A Painfully True Story
On Tuesday March 3, 2020 at 17:30 hours, a young man boarded a train at Clapham Junction. I say young; he was, in fact, middle-aged. At fifty-seven, some might describe him as old. What was about to transpire might indicate the kind of deterioration in mental faculties often associated with old age. Let’s, for argument sake, call him middle-aged. Not a bad-looking middle-aged man it has to be said, but this story isn’t about physical appearance.
The middle-aged man was tired. He had flown in from New York the previous day and was suffering from the kind of jet lag that creeps up on you a day or two after landing. The jet-lag is a relevant detail in this story, in that it could be offered as a mitigating factor in the man’s defence.
The jet-lagged man had moved to New York five months earlier to seek his fortune. That’s not entirely true; he had moved to New York on the back of his wife’s fortune. He was in the process of reinventing himself as a writer and had more or less retired. Another important detail is that, although the couple had moved to New York for his wife’s job, they had done so by him getting a US visa through his company, thereby enabling his wife to work on a spouse visa. Their reasons for doing this are not important, but his US visa is relevant to the story. The visa, as you will soon see, is the lead character in this sad story. I say sad, but you might not see it that way. This is a story about consequences; of the repercussions of one small mistake. The moral of the story might be – ‘make a mistake at your peril’, but it’s too early to be discussing morals. I haven’t even told you the story yet.
The aspiring writer forced his way on to the train, unexpectedly packed with commuters on their way home. It was certainly unexpected for our hero, who had forgotten about rush hour now that he no longer worked in an office. He’d more or less forgotten about people en mass, as he was living a semi-reclusive writer’s life in Greenwich Village, New York. He’d returned to London on a social trip, or rather he was passing through en route to a skiing trip with a couple of friends. That evening he was due to stay with one of those friends in Berkshire. They had planned to watch the Chelsea game on TV that evening and then catch a flight from Heathrow the next morning.
The man was lucky to get a seat on the crowded train. A young lady stood aside to let him take it, suggesting perhaps that maybe he looked older than he imagined. He was tired and so gratefully accepted her offer. As a rule, he liked to travel light with a single case but, on this occasion, he had a suitcase and a rucksack. He made a fateful decision as he took his seat to place his rucksack on the luggage rack. As he did so, he made a mental note to remember it when he got off the train. But because he was tired and jet-lagged, it was only faintly written in his neural pathways.
The carriage got emptier and emptier as the train got further and further away from London. The man drifted in and out of consciousness, as he tried to concentrate on being awake for his stop at Ascot. As events were to transpire, it would have been better had he fallen asleep and missed his Ascot stop. But this is not a Sliding Doors doors type story; there’s no place for speculation on what might have happened in alternate universes. What actually happened was that he successfully disembarked at Ascot station. He then walked through the exit tunnel to the meeting point outside the front of the station.
His friend hadn’t yet arrived, and so he stood there, noticing his breath on the cold air. It was while he was waiting patiently at the front of Ascot station that a terrible realisation struck him: his rucksack had not disembarked with him. Just as it was dawning on the man that his precious iPad was in his rucksack, his friend arrived.
His friend greeted him cheerily, but the bonhomie quickly disappeared on hearing the man was without rucksack and iPad. The friend suggested they drive straight to Reading station, where, if luck was on their side, they could collect the rucksack at the end of the line. (It’s probably not too much of a spoiler to say that luck was not on their side.)
As they sped off, the friend asked if anything else was in the rucksack. This question prompted the middle-aged man to remember that it also contained his MacBook Pro. Then he remembered his new Sony headphones. Then the Swiss francs. And the dollars. He didn’t usually carry cash, but on this occasion he happened to have £500 in three different currencies. All in the rucksack. Then he remembered that his key wallet was in his rucksack, complete with keys to his London home, his New York apartment, his office and his Swiss apartment. How would they get into the apartment in Switzerland? And then he had the horrible realisation that his passport was in his rucksack. His passport! Fuck. That was a problem. Without his passport, he wouldn’t be able to fly to Switzerland the next morning. Then he remembered that his passport contained his US visa. Suddenly, whether or not he made it to his Boy’s skiing weekend became the least of his worries. Without a US visa, he wouldn’t be able to get back to New York and would miss the Jamaica holiday he had booked for his wife as consolation the shit month she had just had. (His wife’s shit month is another painfully true story. Maybe it can be written up one day as a prequel to this painfully true story.)
