Gypsy’s Kiss

I was very cross at the gypsy even before he stole from me and cursed me for life. He was standing sentinel over the Milano Stazione Centrale ticket machines like a gnarled gargoyle over a church door, snarling and pushing at the Romanian women in long skirts who were trying a gentler tack than him to earn a day’s crust. He was a bully and I don’t like bullies.

As though he’d heard my secret telling off, he launched and hung his lumbering frame over me just as I was selecting two singles to Il Duomo. I knew some game was afoot and was waiting for the bite while trying to stay on my toes. He dragged money from my hand, pushed buttons that didn’t need to be pushed, and swiped my hand away every time I tried to thwart his machinations. What could I do? I didn’t want to get shanked, or worse – look rude.

I certainly don’t think I deserved to be cursed for life just because I was being a little bit assertive. In the old days I would have ended up waving him off with all my worldly possessions tied up in my cardigan just so he could buy a sandwich, but I’ve grown up a bit and have realised the world is full of hustlers. True, I waved my finger at him in the universal symbol of “no, no, no” – and with such arrogant reproachful finger-waggling right in their face which trickster wouldn’t want to turn it a bit Brothers Grimm and desiccate my uterus?

Somehow in the sleight of hand trickery that probably buys him Tuscan truffles every night for tea, he managed to walk off with two of my Euros (I calculated afterwards, squinting at the maths). In addition to the casual theft he glowered at me like il Diavolo himself as he bowed, kissed the money, and muttered darkly as he backed off – before folding himself away into an insouciant swagger. He took up his leering perch with the other gypsies, who were picking their people out like pecking magpies.

I gave the back of his head my best haughty look and hoped it would at least have given him a prickle of conscience if not scorched his testicles. But I am not trained in the dark arts. I couldn’t even do basic Chemistry at school, much to the chagrin of Mrs Chilton who lived in her white coat. Legend had it she was born in it, got married in it, had babies in it and would at some point die in it. How she kept it white through all that is the stuff of alchemy. (Maybe if she’d snuck some arcane alchemy on the curriculum – like Beginner’s Turning Stones Into Gold or Key Stage 4 Living Forever – I would have been more diligent.)

I felt like a chump and bristled with hot indignance for about half an hour as Matt and I made our way to the cathedral, retrospectively acknowledging the trickster’s tactics, which now seemed so obvious. I hated feeling like a dimwitted tourist. I don’t mind feeling stupid at home, but in another country it felt somehow worse, especially after such a gorgeous welcome from our Italian friends. We emerged from the metro into brilliant sunshine and got jostled about with our bags as we found our way. I still hadn’t forgotten the gypsy or his unsettling subterranean kiss.

Within the hour, a market bracelet of wooden beads now wrapped around my wrist, with tiny iridescent Jesus and Marys hanging from it as though to soothe my agnostic superstition, I had let my anger go. Milan was bustling with springtime tourists, it was already as hot as England ever gets, and we had frothy steins of cold beer in front of us. I may have been hustled, I may have been stolen from, I may even have had a gypsy’s curse on my womb, but for now I had Italy, and beer.
I’d deal with being barren when I got back.

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Her Majesty’s Snipers

Her Majesty’s Passport Office, London Victoria.
It loomed over the posh square it abutted like a moody butler over a rich kid’s tea party. I say loomed; I walked the entire circumference of the square searching for it first before I found it right back where I’d started. That’s only when I noticed it was ‘looming’.

I was early. I’m never early. I started off a lifetime’s habit of being tardy when I was two weeks late being born and hindered myself yet further by trying to avail myself of my mother’s back passage. How can you help but begin a lifetime’s habit of late arrivals if you insist on starting your worldly existence by trying to come out of the wrong hole?

It looked like a government building should look. Dreary, but dangerous when pushed. I was nervous. The forms had made me nervous, and the emergency appointment made me more so. I smoothed my hair to try and make the top of my head look extra respectable for the snipers. I wanted them to know from my parting that I am not the kind of gal to smuggle in any Uzbekistanis strapped under a lorry. (I haven’t got a lorry.)

