Summer of Soju

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I awake from a thirteen-hour soaked sleep to the irritating sound of a fly buzzing around the room.

I roll onto my back and observe the fly as it goes from one corner to the next, passing the open window, then back to my side of the room where it stops to hover over me. I try to knock it away with my hand, but its five eyes see me coming too quickly, dodging every swipe I make.

I think to myself: Perhaps a different tactic is required to defeat this foe, so I put my arms down and the fly, still hovering above me, cautiously approaches my body. It settles on my chest and creeps towards a puddle of sweat by my nipple. Its eyes gleam with lust and excitement as it droops its nozzle, and as soon as it sucks down just one drop, it dives back in for another ten.

Meanwhile, I raise my hand above the ignorant fly and engulf the creature in a gloomy silhouette, its nozzle still sucking voraciously, but its oval eyes, this time not quick enough, only just turning their gaze in time to witness their master’s demise.

Checkmate, fly.

I blast the carcass off my chest in the shower, then waltz into the living room to find Joey watching Show Me the Money with Justin.

‘Morning, sunshine,’ he says as I enter the room.

‘Morning all,’ I say. ‘And happy birthday, Joey. Made it this far, eh?’

‘Looks that way, brother. You feeling any better?’

‘Somewhat.’ I perch myself down on the armrest next to Justin. ‘Any sign of G-2 yet?’ I ask him.

‘Nah, not yet,’ he shakes his head. ‘He’s an elusive character. I think they give him less screen time just so you’re always guessing where he is. Making us want more, you know?’

‘Uh-huh.’

After a couple of episodes, we hear a rattle at the door, like it’s being unlocked, but it isn’t opening. The key scrapes against the lock and a frustrated Irish voice cries out from behind, ‘Agh! This fuckin’ key. Every single time.’

‘I think I know who that could be,’ Joey grins, bouncing towards the door, swinging it open to reveal Frank, a real giant of a man, with Jesus-like hair hanging lower than his shoulders and a coating of sun cream still soaking into his face.

He throws himself onto Joey, ‘Eeeey pal,’ then slaps Justin’s shoulder, ‘Hiya, honey,’ before turning to face me, smiling and offering his hand. ‘Alright there, lad. You must be Joey’s brother, aye? I’m Frank, but am sure these boys will’ve mentioned me before.’

‘Sure.’ I take his hand and stare like a dummy.

‘Well,’ he stamps on the floor. ‘No need to stay standing on my account. Let’s all have a drink.’

Joey and Justin return to their previous position, while Frank and I sink into the other sofa.

‘You wanna beer, mate?’ he asks me, heaving a bag of Tsingtao cans from his rucksack.

‘I think I’m alright for now,’ I say. ‘Haven’t been feeling too good these past few days.’

‘Oh, really?’ He cracks one open for himself. ‘Have you guys had a biggun without me already?’

’Nothing too major,’ Joey shrugs. ‘But it was a laugh.’

‘Right, right,’ Frank continues. ‘But you’re not feelin’ too good, aye kid? What were you drinkin’?’

‘Just soju and beer.’

‘Of course,’ he chuckles. ‘Soju. Right nasty stuff. But fuckin’ cheap, aye?’

‘Yeah.’

‘And what else? What beer?’

‘Cass and… Hite, I think?’

‘Mmhmm. Cass and Hite. Yeah, the classic duo. And they won’t do you no good either, full of chemicals and all kinds of shite.’

‘You think that’s why he’s ill?’ Joey interjects. ‘Me and Justin have been alright.’

‘Aye, lad. But we’ve probably grown used to that shite. Probably got Cass and Hite and all kinds of soju shite runnin’ through our blood.’

‘It has been worse than a normal hangover,’ I say.

‘I don’t doubt that, kid. But no bother.’ He pulls out another can and offers it to me again. ‘C’mon,’ he pleads, ’just have one. No Korean shite. You’ll feel better, promise.’

’Well… alright,’ I say, rolling my eyes and taking the can.

I guzzle down a mouthful of the lukewarm beer, and only seconds after it hits the back of my throat, my brain feels ignited again, like a switch has been flicked and the lights are back on. Without a thought, I gulp down another.

