The ‘small state effect’ in the Senate: does a GOP bias exist?

There have recently been views expressed by some left-wing commentators that the Republican numbers in the Senate are artificially inflated due to the number of small (by population) states where both senators are Republican. A close look at the numbers, however, does not bear this out.

The first problem in this analysis is to determine what constitutes a small state. We can determine whether a state is ‘small’ by looking at the number of House members it has.  There is a wide variety: several states with only one member, and giant California with 53. Within this spectrum, three House members would constitute a ‘small’ state (it is possible to use a different number but we need a sample large enough to be analytically useful without defeating the point). There are 15 states which have three or fewer House members: Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming.

The second issue is how to determine if a state is solidly Democrat or solidly Republican. The way to do this is to look at a state’s Senate representation, to see if both senators are from one party (we can put Bernie Sanders and Angus King with the Democrats, on the basis of their voting records).

Of the 15 states with three or fewer House members, Montana, Maine and West Virginia are split, with one senator from each party. These three can, in effect, be removed from analysis.

Of the remaining 12, there are six – Alaska, Idaho, Nebraska, North Dakota, Wyoming, and South Dakota – where both senators are Republican.

There are six – Delaware, Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Vermont – where both senators are Democrats.

It is true that the Republicans do well in the small mid-western states – although New Mexico has two Democrat senators. However, the Democrats do well in the New England region. The only Republican senator in New England is Susan Collins in Maine.

In other words, there is no particular advantage for either party in the ‘small state’ effect. It works out to be even. Of course, this could change in the 2022 elections. For example, the Republicans could win an additional senate seat in New Hampshire, or the Democrats could win a seat in Alaska if the Republican vote was split between incumbent Lisa Murkowski and another Republican. There are many possibilities and permutations: the point is that there is no ‘natural’ Republican advantage from small states.

If Democrats and left-wing commentators want to claim geographic bias in the Senate they might have more luck by looking at the other end of the size scale, at states that have 20 or more House members, and can therefore be classified as ‘large states’. The Democrats have both senators from California (which currently has 53 Representatives). The Republicans have both senators from Texas (36 Representatives) and from Florida (27 Representatives). New York (also 27 Representatives, although Florida is larger on a total population basis) has two Democrat senators.

Overall, it is the case that Democrat senators in the four largest states represent more people than Republicans, although the picture is distorted somewhat by the size of California. However, this is quite a different argument to the idea that the Republicans have some sort of unfair advantage due to the ‘small state’ effect.

It should be said, also, that California and New York are, according to census data, shrinking in population while Texas and Florida are growing.

It should also be noted that the highest-profile Democrat, Joe Biden, represented the state of Delaware in the Senate for 36 years. Delaware can be classified as an ‘ultra small state’; it has only one member in the House of Representatives. Bernie Sanders, the leading light of the socialist left, represents another ‘ultra small state’, Vermont. This is something that commentators of the left might consider when alleging a systemic bias tied to small states and their Senate numbers.

The Bear (Korean)

데릭 파커

1.

나의 가장 먼 기억으로 거슬러 올라가면 내 아버지께서 곰을 집에 데려온 날일 것입니다. 그 때 나는 우리 나이로 아마도 너 댓살 이었을 것이고 내 바로 아래 남동생은 두 세 살 이였을 때이며 막내 여동생은 그 무렵 태어난 갓난 아기였을 것입니다. 아버지가 집에 데리고 들어온 그 곰은 아주 조그마한 새끼 곰이었는데 나는 기아한 낯선 소리로 울어대던 그 새끼 곰이 마치 검은 털 뭉치 공 같았다는 것을 기억합니다.

나의 아버지는 그 당시 강원도 끝에 있는 군사 분계선으로부터 그리 멀지 않은 곳에서 지내셨는데 어느 날 군 소대를 이끌며 깊은 산 속에서 군사훈련을 실시하던 중 그 새끼 곰을 발견했다고 하셨습니다. 아버지는 그 새끼 곰의 어미는 사냥꾼들에 의해 도실되었다고 말했습니다. 이것은 그 당시에는 드문 일이 아니었습니다. 그와 함께 있던 병사들은 그 새끼 곰이 너무 어려서 스스로 살아나갈 수 없을 것이라고 판단하여 현장에서 그 곰을 사살하는 편이 최선의 자비를 베푸는 일일 거라고 말하였으나 나의 아버지는 그 말을 듣지 않으셨습니다. 대신 아버지는 그 어린 곰을 숲 속에 남겨 둔다면 다른 곰이나 산 짐숭 들에 의해 죽임을 당할 것이라는 데에는 생각을 같이 하였습니다. 그래서 그 새끼 곰은 우리와 함께 살게 되었습니다.

어머니는 말할 필요도 없이 아버지의 그 생각을 좋아하지 않으셨고 곰은 산 짐승이고 흉측한 발톱과 무서운 이빨을 가지고 있으며 더 커지면 분명히 끔찍한 성질을 드러낼 것이라고 생각했습니다. 거기다 우리는 먹을 음식도 근근이 마련할 정도였기 때문입니다.

1960년대 초반의 한국은 수도인 서울을 비롯하여 온 나라가 아주 궁핍했던 시기였습니다. 전쟁의 상흔은 여전히 사람들을 흔들어대며 나락에 빠뜨렸습니다. 나의 아버지는 군인들에게서 존경받는 인물이었습니다. 대령으로서 군부대와 행정부에서 중요한 역할을 담당했음에도 불구하고, 부대 배치를 자구 새롭게 받으셨기에 우리는 이사를 많이 다녔습니다.  그 때는 소고기를 먹을 수 있다는 것이 융숭한 대접을 받는 시기였습니다.

그러나 아버지는 우리가 홀로 남은 곰을 집에서 받아들여야 한다는 주장에 단호했습니다. 그리고 일단 아버지가 결정을 내리면 더 이상 논의할 여지는 없었습니다. 그는 뒤 뜰에 있는 나무판자로 새끼 곰을 위한 작은 오두막-흡사 동굴과도 같은- 집을 만들 것이라고 말했습니다. 그러면 새끼 곰은 따뜻한 달에는 거기에서 살면서 사람들이 남긴 음식을 먹을 수 있을 것이라고요.

“남기는 음식은 없어요.”라고 어머니는 말을 받았습니다. 그러나 그녀가 그 작은 털 뭉치 공과 시선을 마주쳤을 때 거기에서 킁킁대는 구슬픈 소리를 들으면서 어머니는 우리가 더 이상 그 새끼 곰을 숲 속에 버려둘 수는 없다는 것을 받아들일 수밖에 없었습니다. 어머니는 머리를 가로저으며 군입이 하나 더 생긴 것에 대해 무슨 말인가를 중얼거리셨고 이렇게 하여 그 새끼 곰은 우리와 함께 있게 되었습니다. 어쨌든 나의 어머니는 그 새끼 곰이 먹을 양식을 마련해 주었습니다. 시간은 흘렀고 때때로 아버지가 집에 안계셨을 때 나는 어머니가 요리를 하시면서 무를 썰어 앉아있는 곰에게 먹여주는 것을 볼 수 있었습니다. 어머니는 내가 그런 모습을 바라보고 있다는 것을 아시고는 입 앞에 검지 손가락을 세워 쉬이! 라고 하시며 아버지께 말하면 안 된다고 하셨습니다.

아버지는 그 곰에게 이름을 지어주셨지만 그 이름은 기억이 나지 않습니다. 나의 어머니와 남동생, 그리고 이제 겨우 말을 시작한 막내 누이와 나는 그것을 ‘곰’이라고 불렀습니다. 실제로 나는 아기 여동생이 처음 말 문을 뗀 단어가 곰이었다고 알고 있습니다.

2.

나의 아버지에 대해 좀 더 이야기를 해야 하겠습니다. 아버지의 고향은, 지금은 북한의 땅이 된 마을이었지만 한국전쟁에서 남한을 위해 싸웠으며 훈장도 받으셨고 승진도 하셨습니다. 아버지의 훈장과 표창장은 사진과 함께 유리 케이스에 넣어져 설날과 같은 중요한 명절 차례에서 우리는 그 앞에 절을 드립니다.

다른 많은 군인들처럼 아버지는 매우 강직하셨고 엄격하셨으며 강인한 정신으로 무장된 분이셨습니다. 그러나 아버지가 부드러운 목소리로 말씀하실 때기 있었습니다. 그 때마다 아버지는 우리에게 전쟁에 관한 이야기, 한강 전투와 무수한 다른 전투 장면들을 이야기 해주셨습니다. 아버지는 맥아더를 ‘미국의 장군’이라고 불렀지만 또한 다른 한 사람, 그 사람도 장군이었지만 한때 국가의 지도자였으며 대통령의 지위를 가졌던 그 다른 사람에게도 ‘장군’이라는 명칭을 사용했습니다. 아버지는 그 장군을 알고 계셨고 사관학교에서 같이 수학도 했었습니다.

