Summer of Soju

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제 22 장

Joey decided to sleep through his classes this morning.

He was uncharacteristically defeatist when we returned to the Kingdom, circa six o’clock this morning. He merely looked down at his watch, shrugged, then climbed into bed without setting an alarm.

At around twelve, we rose again.

I haggardly packed my bags and cold-showered while Joey wallowed around in a pool of self-pity. On the way to the bus station I booked a cheap hostel on my phone, and when we arrived, we filled our stomachs with a couple of faux cheese sandwiches and cans of diet Coke. The bus left the station at around two o’clock, and I slept for what felt like the entire four hours of the journey.

Now, as we pull into Seoul, I rub my eyes and nudge Joey until he wakes up. We head to the nearest taxi rank and crawl inside the first one we see. Joey leans towards the driver’s ear and mutters a single word: Itaewon.

The driver silently nods his head and taps the accelerator.

I sit back and gaze out of the window at the glimmering urban landscape; the bright little puddles leftover from the rain, and the skyscrapers, towering above us like watchful protectors. Something about Seoul at night evokes a strange feeling inside of me. The people in the city don’t seem to matter much. It’s the city itself that breathes, talks, and walks. It’s the city itself that feels alive.

‘We’re meeting Mimi for dinner, by the way,’ Joey notifies me. ‘She wanted to see you off. Was meant to be a surprise, but just thought I’d give you a heads up.’

‘Alrighty.’

The taxi parks on the side of Itaewon’s main road.

Joey pays the fare and we step out of the cab, joining the drunken stragglers who already roam the strip, a bottle of soju clutched in their hands and a vague objective for the night nestled somewhere in their brains.

It feels weird to be standing on this strip again, this lurid pit of tawdry sleaze, where tourists jeer at local girls, swilling down expensive tasteless mojitos… and to be meeting Mimi here, too - a diamond amongst stones.

None of it feels right.

Joey leads the way to an Italian restaurant where we find Mimi sipping on a glass of white wine. We plod towards her table and I try to act surprised when she looks up and sees us both hovering above her.

‘Hey.’ She jumps up and hugs us both. ‘How are you, guys?’

‘Fine, fine.’ We both nod simultaneously. ‘And you?’ I return the question.

‘I’m good,’ she says, re-taking her seat. ‘I thought pizza, Leon, as you’re probably sick to death of Korean food by now.’

‘Well…’ I smirk. ‘We’ve been using that logic all week. Now I’m sick of pizza.’

‘Ha!’ she chirps. ‘Well, it’s the company that counts, eh?’

‘Sure.’ I grin moronically.

‘And this place is funny, right?’ she says, gesturing to the strip outside. ‘What did you guys get up to when you came here?’ She giggles. ‘Another jimjilbang?’

Joey pauses for a prolonged moment, his face buried inside a menu. ’Aha, no…’ he says finally. ‘We stayed in a hostel near here. Spent the night with this funny guy from New York. What was his name, again?’

‘Chris,’ I say, without hesitation.

‘Right - Chris, from New York.’

‘Well, sounds fun.’ She smiles naïvely. ’Now, we need to order something soon because I am starving.’

And without even bothering to check the menu, I order a margherita pizza and another wine glass to join Mimi with the vino.

The sun begins to set, and a long dark shadow creeps its way over Itaewon.

By the time our food arrives, the streets are so swarmed that I’d happily spend the rest of the night sitting inside this phoney restaurant. Outside are the pleasure-seeking ghouls, the ones that won’t ever stop until they satisfy their unquenchable thirst for cheap thrills and soon-to-be-forgotten unforgettable nights, the endless pursuit of the next big thing.

And then inside, there’s Mimi, a morsel of purity in an otherwise forsaken world, sitting beside me in this phoney Italian restaurant.

I turn away from the window and she smiles at me sweetly.

‘Oh!’ she bursts out. ‘Have you got that card, Joey?’

‘Oh, yeah.’ He digs a hand into his bag and hands me a white envelope. ‘Here you go, brother.’

I open the envelope and pull out a card with two beige teddy bears printed on the front, both of them holding love hearts with the words Miss you already cursively written above them. Inside the card is the following message:

Dear, dear brother,

Besides having to share the bed each hot, sweaty, smelly night, it’s been a real pleasure having you over to catch a glimpse of my life on the other side.

I’m sure you’ll be leaving with plenty of memories and stories for family and friends to hear.

Choose wisely who you tell each one to!

