(A short story in Third Person Omniscient)
“Well, it's Friday.” That means busy. A visa application appointment is a good excuse for taking a long weekend. Jeremy hates Fridays; being cooped up in an air conditioned office with back to back appointments, hardly seeing the light of day, despite the window to his right. Not quite in reach of his desk, it only gives light to the applicants (who, to be fair, need any dismal ray of hope) but might be better served if their judge had that open view of the world.
“We can do a swap at lunch, if you want. I’ll come up here for interviews and you go down to observe incognito.” They never swap, but Alex likes to offer anything that might perk Jeremy up. He has the positivity Jeremy lost years back, absorbing any extra that’s floating about.
“Nah. I need you on the floor. Got a few tricky ones today.”
“Oh, yeah? Like what?” It didn't matter that by the end of a packed day Alex would crash completely from exhaustion with the over stimulation of sugar, caffeine and dubious social interaction; he was still enthusiastic every time he could get an interesting case.
“This one couple, it might be necessity.” Jeremy’s eyes roll at the old fashioned ideas of when to get married or what for. “They only just put in the notice and from what I can tell it's all been done over here. Can’t confirm, but I think we can guess what the rush is.” These are the least interesting red flags: it usually turns out to be pregnancy related, as Jeremy clearly suspects.
“Girl or guy applying for the visa?” Confirmation eyebrow raise says it’s a man, as Alex expected. The British woman’s family will be demanding a home wedding to try to persuade her there’s better support for their impending family with them in the UK. The Korean guy will have applied in name only, going along with whatever he has to in consequence. These ones are fun on the office side because the guy clearly has no idea what his fiancée has written, and sometimes even asks to see.
“Actually we have two of those. A.M. and P.M.” They’re nice for the café side, too, since Alex has a way with people that persuades them that these types of secrets are safe with him and they’re settled rather quickly. Jeremy doesn’t have Alex’s people skills. Even with many more years on the job, his suspicious personality is great for flagging up problematic cases, but his manners are less subtle at smoking them out in person. At least these ones are easy approvals once the bundle of joy is confirmed. “Plus, there are a few whose answers are a little too perfect. You know, hinted at extra detail not even addressed in the form.”
Now these are the ones Alex loves. The challengers; unwilling to show any crack, but unsuspecting of the methods the visa agency employs. “Mostly marriage today, then?”
“Tis the season.” Why does everyone want to get married in the summer? The UK is too unpredictable; might as well go for a winter one and expect the bad weather. “You’ll like this one.” Jeremy slides out a particularly piercing stare to which Alex jumps back from.
“It’s not her, is it?”
“You think she’d try it on a British guy again? She failed twice already. This is someone new.”
“Not to us. Stamp it.” The rejection stamp isn’t often used pre-interviews, but there are some personalities that call for it. Pictures can tell you a million things about a person, even the strictest passport samples. There is always a hint of personality, be it from the corners of the mouth suggesting a smile, the hair gelled back or just pushed, slight tilts of the head and of course the eyes; most not as frightening as the lady he now feared meeting today. Even through a picture, the officials can tell when it’s more determination than love that has motivated an application. The applicant might be going for a sweet look with her clothes and hair, but the eyes of that previous rejection and her emotional twin today hold enough disdain for the process that a red flag should rightfully be raised.
“You just focus on catching her with him before she heads up here. If she’s anything like the other one, she’ll have him in tow just to keep a close eye on him and get him to pay for coffee.”
“I was looking forward to a tearless day, Jeremy.”
“Maybe he’ll be more poised than the other dupe. Look out for little notes he might leave around for help, though.”
