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Back in grey

Last night I got to Manchester Airport at about 9:30. I got through the controls with no problems; I possibly should have declared some stuff, what with my brand new laptop and my miriad presents, but – meh. At the airoprt, I walked along the ‘sky walkway’ or whatever it’s called and arrived at ‘the station’. According to the displays there was nothing going to St Helens (although I did see the 199 bus destined for my sister’s village). I went down to the railway station and asked, ‘How can I get to St Helens?’ The answer was to go via Manchester Piccadilly (by train), Manchester Victoria (by tram) and St Helens Junction (by train again) – which cost me 8 pounds (damn this US layout keyboard).

When I arrived at St Helens Junction at about quarter to twelve I found that I’d missed the last bus going to my brother’s place by half an hour. I set off walking in search of a taxi. In Korea, taxis are all over the place, but the same cannot be said of British suburbs in the middle of the night. As I walked I remembered a time maybe two years ago when, having just come back (via the Junction again) from either flat- or job-hunting in London, I’d walked to the town centre and then found a taxi hire place; they told me there weren’t any taxis available, so I walked the rest of the way.

This time, as my arms were beginning to feel the strain of my baggage, I found an Esso station and moseyed on over. There was a short south Asian guy on duty and I told him I wanted to get a taxi; he said taxis stop here every ten minutes or so. So I began to wait. Although the petrol station was locked, he asked me if I wanted to use the toilet, and a little while later I asked if I could come in and use the cash machine, which he let me do (the machine displayed an error both times I tried to use it). The Esso man ended up phoning a taxi for me; he also said I could help myself to a drink from the cabinet, but I decided I’d wait until I got home before having a drink.

Eventually, the taxi came and, once I’d been let out of the locked petrol station, I was driven to my brother’s house (the journey consumed about half of the nearly 14 pounds I had on me). When I got there I found that my brother had no food, no tea and no internet. I went to bed.

Being here is quite depressing. My brother has a friend staying or living with him. I can barely bring myself to talk to my brother, and I’ve exchanged a couple of grunts with his friend. I don’t know if my brother works, but he clearly doesn’t have a lot of money. There doesn’t even appear to be any hot water in the house; this morning I boiled kettles of water (the same kettle boiled consecutively, rather than several kettles at once) in order to wash. I’m also a bit scared of his dogs. The bigger one doesn’t seem to have a problem with me, but the smaller one (they’re both mastiffs or something similar) keeps growling at me and biting my shoes. The house smells of dog and cigarette smoke.

At least getting out and about today has brought my spirits up a little. My first stop was Lloyds TSB; the money I sent back on Monday has gone into my account, and my cashcard still works (and I remember the PIN). The shop that sold cheap CDs, videos and a few books has closed down, but I was pleasantly surpised by the cost of things at HMV; I think I’m going to be buying a fair amount of stuff from there. In St Helens’ only bookshop (a small independent one, at that) I found the new Steven Erikson book and the latest installment of the Dune sequence (no The Da Da De Da Da Code, though). There are plenty of English language films at the cinema (this being England and everything) – and the St Helens Cineworld is one of the cheapest I’ve been to. Use of the internet at the Central Library costs one pound fifty per half hour – not as good a deal as the 1,000-won-an-hour PC bang in Korea. (Plus, when I asked about it later, they told me I needed to register with the library and for that I needed two forms of ID: one with my signature and one with my address. Right now, I could produce the former, but not the latter.)

Nearly everyone’s been talking to me about the culture shock of returning home recently. I didn’t expect to experience any – I certainly didn’t when I went to Korea (although I did just start typing ‘came’ instead of ‘went’). My explanation is that, in a way, I’ve always suffered from culture shock – so now I’m no longer a stranger in a strange land: I’m a stranger in a familiar land. It is kind of nice to be back (as I type this, I’m just digesting a pasty from Sayers and a cup of tea from the Tesco cafe). (However, I was surprised to see that the St Helens McDonalds has turned black.)

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