Wishing you a safe journey back to the good old UK.

Lots of love,

Your darling brother and his amazing girlfriend,

Joey and Mimi! XXX

I peer over the tip of the card to see Joey and Mimi’s waiting smiles. I place the card back down on the table and thank them both accordingly.

‘And perhaps we’ll get him down again next year, eh?’ Joey nudges Mimi. ‘Make it an annual occurrence?’

‘Sure.’ I sit and smile at them both. ‘Why ever not?’

Throughout the rest of the evening, as we sip on acidic white wine and slide yellow slices of pizza down our throats, Joey and I reminisce about the past few weeks, thinking back fondly on a selection of comical moments, steering the conversation away from other less proud ones. I feel an almost overwhelming sadness at one point, as my wine-drenched brain drifts into my subconscious, retrieving a nugget of information that reminds of the fact that it may be quite some time before I ever see Joey again. I glance at him vacantly for a couple of seconds, then efficiently banish the thought with a sip of white wine and the lighting of another cigarette. Joey does the same.

After the meal, Joey and Mimi walk me to Itaewon station so I can catch the metro to the hostel I booked.

Joey and I both exhale as our eyes cross for one final time.

‘So…’ I start saying idly, ‘what are you guys gonna do now?’

‘Oh, I dunno… probably head back into the mayhem, I suppose. You gonna be alright getting to the hostel?’

‘Yeah. Should be alright.’

‘Well, then…’ He spreads his arms open. ‘I guess this is it.’

‘Yep.’ I smile, and embrace him for what could be the last time for a number of years.

I do the same with Mimi, then reluctantly turn away, glancing back a couple of times as I ride the escalator down to the platform.

*

After five or six stops I arrive at Hongik University station. I drag my suitcase off the carriage and out onto the streets, listening to Hello Nasty as I pass by restaurants and bars, each of them filled with cheerful faces enjoying their Friday evening.

While Song for the Man is playing and I’m caught in a mild daze, I feel someone prod my shoulder. I slip off my headphones and turn around to see two young Korean girls gazing up at me.

‘Um…’ I raise an eyebrow at them both. ‘Hello?’

‘Where are you going?’ the shorter one asks me.

‘I… uh… a hostel,’ I eventually squeeze out.

‘OK.’ She nods. ‘And how long you are in Seoul?’

‘Until tomorrow morning.’

They both frown peculiarly. ’But why?’

‘Well, I… I have a flight.’

‘Oh, no…’ Their frowns accentuate even further, and I wonder to myself: What is the purpose of this interaction?

‘So…’ the taller one addresses me now, ‘you know much about Korean peoples or the Korean history?’

‘Well…’ I try and scan my brain for some of the things I’ve learned about Korea: soju, two types of beer, bangs, barbecues, brothels…

‘Nope. Not really.’

‘Ah, OK.’ The girl readily produces a leaflet and offers it to me. ‘Here,’ she says. ‘We are doing a ceremony. Tonight! Old Korean tradition for the thanksgiving.’

I take the leaflet and pretend to read it over.

‘So… you want to come?’ the short one presses me, an eager, presuming smile resting on her lips.

‘Well…’ I stall, then ask apathetically: ‘When is it?’

‘In about one hour,’ she says, checking her watch.

‘Ah,’ I sigh, unconvincingly. ‘But, you see, I have to check-in to the hostel within the next half an hour.’ A lie. ‘So, I probably won’t be able to make it.’

‘Where is hostel?’

I show them the address and the tall one rubs her chin.

‘Oh, yes,’ she says, pointing in some direction. ‘Not far from here, yes. We can take you, and then we can go, yes?’

’But I haven’t eaten yet, either.’ I lie again.

‘It’s no problem.’ She pats me on the shoulder. ‘We will have food at the ceremony.’

‘Okay, but–’

‘It’s OK?’ she cuts me off, and I start to feel defeated, like I’ve been backed into an inescapable corner.

But then, all of a sudden, I realise something ingenious - they won’t be allowed into the hostel because they’re not guests, so… when I get inside my room, all I need to do is stay there until they have to leave for their stupid ceremony.

‘You know what…’ I say, with a Machiavellian flicker in my eyes, ’yeah, yeah… it is OK.’

So, they walk me to the hostel, and when we get there, I tell them they’ll have to wait outside. ‘OK,’ the short one agrees, ‘but don’t be too long. Not much time now. Sorry.’

