[This excerpt reveals what happened when William first arrived in Korea]
‘Right, sit down. OK, can you sit down now? Guys. HEY GUYS. Come on, sit down, be quiet. Please.’
I cranked up my fake American accent. ‘OK, you guys! Ya gonna try ta calm down a liddle for me?’
Accents were never my forte, and this one grated somewhere between Texas outlaw and Australian outbacker. My voice, real or affected, had no effect on the recalcitrant boys boxing at the back.
I got louder. ‘HEY GUYS! That aint the way to behave in class.’
The advertisements said that the American Academy of English Language employed all US national staff for their English lessons – symptomatic of the perverse relationship the Koreans have with the US; they despise the nation as imperialist occupiers, military rapists, political dogmatists, and yet crave everything American – clothes, music, language and an accent for their kids. My duff American waned as the kids got rowdier.
A window ran the length of the corridor-side wall. In the early days, Mr Bang walked the corridor to check that all was of the highest standard in his new school, or he sent Harry out to do it for him, and we fretted about keeping up appearances. He had stopped monitoring. It may be that Mr Bang was assured that all was continuing well, but more likely that he didn’t want his assurance battered by the sight of it all going horribly wrong. The classroom was far too small: 16 kids and their desks and chairs cramped in tight rows. The lack of space didn’t stop them from spending the lesson out of their seats jumping and hollering.
Just like me.
‘Right, c’mon. SIT – DOWN – AND – SHUT – UP. Andrew. AN-DREW, SIT DOWN.’
He looked up from the pain he was inflicting on the boy next to him, not in the least threatened by my raised voice, more surprised that it was him I was addressing, as if he had forgotten that this was his name. At least he sat down.
Philippa and Francesca at the front of the room were waving their hands at me. Philippa called out, ‘William, William, why do you say AHndrew and not EHndrew?’
Francesca said, ‘You don’t sound like you’re from the US.’
‘My mom says she thinks you’re British.’
‘Erm…’ Philippa’s mother was an investor in the school. I had fed her a line about growing up in the American mid-West, that my degree and teaching qualification were from the University of Illinois. ‘Em…my parents are British, and… my… brother… he’s called Andrew. They always called him Ahndrew, the British way. I guess it stuck. I usually say A the American way. You know, like about, I say… ehbout, or… no… maybe that’s ihbout… but I say beht, you know, like a baseball beht and I say ball… Oh, no, ball has an aw sound but, anyway… I am American.’
The two of them laughed openly at me. Secretive sniggers had long gone.
When I first started teaching at the school, I struggled to learn all of the kids’ Korean names. I felt it was important to show them that I cared and to help them feel comfortable with me. But their names – Kyoeng-hu, Yeung-su, Cheung-hee, though I’m probably wrong still – had vowel sounds that I couldn’t get my mouth around and were often too similar for me to distinguish. I began to feel incompetent and foolish as I hacked up and confused their names in class.
Davy said, ‘Ach fuck it, gie them aw English names. Jist caw them Bob n Joe n Fatty n Stupit an the like.’
‘I can’t do that.’
‘How the fuck no?’
‘It would hardly be showing respect, would it?
‘Fuck off. Thur aw comin tae learn English. How no gie them that extra bit ae the experience, eh?’
So I gave them English names. I drew out a map of the room with each of the names written on a place. When the students arrived for their lesson I asked them to sit at the place for the name I had given them. The two precious princesses though came armed with their own suggestions.
‘Now, I think you can sit here and you should be called…’
‘You will call me Philippa.’
‘Yes, and I’m Francesca.’
‘And we sit at the front. Sarah and Mathew will need to move.’
My Director of Studies had put these precocious brats in my beginner kids’ class, with a warning that their parents held a lot of sway. While the majority of the class had difficult with anything more than ‘cat’ or ‘pen’, those two constantly tested my ability to speak or understand English as well as they did, in their American accents.
‘What about apple?’
‘Yeah, say ahpple.’
‘Right, come on, everyone turn to page twenty-four in your books. We’re gonna sing the song. Listen to the tape first and then we’ll all sing it together.’
There were a couple of students who understood my instruction and translated it to their classmates (the precious princesses never spoke to any of the others). Hardly anyone followed it. I knew by this time that I had to plough on regardless, even though I was cringing at the dreadfulness of the exercise we were about to do.
‘Right, quiet now. Listen to the tape.’
A genuine American voice came over the speaker.
‘Unit eight. Jack’s a Mechanic. Song. Listen to the song and follow the words in your book.’
Andrew punched Jumbo, who gave a yelp. Other kids laughed. I shouted, ‘Hey,’ and the tape began to play an over-enthusiastic rock n roll tune. A whiny kid’s voice sang:
‘Jack’s a mechanic,
‘A really good mechanic.
‘He fixes cars in a workshop all day.’
There was a bubbly cartoon of Jack next to the words of the song written in the students’ textbook. Our Director of Studies, Harry, had decreed that it was necessary to follow this book page by page. ‘It will give the students a progressive learning experience,’ he said. My arse. The book was designed for little kids and was highly inappropriate for these pre-pubescent brats. Mind you, I didn’t have a clue what I would have done if I didn’t have the book. Orla had tried to introduce me to communication games and information-gap activities, but the stress of preparing and getting through each day piled on enough without any attempt at being creative with the learning experience. The two-hour after-school lesson had to be filled with activities and teaching. I didn’t have a clue, so I followed the book. Instead of education, each class was filled with the shouts and laughter of a group of boisterous malcontents taking over the room. My fatal error had been in trying to be their friend. Kids can be really nasty to their friends.