나는 그것이 무엇인지 확신하지는 못해도 그들이 전쟁 중 짊어졌던 어떤 역할에서는 그들이 서로에게 끈끈한 정이 있었을 거라고 생각합니다. 어쨌든 그들 사이에는 전우의 정이 있었습니다. 나는 전쟁터가 군인들 간에 그런 종류의 인간애를 만든다고 생각합니다.

아버지는 자주 부대 막사에 머물러 계셔야 하는 날이 많았지만 나는 우리의 작은 집에서 아버지와 함께 했던 따뜻한 저녁시간들을 기억합니다. 아버지는 앞마당의 의자에 앉아서 소주를 드시며 이야기를 해주셨고 나와 동생은 마당 풀밭에 앉아서 그 이야기를 들었습니다. 아버지는 전쟁 이야기 외에도 그가 자란 작은 마을에 대해서, 쌀과 배추를 심고 비가 너무 적게도 많게도 오지 않도록 그저 알맞게만 내려주도록, 그리고 겨울이 너무 춥지 않도록 기도했던 그런 이야기를 들려주셨습니다.

그 곰도 우리와 함게 앉아서 같이 아버지의 이야기를 들었습니다. 나는 어린 여동생이 그 곳에 앉아있던 것을 기억하지만 그녀는 아주 어렸기 때문에 종종 곰에 기대어 잠들어 있던 것을 기억합니다. 나는 아기 여동생이 그 곰의 부드럽고 따뜻한 털을 좋아했다고 생각합니다. 나는 이 이야기를 오랜 세월이 흐른 후에 여동생에게 말해주었지만 그녀는 그것을 기억할 수 없다고 말했습니다. 아마도 그 때는 더 이상 아기가 아니었을 테니까요

3.

그 곰은 흉내 내는 데에는 놀랄 만한 재능을 가지고 있었습니다. 어머니는 요리를 하시거나 청소하는 동안 맑고 감미로운 목소리로 노래를 부르시곤 했는데 그럴 때마다 그 곰은 곧잘 울부짖는 소리로 따라하곤 했습니다. 그리고 또 그 곰은 앉아서 어머니가 화장하는 것을 지켜보는 걸 좋아했다고 추억하셨습니다. 어느 날인가는 그 곰이 화장품 서랍을 열고 자기 얼굴에 시뻘겋게 화장을 한걸 보셨다고 했습니다. 나도 그 때 거기에 있었다고 하셨지만 그것을 기억하진 못합니다. 기억할 수 있다면 얼마나 재미있을까. 립스틱과 파우더를 덕지덕지 마른 곰이라니! 그건 볼만한 광경이었을 겁니다!

어쩌면 그런 일은 있을 수도 있었고 아니었을 수도 있습니다. 어머니와 아버지가 우리에게 얘기해주신 그 곰에 관한 이야기는 전부가 사실은 아니었을 거라는 생각을 합니다. 아마 그것들은 아이들을 위한 이야기였을 지도 모릅니다. 그러나 적어도 그 중 하나는 사실이었을 거라고 생각하고 싶습니다.

  내가 확실히 기억하는 한 가지는 어머니가 딸기와 버섯을 따려고 나와 내 동생들을 데리고 숲으로 들어갔던 때입니다. 어머니는 그때 내 여동생에게 샌들을 신겼습니다. 물론 그 곰도 우리와 함께 갔습니다. 그 무렵이 곰이 우리와 1년 남잣 함께 살았을 때라고 생각이 됩니다. 그래서 이제는 작은 털뭉치 공처럼 보이진 않았던 그 곰은 우리 뒤를 따라 네 발로 걸어오면서 딸기를 찾아주면 맛있게 먹어댔습니다.

그러던 곰이 어느 지점에서 멈춰 서더니 곧바로 일어서서 냄새를 맡기 시작했습니다. 그게 처음으로 그 곰이 두 발로 똑바로 서 있는 것을 본 때였습니다.

주위를 둘러보고는 어머니와 내 동생, 그리고 샌달을 신은 막내 여동생과 나를 천천이 쳐다보고는 다시 숲으로 시선을 돌렸습니다.

그러더니 다시 네 발로 땅을 짚고 우리에게로 다가왔습니다. 내 손에 코를 비벼대던 그 곰에게 나는 언제나 그랬듯이 귀를 긁어 주었습니다.

언젠간 떠날거야. 산 짐승이니까.  결국 언젠가는 떠나야겠지 라고 어머니는 나지막이 속삭였습니다.

4.

그 곰은 3년 정도 우리와 함께 지냈던 것 같습니다. 어느 날 그 작은 동굴 오두막에서도, 마당 어느 구석에서도, 그리고 집에서도 자취를 감추어버리기 전까지는.

그 날 저녁 아버지가 부대에서 돌아오셨을 때 어머니께서 나지막하게 곰이 안보인다고 말씀하시던 걸 기억합니다. 아버지는 마무 말도 하지 않으셨습니다.

이튿날 아침 기지에서 군인을 태운 트럭이 우리 집 앞에 나타났을 때 나는 깜짝 놀랐습니다. 아버지께선 일련의 명령을 내리시고는 짚차에 올라타셨습니다.

나를 바라보시더니 조금 움직여 옆 자리에 공간을 만드시고는 “이리 와, 아들. 가서 친구를 찾아보자”라고 하셨습니다.

그래서 나는 짚차에 올라탔고 우리는 숲을 향해 출발했습니다. 아버지는 어디로 가야하는지를 알고 계셨고 마침내 우리는 작은 동굴 입구에서 멈춰 섰습니다.

아버지가 짚차에서 내리고 군인들은 트럭에서 내려와 총을 들었습니다. 동굴 안에서는 나지막하게 크르릉거리는 소리가 크게 울렸습니다.

“아빠, 도망간 그 곰을 총으로 쏘진 않을거죠?” 내가 물었습니다.

“아니. 여기가 그 곰을 발견했던 동굴인데 다른 동물이 살고 있을지도 몰라. 그러니까 너는 차에 있어야겠다. 그래야 안전하다, 아들.”

아버지는 동굴 쪽으로 걸어가시더니 그 곰의 이름을 불렀습니다.

어린 소년이었던 나는 차에 있지 못하고 더 자세히 보고 싶어서 밖으로 나왔습니다. 아버지는 재차 곰을 부르셨습니다.

그 때 그 곰, 우리와 같이 살던 그 곰이 천천히 동굴 밖으로 나왔습니다. 네 발로 아버지께 다가와서는 손에다 대고 코를 비벼댔습니다.

아버지께서 곰의 머리를 쓰다듬자 나지막하게 그르릉 소리를 내었습니다. 아버지는 곰에게 무언가 말을 했지만 나는 그 말을 알아들을 수가 없었습니다.

그 둘은 그렇게 한참 함께 있었습니다. 마치 길고 긴 시간이 흐른 것 같았습니다. 그런 다음 아버지는 돌아서서 짚차로 걸어오셨고 군인들은 트럭으로 돌아왔습니다.

아버지는 짚차에서 나와 있는 나를 보시고는 고개를 끄덕이시고는 차에 타는 것을 도와주셨습니다. 아버지는 뒤를 돌아보았습니다. 곰은 이미 가버리고 없었습니다.

“너도 집으로 가야하겠지.” 아버지는 혼잣말처럼 되뇌었습니다.

“고향으로 돌아가야겠지.”

5.

이튿날 아침 일찍 아버지는 나를 흔들어 깨웠습니다.  “옷 입어라. 엄마와 동생들은 깨우지 말자.”라고 말하셨습니다.

나는 시키는 대로 했고 아버지는 나를 데리고 짚차에 타셨습니다.

우리는 부대로 이어지는 길을 따라 차를 몰았습니다.. 그 길은 전에 가본 적이 없었고 거기가 어딘지 기억도 할 수 없었지만 나는 아버지가 이 길을 최근에 넓혔다고 말씀하시던 걸 기억했습니다.