‘Sure.’ I smile, and turn my head away from them. ’I’ll be as quick as I can.’

I walk up to the front door and press a buzzer on the wall. It’s answered by a monotone woman who grumbles something indecipherable to me. I explain that I’ve booked a room for the night and, seemingly unwillingly, she buzzes me in.

Inside the hostel are two sets of old wooden stairs and a sheet of paper cellotaped to a wall that says Reception – this way with a downward pointing arrow. I follow the arrow down the stairs and find a group of old Koreans sitting on the floor, heckling one another, drinking shots of soju as a commercial music channel plays in the background. One of them seems to spot me standing in the doorway but chooses to ignore me. He just rolls his eyes and lights another cigarette.

I approach the circle and try to get their attention, but my voice is drowned out by their shouting and laughing and it’s not until I tug on the shirt of a woman sitting in front of me that anyone actually decides to acknowledge me.

‘Eh?’ the woman grunts as she twists herself around.

The rest of the crowd turn almost silent.

‘I’m checking-in?’ I say, for some reason like it’s a question.

‘Eh?’ the woman grunts again, staring at me blankly.

‘Check-in? Room? I’ve booked a room.’

’Ah… room,’ she repeats, pulling herself up from the circle. ‘Come.’

She directs me to a desk with a computer on it. ‘Is you?’ she asks, pointing to a random name on the screen.

‘No,’ I say, tapping my name on the list. ‘Here. Tyzack. Room. Private room.’

‘Ah…’ She squints closely at the screen, her eyes are dead and grey as she tries to read the booking. ‘OK,’ she suddenly reanimates and yells something to the rest of the group. They all cackle like before, and in response, the old lady starts making strange fart noises with her lips at them.

‘Come…’ she says once again, inviting me to follow her up the stairs.

She leads me up three flights until we reach a door with a shoe rack beside it. She makes a vague gesture towards the rack and, knowing all too well by now, I remove my shoes and set them down on it. The old lady shrugs indifferently and pulls out a set of keys. She points in the direction of a bathroom and then unlocks the door to reveal what must be my room.

I take one step inside and involuntarily grimace at the state of it; the slimy pink walls, the soiled pillowcases, the bits of mould growing beneath the window, it almost makes me wretch - but did I really expect much better for a measly 5,000 won?

‘Eh?’ the woman waves her arm around languidly. ‘OK?’

‘Eh,’ I repeat. ‘Yes, yes, OK.’

‘OK,’ she mutters again, but this time with finality.

She turns around and leaves the keys on the bedside table. ‘Good-bye!’

I dump my suitcase on the floor and slouch on the bed; exhausted, but still somewhat drunk.

I turn on the air conditioning and check my phone for the time: ten o’clock. My fight leaves at seven in the morning, which means I should probably wake up at around four to arrive at the airport on time, which means I should probably be trying to get some sleep right now. But the actual thought of sitting around in this room until I’m tired enough to sleep makes me wince.

I peek out of the tiny window and see the girls still out there waiting for me.

I exhale and sigh pensively, switching my gaze between the girls and the door, pondering over what to do next.

‘Oh… fuck it,’ I whisper to myself, grabbing the keys from the bedside table.

The girls beckon me over and start walking down the street just before I reach them. ‘Please. Hurry now,’ the short one says. ‘Not much time now. Sorry. Everything OK?’

‘Yes,’ I say, picking up the pace.

‘Great,’ she cheers. ‘So, let’s go!’

The girls take me to the metro station I came from earlier.

They select a destination on one of the machines, then prompt me to insert some cash, laughing amongst themselves at the way I fold the notes in my wallet. ‘This is bad luck in Korea,’ they say. ‘Bad money, bad luck.’

On the way to the mystery ceremony, they quiz me on a number of topics: My family, my hometown, my university, my career prospects, Korean food, English food, Korean people, Korean culture. For some reason they find it hilarious when I mention one of my favourite Korean films is Memories of Murder, a crime thriller from 2003.

’It’s so old.’ They carry on giggling. ‘And scary. Why did you watch it?’

‘Well, I dunno…’ I shrug. ‘It’s good. And I like that actor in it. What’s his name?’

‘Ooooh.’ The tall one nods approvingly. ‘Kang-ho song.’

‘Yeah, right - that guy.’

‘He’s good,’ she says, ‘but, the other Korean actors… they don’t like him.’

‘Oh, really? Why’s that?’

She grins at me playfully. ’Because he’s too good.’

