One day this week, at 8 am, when I had just stepped out of the shower, and was still wriggling into my underwear, the telephone rang. It was one of my old friends, Sheila. She was in a tizz. She needed some help. She had lost her passport, she thought, and had it cancelled. Soon after, she remembered she had put the passport into a zipped part of her handbag, not the compartment she normally used, and forgot having done this. She could not have the passport re-activated – oh no – so had to set about getting a new one. The ‘lost’ passport was issued less than two years ago, and, as they are issued for 10 years, she thought that the old photos would do. Oh no. New ones were required. As she is going on a trip to Egypt in a couple of weeks, getting a new passport was an urgent task. She needed me to verify her application and to endorse the new photograph. She lives in a small town south of Sydney and travels here by train.
We arranged she would come to my house when she had done all the necessary things specified by the passport bureaucracy. In due course she arrived and we set about all the paperwork. I had to declare how long it was that we had known each other. It was 34 years and 11 months. Yes, you have to specify months as well as years! Just as well she remembered the date, as I was somewhat vaguer. Signed, witnessed, lunched, etc. All she then had to do was to submit the application, and then collect it when it was ready. And she had to get a new visa from the Egyptian Embassy.
So, 34 years and eleven months ago, we met. While I did not remember the exact date, I remembered the occasion. She got a job where I worked, and it was my responsibility to train her. She is a person who radiates character, personality, forcefulness, intellect, charm and humour, and is able to make lifetime friends within minutes. Around her, people are like flies to the honey pot. She is always interesting, enormous fun, politically committed and knowledgeable, and very erudite. We discovered within a couple of hours on that first day, from her surname, that we knew of each other’s families, and had very similar backgrounds. She became my own lifelong friend within minutes, and we became friends with each other’s friends. Although we now live in different cities, and see each other less frequently, the friendship is as strong as ever. She visits Sydney regularly, and we have beaut long lunches from time to time.
Sheila was divorced with four children, and brought them up with very little financial or other help from her former husband. It was a struggle. She worked full time. Her husband at one stage applied for full custody of the children. No, he did not want them to live with him or to be responsible for the day to day care, he just wanted the existing arrangement to continue, whereby she did all the caring, all the work, and paid most of the costs, but he would exercise control. She fought him in the court, and the case attracted amazement from the legal practitioners, many of whom turned up to watch, and she won. Her ex-husband continued to give minimal financial and other support, and never abandoned his appalling chutzpah.
Her eldest child and only daughter died at the age of 18, just after she had finished her year 12. She collapsed on the aeroplane on the return trip from a month’s visit to her father in Indonesia. She was immediately rushed to hospital, and never recovered consciousness. Sheila was telephoned, before the flight landed, and flew immediately to Sydney, and she was with her daughter when she died a few hours later. The day she phoned me for help was the anniversary of her death. No wonder she was feeling extremely fragile and fraught.
When my marriage broke down, she was one of the friends who supported and helped me, day in, day out, never too busy to listen, to support and commiserate. This miserable business dragged on for almost a year before the separation, and was not the only dreadful thing to happen that year. She has an inexhaustible fount of compassion and concern for others. If anyone was in trouble she’d listen and help. She was an expert reference librarian, and a mentor to many colleagues.
When her children were older she began to travel. Her first trip was to France, to celebrate the bicentenary of the French Revolution. Having resorted to crafty activities as past of my recovery from the disasters of matrimony, I hand-painted a t-shirt for her, with essentially Australian idiomatic slogans translated into fractured French, such as ‘Being here is better than being poked in the eye with a burnt stick’ (I cannot remember how we translated that one into French) and ‘Ne venez pas le prawn cru avec moi’. She wore it in France, and got a lot of looks, questions and propositions, she said. She’s as game as Ned Kelly. Her travels now concentrate on those parts of the Middle East where writing developed, as the development of literacy is one of her major passions. Several years ago we found we had coincidentally booked for the same trip to Italy, and we had a great time together.
We did all the form-filling-in, with Dr P helpfully admonishing her not to do X, Y or Z, and then went off for several hours to have coffee and lunch. She rang a couple of days later to let me know the result. The new passport had been issued, she was able to get a new visa for Egypt with no trouble, AND despite the insistence that a new photo was essential, the passport used the OLD photo, endorsed by someone else, while the passport application has me as the guarantor of the application! There was obviously some confusion and a few mixed messages within the passport office. Let us hope that all is well that ends well.
Don’t ever lose your passport. Replacing it will certainly accelerate the aging process.