On the Tuesday morning of my trip back to the UK, after another breakfast of toast with cheese and ham or jam at the hostel, I checked out and headed up to Victoria Station with my heavy backpack and laptop bag. I had been hoping to meet up with Linda from the Liberal Democrats in Camden, but we couldn’t make it happen. I spoke to her on the phone from the station, though. £1.10 doesn’t go very far when you’re calling a mobile – fortunately, Linda was good enough to call back.
Although, I was at a loose end for much of the time in London, I would have liked to have stayed there longer – to settle in a bit and relax, to do some proper sightseeing, and most importantly to get to see more people – Colin, Morgane, people from the Lib Dems.
From Victoria I got the Tube up to Euston to await my train back to Runcorn. (Did I mention before how small London Underground trains are compared to the Seoul Metro? They’re tiny.) The train ride went OK. Although Runcorn is on the main line from Euston to Liverpool, my cheap ticket (£23.50) had me change at Crewe, where there was a slight delay.
Runcorn Station, while it looks just the same from the outside – a bland little 60s or 70s cuboid – has been completely refurbished insde. It’s now all clean and white and modern. It’s strangely incongruous with Runcorn’s general tired grottiness.
I walked the mile or so to my parents’ home. My mum was at home, along with their new dog, Bobby (who was there the last time I visited) and half a dozen somewhat sickly cats. Absent were my dad (at work) and their old dog, Pip, and my cat, Fluff – both of whom had died in the past year.
I was disappointed that I hadn’t heard anything about Fluff before now, but that level of communication is par for the course between me and my family. My mum said she’d been sick and seemed to have been getting better, but then suddenly died. She wasn’t that old – no more than ten, I think.
I gave my mum a variety of presents – some silver-plated chopsticks, some ‘dragon’s beard’ sweets, some black rice and dried seaweed – kim. We had the rice and kim for dinner the next day along with some trout. The evening I got home, though, we went to a pub restaurant on the edge of town where I had just about the most English food I could order – fish and chips with mushy peas and apple crumble for desert. I showed them various pictures of Korea and Habiba and told them about same. During my stay I also spoke on the phone to my grandmother, Nana. She’s from Austria; it’s been a very long time since I last spoke to her – she sounded a lot more Teutonic than I remembered.
The next day – after some confusing communication – I met my former manager, Ann, along with another old colleague, Karl. We had a cup of tea together (well, I had tea, she had coffee, Karl abstained) in the central square of Shopping City (I wonder how well its new (actually, now fairly old) name of ‘Halton Lea’ has caught on). Ann has just taken redundancy from the Department of Schools Children and Families or whatever it’s called these days (it was the Department for Education and Skills when I was there, having just been renamed from the Department for Education and Employment). However, as soon as she left, she got some temp work back in the building. With a lump sum of three years’ salary and lots of free time, she’s in a pretty enviable situation.
Later on Wednesday, my dad drove us over to Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire, where my sister lives. My niece and nephew, Nelly and Tom, both gave me big hugs. I also got to see the new addition to the family, Maisy, who was six weeks old at the time. I gave out more presents, more traditional sweets, more rice and kim, plus a flexible wooden snake for Tom and a pretty wooden comb for Nelly.
I stayed there for two nights. On my full day on Thursday, I went to Manchester for a little while. I was thinking of getting presents, but I ended up just getting stuff for myself – the new Steven Erikson book, Dust of Dreams, The Name of the Wind by a newly published author called Patrick Rothfuss, plus a batch of new Magic: The Gathering cards, the first I’ve bought for about three years.
Later on, I went to the large Tesco on the edge of the small town of Whaley for a few things for gifts. I got a 4kg bag of basmati rice – taking rice to Korea may seem like taking coals to Newcastle, but Indian rice isn’t that easy to get hold of (but not impossible). I also got some herb teas and a teapot.
Early on Friday morning, I caught the train to Bath (via Stockport, Brimingham New Street and Bristol Temple Meads; the most expensive of my train trips at £64) where I met my friend Alex. He offered to carry a bag for me so I offered him Habiba’s big blue backpack, stuffed full of clothes, books and random stuff. He declined. We went to a Cornish Bakehouse for a delicious spicy chicken pasty (for me, at any rate) (90 pence cheaper than in London), then to Sainsbury’s to stock up on snackages for the night.
When we got back to his place – he lives with his mum in a detached house above town; I didn’t see his mum, Jackie – she spent the night with her boyfriend – when we got back to his place we basically played Magic, ate and drank (tea for me, rum and coke for him) until about 6 am when I decided I really needed a bit of sleep. We had fun. Alex is in training to become a plumber – if he can make a go of it, it could be a good move: people always need to use water, after all. He also, as he did last time, filled my hard drive with a load of films – probably enough to keep me and Habiba entertained for the next 18 months.
Alex is a really friendly guy, full of exuberance and always ready to lend a sympathetic ear. It was good to see him, and relive some of the old days when I was at university and roleplaying and playing MtG on a regular basis.
Although I thought we’d left the house early enough on Saturday morning to get to Bath Spa Station in time for my train at 12:13 (£30), it turned out that wasn’t quite the case. We walked down into town at about 11:30, playing ‘A ship came into the harbour carrying a load of …’. The longer it took and the closer we got, the more I started worrying about the time. At the station I had to use the ticket machine to pick up the tickets I’d booked online. I got to the platform just as my train was closing its doors. I hurried onboard just behind a girl who was similarly tardy.
The train went to Paddington, where I got the Heathrow Express to Terminal 5. I finished reading Titus Groan, and at Heathrow, I swapped that book out of my bag in favour of Dust of Dream. I also squeezed in as much stuff as possible into Habiba’s blue backpack. On the plane from Heathrow to Beijing I started reading the Steven Erikson book, got some sleep and watched Aliens vs Monsters.
At Beijing, strange things happened. Slightly unusual things, anyway. I and another Brit teaching in Korea were met coming off the plane by a member of staff, then escorted through Immigration, past Baggage, on to a bus to another terminal and up to Check In. All for no particular reason that we could fathom. My plane to Incheon left fairly soon, but the other guy had a four-hour wait.
While checking in, the woman asked me whether I had a bag to check in. I tried to get the woman to confirm that my bag was checked through to Incheon, and she said Yes. Once I’d gone through security I didn’t have that much time before my plane left, so I decided against exchanging £5 (my last Sterling note) for whatever it is they have in mainland China in order to buy a cup of tea.
I waited for my flight to start boarding, then queued up and handed over my boarding pass. I was then told my bag hadn’t been delivered by British Airways and that I should contact them once I got to Incheon Airport. Oh. Um. There wasn’t really anything I could do so I got onboard the plane and worried and wondered whether I should have waited to pick up my bag at the first terminal after all.
Nevertheless, I managed to fall asleep for a bit before we took off – during which time the plane was delayed for nearly half an hour. It arrived in Korea similarly late, and, by the time I’d been to the bathroom, through Immigration and walked from one end of the baggage hall to the other almost all the bags on the carousel had been taken – and there was Habiba’s backpack.
Habiba herself was waiting for me outside. We had a bite to eat and a drink and headed back up to her place … which is now our place.
Overall, it was nice to get back to Britain, but it wasn’t long enough, really. Not nearly long enough. And, to be honest, it didn’t feel like going home. I’m very used to living in Korea, now, lots of aspects of life here are very comfortable. So coming back here – and especially coming back to Habiba – feels much more like a homecoming than the previous week when I visited friends and family.
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