This is a story that my wife doesn’t know about. It is actually a story – one among many, I think – about her mother. Although Kim Soon-joo is my mother-in-law, my sie omeoni, I have always called her Oma. She is 85 years old and she has lived in South Korea all her life.
The story starts, as much as any story can have a beginning, when we were driving back with Oma after taking her out for lunch. We had been to a place overlooking the Han. For Oma’s benefit I had the car radio tuned to one of the silver stations. A song in English came on. It was called My Heart Cries For You.
From the back seat Oma tapped me on the shoulder. “Turn up,” she said. I did.
I could see that she was listening quite intensely, a faraway look in her eyes. Eventually, she said: “I used to sing this song.”
“To your children?” I said.
She gave a little laugh. “I used to sing in nightclub,” she said. “When young.”
Uh, what? Nightclub?
She glanced at her daughter, my wife Hye-Jun, in the seat next to me. Hye-Jun was fiddling with her phone, not listening. “Najung,” Oma said to me, softly. Later.
We had tea with Oma at her little apartment. Then she sent Hye-Jun to the store for something or other.
She gestured that I should come with her. In her room she asked me to get a box from a high shelf in her wardrobe. I did; it was dusty with age, had not been touched for years, perhaps decades.
She opened it. There were old photographs and yellowed papers. She extracted a black-and-white photograph and handed it to me.
It was Oma, standing in front of a little band: a guitarist, a drummer, and an accordion player. She was wearing a rather low-cut, slinky dress. I have to say that she looked pretty good in it.
I should say that I have only known Oma for about five years. That is, I have only known her as an old woman, white-haired and bent over. I never knew her husband, Hye-Jun’s father, he passed before I came to Korea. But I knew that he had been a colonel who had won medals in the Korean War, especially at the time of the Battle of the Han River.
So it was a shock to see her young and beautiful. And … a singer? In a nightclub?
She pointed to the words written on the drum. The Koala Club Singers. The photo was a publicity shot.
There was a date at the bottom. 1951. Which meant she would have been sixteen at the most.
“Nightclub for Australians,” she said. “Like you. Hoju-saram. But many Korean officers there as well. During war.”
She handed me another photograph. It had obviously been taken in the Koala Club. It was a young Korean officer and a man wearing the uniform of the Royal Australian Navy. They were smiling, laughing, holding empty soju glasses on their heads. Great friends, the sort of friends you can only make under fire.
Oma pointed at the RAN man. “Hoju-saram,” she said. “Australian. From ship called Murchison. It was very brave ship. Sailed right up the Hangang to shoot at the Northerners and the Chinese.”
Yes, I remembered the story, there was a note about it at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. HMAS Murchison was a frigate, it engaged in a series of artillery duels with shore batteries entrenched on the northern side of the river. It sat in a part of the Han known as Sitting Duck and fired everything it had. Took some hits but gave better than it got. Tough ship. It gave the retreating RoK troops and the UN soldiers time to withdraw in reasonably good order. Held back the tide, for a while at least.
I suddenly realised that, when we had had lunch earlier that day, we had been looking at the place where the Murchison had stood and fought. Of course, the river had flowed on. But some things should be remembered.
“His name was Jackson,” said Oma. “Was wounded later, in a battle. On the Murchison.”
I pointed at the Korean man. “Who?” I said.
She gave a smile. “He would become husband,” she said. “He would come and see me sing whenever he could. He wanted to marry me. My parents did not like. But when he came back as an officer, and with medals, they could not refuse. He was on Murchison for a while to translate and assist.
“He said to me, years later, that he tried to contact Jackson in Hoju. But he had died.”
She stared at the photograph for a long time. A little tear ran down her cheek.
“Oma,” I said. “Please sing the song. Please sing My Heart Cries For You.”
She was quiet for a long time. Then, at first softly, but growing louder, she sang, in a sweet clear voice. My heart cries for you.
She finished the song. Gently, she put her hand on mine. I don’t think she had ever told anyone else about this.
“Gam sahab nida, Oma,” I said.
“Gam sahab nida,” she said.
We returned the photographs to the box and I put it back on the shelf.
From the other room, there was the sound of the door opening. Hye-Jun, back from the store.
“Don’t tell,” whispered Oma. “About nightclub. She doesn’t know.”
“Alright,” I said. “It can be our secret.”
“Yes,” said Oma. “Our secret.”