So I’m sitting in the waiting room at Taunton railway station, about to embark on the biggest journey of my life. This time tomorrow, I shall know whether or not my visa application has been approved. I haven’t slept properly in two weeks, ever since the letter arrived inviting me to the interview at the US Embassy in London. In 24 hours my entire life may have changed course. I am nervous, and excited. Trepidatious, if that’s a word. I check with my software package and it suggests changing it to ‘Cretaceous’ or ‘streptococcus’. Tempting, but I decide to stick with ‘trepidatious’. I have told one or two friends about the interview, not many. I couldn’t bear the disappointment that would be magnified so many times if the answer is ‘no’.
It is a major difficulty to get to London for a 9am appointment. No train runs early enough, and I don’t fancy my chances of sleep on the sleeper train that takes almost three times as long to get to Paddington as the normal trains.
I have scraped together enough money for an overnight hotel stay, a single room close by Paddington Station, not too far to walk in the dark.
I am up at six o’clock the next morning after a fitful night. I head sleepily to the bathroom and turn on the tap. No water. I turn on the shower. No water. The room was cheap by London standards, but I’m pretty sure water was included. After giving it a couple of minutes I ring down to reception. No water. An external problem, they assure me; not the hotel’s responsibility. I negotiate the use of a basement room which does have water (how did Thames Water manage that, I wonder?) to be allowed the use of a bathroom very recently vacated by another patron, evidenced by the unmade bed and the dirty towels littering the bathroom floor. I select one small, seemingly – and hopefully – unused hand towel and tentatively dab my face dry. On the biggest day of my life I am unable to shower first. The poor duty manager has been working all night, and now has to deal with a constant stream of complaints. He advises me to come back at lunchtime if I wish to speak with the manager. I explain that actually I have a REALLY, REALLY important appointment which may take up the entire day, and resolve to follow up with Days Inn customer services by email instead. Therein lies another long story, suffice to say I was eventually given a refund ‘by check, in US dollars. We don’t have the facility to credit’ after almost two months and a barrage of emails.
So, at 7am, map in hand, I head off on foot through Hyde Park in the general direction of the American Embassy. According to Mr Google I should be at the Embassy in 23 minutes.
Which is why I eventually arrived there an hour and a quarter later.
See, I don’t have the best sense of direction. But, I was having a lovely walk through Hyde Park on a beautiful autumn morning. It was cold, but with that lazy winter sun which makes everything look pretty. Before I knew it, I was at the far end of the park, and, as I thought, still heading in the right direction. Until I looked at the map and realised that by now the park should be on my left, and not on my right. I passed quite a few Embassies, but not the American one. Eventually I had to admit to myself that I was, quite simply, a bit lost. My saviour arrived in the form of the tallest man I have ever seen, a doorman dressed in a red hunting jacket and black top hat, on duty outside some hotel or other. I explained where I was going. ‘Oh, the American Embassy? That’s over in Mayfair!’ He said, in a broad London accent. He pointed with his huge hands off into the far distance. ‘See that roundabout? That’s Hyde Park Corner. You wanna take a left there, then turn right at the donkey. Past the Dorchester then you’ll see the Embassy’. ‘Let me check I’ve got this right’ I said, slightly confused by the sudden introduction of livestock into the conversation. ‘I turn left, then head for the donkey’. So, I retraced my steps back to Hyde Park Corner, past the Dorchester Hotel. I never did find the donkey, but worked out that it must have been the War Horse memorial to animals lost in the Great War.
Sure enough, I finally arrived at the American Embassy, a vast, imposing building crowned with a huge gilded bald eagle. By this time it was raining, and the armed police on duty at the perimeter were looking bored. So too were the 150 other people who formed a long queue reaching back down the street. I approached a lady and asked if this was the queue for the visas. ‘This is the 8.30 queue’ she replied. ‘Ah,’ I said, ‘Then I’m guessing I need…the 9 o’clock queue???’ She pointed off to one side where another queue stretched away into the distance. I went to the back of the line, and resigned myself to a long wait. The whole of humanity was there: students, families, mothers with babies in their arms, seasoned travellers, tourists clutching travel itineraries, would-be migrants like myself, many of them clutching Indian passports and bundles of paperwork. I felt nervous, and excited. I craned my neck to look up at the huge eagle at the top of the building. It is an extremely effective symbol of the might of America. I dearly wanted to photograph it, but couldn’t be certain that my camera wouldn’t be confiscated by the cops – photographing the US Embassy would probably amount to espionage, or spying, resulting in several years’ incarceration in Guantanamo.
After an hour, an official came along the line encouraging us to get our papers ready for when we reached the front of the queue. She spotted mine and said brightly ‘Oh! You’re a K-1, you can jump the queue’. Not being sure whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, I meekly followed her, glad of the opportunity to move so that I could get some feeling back into my frozen feet. I was then handed over to a security guard who put me in line for checking through security. This is an arrangement just like at an airport, and equally as thorough, and gets you through the perimeter fence to the outside of the Embassy. Then you have to walk all the way around to the main entrance, and to a very polite receptionist. He explained I should take a seat in the waiting hall and handed me a sheet of paper covered in identical barcodes. ‘And this is your number for the day’. I guessed I was going to be there for some time.
At that moment, the doors to the waiting hall swung open and a young woman made her way down the steps. She had obviously been crying, her mascara had run in little channels down her cheeks and she wore the washed out, lost look of someone who has just had their hopes and dreams dashed. I shivered, hoping this was not an omen of bad things coming my way.
