My grandfather’s face was like a bird’s; his skin dripped from it, leaving little else of note save for the sharp beak of his nose. His neck was like bark, sucked dry of all flesh, then everything disappeared beneath that white, Anglican collar. The rest of his body was lost forever beyond the photo and its frame, which was all I ever saw of him. When Mum was in high school he received a divine calling, so the story goes, to start a parish in South Korea. He left his wife, my mother and uncles, and set off with the blessings of the Church. She showed me some of his letters once, but I could barely make out the whirls of his elaborate handwriting. The long, curling lines seemed to have sewn themselves into the mouldy clouds that darkened the pages.
I’d been in Seoul for nearly a week but I don’t think I’d slept for more than a couple of hours at once. The work was intense, but it had gone well. It was a cinema chain; we’d been looking at it for a year or so and had decided at last to swoop in before anyone else did. The firm gave me 7 days to finalise the acquisition; I did it in 4.
With my spare time I decided to hire a car and head north to see what might be left of my grandfather’s church. I don’t remember much about the drive, other than how at one point I was driving directly into the sun, causing me to squint and to yearn for my sunglasses (which I’d left at home).
I’d booked a room in a hotel just out of the town where his church was meant to be. I got there some time in the afternoon. It was a white, ostentatious building hidden back from the highway behind a series of gentle, grassy mounds. I checked in and took my bags to my room. From the windows I could see out over the hotel parking lot towards a large valley, the other side of which rose into dense forest. A small road skirted the edge of the valley. After the drive, and the hours I’d been hunched over a desk in Seoul, I felt like stretching my legs. I went back down to my car and set off along the road towards the forest. I’d head into town tomorrow and have a full day to look for my grandfather’s church.
The road ended by the edge of the forest, where there was a small information booth, and a path that disappeared between the trees. I couldn’t make much of the information, so I set off along the path. It must have been a warm afternoon, because it felt great to enter the cooler, darker air beneath the trees. I passed a couple of other walkers, and greeted them with one of the handful of Korean phrases that I knew.
Soon I came across a smaller, fainter trail that diverged from the main path. I crouched down to try and see where it went, but it was obscured by the dense undergrowth. Then, however, someone emerged from it, an older man. He picked his way through the ferns and shrubs back to the main path, where he turned and walked past me. He was sweating slightly, and avoided my eyes. Curious, I set off into the scrub to see where the trail would take me.
I was soon surrounded by trees and ferns on all sides. Then I passed two more men, who, like the first man, were going back to the main path. After turning a sharp bend and crouching so low beneath an overhanging branch that I was almost on all fours, I nearly stumbled into the legs of another man. I smiled at him apologetically as I rose back to my feet.
Shortly after, the trail seemed to dissolve into the forest, leaving me standing there, looking at the ground for clues for where it might continue. There was a faint line leading off to the left, but it ended up circling around some kind of large, squat plant with greyed, palm-like fronds. Hundreds of trunks rose up around me, and patches of dark blue sky lingered above. I went back.
Almost immediately, I saw that last guy coming towards me. Perhaps he was confused like me, and was re-tracing his steps. I stepped off the trail to let him pass, but when we were shoulder to shoulder, and I was looking ahead and about to move on, I realised the he was looking at me, and that his hand had come out, and that it was cupped, and that he had rested it on my groin. Immediately I smiled. I shook my head and said “no, thank you” in Korean, then tried not to break into a jog as I strode away.
As I hurried back to the main path I was afraid to turn around. I was annoyed with myself for being so naïve. Did other tourists end up in the same place? What if, rather than my penis in his mouth, he’d wanted my wallet? I was silly for feeling so intrepid.
But once I got out onto the main path again I calmed down, and I was feeling fine, good even, in the fresh air and the afternoon light. I get too upset when I’m tired. Those guys needed somewhere to go; this dense forest was as good a place as any. I passed a lady with three dogs, with each of their leashes tied to a belt around her waist. Something about the way the dogs looked at me as they walked past – their wide grins and flapping tongues – delighted me.
I was walking along with my hands in my pocket, fiddling absent-mindedly with the wallet in one of them, when it occurred to me that I had a tab of LSD in the coin pouch. Making sure no one was around, I took it out and looked at it closely. It seemed to be OK. I had no idea how old it was, and I’ve still no idea of how it got there. To be honest, what descended upon me first was a state of dread: like a rapid, mental montage, I thought of each of the airport security gates I must have walked through while this tab sat in my wallet and passed through the x-ray machine. But at the same time, all of this – the history of great risk that it implied, that I couldn’t for the life of me figure out where it was from, and the fact that I’d discovered it here – seemed to make that moment, as I stood to the side of a trail in a forest in South Korea, the perfectly appropriate one in which to take it.
Things went wonderfully. I wondered slowly amongst the trees, delighted with the greens of the leaves as they glowed in the late sun, and with the way the sky seemed to drip an orange-coloured icing onto the ground, which was mulchy and red and muddy like delicious, cherry fudge. There wasn’t a single number or graph or straight line in sight. I was floating in a gigantic bubble of twisting colours that seemed to settle and hold my feet for me as I walked through them.
It wasn’t until after sunset, when these colours stopped dancing so vividly around me and the gloom set it, that it dawned on me, Holy shit, I’m in a forest in South Korea and I’m fucking high.
