24 February 2011

Identifying me

I open the drawer by the side of my bed and absentmindedly, pick up my passport; my gateway into many cultures and my permission to explore them all. I run my fingers over the worn leathery cover, which feels soft and comfortable in my hand. The striking dragon’s blood red, as if stained with a real history of knights, castles and battles won over the land that is my home – is now slightly faded from creasing and wrinkles. Those gold capital letters, proudly splayed across the front, declaring Queen and country, have also worn off slightly, and look positively tired. Sticky splodges of God-knows-what (perhaps some sort of travel sweet or fizzy drink - now unidentifiable and covered in fluff) are splattered up the spine. My eyes fall upon the lion poised proudly on the left of the Royal coat of arms; perhaps he is smiling - or maybe roaring -  but he, more than anything looks faded and old.
The corners are black and dusty; dirty from too many rowdy nights out tucked safely away in my handbag, crushed up against smashed blushers and broken eye-shadow pots.
The book bends easily, and I flick absentmindedly through the pages. Almost all of them blank, leaving just a whirr of pastel-coloured paper and the odd flash of blue, red and black inks stamped towards the back. In flicking I’d created a light breeze, which made me blink a bit and instantly the musty air it aroused brought back memories of long journeys in the back of chicken buses.
There’s a stamp or two from Costa Rica, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras (which, I may add, is the prettiest stamp in the book). Then there was the one I’d got at the Mexican border. The customs officer, in a flurry to pass as many people as possible through his gate had half missed the page and stamped the table instead. I’d walked away really cross, debating at nineteen years old whether I was brave enough to walk back up to him and ask for another one. Needless to say, I didn’t. I remembered the scary-looking official in Orlando, in the US of A, who - much to my horror - randomly picked any old page in my passport to stamp, and did so upside down. Then, as knocking my carefully collected stamps out of chronological order, eyeballed me through his gate, as if daring me to protest. But most of the pages remained bare, characterless and without a story - and from now on, they always would.

I knew exactly how I’d feel as I felt my thumb slide further past the pastel pages flicking forward and stopping right at the back – more specifically the very last page. It opened with ease – exactly as it’s meant to – and I came face to face with my sixteen-year-old-self. The picture was just a little fuzzy, and glittered wildly from holograms of roses and italic writing as I moved it ever so slightly to catch the light. My thoughts walked me back to the day it had been taken - before some school ski trip – if I remember rightly. I’d worn a V-neck black jumper and haematite crystal crucifix on a leather thong around my neck, trying to look distinguished. I recall Mum saying at the time:

“You’ll be using this until you’re twenty-five. In 2011 - now, can you imagine that?”

I remember thinking it sounded light years away, and I’d be so old I’d have a husband, a house of my own and babies by then. So I’d gone all out to look grown-up, just in case they weren’t completely sure it was me once I'd become so sophisticated.

My shoulder-length hair, usually a dark brown, looked black in this photograph, and in contrast, my skin appeared a luminous white. I’d really loved the Gothic look at sixteen; dark eyes, dark hair, dark clothes – all dark, but with this beautiful bright outlook.
I suppose they’d never allow a picture like that now – too much smiling. Plus, you couldn’t see my eyes.
‘Too dark’, they’d say, then send it right back.
I’d queued at the photo booth in Tescos as Mum paid for the weekly shopping. Once inside, I had to twirl the seat around and around, adjusting the height. I carefully applied my ‘nude’ lipstick and dropped £3 into the slot, before posing and adopting a half coy smile as the instructions spoke out from the speaker at the front.
"Hurry up!", Mum had hissed from outside. I hadn't time to take another, even though in my first and final photo, my crucifix was slightly wonky to the left. I'd sighed and pressed the green button, then drew back the curtain before stepping into the bright lights of the supermarket.

I now gazed at my signature in the bottom right-hand corner of the page. I'd been told to sign within the box on the application form. Within the box? Sign? I didn't have a signature at sixteen. So I'd signed the elaborate swirly letters in my name over three pieces of plain paper, before realising it definitely wouldn't fit inside the box, and finally settled for a slightly italic version of my name printed in full.
Shifting slightly on my bed, I took a deep breath and allowed myself a peek at the back cover, mostly it was just a quick indulgence in my sadness, but also I felt that a little of me would be pretending that things were as they were written on that back page.
The words were written in Mum’s distinctive capital font – scribbled, as I remember, as she'd leant over our kitchen table, just before I set off on my first holiday without her.

My Mum and Dad's names. Mr and Mrs.

It was the closest the two had been together in years. You wouldn't get them in the same room now, and there they were, written next to each other on the same page - the same line even. It seemed strange to think of them like that – I’d gotten so used to it being different. Suddenly the memories hit me like oncoming bullets, fired in slow motion. Since I'd asked for it - I just took them all, one by one. My body reeled as I soaked them in, digesting how the scenes of cosy family dinners had turned gradually cold. I relived the Saturday lunches of walks to the market then cheese and pickle sandwiches, the way they'd both cuddle in the mornings, wrapping their dressing-gowns around each other tight with no slippers on cold tiled floors. The rounds of teas under duvet tents, and the overwhelming feeling of being safe. But then came the looks - the crying - then the silence and the letters. And then there I was, sat in a hard wooden court room, biting my lip, waiting for the call of a stranger to decide which of the two people I loved was right, as I watched them both fall apart individually.
I looked back at the official document which lay in my hands, identifying me in more ways than one. The saddest part being the dark-eyed girl with the slightly coy smile, who hadn't the faintest clue sitting in a photo booth in Tescos. Closing the book, I tucked it away in my side cabinet drawer. I wouldn't throw it out when I ordered the new one next week. It still had a few months left before it expired, I think. 


  1. I loved this. Absolutely loved it. The place you were when that picture was taken, to the place you are now. And that's not counting your travel.

  2. What a great post and journey you have chosen to share with us. I absolutely love this.

  3. Nicely done - looking out and wide, then focusing in on home and family, this had an almost cinematic feel to it. Great.

  4. I liked this post. Use that passport as often as you can!

  5. What a wonderful story. Our passports do carry the world (as Sharon mentioned) and our history in one tiny little package, don't they? You told yours so beautifully I almost want to ran back and create my own version. Not the sadness part, though it was told so vividly with the tastes, the sounds, the scenes and most of all the feelings that we can all still find on our reading pallets, even after the third read.

  6. I loved this story. I'm impressed how you formed it, all the little pieces you added are perfectly described. Truly amazing!

  7. I really enjoyed this and can relate. My passport was made when I was 15 and I've got to get a new one this year. I'm rather attached to my old one too. :)

  8. So many memories, so many trips....I don't think I'd ever be able to dispose of my passport and any other thing just because of the memories attached to it....

  9. Who knew such a thin passport held such vivid, dense story? Bth - what a joy to read! I loved the photo booth scene, and all your travels through time in that book. Simply sublime. ;)

  10. A lovely post Bth. I haven't let go of my first passport either - it serves as a memory of trips and moments that I loved. You wrote about your family with such warmth.

  11. To be able to view the past in this light is a beautiful thing.