우리는 어떤 곳에 차를 멈추었습니다. 콘크리트 도로 위에 작은 헬리콥터가 있었습니다. 아버지는 차에서 내려 헬리콥터 근처에서 지키고 있던 초소 위병과 이야기를 나누었습니다. 나는 그들이 하는 말을 들을 수는 없었지만 아버지는 이야기 도중에 한번 자신의 계급장을 가리켰습니다. 그러자 위병은 아버지께 경례를 하고는 헬리콥터 문을 열었습니다.

아버지는 나에게 건너오라는 몸짓을 하셨습니다. 나는 아버지께로 갔고 우리는 헬리콥터에 올랐습니다.

나는 그때까지 아버지가 펠리콥터를 조종할 수 있다는 것을 몰랐습니다. 그 날 아버지는 헬리콥터를 분명히 몰았습니다. 아버지는 엔진에 시동을 걸었습니다. 무선 헤드셋을 머리에 쓰시고는 ‘내 권한으로’라고 몇 번인가 누군가에게 말을 했습니다.

그런 다음 우리는 이륙했습니다.

나는 아버지께 어디로 가느냐고 물었습니다.

“북쪽으로 갈거야. 거기엔 내가 보고 싶은 것이 있고 너에게 보여 주고 싶은 것이 있단다.”

“하지만 복쪽으로 가면 공산당이 우리를 죽이지 않아요?”라고 나는 겁이 나서 물었습니다.“

“휴전선 바로 가까운 곳이란다. 하늘을 날게 될 무렵 우리는 그 곳을 보게 될거고 곧 돌아올거야” 아버지는 담담하게 말했습니다.

우리는 북쪽으로 기수를 향했고 헬리콥터 비행장은 우리 뒤로 멀어져 갔으며 길쭉한 띠 모양의 푸른 숲을 지나갔습니다.

“휴전선이다.”아버지가 나지막이 말했습니다.

나는 고개를 끄덕였습니다. 아마도 그 때는 무언가 무섭고 두려워할 만 했었지만 아버지가 자신이 하고 있는 일에 대해 믿음을 갖고 계셨기 때문에 나는 두려워하지 않았습니다.

때때로 아버지는 라디오로 누군가와 이야기를 했습니다. 얼마 지나지 않아 작은 스피커에서는 다른 사람의 목소리가 -색다른 억양을 가진-흘러나왔습니다. 나는 그게 북으로부터의 소리임을 깨달았습니다.

“나는 단지 내 고향을 보고 싶다.” 아버지는 라디오로 말했습니다. “ 이 헬리콥터는 비무장 상태이다. 내가 원하는 것은 고향을 보고 아들에게도 보여주려는 것 뿐이다.”

북의 목소리는 계속 이어졌으며 더욱 귀에 거슬렸습니다. 아버지는 라디오를 껐습니다.

곧이어 우리는 어떤 마을 위에서 원을 그리며 조금 낮게 날았습니다. 마을 사람들이 나와 하늘을 올려다보며 서성거렸습니다.

아버지는 작은 집들이 모여있는 곳을 가리켰습니다. “저기가 내가 태어난 곳이다. 그리고 할아버지도 거기서 태어나셨지. 저기 위 채소밭이 보이니? 할머니는 건넛마을에서 태어나셨지. 저쪽 저 집이 보이니? 논 바로 옆 저 집. 할아버지와 할머니는 전쟁 때 돌아가셨단다. 저기가 우리가 살았던 곳이었어.  전에.”

그 곳은 다른 많은 마을들처럼 점점이 흩어져있는 평범한 농촌의 마을이었습니다. 다른 여느 마을과 흡사했지만 특별한.  나의 아버지가 태어난 그 마을.

“알겠니?” 아버지가 말했습니다.

나는 그 말에 대해 생각했습니다. “네”

그는 고개를 끄덕이시고는 작은 헬리콥터를 남쪽 방향으로 돌렸습니다. 입가에는 미소가 어려 있었습니다.

6.

아버지께서 돌아가시고 몇 년이 흘러 어머니는 어버지께 매우 화가 났었다고 나에게 말씀하셨지만 어머니의 어조로 미루어보아 아버지께서 하신 행동과 왜 그랬었는지를 이해햐고 계셨다는 것을 압니다.

아버지는 대령 계급으로 계속 남아계셨지만 어머니께서는 승진이나 훈장, 표창은 없었다고 말씀하셨습니다. 나는 아버지께서 군에 있으시면서 계급을 유지할 수 있었던 것이 놀랍지 않느냐고 말했습니다. 어머니는 날 보시며 말을 흐리셨습니다. : 장군.

7.

이것이 그 곰의 이야기입니다. 오랜 동안 나는 그 곰을 생각하지 못했지만 그 당시의 내 아버지 나이에 이른 지금에는 자주 생각하게 됩니다.

그 곰이 숲에서 어떻게 먹을 양식을 구했으며 어떤 삶을 살았는지 궁금해집니다. 그리고 언젠가 내가 아버지의 고향을 방문하고 거기 사람들과 이야기를 나누고 그 논을 다시 볼 수 있을는지 궁금합니다. 그러나 이 모든 것을 떠올려보며 나는 그 마을의 이름을 모른다는 것을 깨닫습니다. 아버지는 결코 내게 말씀해준 적이 없으며 나는 한 번도 물어 분 적이 없었습니다.

5 senyru

Overhead

Up there, satellites

Look down at us, wondering

Why we seem so small.

Stairs

Here is something good:

How her ponytail bounces

As she goes up stairs.

Snap

White crane in a stream

Hunting an elusive frog –

One snap!  No more frog!

Rain

Days of winter rain

Even a strong man looks frail

Protecting fresh bread.

Wares

Broken-down market

Broken-down people selling

Pots, bread, fish, pans, life.

Oma’s Secret Story

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.”

END

Our Town

Our town has long been a place where not a great deal happens, and that is how most of us have always liked it. There are the locals, some of whom have been here for several generations, and an itinerant population of holiday-makers who come here to enjoy our pleasant beach and interesting forest. The two people, a young woman and a somewhat older man, who caused a certain amount of disruption to our little community were in the second of these groups, and they took a lease on a holiday house on the edge of the town, where there was an overgrown path that led down to the beach. They had been living quietly there for about a month when word passed around that they could fly.

At first this notion was dismissed as the gossip of those people who spent a bit too much time in one of the town’s bars, or those who engaged in distractions of a less legal variety. But gradually the number of claims grew. The local librarian, Miss Hudson, a painfully honest soul who had never touched a drop of liquor, said that the young woman had landed in the parking lot to return a borrowed book. Mr Pearson, who had taken a morning jog along the beach every day for perhaps twenty years, stated that he had seen the pair sitting on the high branch of a tree that could not possibly be climbed; they appeared to be having some sort of breakfast picnic.

There were those in town who were dismissive of such suggestions. After all, they pointed out, the couple had often been seen walking around the town, holding hands and carrying bags of groceries. Even more, they had been noticed waiting for the bus, which would hardly be expected of people who could fly. True, they were a little odd, friendly enough if engaged in conversation but mainly likely to keep to themselves. The age difference, perhaps fifteen years between them, was unusual but hardly a cause for recriminations, and our town has always prided itself on its open-mindedness. And finally there was the obvious argument that human beings could not fly. To this group of our people, this constituted game, set and match. End of discussion.

The problem was that sightings of the flying people – sometimes together, sometimes alone – continued. Some townsfolk took to walking around with cameras while looking upwards, in the hope of taking a photograph. Only one photograph was, in fact, taken in this period, and it was so vague and blurry that it was not accepted as solid evidence even by people who swore that they had seen the airborne pair.

The situation became such that one of the town’s police officers, Constable Hilda Turner, said that she would pay a visit to the couple and sort the matter out. She did, indeed, set off to interview the couple in their rented house, and returned an hour later, wearing a somewhat puzzled expression. When she was asked whether the couple could fly she answered, yes, I believe so. But she emphasised that she had not actually seen either of them leave the ground. The man was on the roof of the house when she arrived, replacing some broken tiles, although there was no evidence of a ladder or any other means by which the roof might be reached. While Constable Turner was engaging the man in polite if stilted conversation the young woman suddenly appeared beside her, and greeted her warmly, asking if she would like a cup of tea. Constable Turner had not heard her approach, although the ground was littered with dry leaves that made a cracking sound with every footstep.

Over tea, reported Constable Turner, she had asked the young woman point-blank if she and her companion could fly, and the woman had replied, why yes, yes we can, and would you like a biscuit. Constable Turner said yes, she would like a biscuit, and at that moment the man entered the room, saying that the roof repairs were complete. Constable Turner asked the man if it was true that they could fly, and the man confirmed that it was. The policewoman asked how was it that they could do something which appeared to defy the laws of physics. The man responded that it was an issue of belief. He had once met someone who could fly and had therefore realised it was possible. When he and the young woman met, a few years later, she had seen him fly and had likewise realised it was possible. So there it was.

