines on a map, the broken lines of a gentle guide, with spaces in between so you could come and go; borders that are now lines drawn against me, telling me that my place is not within. Wherever my place is, elsewhere, it’s not within. The broken lines that now mean “cut here”.
A cut, that’s what is feels like. Being cut away, cut off, cut loose.
My friends in London, on the inside, when they ask, they say When are you coming home? I’ve been away because the guidelines said I could, the gentle borders told me I could come and go. But now there’s hardness and what scares me is I don’t know what I will find when I return. What boundary lines, what barbed wires, what broken things. Like Odysseus returning to Ithaca: that island doesn’t know me. Like Odysseus washing up finally on the shores of home, without a trace of triumph, no fanfare, no confetti, no loving wife to make the shape of welcome with her open arms. Only a loyal dog to wag his tired tail in recognition. But what dog will greet me upon my return? If it’s the British bulldog, that’s a guard dog, not a pet. It’s not the bouncy puppy that you adopted as your own, the one you fed treats all these years and trusted not to bear its teeth, the one that grew to know you. It’s a snarling beast grown fat on hatred and fear, whipped into a frenzy and straining against the boundaries that it was reared to protect, and it’s been groomed to go for the heart. It will rip your throat out but first it will break your heart.
Home is where the heart is, but where is the heart in all of this? Broken, like the lines we’ve crossed. The lines that once connected the dots; the lines that now divide. Cut here.
And me and you are all of us who are scared, we’re just dots. Cast adrift, unable to connect and make a shape. What shape would we make if we connected? Would it look like Britain, or would it form another picture entirely? How hard would its edges be, how flexible its boundaries? Would it be a shape that soothes or feeds the fear? Would it contain us? Would it define us? Would it set us free?
That island doesn’t know me, but I thought I knew. I thought I knew my place and that puppy that I trusted not to hurt me when I held my hand out for its paw. What good is faith when it turns against you, snarling, and rips your home to shreds? But no, fuck you: you might turn me out, but you won’t turn me faithless. I’m scared, but not of your dog. I won’t drift away, unconnected, to elsewhere, to anywhere but within, just because of the lines you’ve crossed. I know I can find my island again. I can find my way back. And I need no fanfare, no confetti, no recognition, no brass band to welcome me home; I just need you not to break it while I’m away, and the space to come and go.
Draw your lines where they matter. Give that dog another bone to chew on. And fucking say it, that you’re scared, let your mouth form the words, let them come to life and dance – I’m scared – but don’t let the fear shape you. Don’t let that be the shape that defines us all. Connect the fucking dots.
This is the last of five essays written in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum in June 2016. The first four were published as Divided Kingdom: How Brexit made me an immigrant. Click here to download the Kindle version of the book for free on Amazon – or read part one, part two, part three, and part four here.
And before anyone else rushes to point this out: no, I no longer live in the UK. And yes, in a way, Brexit won. It drove me out. I left London, the place that I’d called home for 20 years, and moved to an island in Greece. But not without sadness, not without regret, not without looking back. I look back all the time because, no, I still haven’t given up on the United Kingdom that I love. And yes, in a way, I still identify as a Londoner. And I’m lucky in that I had other options, but I’d still like the option to come back.