B is for Booze: Pickled in Pohang (Pt. 2)

B is for Booze: Pickled in Pohang (Pt. 2)

Have You Ever…?

Editor’s Note: This is installment two in a three-part memoir where the writer reflects on the collection of events that led up to one major wake-up call here in Korea.

The saga continues as the author recounts how he ended up on the couch in a police station.

On the 23rd of August 2003 I went back to Pohang to attend Texas Tom’s wedding. I’m certain about the date because the auspicious day chosen by the fortune teller was also my father’s birthday. So unfortunately I need never forget. This story is full of the importance of memory and forgetting, so don’t forget. I took a bus down to Pohang in the south eastern province of Gyeongsangbuk-do and as usual (as seems to be the motif that runs through my life) I was late. The wedding hall on the outskirts of south Pohang looked like a cross between Hansel and Gretel’s forest hideaway and the east wing of Graceland. If you’ve been to a wedding hall wedding replete with bubble machine, what look like stewardesses armed with exploding trumpets and row upon row of chattering guests; you will understand why an old colleague and I slipped down stairs to the buffet.

I don’t remember eating much but did drink a few bottles of beer. My old bosses Senior and Junior Oh stunned me by revealing they owed me some back pay. As you can imagine I was cock-a-hoop! They told me to come over to the hagwon after the wedding to collect it. The bride and groom came down to the buffet in their hanbok. It was agreed we’d meet at a restaurant not far from Bukbu beach. On the way to dinner I stopped as planned at my old workplace and walked out 700,000 won richer; the money stuffed unceremoniously into the pockets of my combats. Dinner was washed down with yet more beer. And logically after dinner we moved en masse to a bar round the corner. When everyone had drunk their fill the newlyweds showed me and a few other honoured guests to our accommodation; a motel on the strip behind Bukbu beach. After putting my bag down I phoned my girlfriend back in Daejeon. Gave her as coherent an appraisal of the wedding as I could, bade her a goodnight, then immediately called Z; a mate who still lived in town. He was in the Marlboro bar drinking gin and tonics, so I took a taxi downtown to meet him.

We sat at the bar and talked and drank several gin and tonics. I remember Captain Korea was behind the bar flirting with the girls and downloading tunes. I recall telling some squat English guy to fuck off. I’d avoided telling him to fuck off the whole time I lived in Pohang but that night I just couldn’t keep up the pretense anymore. Someone took offence and tried to come to his defense. But I didn’t want to punch him or anything; I just wanted him to get out of my sight. And it was then that I noticed Fred. I have to mention Fred because he is the spark that lit the tinder, that set my night alight. Fred was my nemesis and an ESL teacher who taught adults at POSCO; The Pohang Iron and Steel Company which physically, financially and spiritually influences everything that goes on in that town. I was strutting my stuff on the dance floor of the horrendously named ‘Hess’ Bar when this fucker, Fred, hit me with a beer bottle. Luckily the bottle caught me just above my left ear. And apart from the shock and a bit of a bump there was no damage. I immediately picked up an empty bottle and waited for my chance. (Un) fortunately Fred was part cajoled and part pushed out of the bar by an assortment of lackeys, minions and impeccably dressed but hollow Korean bar girls. Somehow (and this is how bad it had got) I interpreted this as a victory and continued to drink, flirt and dance till closing time.

There was another encounter with Fred. It could’ve been a weekday night; there were only four people in the Hess. A tall, fuzzy haired Canadian who lived out in the sticks somewhere teaching at a college and who spoke (from my newbie perspective) excellent Korean. Rumour had it he was banging the proprietor of the Hess; Miss Kim. A fat guy who was a friend of Fuzzy; me, and a really drunk Korean woman. The woman wasn’t anything to write home about but she seemed desperate to leave the bar with someone. She propositioned Fuzzy but he declined, obviously holding out for Miss Kim. She tried the fat guy but he didn’t fancy it. Before she could even ask I said, “I will”. And that was that; she didn’t seem that pleased with her prize but goodbyes were said and off we toddled; out into the bleak, pale blue light of dawn. We stumbled down an alley, kissed and tried to stand up straight. We were having quite a time. I tried to get her to come back to my place but she just shook her head. She said I could go back to her place which she shared with a friend. But for the life of me (perhaps due in equal measure to my drunkenness and my sub-basic Korean language skills) I couldn’t clarify whether her friend was male or female. That was the state of play when who should walk passed but Fred.

He muttered something and kept walking in the direction of the Hess bar. We rounded the corner and I was still trying to work out if it was safe to accompany her home, when Fred reappeared. He immediately started screaming and shouting at me and threatening me with this and that. I tried to just shrug it off and ignore him. I kept trying to get my inebriated Korean companion to walk along and leave Fred and his hatred filled heart alone in the alley. But for some unknown reason she actually went over to reason with him in her Pidgin English. I tried to explain but to no avail. I even tried to reason with the madman myself but he was set on having a fight. Eventually a hidden mechanism was released and Fred leapt across the alley after me like a thing possessed. I wish I could say I caught him with a jab to the nose and placed him on the litter strewn floor with a hay maker, but I cannot.

In that split second when he stopped talking and suddenly went for me my brain weighed it up and decided survival was more a priority than pride. I bolted Usain like up the alley. Fred was a fighter not a sprinter and pretty soon he gave up, and that was that. There were no buses at that hour and I’d drunk all my money so I had to walk home in a self-induced purgatory as I relived that cowardly moment again and again. And it wasn’t until the night of Tom’s wedding that I bumped into Fred again in the Marlboro bar. When I clocked him I knew it was high noon. Only, I was ready for him this time and I wasn’t going to run. I told the fucker so and stood my ground. I wrote in my notes that the bar went deathly silent but I can’t be sure if that was really the case. Captain Korea (my mate, Duncan) who’d been behind the bar selecting music on the computer and flirting with the bar girls asked me if I wanted to stay or go. I wanted to stay and fight but he bundled me out of the Marlboro.

And this is the point at which the film is cut, to use a Korean idiom. This is where my memory of events fades to black. Duncan told me later we ended up outside a convenience store where he plied me with soju in an incredibly honourable but ludicrous effort to calm me down; I was still fuming because of that son of a bitch, Fred. Duncan said the last he saw of me I was running down the road trying to catch a taxi: and catch a taxi I most certainly did.

Next thing I know, I’m coming to handcuffed to a sofa in a small, neighbourhood police station; I had no idea why. Neither did I know how long I’d been asleep.

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