*

As we leave the underground, I attempt to extract some more information about the ceremony from the girls, and they sincerely try to explain it to me, but their words only leave me with as hazy an understanding as before I’d asked. ‘We will do some bowing,’ the short one says. ‘I will teach you. And, you wear a gown, and we will have food, and soju. Yes, yes. And friends will be there, too. Yes, great.’

‘Mmhmm,’ I carry on smiling.

We stop walking when we reach a specific apartment building.

The girls lead me inside and we take the lift to the fourth floor, and as the doors open, an abundance of shoes appear, all scattered across the wood pine flooring. From somewhere in the room I can hear the sound of bells ringing and girls chanting, like they’re reciting a prayer.

‘Oh, no,’ the short one whispers. ‘It’s started. You must take your shoes off.’

‘Yes, yes…’ I mutter, swapping my shoes for some Crocs left beside the door. She hands me a silky blue gown with swirly patterns on it, like a sort of bathrobe, and tells me to put it on.

I oblige her and loosely wrap the gown around my clothes.

And then she proceeds to try and teach me some traditional bows for the ceremony. For the first one, she gets right down on all fours and places her head on the ground, her palms laid flat on either side and her knees bent over. ‘This one is easy,’ she says from the floor, and I’m sure it is, but for some reason I can’t manage to do it any justice.

After becoming mildly frustrated with my feeble attempts, she moves onto the next bow. I genuinely try to follow her instructions, but again my inflexibility and underperforming brain prevent me from making any progress. She pushes her hands down on my back, trying to straighten it, but seems to give up after releasing a defeated sigh. ‘OK, well, we need to go in now,’ she says. ‘Not long left.’

She guides me into another room where three other girls are dressed in gowns. Two of them are Korean and seem to be conducting the ceremony, while the other is a blonde girl whose body almost shows right through her gown, a delicate little figure that makes me glad I’ve still got the rest of my clothes on.

The Korean girls hover around the room, swinging a lantern that releases incense smoke into the air.

‘You must follow what they say,’ the short girl informs me.

She assumes the position of what I think is the first bow.

I try my best to imitate her.

‘Now…’ she whispers. ‘Close your eyes. Only open them when they tell you to… and now, relax. Meditate. Think of your family. Think of them…’

I do as she says and begin to think deeply.

The singing and the bells become almost hypnotic and a feeling of sedation gently washes over my brain.

And, like she said, I think of my family - of Joey, mostly – the good, the bad, the ugly… not quite thinking, but merely picturing. Remembering.

Memories flow freely around my brain without confrontation.

A puff of incense smoke rises towards my nostrils and my mind starts to unwrap itself, layers of tension unfolding and loosening as I—

‘Eyes open. Stand up, please,’ one of the Korean girls orders.

And it feels like I’ve just been woken up from a dream. I open my eyes slowly, stunned, and look to my side to see my short friend has left me.

How long has she been gone for, I wonder?

‘Stand up, please,’ the Korean girl orders again, and so I do, smirking impudently for the blonde girl to see.

One of the Koreans seems to roll her eyes and, maliciously perhaps, goes on to instruct: ‘Bow, stand up. Bow, stand up. Bow, stand up. Bow, stand up,’ over and over with little more than a few seconds between each action.

I start panting, barely able to breathe now as I drag myself up from the floor, only to collapse straight back into the foetal position again. The leading Korean cruelly watches over me as I’m pounded into submission, reduced to nothing but a pathetic worm. I glance at the empty space beside me again, reminiscently of the short girl, praying that she hasn’t left me to die with these sadists.

The blonde girl doesn’t seem to be struggling at all - owing to her magnificent physique, no doubt, she gracefully transitions between bows and standing positions, barely even breaking out a sweat.

It pains me that I’m in no condition to truly appreciate the sight of her thinly-veiled curves, dipping in and out of one pose to the next, like a bunch of oranges jiggling in a shopping bag… oranges, yes, all filled with juice, ready to be peeled and – oh, no… I can’t… I can’t do this.

My brain shuts down and I spread across the floor like a mangled doll. ‘Stand up,’ the Korean orders, glaring at my defeated shell. ‘Stand up,’ she tries again, but all in vain. I don’t move an inch. I can’t.

‘OK…’ she mutters. ‘Finish now. Thank you.’

And as a last kick in the teeth, the Koreans escort the blonde girl into another room without even a moment for the two of us to catch eyes again.