Constable Turner subsequently returned to the police station where she filed a short report, and later answered a few questions put to her by the editor of the local newspaper.

The resulting article caused, by the quiet standards of our little town, quite a stir, and there was a growing movement for the mayor, Ms Thompson, who ran the popular café in the main street, to become involved. Ms Thompson called a public meeting for that evening, to be convened in her café, where beverages, scones and cakes could be purchased. There were questions as to whether the flying – the allegedly flying – couple should be invited, but after discussions with Constable Turner the mayor decided against it, although she left the option open for a later time.

The meeting, as it turned out, attracted most of the local population as well as quite a few holiday-makers. Constable Turner was asked to reiterate her report, which she did in such a clear and steady manner that even some of those who had previously rejected the possibility of flying people as a hoax or a series of mistakes began to acknowledge that there might be something in the idea.

The questions and opinions that arose from the meeting fell into several categories, namely:

  1. Could the flying couple be witches, or perhaps aliens.
  2. Was there a way for the business people of the town, always on the lookout for additional sources of revenue, to make money out of this.
  3. Should the Department of Defence, or perhaps some other agency of the national government, be informed.
  4. If the ability to fly stemmed from the belief that one could fly, was it therefore possible for other people to learn to fly.

A number of people expressed considerable interest in this last point. After all, if gravity could be overcome by simply assuming that it did not exist, then it called into question many concepts previously taken for granted. Several of the younger townsfolk remarked that they would be very pleased to take flying lessons, and would be quite willing to forgo a belief in gravity and whatever else was required in order to get off the ground.

The meeting adjourned without a clear conclusion, although nearly everyone agreed that the flying couple were probably not witches or aliens but ordinary people who had somehow acquired an extraordinary ability. Notably, there remained a hard core of non-believers who argued that human flight, aside from the airplane variety, was simply impossible and that was all there was to it.

The faith of the non-believers was severely tested the next day when, quite suddenly, the couple landed in full view of many people, outside Petrucci’s Famous Pizzeria. They then ordered a pizza, ham and pineapple, with a side of potato salad, to take away.

There were a few people who huffed that descending on a public street in this way was tantamount to showing off but most of the townsfolk were merely curious, and put a series of polite questions to the pair while they waited for their pizza.

Yes, said the couple, we can fly, and have been able to for some time. No, flying itself is not difficult but landing requires a certain amount of practice. Yes, it is a matter of belief. It requires putting aside everything you know, or think you know, about the world and how it works, and instead substituting the sure and certain knowledge that flying is possible. This leap of faith becomes much easier when you have seen someone do it, said the man. No, we do not know how the first person to fly achieved the feat. The young woman mentioned that, even after she had seen her partner fly, she had spent many hours standing in a park thinking about it. And then she realised that it could be done, because it had been done, and then she did it.

The pizza and potato salad arrived, and the couple ascended to return home. The ascension was, in some ways, not particularly impressive. There was no sudden leap into the air with arms outstretched, Superman-style. Neither was there any magical incantation or puzzling ritual. Instead, it was more like a steady drift upwards, off the surface of the planet, and then at a certain height the couple, pizza and potato salad in hand, turned towards their house. The only impressive aspect of the entire process was that it happened at all.

With the phenomenon of human flight now confirmed, our community grew strangely quiet on the issue. There was an unspoken consensus that, given that the couple had been as forthcoming as possible in their explanations, and seemed to be a pair of pleasant individuals, to notify government authorities might be an invasion of their privacy. Neither was there any further talk of ways to monetise the matter.

And then, one day, they were gone. Their rented house was empty; the real estate agent said that the lease had expired, according to schedule, and they had not renewed it. He did not know why or where they had gone but he said that, when they had returned the keys to his office, they had not expressed any ill-will towards the town or its people; quite the contrary. It seemed, according to the agent, that their extended holiday had simply ended and they had returned to wherever it was they had come from.

But their departure did not mark the end of the story. For several weeks, a number of townspeople could be seen standing on cliffs, or on the beach, or in their yard, looking out to sea or into the sky. It was a month after the departure of the couple that the first sightings of flying people began. Since then it has been a slow but steady trickle.

Over time, we have largely returned to the view that ours is a town where not very much happens. Yes, some people can fly, in that drifting, undramatic way; and others can but generally choose not to, for reasons of their own. We accept it because, putting it simply, we cannot do anything else: it is what it is. We do not find it remarkable, and we probably never will.

END

Not Quite a Ghost Story

I woke up one morning and I was dead. Huh. How about that.

I hung around the house for a while, looking at my body. Damn, I really should start working out. Eventually, I dressed and left the house. No-one could see me or hear me, you know the drill. It’s what happens when you are … no longer alive. Apparently.

I wandered around the city for a while, and eventually found myself at a pleasant-looking little church, Saint Someone of the Holy Whatever. I went up to the … thing at the end.

“Hi,” said a plaster statue of a woman.

“Whoa!” I said. “You can see me?”

“Of course, I’m the Virgin Mary. Well, technically, I’m a statue, but I’m sure you get the idea.”

“Oh. Right.” She was actually pretty attractive, in a pale, religious kind of way. It looked like there might be some good cleavage under the robes. And a virgin, you say?

“I can read your mind, you know,” she said. “And your impure thoughts are not improving your chances of getting into Heaven.”

O – kay. I looked for a way to change the subject.

“What happens now?” I said.

“Well, in a while, a sort of tunnel of light appears, and you get drawn into it, and then you go up or down.”

“Really? I thought it would be more … complicated.”

“We try to keep it simple.”

Probably the best thing. “Say, you wouldn’t happen to know how I died, would you?” I said.

“Not off the top of my halo. But what did you eat yesterday?”

I considered. “A sandwich. Chicken. Made it myself.”

“Chicken, eh? After you brought it home, did you put in the refrigerator? How long was it not in the refrigerator? Did it taste funny?”

I thought about it. It was a lot to digest. “Uhh … maybe … a little funny … ” I muttered.

“Well, there’s your problem right there. Death by improper food storage. Happens more often than you might think.”

Hmm. It didn’t seem very likely. But here I was, dead, so it was hard to see that any more proof was needed. Although, to tell the truth, I had hoped for something more dramatic than inadequately refrigerated meat.

“Oh, here comes your ride,” said SVM.

In the ceiling of the church, a glow was forming.

“Where do you think I’m going to go?” I said.

“Have you done anything particularly good or particularly bad?”

I thought about it. Not that there was much to think about. “I’ve lived a fairly good life,” I said. “Well, not a bad one. You know, sort of ordinary. Kind of … well, boring, really.”

SVM sighed. “Doesn’t mean much, as it turns out. In most cases, the only thing that matters is whether you’re Catholic or not. And you’re not.”

“What!? You mean … that’s it!?”

“Oh, if only someone had told you people! Wait, I did! Repeatedly!”

I looked at her closely. “Are you allowed to be this facetious?” I said.

“I’m the Virgin Mary,” she said, “and a talking statue. So I can be as facetious as I want.”

The glow was definitely larger now. And closer.

“Tell you what,” she said. “You seem like a nice enough guy, and I appreciated the cleavage thought. You know, most people who talk to me, it’s Holy Mother this or Blessed Virgin that. You think that your life has been tedious!? Welcome to my world. Anyway, there might be a loophole for you. If you light a votive, you might look Catholic enough to get by.”

“Great! Er, what’s a votive?”

SVM rolled her eyes, and pointed at the row of sagging, burnt-out candles at her feet.

The glow was really close now. And really hot. That was not good news.

I looked around for a church-type candle-lighting device but there was nothing. I fumbled in my pockets for a lighter. Matches. Anything. Nope, not a thing. I’d given up smoking a month ago. If I hadn’t done that I wouldn’t be facing eternal hellfire now. Still dead, of course, but … not so much.

“Sorry,” said SVM. “Wish I could say ‘see you’. But I don’t think I will.”

So there you have it. A mediocre death. Dying is the only interesting thing to ever happen to me and I blew it. I shouldn’t have eaten the chicken. Damn.

END

Victoria’s Other Secret

I

My name is Vicki and I have a secret. Had a secret. It’s someone else’s problem now.

Let me start at the beginning, or at least what might be the beginning. I had just been dumped. This has happened a number of times, often enough for me to have developed a little ritual for coping with it. I would buy some lingerie. I could only afford stuff from the Discount Everything store in the local mall. So here I was.