As the song finished, one voice rang out – Jumbo whining in pain as Andrew pinched him.
‘OK, let’s sing the first line. After me. Jack’s a mechanic.’
‘OK. Try again. Jack’s a mechanic.’
Titters. Then Andrew shouted something in Korean and the whole class burst out laughing.
Philippa and Francesca got up out of their seats and stood stiff-backed, looking like they were about to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Instead, they sang the whole mechanic song faultlessly. Both snapped their textbooks shut and waited for the applause.
‘Alright,’ I said, ‘Everyone stand up, and we will sing the whole song all together. Stand up.’ I did an upward motion with my hands. ‘Stand up.’ Slowly, my waving and repetition filtered through and the whole class got to their feet.
I played the tape again. Two voices sang along. The rest muttered and jostled and prodded each other. The moment the music stopped, everyone sat down.
‘No no no. Up you get. On your feet. Stand up. Stand up.’ I waved, up up up.
Orla had told me something about physical activity, physical response, how it is a great way to get kids interested, involved, activated.
‘OK. Now we all sing together. Ready? Jack’s a…’
‘One more time. Jack’s a mechanic…’
A few unconvinced voices joined in. I pointed at different members of the class, trying to gee them along. By the end of the song there was a little volume. To keep the momentum, I called, ‘One more time.’
Glances passed between the students. A number of them started to dance with their hands clasped under their chins, elbows wagging and knees wiggling. The class shouted,
‘Nyeh nyeh nyeh nyeh nyeh,
‘Nyeh nyeh nyeh nyeh nyeh nyeh nyeh.
‘Nyeh nyeh nyeh nyeh nyeh nyeh nyeh nyeh nyeh nyeh.’
When I first came up against the students’ deliberate misbehaviour, I had tried to remember what it was like being a school student. Even worse, I thought, imagine being a student forced to do hours of classes after school. I had laughed as they goofed off, thinking if I joined them it could make the lessons fun. It wasn’t long though till I remembered how merciless the pupils were in my school to weak teachers, teachers who lost control of the class. That was how kids got through the day. And those teachers never regained control.
The class cheered and banged on the tables at the end of the song.
‘OK, everybody, sit down.’
They hooted and slapped high-fives.
‘Come on. Come on. Enough. SIT DOWN.’
A face appeared at the corridor window. Miss Im looked in, undoubtedly sent by Mr Bang. She was pretty and pleasant, but still the students quickly got back into their seats and settled down. I stood with my hand slapped flat across the desk, my mouth open mid-shout. Miss Im smiled to me and went away.
I closed my mouth on a sigh and attempted a stern face, a now-look-what-you-have-done expression. They sat in their rows, looking right past me.
I wrote on the whiteboard, Jack works in a garage. Trying to take advantage of a moment of obedience, I said, ‘OK, everyone, say after me, Jack works in a garage.’
A few of them responded, ‘Ja wok inga gara gee.’
Philippa shouted, ‘Workshop.’
‘Workshop. Jack works in a workshop.’
Francesca butted in, ‘Yeah, garage is the English way. Americans say workshop. You’re British. I’m gonna tell my mom.’
I wrote the word, nurse, on the board. I pointed at it. ‘Right. Lucy. Where does a nurse work?’
Philippa and Francesca both shouted, ‘Hospital.’
I wrote teacher. ‘Patrick, where does a teacher work?’
They shouted, ‘School.’
‘Right! OK! Philippa and Francesca will now teach the class. You two, come out here and teach, I’m going to sit down and you two can take the class.’
Their faces lit up. They jumped out of their seats and started to push past Lucy. Patrick shouted something, and all the boys burst out laughing, apart from Jumbo who scribbled cartoon characters in heavy black lines across his desk.
An electric buzzer sounded to mark the end of the lesson, and the classroom burst into movement as they packed up, pulled on their coats, threw bags across the room and headed for the door, all of them overjoyed at the release. All of them, except Philippa and Francesca, who looked crestfallen at the lost opportunity to seize power.
On their way out of the class, one of the students left a plastic wrapped stick of fish-flavoured cheese on my desk. They liked me.
The next class were waiting to come in. Jun-yin’s full round face smiled and nodded hello. The usual group of five followed him in – an adult class made up of staff all from the same company – plus one other guy that I hadn’t seen before. They were all wearing heavy outdoor clothes – long coats, hats, scarves, mitts – and carrying briefcases. Under their overcoats, each was neatly turned out in a business suit.
Davy squeezed in between their legs. He buffeted against them in a full-length fur that covered him so completely I couldn’t see his legs move, nor anywhere that it buttoned up or opened, just continuous animal hair.
Without needing to be asked, the new class began to lift chairs to the front of the room and push all of the desks towards the back. They dropped their coats and cases over the desks and arranged their chairs in some semblance of a horseshoe – something else Orla had suggested I do to make small classes more intimate and informal.
As the students settled in to the sound of briefcase catches snapping, Davy peeled off his fur to reveal a full-length black body stocking. He wore a pair of furry snow boots at the bottom of it all.
‘Whit?’ He said. ‘It’s thermal, awright? S’fuckin freezin oot there.’
There was a large bulge at his crotch.
I turned my back on the class and said quietly to him, ‘Are you smugglin walnuts?’
‘Fuck off. I’m aw shrivelt. S’fuckin brass monkeys.’
‘Hey, it was you told me to come to this country.’
‘Fuckin didnae knaw it wiz this caud but.’
Davy climbed onto my chair and up onto the teacher’s desk, taking his usual perch so he could survey the class. ‘Who’s the new boy?’
