James Richard-Palmer

Lonely confessions

The 2003 Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize winner.<br>There were more than 100 entries from a total of seven countries. The runners-up were Henry John Elsby Sanderson, Enrico Boerger, Gregory Lourens, Matthew Lawrence Holmes, Simon Rew, Kevin Barry and Joanna Elizabeth Streetly.

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The 2003 Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize winner.

There were more than 100 entries from a total of seven countries. The runners-up were Henry John Elsby Sanderson, Enrico Boerger, Gregory Lourens, Matthew Lawrence Holmes, Simon Rew, Kevin Barry and Joanna Elizabeth Streetly.

Harry was eight, and he bore the mark of a victim. It wasn’t that he was especially stupid or clumsy or weak; it was a perpetual feeling of shame. His walk was slow and slightly stuttering, as though he was trespassing somewhere far above his station and expected to be exposed at any minute. He’d chosen his English name in imitation of the wizard hero, and found that every third boy in the class had picked it. Some Korean children — crippled, foreign, illegitimate, those with divorced parents — drew other kids as blood draws sharks, but I never saw Harry at the centre of one of those frenzies of bullying; he was never the centre of anything. He would hang on the edges of little groups, ignored by the others, rarely speaking. Misfortune dogged him, endlessly reinforcing his status as victim: if something was being passed around the class, it would break in his hands; if we were playing a game, he would make some mistake that caused giggling and pointing around the classroom.

I tried to be kind to Harry, to single him out for attention and give especial praise to his efforts, even to pair him with other children who I thought might befriend him, or at least not shun his company. It was difficult not to laugh, though more from shock than from humour, when Harry came in one day with a wooden cross hanging around his neck. This wasn’t a flimsy little crucifix, such as Catholic schoolgirls wear to help fend off their boyfriends’ advances; it was the size of my hand and bent him down like a penitent pilgrim. I knelt and pointed at the cross asking, ‘Why, Harry?’ He looked up at me, and shook his head furiously, his eyes scrunched up. ‘Bad!’ he said, pointing at himself and clutching the end of the cross so tightly that the corners cut into his palm. ‘Bad!’

Crosses were everywhere in Korea. They lit up the skyline at night like warning beacons, incarnadine in neon. Often there would be two or three on the top of one apartment block, little Golgothas marking competing denominations. Most of the time, there would be a few spinning poles between them, signifying massage parlours — one pole for legitimate, two for the euphemistic ‘sports massage’. Seoul lacks the space to make nice zoning distinctions.

The churches themselves were mostly buried in the basements, part of the catacombs of a crowded city. On the ground, white-toothed pastors smiled invitations to passers-by from posters pinned to the front of the buildings’ doors, modestly proclaiming their American training and the size of their congregation. Inside, there would be chairs in neat rows, a cloth-covered table for an altar, stacks of songbooks and leaflets, perhaps a TV and video and karaoke machine for the hymns. Like everything else, they were impermanent: rooms, not buildings. Korean businesses have a mayfly lifespan, and what was a church today might be a bar or an arcade tomorrow, the furniture whisked away overnight and replaced with the next set of temporary accoutrements.

There were pictures of Jesus, usually a bouffant-haired and gleaming Aryan, and there was the cross, but I never saw the two in conjunction. This was partly a Protestant phobia — a wariness of crucifixes — but they were noticeably absent from even the Catholic churches. Korean heroes tend to die beautiful deaths, as the Buddha did; that image of final agony, body twisted on the cross, held an awful terror here. Christianity was a public affair, but pain wasn’t.

It usually took about ten minutes of conversation for someone to tell me they were a Christian. Everybody said it: little old ladies on the subway, students at parties, soccer fans crammed next to me at World Cup matches, the owner of my favourite bar. ‘I am a Christian.’ It was said with a complicit look, like a masonic handshake, an assertion of shared ground between us. At first I didn’t know quite how to respond, which would prompt a barrage of follow-up questions: did I believe in Jesus, did I go to church, was I saved? A wary agnostic, I learnt a careful ambiguity, a vague and protective language that would move us on to the safer ground of shared humanity: family, food, illness, the unceasing nature of Korean weather each season.

I am a Christian; I am like you. It was the same reason people told me English names, not Korean ones: short, two-syllable names that sounded reassuringly Korean (Sa-Li, Ha-Ri, Li-Sa, Kay-Ti, Lu-Ci) but were appealingly exotic and modern. ‘It is my Christian name.’ It was difficult to explain that Betty, Sally and Vera were not common choices at English baptisms nowadays. Sociologists were predicting that Korea would become a majority Christian country within a decade, the first in Asia. To be a Christian was to be part of the wave of the future. It marked you as modern, urban, wealthy, successful and free from troubles. Korea had the biggest church in the world, capable of seating some absurd number of congregants. There was even a membership card for this club, the Christian Visa card advertised in every subway car. It bore a little dove in its hologram and the proclamation ‘jesus loves you!’

