Warning: this post contains dewy reminiscence and less-than-critical personal analysis
There is a window to the right of where I sit. Just below there, I can see a small sun terrace belonging to the neighbours on the floor below. But beyond that things fall away for another hundred metres into a gorge; two plateaus are linked by the Puente Nuevo, which leashes Ronda’s old town to the new. The old town – which perches opposite me across the gorge, is one of Spain’s oldest settlements. There are signs of habitation going back to 2,500BC. The architecture is a palimpsest of Moorish, Counter Reformation and modern tourism. Beyond the town the mountains, currently paled in a morning haze quite unlike the unfiltered all-day sunshine I had expected.
I’m not sure why I’ve included this information, except maybe to illustrate that I’m far from home, which may explain one of my current preoccupations.
We travelled here from Weeze airport near Düsseldorf, just across the border from the Netherlands. It was a quick flight but, coming after several weeks of sofa-surfing with friends and family, we caught the bus from Seville airport to the centre of town with a sense of newly-relaxed exhalation. I remember the moment precisely; we had passed through the rotating door of the budget hotel we were to occupy for the night before moving on to Ronda and, smiling at the dried flowers and twigs – giant pot pourri – sealed into the glass between the compartments of the door, I felt a tingle of excitement that all had gone well and soon I would be somewhere in the town, drinking a beer with my beloved and marvelling at the tiny, inconsequential differences between nations that still, to my untravelled eyes, seem so telling, alien and thrilling.
It’s not an unusual occurrence that, when required to produce a document of some kind – especially when in a hurry or a queue – I must go through a burlesque of pocket patting, bag emptying and deep-breath-taking. But by the time I had refilled my luggage from where the contents had been strewn out in front of the check-in desk, carried it up to the seventh-floor room, unpacked again, practiced my new exercise for not automatically leaping to the worst conclusion, and double checked everywhere, it was clear that I’d lost my wallet.
Not a lot in there; cash card, some receipts, birth certificate, beloved’s business card, a beer-bottle label with my face on it from a film festival in Amsterdam.
We racked up €17 in calls from the hotel room phone, a small price to pay for such an acute insight into the workings of Spanish customer services. Four times I was put on hold and cut off by the airport English-language call desk; then I was given a number to call Ryan Air which resulted in a speed-talking Spanish recorded message that took my money then cut the line. There was no answer at the lost luggage desk so we stomped out and caught a bus back to the airport. No one was there except a friendly but unhelpful woman at the information desk. Amongst the overtures for assistance that I made, I remember saying this: ‘The only thing I really, really want to get back is the birth certificate’. This surprised me, later. I hadn’t known that. But there was a rising sense of dismay, of something just out of reach yet impossible to recapture; something lost that really need not have been.
I cancelled my card and held over further investigations until the morning. But the sensation of stepping light into a new adventure had evaporated. I went to sleep ashamed to have caused such pandemonium and awoke with the heaviness of knowing I would need to spend more money talking to more people that didn’t want to help me to recover something that, by now, could be anywhere. The airport told me it was Ryan Air’s responsibility. Ryan Air told me that they were not responsible. It seemed a simple thing, even if the loss was my fault, for them to just look for the damn wallet. I became inordinately aggrieved at the world’s indifference. My self-recrimination was worthy of Torquemada. But why? The card was cancelled, we had money, and the wallet was no treasured possession, why did I still care?
It was the so-little-thought-of piece of paper, folded in four with faded red lines and decorous lettering – the formal effect ruined by the wonky type-work and bald information of the entries – that tugged at my thoughts. I can’t repeat the information it held because I don’t have it to hand and I can’t remember precisely what it says. Except that my name is Corin Kim Gilchrist, there is a registered address in Southampton that neither of my parents would ever remember if asked and, under my father’s name, ‘None’ or ‘Unknown’ or ‘Not known’. That part wasn’t true.
I was reckless to carry it with me; I could see my beloved struggling against a tide of ‘I told you so’. It must have been all she wanted to say, but she only said it once (perhaps twice). I hadn’t realised it meant so much; this small proof of nothing, a square of paper almost thirty-five years old that bore no relation to and gave no extra proof or sovereignty to my existence yet now, in this Seville hotel room, was becoming the most important object in my life. I agonised that I could never know the street I’d first been carried home to, however brief our stay. I was oafish and clumsy; this document had made it through years of squatting, social housing, passed from box to drawer-bottom to wallet to passport across half-a-dozen chaotic shared south-London homes and yet it, magically, had stayed with me.
Until I’d first needed the thing – I forget what for – in my early twenties, I had thought my name was Kim Gilchrist. Corin – my father’s choice – had gone out of the door the same time he did, when I was too young to notice or recall. It revealed the true entity I was, not the name I used myself, not the name on my bank account, my National Insurance, the voters’ register, the name I gave employers, landlords. I had an occluded, secret identity and this was the only proof. Now it was gone.
Corin comes from Corin Redgrave, my father told me a few years ago. He’s not a theatre goer and could give no other indication as to his choice other than he liked the name. Ignorant that I was named after an actor I had acted since a child, in school plays, am-dram, then studying in university and working sometimes as a director. I can speculate that Redgrave’s parents took the name from As You Like It. The name may also have its roots in Corineus, a legendary king of Britain who I researched for some time for a novel some years ago, not having noticed the connection to my own secret first name.
Kim, my mother’s choice, comes from the Rudyard Kipling novel. She told me that, in the book, Kim is called ‘little friend of all the world’. Many would laugh, rightfully, cynically and from sore experience, that this hardly applies to me. I read Kim, finally, seven years ago. There is a character called Mukherjee, which startled me at the time, as that was the name of the band I played in. I am now – in aspiration and daily habits at least – a novelist.
I was told a story – apocryphal, as it came from my father – that he and my mother bickered over my name even as I was carried to the font, where my grandfather waited. True or not it illustrates, perhaps, a condition of instability regarding identity, a condition I now focussed on this document of a name legitimised by baptism and state. This was why, 35 years later and stuck in Seville, I could not let it go or accept that paper as lost. I tried to transform the loss into a symbolic event: it represented a break with the past, with the tyranny of unremembered influence, an opportunity to remake myself as the man I am, not a reverberation of the child I’d been. Bollocks and sophistry, of course. I really wanted it back.
God bless German efficiency.
A lady from Weeze airport called my beloved’s mobile – they must have found the number from her business card, which I carried also in my wallet. It was safe and I found myself babbling that the birth certificate was the most important thing, the only item of real value and I was so glad to know it was safe. I thanked her again and again as if she’d saved some valued limb from amputation. It’s there now, waiting to be brought to me. But I’ve learned something weird. The things we define ourselves by are not only our actions, how we love and are loved in return, our work, haircuts, spiritual and intellectual lives, dietary peculiarities and morbid imagined secrets but also scraps of unthought-of bureaucratic ephemera. I’m more lucid about the whole affair now but, eight days ago, if you’d held out to me my birth certificate in one hand or a new-recovered manuscript of Shakespeare’s lost Cardenio*, I can’t in all confidence tell you which I would have chosen.
*The discovery and loss of Cardenio is a fascinating story. The tale is taken from one of Don Quixote’s novels-within-a-novel. Don Quixote is one of my favourite books. When in Berlin I bought a t-shirt of Picasso’s sketch of the Old Man of La Mancha. I was well pleased with it; hip yet classic and representing double-genius. Now, wearing it in Spain, I feel like some sucker-tourist.