‘Dunno. Hey, I could’ve done with you in the brats class. Why won’t you come in?’
‘Nae fear. Ye widnae get me near thum.’
‘Aye, but I could’ve done with ye. You could’ve pinned a couple of em down or somethin.’
‘Hey, hey. Lesson’s startin.’ He jerked his head towards the class. They sat waiting, watching me.
The usual class was three men, three women. They were admin staff or clerks and all at a similar level in their company. However, this was another class with very varied abilities in English. Still, they were amiable and cooperative; they paid attention and tried to do what I asked them. Some of them struggled, but my bright spark, Jun-yin, helped them through.
Jun-yin and the short older guy I didn’t know stood up.
‘William, I would like to introduce to you my boss, Mr Park.’ Mr Park bowed a little. ‘I told Mr Park of how good your teaching is.’
Mr Park took my proffered hand. ‘I’m sorry, I can’t English very good.’
‘Well, no problem, this class are all really helpful.’ With my free hand, I gave a thumbs-up. ‘Right class, we’ll help Mr Park, won’t we?’
There was silence.
Jun-yin said. ‘Mr Park is very pleased to join your class.’
These guys were usually my saviours. Last hour on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday, just when I was completely shattered, they got me through by not making anything too difficult. Sometimes we even had a laugh.
Mr Park was still grasping my hand, everyone else watched.
‘Well, that’s great. Have a seat and we’ll get started.’
Jun-yin waited for the older man to sit first. Everyone else rose slightly in their chairs as he did. They watched him expectantly until he was firmly in his chair.
When I sat down, Davy said over my shoulder, ‘Whit’s goin oan wi this gadgie?’
I whispered, ‘I don’t know. Gonna keep an eye on him?’
‘Right then, shall we continue where we left off last time? Which was page…’
No-one opened their books. Everyone looked away from me nervously apart from Mr Park who sat with his hands open across his lap, no book.
‘Ah, OK. Jun-yin, would you mind sharing your book with Mr Park?’
‘Yes, certainly.’ He held the book in front of his boss and flicked it open. ‘The page is number forty-eight.’ His boss nodded approvingly as Jun-yin turned to the page.
‘This is gonnae be fun,’ Davy said.
We had just started a new unit. It said at the top, Present Perfect Simple Tense. I had hit on the tactic of getting the students to explain to me what the grammar terminology meant – exploring what they already understand about the language – but we hadn’t got too far with this one. Luckily, the first couple of pages had a variety of exercises for the students to fill in. I let them work in pairs, while I read through and tried to make sense of the grammar. Normally there was a good amount of chatter; pairs would call across the class to their classmates, and when they got stuck they would ask me. This time there was a low murmur and the noise of pencils scraping across pages.
I looked at Davy and he sat with his mouth hanging open, agog at the stiffness of the class. ‘Whit d’ye make ae this?’
‘I dunno. What d’ye think I should do?’
‘Ye better start a discussion, gie them some questions or sumhin.’
‘What do I ask?’
‘Use the book. Look, huv ye e’er…’
I wrote up on the board,
Have you ever…?
I have had/been/gone…
I have never…
Then asked the students to stop working.
‘OK. Now, you’ve had time to think about the language, maybe we could try a few questions. OK?’
They eyed each other, waiting for someone to respond.
‘Chin, have you ever… had a pet?’
He took a deep breath and shook his head.
I said, ‘Sorry, you’ve…’
‘No, I have…’
‘I have not have a pet.’
‘I have never had a pet.’
‘O-K… Moon, have you ever… eaten pizza?’
Moon giggled, and looked at Soo. Soo nodded her head and mouthed the words to her.
‘Yes… I… have… eat… pizza.’
‘Aye,’ muttered Davy, ‘bet that’s not aw she gobbles.’
The class slowly relaxed into the exercise, answering my questions, having a stab.
‘Ho, have you ever been to China?’
‘I went to…’
‘No, say, I have been to…’
‘I… Why do we say, I have been to China, and not, I went to China?’ Ho had the irritating habit of asking questions that I didn’t know the answer to. It was unlikely he would understand the answer, even if I could. I gave him my stock reply.
‘That’s just the way we say it.’
I pushed on to distract him. ‘OK Ho, tell us, when did you go to China?’
‘I have been there… three year ago.’
‘Three years ago.’
‘You went there three years ago.’
‘No, I mean, three years ago. Not three year ago.’
Davy butted in, ‘Three year ago? Whit’s the matter wi that? I awways say that, I bin there three year ago. Whit ye oan aboot?’
Ho didn’t believe me either. ‘Uh… But last time you say we must say, a three-year old boy. No S. Three year.’
‘Yes, but that’s different.’
‘How?’ said Ho.
‘How?’ said Davy.
‘Because, it’s… a noun.’
‘Which?’ said Ho.
‘Uh?’ said me.
‘Which is a noun?’ said Ho.
‘Whit ye bletherin aboot?’ said Davy.
‘It’s…’ I tried to say. ‘…it’s because…’I gave up. ‘Oh, just believe me Ho, it’s three years ago, and three-year old boy.’
‘Anyway,’ I pinched the bridge of my nose, looked back over my shoulder and gave Davy a frown. ‘One of you ask a question. Have you ever…’ I waited for someone to complete my sentence. No-one did. I pointed at the question on the board ‘Have you ever… had… Come on, anyone? OK, Mr Park,’ He sat alert. ‘Have you ever had…’ I fished around for something to say. Moon stroked a hand through her hair. ‘…long hair? Have you ever had long hair?’ He stared at me.
