Life

Nuala McCann: My old passport whispers of bright-eyed innocence but travelling this far safely was down to luck

Nuala McCann – my first passport is a piece of history

I FOUND my first passport at the back of the filing cabinet gathering dust. It boasts the hardback green cover and the golden harp.

Irish and proud, says the passport... but it might have whispered “Your woman was a bit of an eejit.”

We were untouchable in youth. The German police officers who woke us from our slumbers in the park near Berlin station in the days when it was a drugs mecca warned us in grave terms.

“Kriminali mit messer,” they said and, as my basic German stretched to cutlery, I figured they meant crims with knives.

“Wir sind Irisch,” we told them, in all innocence as if it was an invisible force field about us... and we went back to sleep.

We were lucky. Perhaps because there were a dozen of us huddled together in our sleeping bags, the robbers decided to give us a miss. Perhaps it was the stench of vinegar that followed us about from our summer jobs in the gherkin factory.

But now I look back and wonder at the risks we took, our cloaks of invincibility that we wore as a right. There were moments that could have turned to disaster as we slept rough in a square in Athens waiting for the early ferry, our passports hidden on strings around our necks.

It’s how you slip through a net – all the might-have-beens that were not. Take the stranger who gives you a lift and takes you the long way round, driving up into the hills above the French village.

“You didn’t know this way, did you?” he asks.

And you say no, softly, quietly, searching for the car door handle, and then he drives back into the village and leaves you there.

My first passport picture is a sight. I let my sister’s friend chop my hair prior to the photograph. She was no Vidal – she suffered double vision which made it difficult to partner her in doubles tennis as she never knew which ball to swipe. It explains why the hair chop was deadly.

The final touch to that horror passport photo was my white T-shirt that proved invisible. No wonder the guards at Checkpoint Charlie took one look, held it up for the queue to see and howled with laughter before offering me safe transit unter den Linden.

My passport is a piece of history. It bears the stamp of a bear from Berlin and various visas in languages I don’t know.

There is a stamp from a guard on a train through Yugoslavia. It was day four without a bed or a shower and we sat, softly humming all over. The locals did not seem to mind. The old women in headscarves had seen it all. They were market bound, clutching bags of fresh green peppers and guarding cages of clucking chickens.

Images from trips to Poland and Romania flicker from the pages of the old passport. The cheap hotel in Warsaw had doors with slotted hatches like a prison or a psychiatric hospital.

When we arrived, it was more like a brothel with a few foxy ladies hanging about the entrance. A woman built like a tank guarded the bathroom. You had to pay extra for the privilege and we were so frightened that we locked ourselves in to shower together... no time for prudery.

Flicking through my old passport I wonder, was I truly so stupid or naive or drunk on the belief that bad things just would not happen?

Those journeys were songs of innocence. We wore youth like armour, we felt invincible.

With age comes the knowledge that you can be lucky at a street corner or you can be unlucky. Throw the dice. No amount of rabbit’s feet or four-leaf clover can secure your future. No-one knows what lies ahead.

It’s why that television programme Seven Up – now 63 Up – holds us in thrall. What happened to the seven-year-olds of 1964 – the prep school boys eyeing Charterhouse and Cambridge, the bright eyed, gentle boy called Neil who wanted to be an astronaut?

We’ve followed them through the highs of their lives and the lows, including Neil’s experience of homelessness in Scotland and his struggles with mental health.

We love happy endings – but they are not always there. Life laughs at your plans.

My old passport whispers of bright-eyed innocence and a hunger for life... I smile and put it back in the filing cabinet, under memories of youth.

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