Marjorie sees the young people in the town sometimes. They are maybe sixteen or so, young men mostly. Somehow they have become separated from their family though she can’t imagine how. She tries not to meet their gaze, not to look into their dark eyes. She is told to be afraid of them, told she is no longer safe to walk her dog in the evening because of these strangers in their midst. Surely, she thinks, it is they who are afraid? They come from places she can barely imagine – Syria, Afghanistan- all the way to these flat Kentish marshlands where they stick out like a sore thumb.
A special meeting of the parish council is called to discuss the reception centre which houses about forty of these young asylum seekers. Her friend Peggy says they should go along and get informed. When she gets there Marjorie finds there is no information. Instead there is only opinion, running wild like a pack animal. What do they want here? They want benefits and housing, they want to jump the queue. It’s time they called a halt to being a soft touch. This is an invasion, and they should resist. It’s not up to us to take them in, even if they are to be pitied. Their whole way of life is under threat. Round and round they go with all this urging that something, unspecified and unkind, must be done.
Listening to all this, Marjorie doesn’t know what to think.
On the morning of the street party she wakes feeling dizzy and weak. It happens often these days, that she comes to the day feeling like she can no longer stand but then she’s upright and going about her business, such as it is. It is barely past dawn as she drinks her tea on Sunday the twelfth of June. There is so much to do. She wishes Oliver were here to help. He’d be rolling his sleeves up and setting out all the trestle tables on the green, making jokes with everyone. Still, you cannot keep him from his football. He’s over the channel in Marseilles for the big match. She thinks of her grandson, sweltering in the Mediterranean heat wearing his three lions shirt. He tells her he has a good feeling about this, about England finally glorious in victory. She hopes for him. Not just about the football, but about his life. He and Laura have been trying for a baby for a long time now but nothing seems to be coming of it. Sometimes he looks bloated and pasty. He tells her that the daily commute to his job is killing him and he says it like it is a joke.
She is not as old as the queen but she is past it. That’s the phrase that comes to mind and it seems to fit. Past caring maybe. There is a fluttering in her chest as she gets herself dressed and it’s only just nine o’clock. She had her hair done yesterday and it sits on her head now like white floss. She is a dandelion clock. If you blow, she will disappear.
Peggy arrives. They are to make enough sandwiches to feed the whole village so they set about it. Peggy butters, slice after slice, Marjorie fills, Peggy cuts. Crusts off, as befits the occasion for that it is surely what her royal highness would want on her ninetieth birthday. Sarah arrives to pick up the sandwiches. She is wearing a tea-dress from the 1940’s and eyeliner like Dusty Springfield used to wear two decades later. It must be backwards fashion, Marjorie thinks. Going back is what you do if you’ve run out of ideas. Sarah is a relative newcomer to the town, down from London where the money from the sale of your house will buy you a mansion or a farm here. They’re another sort of invasion, Sarah and her sort, but no one is afraid of them. Sarah has been a driving force behind the street party. She’s even made a storyboard to show what it should look and feel like. The mood they were after was just pure English is what she said. Quintessentially English. Wildflowers in jam jars, bunting and home made cake. It does look lovely when they set it all out and the sun filters through the trees. People talk about the community coming together and they feel proud. They feel in this moment better than any other version of themselves. Marjorie wonders if they will come to the party, the ones from the centre. Perhaps they would have come if anyone had invited them.
Sometimes Marjorie doesn’t know what to think and other times she does. If she thinks of the war then it all comes flooding back. She knows what they fought for, what they fought against. In a few days they’ll be voting on whether to turn their back on their allies and leave the common market, that’s what she’s always known it as. The vote looms over the whole country, stirring up fury, scratching at grievances and inflaming imaginary wounds. Marjorie has no idea what purpose it can serve. Oliver says he doesn’t give a monkeys anyway.
She imagines Oliver standing on the terraces only the day before. She cannot picture him in the town, downing one beer after another in vicious heat of the day. She cannot feel the temperature and the tension rising. She does not imagine Oliver, made woozy by countless pints of Stella Artois and the unaccustomed glare of the sun on his thinning hair, taking off his top because of the sweat dripping from his forehead and armpits. She hears there was trouble but doesn’t think he will have been involved in that. She hears they lost.
They haven’t invited the kids from the centre but they have included a local MP in their guest list and they are quite impressed when he rolls up in a fancy car with a driver. He reaches for the cake with fat fingers. He says this event represents the best of Britain and he takes his chance to hold forth. He says that we have one chance to reclaim these lands and restore our independence and pride. Lots of people agree with him, they want to seize the chance to break free. Something has to be done, they say. Bring up the drawbridge, batten down the hatches. They agree that is enough is enough, that a certain limit has been reached. They raise a toast. Up with their glasses and onto their high horse; ‘Happy Birthday your Majesty.’ There’s a feeling here that they’re all supposed to share and Marjorie looks inside herself and finds it absent.
Oliver would not get into a fight unless he was provoked. When he turns up at her place the next day with his eye half closed and his jaw bloodied and bruised, he tells her that the Russian fans are animals. He tells her that they came with batons and bottles hell-bent on killing the English. That’s how it was. So what was he to do? Stand by while they kicked English fans to the ground, pushed them into the water with their heads already bleeding? He doesn’t tell her about the strange mist hanging in the air when the crowd dispersed that he later realised was tear gas. She will not know about how he heard the English fans chanting something about ISIS, about Europe. He will not tell her because he can barely make any sense of it. They lost the match, of course. It’s what they do, he says. Play like lions, lose like losers. He can’t go home to Laura like this. She’ll have a right go at him.
Marjorie bathes Oliver’s face with antiseptic and cotton wool and then he sleeps in her spare bedroom. She can hear him snoring all through the night. The sound is reassuring to her, like blood pulsing through veins, like the sea sweeping the shingle over and over. Outside, the rain soaks through the earth, the earth they reclaimed from the sea, the sea which brings the people in peril to a place they want to call home. As the next day breaks, Marjorie knows what she thinks.
When Oliver finally emerges the following morning, the marks on his face look calmer but more permanent. She asks him if he’ll do her a favour. He says he’ll do anything for her and she knows that he is telling the truth. So they load the boxes of cake left over from the party into the back of a car and they take them to the children at this centre because that is what they are. Just kids. Noone has ever come near the place by the look of it because they act as though a visitor is an enemy. The faces they meet are wary. Then they are pleased. They say happy birthday to the queen and eat the cake as though it is the only cake they’ve ever had.
Later that week, Marjorie stands in the polling booth and lifts up a small pencil on a string. She won’t be blown away, after all. She puts an X in the box. The tide turns regardless.
Julie Bull grew up in Yorkshire but now lives in South London. She graduated from the University of Sussex in times gone by and has since studied creative writing at Birkbeck and other places. She writes short fiction and is working on a novel about growing up in Leeds in the 1970’s. Her fiction sees the world through the eyes of ordinary women, capturing voices we seldom hear. Her work has appeared in MIRonline, and the Retreat West anthology The Word for Freedom. She hates hiking and moths.
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