The middle-aged man’s friend suggesting calling South West Trains lost property. The middle-aged man hung on the phone for the forty minutes it took to drive to Reading. Just as they were approaching the station, a very helpful lady answered the phone. She couldn’t help.
At Reading, our hero jumped out of the car and ran into the station and to Lost Property. It was closed. Eventually, he found someone who agreed to open up and see if the rucksack had been handed in. It hadn’t. The South West Trains employee directed the man to the platform where the trains from Clapham Junction arrived, saying it might still be on the train. The man ran through the train looking at the racks but to no avail. The guard said the trains travelled back and forth between Waterloo and Reading and so the rucksack could now be on its way back to London. The guard said this was the slow line where trains stopped at every station. He suggested getting a fast train back to London Paddington from another platform and then a tube to Waterloo. The now somewhat flustered middle-aged man did this. It was after 10:00 pm by the time he got to Waterloo. He ran up and down a couple of the stationary Reading trains in a vain attempt to find the missing rucksack. He spoke to the cleaners who hadn’t seen it.
And then he gave up.
A guard at Waterloo told him that, if handed in, the rucksack would be returned to the Lost Property office at Waterloo in five days. This was not what the flustered man needed to hear. He returned to his London home in a very sorry state. Not only had he missed the Chelsea game but it was now patently clear that he wouldn’t be going skiing.
The next day things got a whole lot worse.
The man was hopeful that his rucksack would turn up and he would be reunited with it in five days. His flight back to the US was a week later; and so there was an argument for taking a risk, sit tight and gamble on its return. As events were to unfold, this would have been the best call, but it was not what the man did.
The UK Passport Office website was unequivocal in its advice. If you lose your passport, you must report it as soon as possible. It was very black and white. There wasn’t an option for those who have lost their passport, have no idea where it is, but think it might turn up in five days in Waterloo. The man had thought it was possible to get a replacement passport within a day but found that the express service only applied if you had the old passport. The man thought this was a bit Catch-22: you can replace your lost passport on the same day but only if you have your lost passport. If not, the turnaround time is five days. This complicated the decision because if the man waited five days for his passport to return and it didn’t turn up, he would miss his return flight to New York.
The US Immigration website was decidedly unhelpful. The man eventually found a small note tucked away in the small print that said if you lose your visa, you have to cancel it immediately. This increased the man’s inclination to cancel both his passport and visa. The website also said you needed to get a police report confirming the loss of the visa to qualify for a replacement. What the website failed to say, which would have led the man to make a different decision had he known, was that if you cancel your visa, you cannot simply replace it, but have to re-apply for a new one. It had taken the man four months to apply for his visa first time round and had required a considerable amount of supporting information from his company. He would have gambled on its return rather than cancel it had he been told this at the time. He tried contacting his lawyers in Washington for their advice, but they didn’t respond.
On Wednesday March 4 at 10:00 am the man made a fateful decision to cancel his passport. He booked a five-day replacement service appointment for the first available slot, which was Friday morning. He then cancelled his US visa and walked over to Battersea Police Station to get a police report confirming its loss. He filled in the form explaining the circumstances of the loss. The policewoman read through the form carefully before handing it back to the man. ‘We only deal with stolen property here.’
The man thought quickly on his feet as he knew he had to have a police report to get a replacement visa. ‘It was stolen,’ he said.
‘You’ve written here that it was lost on the train.’
‘I meant lost as in stolen. It was definitely stolen because it went from the train and it wasn’t in the lost property.’
The policewoman raised one eyebrow. ‘Well, it’s a matter for the train company. It’s not our responsibility.’
The increasingly agitated man said, ‘yes it is. I have to have a police report to get a replacement visa.’
‘Where did you say you disembarked?’
‘Well, you need to report it to the local constabulary there.’