‘There you go, lad.’ Frank applauds, smooching his can. ‘Ain’t nothin’ like this little short-term solution.’

*

Joey reveals that he’s planned a full schedule of activities for his birthday weekend, and that no questions may be asked of its contents. Blindly, we’re to follow him from place to place, and when it’s all over, he says we’ll be grateful for it.

Stop number one is a fried chicken restaurant.

‘The best in the business,’ Joey says as we pass through the door.

Customers in the restaurant stare at us blankly, then an old Korean lady shows us to a table, right beside the deep-fat fryer and a Korean news channel playing at full blast. She offers a couple of menus but Joey swats them away, knowing exactly what he came for. He orders everything for the table in Korean, and unsurprisingly, the usual combination of soju and beer soon arrives.

I reluctantly let him pour me a shot and we all knock it back together, and then the old lady returns again with three whole chickens, battered and deep fried. I wonder if they were ordered from the vegetarian menu.

‘Happy birthday, Joey,’ Justin announces with another shot, commemorating the beginning of the ensuing chicken massacre.

Legs and wings and breasts get ripped apart. Fleshy chicken juices are spilled all over the table. Bones are crunched. Gristle is discarded. The sound of conversation is replaced by occasional burping.

I have another shot and sit back to take a break.

‘So,’ I say, ‘what do you guys do for fun around here?’

Frank picks some chicken from his beard and pings it across the room. ‘Oh, this and that,’ he says. ‘I like the foreigner bars downtown, but these two are less keen.’

‘They’re alright.’ Joey shrugs. ‘I just don’t like the idea of a place specifically designated for foreigners.’

’Oh, it’s just a name,’ Frank cries. ’The Koreans are all over foreigner street, and it’s great. They get so wasted that they actually talk to us. That never happens in real life.’

‘Maybe not to you,’ Joey says. ‘But I talk to Koreans all the time.’

‘Right,’ Frank scoffs. ‘Like who? You know the kids don’t count, Joey.’

‘Well,’ Joey smirks, ‘maybe not that many, then.’

‘They do seem like big drinkers here,’ I say.

‘Yeah,’ Frank nods. ‘All this soju shite, they go crazy for it. The kids here don’t ever touch drugs or nothin’ like that. They just smash it with the soju. That’s their drug, man. Soju.’

Justin pours another four shots.

‘And why did you guys choose Korea?’ I ask, wincing.

‘To tell you the truth, pal,’ Frank answers, ‘I haven’t got a fuckin’ clue. I just wound up here however long ago, you know, young and virile, and I haven’t moved since.’

‘The money was good,’ Justin says. ‘Well, it still is. I’m making a hell of a lot more here than I would back home. I couldn’t really justify moving back to the States now.’

‘Oh, yeah,’ Frank pours another shot. ‘The money helps with keepin’ me. I mean, if I went back home, back to Belfast, nobody’s gonna be payin’ me this kind of money to be teachin’ English. I could move to another country and do the same thing. But going back home – now that would be a serious pay cut.’

*

A taxi consumes us at the chicken shop and regurgitates us back onto the pavement some fifteen minutes later. Joey directs us along the pavement until we reach a dark cavernous hole in the ground. He steps inside and upon his command, we follow him, down a set of windy stairs, further into the darkness of the cave.

Frank clicks his fingers in some sort of eureka moment as we near the bottom of the stairway. ‘Oh, I remember this place,’ he announces. ‘Still sour about last time, eh Joey?’

And as my feet touch down on the final step, I gaze ahead to see a row of bowling alleys, two of them occupied by a flock of Korean kids.

High-tempo electronic K-pop battles against the striking of pins, and fluorescent neon lights illuminate the otherwise dim basement. Joey wanders past the kids, straight to an intercom attached to the wall, where he pushes his finger into a button and transmits two simple words: beer and soju.

During this brief window, I take a trip to the bathroom, passing several cancerous smoking booths on the way.

The door creaks open to reveal the strangest-looking toilet I’ve ever seen. It’s like an office printer, with buttons and flashing lights slapped all over, then a big watery hole thrown in the middle. And as I approach the strange contraption, it emits a high-pitched robotic voice, almost chanting at me: Annyeonghaseyo! Annyeonghaseyo!

