FICTION: First Bus to Incheon by PJ Stephenson

I have more of Wednesday than my wife does – it’s a time zone thing.

The ridiculous electronic whining of my smart phone alarm stops dead my walk through a jungle full of laughing pandas – not as pleasant a dream as you may think. I stare at the ceiling and take a few seconds to get my bearings.

Where am I? In a hotel room in Seoul.

I roll over and find a big space in the bed next to me. My wife is at home thousands of miles away – hopefully still sound asleep.

What did I convince myself I’d remember as I tossed and turned last night? I can’t remember.

But I do recall that I have to get up and catch the bus to the airport. I throw aside my huge duvet and stagger blearily into the bathroom. I do a double-take worthy of Stan Laurel as I see the strange-shaped lavatory, with its blocky electronics and huge padded seat. I forgot that my high-tech Korean hotel room came complete with a heated toilet seat.

Why go to so much expense to make it feel like someone sat on the bog just before you got there? Surely a seat cooler would be more appropriate, so you can believe that no-one’s derriere has come anywhere near your private bathroom within the last forty-eight hours – or preferably longer.

I shower quickly, scrubbing with a bar of soap the size of a stamp and washing my hair with a shampoo made of green tea and pine nuts. Who makes these hotel hair products? Why do they always want to use food? It was a strange person indeed who first said, “I like the taste of this tea. I must add it to a beauty product.” I dry myself in an enormous fluffy white towel.

Note to self: Buy new towels at home – make sure they feel like hotel ones, not like cardboard as they usually do.

I take a lift to the floor above where a breakfast room gives spectacular views over a Legoland of high-rise buildings. I ask for an omelet and the egg waiter gives it to me with a bow – as in, he tilts his head as I take my plate; he doesn’t wrap my eggs in a ribbon.

I hurriedly consume my breakfast as I gaze out at the chrome and glass behemoths that make up this modern Asian city. It’s impressive but not really to my taste. I’m a rural chap at heart – give me a Norman church and an Elizabethan cottage any day.

Back in my room with renewed energy and indigestion, I throw open my suitcase to pack. I unearth my dirty laundry from the floor of the wardrobe then start carefully folding my business clothes. I see a hotel pen by the bed and throw it in my computer bag. Should I take a soap too? How much of this hotel stuff is complimentary? I had a pub conversation about this once but can’t remember what my friends concluded. I assume I can take an envelope but know that international protocol – and most national laws – prevent me from nabbing any towels. I generously decide to leave the beverage-flavored toiletries for the next guest. A quick check under the bed to retrieve an errant sock and I’m ready to go.

I wheel my case to the elevator and when the doors ease open I am pleased to find it’s empty. Why do I hate sharing lifts – is it some kind of phobia? I am soon zooming silently towards earth, like an astronaut returning from space. The illusion is soon crushed when I am halted half way and an American couple alights. I am then forced to spend the rest of the journey watching the digital numbers count us down through the myriad of floors.

I emerge in a lobby the size of my entire house, and as I pay my bill I try not to convert the large numbers into my own currency. My boss will have a fit next time he sees my travel expenses.

A doorman in a heavy green coat shows me the bus stop which is literally just outside the front door. There’s only one bus and only one destination: the airport at Incheon.

I stand by a metal bench and take in my last deep breaths of Asia, which are mostly infused with the viscous cigarette smoke generated by a guest standing around the corner.

The shuttle soon arrives and once inside I find myself alone. It turns out to be a business class experience with comfortable, padded chairs, lots of space and glossy magazines. Where was this yesterday on the five-hour drive from the conference venue when I was sandwiched next to a fat Austrian man in a bulky coat with restless leg syndrome and halitosis? Why do I never get tiny sweet-smelling women sitting next to me?

We stop at other hotels to pick up a rag tag collection of people and their baggage. At least it gives me a mini tour of downtown Seoul and its vast array of skyscrapers. I see zones I missed when I went foraging for noodles and souvenirs last night.

Ah, yes, that was what I had to remember! I was looking for a gift for my wife. I’ll have to find something at the airport.

Finally out of the city, I doze a bit as we hurtle along a large highway. I glimpse enormous iron bridges and wide waterways. The man in orange overalls slowing traffic at a road construction site turns out to be some sort of robot, a high-tech scarecrow. I am quite disconcerted by this and can’t sleep again. But soon we are pulling up at our destination.

As I stand in line at check-in I am still slumbering. The woman in front of me spends her whole time shepherding her toddler and pulling her top down over her flabby belly. Why do women wear clothes that are so short they have to keep yanking them down self-consciously?

