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Together, alone.

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Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Isn’t that the phrase? Well that’s only because “Absence makes the chest tight, the breathing ragged, the hands shake and the heart race madly” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as nicely.

Somehow the fact that we were now, theoretically at least, nearing the end of our journey through the Kafka-esque maze of online bureaucracy, made the feeling of disconnection and solitude even worse.
Like being able to see Her, the woman I so desperately needed, trapped behind an invisible barrier, knowing She was only inches away and yet unable to reach out and touch Her, hold Her.

It was a fortnight of constant tension, a sensation that was becoming unpleasantly familiar to me by then and not one that I enjoyed. It seemed to have been my default setting for far too long now; an underlying feeling of mild and indefinable panic or anxiety that robbed everything in life of its shine, made it difficult to be positive and cheerful when talking to Her and made it harder than ever to be alone when She wasn’t there.

On good days I’d think to myself; “It’s all going to go perfectly, there isn’t a single reason why they would refuse the application.”
Whilst on a bad day I’d constantly be worrying and getting myself worked up about the most innocuous things, magnified through the lens of paranoia into insurmountable obstacles.
And all the while, She carried on calmly and serenely, soothing my nerves whenever we spoke and convincing me (apart from the Voices in the Dark of course) that I was worrying about nothing and it was only a matter of time.

We stopped using the word “soon”, as it seemed to have lost its meaning.

Meanwhile, She had one last mission to accomplish, the trip to Detroit for their Homeland Security biometric records.
Her friend from the lake house drove them the two hours down there and She arrived to find that with only minutes to spare until Her appointment, She had to return to the local library to pre-pay for the entire visa process and get a receipt.
Rushing there and back just in time, She managed to get a cancellation for both of them, (Her daughter’s appointment had originally been scheduled three hours later than Hers, as it took that long to fill in each application and submit them online) had all their various readings and measurements recorded and that was that.
All that remained was to post the whole lot to the UKBA and wait.

Except…the receipt She had to print off for our priority service and place in the envelope, to pay for the return postage, wouldn’t print, the button on the link was inactive.
After much fiddling around, changing computers and printers She managed to get the link working and duly inserted the receipt and posted the envelope, consigning our future to the faceless bureaucrats once more.
Oh, and She had to e-mail an electronic copy of the receipt to New York.
The e-mail button didn’t work.

Honestly, you’d think they did it on purpose.

She was finally able to send a pdf from Her phone I think, or maybe it was from the computer in the library, I’ve given up trying to remember the ins and outs of the official ineptitude we encountered during the whole infuriating process.
But that was it.
It was done.

Then, only a few days later She got an e-mail from our designated Entry Case Officer, asking for details of Her daughter’s biological father. (His name didn’t appear on her birth certificate, he was not in any way part of Her life, She had bought up Her daughter completely independently from any support or input from him since her birth)
They were basically asking for proof that he hadn’t made any claim for paternity or custody, nor made any attempt at paying maintenance or wanting to be involved in raising her.

How do you prove the non-existence of something?
People don’t go round giving out documentation every time they don’t do something.

So She wrote a letter stating categorically that there had been no contact whatsoever from the father and that She was, in every way that mattered, the sole parent to the bright and bubbly little girl whose life She was trying to enrich by giving her a new start in life with a loving family.
This wasn’t enough for the Faceless Ones, they reiterated their demand that She provide concrete, legal proof of non-involvement.

Take two: This time Her affidavit was accompanied by notarized statements from officials at both the County Court and Public Records Office, where She had conducted record searches to establish that there had indeed been no claims on Her daughter from anyone.

Again we waited.

A final e-mail, requesting that She send a current issue of Her daughter’s birth certificate, “…to allow me to ascertain that there is in fact no claim for paternity and that you are indeed the sole parent…” was easily complied with and, with no further missives from on high, we once more trusted our fate and our future to the unsentimental and inscrutable men from the ministry.

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Revenge of the bureaucrats.

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It was Her that I felt sorry for, She was the one who was going to have to do all the paperwork, all over again.

After the initial shock of the total destruction of our schedule had had time to sink in (we had already booked the date for the wedding, as required by the visa rules, and I had paid the deposit on a two bedroom flat for us which I was going to be paying for until we were married and She could start work) we started going through the new requirements for Her application.