There were other uses for religion. Asking certain girls out, I discovered that ‘I will go to Bible class that day’ was the local equivalent of ‘Sorry, love, I’m washing my hair.’ Drunk businessmen, buying us free beer so ‘you will know Koreans are good people’, would say, ‘I am a Christian, but I like girls very much!’ The conversation that followed would be along easy, banal lines: do you like Korean girls? Korean girls are good girls. Are there naughty girls in England? I went to the Raymond Bar in Soho and there were many naughty girls who had no clothes and one girl had blonde hair. (‘Many girls in England have blonde hair.’ ‘No, down here she was blonde. It was big surprise to me; I had never seen such thing.’)

Jimmy reversed the formula. ‘I like girls very much but I am Christian.’ We were in a nori-ban, a singing room, where he was howling desolate and interminable love songs. He was a lanky 19, tense and nervy, hair spiked with gel, mourning a relationship with a woman seven years his senior. ‘Always I like bad girls very much, and I go to church, and I feel bad.’ The businessmen had told me of their lust with a cheery, all-men-of-the-world-together grin; Jimmy seemed to be in pain. Nori-bans, unlike public karaoke, are a series of private, darkened rooms, and the atmosphere was suddenly reminiscent of the confessional. ‘I like bad girls, always bad girls. Why do I like bad girls, teacher? Why not good girls at church?’

‘You mean girls who will sleep with you, Jimmy?’

‘Yes. Bad girls.’

‘I don’t think they can all be bad girls.’

He looked at me, astonished. ‘Really? But why?’

‘Sex isn’t always a bad thing, Jimmy.’

‘But I am always thinking of girls, and I am bad.’

I put down the songbook and tried to do my best to conjure some of the authority he saw in me. ‘You’re not bad, Jimmy. You’re just a teenager. All teenagers think about girls.’

‘But I should not! I am Christian!’

‘Jimmy, have you talked to your father about this at all?’

‘My father is dead three years in car crash.’

‘Oh, Jimmy, I’m sorry.’

‘No!’ He gestured violently. ‘I am very happy! He is a bad man.’

‘Why was he a bad man?’

‘Always he has alcohol, and drugs. Heroin and cocaine. He is a bad man, a criminal. He kills people. He hits my mother, and he hits me. Once he has a knife.’ He showed me his hand, a thin scar running across the palm. ‘He hurts me. I am very happy he is dead. But I feel bad for this. I dream about my father, and he hurts me again. Every night he hurts me because I am happy he is dead. Always I dream this, that he hurts me. I am bad.’

His voice, normally questioning, curious (‘But why, but why?), had gone flat, the tension had leaked out of his body, and he was slumped against the seat.

‘Do you talk to anyone about this? A doctor, your minister, your mother?’

‘No. Only you.’ He paused. ‘This is why I am Christian. So I can talk to Jesus.’

Jesus, and me. It was not the last conversation I was to have along such lines. My friendships with Koreans seemed to reach a confessional climax, not of sin but of suffering. There was an intimacy fostered by English, but also a priestly mantle that seemed to settle around me. Part of my authority came from my size: I was six foot three of bulky Westerner, able to clear a way through crowds with a wave of my hand, stop cars like a policeman if I wanted to cross a busy road. I heard the litany of pain over and over and over: my husband is a drunk; my father is a bully; after the crash we lost all our money; the only time I was happy was in Australia; my mother has taken my money from me because I am a bad girl and will not save enough for my wedding.

My girlfriend dropped her father’s drunken rages, during which he beat her mother and occasionally her, into the conversation during an Italian meal. Once I’d calmed down a little, I asked her if she’d talked to anyone — police, social services, her university.

‘How could I tell them? You don’t understand. He is my biological father. How could I go against him like that? They would not do anything, and it would only be worse.’

‘Your family is Methodist, aren’t they? You go to church with your father?’

‘Of course we do.’

‘Then couldn’t you talk to your pastor and have him talk to your father?’

She looked as though I’d just suggested we had sex on the tablecloth.

‘Ohmygod! How could I do such a thing? That is not his job!’

‘Caring about his congregants isn’t his job?’

‘Not like that. I said you don’t understand. How could I talk to him about things in my family? These things are not his business; they are private.’

