Jim Maguire

Bedding, 1985

I don’t know anyone who’s gone East except Timmy K., who used to run with the hard crowd. It was common knowledge he had a secret life and that the paperbacks with esoteric titles that peered from the pocket of his Crombie didn’t fit into the usual categories of adolescent reading. No one was surprised when, within weeks of finishing the Leaving Cert, he’d joined the Hare Krishna and headed for India. 

My setting out for Korea is a giddier affair. I am neither streetwise like Timmy nor on any conscious spiritual quest. I am the opposite of Siddartha Guatama striding composed through the gates of his father’s palace to meet the pain of the world head-on. I want escape and money: to never again hear the word unemployment. If anyone, though, I am the repressed governess from The Turn of the Screw fretting over a risky new posting, her mind going through a “succession of flights and drops, a little seesaw of the right throbs and the wrong.” Will they like me? Will I be up to the job? 

At the library in Wexford I am in luck, they have a book—a lavishly illustrated tourist guide, mildewed and unborrowed. The frontispiece photograph of the president in military regalia is separated from the title page by a sheet of glassine and for a moment I am a seven-year-old on a bored afternoon leafing through the holy bible of my parents’ wedding album. 

Two days before leaving, a telegram from Seoul:  

You will be lodging with Mr. & Mrs. S. and their college student son STOP Please bring own bedding STOP

“Welcome to Korea.” Mr. W., a small, stern man, has been sent by the company to meet me at the airport. “You are lucky to be in my country.” He wears an open linen shirt that seems just right for the heat and spends the car journey instructing me on what I need to do when we arrive at the office.   

Our taxi is being driven with such ants-in-the-pants enthusiasm that several times I am sure we are going to crash. The uniformed driver looks insanely calm, but occasionally he rolls his shoulders and grimaces, and I wonder if he might be in trouble with his heart. Only as we approach the Lego-block high-rises of the business district do I realise he is massaging his back and buttocks against the stress relieving beads that cover his seat.   

Outside the sky is high and blue and there is an unexpected shine to the air that I know I will never forget. 

From the airport, I have been brought directly to the office. A place is found for my suitcase under the desk which has been assigned to me and is manoeuvred into position as I am being introduced to my new colleagues. 

The office is five rows of dark-suited men at battered metal desks and below them a row of young women in pastel pink uniforms bent over golf ball typewriters.  Occasionally one of the women is summoned from her typing to bring coffee or what I later discover to be hot barley tea, served in a glass, to the men. They perform this with a deferential sociability, but most of the time they are in deep concentration at their typing machines. Engrossed in their work, everyone looks alone in the world. 

7PM. Mr. W. takes me to the apartment of Mr. & Mrs. S., my new landlord and landlady. As he is leaving—while saying our goodbyes at the elevator—he tells me that the S. family are Catholics. Catholics are rare in Korea, he says. “But we found some specially for you.” 

…the light walked for me as it never had before, and I walked through the light I’d always longed for. —Pearse Hutchinson

I wake to the sound of Mr. S. padding barefoot through the apartment to water the plants on the veranda. When I come out of my room he is squatting among the pots in his white long-johns, cradling a small plastic watering can with a long tapering spout.   

He serves me a breakfast of three boiled potatoes with a side-dish of jam. “For Ireland”, he says with the gentlest of smiles. Later, he sits cross-legged in one of the cushioned cane chairs smoking his first cigarette of the day.   

By the time I am ready to leave for work, Mr. & Mrs. S. are folding and putting away their bedding in the inner room. To politely get their attention I consider using the ubiquitous “Aunty” or “Uncle”, but as by now I’ve been living with them for a couple of weeks this form of address seems aloof—too much like “Mister’” or “Missus”. I end up knocking on their half-open door:   

             “Oh, you’re still here…” 

             “I’m off to work. I’ll see you later.” 

             In unison they chime the formal greeting: “Go and return well.”  

             “Yes, I’ll go and return well.”  

And I will not fear women/laughter/human touch… —Roddy Lumsden 

The backstreets after work. Down an alleyway where a wavering choir of women’s voices drifts through the grilled windows of a basement prayer hall; into a street of metalwork shops shuttered for the night; across another street of small identical shops where the drab unlit windows display nothing but prosthetic limbs, all in the same shade of rust; out into the student area with its noise and roadside drinking stalls; past the perimeter of the sweatshop district where the famous blaze broke out… 

My stride is full of confidence, yet with each step I get more tense—as if I am being pulled by something I don’t understand. Through the haze up ahead I can see the watchtower of the American army base and, on the hill beyond, the blinking neon of the infamous GI Strip where I have been warned I should never venture near. An hour ago, I was an innocent strolling his way into the mystery. Now I am a bag of nerves. I am twenty-two and have never been with anyone. I know I have come for sex. 