Dumped for being insecure, being needy, being … me, I suppose. So now I was listlessly looking through a rack of bras. No, no, not that one, wrong size, no, not that colour, no …

Buy me, said a female voice.

I jumped. I looked around. There was no-one close by.

I would be good for you, said the voice.

Actually, the voice seemed to be inside my head. I assumed I was experiencing some sort of post-dump breakdown.

You’re not, said the voice. I’m right here.

Okay, I thought. I’ll play along with the delusion.

Where, I said. Or, rather, I thought it as if I was saying it, on the basis that if I was going crazy there was probably no reason to share it with the world.

Here. In your hand.

I looked at the bra I was holding. It was a rather odd colour, a sort of dark blue. Not my thing, really. No, I looked at it again, and it was an interesting pastel teal shade.

But, wouldn’t you know it, the wrong size. Too big in the cups. I am not a well-endowed girl.

I’m perfect for you. Check again.

I did. Huh, it was my size after all. Guess I mis-read it. I looked at the tag again. There was something else written there. COLD WATER HAND WASH ONLY. And a price, a very reasonable price.

Try me on.

I hesitated. Talking bras are … weird.

Try me on, and you’ll never be dumped again.

How do you know about that.

I know a lot about you. I know you need me. I’ll be good for you.

You’re … a bra.

We’ll be great together. Try me on and you’ll see.

I went into the change room, and put it on. It was comfortable. Perfect fit. Then I looked at myself in the mirror … and gasped.

I had … cleavage! How the hell did that happen?

Told you.

I looked at myself at various angles in the mirror. I did not appear to be any larger than usual in the chest department but somehow the bra, with a decent amount of padding, was making better use of what was there. The result: cleavage. Curvy, eye-catching, fleshy cleavage.

If he could see you now, he would be crying that he dumped you. But you can do better than him. Much better.

I doubt it, I said. I’m pretty ordinary.

But when I looked at my image, I began to think that maybe the Voice was right.

I can give you … what you want. If you buy me. Now.

Well, you know, whether I was going crazy or not, I just had to buy it. Maybe I was imagining the whole thing, but to tell the truth the idea that I might be able to get off the dumping treadmill through the correct choice in underwear was not unappealing.

I took the bra to the counter and handed it to the woman. She looked at the tag. “Odd, I thought I knew all the brands but I’m not familiar with this one,” she said. “WitchyWood, eh? Where did you get it?”

I gestured in a general direction.

The woman shrugged and processed the transaction. I – we – left the store.

We’re going to have so much fun, said Voice.

II                                   

I should tell you about my life. Except there isn’t much to tell. I live alone in a little apartment, I have a small job in a big company, I have some friends but no-one I am particularly close to. I occasionally go out to see if I can find some appropriate company, with very mixed results. That’s it. I told you there wasn’t much, right?

But none of this addressed the concept of a bra that could talk – talk inside my head, anyway. I was not sure if anyone else could hear Voice and I did not want to try any experiments. Just in case other people couldn’t hear it. And just in case they could.

So what’s your story? I said, sitting on the couch with the bra in my hand.

Voice was silent.

How come you can, er, talk?

Nothing.

How did you end up in a store?

Zip.

There was a long pause. Then: we should go out.

Huh. Well, that wasn’t a bad idea. So I went to the wardrobe and selected some going-out clothes.

Not that top. That one there. The silky red one.

That’s a halter. I can’t wear that with, er, you.

Sure you can.

I inspected the bra. Somehow, it had changed into a halter-style.

I can be whatever I need to be.

It had also changed colour, ruby red to match the top. Or perhaps I was just imagining the whole thing.

You’re not.

I looked at the halter top. It’s a bit slutty, isn’t it? I said.

It’s just slutty enough.

Actually, it was hard to say no to Voice. Inside my head, she sounded very … convincing. So I put on the bra and the red halter top and a tight skirt and, believe it or not, I thought I looked pretty good. My hair seemed bouncier. Those little glitches on my skin had vanished. I swear that that annoying cellulite had disappeared. Even my eyelashes looked, well, kind of seductive. I looked like I should be in a television commercial for some sort of beauty product. Vicki 2.0.

So, it being Saturday night, I – we – went out to a nightclub. Now, usually, when I go to a place like this, I went with a little group of friends, a sort of safety-in-numbers concept. I would cross my fingers and hope that I wouldn’t be noticed, or that I would be.

But duly armed with killer lingerie, tonight I felt like going solo, leading with the cleavage and the bare shoulders. The bouncers waved me through and, what do you know, people started looking at me as soon as I entered. I took a seat at the bar.

Before a minute had passed a guy came up to me and asked if he could buy me a drink.

No, said Voice. Not him. He’s C-grade.

What, they come in grades? I said to her.

Voice seemed to sigh.

So I say no thanks to him? I said.

You say, definitely not.

“Definitely not,” I said to the guy.

He looked rather hurt.

Good, said Voice.

I saw another guy checking me out.

What about him?

B.

How do you know so much about this?

Voice said nothing.

I looked around. On the other side of the room was a handsome guy. Well-dressed, blond-ish, just the right amount of semi-shaven panache.

Him, said Voice. Go for the stubble.

So I turned towards him, leaned back against the bar a little, gave him a good view of the guns.

He came over. Yes, he was an A, alright.

“I’m Phil,” he said.

“Of course you are,” I said. Or maybe it was Voice doing the work and I was just lip-synching. “As in, Phil-me-up, is it? Buy me an expensive cocktail, Phil.”

He did. He asked me my name.

“Vic – ” I started.

Victoria. It’s sexier.

“ – toria,” I finished.

He smiled. Wow, Voice was right, Victoria was sexier than Vicki. If only I had known.

Things with Phil went from there. Some drinks, some innuendo, an invitation. To make a long story short, I ended up with a bit of stubble-rash on my thighs. Worth it. Totally.

II                                   

I would not have minded seeing Phil again but Voice was adamant that I should not return his calls. I was not entirely sure why he called me, since I had not really done much in the sex department. Mainly been on the receiving side, which was a nice change and a good place to be. Maybe Voice had got into his head in some way.

Dump him, said Voice.

But he was so pretty, I said.

Dump him, see how he likes it, just like all the times they have dumped you.

I must say that when she put it that way the idea had its attraction. Serves them right. Serves all of them right. Wait, did I actually just think that!?

In any case, when you go to a smorgasbord you don’t have just the one dish. There are plenty of others to try.

Hmm, I said. Well, okay then.

So we tried some more dishes. Alex was next, as I recall. He had a Porsche. Then there was Will. He had his own handcuffs. I forget the name of the next one but I remember that he had a very nice tongue. I have a feeling there was a fellow called Steve in there somewhere. And so on.

Meanwhile, my working life continued to grind away, as I shuffled papers around for reasons that were not entirely clear. Frustrating, because I was capable of doing much more, and I had better qualifications than most people here. But at least my co-shufflers seemed rather more social these days, and the boss of my division seemed to be spending more time than usual hanging around my desk.

One day, the boss said to me: “You know, Victoria, there’s a promotion coming up. Section head. I’ve noticed in these past few months how effective you are in your job, and I feel you should be considered. What assets would you bring to the job?”

Lean forward, said Voice. I did.

Deep breath. I did.

She told me what to say.

“Assets?” I said. “Just the two.”

“Ah,” said the boss. “I see.” He smiled and walked away.

So that’s how you get ahead, I said to Voice.

She giggled. Do you want the job or not? she said.

I thought about it. Eventually, I said: Yes.

A few days later, I was told I had been given the promotion. So the lesson was obvious: all those women who have the good jobs and the handsome boyfriends and the bright prospects … cheat. Maybe they all had talking bras.

IV 

The downside of the new job was that I had to take work home sometimes. I was going through a slab of papers when Voice said: I’m bored. We should go out. Meet someone. Bring them back here.

And then dump them? I said. As usual?

That’s the point. You seduce them in order to dump them. Hurt them.

I thought that the point was to have a good time.

You thought wrong. Get dressed. The silver bandeau, I think.

Before I knew it I was in the bedroom, manoeuvring myself into the top. The bra had reconfigured to max the push-up effect.

I don’t really want to go out, I said to Voice. I’m not in the mood.

What you want does not matter much. Now, the black skirt with the slit to the thigh.

I had the skirt in my hand. I looked at it.

No, I said, putting the skirt down.

Yes.

Uh-uh.

The bra began to pinch me a little. In a sensitive area. There was the twinge of a headache at the base of my skull. It began to grow into a throb.