I jump back and throw my hands in front of my face, apprehensive that it might be about to blow up or something.

I peak through my fingers to see the room is still intact, then approach the device again, cautiously inspecting its selection of buttons.

Out of mere curiosity, I press a green one, but nothing seems to happen, so I shrug at the machine and proceed to unbuckle my belt and unzip my trousers, but just as the zipper reaches the final tooth of the chain, a white plastic rod appears at the bottom of the toilet bowl and suddenly starts firing an incredibly powerful stream of water upward in my direction.

Annyeonghaseyo! it viciously cries out again as the bastard water pistol soaks my shoulder and the bathroom door.

I slam my fist down onto the same green button again and pray for the damn thing to stop.

And it does - the pistol retracts, and I sigh with relief.

But then, again - the sneaky bastard peaks its head back out and mercilessly open fires on me.

In a frenzy of panic, I smash the green button again.

It retracts again.

It returns again.

And without a second to collect my thoughts, I hit the green button over, and over, and over, the spraying bastard looking even more smug with each return.

Eventually, I notice a red button sitting next to the green, with a faint letter X engraved in the middle.

But could it be so simple?

My fist slams down onto the red button.

The water stops, and that nasty old rod disappears, this time for good.

The great battle of our generation between man and machine is finally over.

Man has won, and now, man will celebrate by soiling his opponent.

With a refreshingly empty colon I return to the alleys, a beer and shot waiting for me, the games ready to begin.

‘It’s a free for all,’ Joey announces, stepping up to the alley first.

He commences the proceedings with a raging strike, hurling the ball straight down the middle, obliterating each and every loitering pin in his path.

‘Birthday luck!’ Frank grimaces, slapping his hands on his knees. ‘Luck luck luck luck luck.’

It becomes clear after a short period of time that the real competition is happening between Joey and Frank. Justin and I try our best, but really, we don’t stand a chance against the other two. Frank begins to show some frustration as the end of the game draws nearer, while Justin and I continue to take it slow, comfortable at the relaxed pace of the lower leagues.

The current standings are as follows:

JOEY 133

FRANK 119

LEON 82

JUSTIN 68

’Are they always so competitive?’ I ask Justin.

‘Ha, yeah,’ he smiles, exhaling from his nose. ‘Whenever games are involved. And booze, obviously.’

‘Right,’ I snigger, watching the two of them bicker over something. ‘And who wins more?’

‘It’s about even. But Frank will probably tell you different.’

‘Right.’ I grin. ‘He’s a funny guy.’

‘Mmhmm.’ Justin nods slowly. ‘He sure is...’

Over by the alley, a triumphant cheer erupts from Joey’s lungs, a celebration of his third strike in a row.

The deep voice of a Korean man resounds throughout the building: Tukkey! Tukkey! Tukkey! Congratulation!

Joey bellows with laughter as Frank looks beat, slouching and sighing at the floor, shaking his head, muttering something. He runs his fingers through his hair and takes a deep breath. ‘Justin, you’re up!’ he yells, making his way over to me with Joey following behind.

‘How’s it going, man?’ Frank asks me.

‘Pretty good.’ I shrug. ‘Looks like you’re having a bit of trouble there.’

‘Oh, don’t worry about me, kid,’ he winks, clicking his tongue. ‘I’ve come back from worse.’ He leans forward to pick up his beer. ‘So, how you findin’ hangin’ out with the boys? Good to see your bro again?’

‘Sure.’

‘And how about our pal Justin there? Gettin’ on okay?’

‘Yeah,’ I look over to Justin, about to roll his second attempt. ‘He’s a nice guy.’

‘Yeah.’ Frank swigs his beer. ‘Good guy, good guy. He can be a bit tame sometimes, you know? But he’s got a good heart and that.’

Oh no! the Korean voice groans as Justin’s total of six appears on the scoreboard.

‘Bloody hell!’ Frank yells. ‘See what I mean? Right. I’m up again. Time to show the boys how it’s done.’ He places his beer back on the table and approaches the alley, slapping Justin’s shoulder as he passes him by. ‘Hard luck there, buddy.’