“Like ‘help I’m being robbed of all my money at fist-point for wedding preparations and she won’t let me contact my family’.” It makes them laugh, but they both take it seriously. It also gives Alex flashbacks of the poor sucker breaking down in Starbucks five minutes before he was supposed to clock off. Other than that death stare, there was nothing wrong with the application, and in any other situation that whimpering man would be tied to his soul sucker forever, but luckily for him, a loveless application is enough grounds for denial. In fact, most rejections are based on love. In this job, both Jeremy and Alex had learned that love reveals itself in different ways, but they can see it even in the brashest personalities. “What time is that one?”
“Not long.” Alex knows Jeremy’s hints to push on, so doesn’t pause to reorganise his files. “Oh, got a pink notice this morning.”
“That’s right, it’s getting close to the Smith-Kim deadline.”
“They’ve got another week left.” Even when there is love, the men can predict, almost to the week, how long a marriage will last simply based on the stubbornness or individuality of a candidate; one with a slight attitude is all it takes to wreck a match. “No, this was the Harvey-Lee couple.”
“That sweet girl with the soft voice?”
“Yeah, I guess he got fed up with asking her to repeat herself.”
“Or she got sick of not being heard.”
“We’ll tell the next one to learn to lip read, then. Poor girl should have a nice guy.” It takes them both a second to move on. They’re always sad about the surprise divorces.
“The rest pretty straightforward?”
“No case should be considered clean until that passport is handed back to them.” Jeremy’s number one rule; none shall pass without complete scrutiny. “Thirty minutes ‘til the first one, better get out there.”
“I’ll take the elevator to see anyone in the lobby.” They usually have a little more time, since most people avoid the early appointments. Alex likes to take the stairs; a little exercise and much quieter. Not on a Friday, though. The early slots are more likely to approach the security guard or glide straight to the arrow buttons, but the stairs lead to the back door of the cafe, bypassing his office entrance and any chance of sussing out punctual applicants. Later appointments are prone to pop by Starbucks together, so he’ll soon be settled in time to catch a few to observe off guard during his first drink.
It’s usually easy enough to spot candidates; not only from their glossy paper likenesses, but their nervous, flapping entrance often give them away. Then there’s the fact that the marriage visas usually come in couples: one British, one Korean; a big giveaway. Sometimes, though, there’s a tricky Korean guy who crops up, solo and confidant. He wings it, not even look at the floor numbers, just heads into an elevator and somehow makes his way to the right place. In this case, the folder offers a hint: pink or some sparkly colour shows a woman behind the process, brown envelope unsealed shows someone trying to be practical or professional, and black is trying too hard. They never match the navy blue the office makes a point of using to distinguish themselves (that was Alex’s idea. Jeremy approved it).
Passing as the elevator doors open, there he is, right on time: Mr Morning Appointment; wants to get this meeting over with and on to the next one that actually affects his job. Gold folder (that’s a new one) underarm and distracted by emails on his mobile, he swishes straight by Alex, not even noticing his own photo and documents held up for cross check. That’ll be up to Jeremy for approval, then.
Alex has a favourite seat in Starbucks, but he rarely gets to sit in it. His only break coincides with that of a local security guard who swoops in while he’s finishing reviews. It’s early lunches for those surveying others. The best place for work is the tall table and stools. There you can observe all the comings and goings while seemingly engrossed in a game, book or paperwork. Quite often, Alex is able to sit with an applicant’s notes, written in Korean, right in front of their partner while he chats. Even those who learn good conversational Korean find it difficult to recognise notes about them, but code names were used, just in case someone would notice a name upside down in another script.
The door jingles and it is still quiet enough for Alex to tell, without looking fully up, that his first mission is on. The morning shotgunners. He can’t hear them, but she is doing the traditional point to the connecting door to rush her man. He isn’t affected by it, though, and while he doesn’t order himself a coffee, he does guide her to a seat, scarily close to Alex’s notes at the stools. Alex can hear them now: English, not Korean. So she’s not obsessed with fitting in. They’re very comfortable with each other and even laugh as she finally gets him to go to the interview. They’re appropriately early and even seem excited; they want to get married, even if it’s earlier than planned.