In the dim light her white dress seems to be floating in air. She takes off the dress but does not unpin her stacked dark hair. The pillow smells of pancake make-up. Through thin curtains, neon flickers from the flashing script on the roof of the building opposite: Big Boy Bar & Discotheque. She is gentle and magnanimous; her eyes are saying why do you have to be so uptight, why is there no fun in you? Gathered against the hot and cold of her flesh I am for a moment strong and fearless; so startled by the closeness of her spearmint-and-kimchi breath that I hardly hear her whispered questions: Why you so sad? You miss your honey stateside? 

Three days of shame. What have I done? 

The hoarse voice of the preacher blew death into his soul.  —James Joyce 

Autumn turning to winter. Mrs. S. has left a thick folded quilt and roll-up mattress in the corner of my room. I put the sleeping bag in the lacquered bedding chest with the rest of my things. Swaddled in the warmth of the quilt I am innocent and safe. Then I remember and break into a cold sweat as I trace my fingers over the bumpy rash that has erupted inside my left thigh. It is less than a month since Rock Hudson died and the newspapers are full of AIDS. 

Sunday night. I take a taxi to the U.S. Army base and plead with the solider on duty at the security gate to let me speak to a doctor. “I think I have AIDS.” It is cold and dark. I have been drinking all day. The coloured lights of the entertainment strip in the distance register in my brain as yet another symptom of the horror that has opened inside me since I discovered the rash—they do not seem real. The soldier speaks to a doctor in the medical facility and hands me the receiver: “It could be something, but it’s unlikely to be that other thing,” he paused, “You sound exhausted man, why don’t you go home and get some rest?” 

On Sunday morning I go to mass with Mr. & Mrs S. and their son Pom-seok. We walk through the sunlit carpark to the modern church adjoining an identical neighbouring apartment complex. Mrs. S. leads the way, her face shiny with serum, up to her chins in fur. Mr. S. and Pom-seok follow with hymnals and prayer books tucked under their arms. Inside the boxy building with the bronze door and stainless-steel cross, everyone stands straight and gives full-voiced responses. The women all wear lace mantillas and sing out with unselfconscious ardour. Mrs. S. sings in a rich, true-pitched contralto. When the notes go too high for her, she insists on reaching for them in a breathy falsetto. Seeing her like this, filled with such steadfast conviction, I realise I have no idea who she is. I just know the good feeling I get when she looks at me with her attractive, warm-hearted face. I close my eyes and try to remember this feeling. When I open them all I can see is the band-aid beige of the swanky confession box. 

On the way home, I take a chance and ask Pom-seok about AIDS. He says there is no AIDS in Korea because there are no homosexuals in Korea. 

I arrive home late, stumbling over everybody’s shoes in the front porch before stepping out of my own. Mr. & Mrs. S. are watching the nightly news, which Pom-seok refers to as the “full-moon rising” because of its rhapsodic coverage of the baldpated dictator, Chun Doo-whan.   

“Aigo mori-ahh!” Mrs. S. lets out a wail of disapproval as she follows my inebriated stagger to my room. Later she knocks on my door to say she has left a bowl of soup on the kitchen table. After finishing, I feel a rush of love towards her but she has disappeared into the other room. “Excuse me…” I want to thank her but am still searching for a word to call her.   

The land of morning calm. As they arrive into the office, men slip out of their shoes into open-toed office slippers. Newspapers are plucked from a pile on one of the typist’s desks. At half-past-nine the navy-uniformed, shoe-shine lady arrives bearing her ancient wooden rack. When she is finished collecting the shoes, she ferries them away for polishing to her basement cubbyhole eight storeys below. For the next half-an-hour, the only sounds are the shuffle of slippers across floor tiles and the languid turning of pages from newspapers spread out across desks. Eventually the silence is broken by the crashing shut of a filing cabinet or, in my case, the internal crash of an acronym flying out and alighting with its claws from a dense sheet of newsprint. HIV, AIDS. 