Joey moves up to the seat next to me, sinking into the leather sofa as he ruffles my hair. ‘Good to have you here, brother,’ he says, ‘good to have you here.’

‘Good to be here.’ I slump down further, too. ‘What else are we doing today?’

‘Uh, uh, uh…’ He waves his finger at me teasingly. ‘All will be revealed, brother. All will be revealed. I have a real good surprise for the end of the night.’

‘Alright, then.’ I smirk. ‘Looking forward to it.’

‘And so you should be.’

Frank finishes up with a spare, congratulated by the reliable Korean: Well done player three!

‘Gonna take more than that,’ Joey taunts.

‘Oh, fuck off!’ Frank yells back from the alley.

‘Guess that’s me, then,’ I say, pulling myself up from the sofa.

I pick up my usual purple ball and step up to the lane.

One more round remains after this, but as long as I don’t completely screw up, then third place will be secured.

I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and envisage laying waste to those ten powerless pins, knocking each one of the limbless bastards down onto the floor where they belong. I line up the shot, gliding towards the alley, and with the wind in my hair and the taste of bronze on my lips, I release trusty purple out into the world, watching closely as it shoots down the lane like a rocket, bashing every worthless pin to the ground.

Nice job! says the Korean voice.

‘Very nice,’ Joey applauds, joining me by the alley. ‘Very nice indeed.’

He picks up his heavyweight ball and stares intently at the pins as they reconfigure. ‘Now, brother,’ he whispers, ‘it’s time for me to end this thing.’

I stand beside him as he effortlessly bowls another strike.

He waits for his ball to return, and Frank buries his head in his hands, the fat lady well and truly singing her K-pop anthem now.

He knocks another eight pins down, then the final two to finish with a spare, and suddenly, an alarm goes off, with red lights flashing all around the room.

Congratulation! goes the Korean. You are winner!

Joey grins boastfully. ‘Guess I’m too far ahead for anyone to catch up.’

He skips back down to re-join Justin and Frank. ‘Come on then, boys. Still got your turns left.’

‘Oh, what’s the point?’ Frank whines. ’And where are you going?!’ he shrieks as Justin approaches the alley. ‘You’re dead last!’

‘Just a bit of fun.’ Justin shrugs, hiding a smirk.

I wink covertly as I pass Justin by and re-claim my seat next to Frank.

‘Didn’t do too bad there, little man,’ he says to me. ‘I let your bro win this one today, though. Didn’t wanna show him up in front of you, aye?’

‘Oh, whatever,’ Joey glowers. ‘This is some of the best you’ve played.’

‘To fuck it is.’ Frank shakes his head, tutting. ‘Just the beginning, anyhow. Plenty more games yet, right Joey?’

‘Maybe, Frank… you’ll have to wait and see, won’t you?’

‘Whatever, Joey.’ Frank rolls his eyes, turning to me. ‘You heard about all these bangs and that, kid?’

‘Yeah.’ I nod. ‘A bit.’

‘Great stuff. Best thing about this country. I mean, there’s nothin’ like pissin’ around on games when you’re… pissed… and… around, is there?’

Justin returns smiling after hitting a total of seven pins.

No announcement is made.

‘Take your turn, then,’ Joey instructs Frank, sneering.

‘Oh, piss off,’ Frank grunts. ‘I can’t win, so there’s no point, is there? That turkey bastard set me way back. Let’s just go someplace else. I need another drink, anyways.’

*

Next stop, as a sort of interlude, we swing by a CU.

We each buy a bottle of soju-pop – a much weaker, fizzy soju-based drink – then head back outside.

The CU has two sets of white plastic chairs and tables outside, with an umbrella stuck in the middle of each one. We take a seat, smoking and sipping our pops in silence. We close our eyes and sit back with our heads tilted up towards the sun, the gentle wind caressing our alcohol-glazed bodies, our brains wandering into a tipsy daze.

At some point the sun disappears behind a cloud and leaves us in cold shade. We open our eyes and grin at each other.

Joey relights his cigarette.

‘Where we going later, then?’ Frank asks Joey. ‘Bangs? Game bangs? Where?’

‘What didn’t you understand about the birthday schedule being a secret?’ Joey replies disdainfully. ’After this, we’ll get a quick bite to eat, then we’ll go to a bar. And then, something unusual. That’s all I’m going to say.’

