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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The Lost Passport

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a gadabout traveller in want of an adventure must be in possession of a passport. It’s a quaint old system. Most countries dig it as a means of controlling the movement of the population, entrenching cultural identities, shackling free-spirits to a culture of bureaucracy, keeping tabs on the sorts that in the 18th century would have been afeared pirates or elusive highwaymen, and, of course, squeezing us for quids. “Administrative costs.” Mostly I’m all for all those things in the name of a good jolly.

EXCEPT WHEN I’M SUPPOSED TO GO SOMEWHERE FOREIGN AND FIND I’VE BLOODY LOST IT.

You’ll forgive me I’m sure for being a bit sullen that I am here with you on a Monday morning in Essex. It’s just that I am supposed to be in Budapest – capital city of Hungary, jewel in the crown of the Danube, a ruddy big river in Europe, a place across the seas. I’m supposed to be in raptures over exotic stuff, sniffing paprika up each nostril at the suggestion of a sausage-wielding bohemian lurking on a beautiful neo-gothic street corner. I’M NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HERE, BLIGHTY YOU BORE.

Wind back to last week when I was snug as a bug in bed, just about to turn out the light when I had one of those ‘bolt upright’ moments. Apropos of nothing I lurched forward like someone had socked me in the gut, reached across to the bedside drawer that normally stows my important stuff (emergency sewing kit, strange notes I write to myself that bear no meaning after five minutes, old theatre programmes, a lighter even thought I do not smoke, AND MY BLOODY PASSPORT), and was met by instant panic. Not there. Five minutes of rustling gleaned no results. Twenty drawers, two trunks, a wardrobe, multiple boxes/whicker cases, endless home surfaces later, and nada. No passport. No where.

I thought back to the last few times I’d had it, as ID in the post office when they’d taken 30 seconds to milk me for seven quid putting a verification stamp on a bit of paper. It was like the Queen hated me. I vaguely remembered a moment of wrestling Matt to the ground of our new flat when he plucked it up from the coffee table in the lounge and threatened to look at the picture. We tussled. I won. My chubby spam-head furrow-faced self of 2004 stayed safely sandwiched between Her Majesty’s maroon. And then what? Then where? WHAT THE FUCK DID I DO WITH IT? I have no idea. But it’s gone.

I don’t mind admitting that when Matt went out I had a little cry. I didn’t think he should have to behold snot and puffy eyes as well as missing out on spicy sausage and dancing ancient folk quadrilles in baroque boozers.

I beat myself up for a good few days. I was so cross. It pervaded everything I did and I kept thrusting my face into Matt’s nooks, apologising for my idiocy. He was stoically resolutely lovely. In truth, I think this made it worse.

And then came the natural juncture when I knew I had to let it go. Stop launching myself across the room into Matt’s lap pouting like a manic depressive duck. Accept it. Stop bitching about myself to myself. Just let it go. It gets harder as you get older to let a bad mood slide away, doesn’t it? Something to be worked on I guess.

I’m sure I’d find it easier to adopt zen-like acceptance if I hadn’t just realised I’ll have to GET NEW BLOODY PASSPORT PHOTOS DONE. THE UNBEARABLE AGONY OF THE UGLIFYING BOOTH.

But that in itself is a fresh new start of a kind. I can let 2004 face go. Finally.

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Love Sack, Baby

I’ve always been absolutely useless at saying goodbyes. Even the easy kind. Leaving friends at the pub will often be a fifteen minute hug-fest, then I’ll be halfway out the door when something in my heart will lurch. I’ll turn around with a false memory of having left a tissue strewn on the floor and go back, and instead of picking up my imaginary discarded snotrag, I will sneak another little squeeze in as I jostle through my friends. Or a loving punch. Just a bit more contact for the journey.

Although it sounds like I was left in my cot as a baby for hours without so much as a stale rusk lobbed at my head, I am actually very blessed love-wise; regularly serviced in the soul department by an extensive faculty of wonderful people. But I suppose even people with their emotional needs being tangibly met can still be needy. After all, not even the most adored people on the planet are likely to say one bright April morn “Do you know what? I think I’ve hit my cuddle limit. I’ll be gosh-darned if I haven’t got enough love in the sack til Michaelmas. I am replete. You just stop this shoulder massage right there and give it to Derek the curtain-twitching hermit over the road.” It’s never going to happen; it’s not how humans work.

Perhaps our lives grow to fit the love that comes our way. There is always enough room for more love for or from people, and, unless we’re trying to shake off an annoying ex or a mad stalker, it is always welcome. We don’t measure it out. “I’m sorry, Pleasing Acquaintance, I can’t go for lager-beer with you in case we hit it off and five months down the line, during an impassioned conversation about which Rocky film is the best (2. No discussion.) I get jousted in the heart by a bit of excess friend love and die.” The heart grows as big as we let it.

I came over all angst-ridden yesterday as I said a few goodbyes. I’m going on holiday for two weeks and in amongst all the excitement and faffing and packing (and staring at my passport expiry date trying to remember what year it is with that mania that the enforced bureaucracy of travel evokes), I felt a shadow edge into my heart. I would have to say some goodbyes.

Hot fudge, I suck at them.

Of course it’s probably some innate waily wah-wah stuff like fear of losing people, WAIL, or guilt, BOO, or a sense of leaving things ‘unready’ – “I’m going to crash into the Atlantic and you’re going to have to clear out my room. I have been scrap-booking everything since the age of 9 & you’re going to throw away my collection of funny German T-bags. You probably won’t even find them as hilarious as you should.” WAIL. Maybe it’s more textbook than that. Actual holiday anguish due to my cat, Monty ‘Mental’ Python, getting run over while I was getting quarter-engaged to a tonguey Turk named Erjan in 1996. WAIL. (But probably not, as I’ve only just remembered it.)

Do humans get pre-travel jitters because we know in the heart of our hearts that all this travelling is unnatural? We’re not supposed to fly over seas or traverse huge expanses of land. We’re supposed to do stuff on our feet; stop when we get out of breath and have a nap. We’re not really supposed to go beyond our patch, our cave, the plot marked out by the features that serve our basest needs; food, water, shelter, somewhere a bit private to take a dump. Man’s reach in his physical realm isn’t supposed to exceed his grasp; that is why we dream of heaven and space and the mysterious lands we’ll never get to. We might design ways of closing the gap between us and our curiosities; we’ll always try to harness the stars, push the boundaries of latitude and longitude and other dimensions. We constantly defy nature; our own design. But we are biologically designed for (driven, compelled and nourished by) love.

Maybe that’s why, despite whatever fun we have on our adventures, there’s nothing quite like a cuddle when you come home.

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