It is snowing at the checkpoint and John and Abbie are outside, gazing over the border to the Taebaek mountains, and freedom.
“You come, please,” says the guard, his green tunic emblazoned with enigmatic decorations and his oversized green cap looking surprisingly uncomic.
I look through the window to see Abbie throw a snowball at her dad. They are both laughing. “But we’re going soon, the bus’ll be here.”
North Korean guards aren’t people you ignore. He leads me into a small, austere office. Pictures of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un hang on the wall above a desk. Their official cleaning cloth lies folded neatly on top of a filing cabinet nearby. I remember hearing about a woman who lost her cloth and used a different type. A random inspection resulted in three harsh months in a Gulag. Could that be true, I wonder?
The man at the desk looks up. His tunic has twice as many emblems and decorations as the guard. A colonel, apparently. The guard was young, not unfriendly. This man’s face is older, gaunt. It looks like he doesn’t smile often, if at all. “Mrs. Hernandez. There’s an irregularity with your visa.”
“What, no, we’ve been through this. It’s all been sorted!”
The man pushes his chair back and sits with his hands clasped together and his chin resting on them. “Mrs. Hernandez. There’s something we need you to do. Then … no problem with the visa.”
It is snowing and we’re getting on the plane. The white flakes are settling on Abbie’s golden hair as we cross the gangway. A young, pretty, Korean woman with a smart blue jacket and matching cap, wearing a very short skirt, smiles a greeting. I stare at her in a daze. I feel I’m about to crumble. Stay strong, just till the plane’s in the air. Then I can go to the toilet and dissolve.
I’d been taken to a room. Three women were sitting on a bench. Their faces were frightened but resigned, their eyes huge with pleading.
“You pick one,” said the colonel.
He shrugged. “Orders.”
I made the impossible choice, the oldest one, but still only middle-aged. I caught her eyes for a split second but it was enough. We went outside to a snow-covered yard, the flakes coming down harder now. My hands were shaking. The colonel handed me a heavy pistol with a squat silencer. He showed me the safety catch, put the gun against his head in demonstration, and motioned the woman to kneel.
It is snowing at Las Angeles airport. Is it snowing everywhere in the world, I wonder? Everyone is there to greet us. John’s mum and dad, Abbie’s friends, my sister Madeleine – ‘Mads,’ and a newspaper reporter from our home town.
I smile, wave, and reply to questions on autopilot. In my mind there’s one image. Beautiful huge white snowflakes swirling and settling on the ground by the woman’s head – instantly turning red.
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