A Sailor's Story
Here in Geoji-si, an island in southern Korea, I met four Russian merchant marine sailors, the only other white people on the street. We agreed to meet for drinks, and I ended up tittie bar, obviously not my kind of place. I got drunker than I’d been in a long time.
Two of them spoke no English, and one in only halting phrases, first friendly, and then as he continued to drink peppered with British expletives (“Sod off!”, “Wanker”).
The fourth, Yuri, spoke in sentences that meandered round and round until they eventually found their destination. Certainly his English was more suitable than my one reliable Russian sentence: “Would you have time to have a coffee with me?”
What is it about Russian men? Why do their eyes shine so brightly, as if about to burst into tears?
I worried at first that he would clock me as queer, and tried to smile appreciatively at the girls up on that pole. Then, I thought he might try to ignite some political dispute about the war in Ukraine. But no, he just needed someone new to drink with, and of course refused to let me pay for a single round as long as one of us (he) was still standing.
Although we didn’t end up spending the night together, obviously it could have happened. And though I offered, he refused to exchange information on WhatsApp, or any other app, so apparently we’ll never see each other again.
Thus, only this story remains. I believe that he flipped a pronoun – in which case, I can’t account for the presence of five children at the end – but I will remain sedulous to his telling:
He told me of an old sailor he’d known, Petrov, who fell in love with a woman named Elizabeth, a British nurse with whom he’d crossed paths in Hamburg at the end of the Second World War. Their all-consuming romance was cut short after only a few weeks when the war was won, and the two were forced apart. Thereafter, they exchanged letters for many years.
She went on to work in a hospital in Birmingham, where she rejoined her fiancé and got married. He eventually quit the navy and sailed from Okhotsk to parts of postwar Russian-occupied Japan, and eventually Shanghai, Hong Kong, and points south.
Nevertheless, the correspondence never ceased. Petrov poured out his heart in letters sent by indirection to a sympathetic, or at least tolerant, sister in Essex, sometimes as many as five in a week. Elizabeth found excuses to pick them up in batches and answered each, always responding to the most recent date before reading and answering the next.
This went on for five or so years. Then, again the pair found themselves on opposite sides of a new war.
Petrov enlisted ahead of conscription so he could secure a place on a ship of his own choosing. Elizabeth divorced her husband and set her own new course working as a British Air Corps nurse. They managed to arrange to meet on leave in neutral Okinawa, married after only three days, and navigated another passionate separation as the demands of the war took them to opposite corners of a geographically small but still formidable peninsula.
They met as often as possible, and when Elizabeth discovered she was pregnant, she quit the Corps, raised their son, and lived on Petrov’s salary until the war ended. Then he rejoined the merchant marine and the couple made their way to Busan, where they had four more children and lived ever after.
Fighting bitterly until the neighbors would be forced on a weekly basis to call the authorities. Hounded by poverty, haunted by alcoholism and gambling debt, until Elizabeth resembled distended a sea hag and Petrov one of those emaciated, sterno-drinking sailors you only imagine but never actually meet.
On and on and on for another thirty years, until one of them – God only knows which one – finally, to use Yuri’s well-chosen words, departed first.
But wait, added Yuri, pausing for dramatic effect as he approached the end of his story, As this was not the strangest of all ironies, now I will tell you:
When at last the second one, too, had departed, leaving only grown children and grandchildren to sort through the house where both they lived so miserably for so many years, what do they come to find?
All those letters, hundreds, maybe even thousands, all sorted out in order – meticulous order – in two separate boxes, one for him, the other for her, year after year after year. Not just from between the wars, the time of their physical separation, but on through the 1950s, the 60s, the 70s, on into almost the present day.
And what did they say? Yuri asked for me.
“I miss you, I grieve for you, I can’t live without you,” all the words you never say except only to a lover as if you have never seen for so many years.