Some of the mistakes, errors and avoidable misunderstandings that we’d had inflicted on us by the out of date official websites were obviously common causes of grief for other applicants, as a quick search of forums devoted to the subject (stop sniggering at the back, Hindsight) showed that there were people who hadn’t found out all the new rules before submitting their documents and had their visas refused.
We too could have sent incomplete or incorrect documents and failed in our application, through nothing more than following the posted regulations. There were a whole range of things we hadn’t been aware of.
For instance;
– Supplying my payslips and bank statements, instead of just one or the other.
– The biometric readings they had to have taken in America.
– Sending all the documents back to the UK.
– All the extra charges involved.
– Filling in Her enormous application form online and then printing it off to post it, instead of printing the form off and completing it by hand (something the system, bizarrely, allows you to do and apparently one of the most common reason for failure)
– Although the financial sponsorship form they’d neglected to tell us about the first time, I did have to print that one off and fill it in by hand. (as opposed to the simple covering letter from me, detailing my “intentions” and willingness to financially support them that we’d originally been told to include with my payslips)

And then there was the bank.

Since the relief at being given the money for the plane tickets by my aunt, we had ceased to worry about any immediate financial problems and had been concentrating on the fiendish labyrinth of the application process itself.
So it was initially a puzzling and potentially thrilling discovery that I suddenly had £945 in my account that wasn’t there two days before.
Then I got a nasty sinking feeling in my stomach and did a quick calculation. Minus transfer fees, that sounded unpleasantly like the $1500 I’d finally managed to send to Her bank in the States after a soul-destroying three hours on the phone the previous weekend.
A quick call established that Her bank had indeed bounced back the payment, reason unknown.
Unknown that is, until the international transfer officer I was venting my ire at on the phone the next day read back the account number he’d transferred it to.
He’d written it down wrong.
{…Breathe slowly and deeply, remain calm…}
I went through all the numbers with him again, in slow motion for the hard of thinking, he apologised for the fifth time and promised to refund my transfer fee.
I thanked him through gritted teeth and hung up, dearly hoping to never have the need to call another bank as long as I lived.

Then there were the bank statements. I needed six months worth, to cover the matching period of the payslips.
The fake-tanned and rather superior lady in my bank tutted and rolled her eyes as I told her how important this was and related some of our misfortunes with officialdom while we stood and watched the printer spew out my statements. She said;
“All that incompetence, is there some sort of complaints procedure you could follow?”
I told her I just wanted to get it over with, asked her to put an official bank stamp on the copies, thanked her and went home to post my second batch of transatlantic paperwork.

I just thought I’d check everything one final time before sealing it in the envelope and to my horror (I’d nearly posted this!) found that of the six months of statements I’d asked for, I had in fact got three.

Ten minutes later.
I walk up to the same supercilious, slightly orange woman, place the papers carefully on the counter and say;
“Remember me telling you how important this was?”
“Of course”
“There’s three months missing”
“Oh I don’t think you’ll find there is” {condescending smile}
…………..
“Oh I’m sorry, there do seem to be some missing”
I couldn’t resist;
“Is there some sort of complaints procedure I could follow?”
Apparently this wasn’t funny.
We didn’t chat while we waited this time.

I then took what I fervently hoped was the last package I’d have to send priority air mall (£52 for a 250g envelope!) to the Post Office and watched a trainee shop assistant spend fifteen minutes asking his supervisor what to do every thirty seconds while he filled in the label.
So I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when I got a phone call from the international sorting office the following afternoon, asking if I was “trying to post something aboard”.
You probably won’t be amazed to discover that the trainee hadn’t filled the label in properly and I had to ring Her and get various additional recipient details from Her before they would post it.

All through this ordeal by stationery She remained calm and positive, grumbling occasionally about “English bureaucracy”, but otherwise She just ploughed through the red tape and helped keep me sane in the process.

With any luck, there wouldn’t be too many more things they could do to make our lives difficult.

Wait, did I really just say that..?

Swings and roundabouts.

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There’s something to be said for doing everything by the book. But it’s also a good idea to check which book.

I’m always thrilled when I see photos of Her appear on my Facebook newsfeed or messenger thread, but one that I was particularly happy to see was the one of Her with Her daughter, posing with the bulky envelope that I’d posted a few days earlier, containing all my documents for the visa application.
The relief and anticipation was obvious in their excited smiles and I’m sure it was mirrored in my own expression as I happily Skyped them to celebrate starting the final stage of the tortuous journey that had led us here.
All She had to do now was make an appointment with the British consular people at the embassy in Chicago and then travel there to present their application. As far as we could tell (following multiple re-checking of all the UKBA and Home Office websites to ensure we had included every last scrap of documentation they required) the rest would be a formality and the visas should be issued the same day.

