Ms Bernhardt’s Brexit
by Jennifer Moore
Sarah Bernhardt watches over proceedings with her usual inscrutable expression, staring down at us from beneath her crown of white lilies. It’s funny, I never liked Mucha that much before I came to study in the UK (too many hours spent ‘admiring’ the Slav Epic with my babicka, I expect, when all my brother Leos and I wanted to do was race round the castle grounds like wild things), but when I spotted Sarah at the student poster fair that day it felt like I’d stumbled across a tiny piece of home.
It was the opposite for Harry, of course. He wanted to remember his time away from home – an entire summer backpacking round Eastern Europe with his old university friends before they went their separate ways – but the Mucha portrait called to him just the same. And it covers up the crack in the wall above his bed perfectly! He likes to tell people it was Ms Bernhardt, as La Princesse Lointaine, who brought us together in the first place. Which is kind of true I guess. If it wasn’t for the fact that we were both clutching the exact same rolled-up poster, perhaps we’d never have got talking in the queue that day. We might never have compared notes on the art nouveau exhibition at the city museum; never have discovered our shared love of English Romantic poetry and trdelník; never arranged to see Baron Prasil together at the Arts Cinema that evening.
We could have been at the Arts Cinema tonight, watching an old Gérard Depardieu film, but Harry thought an EU party would be fun. I’m not sure it’s the whole political side of things he wants to celebrate though – more like a good excuse to get in lots of different European beers and play the Egon Bondy’s Happy Heart Club Banned album he picked up at the record fair last week. Me? I’d rather listen to Sergeant Pepper any day, but the beers sound good. And a proper get-together might help take my mind off Rebecca – I can’t believe she’s been gone a whole year already – not to mention the referendum. The others are convinced it’ll be ‘Remain’ but I can’t quite shake the nagging worry in the pit of my stomach. I’ve seen all those ‘Leave’ posters pasted up around the city centre. I’ve read the anti-migrant rants in the newspapers. It seems the country that welcomed Rebecca and her fellow evacuees in 1939 isn’t quite the same place it once was.
To be honest the endless messages from home haven’t been helping much either. It’s been email after email this week, text after text, all wishing me good luck for today. Hodne stesti Fiala! Budu ti drzet palce! I know they’re just worried what Brexit might mean for me and my long-held British Museum career ambitions (not to mention fears about what a larger- scale breakdown of the EU might mean for Tata’s job) but it’s not like I get any say in what the country decides.
Having said that, I did wander down to the polling station this afternoon out of curiosity (anything to get away from editing my Anglo-Saxon burial rituals chapter for next week’s supervision), but stopping to stroke the dogs tied up outside was as close as I got to the whole process. Six of them there were, all barking their heads off every time anyone came back out of the building. Mind you, I almost felt like joining them when that loudmouthed idiot with the ‘GET THEM OUT’ placard rolled up and started shouting about foreigners coming in and ruining the country. I could have sworn he was looking at me.
“Trust me, it’s going to be fine,” Harry says, as we fill the homemade ice buckets on his table with bottles of beer and lager. There’s a handful of Steigers lurking in there amongst the Belgian, French, Spanish and German offerings, plus a whole bunch of Budweisers and a rather tempting pair of Kozels. “The result might be closer than people initially thought,” he adds, “but that’ll be protest votes as much as anything else. Don’t worry, we won’t be throwing you out on your ear just yet!”
I know he’s only joking – my British friends have been making pretty much the same joke all week – but it’s even less funny tonight. It used to be we were all just postgraduates together – that’s what it felt like, anyway – but now there’s a definite divide between regular and overseas students. I didn’t feel like a foreigner when I first arrived, not knowing a single soul in the city, but I certainly do now. I was even approached by a local news reporter in the street yesterday, looking for a non-British national’s take on the coming election. Anyone would think I had EU IMPORT tattooed across my forehead.
Harry produces a freshly chilled bottle of Kozel from the deep recesses of the fridge and removes the top. “Here,” he says, pressing it into my hands. “I kept this one back for you, especially. You look like you could do with it.”
“Thanks. I don’t know why I’m so nervous. It’s not like it’s my referendum…”
“No,” he agrees. “But that’s not to say the outcome won’t affect you just the same. I guess that makes it even more stressful.” He rubs at an old coffee ring with his finger. “Listen, Fiala, if you’d rather do something else tonight it’s not too late to cancel. The others will understand.”
I take a long deep swig of my Kozel, the unmistakable taste of home slipping cold and refreshing down my throat.
“Of course not,” I say, shaking off the sudden wave of nostalgia that comes sweeping out of nowhere. “It’s fine. Probably just what I need, in fact. I’ll only spend the night brooding otherwise.”
“About your aunt, you mean?” His Czech still leaves a lot to be desired, despite my best efforts, but I swear Harry can read my mind sometimes.
I nod. She wasn’t really my aunt, of course. In fact Rebecca wasn’t any relation to us at all, but that never stopped her being part of the family. Máma met her years ago, through her research on the Kindertransport, and invited her to speak about her experiences as part of a seminar series she was running on ‘Displacement’. For some reason – a mix-up with the hotel booking or something – Rebecca ended up staying with us instead and we joined her on her emotional pilgrimage to the Pinkas Synagogue to find the names of her parents. Everyone was in tears that day. Even Leos.
I don’t know if we adopted her, or if she adopted us, but somehow that first visit turned into an annual event, with return trips for me and Leoš every summer, to stay with her in the tiny London flat she called home. It was Rebecca who first introduced me to Battenberg and fruit trifle. It was Rebecca who sent me parcels of English language history books every birthday and Christmas. And of course it was Rebecca who began my obsession with The British Museum.
Leos and I always called her Teta but she was more like a jolly English granny really. And she loved the country who’d saved her life and given her a new home with a passion and loyalty that would have put many of her native-born neighbours to shame. Perhaps it’s as well she’s not here anymore to watch her beloved Britain tearing itself in two like this. To see the daily anti-migrant scare stories in the newspapers. To witness the likes of Placard Man parading up and down, shouting for everyone to go back where they came from.
Sarah Bernhardt watches over proceedings with her usual inscrutable expression, as the ice buckets grow emptier and emptier, and the laughter grows increasingly raucous. What must she make of it all? Especially the sight of Harry’s biggest, beardiest friend dancing round the room (if you can call it dancing) to the strangled sounds of ‘Toxica’. Me? I’m just grateful for the distraction. This is exactly what I needed. No more sad thoughts about Rebecca and the anniversary of her passing. She wouldn’t have wanted that. No. It’s just another date on the calendar, that’s all. And no more brooding over things that are out of my control. Out of anyone’s control. Remain or Leave. Stay or Go. The votes have all been cast now and there’s nothing anyone can do to change the outcome. Best just to forget about it and enjoy the night.
I’m barely conscious when Harry stumbles across to the desk for his phone. “No,” he says, holding it up to his face and squinting at the screen in the early morning sunlight. “That can’t be right.”
I’m so groggy I don’t know what he’s talking about at first. “What is it? What’s happened?”
Harry doesn’t say anything. He’s too busy scrolling down the screen, his expression darkening as he reads.
And then I remember. I switch on the telly and there it is, running across the bottom of the screen on an endless loop: Britain votes to leave the EU… Britain votes to leave the EU…
That can’t be right.
Only it is.
I wait for Harry’s joke about packing me off back home but it never comes. He doesn’t say anything. Instead he wraps his arms tight around my shoulders, and we sit there together in silence under Sarah Bernhardt’s watchful stare.
© Jennifer Moore