’But does it involve games?’ Frank pleads. ’Tell me.’

‘Why? So you can redeem yourself?’

‘Yes, lad. Why else?’

‘There is an element of competition involved, yes,’ Joey begins to divulge. ‘But it’s not some run-of-the-mill gaming bang that you’ve probably got in mind. I don’t even think it’s considered to be a bang at all, in the traditional sense at least.’ He sighs at the ground and points his cigarette at Frank. ’Anyway… just wait, for god’s sake. Impatient bastard.’

*

On the way to the bar we pick up some street food; a few pieces of fried, non-descript meat on a stick from the place we went the other night, just about enough sustenance to continue the evening.

Joey directs us to a bar called The Seoul of Daegu, a charming little place with lanterns and fairy lights hung about, but not enough seats to accommodate four foreign asses. So, we venture back outside to source a table while Joey acquires the drinks.

‘What’d ya go for?’ Frank asks as Joey returns with the beers.

‘Went for the ol’ Hite.’

‘Oh,’ Frank sighs. ‘But I wanted Cass.’

‘Well, you know where the bar is, don’t you?’

Frank grins and raises his glass. ‘Cheeky bugger.’

We all clink.

‘So…’ I start, ‘how do you guys actually like Korea, then? Is it a good place to live?’

‘Yeah, it’s okay,’ Justin answers. ‘Not perfect, but I can’t really complain.’

‘Yeah,’ Frank butts in. ‘Can’t complain. I do hear Japan is meant to be better, though. Apparently, that’s the place to be.’

‘Have you not been yet?’

‘Nah, not yet. I’ve met a lot of Japanese birds over here who say I should go… but they probably just want me to meet their parents or somethin’.’ He scoffs. ‘I could never be arsed with learnin’ Japanese though, so I don’t think I could live there.’

‘And how’s learning Korean going, then?’ Joey inquires, a smug glint resting in his eyes.

‘Shite, lad.’ Frank exhales. ‘I stopped after a month of being here, alright?’

‘How come?’ I ask, tentatively.

‘I dunno, kid. I just don’t see the point in learnin’ Korean when I can get by with English here. The Japanese, though, apparently they don’t give a fuck about English.’

‘So,’ Justin joins in, ‘what you’re saying is, you wouldn’t live somewhere you want to, because you’re too lazy?’

‘Fuckin’ exactly.’ Frank slaps down hard on the table, smirking. ‘No, but seriously, learnin’ Japanese or Korean, that would take me fuckin’ years. Decades. I haven’t got the time.’

Oh?’ Joey leans in closer to Frank. ‘And what keeps you so busy these days, then?’

‘Oh, tons, pal. Birds. Films. Sometimes even at the same time, lad.’ He swigs his beer and chuckles to himself. ’Nah… I don’t watch a lot of films, actually. Not anymore. I don’t like enough of ‘em.’

‘What kind of films do you like?’ I ask him.

’Eh, like… horrors, I guess. Or, not necessarily horrors, but like, shit that’ll scare me, you know? But I only watch films to like, feel something, really. I’ll sit in the dark on my own and watch a horror a lot of the time. But it doesn’t have to be a horror.’

‘Why the fuck do you do that?’ Justin gapes. ‘I couldn’t do that.’

Frank awkwardly glances at Justin before lighting another cigarette. ‘Cus it makes me feel alive, pal. It’s exhilarating, making yourself scared shitless and then remembering that you’re fine. Life’s too short to do every fuckin’ thing that every other fucker in life does, you know?’

Joey starts giggling. ‘Is that what you told that girl the other week?’

Frank’s eyes light up as he positions himself upright. ‘Which one’s that, pal?’

‘You know…’ Joey’s voice lowers. ‘The Korean.’

Who?’ Frank presses again. ‘I don’t know which one you’re on about.’

’I don’t remember her name. The one from Busan.’

‘Ah…’ Frank loosens up now and slumps back into his chair. ‘I know what you’re on about. Quiet about that, now.’

‘What happened?’ Justin asks innocently. ‘I don’t think you told me.’

‘Well—’ Joey starts.