Why do I always ask myself so many questions when I’m travelling? Maybe I should take up Sudoku to keep my mind from trying to make sense of a world that doesn’t make sense.

My wife will still be fast asleep in Geneva but I text her anyway to say I made it to Incheon early. A large digital sign shows the status of different security queues. I walk a bit further to the shortest line.

Sure enough, the queue is small and I breeze through. In my dozy state, I forget to remove my belt but the scanner doesn’t go off. The last time a machine beeped for me at Heathrow, you’d have thought I was Osama Bin Laden’s long-lost brother: they almost needed latex gloves for the frisk.

In Duty Free I browse the brightly lit cabinets displaying the usual array of airport tat. The jewelry is exceptionally sparkly. Who buys a twenty grand Rolex on a business trip? And what I definitely don’t need right now is a mug declaring how much I love a city I may never see again.

I order a cappuccino and it is served up to me looking like tea. Does the head office in Seattle know these cowboys are using its brand? I liberate a bottle of Evian to take it back to its source near Lake Geneva but I leave the Swiss chocolates to continue their journey to remotest Asia and beyond.

A loudspeaker worthy of a school sports day announces that we are boarding. I better join the long queue quickly; people’s haste must mean the plane is likely to leave without us.

Of course, once on board, I find my flying companion is a squat male with a puffer jacket. He must have paid more for his air ticket than me as he thinks he is entitled to place his right leg in my floor space and take over the whole of the shared arm rest with his elbow.

I slip on my headphones in an attempt to blot out people and engine noise. The Genius function on my iPod is anything but intelligent if it thinks Kelly Clarkson goes with Linkin Park. And why is every third song by Ed Sheeran? Who programs these machines? I flick to one of my own playlists.

Note to self: Write to Apple – complain about their software.

I pause to accept my little plastic meal. I am given an unappetizing mix of green leaves and nuts and a dhal and rice dish with veg on the side. Broccoli, lentils and spices. Just what I need for a long flight – flatulence food! The airline might as well go the whole hog and throw in some beans and Brussel sprouts. The dhal is bathed in a rich tomato source. Great – heartburn as well.

While watching an old episode of Friends, I eat a few mouthfuls of an artificial sponge cake reminiscent of something you might find on a kitchen draining board. What ever happened to David Schwimmer? I’ve never been on a flight that didn’t have this show: did the production company sell the series en masse to the airline industry? Next I try a box office action movie. When I get to a good part, text appears with the airline name. Why did they decide to edit this bit? Since when did Lufthansa IT staff have better artistic judgement than Steven Spielberg?

At this point the man in front of me decides that he has also paid for some of my space and pushes his seat back to squash my knees and put my TV screen within touching distance of my nose. Rather than cross my eyes to continue my cinema, I close them.

Note to self: Take out a mortgage and pay for business class next time.

I sleep – eventually.

The bump of landing wakes me up from a fitful sleep. I turn on my smart phone – not because I need to, but because that’s what everyone does these days the minute they land. My wife’s text hopes I’ve had a good flight. Nope!

There’s the usual scramble to find my cabin baggage while avoiding being elbowed by everyone around me doing the same thing. Then I am out in the cool, chrome world of the transit airport. I desperately race around the terminal to find antacids and my gate. As I join the snaking queue for boarding I realize I still haven’t bought a gift for my wife. Thankfully a small shop nestles alongside a café nearby so I relinquish my place in the line to go and forage.

Does she love Frankfurt enough to warrant my investment in souvenir porcelain? Would she enjoy jogging in the German national football team shirt? I pass over the chocolates and opt for an orange, patterned silk scarf. The label says it was made in Korea. Perfect!

The last leg of my journey is a short flight and I doze again. By this stage I am so exhausted I am oblivious to the obese man in a parka next to me.

As I stagger bleary-eyed into arrivals, my wife is standing there, resplendent in a long grey coat and an orange patterned silk scarf.

I kiss her and say, “You look nice. Where did you get that scarf?”

“You bought it for me on your last business trip.”

“Yes, I recognize it,” I say. “Listen, go and pay for the car park ticket. I need to nip to the shops.”

And that is when I finally buy some Swiss chocolates.

PJ Stephenson

PJ July 2016

PJ is a British writer and environmentalist living near Geneva, Switzerland with his wife and Parson Russell Terrier. He sees the Alps every day but misses the Cairngorms. His homesickness seems to be cured by eating copious volumes of Swiss cheese and chocolate (although that often causes a different type of sickness). Much of his fiction is inspired by nature, travel and history – but other stuff just comes out of his head randomly.

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