To keep out the world, I am listening to music through headphones as I work. This week it is Couperin, pieces for viol and lute—the aural equivalent of sunlight on varnished wood. But no music can mask the jumpy, fretful air which has gathered around my desk. People are beginning to treat me with excessive kindness, as if they can hear whatever it is that is cracking open inside of me. 

They sat next to me, watered me with conversation.  You cannot cook a grain of rice by itself.  —E.J. Koh 

At lunchtime, I leave the office early to avoid being invited to eat with anybody else. According to Mr. W., eating by yourself is for outcasts and the mentally unstable. 

After lunch, the streets of the business district move in slow motion. It is the only time of day when people seem free to breathe. Small groups of salarymen and office girls stroll among the high-rises after emerging revived and sated from the noodle shops and tea houses. No one looks alone. Girls walk together and men are remarkably at-ease with other men, unselfconsciously touching hands or draping arms across each other’s work-tired shoulders. 

One of those illnesses that incites the imagination in such a way that we suffer more from thinking about the illness than the illness itself. —Friedrich Nietzche 

I have fallen for a girl and I think she has fallen for me. Her eyes come alive when she sees me. Two days ago, in the upstairs coffee shop beside her university, she said that in a past life we might have been leaves that had once brushed against each other in a mountain forest. Tonight, she suggested we go on a weekend trip to a hot water spring resort on the outskirts of the city. She fidgeted with her beaded purse as she waited with her wide brown eyes for me to answer. I laughed and said nothing—maybe she would think I thought she was joking. But I knew it was out of the question, with this shame inside my body. 

It has been over a month now and I am still afraid to hold her hand. 

The extended family has gathered around two low tables pushed together in the living room. The tables are crowded with side-dishes that the women have been washing and peeling and chopping on the kitchen floor for the past two days. Everyone is dressed in bright silk hanboks, even the grandchildren who are playing in the other room. The older ones are counting out the New Year “bowing money” doled out to them after paying respects to their elders before the meal. 

The hanbok I’m wearing was presented to me a week ago by Mrs. S.—without my knowing she had it made up in the garment district in Dongdaemun. I can still feel her excited gaze on my face as I lifted the lid from the box and part the layers of tissue paper covering the red and pink silks, their intricate inlaid patterns glinting under the fluorescent light of the living room. Before I have finished thanking her, she says from now on I should address her as “mother.” 

Everyone stays at the table for a long time. The daylight has begun to fade but no one turns on the electric light. The pauses in the conversation are restful and uncomplicated. The men, now flushed from drink, are more talkative than the women. One of them mentions the latest newspaper reports about the Korean prostitute who has tested positive for HIV. 

“One of the bitches who sells herself to the GIs.” 

“The Americans are riddled with it. It’s their own fault…”

“I’ve often told you about the overseas business trip we took a few years ago. The photographs I showed you of us trekking in the foothills of the Colorado mountains. Why did God go and waste such a beautiful place on the Yankees?”

I walk with her to the bus stop. Neither of us has said anything, but we both know it is for the last time. The smell of barbecued meat rises with the laughter from the roadside drinking stalls. After the bus pulls away, I go to a bar that is so dark I cannot read the cardboard menu. I drink till I fall asleep. I wake up in what looks like a different room but then I realise it is because the main lights have been switched on. An electric hoover is going and the owner is shaking me by the arm telling me to go home.   

Inside my silk-batted quilt—my honest-to-goodness, woman-treadled fabric—the nightly newsreel unwinds; in the isolation ward of an American hospital a man my own age, skeletal and feverish, lies half-covered in a single bedsheet. Since leaving home I have not seen a bedsheet. I feel no nostalgia, just the cold of the sheet and the panic of being immobilised under its tucked-up tightness. Now I find I cannot imagine it without also feeling the prickliness of the Foxford underblanket. Beige heirloom yellowed with age, its furtive mosaic of rust-outlined stains.  

The rash on my thigh has disappeared just as the newspapers are announcing that a reliable HIV test has been developed. I haven’t got the guts to take it. 

Because they have not heard from me for weeks, someone from home has sent me an article about the stages of culture shock—honeymoon, disorientation, adjustment, acceptance. Lying on my quilt when everyone is asleep, I scan it for some nugget that will explain the pain. But it says nothing about the longing to be Korean; or why I seem to be permanently living inside that part of me which they will always find objectionable. 