Jun-yin began to translate for him, but I interrupted. ‘No, no. Don’t translate everything. Let Mr Park get it. Have you…’ I pointed at him. ‘…ever had…’ I gestured holding. ‘…long hair.’ I gestured hair falling long from my head.
Mr Park stared.
‘OK. Mr Park. Your hair.’ I touched my hair. ‘Your hair.’ I stepped over to him and pinched a few strands of his hair between my fingers.
‘Argh!’ He batted my hand away.
He stood up.
‘What did I do?’
He shouted at me in Korean, spat the words.
Suddenly, everyone was standing and shouting, the small space blocked with bodies. Everyone was trying to placate Mr Park as he barked and pointed at me. Jun-yin held his hands out flat, bowing slightly as he talked.
‘Wait…’ I said. ‘What? Sorry… What?’
Jun-yin held up a hand to Mr Park, the other to me. ‘William. No touch Mr Park. No touch hair.’
‘What? Yeah, sure. No touch, no touch.’
‘This is not good. OK. Mr Park angry. This is not good.’
‘OK. I’m really sorry. Mr Park, I’m really sorry, I didn’t know. I’m… I’m…’
‘Fuckin nice wan, William. Ye livened hings up a bit anyhow.’
I offered my hand again to Mr Park, to shake an apology.
Davy kept at me. ‘Ha ha. He looks like ye tickled his baws or sumhin. Ye’ve fucked that wan.’
‘Sorry. I’m sorry.’ I pulled out the very little Korean I knew. ‘Jeesong hamanida’
He looked at me blankly.
‘Jee – song – ham – ma – ni – da
‘Jehsong hamnida,’ Jun-yin corrected
‘Yes, jesong hamnida. Jesong hamnida.’
Mr Park relented, still non-plussed and got back into his seat. The others followed suit.
‘How the fuck ye gonnae sort this wan oot?’
‘Shall we… Shall we… OK, lets do the reading. Turn to page fifty-two.’ There was an article about the actor, Paul Newman, with a large photo of him as Butch Cassidy. ‘OK.’ I waited for the students to find the page. ‘Who can tell me anything about this man?’
Davy cackled. ‘Fae wan fuck up tae another.’
I squeezed out under my breath, ‘Fffffffffuck.’ I had been around Davy’s foul language too long, and the situation was too desperate. The swearword just came out of me. Jun-yin heard it and looked a little shocked. Thankfully none of the rest of the class understood.
I took the easiest path out. ‘Right, read the article. There are questions on page fifty-three, you can talk about your answers with your classmates.’
Jun-yin flattened the book out in front of his boss. It would take a long time of translating for them to understand the text. None of them cared in the slightest about Paul Newman, but for a while I could stop being the centre of attention, the centre of the mess. Davy moved over and squeezed in between Moon and Soo, making like he was listening and understanding. I slid my chair back as far as it would go, away from the students, against the wall. I tipped my head back till it rested on the board and watched the minutes pass on the clock at the back of the room.
For the remainder of the lesson, Mr Park toyed with his hair, flattening it out and smoothing it across his head. No-one else was prepared to do anything much. They stared at their books, trying not to interact with their boss. Jun-yin soldiered on, going through the text word by word. When it came to answering the questions, Jun-yin was the only one to respond, answering as, ‘Mr Park thinks that…’ Throughout, Mr Park refused to meet my eye. As soon as the ending buzzer sounded, he stood up, took his coat and briefcase and left.
It was ridiculous; the moment he stepped out of sight, my friendly students came back to me. The room-wide tension dropped.
‘We are sorry, William.’
‘Thank you William. You did very good.’
Jun-yin hung back.
‘I’m sorry William. I should have warned how Korean is about hair.’
‘No, don’t be daft. You weren’t to know I’d go and… well, anyway. I hope this won’t cause you problems with your boss.’
‘No, no. I am sure he will come back to class again next week.’
‘Do we still go for food together this evening?’
‘No, not tonight, Jun. I’m really tired. I’m just gonna go home. Is that OK?’
‘Of course. Then, after next time we will go together with the class.’
‘Yes. That’d be good.’
After Jun-yin left, I sat down and rubbed my hands across my face. I still felt the edges of the hangover I had brought into the day with me, and I was shattered from six hours in the classroom.
‘Some fuckin caper ye wur huvin there, big man.’
‘Jeez. It’s a nightmare.’ The teaching police ought to be battering down the door and dragging me off the poor unsuspecting students.
‘Ye’ve a fuckin cheek but. Aw these folk payin fur a edjication, an gettin some useless prick fur a teacher. Ye cannae teach fur toffee, can ye?’
‘Thanks.’ I piled my books and pens on top of the tape player. ‘Thanks.’ I picked up the pile and shuffled out of the door.
My room was at the end of a narrow corridor that ran past three other classrooms. All of them were coming out. The crowd in front slowly filtered into the lift lobby. A tape dropped off the top of the stereo and clattered to the floor. Davy watched it fall. A wee boy ran up the corridor and picked it up. I had to crouch down for him to put it back onto the pile. Other objects tried to slide away.
‘Thank you sir,’ he said to me.
When the crowd had emptied out, I put my back to the door of the staff room. Davy made a pretence of pushing as well, but with no effort. The heavy door swung open and I tottered my pile round onto the desktop, letting it tumble down. I slumped into my chair and let out another sharp sigh.
The desk ran round the wall. There was barely enough room for the four chairs to fit in the centre. We had a microwave and a sparse shelf of teaching books that I couldn’t understand and didn’t use.
I loosened my tie and twisted out the top button of my shirt.
