It may not have been the best of times but it was certainly almost the worst of times. It was the season of Darkness alright…
But yesterday began well. I awoke in darkness (not so bright but early) in Brighton to the sound of Penelope cooing and laughing. She was soon out of her cot and into my bed for a bit more sleep and cuddles; and when she awoke again my baby granddaughter touched my cheek and smiled. What at darling! Yes it was a good start waking up at Jaimy and James’ place.
We all kissed goodbye at Brighton Station. I knew I would probably arrive at Australia House on The Strand well before my three-fifteen appointment but I thought it best to leave plenty of time and maybe they would let me in early. Chris’s excellent maps and timetables made for a trouble-free journey into the city and, indeed, I had a couple of hours to kill. First stop Australia House to see if they could fit me in… Buzz. Please? No? But I could enter a half an hour earlier and wait inside; my appointment would be at exactly three-fifteen.
No problem. I’d buy a chocolate milkshake at McDonald and have it for lunch in Trafalgar Square, right down the other end of The Strand; and en route I’d pass the Strand Palace Hotel where I worked for a couple of months as an accounts clerk when I was seventeen; and I’d talk to the doorman. Richard the doorman was rather impressed that I was so interested in the place and he informed me that employees may still have their breakfast, lunch and dinner there if they wish.
The first sign that all was not going to go to plan was the long wait at McDonald only to find that they were all out of any milkshakes. I took my McDonald “coffee away” down to Trafalgar Square and I took photographs in spite of the grey day. It was nevertheless exciting to be in “town” with the tourists, the city folk, the pigeons and the street performers; the air was alive with the music from a violinist playing electric violin in front of the National Gallery.
I was just standing in the square with my mobile phone camera poised when a handsome man, possibly Egyptian, walked down the steps. He wore a smart navy woollen overcoat and a red scarf. He broke into a beaming smile when he saw me and I smiled back. What a lovely greeting from a stranger! We didn’t speak, though I thought he wanted to (you can tell), and he gestured that he’d take my photograph for me. I waved my “No thanks” and he understood. He walked to the fountain and lingered there a long while, perhaps hoping that I would join him. Instead of joining him I took his photograph when he wasn’t looking. He didn’t look quite as handsome without his winning smile (which didn’t exactly work this time, but only because I’m married). I stayed the other side of the fountain and eventually, I was drawn by the music up to the road. The sun came out while I watched the musician and the crowd, and the man dressed up as a Star Wars creature.
At length the time came for me to wander back leisurely to Australia House.
I was number 84. Numbers 85, 86 and 87 all went before me while I waited. I had a feeling that the Chinese Australian young lady would be my clerk.
“I don’t like these photographs,” she said, looking at the multiple choices from slightly grim to extremely grim. “You appear to be smiling!”
“What about these?” I handed her more.
“I check,” she left and returned. “No, the quality of the paper isn’t good enough and one is slightly blurry, you’ll have to get some more done and be back by four o’clock – we close at four.”
“But it’s half past three nearly…”
As soon as I stepped out of Australia House I was hit by a bucket of rain. It continued to pour in torrents as I raced down The Strand to Charing Cross Underground Station, which is where I had to locate my specified photographer – the closest to Australia House. The pavements ended in puddles that wet my socks and my smart cerise coat was soaked. I entered the subway from the wrong way and had to ask a couple of hobos if they knew the photo place; they seemed surprised to be asked such a question by a drenched, panting woman. They wanted to help but didn’t know. At last I met a railway man who pointed me in the right direction.
Like a whack in my face, the shop was closed! I had visions of spending the night with my hobo friends and was about to cry when the railway man turned up with the photographer. Hurrah! But could he open up, take my photos, print them and take my eight pounds in less than seven minutes?
Yes, he could. He kindly gave me a tissue to wipe away the streaks of mascara all down cheeks and suggested that I look in the mirror. Wet hair stuck to my head, no makeup and water still shining all over my face. But time was running out!
“They want me to look ugly,” I said defeated, “they can have me just as I am.”
And the nice photographer took me at my word. A few minutes later I was running through the puddles back up to Australia House; in my pilot case (Chris’s) were six of the ugliest photos I’ve ever seen of myself.
The clock at the end of The Strand chimed four o’clock. It was quite a long chime and I wondered if I could make it to the Passport Department door, like in the films… where they always make it in the nick of time. The chimes ended two seconds before I buzzed. the receptionists were still there.
“Go to the Consulate door around the corner,” the bearded receptionist suggested.
“Calm down, Sally,” said the nice older Aussie gentleman who received people into the embassy.
And he gave me a tissue to wipe off the wet black ink that had got onto one of my new photos. And he called the Chinese Australian girl to pick up my gorgeous photos. She pulled a face and so did I. But she accepted them. She had to after all her previous objections… and all I had been through.
I arrived home at eleven-thirty at night. Some trains had been delayed, some were too full to squeeze any more into – there were problems at Waterloo, a very appropriate place for battles of all sorts. Some people were extremely kind and rallied round, as you might expect from people on the same side. Richard the audio man from Chichester was lovely and helpful – he has three brothers, one of whom is an ascetic minister who spends two months a year in a Swedish retreat (so interesting, the things people tell you on trains). And Nigel, the civil servant from near Salisbury, was my constant companion when I needed one most – after the packed train departed the station without me. He was an interesting chap, too; a world traveller who had worked three hundred miles “out west” from Brisbane when he was in a different profession – something to do with gas deposits. My Chris, too, was one of the stalwarts. He picked me up at Exeter St Davids and bought me a chocolate milkshake before driving me home.
My new Australian passport should arrive on Saturday. When I arrive at airport Customs in less than three weeks I guess I shall have to joke about the photograph. I know what to say – it’s what a Customs officer told me many years ago:
“If you look like your passport photograph, you’re not well enough to travel!”