‘It’s private.’ Frank cuts in, glaring at Justin.

He holds his stare for another beat, then breaks into laughter and slaps Justin’s back. ‘Only messin’, pal. You can tell ‘em, Joey.’

‘Alright, alright. Well, the other week, Frank…’ Joey sniggers. ‘Frank… he… met up with this girl… and they drank—’

‘Hey, hey,’ Frank interrupts. ’That’s not the full story, Joey. C’mon. I want everybody to hear the full thing. The director’s cut. Your brother especially. ‘Cus we’re on the topic of me now, it seems, so… I want him to know what kind of a guy I really am.’ He pauses and looks at me intensely. ‘Alright, kid?’

‘Yep,’ I squeak.

‘Alright.’ He nods and swigs his beer. ‘So yeah, I was seein’ this Korean girl a bit. And I get bored with women pretty easily, you know? Like, I’m thirty-five now and sex just isn’t the same as when I was your age. It’s not even about the physical aspect anymore for me, really. Like, with this girl. She was into some weird stuff and really submissive and shit. And that was great. But it still wasn’t anythin’ new to me. So I had this idea that we should just, like, drink each other’s piss. ’Cus I hadn’t done that before.

‘So I told her. And she’s all like takin’ her pants off straight away, you know, like gettin’ all naked and sayin’, ‘Okay, you wanna do now?’, that sort of thing. She’s a freak, like I said.’ He takes a long drag. ’But then what I say to her next confuses her. I just say, ‘how about we do the pissin’ now and drink it all later?’ Right? She’s confused now and she doesn’t get it. But bein’ all submissive and shit she does it anyways. She does her business in a great big wine glass and sticks it in the fridge so I can have it for later. She’s not really too horny or as much into the piss thing after I tell her that though, so we just fuck and then she leaves.

‘But here’s the thing I wanted to get to, alright? So she leaves. And I’m in the flat by myself about five hours later. I’m watchin’ TV and by that point I’d almost even forgotten about the earlier events of the day. But then, as I’m watchin’ some young Korean girls singin’ K-pop, I remember. I remember about the piss. So, I get up from the sofa and open the fridge to see that big wine glass full of ice-cold yellow fluid, shimmerin’ on the top shelf, waitin’ for me. I take it out. I go sit back on the sofa. And while I watch K-pop groups on TV, I steadily work my way through the piss, savourin’ each little bit until it’s gone. Like it’s a glass of fuckin’ prosecco.’

*

The next stop feels a little off the beaten track.

Joey leads us further away from the town centre, down a few alleyways and shady backstreets until we reach a set of steps that look like they lead down to an underground club or bar or something. But there’s no one else around, not even a bouncer standing on the door.

Joey scuttles down the steps and opens the door for us to walk inside.

I step into the room and a thick wall of humidity knocks me in the face.

I look ahead and see a pool of water.

A… swimming pool? We’re going… swimming?

But wait, why is no one in the pool? And why are they all fully clothed? And why is the water full of fish?

’What the fuck is this place?’ Frank gawps, scratching his head.

‘The surprise,’ Joey beams. ‘I came here the other week with Mimi. You get an hour to catch as many fish as you can. The heavier the fish the more points you get.’

‘This is fuckin’ absurd.’ Frank continues to stare. ‘But I’m intrigued. I’ll get the drinks.’

‘Alright.’ Joey nods. ‘Well, we’ll get the wristbands, then.’

He wanders off and signals Justin and me over to a desk where a Korean worker is standing.

‘Wristbands?’ asks Justin.

‘Yeah,’ the Korean answers. ‘You get wristband. Then when you catch fish you get score on board.’ He points his finger at an electronic leaderboard. ‘Now, please. Names?’

‘Justin.’

‘Okay.’

‘Leon.’

‘Yes.’

’Joey.

‘Okay.’

‘And there’s another, Frank, he’s at the bar.’

‘Okay.’ The Korean smiles. ‘Thanks. Here wristband and apron. And bait, rod and net to get fish when you catch it. Enjoy and pay later when you collect prize. If you lucky that is.’