And then I was picking up the skirt and pulling it on. A part of my brain was saying, yes, I did want to go out, pick up some guy, do what I was supposed to do. It would be fun. Wouldn’t it?

The pinching stopped and the headache vanished.

Good girl, said Voice.

V

I’m not sure how but I ended up at a bar called Reboot. I started talking with a guy named Paul, and before I knew it we had been chatting for an hour or so. Voice was impatient, saying that he was just a B. I reminded her that this outing had been her idea, and anyway there were no A-grades in sight.

And he was pleasant company. We had things in common. He made me laugh. I would have been happy to sit and talk with him, and I think he would have been happy to do that too. But Voice was insistent. Anyway, one thing led to another, and a few hours later I was standing by my bed in my underwear, watching Paul sleep. Funny how some guys do that after pretty good sex.

He’s nice, I said to Voice.

He reminds me of someone, said Voice. Someone … someone I used to know … a long time ago … but he left me … after making promises … so many promises …

Is that why you do all this? Because someone broke your heart?

He broke … my soul.

There was a flush of heat in my head. This was some angry lingerie.

They’re evil. All of them.

Be that as it may, I said, I would like to keep this one. For a while, at least. I’m getting pretty sick of one-nighters.

There was a long pause.

Then: Kill him.

Uh, what?

Kill him. Take a knife from the kitchen and kill him.   

I recoiled in surprise, and then horror. I – I can’t, I said. I – I don’t want to – I won’t – 

But now I was in the kitchen and I was taking a large knife from the drawer.

I’ll show you how. It’s easy.

I could see a hand holding the knife. Was it my hand?

There was a throbbing in my head, like a raven’s claw twisting in my brain. The bra was tightening around me, cutting into my flesh.

Stop, I said. Please …

Take the knife and put it on his throat and pull it across and then I’ll stop.

I tried to push Voice away, push her out of my head, but she was holding on with a manic strength. I lifted the knife and tried to get the blade under the strap of the bra, hoping to cut it off. But the fabric had become as strong as iron, and now it was as dark as blood. I began to struggle for breath.

My feet were starting to carry me towards the bedroom. I could see the knife in my hand.

You can’t get away, said Voice. You’re mine now. Now and forever.

“No!” I shouted aloud. With a huge effort, I threw the knife across the room.

You will regret that.

The bra was strangling me, squeezing the air from my lungs. The throbbing in my head had become a roar now, a storm of savage anger. I sagged to my knees.

I will make you regret it. I will make you regret everything.

But something scratched at my memory. What was it … I had seen something on the day we had met … something about the tag … what had it said …

On my hands and knees, gasping, I made it to the bathroom. I managed to get into the shower. My breath almost gone, I groped for the tap. The hot tap. I pulled the lever.

There was a gush of water. Steaming, scalding. It hit the bra. Voice screamed.

Cold water hand wash only, bitch, I said to her.

But she wasn’t giving up. The bra tightened even more.

The water was so hot it was blistering my skin. But if it was bad for me it must have been agony for her. I grit my teeth against the pain, against the boiling water and my cracking ribs and my pounding skull. Hold on, I told myself. Just … a little … longer … one … more … moment …

Enough! shouted Voice.

Then get off me, I said.

The bra loosened sufficiently for me to take a breath. The pain in my head began to recede. I reached up and turned the water off. But I kept my hand on the lever.

If I do that, you will destroy me.

I thought about it. Yes, this was a truly homicidal piece of underwear. But we had been through a lot together, and it had been pretty good, up to the final chapter.

I’ll make you a deal, I said. You get off me, get out of my head, and I’ll let you go on your way.

There was a long silence.

Slowly, I began to pull the lever. A hissing drip came from the tap.

Deal.

The clasp unfastened and the straps slid from my shoulders. I was free.

VI                                   

And so the story ended where it began, in the Discount Everything store. After making sure the salespeople were not looking my way, I took the bra out of my bag and slipped it onto a spare hanger. I put it in with a row of others.

I was by no means sure that releasing it back into the wild was a good idea. But I had given Voice my word, and that has to count for something.

I looked around. There was a somewhat colourless young woman sorting through stuff on the bargain table. Huh.

I turned to go.

Wait. Please.

I looked at the bra.

I … I could be good, said Voice. If you would just –

Forget it, I said.

I walked away.

She called after me: Victoria –

It’s Vicki, I said.

END

The Bear

1

My earliest memory is of the day when my father brought a bear home. I must have been only five or perhaps six, counting by the Korean method, and my brother must have been only two or three, and my sister would have been only a baby. The bear was only a cub, I remember thinking that it looked like a ball of black fur, and it made a strange mewling sound.

My father told us that he had found it when he was leading a platoon of his soldiers on a training exercise in the forest not far from where we lived, which was in turn not far from the military base that he commanded, on the eastern edge of Seoul. He said that the bear’s mother had been killed by hunters – this was not uncommon in those days. The soldiers with him had said that the merciful thing to do would to shoot the cub then and there, it would not be able to survive on its own, it was too young. My father would not hear of it. But he agreed that, yes, the cub would soon be killed by another bear or some other creature of the forest if it was left. So the bear came to live with us.

My mother, needless to say, was not happy with this idea. It is a wild creature, she said. It has claws and teeth and when it gets bigger it will surely have a very nasty disposition. And we barely have enough food for ourselves.

You must realize that at this time, the early sixties, Korea was a very poor country, even in the area around the capital. Memories of the war were still fresh, and even though my father was a respected figure in the military – and as a colonel he had a significant role in the administration of our part of the province – there was often just enough to go round and not much more. Having meat in a meal was a treat, let me put it that way.

But my father was adamant that we would take in the orphan bear. And once my father had made a decision there was not much point in further discussion. He said that he would build a little cabin for it from scrap wood in the backyard, a bit like a cave, and the bear could live there in the warmer months and could eat leftovers.

There aren’t any leftovers, my mother said. But then she looked at the little ball of fur, and it made that mewling noise, and, well, she accepted that we could not simply throw it back into the forest. She shook her head and muttered something about another mouth to feed but the bear stayed. Somehow she managed to find food for it. Occasionally, later on, when my father was not at home, and when the bear could sit up, I would see her feeding it little bits of radish while she was cooking. She would see me watching and hiss that I was not to tell my father under any circumstances.

My father gave the bear a name but I cannot remember what it was. My mother, my brother, my sister when she could talk, and I just called it ‘the bear’. In fact, I believe that the first word my sister could say was ‘bear’.

2

I should tell you a little more about my father, I think. He was from a town that was now in the North, but he had fought for the South in the war, and had been decorated and promoted. His medals and letters of commendation, along with his photograph, are in the glass-fronted case that we bow to on New Year’s Day and other significant occasions.

Like many soldiers he could be very stern and strict, and you could sense the steel in him. But there were times when he spoke in a softer voice. He would tell us stories about the war, about the Battle of the Han River and other incidents. He called MacArthur ‘the American general’ but he used the term ‘the General’ for Park Chung Hee, the man who was now leader of the country. He had been a general but had recently assumed the title of President, and now he wore a suit instead of a uniform. My father knew the General, they had been in the same class at the military academy, we have a photograph of the graduation ceremony that shows the two of them.

I suspect that they also had had something to do with each other in some part of the war, although I am not sure what. In any case, there was some connection between them. I suppose that battlefields create those sorts of bonds.

He often had to stay at the base but I remember warm evenings when he would sit on the porch of the little house, and tell us stories. He would drink soju and tell us about the war, and also about the little village where he grew up, and how they would plant rice and cabbages, and pray that the rain would be not too much, not too little, just the right amount, and that the winter would not be too cold.

The bear would be with us, sitting on its bottom and listening to the stories as well. I remember my sister sitting there but often, since she was very young, she would lean against the bear and fall asleep. I assume she liked the bear’s soft, warm fur. I mentioned this to her many years later but she said she could not remember it. Well, she was not much more than a baby at the time.

3

The bear had a remarkable talent for mimicry. When it heard my mother singing while she cooked or cleaned, in her sweet clear voice, it would make a crooning sound as well. My mother told me that it liked to sit and watch her put on her makeup. One day, she said, she found that the bear had got into her cosmetics drawer and had put makeup on its face. I was there at the time, she told me, although I don’t remember it. I wish I could. A bear with lipstick and powder. Now that would have been something to see!

One thing I remember quite clearly was when my mother took me and my brother into the forest to look for berries and mushrooms. She carried my sister in a back-sling. Of course, the bear came with us. I guess that by this time it had been with us about a year, perhaps a bit more, so it was no longer a cuddly ball of fur. But it padded along behind us, on all fours, happy to eat berries when we found some.

