Lost in transit

IT'S ELEVEN O'CLOCK in the morning but the tunnels below Seoul Town Hall are deserted; window grilles closed over dusty lace tablecloths and bags and shoes. I stop at a bank of beaten up phones and call the Japanese Embassy. No answer. New Year's Day. There will be no visa from Korea for me. I set down the receiver and intercept Paul from Brisbane. I wonder if he knows of any cheap hotels. I have been told there's a youth hostel in Seoul. There isn't. I fill him in on my situation and he invites me to lunch with the Canadian diplomats. Turns out he went to Brisbane Boys' Grammar. I boarded at Clayfield College. I tell him it was boys from Grammar who got me chucked out after eighteen months and he looks shocked and backs away from the topic.

The diplomats are planning a skiing holiday and meet over a mahogany table for twelve in the Seoul Plaza Bistro. I tuck my string bag under my chair and order the cheapest thing on the menu. My potato and leek soup is curiously un-swallowable. A lean and strapping French Canadian is seated to my right; to my left, a military man, tight uniform stretched over his tight body. There seems to be slight competition between them. Paul is holding hands with his new girlfriend and she is paying me a lot of attention. Clever woman. The rest of the party is made up of chatty office girls with Korean faces and voices that twang with American college education.

Paul and his friend take me up to the Canadian Embassy after lunch. I glimpse the strapping man back in his office, feet on desk, smoking a little cigar. They install me in the cheaper, smaller Hotel New Seoul and I am grateful.

I have eighteen hours to pass in this fluorescent box, with the slow-running bath and the television. Dinner is from the Seven Eleven: loaf of bread, a can of tuna, a bottle of Pocari Sweat and a Terry's Chocolate Orange. The orange is for nostalgia. My English grandfather would buy them for us in the days when Easter was in spring and eggs appeared in flower pots.

The American army has a television station in South Korea. I watch a movie about a man who wants to make a movie and one about men who meet in a diner; spliced with images of back home and segments advertising services available to service men and women. Dial these numbers for counselling: emotional, legal and financial. A smart solider reads the news. There was a military exercise in the north today. A jolly kooky soldier reads the weather.


I TAKE THE wrong bus to the end of a line in Seoul. The driver pushes me off and into a taxi. The meter is running high. I can't make myself understood. I am starting to cry.

I phone the Japanese Embassy from the airport information desk. They will certainly not supply me with a tourist visa. Without a visa I cannot leave Korea and I cannot enter Japan and I cannot stay in Korea. 'What am I to do?'

'That,' she snaps, 'is your problem.'

I am still crying. United Airlines check me in. I fly, blank and shivering, back to Narita. There are long queues at immigration and they smell of Kimuchi, just like Okasan said Korea would. That odour of cabbage, pickled in chilli and garlic and passed through the human body, is the scent of my mistake. I am escorted to offices and forms and phone calls. My application for re-entry is denied. Another office. I speak to Okasan and I can't understand her. She wishes me to ganbate, and kiyoskete and she says Hikari is out. She promised she would be in at this time, in case I had trouble. There is nobody to help me now, I am gone.

Another office, small and smoky and crowded with guards. I am at a table with three dejected Indonesians. We must pay a guard fee. They have rolls of notes in their pockets. A motherly guard offers me biscuits. I keep crying. I couldn't possibly eat a thing. A friendly guard offers his condolences and reassures me that I am not their average detainee. That mistakes happen.

'We had a businessman here once. His passport had expired. He had to wait in the offices with us until the embassies were contacted and when the authorisation came through, he hired a motorbike and raced off to his meeting. You would be surprised, the people we see here.'

'I am ashamed. Ashamed. Completely ashamed.'

'Your friends will understand.'

I have no address book. No schedule. The windows are set up high and the sky is reddening. This is my last Japanese sunset.

A grandfatherly gentleman with an American accent asks me to correct the English on a sign he's making. Felt tip on thin cardboard.

'NO SCRIBBLING, SUBJECT TO HEAVY PENALTY.' Do I think it conveys the sense? He had tried 'Subject to Heavy Fine' but that didn't seem to work. His daughter spent time in Australia. He wants to chat. Why do they seem to have guards to represent every member of the family? Am I imagining it to make myself more comfortable or is it all deliberate? Those familiar questions keep coming.

'Do you like Japanese food?'

'What places have you visited in Japan?'

A young female guard has just come back from holiday on the Gold Coast. She went with her grandmother. A tour. She bought back Australian candy. Would I like a Mintie? Would I like a Mintie? The horrible joke goes round and round my mouth. I spit out the mint, as discreetly as I can, into a tissue, into a wastepaper basket. I fold the wrapper tightly and pocket it.

After two hours, we are transported to a suite of lockups, through tunnels and car parks in a barred van. We pass through another, smaller office, this one smelling of fresh paint. Our bags are checked and they ask us to relinquish cameras and any dangerous objects. I offer up my little eyebrow razor and everybody laughs. A guard takes orders for dinner and I refuse.