Davy stood next to me prodding me in the side. ‘Ye gonnae go through and ask him then?’
I knocked his hand away. ‘No. I’m gonnae pack up and go home.’
‘Don’t be such a fuckin jessie. If ye dinnae ask him, ye willnae get yer money.’ He pushed me, trying to get me off the chair.
‘Get off. There’s no point. I’ve asked before.’
‘Fuck’s sakes. D’ye want the money, or no?’
‘He probably won’t even be in.’
‘He’s in. I saw him.’
I stuck a couple of textbooks into my bag, knowing that at some point I would have to plan the next day’s teaching. ‘Yeah, I guess I’d better.’
Orla came in clutching an empty coffee mug. She was well turned out, hair in place, make-up done.
She asked, ‘You finished?’
‘Aye, I’m just about to shoot.’
‘I hate it when you get away before me.’ Under the make-up, I could see she was flustered and knackered.
‘Just another hour.’
‘Oh yeah, just an hour. Christ.’
‘See you at home.’ I shouldered my bag and stood up.
She put a hand to my arm. ‘Won’t ye wait?’
‘No, I said I would go for something to eat with Jun-yin.’
‘Can’t ye come back for me?’ Her look had a resigned acquiescence. She knew I wouldn’t.
‘We’re going over to Somyon. I’ll just go home from there.’
Orla blocked my way out of the room. ‘Is he in tonight?’
‘He was. I think he’s gone. He won’t be here when you finish.’
‘He was last week.’
‘Isn’t Paula here?’
‘No, she didn’t make it in today. Says she’s ill.’
‘Miss Im will be here, just make sure you leave with her. Get her to chum you down to the subway. Or you could run out with some of your students.’
Harry appeared at the door and Orla had to step away to let him in. ‘Have you got the kettle on Orla?’ he said. ‘Making coffee?’
I took my coat and squeezed past them. Through the lift lobby there was the door to a separate office. I knocked.
I pushed the door open. It brushed across the pile carpet. Mr Bang was shouting into a telephone, his feet up on his desk. With a hand holding a lit cigarette, he waved me down into a seat. Miss Im stood behind her own neatly organised desk, putting on a long trim overcoat. Her hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail, accentuating her face, thin and angular apart from the soft curves of her eyelids running toward her forehead.
A third desk in the room was Harry’s. It was cluttered with books, coffee cups and a full ashtray.
On the wall behind the boss there was a large framed photo of Orla. She was smiling, her hair all bouffed up, looking the epitome of presentable Caucasian female. We had each had our picture taken on the first day, ‘to put up on the school wall’. There was a lot of empty space around the single photo of Orla.
Mr Bang waved a bottle of clear liquor at me, still clutching the phone to his ear. ‘Willim-ah. Willim. Soju?’
He poured two short glasses.
Miss Im smiled. ‘The kids in your class are very lively.’ The high pencil lines that had been drawn in place of her plucked eyebrows raised as she spoke.
‘For sure. There’s some right wee buggers in that class.’
‘Ah, you should be good to them. They are really very sweet children.’
‘All of them?’
‘Oh yes.’ She believed it. Besides being our school secretary, Miss Im took science and maths classes with a lot of the same kids. She was the sort of teacher who was kind, firm and respected. She taught well, looked lovely and came out smelling of roses. I had a dried sweaty odour from six hours of frustration and panic.
Miss Im very slightly tipped her head towards the boss. ‘Are you asking again?’
‘I was going to.’
‘Bye, and say goodbye to Orla for me.’
Mr Bang was a naturally scruffy man, which instinctively warmed me to him. In an environment in which most men were clean cut in tidy suits, he was rumpled and spent most of his time with his shirt sleeves rolled back. He had a flick of bristly hair that peeled away from his forehead, speckled with grey.
The soju burned at the back of my throat but put a smile on my lips. Davy nudged my arm and I passed the glass down to him. He drained the last few sips, then took up the seat next to me.
‘Who d’ye think he’s huvin beat up now?’
‘Nobody. That was just the once. And in any case, it was only him that told us about it. It was all probably bullshit.’
‘Ye hink? Naw, he’s a gangster. Ye better watch yersel there, gettin aw pally wi him. He’d stick ye in the back as soon as ye tried to pull wan ower on him.’
‘Ach, there’s nothing nasty about him. It’s all bravado. Anyway, I’m not about to pull one on him.’
‘Naw, then whit ye daein here?’
‘Just askin a question.’
‘Aye, but ye keep oan enough he’s gonnae get pissed aff, int he?’
I looked at the wee man and couldn’t believe he had a straight face. I started to say, ‘But you’re just after telling me to…’ when Mr Bang finished his call.
He asked, ‘Teaching, all good, yes?’
‘Oh yeah, great.’
‘The little.’ he held his hand about three-feet off the ground. ‘The little. Student.’
‘Oh, what, the kids, yeah?’
‘Yes, kids. Kids good kids, yes? Funny.’
‘Oh, yeah… hilarious.’
‘Yes, Mr Bang, the kids are very funny. We have great fun.’
‘Good.’ He raised his glass to me then tipped it down his throat.
‘He’s got his fuckin eye oan ye. Ye can tell. Sizin ye up. Fuckin watch him.’
‘So, Willim, OK?’
‘Well, Mr Bang…’ I shook my head, ‘…no, not really. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.’
‘No, Mr Bang. Not OK. Not happy.’
‘No? But, teaching OK. Student OK. School OK.’
‘But no pay Mr Bang. No money.’ I made the universal cash sign, rubbing together finger and thumb.