‘But you can talk to me?’

‘Of course I can talk to you. You are not Korean.’

Later, by the riverbank, I stroked her arm, marvelling at her frailty, my thumb and index finger closing around her wrist. I could have snapped it as easily as I twisted the tops off Coke bottles for my children at school. There was a dull, choked rage in me as I thought about her father’s raised fist. She shied away as I raised her hand to my mouth, marking it with little butterfly kisses. ‘No-oh. Not here. You know I am not a girl like that.’ There were a hundred other couples around us, sitting on a sad scrap of grass between the road and the river, trying hard to ignore the others. There would be thousands more across Seoul, I thought, sneaking time together in video rooms and side staircases and love motels.

Making out, although frowned upon, was at least a semi-legitimate excuse for privacy. When I asked my students about their hobbies, one would come up over and over again, ‘Being alone.’ They said it in wistful, dreamy tones, as an English child might speak of holidaying in the sun. They shared rooms with their siblings and apartments with their parents, but even outside the home they were cramped together, swept along by the press of the crowd through the Seoul streets. Everywhere there was an overflow of people. Adult men at least had the temporary refuge of the ‘sports massage’, where some went, I heard, simply to sleep — after they’d found their physical relief — alone on bar beds while others copulated in the adjoining rooms. The closest most people came to solitude was in PC-rooms, bent close against a computer next to a dozen others, untouched by the outside world. I wondered what they wanted to do when alone. Read? Think? Cry?

Even in sleep, you were not necessarily alone. Like Jimmy’s father, the dead might follow you into your dreams. My girlfriend was sharp with fear at nights after a friend of hers died. She called me in the small hours of the morning to tell me that he had come to her in her dreams, beckoning; that she was frightened he was trying to take her back with him. I spoke reassuring words of psychobabble and consolation, a sub-Freudian charm to ward off her nightmares.

My children drew me pictures of ghosts, white-clad women with loose hair looking like ethereal brides, their mouths open in a black ‘O’ or sharp with fangs. Most of them giggled about them; Harry would rub them out if they were drawn on the board, shaking his head fiercely. His mother said that he had bad dreams; would wake up screaming for her. Most of the children would grab at proffered sweets or toys, but the only gift Harry ever asked for was an oversized and luminous watch, bigger than his wrist. He refused to take it off at night, I was told, clutching it like a talisman against the dark as he lay in bed.

Some mornings, walking to work at dawn, I would see tear-streaked women huddled in doorways or side alleys, hair loose and clothes often torn. They looked as if they had been out a good part of the night, their faces red from cold and weeping. Occasionally blood and bruises showed through their make-up. They would start if they saw me looking at them, spectres disturbed from their haunting, and begin ostentatiously preparing themselves to return home. Where else were they going to go?

There was one evening, though, when I couldn’t go home. I was out in the night and the cold with snot and tears running down my face and an acid taste in my mouth. A friend was being buried 10,000 miles from me and to stay in my apartment was unbearable. She had always felt like home — like the smell of food in the kitchen, piles of books on the table, children’s cast-offs on the chairs — and anything familiar was, at that moment, sickening. I felt as though the whole building was bearing down upon me — the ceilings only a few inches from my head, sinking down bit by bit until I would be pressed into the ground. I didn’t want to see anybody, nor for them to see me.

She had been a Christian, and there was nowhere else I could go, ugly with grief as I was, so I looked for the familiar signs, stumbled down the building stairs to a small basement room, empty of people, with the familiar temporary pews and posters and crosses. I could only find one flickering lamp. There was a door to the side, with a couple of bicycles leaning against the wall, a scattering of children’s shoes, a dirty football. I wanted to scream at God that he had no right to take her, but I could hear people moving about in the apartment next door and I didn’t want to scare them. I already felt like an intruder in this place, as though I had forced my way into a private chapel.

I knelt and started to pray, but it turned into crying again before very long, filthy snot-blowing gasps of pain like an asthma attack. The door opened, and a couple of boys looked in, regarding me with a detached, anthropological curiosity. I smelt the familiar suppertime whiff of kimchi and rice. One of the boys came up to me and touched my hand, as though to make sure I was real, then went back inside. I couldn’t do anything but rock back and forth, trying hard not to howl, my face buried in my hands.

I heard footsteps, and realised that their mother had come out. She s poke softly to me in Korean, unperturbed, as though weeping Westerners on her doorstep was a perfectly natural thing. I didn’t respond. She put a box of tissues by me, switched on the main lights, and went back to her cooking. I stayed there, alone, and cried until it hurt a little less, and then I went back to the crowded city outside.