At one point the bear stopped. It stood up and sniffed the air. That was the first time, I believe, that I saw it stand upright.

Maybe it happened and maybe it didn’t. I think that not all the stories about the bear that my mother and father told us, a bit later on, were true. Maybe they were just stories for children. But I like to think that that one, at least, was true.

It looked around. It looked at us, my mother and brother and sister in the sling and myself. Then it looked again at the forest.

Then it went down on all fours again and came over to us. It nuzzled my hand, and I scratched its ears in response, as I usually did.

Someday, my mother said, it will have to leave. It is a wild animal, after all, and one day it will have to leave.

4

The bear had been with us three years, I suppose, something like that, when it vanished. It was not in its little cave-cabin and not in any part of the yard, and not in the house.

My father came back from the base that evening, and I remember my mother telling him, very softly, that the bear was nowhere to be found. My father said nothing.

I was surprised that the next morning a truckload of soldiers from the base appeared at the front of our house, and my father gave them a series of orders as he climbed into his jeep.

He saw me watching. He moved over a little to make space on the seat beside him.

Come on, son, he said to me. Let’s go and find our friend.

So I climbed in and we set off through the forest. My father knew where he was going, and eventually we stopped outside a little cave. My father got out of the jeep, and the soldiers climbed out of the truck and raised their guns. From within the cave there was a low growl.

Father, I said. We’re not going to shoot the bear for running away, are we?

No, my father said. But even though this is the cave where I found the bear, there might be another occupant. So stay in the jeep, son. To be safe.

My father walked towards the cave. He called out the bear’s name.

Being a boy, I did not stay in the jeep. I got out so I could see more clearly.

My father called out again.

The bear – our bear – came slowly out of the cave. On all fours, it went up to my father and nuzzled his hand.

My father stroked the bear’s head. The bear gave a soft growl. My father said something to the bear but I could not hear his words.

They stayed like that for a long, long moment. Then my father turned and walked back to the jeep. The soldiers returned to the truck.

My father saw that I had climbed out of the jeep. He gave a little nod, and then helped me in. He looked back. The bear was gone.

You have to go home, he said to no-one in particular. You have to go home.

5

It was early the next morning when my father shook me awake. Get dressed, he said. Don’t wake your mother and brother and sister.

I did as I was told. Then he took me outside and we climbed into the jeep.

We drove along the road that led to the military base. I had not been here before, or at least I could not remember being here, but I recalled him saying that it had recently been expanded.

We drove to the new section. There was a small helicopter on a concrete pad. My father got out of the jeep and talked to a guard standing near the helicopter. I could not hear what they were saying but at one point my father pointed to his badge of rank. Eventually, the guard saluted and opened the helicopter door.

My father gestured for me to come over, which I did. Together, we climbed into the helicopter.

I had not known that my father knew how to fly a helicopter but obviously he did, and he started the engine. He put a radio headset on and spoke to someone, using the words ‘on my authority’ several times.

Then we were off.

I asked him where we were going.

North, he said. There is something I have to see, and show you.

But won’t the Communists kill us if we go to the North? I said.

It’s not a long way over the border, he said. By the time they get planes in the air we’ll have seen what we need to see and be on our way back.

So we flew on, heading to the North. Soon we passed over a long strip of green forest.

The DMZ, my father said.

I nodded. Perhaps I should have been worried, even fearful. But my father seemed to be entirely sure of what he was doing, and so I was not afraid.

Occasionally he spoke to someone on the radio. Then there was another voice coming through the little speaker, a voice with a different accent. I realized that it was the voice of a Northerner.

I just want to see my hometown, my father said into the radio. This helicopter is unarmed. All I want is to see my hometown, and for my son to see it.

The Northern voice continued to speak, even more stridently. My father turned the radio off.

Then we came to a town. We circled, and came in low. People in the town came out and looked up at us, unsure of what was happening.

My father pointed at a cluster of little houses. That was where I was born, he said. And my father was born there as well. Can you see the vegetable patch at the back? My mother was born at the other end of the town, in that house over there, you see? That one near the ricefield. They were killed in the war, your grandparents, as you know, but … that was where we lived. Before.

It was a town, like many other towns scattered across the landscape of the Koreas. A town like many others, but special. The town where my father was born.

Do you understand? my father asked.

I thought about it.

I understand, I said.

He nodded. He turned the little helicopter southwards. He was smiling.

6

Years later, after my father had passed, my mother told me that she had been very angry with him, but the way she said it made me think that she understood what he had done, and why.

My father continued to hold the rank of colonel but it was made clear to him, according to my mother, that there would be no more promotions, no more medals, no more letters of commendation. I said that it was surprising that he was allowed to stay in the military, let alone keep his rank. She looked at me, in her gentle way, and said: the General.

7

So that is the story of the bear. For many years I did not really think of it, but these days, as I approach the age that my father was at that time, I think of it often. I wonder how the bear fared in the woods, what sort of life it lived. And I wonder if some day I might be able to visit my father’s hometown, to talk to the people there and see the fields of rice. But when I think of this I realize that I do not know the town’s name. My father had never told me, and I had never asked.

Our Town

Our town has long been a place where not a great deal happens, and that is how most of us have always liked it. There are the locals, some of whom have been here for several generations, and an itinerant population of holiday-makers who come here to enjoy our pleasant beach and interesting forest. The two people, a young woman and a somewhat older man, who caused a certain amount of disruption to our little community were in the second of these groups, and they took a lease on a holiday house on the edge of the town, where there was an overgrown path that led down to the beach. They had been living quietly there for about a month when word passed around that they could fly.

At first this notion was dismissed as the gossip of those people who spent a bit too much time in one of the town’s bars, or those who engaged in distractions of a less legal variety. But gradually the number of claims grew. The local librarian, Miss Hudson, a painfully honest soul who had never touched a drop of liquor, said that the young woman had landed in the parking lot to return a borrowed book. Mr Pearson, who had taken a morning jog along the beach every day for perhaps twenty years, stated that he had seen the pair sitting on the high branch of a tree that could not possibly be climbed; they appeared to be having some sort of breakfast picnic.

There were those in town who were dismissive of such suggestions. After all, they pointed out, the couple had often been seen walking around the town, holding hands and carrying bags of groceries. Even more, they had been noticed waiting for the bus, which would hardly be expected of people who could fly. True, they were a little odd, friendly enough if engaged in conversation but mainly likely to keep to themselves. The age difference, perhaps fifteen years between them, was unusual but hardly a cause for recriminations, and our town has always prided itself on its open-mindedness. And finally there was the obvious argument that human beings could not fly. To this group of our people, this constituted game, set and match. End of discussion.

The problem was that sightings of the flying people – sometimes together, sometimes alone – continued. Some townsfolk took to walking around with cameras while looking upwards, in the hope of taking a photograph. Only one photograph was, in fact, taken in this period, and it was so vague and blurry that it was not accepted as solid evidence even by people who swore that they had seen the airborne pair.

The situation became such that one of the town’s police officers, Constable Hilda Turner, said that she would pay a visit to the couple and sort the matter out. She did, indeed, set off to interview the couple in their rented house, and returned an hour later, wearing a somewhat puzzled expression. When she was asked whether the couple could fly she answered, yes, I believe so. But she emphasised that she had not actually seen either of them leave the ground. The man was on the roof of the house when she arrived, replacing some broken tiles, although there was no evidence of a ladder or any other means by which the roof might be reached. While Constable Turner was engaging the man in polite if stilted conversation the young woman suddenly appeared beside her, and greeted her warmly, asking if she would like a cup of tea. Constable Turner had not heard her approach, although the ground was littered with dry leaves that made a cracking sound with every footstep.

Over tea, reported Constable Turner, she had asked the young woman point-blank if she and her companion could fly, and the woman had replied, why yes, yes we can, and would you like a biscuit. Constable Turner said yes, she would like a biscuit, and at that moment the man entered the room, saying that the roof repairs were complete. Constable Turner asked the man if it was true that they could fly, and the man confirmed that it was. The policewoman asked how was it that they could do something which appeared to defy the laws of physics. The man responded that it was an issue of belief. He had once met someone who could fly and had therefore realised it was possible. When he and the young woman met, a few years later, she had seen him fly and had likewise realised it was possible. So there it was.

Constable Turner subsequently returned to the police station where she filed a short report, and later answered a few questions put to her by the editor of the local newspaper.