Our hero then realised the policewoman was worried about the Battersea crime statistics. It was her job to put as many obstacles in the way to stop a crime being reported as it would reduce their crime-solving percentage. Our hero realised he needed to be both assertive and pitiful at the same time. ‘I lost it at Clapham Junction, that’s your jurisdiction.’ He paused, then added ‘please help me.’ He would have fallen to his knees at this point, had he not been behind a counter. Had dropped to his knees, he would have disappeared from the policewoman’s view, which he thought might not help his cause. Miraculously, the policewoman was suddenly struck by a bolt of compassion. Either that or she saw the long queue building up and wanted this pathetic man out the way. She signed his form, and the man had his police report. (No-one would ever ask to see this police report. The man had been sent on what is known as a wild goose chase, not that he knew it at the time.)
Believing that maybe his luck might be turning, the pathetic man decided to visit the lost property office at Waterloo station. It was a dark and dingy place deep underneath the main concourse. The man pressed the button and then waited. And waited and waited. Eventually, someone appeared and asked him for details of the property he had lost. The man gave precise details of every item in his rucksack. The Lost Property man whistled through his teeth to indicate that he appreciated this was a significant loss. He disappeared to check whether it had been handed in. Our hero waited and waited. The whistling man reappeared with some good news. The rucksack was in Aldershot. Aldershot? Yes, Aldershot. What’s it doing in Aldershot? It transpired that Aldershot was where lost property went before returning to Waterloo. And no, it was not possible to go and retrieve it from Aldershot; it was in a secure unit. No-one, not even anyone from South West Trains, was allowed to enter this unit. The whistling man said it would be back in Waterloo on Friday afternoon. There was a bounce in our hero’s step as he walked out of that dark and dingy office in the depths of Waterloo.
The much-relieved man went online to cancel his Friday five-day replacement service appointment and book a new express same-day turnaround appointment for Saturday. It was not possible to change the appointment as they were non-cancellable. Actually, they were cancellable, but the £175 cost was non-refundable. The man baulked a little at the cost, but it seemed a small price to pay given the circumstances.
Then everything went downhill again. The man tried logging into the US Embassy website to book an appointment for a replacement. The site kept crashing. He remembered it did this when he had originally applied for his visa. After repeated attempts failed attempts to log-in, he emailed the US Embassy. The next day he received a response which said he would need to start the application process for a visa from scratch, although it did promise a slightly faster process than previously. Given it had taken four months the first time and the man had a flight booked the following week, he got somewhat agitated about this. He followed up with some further questions and tried again to contact his lawyers in the US. The next day, Thursday, March 5, his lawyer finally got back to him – two days after his first distress call. (Clearly, the man wasn’t an important client.) The lawyer contacted the Embassy, who told them that their client had sent too many emails. Our hero took exception to this and said a rude word about American Immigration, even though he knew from experience that to lose patience with an American bureaucrat is always inadvisable.
The next afternoon our hero returned to Waterloo Lost Property to be reunited with his rucksack. Only he wasn’t. It was still in Aldershot. It was a different Lost Property man this time. He said his colleague had been correct to say that there would be a delivery from Aldershot on Friday, but wrong to suggest that the rucksack would part of that delivery. He said that there are deliveries every Tuesday and Friday, but there was no guarantee that the man’s rucksack would be on any of those deliveries. He checked on the computer and confirmed it was still in Aldershot. He said it should get to Waterloo sometime in the next two weeks, but he couldn’t say when. Our hero was distraught and as close to tears as he had ever been. He had to leave the office to compose himself. He punched a wall outside, walked round in circles and then crumpled down on the ground in a pathetic heap. He knew now he wouldn’t be able to get back to New York the next week and they would have to cancel their holiday to Jamaica.
The man realised that the express same-day turnaround appointment he had booked for the next day was no good as this required the old passport. (The one that was incarcerated indefinitely in Aldershot.) He didn’t cancel this appointment but did book another five-day replacement service appointment at the first available slot with was Monday. He had now spent £525 on appointments at the passport office alone. Maybe he would be given loyalty points.
