Kerry Hudson's non-fiction piece 'The Woman Next to Me' is part of the International Literature Showcase's 'Crossing Borders' series.
I’m on the Victoria Line tube. The same blue line I rode every day to work in my mid-twenties and I wept on more than once because I felt ugly in the way that particularly grips you when you’re a young woman alone in a large city. Now, in my mid-thirties, I grip a burning paper coffee cup between my knees. A make-up bags spills out across my lap.
A mum gets on and sits opposite me; a smaller girl on her lap, a baby boy in a buggy, two girls of perhaps four and five in school uniform sit snuggly together in a single seat beside me. They bring the smell of cold outside air and a sense of just finished laughter into the carriage.
‘Bethan, pull your skirt down, cover yourself.’
One of the girls beside me squirms in her seat pulling at her grey school skirt. I smile at the mum, who rolls her eyes and carry on with my make-up. Powders and pastes, mascara, lipstick, several brushes. The two girls tilt their faces towards me, watching me grip the coffee between my knees, balance the make-up, hold the mirror at different angles to paint over my dissatisfied expression. I wonder how, if they asked, I could explain what I was doing? Why I would sit there on a swaying train staring at myself, trying to change my face to one I find acceptable? I wonder what I would tell those girls if they asked why it mattered that the people on the tube could see their thighs? Why they have to learn to cover themselves?
I was in Hanoi to finish my second novel. I rented a room at the top of the house and a strange, large conference room I could use as an office. Thuy, my housemate and landlady, was in her mid-thirties, a former Oxford Fellow, investigative journalist and lecturer at the local university. She wore slogan t-shirts of the ‘I woke up this way’ kind, took her glasses off when there was a man around and gave an odd two-note laugh after making a point. She had long, black swooshing hair and a tall woman’s way of slightly stooping.
A few weeks after I moved in a damp chill had set across Hanoi. The sun was hidden permanently by a thick grey fug and makeshift stalls piled high with fleecy blankets and puffa jackets sprung up by roads where motorcycles might stop and shop. I discovered that the light chimney through the centre of the house, a hole essentially, and glassless windows weren’t ideal for the, even for a Scottish girl, fucking freezing Vietnamese winter. Neither was the cold shower, or the lack of heating except a tiny Chinese lantern sized electric heater that valiantly fizzed out some heat for me until it popped and flashed to its death a week later.
Thuy and I would usually meet in the kitchen. I’d be boiling the grease-filmed kettle to make what I’d grandly termed a Viet Toddy: cheap whiskey, lime, ginger and honey. Thuy would be floating around clearly waiting for company. At the kitchen table, no matter what we discussed - yoghurts, bicycles, American sitcoms - she would find a way to angle the conversation to her accomplishments. In Thuy’s conversations in that cold, cockroach-ridden kitchen, both of us wearing our winter coats, she was the hero, a star. She was not just succeeding, she’d risen so high she was orbiting above us. ‘They’ve been watching us.’
Thuy and I leaned against a cold, blank wall in the conference room. We stared at the long wooden table, the ten office swivel chairs slightly misaligned as though a meeting had suddenly gone very wrong. We weren’t looking at each other. I suspect Thuy was depressed. I know I was. Plus, the internet was down.
I scanned the room as though the phantom secretary might read through the minutes and let me know what I’d missed.
‘People around here. They see us, two girls. We’re alone. You’re a foreigner. They think we have money. Lots of money.’ I made an unconvincing sound that might have been laughter. She raised her hand up, made scissor motions with her fingers, “So maybe they did something to the internet and phone.’
She looked at me, face pinched, eyes sincere. Maybe, maybe. I tried to laugh again but I’d just told her I was terrified that I was being followed and I could have done without her side helping of double-paranoia and so instead I left Thuy alone in the conference room and went to make another Viet Toddy.