The resulting article caused, by the quiet standards of our little town, quite a stir, and there was a growing movement for the mayor, Ms Thompson, who ran the popular café in the main street, to become involved. Ms Thompson called a public meeting for that evening, to be convened in her café, where beverages, scones and cakes could be purchased. There were questions as to whether the flying – the allegedly flying – couple should be invited, but after discussions with Constable Turner the mayor decided against it, although she left the option open for a later time.

The meeting, as it turned out, attracted most of the local population as well as quite a few holiday-makers. Constable Turner was asked to reiterate her report, which she did in such a clear and steady manner that even some of those who had previously rejected the possibility of flying people as a hoax or a series of mistakes began to acknowledge that there might be something in the idea.

The questions and opinions that arose from the meeting fell into several categories, namely:

  1. Could the flying couple be witches, or perhaps aliens.
  2. Was there a way for the business people of the town, always on the lookout for additional sources of revenue, to make money out of this.
  3. Should the Department of Defence, or perhaps some other agency of the national government, be informed.
  4. If the ability to fly stemmed from the belief that one could fly, was it therefore possible for other people to learn to fly.

A number of people expressed considerable interest in this last point. After all, if gravity could be overcome by simply assuming that it did not exist, then it called into question many concepts previously taken for granted. Several of the younger townsfolk remarked that they would be very pleased to take flying lessons, and would be quite willing to forgo a belief in gravity and whatever else was required in order to get off the ground.

The meeting adjourned without a clear conclusion, although nearly everyone agreed that the flying couple were probably not witches or aliens but ordinary people who had somehow acquired an extraordinary ability. Notably, there remained a hard core of non-believers who argued that human flight, aside from the airplane variety, was simply impossible and that was all there was to it.

The faith of the non-believers was severely tested the next day when, quite suddenly, the couple landed in full view of many people, outside Petrucci’s Famous Pizzeria. They then ordered a pizza, ham and pineapple, with a side of potato salad, to take away.

There were a few people who huffed that descending on a public street in this way was tantamount to showing off but most of the townsfolk were merely curious, and put a series of polite questions to the pair while they waited for their pizza.

Yes, said the couple, we can fly, and have been able to for some time. No, flying itself is not difficult but landing requires a certain amount of practice. Yes, it is a matter of belief. It requires putting aside everything you know, or think you know, about the world and how it works, and instead substituting the sure and certain knowledge that flying is possible. This leap of faith becomes much easier when you have seen someone do it, said the man. No, we do not know how the first person to fly achieved the feat. The young woman mentioned that, even after she had seen her partner fly, she had spent many hours standing in a park thinking about it. And then she realised that it could be done, because it had been done, and then she did it.

The pizza and potato salad arrived, and the couple ascended to return home. The ascension was, in some ways, not particularly impressive. There was no sudden leap into the air with arms outstretched, Superman-style. Neither was there any magical incantation or puzzling ritual. Instead, it was more like a steady drift upwards, off the surface of the planet, and then at a certain height the couple, pizza and potato salad in hand, turned towards their house. The only impressive aspect of the entire process was that it happened at all.

With the phenomenon of human flight now confirmed, our community grew strangely quiet on the issue. There was an unspoken consensus that, given that the couple had been as forthcoming as possible in their explanations, and seemed to be a pair of pleasant individuals, to notify government authorities might be an invasion of their privacy. Neither was there any further talk of ways to monetise the matter.

And then, one day, they were gone. Their rented house was empty; the real estate agent said that the lease had expired, according to schedule, and they had not renewed it. He did not know why or where they had gone but he said that, when they had returned the keys to his office, they had not expressed any ill-will towards the town or its people; quite the contrary. It seemed, according to the agent, that their extended holiday had simply ended and they had returned to wherever it was they had come from.

But their departure did not mark the end of the story. For several weeks, a number of townspeople could be seen standing on cliffs, or on the beach, or in their yard, looking out to sea or into the sky. It was a month after the departure of the couple that the first sightings of flying people began. Since then it has been a slow but steady trickle.

Over time, we have largely returned to the view that ours is a town where not very much happens. Yes, some people can fly, in that drifting, undramatic way; and others can but generally choose not to, for reasons of their own. We accept it because, putting it simply, we cannot do anything else: it is what it is. We do not find it remarkable, and we probably never will.

END

Stress test

Appearing on In the Black Digital site, July 2020

 

Tough times: how to cope with stress

Anyone who has done it knows that running an accounting practice can be a stressful undertaking. But the COVID-19 crisis has taken it to a whole new level, imposing unprecedented levels of financial and psychological pressure. Coping with this type of stress is not easy but with the right attitude and appropriate tools it can be done, and possibly the experience of adversity can provide an even greater level of personal resilience and strength.

An irony is that the clients of accounting practices are increasingly looking to their advisers as a voice of stability, reassurance, and control. While there are no firm figures, anecdotal evidence indicates that many practices have seen revenue drop by 30-40 per cent, or even more. Many CPAs have continued to provide services to clients with reduced or no charges, which will help to build relationships for the long term but puts more strain on the short-term bottom line. In other words, the pressure has gone up while the returns have gone down.

Dr Grant Blashki, Lead Clinical Advisor with Beyond Blue, an organisation dedicated to improving the mental health of Australians, explains that people in business need to consciously maintain their mental well-being.

“The usual common-sense approaches to maintaining mental well-being still apply,” he says. “This involves keeping up regular exercise, eating well, getting enough sleep, creating regular routines and making time for friends and family. “Some particular issues that are important during the pandemic are using  online technologies to stay connected with people who are important to you, and being clear about work and home-life boundaries. Don’t let the problems mount up.”

Stress mgt

Break the cycle

Warning signs that stress is turning into a serious health problem include constant fatigue, low energy and disrupted sleep. Other symptoms include withdrawal from usual engagement with work and friends, a noticeable drop in performance, and obsessing about negative themes. There may be a need for professional help, and there should be a readiness to seek it as required.

For people working from home, it is important to establish a routine, including regular contact with colleagues. There are unhelpful behaviours that should be avoided, such as staying up late and then sleeping in, or some form of substance abuse.

Richard Maloney, author of Stress Free: How to Thrive Under Pressure in Unprecedented Times*, and CEO of Quality Mind Global, a consulting firm specialising in mindfulness in the workplace, recognises the pressures that many accountants are under. He emphasises the importance of allowing yourself to de-stress and re-focus. Meditation is beneficial but simply listening to relaxing music can also be very helpful, as can ‘walking meditation’. The aim is to break the cycle of stress.

“You need to schedule time away from work pressure, to clear the mind and minimise negative thinking patterns,” he says. “Another good idea, if pressure is piling up, is to make a ‘gratitude list’ to shift your focus from your problems to the good things in your life.

“If you feel that stress is pushing you into a conflict mentality, try going for 24 hours without saying anything negative. This will make you conscious of yourself and your feelings.”

Taking the pressure off

Dr Blashki points out that Beyond Blue has designed a website called Heads Up**, which provides useful articles, videos and interviews for people in business. It includes a guide for businesses advisers on how they can maintain their own mental health as well as offer assistance to others.

Despite the difficulties of the current situation there is also the opportunity to deepen client relationships.

“There is so much uncertainty in business right now that clients will be looking for leadership, advice and initiatives from their providers – and more than just numbers,” says Maloney. “It’s okay to extend conversations beyond financial issues, and to ask a client how they are weathering this storm at the psychological level. No-one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

A related idea is to run workshops for clients on building mental resilience, and providing resources on mental health as well as business management in tough times. In fact, Maloney believes that helping others is an essential way to reduce one’s own stress.

“If you are more focused on others you are less likely to obsess about your own problems. In the end we are all here to help and serve each other, and we can attain a great sense of accomplishment from doing that,” he says.

Dr Blashki agrees with this theme. “One of the positive outcomes of this pandemic has been a recognition of the fragility of other people’s lives,” he notes. “It has reminded us how dependent we all are on each other. Assisting others, whether with business advice or simply a compassionate ear, can all contribute to a sense of community. That will be greatly appreciated.”

 

* Stress Free: How to Thrive Under Pressure in Unprecedented Times, Richard Maloney, Woodslane, 2020.

** Go to https://www.headsup.org.au/  See also the Beyond Blue documents Supporting small business owners to improve their mental health and wellbeing at work and Actions for small business owners to improve their mental health and wellbeing, available at https://www.beyondblue.org.au/

 

Key points for coping

  • Take regular ‘de-stress’ time, away from work issues
  • Stay connected with family and friends
  • Ensure that work and home-life boundaries are clear
  • Look to available resources on mental health
  • Be aware of warning signs such as fatigue and social withdrawal