And that wasn’t the only good news we’d had that week either, although it didn’t start out too well.

She had still not managed to sell Her huge wooden bed, something we were counting on to help finance their flights over here, but She at least had Her car to sell.
Her generous host at the lake house, a retired law enforcement officer who now worked for a security firm, said that he’d take the car into work for their mechanic to look at, with a view to buying it for the business.
This was indeed good news as She was hoping to get $1500 for it, which would go a long way towards buying plane tickets.

Plus the fact a generous cousin of Hers had donated $1000 to a GoFundMe appeal that She had set up online as a last desperate attempt to raise money, gave us hope that it was all going according to plan.

Then the bad news.
The chassis on the car was badly rusted and it was now only saleable as scrap.

Oh come on Universe, that’s below the belt!

So, no money for the bed and a much lower price for the car, along with the fact that She’d had to pay out over a thousand dollars to settle a debt She had thought already cleared (another case of The Idiot reneging on his responsibilities) left us pretty much broke after paying for the visas, (£885 each at time of writing) even after I had taken out a loan for the deposit on a flat and furniture to put in it.
At this point another of the guardian angels, who seemed to be following our story so closely, stepped in and casually swept the obstacle aside.

I had stayed in touch with the aunts and uncles on my mother’s side of the family (mum died when I was a child) ever since I had reconnected with them in my twenties and had been talking on the phone to mum’s sister Jane, who had been following the tale of our relationship and it’s complications with interest.
I’d got to the wretched point in the conversation where I was going to have to ask her to lend me some money and I was dreading it.
But she saved me even that awkward moment by simply saying;
“Give me your address, I’ll send you the money today.”

To say I nearly burst into tears would only be inaccurate in that it contains the word “nearly”, and I sniffed and snuffled my gratitude at her for the next few minutes, arranging that she would actually transfer the money straight into my bank account that day.
And, bar a frustrating three hour phone marathon with various bank call centre sadism experts, the money was transferred to Her bank in America a couple of days later.

Phew! Relief, with a side-order of elation and emotional exhaustion.
We were on the way.
I made the money transfer on the phone from work at about ten in the morning and told Her when I called Her at lunchtime.

By my calculation, that means I was happy for three hours forty five minutes.

Checking my phone as I walked to the car I saw She had messaged me sometime earlier:
– They should take down that website, it’s completely fucked us!
My heart pounding, hands shaking, I ran to the car and called Her;
“What’s wrong, what’s happened?”
“All the information is out of date, they changed the procedures and haven’t updated the websites.”
I could hear the hopeless anger in Her voice and my stomach sank.

WHAT?!
What more could they do to keep us apart?

In a nutshell, and to prevent me from becoming incandescent with rage all over again, what it boiled down to was this;
Except for the (incomplete) list of required documents and price of the visas themselves, almost all the information we had from all the official sources (including the nice lady at the immigration consultants who gave all the free advice, remember her?) was incorrect, irrelevant or out of date.
Including the most crucial part, taking all the documentation to Chicago.

You’ll like this…

It now all had to be sent (along with previously unmentioned additional paperwork which I had to post to Her in the States) to…are you ready for this?…..to fucking Sheffield!
Yes, Sheffield, that Sheffield, the one in Yorkshire.
Because that’s where the UKBA hang out, waiting to pass judgement on whether or not people get to be together.

Not only that, but She and Her daughter had to make the two hour drive to Detroit, where a storefront franchise for Homeland Security would “do biometrics”, whatever that means (digital fingerprints, photos, etc) which all had to go in with the rest of the small rainforest of paper She would finally post to….fucking Sheffield!

I apologise, I tend to get somewhat over-excited whilst discussing this part of the story.
Rest assured I had more than one lengthy and possibly not overly polite “chat” with various nonplussed members of the embassy immigration department, regarding advice on what they should do with their website and what I thought of the “service” they allegedly provided.
After which I ranted the whole infuriating story at my long-suffering sister on the phone, then sat in my room and cried for a bit.

If you go to the Home Office visa website now, you’ll notice that it has an obvious red banner across the top of it which reads;

WARNING BETA – THIS SITE IS BEING REBUILT.