‘You wan money?’ He pulled a locked tin from a desk drawer and turned the key in its lid. ‘How much you wan money? Fifty thous. One-hunned thous.’
‘No Mr Bang. You owe me two million won. You haven’t paid me for two months. That’s two million.’
‘Ah, Willim, Willim.’ He held his hands out flat toward me, that placatory gesture again. ‘Mr Bang no two million won. Now time, school student small, no much class. Mr Bang, rent must pay, bills must pay…’
‘Salary must pay.’
‘Yes yes, salary must pay. Soon pay.’
‘Soon, soon. New poster, new student, we have more money, Willim salary pay.’
‘Yer never gonnae see it. Ye’ve fuck all chance ae gettin that money.’
‘Mr Bang, I have no money. Do you understand? No money. Willim no money, no food. No food, Willim die, Mr Bang no have teacher.’
‘Dae ye hink he’s gonnae gie ye money if ye talk tae him like a spaz?’
‘Ha ha ha. Yes. Ha ha ha. You take, you take.’ He waved a hundred thousand won note at me, his other hand reaching for the notepad where he kept track of the handouts. As I took the cash, Harry walked into the room. I snapped the note between my hands, folded it and carefully slipped it into a trouser pocket.
Harry moved behind his desk. ‘Scroungin money again? What’s the matter, you not keeping the school’s best interests at heart?’
‘Haven’t heard of you losin out on any pay.’
‘I guess I’m just too important to the Bangster.’ Harry had a cowardly habit of speaking about Mr Bang in this off-hand way, simply because he knew that if he spoke fast enough Mr Bang couldn’t follow. I didn’t like it.
Davy just hated Harry. ‘That smug wanker is full ae shite.’
‘Aye, well Harry, I’ll look forward to seein your support for the school when ye’ve got nothin in the bank.’
‘I wouldn’t take that kind of shit. The Bangster knows that.’
Davy said, ‘He bends ower fur the Bangster, takes it up the shitter. Tell him tae show ye his ring.’
‘You just keep touching your toes, Harry.’ While Harry was trying to work out if I’d insulted him, I waved to Mr Bang. ‘See ya tomorrow Mr Bang.’
‘Bye bye. Willim. Bye bye.’ He was pouring himself another glass of soju.
I headed for the stairs. At the top of the stairwell, next to the sign for the entrance to the Academy, was a promotional poster for the school, splashed with bold Hangul writing. Only the Academy name was given in English. It had a couple of small pictures of happy students brimming with new knowledge, but the centrepiece, large, dominating and eye-catching, was a reproduction of the same photograph of Orla that Mr Bang had hanging on the wall of his office.
Davy said, ‘Right then, ye’ve got some cash. We gonnae get a few bevvies in?’
‘Mibbe pick up a few on the way home.’
The school was two stories up in a towerblock. We rattled down the stairs and out. There were two more posters up, one at either side of the entrance to the building. Orla grinned a white-tooth grin at everyone passing. The building opened up into a busy street, bustle and noise, a guy selling hot food and a stall for newspapers and comic books. I stopped at the food vendor and lifted out one of the skewers from the large boiling pot. A long yellow sausage of processed fish meat hung on it. I handed it to the guy with a couple of coins and he doused it in chilli sauce. Despite the heady steam blast from the fish-boiling vat, the cold night bit sharply. I pulled the collar on my coat high around my neck and drew a scarf and hat out of my bag before taking back my purchase. Curry sauce slithered down on to my fingers.
‘They hings ur mingin. Dunno how ye kin eat thum.’
‘Me n aw, but I’m no eatin that shite. It fuckin honks.’
‘It’ll fuckin rot yer insides.’
I had to turn my head sideways to slurp at the hot rubbery meat. My elbows stuck out and I clipped a woman on the head.
It was a quick downhill walk to the entrance of the subway. Shopfronts met the street at an angle. The pavement was busy with pedestrians thickly, greyly dressed for the winter. We dodged and sidestepped as we tumbled toward the station. A couple of people stopped short at the sight of me sucking the sauce off my fingers. On the steps going down into the station, a guy coming up the other way halted mid-step as I passed him. Further down the stairs I glanced back. He was still watching me. Davy ran back up the stairs toward him and just before I passed out of sight along the tunnel to the station, I saw Davy clip the guy’s heels. He fell forward, hands out on the dirty steps.
I wiped my fingers on my coat and dropped the skewer in a bin.
Davy caught up, a little breathless. ‘Man, they aw need a slap.’
‘It’s not all of them.’
‘Fuckin loads but.’
I fished in my trouser pocket for coins to push into the ticket machine. As I fumbled, a teenage boy approached. ‘Hello. You need help?’
‘No, I’m fine thanks.’
I slipped the correct change into the slot, pushed the button. The lad stayed next to the machine, within my eyeline. I looked at him and he nodded. ‘You need help?’
I walked off.
On the platform, I stood staring across the tracks at a spotlit advertising hoarding. It held three in a row of our Academy’s poster. Orla three times. Mr Bang had never asked if he could use the picture for advertising. The first we knew of it was on the way to work, seeing it on one of the small ad panels on the train. Orla was fuming, but her anger didn’t faze Mr Bang’s smiling pleasure at the quality of his advertising campaign. He was sure that pretty American would get the students fighting to sign up. Miss Im told us that there had also been a leaflet drop in all the surrounding housing estates – about a hundred thousand leaflets in all.
The station was near empty, but the teenager came and stood close. He didn’t approach again, but he watched.
‘That lad’s gonnae come an ask tae be yer pal.’
‘He’ll go away.’