In my second week in Hanoi I’d been the subject of a ‘hate blog’ by an anonymous expat who targeted women living in Hanoi. He wrote that I was a ‘fame whore’, by dint of him being able to google me and find me I suppose. He claimed I’d ‘licked my way to the top’, photo-shopped my head onto lesbian porn, then posted fairly convincing comments on the blog making it appear a gang of lesbian-haters knew where I lived and were going to, ‘gang rape the gay bitch’ and make sure I was ‘jack-hammered from both ends until she turns to straight again’. Now the blogger had started masquerading as a Hooters waitress and repeatedly emailing me saying they wanted to ‘fuck me and destroy me’. So, no, I was not in a good place when Thuy suggested that our neighbours had cut our telephone wires because they thought we were alone and had money.
As the kettle boiled I wondered why Thuy was trying to frighten me, to make her own life more exciting through the threat to my own mundane one. From that day, I avoided her, which meant the kitchen and the kettle. At least it got me off Viet Toddies for breakfast.
Of course, I learned that phone lines, internet and electric came and went in Vietnam with no extra assistance. I discovered the blogger was a crank who didn’t even live in Hanoi. I finished my second novel, had my heart broken, found solace at the bottom of a bottle of vodka and under an English teacher leaving for Indonesia the next day.
Thuy and I had one last night out together, a film festival premier where she got me to walk the red carpet by telling everyone I was an English actress and then pressed her business card on whoever we spoke to. In the cab home, both a little drunk and easier in each other’s company than usual, I’d asked her how it felt to be an unmarried woman in Vietnam who was so accomplished. She smoothed her skirt down in that nervous way of hers, looked out at the lines of motorbikes and told me in a long quiet rush that she didn’t belong, that she couldn’t meet a husband, that her parents wished she was different. I almost didn’t hear it because of the constant noise of Hanoi, the beeping, shouting, blaring pop music, Thuy telling me, face turned away, that she was lonely followed by an odd two-note laugh.
The guide led the caravan of camels across the dunes to make camp. I took off my trainers and walked to the highest point, the sand, soft golden sugar, coming up past my ankles. I watched the rest of the tour group with their selfie sticks, self-conscious leaps into the air, 1-2-3! and couples kissing phones held aloft. I’d taken this trip alone to India because my second novel, the book I was writing during that ill-fated stay in Hanoi, sold enough copies in France to pay for me to stop doing sums every day. I was trying to sit and absorb that I’d made it to the desert in Northern India from the council estates of Lanarkshire. That I’d done that with money I earned. I was trying to make the memory stick somewhere but instead I felt tired, a little homesick, the desert blank and unyielding.
Hands clapping and high, thin voices singing over the dune’s desert hush; I heard them before I saw them. Three small girls circled the Spanish couple nearby, a few sparse, flat notes drifted across the sand to me and I watched the silhouette of their thin limbs against the sky, so relentless an hour ago, now a bruising pink sunset.
I watched another couple take two of the girls aside to snap endless pictures with their giant cameras. They reached out and angled their faces just so, straightened their shoulders, held lenses inches from their faces. The littlest of the three roamed the remaining group with her hand extended. She was maybe four years old.
She sang in a tuneless rasping voice, as she approached me, her tiny hips swaying. When she finished she held her hand out and I shook my head with an expression I hoped gentle at least. She brought her face close and smiled. Not the smile of a child but the smile of a salesperson. She wore layers of bright skirts, dirty and torn. Her eyes were clumsily lined with melting kohl, a green eyeshadow, her ruined baby teeth circled by lips thick with pale coral lipstick. It’s not that I didn’t want to give money. Of course I did. I wanted to give money simply for me being born who I am, where I was, and her being born who she is, where she was. I wanted to empty my purse of rupees. I wanted to fold her up in my arms and bring her away with me. But I’d been told it would only be worse if I gave money, that then somehow I’d be complicit in these children’s fate. I don’t know if that’s true, the logic feels flawed, but over on a hill I saw a tall man, his white Kurta pyjamas flapping in the wind, waiting for the girls and so I shook my head again.
She changed her expression, now earnest, pleading, lifting her t-shirt and pointing to her stomach. I shook my head again. My heart was mincemeat, though I do know a breaking heart is the luxury of a tourist. She stepped closer and I could smell that sweet-salty odour of kids played too long in the sun.