Well about bloody time too.

If nothing else good came out of this whole sorry episode, I’d like to think that my “feedback” may have given the powers that be enough of a prod to actually do something and save any other poor victims of the faceless bureaucratic system the stress and frustration we went through.

So, we started all over again.

Interlude: Limbo and the lake house.

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Emotions are all very well, but shouldn’t they be restricted to only happening one at a time, otherwise how the hell do I know what I’m supposed to be feeling?

Life started running in slow motion, every day stretching out wafer thin, until it seemed like I’d never reach the point when I could finish work, rush home and call Her, see Her face, hear Her voice.
It was becoming more and more difficult to stay patient and focussed on everyday life. I found myself looking for any distraction to lull my treacherous subconscious into a false sense of security, to persuade the malicious little voices in the dark places in my head that everything was going to go without a hitch, and that their constant attempts to undermine my sanity by presenting me with terrifying images of the whole fragile dream crashing down were not going to work.
Easier said than done when the voices are backed up by a whole battalion of emotions, all trying to get in on the act at the same time.

The medium of internet video communication is a strange thing. It manages to give the illusion of closeness while at the same time making it seem as though She’s further away. Accentuating instead of reducing the geographical distance between us and, coupled with the timezone difference and the change in the daily rhythms of Her day now She was staying at the house on the lake, it made me feel suddenly disconnected from Her.

Which was about the time I realised this emotional roller coaster ride was a lot more complex than just a series of highs and lows, feeling miserable and/or lonely followed by the all too few, eagerly grasped moments of happiness and contentment whilst bathed in the light of Her love.
It was more like one of those fiendish carnival rides that spin you round in three different directions at once, all the time going up and down like a bipolar yoyo, leaving you with no idea which way up you are, let alone which way you’re heading.

I’d never experienced this sort of psyche-battering cocktail of emotions before, as they seemingly competed for mastery over each other by using my nervous system as a battleground.
If the resulting sensation was anything to go by, Low Grade Constant Anxiety was ahead by a nose, always hovering there in the background as a base on which to stand the second and third place podiums of Rampant Paranoia and Whining Self-Pity respectively.
All of which made it even more extraordinary that Her love and serenity could shine so brightly through the dark clouds. Like the sun cutting through the morning fog, She never failed to brighten my life the very second I saw Her smiling face.

And yet…it was impossible for me to apply any logic to these uninvited feelings, they defied explanation or rationalisation, were immune to reasoned thought or sensible analysis and refused point-blank to go away.
I began to dislike the way my brain worked. It was like having a running commentary on my own subconscious, patiently and gleefully whispering in my ear the whole time, cheerfully pointing out how horribly unreasonable I was being, without offering anything in the way of help or advice.

I’d been thrilled with how the change in Her environment had so positively affected Her health and happiness and it was truly wonderful to see Her and Her daughter being so well looked after by such good friends.
The waterfront property was in a beautiful, peaceful location and was very obviously a place perfectly suited to rest and recuperation, with glorious views, a hot tub on the patio overlooking the lake and with wild birds and animals taking food from the feeder poles on the decking, it was a place where the two of them could regroup for the next stage of their journey and I couldn’t have been happier for them.

And yet…when the time came for the daily management review by the Voices In The Dark Place, there was always one at the back, pointing to the ugly patch of selfish envy that wouldn’t come out no matter how hard I scrubbed or tried to ignore it.
The Voice would say; “You’ve only seen Her for an hour all day and now She’s sitting in the hot tub or having dinner with Her friends, and what are you doing? You’re sitting here, absently playing with your phone, your life on hold, just waiting for Her to spare a few minutes to call you.”.

Just the very thought that I might have thought that, even for a second, appalled me, made me feel selfish and insensitive to what I knew She was going through.
At other times I’d think; “No, actually it’s only fair, I’m in love with Her, I should be able to see Her whenever I want” and feel perfectly justified in doing so.

An hour later I’d feel guilty about thinking that too.
As I said, emotions are all well and good, but there are only so many I can take at once.

What we needed was a distraction, something to keep our minds off the separation.
Well, as all my documents had now arrived with Her in the mail, the next distraction should be the final step, the submission procedure and having the visas issued.
Oh, and the small matter of raising the money for their plane tickets.

As it turned out, we were about to get rather more of a distraction than we’d hoped for.