As he had nothing better to do the next morning, Saturday, March 7, he went to his express same-day turnaround appointment. If nothing else, he thought, it would help familiarise him with the place and the process for when he returned on Monday. And maybe there would be an outside chance that he could persuade them to process his application for a replacement passport when he was there. This is what happened, a small victory in a sea of defeats; a kindly UK passport official took pity and agreed to process the application. He also said the new passport might arrive in less than five days.
The lady at the US Embassy was to prove much less obliging than the UK passport official, but we haven’t got there yet. The next week the man’s US lawyers worked on a new visa application and tried to get an emergency appointment at the US Embassy. South West Trains finally decided to return the man’s rucksack, although without the cash. They gave him a voucher to get the sterling back but said that the Customer Relations department would be in touch about the dollars and the Swiss francs. (Nine months and numerous emails later, the man accepted that South West trains Customer Relations must have decided to keep the £305 in American and Swiss currency for themselves.) By the end of the week, the application was complete. No mean task incidentally, given it’s close to 100 pages long and requires an astonishing amount of irrelevant detail. Five years of company accounts, comprehensive employee details, every holiday you have taken for the last ten years, the names of your childhood pets… well, maybe not that, but they might have well asked for that. The lawyers also managed to schedule an appointment for the next Monday, March 16.
There are three real low points in this painful story. This first was on the evening of March 2nd when it dawned on the man, standing outside Ascot train station, that his rucksack was still on the train. The second was the moment on March 6th when South West Trains told him they had decided not to return his rucksack on the day they had promised. And the third low point was to be the appointment at the US Embassy.
America is a country of many contradictions. One of these contradictions is the dissonance between the ‘have a nice day’ service culture (where nothing is too much trouble) and a particular strain of bureaucrats who exist to humiliate and punish those who step out of line. (Arguably this is why so many people are imprisoned in the land of the free.) It has to be said that not all American bureaucrats are sadistic psychopaths, but our hero had the misfortune to encounter one that was on that fateful Monday morning.
‘You’ve filled the form out incorrectly.’
‘My lawyers filled in for me. It’s the same as the one they completed last May.’
‘Well it’s wrong. It states that you are an employee when as an owner of the company, you should be categorized as an investor’ (being an American she said categorised with a z rather than an s).
‘Could you just change it on your system?’
‘No, I can’t.’
‘We tried to call your lawyers on Friday, but they didn’t answer the phone.’ The man subsequently spoke with his lawyers who had no record of such a call. They also discovered that the American Immigration Service had changed the application form the previous month without telling anyone.
‘And anyway you don’t appear to have the letter. Where is the letter?’ Even though it was by now clear that she was going to reject the application, the bureaucrat wanted to take every opportunity to humiliate the man.’
‘I’m afraid I don’t know the letter you mean.’
‘If you can’t be bothered to read the instructions…’
‘I can assure you I’ve read every last word of the instructions and there is no mention of a letter.’
‘You are required to bring a copy of the letter.’ The man’s lawyer managed to track down a copy of the letter a few days later from US Immigration in Washington. It had been sent the previous May to confirm the man’s original visa; addressed to Simon Gravatt, The Client Relationship Consultancy, Boston, MA. That was it. They had at least got the right city, the man’s US company is headquartered in Boston, but even the US postal service tends to require a little more detail. Unsurprisingly that letter never reached the man.
The officious bureaucrat told the man to go and sit in the naughty corner to reflect on his failures. Half an hour later, they called him to collect his papers. They then stamped ‘cancelled’ in big red ink on his old visa in his old passport and told him to leave the building.
Three days later, the US Embassy closed because of Covid. It would be another seven months before the man would get a replacement visa. He would be stranded in London and his wife stranded in New York (as she was on a spouse visa she couldn’t leave the US) for all that time.
By the end of the story, the previously middle-aged man was indisputably old. The stress had taken its toll. By its conclusion, he was a haggard shadow of his former good-looking self. He had lost £305 to South West Trains and £525 to the Passport Office, he had been humiliated by an American Immigration bureaucrat, let down by South West Trains and pitied by a Battersea policewoman. He had, though, learnt an important life lesson: If it contains a US visa, do not, under any circumstances, leave your passport on a train on the eve of a global pandemic.