I returned to Turkey in November on a three month tourist visa. I’d known from the moment I set foot on Turkish soil that I had to sort out another visa which would allow me to stay longer and come and go as I please, or else I’d be having to get out of the country soon and not be able to return for three months. That would mean three months I’d have to spend on my own in the UK or travelling, pleasing myself, doing what I wanted, when I wanted, with no responsibilities and no one to nag me about the washing up and… Why is this not seeming like a bad option? Oh yes, three months without my son. Unthinkable.
So, after checking things out, the family residence visa seemed the way to go. Forms were filled, documents gathered, photocopies made, blood and bribes given, statements sworn and an appointment was made. I had that yesterday. And I got a glimpse of something I’m glad I’m not part of – the refugee crisis that Turkey is currently embroiled in. (Technically, perhaps I am part of the problem.)
As soon as we turned up I knew it was going to be challenging just to get through the gate of the government building compound. My garden gate back home is wider than the barbed-wire-festooned opening that gives access to the consulate. And I’ve never tried to get 300 refugees through it in two minutes. (Mind you with the way things are going at home I wouldn’t be surprised next time I’m back to look out of the window and see the odd ethnic gentleman in the back garden looking lost.)
The gate was locked for lunch. The heavens chose that moment to shower me and my brothers in the struggle for legal status with freezing sleet. Unlike most of those gathered looking miserable, downtrodden, filthy and destitute I had a laptop bag that I was able to hold on top of my head to keep the worst of it off my suit and the perm I’d invested in to impress the interrogators. I got some admiring and some envious glances from my fellows.
If only I’d remembered to do up the zip on my bag.
I ignored the first few taps on my shoulder – I’m used to being accosted by brazen beggars in the street. But I couldn’t ignore them for ever. I whirled around prepared to impale some swine on the end of my umbrella (why hadn’t I used my umbrella to shelter me from the elements?). The poker was now pointing at the ground. There were pieces of paper in handwriting that I recognised. And passport photographs… of me sailing away in the gutter. Most of my visa application documentation had slipped out of my open bag and was littered about the soaking pavement being trampled on by the dirty boots of illegal immigrants. Scrambling about on my hands and knees ruined my suit trousers and cost me my place in the queue as the machine-gun-toting guards chose that moment to throw back the bolt on the gate. Human stampede.
The act of gaining access brought back memories of the film World War Z, where the wall is breached and hundreds of zombies pour though it like so many gallons of liquid humanity. My cries of excuse me, please and I beg your pardon, but that’s my foot you’re standing on and no, sir, that’s my pocket your hand is in were lost among the clamouring cries for sanctuary and alms and visas… in Syrian and other tongues I am less familiar with.
But we were in. Then it became more like a jumble sale in the village hall back home. Elbows, knees, shoving and shouting. We fought on against the odds. My furled umbrella became a thrusting weapon, my briefcase containing my sodden and filth-smeared documents my shield.
We got our number from the desk and joined the others in tearing up and down the four flights of stairs looking for the room we needed to be in. It had turned into an episode of The Crystal Maze. A sign or two would have been helpful. But maybe too easy. I can only imagine the fun it must be to sit in front of the CCTV camera screens in that building watching the headless chickens all day.
Exhausted, cold, filthy and wet we found the offices that were our destination. Another queue. But at least the waiting gave me time to dry off and sort out my documentation. The paper of one of my passport photographs had become so saturated that my image was distorted. I was staring at me with Bell’s palsy. Would it matter to the rubber stampers? There was little I could do about it then.
My name was called. I was escorted by armed guard to a smoke filled interview room. My interviewer was waiting under harsh lighting. A woman. She looked me up and down and I could read the resentment for my comfortable western life in her eyes. I asked if we could crack a window because of my asthma. Rather ominously she said they didn’t open.
My gaze strayed around the room as she scrutinized my documents. I saw blood (on the ceiling?!?) traces of vomit, urine, whole finger nails, teeth. And the stench. No wonder she was chain-smoking.
Her: So Englishman (she broke off to spit on the floor, narrowly missing my shoe) you are seeking the poetical asylum in my country, yes?
Me: Little laugh Some of my writing is quite… lyrical. Nothing. No. And it’s ‘political’.
Her: What isn’t these days?
Me: My application.
Her: That’s what they all say. Your papers seem… in order. But I have questions.
Me: Fine. Shoot. Noticing she was armed I hastily rephrased. Ask away.
Her: You have seen the film with the big-nosed ugly Frenchman?
Me: Aren’t they all. Little laugh.
Her: My husband is French. No little laugh.
Me: You mean Green Card with Gérard Depardieu?
Her: Whatever. I will ask you the questions and I will ask your Roddy MacDowell the same questions.
Me: It was Andie MacDowell. Roddy McDowall was the ugly monkey in Planet of the… actually, never mind.
Her: And you’d better be singing from the same menu, capiche?
I thought she’d been watching too many old Bogart films.
Me: I think you mean hymn sheet.
Her: This is Muslim country – no hymns.
Me: Why not just ask us the questions together? Save time.
Her: Because, Englishman, people lie to get visa.
Me: Understood. Shall we get started?
Her: What is your wife’s full-name?
Me: Can’t we start with something a little easier? I’ve never been very good with names. Especially good old Johnny foreigner’s.
Her: WHAT IS HER NAME!
It went on like this for half an hour. Her asking things like my wife’s birthday (Me: soon, I think) her eye colour (Me: the real one or the glass one?) the date we were married (I couldn’t even remember the year. How the hell am I supposed to retain this information?) her favourite dessert (that was an easy one and rather a long list).The Spanish Inquisition would have nothing on this lot. At one point she asked what was the last film we saw together at the cinema. I said we’d never been to the cinema. Together. She asked what was the last book we’d both read. Another awkward explanation about cultural differences from me. She asked me what we had for dinner the previous evening. I had to confess that we didn’t actually eat together. She threw down her pen and asked the question with her eyes. I answered with a shrug and raised eyebrows. And then I remembered something.
Me: We have a child.
Her: At last! Something. Why the hell you not say so already?
She concluded her business with me. I was ordered out. My wife was frog-marched in. I sat outside, laptop bag on my knees, with all the other asylum seekers, listening to the shouting, the screaming, the sobbing coming from inside. I received some withering stares from the women. A few of the men nodded their approval. My upper lip remained stiff. I tried to read but water had got into my Kindle. I watched the second hand of the clock behind the iron grill make its tortuous way around and around and around.
The bolts were shot on the other side of the door. My wife emerged, mascara-smudged and red-eyed. She and our interrogator embraced warmly. Over my wife’s shoulder the armed woman sent me daggers.
As we left the building I risked saying to my partner in crime, ‘How did it go in there?’
Her: ‘Not now.’
In other writing related news this week I was bitten by yet another writing idea last Friday, which encouraged me to put B&C#4 on the back burner while I devoted time and energy to it. A week later and I’m 25,000 words in and looking good. What is it? It is going to be my best book ever. It is going to be the first of a trilogy. It is going to be my first foray into Young Adult dystopian fiction. What did I say about change of direction?