After work I walk without stopping for what seems like hours. Even in the remote pockets of the city I have never seen before, the streets have lost the shine of the new. Places have acquired names, streetscapes patterns. The city will never again be a dream.  

On the subway, a middle-aged woman in baggy ajuma trousers carrying a cloth-wrapped package sits beside me. Her unusual aroma—something mixed with incense. When she gets off, I miss her. It is as if in the space of half-a-dozen stops we have lived a life together. 

Look down, look down – see how the reeds wave in the water, they are alive but they never break the surface. —Alice Munro 

Drifting off to sleep, I hear a commotion breaking out in the living room.  Mr. S. is calling people on the phone.   

At breakfast—an egg-fry on sweet tasting bread—Mr. S. tells me that Pom-seok has won a scholarship to a top graduate school. 

“So that was what the fuss was about? Why did you not wake me and tell me last night?” Before he can answer, Mrs. S. appears in her baby-blue pyjamas from the door of the inner room.  

“Our Pom-seok is Number One!” she says. “Our baby has grown to be a successful man,” they both laugh. “And he is kindhearted too!” 

I look around the small apartment—at the studio portrait above the stereo of Pom-seok in his graduation robe, the framed debating certificate displayed on the shelf with the model Formula 1 racing car, the pricey designer sweatshirts hung to dry on the veranda. For the first time, I see how alive he is in their minds. Pom-seok the prince.   

Snow outside the office window. From the twin-towers of the new LG building to the Stalinist porticos of the broadcasting station, the whole business district is lost under the noiseless drift. Since an hour ago, men have been getting up from their desks and leaving the office in groups of twos and threes. At first, I naively think they are going out to watch the snow. Then Mr. W. comes to my desk and tells me it is the day of the annual company medical check-up. “Let’s go together,” he says. I follow him down the back stairway into the echoing lobby and through the Foreign Exchange Bank which leads to the back entrance of the building. A bus with grilled windows is parked on the street in front of us. Except for the large green cross painted on the side, it could be one of the fleet of military buses that are permanently posted outside university campuses to quell, and sometimes provoke, student riots against the dictatorship. I half expect a troop of boy-faced cadets tricked out in riot gear and Darth Vader masks to come spilling from the bus. But through the doorway all I see is a bright, fluorescent light and a steel shelf with a row of test tubes. I know this is the big moment. A blood test.   

As we stand waiting in the shelter of the entranceway to the bank, Mr. Won is sombre. He does not speak until he says, “You must be worried.”  

The words are a kick in the gut. How does he know? 

“Your addiction to alcohol,” he says. “The way your hands tremble like a grandfather in the morning. Do you never think about your health?” 

Out on the street the traffic is hardly moving and the only sound is the rattle and grind of snow chains against the packed ice. A calm settles over me. I have stopped fixating on the rows of test tubes and the ordeal ahead; somehow, I know the test will be negative and that whatever is wrong with me has nothing to do with my blood. I also know that my days with the S. family are coming to an end—it’s time to find a place of my own. At my side, Mr. W. is silent again, his presence strong yet looser than before, almost a comfort. We are both looking at the snow and I am thinking how the sky seems to move in its whiteness like the frail hand of an old holy woman—someone who means well for the world.   

Beyond the office towers is the outline of our apartment complex. Mr. and Mrs. S. will have eaten breakfast and finished their morning dance of folding their bedding. 

He’s taking one end of the quilt, her the other, corners pinched between thumb and forefinger, glancing to check if the other is ready, then a testing tug and their arms extended like ecstatic lovers until the momentous stepping-in. 

By now she will have moved to the front porch with the dustpan, dropping to her knees to arrange the shoes before taking out the brush. In the large silence of the snow, I listen for the clatter of the brush and her birdlike sighs of exertion as she works. I keep listening but all I can hear is the same as I’ve been hearing all morning and every morning since I first said it: Yes, mother, I’ll go and return well.” The porch echoing with our voices, the door opening then closing. 

Jim Maguire is a winner of the Strokestown International Poetry Prize and recipient of a bursary in literature from the Arts Council of Ireland. His book, Music Field, (Poetry Salzburg) was shortlisted for the Shine-Strong Award (Ireland) for a first collection in 2014. His poems have appeared in Agenda, Stand, Under the Radar, Poetry Ireland Review, The Irish Times, The Stinging Fly, RTE Radio and elsewhere.