Change of Identity
After last night she could never go back. It was time to start again. New name, new appearance, new life.
She’d walked to the railway station early this morning, her feet automatically tracing the steps that she had taken every weekday to school. Seven years of walking the same path. Seven years that had taken her from awkward, lumpy child to a bright, idealistic university entrant. Seven years too, she realised, since she had achieved her childhood dream – though she was no longer sure that it had been her dream.
The trees and flat fields flashed by, a blur of browns and greens, and above them, huge watery skies. It was these that she’d miss. Something in her blood, her spirit, something epigenetic yet to be understood – she didn’t care. She knew that these skies invoked some primal response deep within her, a response more commonly produced by hills and mountains. Maybe decades hence she could come back, an eccentric octogenarian living in a tiny cottage overlooking the sea. There would be no-one left who knew her true identity.
The conductor’s voice, tinny and distorted by the old tannoy, startled her. Nearly time to change trains. She had only to cross the platform to reach the fast train to London, and from there, anonymous in the crowds, she could reach Dover. Although there was no reason for anyone to be looking for her yet, she had decided not to take any risks. The ferry was safer than the Eurostar, and anyway, she intended to head for the Calais Jungle. She’d spoken to another doctor at a meeting, who had spent a few weeks volunteering there. The various charities working there were always happy to welcome volunteers, for any length of time. A couple of weeks there would give her contact in the UK time to prepare all her papers. She’d have to go to the British Embassy to collect her passport before going back home.
She arrived in Calais late in the afternoon and found a small pension not far from the ferry terminal. The receptionist was painting her nails, and barely looked up as she asked for a room.
‘Oui Mam’selle, trente euros.’
The key was handed over in exchange for three notes, crisp from the cash machine. She had withdrawn enough money for her stay in Calais and had destroyed her card.
The room was adequate. She slept better than she’d expected, and was grateful for the bowl of café au lait and fresh baguette that was provided for breakfast. She asked the same receptionist where she could find an inexpensive hairdresser, and was directed further down the same road.
The young woman who approached the camp later that day bore little resemblance to the one who had left the UK twenty-four hours earlier. The long brown wavy hair, pulled onto the top of her head, had been replaced by a blonde buzz cut. The hairdresser had assured her that it was very easy to keep such a short cut blonde, and that she would be easily able to do it herself. The short, tailored skirt and expensive sweater had given way to ripped jeans and a battered leather jacket, bought from the flea market nearby. This young woman also had lip and nose piercings, and a tattoo of entwined thorns and roses the length of her left forearm. It had been a good day’s work.
Two weeks with the refugee charity emptied her head of all the confusion, doubt, and guilt of recent months. She returned to her bed at the youth hostel each night and fell into a dreamless sleep, completely exhausted. Media reports of the refugee crisis had not prepared her for the physical reality. The numbers of distressed people were overwhelming, her sense of inadequacy grew daily. Foolishly she had thought that her medical skills might be useful, but she found herself helping to prepare hot food, picking litter from the site, and sorting the surprising number of donations that arrived each day. The work itself wasn’t difficult, but the backdrop was. She reflected wryly on the irony of being surrounded by tens of thousands of people whose identity had been reduced to ‘other’, ‘refugee’, ‘alien’, whilst she had spent time and money carefully changing her own.
Nearing the end of the second week, she realised that she wanted to stay longer. A phone call to her UK contact confirmed that her new documents were ready for collection whenever it suited her, and yes, another two weeks was fine. The same applied to retrieving her passport in Paris.
Two more weeks would give her more material, she reflected guiltily.
The new passport didn’t even receive a glance before she boarded the ferry in Calais. Back in London she collected her birth certificate, and details of her bank account and national insurance number. She wondered what the dead two-year-old, who had died with her parents in a car crash, would have made of her, and pushed the thought away. She too was an orphan, without parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, or siblings. She was a new person, risen from the ashes of her past.
Five years later, blonde buzz cut now a gamine crop, edgy, supple leather instead of ripped denim, she circulated the room, wine in hand. Her publisher caught her eye and raised her glass, silently toasting the book deal that they had just signed off. 18 Reasons You Should Be Talking About Refugees had received universal acclaim from the critics, and the next book, Why Orphans Are Scarier Than Dating Taylor Swift, promised to be equally successful. Everyone knew her, but nobody really knew her. She was an accomplished writer, but no interviewer had managed an in-depth interview.
Back in her penthouse apartment, gazing out at the brightly lit towers of Birmingham, she opened her laptop. She had made a vow when she’d left the house. Do not try to find out what happened. Do not do any searches. You have no links to that person, she is dead. Five years, she had promised to herself. Resist the temptation. Five years to the day, the book launch was a good augury.
She had made preparations; an anonymous browser, a laptop that she had intended to replace, and whose vital content was already on a new sleek, slim Dell XPS. Don’t search for your old name ever, she’d been told. He had no idea why she wanted a new identity, that’s how it worked. Cash, no questions asked, no records kept. She’d had to take the last bit on trust.
She searched for his name. Notices of his death came up immediately. Obituaries from national newspapers, more expansive ones from local papers.
Only son of …, trained at …, married Belinda in …, one daughter. Belinda predeceased him (cancer). Deteriorating health since her death. Died in his sleep.
The obituaries mentioned his professional work, his national profile, his research. The local ones expanded on the work that he and his wife had done in the parish church, and as local councillors and governors of various schools. The provincial papers had footage from the funeral, which was well attended by former colleagues. Nobody had reported the absence from the funeral of his daughter. There were separate reports, well hidden, about him having died intestate. A previous Will had been invalidated by his wife’s death, and he had apparently never made a new one.
She wondered what attempts had been made to find her. She had expected to inherit the estate, and had made her own Will several years before her parent’s deaths, giving away any inherited wealth.
She sighed. Death from natural causes. It had never been questioned. He had been cremated, so now it never would be. She knew the cause of death could never be traced – his determination that she should become a doctor had guaranteed it.
She closed the laptop and raised a glass.
‘To you, Dad.’