‘Monee, chewing-gum, lipstick?’
I gave her my water bottle, then some peppermints, finally I tried her with a “pen for school?” Though of course, there was, is, no school. She took the pen uncertainly in her fist, I pulled off a few sheets from my notebook, held them towards her and nodded. All her showmanship, all the sales patter, gone. Her face was as concentrated as any child given a blank sheet of paper and a way of marking it. She made a round, awkward green scribble, let out an excited shriek and then, hugging the water, mints, pen and paper to her chest, ran off to join her retreating sisters being led away by the tall man in Kurta pyjamas.
Later at camp, eating watery dhal and fire-charred roti while the camels settled in huffy mounds around us, I could barely conceal my anger towards the couple who staged the impromptu photoshoot and then shoved a handful of rupees at the girls.
It’s only when I was lying on my camp bed, looking up into the sky so starry, like iron filings on oil, listening to the tk-tk-tk of shiny beetles rolling dung along the desert floor, that I realised: I wasn’t angry with the couple. I was angry I was born who I was, where I was and that those girls were born who they are, where they were. I wish I’d just emptied my purse. I wish I’d folded her in my arms and taken her away with me. I shook my head again. I was angry because I knew that anger was selfish and reductive and the complexities loomed larger than the desert around me. That’s the memory that sticks somewhere.
I don’t have a lot to say about her, that grandmother on the train from Moscow to Siberia. Except how she was silent and seemed alarmed to be in a carriage with a foreigner like me who smiled too much and who could only say ‘spasibo’ repeatedly. How her granddaughter, ten I learned from her two splayed hands held up, frequently shouted at her and snatched the colouring book from her hands and the woman simply smiled a little. How as Russia and its endless tall trees, flat barren fields, sprays of small violet flowers and rickety wooden houses, sped by I secretly watched that grandmother. How absolutely still she was, how her skin looked like a well-used paper bag, how the holes in her clothes were mended with neat black stitches and the toe of her blue slipper was sellotaped together. At their station, while her granddaughter whined and grizzled packing her felt-tips into a little pink rucksack, the old woman put their leftover gold-wrapped chocolates, pink wafer biscuits and teabags into a little zip-lock bag and forced it into my hands. I don’t have a lot to say about her really, that old woman with whom I shared only the word ‘spasibo’, but it looked to me like she’d had a hard life, that she was weary and still found time to give a small, sweet gift to a stranger.
The school is on the outskirts of Gongju, in the belly of South Korea, a little city two hours from the neon metropolis of Seoul and a million miles away. I was picked up in a rainstorm from my Hanok, a traditional Korean home very much like a cosy Wendy house with a wide screen TV, and driven to an elementary school. At the entrance I swapped my soggy trainers for spongy blue slippers then drank tea with the principal, answered questions for kids in a classroom with a banner reading “Welcome, Kerry Hudson, Author!” and tried to dance Gangnam-style for them.
Afterwards I was taken to the small canteen by Juli, a South African teacher with body language that made me want to lay my warm hands on her jutting bones. I remember her as eager, nervous, tired. Like looking in a mirror. Or part of one anyway.
In the canteen, children turned to see the tall lady with the funny hair. One shouted at Juli who laughed, a rare moment of release, and touched her own short hair. ‘They’re asking if you’re my sister because we both have yellow hair.’
We sat with our backs to the children, eating fat, solid noodles, ‘rice cakes’, in spicy tomato sauce, meat on the bone, half a slightly beige apple, scorching kimchi. Too spicy for me and Juli, seeing my wish for a cheeseburger written all over my face, lowered her voice, “I am sick of this food. Every day the same thing.’
‘Couldn’t you maybe take a packed lunch?’
She shook her head, bit her thin lip. She explained nothing can be different, no person can stand out and that she was already so different.
‘The other day I saw someone in the staff room take a banana and - she was warming now, her clipped, slightly formal South African accent just a little stronger, ‘–go and get a knife and cut it into eight equal parts for everyone present.’
She stared anxiously at my tray, each sectioned compartment still full. I took another forkful, glugged more water, nose and eyes running, the dry spice scratching at the back of my throat.