Not to draw attention, Alex scribbles his thoughts as he closes over the leather cover he uses to look like a local businessman, rather than an agent from upstairs. He checks his watch, just to keep up the facade, but it only makes him wish he had a smart one, so his communications with Jeremy could be even more clandestine. No word from him in Alex’s messages about the early riser.
What could be his ‘in’ with this girl sitting opposite? She pulls out an ipad and starts tapping away, with sips at her coffee. He can’t see what she’s typing, but it doesn’t last long, as she pulls out a Korean book. She must want to find a way to distract herself from the thought of rejection. She’s drinking coffee, not running to the bathroom for any reason and her clothes aren’t designed for growth. Could it be that they’re not rushing for any reason other than they want to? She’s moved on to her mobile and Alex can see the app: the Bible. Lifting his phone he types in “Christian. Must be love, not baby” and sends to Jeremy. She looks up at him, thinking her own thoughts, not meaning to catch his eye. They smile at each other anyway, so it’s a good chance to double check.
“You’re learning Korean?” Obvious, but he points to the books anyway.
“My fiancé is Korean, so I want to talk with his family more.” Normal answer. Not so normal accent. Are American colleagues rubbing off too much on her?
“Learn any interesting new phrases recently?” This is a good way to help candidates open up, since it reveals what’s on their mind, or what news they’ve recently had to share.
“I’m trying to learn some hanja, actually, so it’s vocabulary with Chinese origin grouped into categories. It’s not helping me distinguish different colours, though. I never remember which word is red and which one is blue.” She’d remember that if family were asking if she hopes it’s a boy or a girl. That ‘blue’ wasn’t so American. Is she scottish? A sly check of documents explains why Alex hadn’t heard such an accent before: Northern Ireland. Funny, he always expected to understand much less spoken from that part of the world.
Alex senses a buzz through the table. A text from Jeremy reads, “Mr M asked about green card. Clearly no love: R.” The guy couldn’t even get the country right. Alex really isn’t on form today; that’s two he’s missed already. There clearly isn’t much point in bothering this girl anymore, so he pretends to focus more on the phone to allow her to go back to her study.
Another jingle at the door and another couple catches Alex’s eyes to focus head-on to the almost identical face he’d been dreading. Back to the phone: “Not scary, photoshopped: lazy eye.” Sent. Then. “I give up.” Sent. Alex goes limp with the positivity leaking out; has he lost his work sense? Flipping through the rest of the applicants, his initial theories swap right in front of his eyes. That P.M. shotgun will be a newly learned fatal disease, the far too long in advance planning will turn out to be a dare and the sweetest smiling gal must have a forceful grip leaving bruises just under the t-shirt line for no-one to see. And Alex is convinced now that he won’t catch any of it. His day won’t be without sobbing if he can’t find a way to calm himself down. It’s still too early for prime seats to all be full, and much too early for the security guard’s break; Alex can finally enjoy his favourite seat, even if it is just to sulk in a comforting place.
It’s easy to gather possessions when he’s hardly begun his day. Not so easy to get away without that cheerful bride-to-be noticing and offering a smile just as he drops into the armchair in the corner. A smile from a stranger is not so common here, even with all the foreigners that come in to support their loved ones. Somehow, that small smile squirms its way into Alex’s positivity reserves; enough to jump start them into looking around for more. A new drink is on the menu; smore inspired, yum. An alert pops up to remind Alex of his dinner planned for tonight; first date with a new girl he had been brave enough to ask out.
Perhaps he can work in this chair for today; it could bring a new perspective. After all, it’s much better that this girl studying Korean is excited to marry a man who was born on the other side of the world from her, and that couple by the door seem to understand each other as they steal each others’ drinks and nod in wrapped attention. Another text: ‘Korean with Irish lilt, but American phrase: proper international couple. A.” Good for them; hopefully the weather will hold up for a green wedding.