:: Article


By Sian Norris.



Perhaps it would never have started if I hadn’t noticed my passport was due to expire.

Emigration taught me the importance of passports. Documents matter more. You can’t let that stuff slide. Staying up to date becomes an imperative.

It doesn’t matter where you live, however. Some things remain the same and passport photo booths are one of them. They’re always in shopping centres for starters – a tinny cupboard with a harsh fabric curtain that rasps unpleasantly against your fingertips. Cocooned in complete darkness, the world of the shopping centre is shut out. It’s you, your face, and the flash.

I’d put on more make-up than usual. Brushed my hair so it framed my face. Small vanities. All for the official checking my face against its reproduction for the next decade.

Flash. Flash. Flash.

Blinking, I drew back the curtain and light and sound rushed back in with dizzying intensity. Women in elegant mackintoshes walked past carrying shopping bags, their heels echoing on the hard white-tiled floor. Women in padded coats carried shopping bags. Women in stilettos and trainers and ballet pumps pushed buggies, packed tight with grizzling babies and shopping bags.

No one looked as I waited by the booth. I tapped my fingers against the cool metal; wondered if this would be the picture to identify me for the next ten years, or whether instead I’d offer up more money in the attempt to find my acceptable face.

I looked at the strip of paper.

It wasn’t my face.

Now I know no one looks like themselves in passport photos. I know that. I’d put on make-up and styled my hair for that very reason.

This wasn’t a bad photo.

This wasn’t my face.

I pushed the photo into my back pocket and stole a glimpse at my reflection in the slip of mirror on the booth. There are mirrors everywhere in this city. I couldn’t escape the multiple versions of me following my halting progress down unfamiliar streets.

The mirror was narrow. But a face cut in half and blocked out with right angles is still my face. In the photo: that wasn’t my face.

I had money for one more shot.

Back in the booth, the darkness, my reflection, the flash, flash, flash.

The same strange face looking back at me.

At home, I took the photos out of my pocket and tucked them into my mirror frame. I was proud of this mirror ¬– picked up at the famous flea market by the canal. Sure, its glass was flecked with black spots and its gilded frame had known better days. The disrepair didn’t bother me. What mattered was how its hazy, silvery glow hid any lines or spots or imperfections. I liked the face in this mirror.

Those were my features. That was my hair. I pulled a face. My face in the mirror pulled one back.

The face of the unknown woman stared out.


For the first time since arriving here, the dazzle of mirrors was a relief. Walking through narrow streets and wide avenues I joined the women who took note of their reflections. We checked hair was in place and lipstick wasn’t smudged. We checked we hadn’t come undone. Together we looked at the glass. Together we looked to be okay.

I headed to the river and wove my way through tourists with T-shirts stretched over complacent bellies, wearing retrograde baseball caps branded with the name and flag of their home country. Along the river, souvenir shops spill out on to the already too-narrow pavement – packed with overpriced cheap mementoes that could be found in any city in any part of the world; the name of the town swapped in to give a pretence of authentic experience.

No one saw me sit down at the caricaturist’s chair and hand over my crumpled note. I bit my lip as he joked around and pulled faces, making much play of holding out his thumb in a masque of a “real” artist. I offered up a smile for the performance I’d paid for.

The sun was hot on my hair and its light danced on the green glass of the river that gave off up a faint whiff of summer. A passing motorbike belched out a cloud of smoke. A tourist knocked the back of my chair and apologised in English. We’re all tourists here, in this part of town. All tourists share a common tongue.

‘Là,’ he said, handing over the caricature. ‘It’s you.’

I looked. I looked at him, and then back to the picture. ‘But…’ I began.

Too late. He’d moved on. No time to talk to someone unsatisfied. He can’t waste his time on arguments about authenticity and flattery. It’s a caricature, get real lady, take the joke.

I walked away with the paper clutched to my chest.

The paper with a face on it that wasn’t mine.

A triptych, now.


I carried on walking around the city; sliding sideways glances into the mirrors lining the streets. I took the train to a palace famed for its mirrors and stood, glaring at my reflection in each one. The trip offered some solace.

I tried taking selfies with my phone. It didn’t work. The angles all wrong. The image flipped.

I called my portrait painter friend from back home.

Back for a few days. Love to see you. Let’s do lunch. Oh, and while I’m there, could you? Would you? Don’t ask… it’s for… work.

There was some trouble at passport control. They looked at me, at my photo, at me again, and asked for another form of ID. There’s another month to go, I snapped back. What’s the point of an expiry date if in your mind it expires long before? They shrugged. I glared. They looked at one another. I glared harder. They let me through.

We drank a glass of cool white wine and talked about the time that had elapsed.

‘You look diff…’ he started. ‘Your hair? You’ve changed your hair?’

I shook my head. I hadn’t changed my hair. That would suggest something proactive on my part. It would be more accurate to say I’d left my hair.

‘And your portrait,’ he said. ‘What’s this? A streak of vanity? A memorial? A new start?’

I laughed, and put my hand on his; noticing the flecks of paint on his nails and in the creases of his thumb. ‘For work,’ I repeated.

He put me in a hat with a green ribbon, girlish against the austerity of my black turtleneck top. I sat, and thought how peaceful we are when we sit, not speaking. No demands. His eyes on me.

I sat, and he painted.

‘So,’ he said, uncomfortable at my prolonged silence. ‘Was it helpful? For your work? For your research?’

I couldn’t answer him. I stared at the woman in my elegant black top, in his hat with the green ribbon.

The woman, with the face that wasn’t my face at all.





Sian Norris is a novelist, short story writer and poet. Her first book, Greta and Boris: A daring rescue was published in 2013 by Our Street. She is currently working on a novel based around Gertrude Stein’s circle, which in 2016 was long-listed for the Lucy Cavendish prize. Sian‘s the co-editor of the Read Women project and the founder and director of the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival. Her non-fiction has been published in the Guardian, the Independent, the New Statesman, 3:AM Magazine and Open Democracy. Sian has recently completed a four-month writing residency at Bristol’s Spike Island.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 31st, 2017.