‘Go tell him tae fuck aff.’
The shining silver train came rattling through. The boy got on the same carriage as us and sat opposite. I took a spot between two older guys in suits. Davy climbed over to sit behind me on the back of the seat, against the window. His feet dangled over my shoulder.
‘Get a load ae this.’ He broke wind loudly. I felt it rattle against my back. ‘Oofya. That’s a fuckin ripe wan.’
The smell was rotten meat, sick innards. The guy sitting next to me took a sideways glance and tutted, slid a little up the seat. A couple of other passengers looked as well. I turned my head away. Further up the carriage there was another image of Orla, the Hangul around it propounding how our Academy employs only attractive foreigners.
The boy was still staring.
‘Gwon, ask him.’
‘He’s jist gonnae piss ye aff, so ask him.’
I leaned over towards the boy. ‘Excuse me.’ His eyes widened. He drew away. ‘Excuse me, why are you staring at me?’
‘Uh. Uh. No.’
‘Yes you are. Why do you keep staring?’
‘Uh. No. I can’t English.’
‘Yes you can. You spoke before.’
‘Sorry, sorry. I can’t English.’ He stood up and backed off up the carriage. Next to the space he had vacated, a fierce old granny sat glowering at me. The boy moved through the joining doors to the next carriage.
I didn’t like behaving in that way. It was boorish, a foreigner supposing that his language is known or interesting to every local he meets, and imposing himself on them, asking questions, embarrassing them. But I was fed up of being stared at because I was that foreigner. I was sick of people coming up and saying hello, and then thinking they had the right to follow me and ask personal questions just because I said hello back. I was tired after a heavy day, and increasingly I was tired from every day becoming a struggle against strangeness and a struggle from always being the stranger.
‘Perr wee bastard,’ Davy chuckled.
I slouched. My shoulders hung heavy, slackened by their weary, unbinding muscles and the weight of my head. I knew I had to keep myself awake or I would miss my station, unlike the Koreans; the guy closest to me was nodding off, his head leaning into Davy’s legs, but I knew that when his stop came he would wake and get off, no bother.
Davy leant down toward my head. ‘Yer right fucked William.’ A burst of wheezy laughter came out of him, his breath warm and moist in my ear.
‘Leave me alone Davy.’
‘Ye are but, int ye? I mean yer ne’er gonnae get yer dosh aff Bang.’
‘That means yer fucked if ye ever wannae get away fae here. An fuck’s sakes, yer gonnae want tae get away fae here. Ye cannae afford tae dae fuck all, cannae buy fuck all. Yer beggin fur cash evry couple ae days jist tae get enough tae eat.’ We pulled into a busy station and the carriage began to fill up. I tried not to be aware of the eyes. ‘Ye knaw whit aw that gangster shite’s aboot, dint ye?’
His head pressed into the side of mine, his lips touched my skin. ‘It’s aboot pittin the shits up you. He wants ye tae be so shite scared ae him, that ye’d brick it fae runnin oot oan him. He’s got ye wrapped roon his fuckin finger.’
‘I’m not scared.’
‘Ye fuckin should be. An lookit these cunts.’ The other passengers were weary too. They were travelling home from a hard day, from offices, from studying late, from angry bosses or bullying teachers. ‘Thur’s naebdy here that gies a flyin fuck aboot you. An thur’s naebdy that ye’d even huv anyhin tae talk aboot wi.’
‘That’s not true. It’s not fuckin true.’ I didn’t swear; I didn’t want to use foul language, but Davy’s nagging, incessant nastiness pushed me. ‘What about Jun-yin? What about… I don’t know… Kyoung-hee? What about her?’
‘You’re jist a fuckin tool. Language practice, that’s aw it is.’
‘I’ve got friends.’
‘Aye, whit? Like fuckin Orla? Whit aboot Harry? He yer pal, is he? Some fuckin caper this – workin aw the oors god gies ye so ye cannae e’en get oot fur a few pints. Ye’ve nae fuckin life at aw an nae chance a huvin wan.’
‘We’ll get out to Monk’s soon, go and see people.’
‘An yer only pretendin ye kin teach, fuckin takin the piss so ye ur. Then yer aff ridin aroon a shitty city, freezin yer nuts aff. Ye get yer fuckin kicks chasin wee boys oot the train. Whit the fuck ur ye daein here?’
‘It was you. You put me here. It was you. I was going home.’
‘Baa,’ Davy said. ‘Baaaaaaaaaaaaa.’ And he laughed a teeth-clenched, hissing, spitting laugh right into my ear.
* * * *
I turned up the alley. At the end of it the neon sign like a cup of tea marked the yogwan. The wee man at reception raised his hand and waved at me, only his head showing above the counter. ‘Anyonghasayoh.’
I raised a hand. ‘Uh-huh.’
Yogwan were guesthouses, of sorts. Love-hotels. The kind of place where young couples came to liven up a couple of hours, away from their parents. Davy loved the place. He would run up and down the corridor listening at doors. When we first arrived, he said, ‘We’ve got tae learn the language, find oot whit thur sayin.’ And, ‘I wunner if we could nick the keys an sneak in, get a look at some ae the action.’ There probably wasn’t that much sex going on – just opportunities for the shy young people who blushed their way up the stairs to spend some time together without knowing eyes following them. The sound of tv sets blaring either covered up the groans and moans of ecstasy, or was simply the soundtrack to the couple kicking back and having the chance to relax together without having to do something, be somewhere. They were hiding.
