The bucket list

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Anita moved from the Netherlands to Cornwall with her family in 2014. They were blissfully happy here. Then the referendum came and her husband was diagnosed with cancer…

Young Matt: “I get so angry sometimes. People are so unthinking. They say ’We just don’t want any more newcomers, that’s all. People that are here can all stay, can’t they? Nothing will change for them, right?’

Me: “So what do you say then?”

Young Matt: “I hope you don’t mind, but I tell them your story.”

Me: “I don’t mind. What do they say then?”

Young Matt: “They go very quiet. They don’t know how to respond.”

So here’s my story. The story Young Matt tells his unthinking friends.

It all started with me. It’s my fault that we ended up in this country. I wanted to sound like “one of them” when I was 11 years old. Went and read English at university in Amsterdam. Was sent to Durham University on a scholarship from my own uni. Spent all my free time and all my disposable income in this country. Every single holiday for nearly forty years.

In 2012, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. When I came out of treatment, my husband asked if there was anything on my bucket list in case the cancer returned. I could think of only one thing. I wanted to spend one year in the UK as a family. To see what it was like to be part of the social fabric. He felt we should make it happen.

For various very good reasons, we ended up in Cornwall in 2014. Found the best possible school for our then 11-year-old daughter. My husband volunteered at one of Cornwall’s amazing subtropical gardens and I continued to work as a freelance translator. We’d brought – and spent! – loads of cash from two inheritances and lived that year as if we were on a long holiday. It was a wonderful time, in which we bonded as a small family (we have older children, already fledged).

By the end of that school year, I was ready to go home. I’d found that life wasn’t all that different for me. That I could easily live in both cultures, that I already was half-and-half, a citizen of nowhere. But something had happened to my family, and particularly our daughter. We realised we had never seen her happy before. And she was now. Blissfully so. My husband was offered a job and we agreed that the two of them would remain here. And that I would spend six months in the Netherlands and six in the UK.

And then the referendum came. I was shocked, felt personally rejected, wanted out. But we had our daughter to consider. And my husband was happier in his job in Cornwall than he had been as a nurse in the Netherlands. He and I agreed that he would work in this country until his retirement, we would send our daughter on her way to a happy life, and then we’d move into our flat in Amsterdam for the final chapter of our lives.

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Disaster struck: my husband was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He was too far gone for treatment and in September 2017 we returned to the Netherlands for him to die. He passed away in March 2018. It was hell for our daughter, who hated every single minute in Amsterdam, hated her new school, hated life away from her friends and her school in Cornwall.

And so, two months after my husband’s and her father’s death, she and I returned. Returned to a warmth and a strength of support I’ll always be grateful for, always. This country isn’t made up of spiteful people who all want us gone. Cornwall is full of warm, loving people who stepped up and have helped us through the horrors of these first two years after his death. I am so grateful to every single one of you – you know who you are!

But now I’m preparing to leave. And my daughter is preparing for a life without her other parent. Because I’m being forced to choose, between applying for settled status or retaining my life and business in Holland. My own country won’t allow me to be a resident of both countries after Brexit, nor to run my business if I’m not resident. And it looks like this country isn’t keen on self-employed EU people.

By the end of this year, I’ll have given away my car, closed down our home, ended my National Trust and English Heritage memberships, got rid of Prime, HelloFresh and the utilities, and left my gorgeous, creative, fragile, vulnerable young daughter to fend for herself.

The thing that hurts the most? Other than not being able to fledge our youngest daughter properly? That I won’t be able to visit my husband’s ashes whenever I want to (yes, they’re scattered here, that’s what he wanted). Or to rush to my daughter’s side when she needs me, as a close British friend just did when her daughter at uni needed her. Because I’ll need permission to enter the country – and may by then have used up the time allotted to tourists. All of this because of my bucket list – and Brexit of course.

And Young Matt? He’s just passed his TEFL qualification. He’s decided to leave Cornwall and the country. Britain is losing one of its best and brightest.

[This piece was originally written for the In Limbo Project, which helps to give a voice to the neglected 5 million citizens who have built their lives on their rights to freedom of movement and are now at risk of losing everything in the Brexit shambles. Since writing it, Anita has had another cancer diagnosis; she is currently undergoing chemotherapy in the Netherlands.]