I entered the impersonal gleam of the reception and promptly started a courtly dance of repeatedly dropping my paperwork in the queue. I wondered if this made me look as undeniably clumsily British as Hugh Grant, or instead like I had been drilled to feign bumbliness by an evil terrorist uncle whose plan to take over the world rested on the success of my passport-getting skills.

I passed through scanners and didn’t get frisked. They didn’t even make me take any clothes off. I assumed they were lulling me into a false sense of security and that all the serious stuff would take place in the interrogation room where they kept the lubed gloves. They gave me a ticket with a number on it and told me what floor I should go to. I wondered if it was the floor with tasers.

I was 5417. They were only on 1208. I wondered if I should have brought my iPad or got pregnant first so I could have been doing something productive like admin or gestating while I waited. Luckily the numbers didn’t go in any sequential order that civvies could understand and I only had to wait AN HOUR. During which I lost a stone through my palms.

When summoned to the counter I was asked to fill in a section I’d missed out. About my parents. My form fear welled up afresh. I couldn’t remember when my mum and dad got married, even though I’d been there in my amniotic sac best, no doubt wibbling around to the number one of the time – Dr Hook’s When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman – the glint of the disco ball shooting its beams through mum’s belly turning her corpuscles into funky lanterns.

I gingerly asked the nice lady at the counter if I had to put my Dad’s name even though he was dead. She stared at me. I wrote it down without waiting for her reply – to show her I was hardened to the necessity of bureaucracy and didn’t at all have a little rush of nausea writing his name and date of birth.

She waved me to the paying desk. During the interminable wait for the payment to go through I wondered if some back-office Kafka droid had paused the phone-line to flick through my life’s misdemeanours before deciding if I could leave the country (or rather, if I could be allowed back in).

Finally it was done.

As I emerged the spring sun shone on the capital as though it had been invented solely for that purpose, forged in the great fires of the Tower of London for a coronation or something. I stilled my eyes, still blinking to the rhythm of the automated syncopated voice that had richocheted ticket numbers round my brain like execution square bullets.

A bird sang, some jasmine bristled in a stiff British breeze. The blue plaque of Winston Churchill’s former residence, 1909-1913, glinted, Britishly. I was British. Most of the time it didn’t matter a jot, but that day it mattered a lot. The nice lady who had handled my forms, who was still within two generations of her African or Afro-Caribbean (but ultimately African, like all of us) roots, saw no reason to doubt me; to doubt the verity of my citizenship, to doubt my intentions, to doubt my character. She passed me through. The older gentleman on the scanners, whose skin glowed more with Bombay sunsets than the electric glows of Croydon or Hounslow, waved me through with barely a glance. The young man on the desk who issued me with my number, whose pretty hue was so gently molten with genetic possibility I could not guess a likely country where the headwater of his heritage had first sprung, handled my dehumanising categorisation – number not person – with perfect boredom.

It was ultimately just a dreary system for keeping everything nice. It failed sometimes but it was better than not having it at all.

I breathed a delayed sigh of relief. Despite the very modern customs of doubt that have sprung from still-raw world events to swamp our old more natural trust, despite my anxious half-assumption that I might have my shoes spliced open by a ballistics expert, my life and family details scrutinised as though I was obscuring dubious facts for dark purposes, my knicker label scanned onto a global database along with my retinas, fingerprints and lipstick kiss, despite all this utter clunk – we were all in it together. And all this processing – bureaucracy’s scary paranoid add-ons, ceremonial cynicisms that slow it all down further- for all its seeming divisiveness, that stuff only really exists to ensure we could stay that way; in it together. Mingling, as we like to do, more like unbiddable waves than the solid dry plates we’re so obsessed with scribbling maps upon.

I moseyed along, for a while not late for anything. Old learnt tunes swelled in my head. Rule Britannia. The national anthem. I hummed. And with a retrospectively Sex Pistolsy anarchic flare wondered if I should yell back “I’M ONLY HUMMING BECAUSE I DON’T KNOW THE FUCKING WORDS, YOU PRICKS”. But I want to go to Milan next week. And I didn’t really fancy being shot in the eyeball. So I didn’t.

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