Now, I know that the worst thing to do during a trip is panic. I tried to remain as calm as possible and concentrate on deep, slow breathing. I needed to get back to the hotel and sit out the rest of it in my room. I turned around and thought carefully about how to get back to my car. It wasn’t clear to me – in each direction the path seemed to grow very thin before it coiled around a tree like a snake. I chose the direction that was less coiled-up, and tried to stop the trail from floating away by pinning it down with my footsteps.
I found myself beside my car in the darkness.
I didn’t think to turn the lights on; I remember crawling back at about 10 kilometres an hour, hunched over the steering wheel and desperately searching for the shape of the road.
At last I get back to the hotel but I find that the car park is full. Even slower now, I drive around and around looking for a space. I must have done ten or twenty laps. I drive around some more, and then I stumble upon a space that I missed somehow during each of the preceding laps. I try to reverse into it, but I can’t. The car is growing; I can’t seem to get it to fit into the parking space. I drive out and take a breath, then put the car in reverse again. But it’s even bigger now and there’s no way it’ll fit. Still, I try it another few times, the car ballooning and ballooning. At some point I lose control of the little control I had left, and drive out of the car park and ram the vehicle up on the side of the grassy verge, where I leave it and walk back to the hotel.
I tripped as I was walking up the stairs to the entrance, so I came stumbling through the doors with a loud CLUMP. When I looked up I saw that the lobby was jammed full, and that everyone had turned towards me. Hundreds of Koreans were staring at me, their faces floating slightly above their bodies. From all the white, lacy table cloths and the flowers everywhere I guessed it was a wedding, but those dark, floating faces were freaking me out. I couldn’t tell if they were angry or amused. Everything was very, very quiet; I don’t know why there wasn’t any music. I walked away as normally and as carefully as I could.
Once the elevator doors opened and I fell inside everything was OK again. The doors closed and I savoured the sweet musak like it was sent from God.
When I get back to my room I flop down on my bed. The TV remote is on the bedside table. Some TV would be a good way to chill out, I think, so I turn it on and start flicking through the channels. Pretty soon it becomes obvious that there’s a Korean game show on almost every station; the ecstatic, screaming faces of the contestants fill the screen and burst into my room. I start to panic again, but this time I can feel everything going darker as well. I need to find a good channel quickly before everything goes really, really bad. At last I find myself staring at Rambo as he lets loose with a machine gun. Success! I put down the remote and lie back on my pillows, only to find that, after he stops shooting, Rambo’s voice has been dubbed over in Korean. I turn the TV off immediately and, while my eyes sink into the black screen, I can feel the rest of my head recoil in the opposite direction. My skull stretches across the room.
I don’t know about you, but for me, once a trip starts going bad, it’s almost impossible to make it good again. As my eyes were being stretched like elastic chords deeper and deeper into the black screen, I groped around for the phone on the bedside table. At last I got hold of it, clutching it with both hands as I used each thumb to painstakingly dial the number of my best friend Jim back home. We spoke for a couple of hours, and then he put me on to his wife. It cost me a small fortune but they calmed me down, and after I hung up I was relaxed and ready for sleep.
The next morning I felt great. I was up early and eager for the day ahead. After a quick breakfast, I go out to find my car halfway up the grassy verge where I left it the night before. I carefully reverse it back down, and pull out on to the road towards the town.
I drive south for a few minutes and then turn right at the turn-off. I drive down a smaller road for a few minutes more, then I turn right, then left, and then I turn left again and then, right before me, I see the church. I’m not surprised, though; I don’t even think about the fact that I found it so easily. I park on the opposite side of the street.
It isn’t a large church, but it stands out from the other buildings because of its mud-red bricks and the large white cross mounted at the roof’s apex. The door is open so I enter. It’s dark inside but I can make out a man seated at a pew near the front. He turns when he hears me and rises to say hello.
- I’m sorry to disturb you, I say, my grandfather started this church.
The man is delighted to meet me. He knew my grandfather; it was my grandfather who encouraged him to join the congregation. He opens his arms out like a great condor and takes me under his wing on a tour through the building and out to the garden at the back. My grandfather was his dear friend, and he was at the hospital when he died.
- Was he tall? I asked. Did he smile often?
I felt as if my grandfather was right there, on the other side of a thin sheet of space-time, and if I could just ask the right questions I’d be able to find out enough, and join it to the wood and brick and mortar of the church and bring him back, if only for an instant, into this world. Standing next to this man, it was like I could step back in time, back to that photo, and enter it somehow, and pursue a different route to the present.
But we didn’t just talk about my grandfather. We spoke about all kinds of things: the rest of his family; my childhood; my job at the investment firm, and what I had been doing in Seoul; the beautiful forest near my hotel. He invited me to a tea house, where we spent the rest of the morning drinking tea until we grew hungry, and we ordered some food. I know the tea house was in the same town as the church, but I don’t recall how we got there. I don’t even recall how we spoke, because I knew so little Korean, and he no English. The morning flew into the afternoon, but on either side of that balloon of memory everything is shrouded, as if it barely existed, or had fallen off the edge of time.
By the evening I was back on my bed in my hotel room, scrolling through the channels, shooting past each game show before I’d heard a sound…