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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

A Tale of One Passport Application
by classical music's agony aunt, ALICE McVEIGH
(who wishes to apologise for the striking lack of exclamation points
in this article -- she has given up exclamation points for Lent)

Once upon a time there must have been a time before this. There must have been a time -- I seem to vaguely remember it -- when I could walk the dog, clean the kitchen, practise cello and even write. But not anymore. All that seems a vast featureless desert compared to the cold and brutal reality of the task that has filled my entire perspective this week. For this was The Week of Rachel's First Passport.

Now the more curious among you might well think, why her first? After all, for a six-year-old, the kid has been around a bit. To the US about five times, to Crete four times, to Israel and to Ireland. And if she's been travelling as an adjunct or accessory on my passport (this year's must-have accessory: a young daughter) why can this idyllic state of affairs no longer continue?

Rachel McVeigh. Photo © Simon McVeigh

The reason is that the US of A, in its non-wisdom, has decreed that everyone hoping to visit parents etc has to have their very own passport. This will, I imagine, just about shake Al Qaeda to its boots. Osama Bin Laden is probably knashing such teeth of his that remain at the very thought. No more infant Anglo-American suicide bombers. Ha, got you there, Bin Liner, old boy, say the brave lads and lasses in Grosvenor Square and the Pentagon. (Don't get the idea, by the way, that you, one's humble readers, are allowed to be rude about Americans. Only true-blue, preferably Mayflower-descended Americans are allowed to do that.)

At first, I wasn't fussed. I popped in the immigration people's application site on my computer. Easy-peasy: fill in mother's date of birth (you want the year? The real year???), the birthplace of your uncle's cousin, and your grandmother's sister-in-law's maiden name, yawn, yawn. They'd print it off and send it to you?? They would. Situation under control, I told potentially passport-owning offspring and spouse.

Until it arrived in the post for self to sign. The brilliant computer at the immigration office had inserted, 'London' after 'Orpington,' when (as all the world south of the river knows) it is Orpington bleeding Kent. Simon neatly crossed this out, and I drove to Orpington post office -- driving there's easy, it's the parking that kills you -- to submit same.

I was served by a youth sporting an ill-considered moustache.

'Can't do it,' he mouthed, through the bullet-proof, lasagne-proof barrier. 'Not allowed to cross out a section,' he told me, pointing to paragraph 95, section F19, subsection C on the enclosed form, 'How to fill in your passport form.' ('No one is allowed, on pain of instant death, to cross out any section, however irrelevant, or correct anything, however inane, on Her Majesty's passport form')

He gave me another passport form, and I trotted back to my hard-won car-park space. I went home and wasted another good hour filling it in by hand. I took it again to Peter Rumbelow, my good-natured neighbour, to sign, affirming again that he had known (tough luck) this A S T McVeigh for five years, and was willing to certify on word of honour that she wasn't a drug-runner, communist, etc.

I came back to the Post Office the next day, all merry and bright, parked in my favourite place and blow me if my moustached friend wasn't there again. 'All set?' he inquired jovially, but his face (and even his moustache) seemed to fall as he surveyed the form.

Silently, he pointed to one of the boxes.
'It's an S,' I told him, helpfully.
'It's outside the box,' he said.
'Outside the what?'
'A bit of this S has gone outside the little box. And the T over here as well.'
'God save the Queen,' I said, 'They never said every single titchy letter couldn't even touch the sides of the ruddy box.'
'No, but it's computerised, see, and the computer can't cope if it's even a bit outside the box.'

My thoughts on the computer being too deep for words, I accepted a third form, took hours filling it in, without the faintest shadow of a suspicion of a letter straying near the edges of its box. Peter-the-neighbour enjoyed making dumb-American jokes at my expense as he signed for me yet again (still not a drug-runner, but murderous thoughts nearer the surface.)

Rerun of previous parking, only worse. Long queue at the Post Office (why don't pensioners have pensions paid into bank accounts? They can't all think it safer under the mattress ...)

My moustached comrade managed a brave smile at the sight of me.
'All present and correct?' he said in jocular tone as I handed it over.
'It's frighteningly neat,' I pointed out, 'and I didn't stray outside the lines at all.'
'It's blue,' he said.
'Navy blue. Navy blue ballpoint.'
'Has to be black. Black ink. It was black last time.'

He was right. For some reason I'd swiped up a navy pen, only for this latest attempt. He shuffled through the forms and pointed to the bit where it said, paragraph 9, subsection 16, 'Must be completed in black ink.' My thoughts too deep for words, I took a fourth form.

Now not enough, I feel, has been said about the sheer mental strain of filling in these forms. One says airily or lightly, 'I filled in the form,' but, with the certain knowledge that, one slip of the pen and it's outside the bloody box, or one moment of madness filling in one wrong number of one's naturalisation form and it's back to trying to park in Orpington and the sweat begins to pour from the fevered brow. Hands which think nothing of the double-stop shifts in the first movement of the Dvorák concerto show signs of quivering and shaking. Beta-blockers are recommended, but not coffee, because one senses, deep in one's soul, that the prima donna passport centre computers would faint at a single drop of dried coffee (paragraph 29, subsection 24, 'Thou shalt not spill a drop of coffee on the form.')

My neighbour Peter's comments, at yet again having to affirm to my innocence, were unprintable.

Bloodied but unbowed, I returned to the Post Office. My moustached friend, who had probably spotted me in the doorway, had rushed off to have a nervous breakdown in the loo. I had a red-haired lady assistant instead. I pushed the passport details under the thingie with modest pride -- the two photos of Rachel with Peter's signed acknowledgement of the likeness on (only) one of them. The additional form certifying to my householding and marital status. My own passport with Rachel on it. The cheque (with added dosh for recorded delivery of my passport and hers). The black-inked filled, no straying outside the boxes, perfectly filled in form.

I waited for the screams of applause, for the showers of bouquets, even for an indrawn breath of admiration that it was bloody perfect, that someone had finally cracked the code. Shy as I normally am, I was rather looking forward to, even relishing in anticipation, some comment from the red-haired one, some nudging from clerk to clerk that that woman -- the distinguished-looking blonde one -- had just submitted a perfect application.

Instead, she leaned forward and said, 'I can't find the birth certificate.'
'The birth certificate?'
'I know there's nothing about it on the form, but page 14, paragraph 2, in small print, does say that if the child has blue eyes and blonde hair, and the father has brown eyes and dark hair, and the moon is full, and the month has an 'R' in it, that you also have to supply the child's birth certificate.'

Someday, I expect that woman will have grandchildren, and she will be asked, time and again, to regale them with the tale of the woman who had hysterics in the Post Office. They will gather around the fire and she will explain: how the moustached man called the ambulance, how the manager rallied round with the strong coffee, how the mattress-loving pensioners clung to each other for moral support, and the intervention of all seven of the nearby nurse support staff.

But it has all been of some use in the end, because I have made a new family rule: I do the cooking; he does the application forms.

Copyright © 12 March 2004 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK




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