The Man Who Mistook His Vote For An Instruction

Derek was a man of clear views, forcefully expressed. Janet had come to know this well. In the early years of their married life, Janet had listened to what Derek had to say, often nodding to signal agreement, when in truth she had no strong opinions on Aston Villa, Reginald Maudling, or the merits of imperial measurements.  Sometimes, foolish young woman that she once was, she tried to argue with him.   Perhaps not argue, so much as try to dispel his anxiety.  Of course it was exasperating that the supposedly dead Bobby Ewing had suddenly walked out of the shower in Dallas, she would soothe, but did it really matter?

Janet no longer made the effort.  Derek’s explosions were many, but short lived.  She had come to regard them as being like steam released from a valve in a pressure cooker.  Within Derek’s brain there was a bubbling mass of undifferentiated irritations, bugbears, and long held grievances, all of which could safely be ignored.  The only thing that mattered was that he remembered anniversaries, cleared gutters, and kept the garden tidy.

The rhythm of their lives had thus become settled.  Derek had been a good enough father, his efforts material rather than emotional, and he had settled into contented grandfatherhood with rather more ease than he had shown with his own son and daughter.  But every so often, there would be a flashpoint, a particular focus for Derek’s rages.  Major sporting events, in particular, the Olympic Games, or the World Cup, would provide him with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of poor decisions, unjust defeats, unmerited victories, not to mention a parade of national stereotypes to excite the poor man’s ire.  The television would be tuned in all day to the brazen perfidy on display, with plenty of emotive post-match commentary, and the hyperbolic back pages of the newspapers to maintain Derek’s blood pressure at dangerous levels.  At these times, Janet would sit with her husband and knit, casting occasional glances at him, lest he needed medical assistance.  They weren’t getting any younger.

And so, at first, the referendum on membership of the European Union had seemed no different to any other sporting fixture.  Indeed, right at the beginning, Derek seemed to have no real stake in the matter.  Like snooker, darts, or crown green bowling, the prospect of a competition had mildly piqued Derek’s interest, but that was about all.  He liked that it provided an occasion to retell favourite stories about bendy bananas and curvy cucumbers, but it was hardly the 1966 World Cup final all over again.

Until it was.  As the campaign progressed, with talk of things neither of them had ever heard of, or cared for before – the Norway Model, the Single Market, free movement – Derek began to take an interest.  They’d always watched the news at night, but more out of habit, a sort of signal that it was time to think about going to bed, but now Derek was following it with Newsnight, or, worst of all, with Question Time.  This late night viewing fixation was not shared by Janet, who would retire to bed at her usual time, but her sleep was affected.

For when Derek came to bed, he was agitated.  He would mutter about taking back control, and wanting his country back.  Sometimes he would sit with his light on, the radio on low, tuned into to phone-in programmes, where other Dereks would also demand control, borders, sovereignty; the latter a new word in Derek’s lexicon, but one he came to use with increasing frequency.

Janet was worried.  For one thing, she resented the disruption to her routine.  Her long time practice of ignoring Derek’s eruptions was also ceasing to be effective.  He took to trying to persuade her to share his new concerns.  ‘Janet, love,’ Derek would say over breakfast, ‘do you know how much money we could give to the NHS if we didn’t have to give it all to Brussels?’  In the corner shop they’d still be all smiles when old Mr. Chauhan served them, but on the way out, Derek would urgently say that they were at ‘breaking point’ from immigration. ‘That’s why we’ve got to get out!’

By the day of the vote, it had become unthinkable for either Derek or Janet not to vote to leave the EU.  They’d seen the Prime Minister saying that it was right to stay in Europe, and they’d heard dire warnings from the boy who was Chancellor, but, as Derek often said, ‘Project Fear, Jan. They’re just trying to scare us.’

After the result, Derek was elated.  He looked almost like his old, boyish self, the grinning man on their wedding photograph.  Janet, too, could scarcely stop smiling. Now, she thought, now we can get back to normal.

But it didn’t happen.  There was no normal to return to. It was as though the vote had ushered in a permanent state of Brexital arousal for men like her husband.  Every day the television, the radio talk shows, the newspapers, brought tales from the front line.  Both Derek and Janet had been born after the war, but this, surely, thought Janet, must be what it was like.  Such fury at their wicked enemies, Enemies of the People, as one newspaper put it, and such fear that they might still lose in some way, tricked out of their rightful victory by the moneyed, and the foreign, and the too clever by half.

Worried, Janet confided in their daughter-in-law, Danuta. ‘You’re worried,? Danuta had said. ‘How do you think we feel?’  The conversation had been a difficult one. Danuta had been angry, Janet flustered, and then tearful.  The worst came later, though, when Derek was unmoved by what Janet had had to say about their family.  He’d brushed her worries aside. ‘It doesn’t mean people like Danuta.  She’ll be alright.  It’s all the others who’ve got to go.’

And so it went on, a new normal of Derek pretending to potter around the garage so that he could listen to Five Live, or spoiling a nice lunch in the garden with Will, Danuta and the kids, with claims that ‘there’ll be riots on the streets if they don’t deliver Brexit soon.’  Janet herself had taken to saying, ‘why don’t they just get on with it?’  The truth was, she just wanted it over.  Anything but this, with their son barely talking to them, and their daughter ending every phone call with, ‘I can’t believe you did this, Mum. You know I love this job.’

A year passed, then two.  The news was still dominated by Brexit, when it wasn’t all about the new President of the USA.  Nothing had really seemed to change. 

One summer evening Derek suggested that they go out for a meal, to the nice pub with the carvery, and the new conservatory.  As Janet applied a little lipstick, and slipped her feet into her silver sandals, the ones she’d bought in Spain, she remembered it was Thursday.  Question Time was on the television. And yet this meant that Derek wasn’t planning to watch it.

As they sat in the restaurant looking out at the garden running down to the canal, a brightly painted narrowboat chugged by.  Derek picked up the bottle of Rioja, and topped up their glasses. ‘I always fancied restoring one of them,’ he said.  Janet smiled.  He hadn’t said a word about Brexit all night.  She understood, now, that his heart had gone out of it.  But she knew better than to mention it.  Derek never changed his mind.


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