It’s not every Monday morning that I find myself standing there staring at a photograph of my colleague Phil. But I have a reasonable explanation: you need to swipe your security pass to pick up printing in our office and mine is on the blink so I am using his, and despite the humming and churning the document is taking ages to materialise, so with nothing else to do I peek at his photo ID.
The picture doesn’t look like him. It dates from when he first joined the company, before I knew him at all, many years and several incarnations ago. In it, his glasses are smaller, thinner and less imposing. His face, as a result, looks more open; I can’t imagine him glowering through these frames the way he does through the thick plastic-rimmed spectacles he wears today. There’s more puppy fat around his face and an almost gormless smile is in the process of beginning or ending, I can’t tell which. The hair is swept over to one side in a heavily-gelled quiff, not spiked up like it is this morning, and the overall look suggests a life of Saturday nights down the pub, bottled beer and nightclubs, mates and celebrations. Which is fair enough; I imagine that, in those days, that’s probably what Phil’s life was like.
I stop for a second and try to decide whether the Phil of today ever looks at his chubbier, cheerier, more townie friend and wonders what became of him. The face on the pass belongs to a man with no children, no tattoos and no ring on the finger you cannot see, somewhere out of shot. What would the Phil back then say if he was shown a picture of the Phil I see on the bus every morning? If they met, would they get on? Would I have got on with him? So many questions, and it’s not even midday yet. In fact, we’re less than ten per cent of the way through the working week, and I’ve already asked over half of my ration of difficult questions. It hardly bodes well.
Back at my desk, I take out my own pass and spend a minute looking at the face staring back. The first thing I notice is how much fatter I was when the picture was taken, over eight years ago. In the photograph, my chin and my neck are starting to resemble one another the way a dog resembles its owner. My head has been freshly shaved, which just contributes all the more to an effect I’m not sure I was aiming for; angry and intimidating. The name next to the picture is mine, but if it had been somebody else’s I wouldn’t have been surprised.
I used to joke that the photograph on my pass made me look like a Turkish drug dealer, but it was one of those jokes I told to deflect attention away from the truth. I also used to joke that the reason everybody looked fat on their security passes was that they were shot in the basement of the old office by the midget who worked in the cubbyhole by the back gate. That bit at least is true, and there’s nothing less flattering than being photographed from below by someone who holds a camera like they’ve never seen one before in their life. But in my case, they were excuses masquerading as jokes; I looked fat because I was fat.
We are all like this, we all carry round these false advertisements of who we are that really only tell you what we used to look like. We do it just so we can get through the turnstiles, print out slide packs, lift the barrier to the car park. Some of the people I work with have been in their jobs so long that their security passes are like relics. Archaeologists could use them, like debris in strata, to sort your life into phases; the moustache years, the perm years, the hair years, the didn’t-need-bifocals years. One day they will be a record of the alive years and one day after that they will be in a bin, and who knows what happens then.
It reminds me that my passport has expired, another out of date photo. That one has bigger hair, bigger glasses and an inconvenient shadow that has made it look, for ten long years, like I was sporting a mullet. But what I remember about that photo is that the day it was taken my mother went with me to Snappy Snaps, something that would never happen now. The me that my new passport photo depicts will be a different one: married, thinner, fiercer, happy but laden down none the less with a decade’s worth of tiny sadnesses. Not least of them is the knowledge I didn’t have then, that in another ten years this process will begin again and that those ten years will pass in no time.
I look one more time at the picture on my security pass, at the swarthy and miserable man, the bad photocopy of me. As if things weren’t bad enough, the peeling plastic laminate makes it look like he has vitiligo. What would I say to him, if I could go back?
I could tell him that he won’t feel this lonely for much longer. I could tell him that in a few short months, he will meet somebody important and it will all make sense, in a way he’s almost given up on. I could tell him, too, that there are many men out there who would kill to have as much hair as he does, and that shaving nearly all of it off is a terrible waste. I could take him for a pint somewhere, sit him down and try and stop his eyes from wandering long enough for me to say what I reckon he needs to hear. I could tell him that one day, years later, on an otherwise nondescript Monday morning he will look at himself and think for more than a second and less than an hour about everything he’s gained and everything he’s left behind.
Even if I did it wouldn’t make any difference. He is going to spend those years getting married and moving house, making friends and losing family, discovering things and trying to forget bad habits, loving and hating, worrying and writing, and he has absolutely nothing to learn from me. I could tell him all of that and more, but I know he wouldn’t listen. He never does; it’s one of the things we still have in common.