The waiting hall resembles an airport departure lounge and seats 300 people. I know this, because I had plenty of time to count them all while I was waiting for my number to be called. At the front of the hall is a snack bar selling coffee and sandwiches. A minor panic erupted when it was announced over the tannoy that the coffee bar would be closing early today. I didn’t move from my seat, for fear of missing my number being called. The system works a bit like in an Argos store. A huge display board flashes up numbers roughly every 20 seconds or so, accompanied by a loud, discordant bleeping noise. But here’s the thing. The numbers are displayed in RANDOM order, so there is no chance of reading the book you might have taken with you to stave off the boredom, or of having a little walk to stretch your legs, because once your number’s gone, it’s gone. Next to the random-number-generator display board is a screen silently showing scenic views of the great American outdoors, to remind you what you’ll be missing out on when your application is refused. And just occasionally, an explanation of the procedure we are all here for today. My gaze wanders to the window. Outside it is still raining. People are still queueing. And this goes on all day, every day. Hordes of civilians, standing in line for a new life. I’m glad I’m inside now, away from the cold and the rain. There is no need for armed police officers in here. The hours of boredom, watching random numbers flash before our eyes, is enough to keep us subdued. The notion of a 9am appointment, indeed any definite time for an appointment, is long gone, but no-one seems to care. Some families talk quietly amongst themselves, most of us are silent, watching the flickering numbers. There is a strong, inexplicable smell of mothballs.
Two and three-quarter hours after I arrived, my number comes up and I am instructed to go to window number eight. The hall is lined with booths, like at the post office or the bank; perspex screens dividing the public from the officials, and microphones that make everything unintelligible.
I am greeted by a kind Italian gentleman who sports a magnificent Civil War moustache. I hand him my papers and he checks them over, saying that everything looks OK to him. ‘But’ he says advisedly, ‘It’s the Americans who will decide’. I am told to take a seat back in the waiting hall for my number to be called a second time.
After another hour, I am directed down a corridor to another booth where the atmosphere is decidedly cooler. By this point I have been waiting most of the day and I’m emotionally exhausted, hypertense, hungry and thirsty. This is the deciding moment which will affect the course of the rest of my life. I am feeling sick with anticipation. I daren’t think about being turned away. I smile confidently and greet ‘The American’ politely. He’s an innocuous looking man in his forties, and he will decide my future. ‘And who is your sponsor?’ he asks. Once I’ve translated this into a sentence my overloaded brain can interpret, I realise he means Nick. ‘Dr Nicholas Devereux’ I reply. He considers me for a moment, then says, ‘I’ll just go and get your file’.
Now, I spend every day in my job making up big bundles of evidence for Court. I’m quite good at it; it’s what I do. The bundle of evidence I sent to Homeland Security in the States has been forwarded to the US Embassy in London, and this is what I expect to see. A wad of papers approximately three inches thick, containing the many forms we completed, together with a copy of every email we have ever sent each other (only slightly censored for smut), a log of all our Skype conversations, photographs of holidays taken together, copies of both our passports. What ‘The American’ returns with, however, is a pile of papers a foot thick. A MASSIVE bundle of documents, and it’s all about me. As a Case Builder for the police I can appreciate the beauty of a well-compiled dossier, and I really, really want to know what’s in the bundle. But when you’ve travelled halfway across the country, slept in a strange bed, woken up to no running water and possible smell a little questionable, walked the length of Hyde Park (twice) and turned right at a donkey, queued up for most of the day with half of London and might possibly have omitted some vital piece of information from your application, you really, really don’t ask. This is a boat that must not be rocked. So I content myself with raising one eyebrow and prepare to be questioned.
I had brought with me, as instructed, not only essential documents like my birth certificate, medical records and police certificate, but also duplicate copies of all the additional evidence in support of my application. Two reams of paper in a briefcase. It weighs a ton. ‘The American’ didn’t ask for any of them, and again, I can’t tell if that’s a good thing or not. He asks me how Dr Nick and I met, and I brighten up at the prospect of telling him The Big Old Love Story. ‘Can I tell you the big old love story?’ I ask. ‘Just the short version ma’am’ is his reply. So I keep it short. He asks how often we have visited each other, and about Dr Nick’s work. Where I intend to live, and whether we have been married before. ‘Not to each other’ I consider saying, but remember my best friend’s advice when dealing with bureaucrats: never, ever, try to be funny.
‘Well,’ says The American, ‘Your application is approved’ and picking up a big stamp, begins stamping the word ‘APPROVED’ on my application. Just like that, it’s all over. Before I know it, I have clamped my hand to my mouth and hot, salty tears of relief roll down my face. ‘Oh! Thank you! Thank you!’ Is all I can manage to say. ‘I can’t even shake your hand because you’re behind this big perspex window!’ The American nods inscrutably, murmuring ‘Take care on your way out ma’am’ and with that, I am dismissed. I scramble my papers together, pages slipping to the floor as I am blinded with tears, and somehow make my way back to the waiting hall, where strangers, awaiting their turn, ask me if I’m OK. ‘I’m very, very happy’ I explain, and pull in vain at the door, trying to get it open. A young woman points silently to the large sign marked ‘PUSH’ and everyone laughs. I’m back at the reception desk, and pause to wipe my eyes and pull myself together. I’m getting concerned looks from the reception staff, so I tell them The Big Old Love Story, seeing as how I was denied the opportunity with The American. ‘Oh, that’s really luvvly’ says the lady at the desk ‘I’m gonna tell my mum that story when I get home. It’ll make her day’. I make my way out into the late afternoon sunshine, and take the first breath of the rest of my life.