There was a beep and Harry Le Tissier looked up at the screen. There wasn't just a number. There was a name as well. DAVID PASCOE 498. Not him, then. He looked down again at the ticket. Harold Le Tissier, 501. Three to go.
There was a name as well. This brought the tears to his eyes again. Not just Le Tissier, H., either, but Harold Le Tissier. For the last twenty years he'd answered to a number or to the sort of list that gives your surname first and then your initial, as if you were a schoolboy or a soldier or a prisoner. Of course he'd been a schoolboy but he'd never been a soldier or a prisoner
Unless, of course, you regarded England as a prison. Amazing how often the name of the country had changed in his lifetime. He'd been born in the UK, or for that matter, Great Britain. Then, after Scotland had left, it had unofficially become the rUK: he had never been sure whether that was the Remaining UK or Rump UK. Then the Welsh left. Then Northern Ireland. Then the Isle of Man. Then Cornwall. And that was where his chance lay: in Greater Cornwall.
Two and a half years ago, Devon had voted to join Greater Cornwall. Inevitably, there had been a great deal of legal argument: first the English Supreme Court, and then the European Court of Justice. England had (as usual) lost. Now, the Parliament of Cornwall and Devon had voted through a Right of Return, based on Irish, Israeli and German law.
It wasn't automatic, though. Ancestry mattered. In both directions. From all he'd read, the Commissioners interpreted everything as generously as possible. Mostly, they were trying to weed out London retirees who'd bought in Cornwall and (in the absence of ameliorating circumstances) the more arrogant and English among their offspring who had inherited. For example Miklós, his father's oldest friend, had been OK. His father had fled Hungary in 1948 and married an exceptionally beautiful English girl. In the 1950s, re-established as a doctor in the UK and working in Plymouth, Gyorgy had bought a holiday home in Cornwall. His son Miklós, never a rich man, had lived in the tiny cottage for over 30 years in the late 2oth and early 21st century: he had finally inherited it when his mother died. His wife wasn't Cornish but his son was. Thirty years and the son tipped the balance. But that was deep in Cornwall. Harry had been born in Bristol, well the wrong side of the Tamar, and his father had been born in the Scillies. Harry's heart was in his mouth.
Another beep. CHARLES TORMATEN 499. With a name like that, he could be from anywhere. Harry cast his eye for the hundredth time around his fellow... what? Asylum seekers? Refugees? A couple of decades before, either would have been wild hyperbole. But with an ever-shrinking England, and with a European Union apparently willing to accept pretty much any of the previous UK nations with the minimum of formalities as long as they accepted the Euro, it was insanity to be stuck with an English passport if you could get a European one. Now that Mercia was trying for the same status as Greater Cornwall, with the full consent of Northumbria, it was probably only a matter of time before England was reduced to London and the so-called Home Counties; and probably not even all of them. The UK had learned too late that referendums (or was it referenda?) and naked populism are a dangerous path. The “will of the people” isn't always what people even really want, never mind what's actually best for them
At least the waiting room wasn't too bad. He'd been there for – he looked at his watch – an hour and a quarter. It smelled of plastic chairs, new paint and boredom, but that was better than the other side of the border where it smelled of despair and (faintly) of urine. There was no doubt a psychological component to this. Yes, they could have held the interviews in England, but making applicants cross the border into Bridgewater emphasized that they were going into a foreign country. Well, not so much into a foreign country as into the European mainland. If he took the ferry from Plymouth to Santander, there'd be no border formalities into Spain: his Schengen visa was good for the whole EU.
Yet again, he ran over his life with a mixture of hope and despair. If only he'd applied to Plymouth University when he'd left school. Of course he didn't approve of nepotism but his father's old chum Stu could surely have put in a word for him. But his father had moved from the Scilly Islands to Bristol and married a Wessex girl, and Harry himself had been born in the City and County of Bristol. God! If only he'd been born in Cornwall. Or even Plymouth. They called Plymouth “the Cornishman's London”. Surely it was close enough. But Bristol wasn't. Even though they too were currently seeking independence as a European city-state.
Deep breaths. The guidelines said that one Cornish parent or grandparent was enough. His father had been born in the Scillies to an Island father and a Cornish mother, an Angilly. Although Harry had briefly lived in Cornwall, when his father had worked there for a few years, that had been when he was a small child: he had not lived there for more than a quarter of a century. Nor did he really want to move there. Quite apart from anything else, property was simply too expensive despite the fact that it was one of the poorest regions of the former UK: a legacy of all those Londoners. The scenery was gorgeous, and as far as the arts went, Exeter and Truro and above all Plymouth could claim proud provincial second places. But really, he had needed to be in London for the last few years. It was just that... well... to be honest, he needed an EU passport. He and Jackie wanted to move to Berlin.
Beep! Terence Treviscoe, 500. With a name like Treviscoe, it was probably a done deal. Not like Harry Le Tissier. Surely they'd know it was a Channel Islands name. Would that make things better or worse? Then he suddenly realized: he'd never looked into his rights as a Channel Islander. Why not? Hardening of the categories, obviously: because he'd been born on the mainland, he thought of the mainland. Briefly, he took comfort from the idea: another bite at the cherry.