Our door opened into a short corridor with a square room for shower and toilet coming off it, then the bedroom. The mattress lay directly on the floor, which was heated from underneath. I took off my shoes to let the warmth seep up through my socks. There was a sideboard running along one wall and a fridge that we had insisted be moved into the room in view of the fact that we were stopping more than a couple of hours. I stuck the beers in the fridge and pulled out a bowl of pasta we had cooked the other night. We had a camping stove, a one ring burner that ran on aerosols of gas. I slopped the pasta into a pot and put it on to heat.
Just being in the yogwan seemed to cheer Davy up. He got that sprightly energy that I had first seen when he had bounded round my cabin in Tully; a jittery, kinetic energy that had him rattling round the room. He bumped me as I tipped the pasta back into the bowl.
‘Davy, can’t ye go out and bother the neighbours? Why don’t ye see if that couple from last night are back in number four?’
‘Naw naw. Your Orla’ll be back soon.’
After eating, I was too tired to shower. The room was soporifically warm, so I stripped to vest and pants, cracked a can of beer and sat trying not to watch Davy pacing and jittering.
I heard steps falling in the corridor, not the scuffle of shifty young lovers, but heavy feet pounding the last few yards to home.
‘There’s Orla. Right, you, just calm it, alright? I can’t be doing with it.’
‘Right boss. Sure.’
The door opened. Orla dropped her heavy-looking bag just inside.
I said, ‘Hi. You alright?’
She sat on the mattress and flopped down on her back. ‘Have we got any beers in?’
‘Yeah, I’ll get you one. You got home alright then?’
‘Fffff.’ She sat up. ‘Aye fuck. You know what happened? Some feckin arsehole grabbed the cigarette out me mouth.’
‘Aye, some wee feck walking past. I’d just sparked it up, and he grabs it off of me, chucks it on the ground and starts shouting at me in Korean, going fuckin mental. I wasn’t having it, so I starts shoutin an screaming back at him, and then a crowd of feckin gawpers start hanging about. It just does my head in.’ Her voice trembled.
‘Women aren’t meant to smoke in the streets here. It’s bad… whatever, manners, y’know. You’ve been told that loads a times.’
‘Well, fuck them. It’s fuckin sexist, and it’s not my fault. I’m gaspin for a fag when I get out. I’d been off them for months in Oz. Harry too. You know he didn’t smoke for a year before he got here?’
She dug her cigarettes and lighter out of her bag.
I said, ‘Gonna smoke it at the window.’
She pushed the window open and lit up, sucked hard then blew the smoke out. She held the ciggie out of the window and said, ‘He was still in after you left as well.’
‘No. You know who I mean. And as soon as the buzzer went he was hanging around my class. It’s fuckin horrible. He creeps me out.’
‘But, y’know, he’s not done anything. I mean, he’s not attacked you or…’
‘Well, fuck, he might’ve done.’ She dragged on the cigarette again. A length of it burned into ash. Smoke puffed out of her mouth and nose as she spoke. ‘We were the only ones left until Mrs Bang turned up. And then she’s givin me the dirties as if it was me trying it on with her husband, not the other way around.’
‘You’ve gotta just ignore him.’
‘Aw jeez William, I can’t stand it.’ She threw her cigarette out of the window. ‘C’mon, c’mere. I need you to look after me. Will you hold on to me for a while?’
I took a big swig out of the can of beer I had opened for her. Orla took it, drank then put it on the bedside table. She grabbed my vest and pulled me over towards the bed.
‘C’mon, just hold me.’
I lay down.
‘Hold on,’ she said, and quickly wriggled herself out of her trousers, cardigan and shirt, down to her vest and knickers. She lay against me. The touch of her body met the aching tiredness in mine.
I felt Davy bouncing on the mattress behind me. ‘Mon son. Ye might as well.’
I reached around. My hand met Davy’s face, and I pushed him away.
‘Orla, I’m really tired, can we just get some sleep now?’
‘Aye, I’m knackered too.’
We climbed under the covers. I put my arm around her and held her so that her head rested between my shoulder and my chest. I felt myself quickly slipping towards sleep, but then the touch of Orla’s lips wet my neck. Her hand slid up my arm and she rolled her leg over onto my thighs. Orla’s face turned up toward mine. She kissed my chin. I kept still, eyes closed, mouth closed, but she pressed her lips against mine, pushed her tongue between. I returned a brief kiss then turned away again. My physical suggestion was meant to be, stop, let’s go to sleep, but Orla pushed herself on top of me. She pulled my vest up, and then her own so that we both had the white material bunched under our necks. ‘Uh,’ she moaned, ‘Oh,’ and brushed her hanging breasts against my chest. The frame of her body left us tented under the smothering folds of the blankets. ‘Please William.’
We had abrupt sex. Orla stayed on top. She thrashed at me in a struggle to gain satisfaction. She pulled on me, rocked on me, squeezed into me, pressured me until she came in short, snatched inhalations, arching herself away, then her weight collapsed, pressing her head down onto my chest. I pushed her hair away from my face, held my arms around her until she slid off.
Davy whispered, ‘Whit’s that? A sympathy fuck? If ye dinnae want tae shag her, then dinnae fuckin shag her. If yur any kind ae man, ye’d fuckin jump on her big arse an hump her stupit instead ae cringing under her like some sortae wee poof. Is that what it is? Ur ye a poof? Should I be worried aboot you?’
Orla had fallen asleep.
‘Mon, get oot the wey an I’ll show ye how a real man dis it.’
I rolled away from her and let Davy have his turn. I curled into a ball and tried to comfort myself with memories of lying under a sheet holding Beata, happy just through being together, while the panting and writhing increased beside me.
* * * *