I slowly peel myself off the ground, and then my short friend reappears and bounces across the room.

‘Well done,’ she says, beaming. ‘You did really well.’

‘I did?’

‘Yeah!’

‘If you say so.’

‘You enjoyed?’

I struggle for an answer.

‘OK… well, sit down,’ she says, ‘I have something to ask you.’

We take a seat on the floor with our backs to the wall. She takes out a piece of paper and taps it with a pen. There seems to be some sort of questionnaire on it that I guess she wants me to answer. ‘Please, write down your family names with age,’ she says, ‘and some wishes you have.’

‘Wishes about my family?’

‘Maybe, yes… just anything.’

‘OK.’ I do as she says, writing down the details of my family, then moving on to the wishes section. I stare intently at the empty white box, but I can’t seem to think of anything genuine, so I just scribble down world peace and hand the piece of paper back to her. ‘Could I have some food now?’ I say, as innocently as possible. ‘And a little something to drink?’

‘Uh… yes,’ she says, blushing. ‘Come this way.’

I follow her into another room where the other taller girl is arranging some food on a table. She smiles at me as I walk inside and automatically pours me a glass of soju.

‘Take what you want,’ the short one gestures to the food. ‘Yes, anything.’ And as I reach for whatever I can get my hands on – fruit, biscuits, kimbap - she carries on talking. ‘This ceremony,’ she says, ‘it is for the family. OK?’

‘OK,’ I say, with a mouth full of grapes.

‘OK.’

She then starts doodling on the piece of paper I gave back to her. She draws a line about three-quarters of the page up, and then some circles lower down with arrows next to them. The arrows are pointing upwards, all the way past the line at the top. ‘This is your family,’ she says, pointing to the circles. ‘Their spirits. OK? And when family die, their spirits… they want to go to the sky. The sky – here.’ She taps above the line. ‘But, the problem is – they can’t go. They have too many bad things that happen to them. Bad relationship, bad illness, bad disability, bad drugs, bad alcohol, bad abortion… these bad things, mean they can’t go to the sky. Yes?’ She checks that I am paying attention.

‘Mmhmm,’ I mumble, reaching for my soju.

‘So,’ she carries on, ‘this is what ceremony does. It gets rid of bad things and helps spirits go… to the sky.’

I seem to be shaking my head now. ‘And it’s that easy, is it?’ I blurt out. ’Just like that? All the bad things just magically fly away into the sky just like that?’

‘Yes, yes.’ She smiles excessively, bobbing her head.

‘It’s true,’ the taller one says. ‘And they know. Your family know. They can feel it.’

‘But it can’t be that easy,’ I say, ‘you can’t just do a few bows and wish that everything goes back to normal. That’s not how it works. It’s not that simple.’

‘It has already been done.’

‘But what if I wasn’t ready for it to be done? I mean, you never asked me. What if I wanted to do things in my own time? You don’t know me. What do you know about me? What do you even know about these things, huh? What do you know?’

They both stay silent for a moment.

The short one leans towards me and I seem to be sobbing now. ‘It’s OK?’ she asks.

I keep my head buried in my arms.

‘Yeah…’ I sigh, after a long pause. ‘Sorry. It’s OK. I’m just tired.’

‘We can take you to the station, if you want to go.’

‘Yeah.’ I wipe my face dry with my sleeve. ‘That’s probably a good idea.’

The girls walk me back down to the metro station after I return the gown and pair of Crocs. ‘If you don’t mind me asking,’ I say, ‘what’s all this for? I mean, ultimately. Is it a religious thing?’

‘Oh, no,’ the short one says. ‘We just want to teach people like you about Korea. Lots of people don’t know Korea. Not really. And, it makes us sad.’

‘To us,’ the taller one adds, ‘it is important - to share Korea with you.’

‘If you come Korea, but you don’t know Korea… we think, it’s not so good.’

‘I understand.’

‘Yes…’

‘Well,’ I take a pitying look at them both, breathing in deeply. ‘Good luck with that…’

*

When I get back to my room, the floor outside is slightly wet and I can hear someone singing in the shower. I open the door to be hit in the face by a dense, icy mist. I must’ve forgotten to turn the air conditioner off when I left earlier because the room is damp and freezing, and everything in it feels soggy like it’s been rained on for the last hour. I switch the conditioner off and lie myself down on the bed. I set my alarm for four in the morning – three hours from now – then take half my clothes off and slide under the duvet.

And then, I realise I forgot to turn the light off.

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