The cell is large enough for twenty people, with low vinyl benches, a toilet and white blotches on the walls. Traces of hate graffiti show through the white paint; scrawlings on the ceiling. Now I understand the problems with the sign. I'm locked up and nearly broke and they are throwing me out of the country. Fines aren't going to stop graffiti. I look down at my notebook, its value has suddenly increased. I may be all concreted in but they are not going to paint over me. I must say it's all been very polite. The guard brings in food and again I refuse.

Huddled up against the wall, I have dragged the ashtray over so I can smoke without stretching to ash. There are five of us in here, but I am keeping my head down and not looking too hard at the other people. I don't want to swap stories. The Pakistani import man protests loudest and talks the most and somehow he gets around to the question of marriage, and I know, but can hardly believe, that he is trying to pick me up. When he remembers where he is he starts cursing.

'They are bloody bastards, the Japanese. Very bloody.'

I remember the Tokaido story in James Clavell's Gaijin. Only two hundred years ago, placed in a similar situation, he wouldn't have had a head left to say that with.

We are escorted out, at 10 pm, to a larger bus. There are bars on the windows, so I hold onto them.

Half a Peruvian family joins us, a father and two sons. I try to read their eyes and look for what they have lost. We cross a bridge. If we went over the rails, we'd never get out. We'd drown. Nobody speaks. Two Chinese, the Indonesians, a Brazilian woman, some Arabs.

The detention centre is expansive and clean but not as clean as spotless. The woman and I are shown to a ten-bed dormitory. I can see a cotton bud jammed under the bed-head next to me. One black hair on the bedspread. These are pleasing signs of life. At ¥25,000 a night (excluding guard fee) this is the most expensive place I have ever stayed in. There are no surveillance cameras, only chairs and tables to seat fifty people and an urn with no tea cups or tea to go with it.

We find showers and when we wash we feel as if we might be doing something wrong. There are no towels, so I dry myself with a pillow case and the woman uses a sheet from another bed. I wonder if the guards are watching, or if we will be punished for using the linen. She looks across at me and gives a what the hellshrug, dropping her sheet toga to oil herself from head to toe with moisturiser. I watch. My eyes are salt burnt and swollen up, but not as swollen as they should be. We have nothing to say. She opens a SpanishMarie Claire.

The colours are soft here, pale green floors, gentle yellow walls, caramel blankets. This is my first night in jail and what a comfortable one it is too. A feeling of calm and surrender has come over me, now I know what is happening next. The calm is so deep that, if I knew I were to be beheaded tomorrow, I would understand and work hard to compose some last words.

Last time I was nearly beheaded I didn't get much warning. The guy burst into the room screaming and waving the sword and I just knelt. I lowered my head and lifted my hair away from the back of my neck. I waited for my poem, but none came. The blade came down gently on the back of my neck. Blunt as. He moved back to the leather lounge. His towel fell off and he kicked his stump around.

'This. See. My leg.' Then he pissed himself laughing and I did too. A couple of weeks after that, it snowed and my pipes burst. He left a wad of notes under my pillow. For heating and blankets. Enough for a flight to Korea.

But I am not going to be beheaded, I'm going to be jettisoned. Chastising myself for the melodrama, I roll over and try to sleep on it.


I SLEEP AND WAKE and drink can-coffee from a vending machine in the foyer. It takes one hour to drive back to the Narita holding cell. I wait. A man from Cyprus gives me his business card, he has a small hotel there, a beautiful place; I am always welcome to visit. I start thinking hysterically that all the men in the cell want to marry me. When they ask for my address I tell them that I don't know where I'm going. And I don't.

I refuse their egg sandwiches as graciously as possible and touch up my make-up as eleven o'clock approaches, admiring their persistent attempts to network. An Indonesian couple are sitting apart from the detainees, complaining loudly to the guards. They look rich and shonky and indignant.

The friendly guard escorts me to the plane door. As I am boarding, he presents me with my passport and the eyebrow razor; meticulously wrapped in paper and labelled with my name, flight number and departure time. Qantas has decided to honour my ticket and supply me with enough gin, beer, writing paper and tissues to keep me sedated and sobbing quietly back to the Southern Hemisphere. I keep remembering things. My pearl earrings, Sugano San's old wooden table, the class I should be holding right now, my black bicycle chained up to rust with all the others at the station, my shoes on (what was) my back doorstep buried with snow, Hikari, Mia, Okasan. The inventory goes on and on.

At Sydney, I change out of the Getting of Wisdom outfit (anklelength green circle skirt under full gingham over-dress, sculpted black jacket) and back into the dragon shirt and leather skirt.

I am listening to the passengers outside the gate. Last leg now, from Sydney to Melbourne. An American Christian on board plans to taxi into Melbourne and I plan to taxi in on him. I will go back to The Lounge, because I know it, and I would like to go to Sadies, the new Japanese-styled bar, or to Rue Bebelons because I have heard of them in letters. It will be warm and Thursday night is not such a bad night to be out. I have ¥3,000 to my name and I am drinking Victoria Bitter and eating a large Arnott's Anzac biscuit. They taste good.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review