She told me that meal was important. That the kids were from farming families and the principal personally convinces their parents to let them come to school. How most of them they won’t get a meal as good as this, with meat and fruit. I told her how we have food banks in the UK, a familiar anger warming my breastbone.
Little arms reached around Juli's neck in a choke hold and she turned to a tiny blonde girl, blue eyes, missing a tooth. The girl said something in Korean.
‘And this is my daughter.’
Extraordinary, seeing a little blonde girl in the midst of so many Korean children.
‘I have another too, a boy. One year-old.’
We watched her daughter join the queue, scatter her cutlery, she looked as though she had too much energy for her little limbs.
Juli told me it was hard for her daughter, ‘she acts up all the time’. She tells me the teaching job is punishing for a single mother. ‘The saying in Korea is ‘teacher is God’’, she tells me, so if the principal asks you to do something you must, even if you’ve got to work all night. Then she apologises, blushing, ‘I’m going on’.
No, I told her, it was fascinating. I wanted to know about this strange place I had found myself in. I wanted her to talk. Besides, I didn’t tell her, I could see she wanted to and I wanted to do that one thing for her.
She told me she came from South Africa with her husband. That he beat her. She said it so matter of fact, between bites of her browning apple. She told me she ran away, divorced him and her friends turned their backs on her, ‘because of the scandal’. It’s a scandal to divorce your husband, to bring your children up alone. She concluded, ‘thank god I still have the church. I still have them.’
She looked so calm arranging her knife and fork in the cutlery slot in her the tray only the bowing of her head gave her away, the soft exposed back of her neck. I thought of my own mum, me the same age as Juli’s daughter, a man with bleach blonde hair, nunchucks and a vicious drunken temper. I said that’s terrible. I’m so sorry. She nodded and for a single suspended moment I thought she might cry right there in the canteen.
‘Sorry. I’m going on again.’ She pasted on her teacher smile ‘I miss speaking English. Sorry.’
That afternoon I told the story of the Loch Ness Monster to the assembly of wriggling children in the Samsung-sponsored gymnasium. Every child high fived me as they filed out of the hall, then queued to hold out their notebooks for me to sign and draw hearts on, as though I was a visiting celebrity by sheer dint of having yellow hair.
A few days later I met Juli and her children. We ate breakfast at a Mary Poppins themed café that had video booths and good hot chocolate. Afterwards we walked through Gongju to her tiny, spartan, toy-filled two room apartment - that she seemed proud of but apologised for anyway - and ate ice-cream. As I left she insisted I take one of the only two ornaments in the apartment; an engraved brass Chinese teapot. I said goodbye, to her and Gongju, wishing her only the very best things for her and her children.
‘Bethan, pull your skirt down, cover yourself.’ Bethan giggles and wriggles her grey school skirt down and I think of my time in India, just a few weeks earlier, where I covered every curve and dip of my body because my very femaleness felt like a danger. Where I saw girls Bethan’s age dancing on desert dunes for ‘monee, chewing-gum, lipstick.’
I finish my make-up, watching the girls watching me. What would I answer if they asked why I would sit there on a swaying train staring at myself, trying to change my face to one I find acceptable? What would I say if one those girls asked why it mattered if the people on the tube could see their thighs? Why did they have to learn to cover themselves?
I would have told them I didn’t know. That I was still trying to make answers from fragments of clues myself. I’d tell them everywhere I travelled I learned that women will be used, shamed, hurt and isolated and that being a woman anywhere is hard for all different sorts of reasons and for many of the same ones. But I’d also tell them that I’d met women across borders and continents who taught me about strength, humility, kindness, self-worth and taking space, whatever the shape, without apology. That the clues I was making my own answers from were in the stories and shared experiences of other women, the things they had given me. If they asked me why I was putting on make-up I would never tell them it was because I thought I was ugly.
They got off at Oxford Circus. I stayed on until Vauxhall. They didn’t ask and I didn’t get to say. So instead I wrote it here.
Scottish, queer, working class novelist. Loves to perform, travel, teach