But what about his husband? He knew next to nothing about the attitude of the embryonic (or reborn) Cornish state towards gay marriage. Another massive oversight, he realized. Why hadn't he researched it? Certainly the newly reunited Ireland had its objections, though it was odd to think of Protestants being pushed in the direction of liberalism by the Catholic church. He'd studied so much of the history of Cornwall that he'd ignored the present day. Cornwall had invaded England in 1497 and 1549. The first time, they'd got as far as London. The second time, they'd failed after the Siege of Exeter; but mostly only because they'd refused to set the city alight. Their Breton gunners had accepted their orders; though John Hammon, when questioned about the accuracy of their shooting, selected a man standing alone and killed him with a single cannon shot, just to show the English what they were up against and the Cornish what they could rely upon.
Now, Brittany was a free state within the European Union, politically if not militarily the equal of France. The naval bases were still a matter of dispute. During her (only, curtailed) term, President Le Pen had tried to establish toll roads in Brittany, breaking the promise reputedly made to Anna Breizh in 1491. As a result, the Bretons had simply repudiated any treaty that showed Brittany as a vassal state of France. Harry allowed his mind to wander over what would have happened if Cornwall had prevailed in the Second Anglo-Cornish War. Would there have been a Breton-Cornish alliance, as was now being proposed? It didn't matter. As Umberto Eco pointed out, all counterfactual conditionals are true. Or as Sir Terry Pratchett pointed out, you have to do the job in front of you.
Harry pursed his lips and screwed his eyes tight closed. Tears prickled at his eyelids. Oh, Jackie, Jackie, how could I do this to you? And how could I do it so inefficiently? Europe was their oyster if he got it right. If he didn't... well, it hardly bore thinking about. He had never met anyone whom he loved so much; or, to be accurate, whom he had ever loved at all compared with Jackie. Ten thousand times more, a hundred thousand times, a million times: orders of magnitude lost their meaning. He was 36 years old. Jackie was 42. The age difference, they both knew, worried a lot of people. Not least, Jackie's parents. Harry's mother seemed well able to handle it, but then, she and his father had been divorced almost before he could remember. His father, God rest his soul, had died in Harry's first year at university. And now, for the last four years, Jackie was all his life.
It was Jackie who had suggested that Harry go for a Cornish passport. “My love, I'm from bloody Rochester. Definitive Medway towns. I'm always going to be sodding English. But if you can get an EU passport...” Then Jackie had given him that look he could never resist, and a second later they were kissing passionately, and two minutes later coupling like stoats. Do you get gay stoats? Harry smiled: something else he should have researched. Or not. Who cares about the sex lives of stoats?
To be honest, homophobia was another of the reasons they wanted to leave. Even Harry himself wasn't convinced that that gays could have the same rights as straight people, though he'd never been able to put it into words. He'd never been much into Gay Pride. Just into loving Jackie. Utterly. Forever. At home. In private. It was one of the few things they had ever really argued about. But after Elaine and Trudie had been beaten up, it was something they had only ever talked about in private; and even then in hushed voices. Jackie had tried to make a joke of it once. Both knew that the joke had failed when they found themselves sobbing in one another's arms.
Another beep. Harry's name. Five hundred and one. He swallowed hard. He could barely hoist himself out of the chair but he forced himself, levering up with his arms. The light over one of the cubicle doors was flashing. Number seven. The one above HAROLD LE TISSIER 501. He took another deep breath. Every detail fixed itself in his mind: the milky glass of the door, the colour of the flashing light, the grey vinyl tiles, the dull grey aluminium of the door handle. He knocked. “Come in, come in.”
The woman on the other side of the desk was old enough to be Harry's mother. He was not sure if this was a good sign or a bad one. She smiled. A good sign, then. Unless she was playing games. She extended her hand without looking down, without standing up: “Mr. Le Tissier. Please sit down.”
Mr. Le Tissier. Semiotics. Sign, signal or message? He shook her hand, then sat down. She smiled again; or perhaps it was the same smile, continued. She went on: “I've been through your file, and as far as I can see, there is no problem with your becoming a Cornish citizen.”
His face crumpled. He could not hold back the tears. After all this time, after all this stress, was it really to be this easy?
She smiled and nodded, waiting a few seconds for him to regain his composure. “There are a couple of things to clear up, of course. In particular, I see that you are not planning to move to Cornwall.”
Fear gripped his heart. “Um... No.”
“Then where are you planning to move?”
How did they know he was planning to move? He did not recall saying anything on the application forms. He replied, “Ah, Berlin”.
“In other words, you just want an EU passport?”
There was nothing he could say. She had seen though him. “Ah... Yes.”
She smiled again. This was sheer cruelty, he thought. She went on, “With your husband Jackie, presumably?”
He could only nod dumbly. How could she spin it out like this? Why not just say, no, it can't be done? He was on the verge of tears again, but this time, tears of misery, not joy. His hands were flat on the table.
She laughed. Harry's tears came at full force. How could she torment him like this? Suddenly he understood: she had not realized that his tears, formerly of joy, had turned to agony. The smile on her face became grave, if you can have such a thing as a grave smile. Later he thought: yes, you can. Compassionate is the word. She shook her head. “Mr. Le Tissier, Mr. Le Tissier, please. Let me be the first to congratulate you on your successful application, and to wish both of you you a long and happy life together in Berlin.”
She placed her right hand over his left. “We didn't all vote for Brexit, you know.”
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Short story copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2017