We apply the wristbands and aprons and then find our respective fishing spots for the night. Joey instructs that a metre distance must be kept in order to avoid confusion over fish ownership, so I set up camp further down the pool by a Korean family of four. The familiar sound of sugary K-pop begins to play again.

Frank returns to distribute the beer, and he’s about to hand me mine before he starts laughing uncontrollably. ‘Look at our names, boys,’ he says, pointing to the leaderboard. ‘Hank, Dustin, Lean and Joey in the building.’

‘At least they got yours right, Joey,’ I call to him.

‘Perks of being a regular,’ he calls back.

Frank takes his seat and the fishing competition is officially underway.

I cast my rod out into the pool and sit back, waiting for a nibble.

It’s relaxing, sitting by the pool, albeit an artificial experience. I sip my beer and observe the fish, dipping and diving to the biggest hits of their generation, and just as I begin to ask myself why all these people are even here, spending the early hours of the morning pretending to fish, seemingly sober, I hear Justin getting excited across the pool.

‘Hey, I think I caught one,’ he squeaks, trying to reel in the fish.

‘Catch it with the net,’ Joey instructs.

‘The net?’ Justin cries helplessly. ‘Where’s the net?’

‘By your foot, ya idiot!’ Frank yells.

Justin continues battling with the fish. ’Where?’ he cries again, unable to take his eyes off the water. ‘I can’t let go. Can you get it for me?’

‘Oh, fine,’ Frank groans and picks up Justin’s net. He holds onto Justin’s leg and leans into the pool, scooping up the fish with the net in his other hand.

The fish squirms and flaps as it tries to escape.

‘Gah! What the fuck do I do now?’ Frank panics. ‘Where does it go? What do I do?’

‘Here!’ the Korean worker calls over, pointing to a metal bowl beside his desk. ‘You weigh fish!’

‘OK!’ Frank strides towards the weighing machine, his arm extended like an egg-and-spoon race competitor.

‘Right here?’ Frank dumps the fish onto the bowl.

‘Yes…’ replies the worker.

The weight of 2.5kg shows up on the screen and the fish is mechanically catapulted back into the water. ‘Now,’ the worker continues, ‘scan wristband and points on screen.’

Frank scans his wristband and 5490 points appear next to the name Hank.

‘Hey,’ Justin bursts out. ‘I caught the fish.’

‘Maybe.’ Frank shrugs. ‘But without me, you would’ve lost it, wouldn’t you? Let’s half it, shall we?’

‘How are we supposed to do that? The points are already next to your name!’

‘Well,’ Frank sneers, ‘they’re up there with Hank’s name, whoever that guy is.’ Justin cracks a smile, so Frank continues, ‘We’ll keep a mental record, alright? I was in shock from handlin’ that fish, man. Wasn’t thinkin’.’

‘Alright, then…’ Justin concedes. ‘I guess it was a team effort.’

Frank and Justin return to their posts and Joey raises an eyebrow at the board. ‘How come Hank’s got all the points?’ he inquires. ‘Thought it was your fish, Justin?’

‘We’re splittin’ it.’ Frank declares. ‘It was a two-man job.’

‘Two-man job!’ Joey repeats, disbelieving. ’Whatever. Well, if you beat me by half a fish, I’m not counting it.’

‘I think you’re gonna have to, Joey. It’s been agreed.’

’Whatever, Hank. Just keep an eye on your rod. Plenty more fish to catch yet.’

And as the evening passes us by, many more fish are indeed caught.

Joey and Frank quickly become accustomed to the routine of catching and weighing, staring into the pool for a good portion of the night, whereas Justin never seems to adapt, comically freaking out whenever a fish gets anywhere near him.

I let the fish come and go as they please. If I feel a tug, then I’ll lean forward and inspect it, but otherwise I spend most of the time soaking in the bizarre atmosphere of this place.

Occasionally the music intensifies and neon strobe lights flash around the pool, like some sort of insane bonus round. All of the fishermen and fisherwomen throw themselves towards the water, cheering on their rods as a fish mingles with their bait, hoping and praying that today’s their lucky day.

And then, when the lights dim and the music calms down again, the fishers return back to their seats like nothing ever happened.

Did that just happen? How can I be sure? The apron-wearing Koreans among me don’t seem too concerned.

I glance around the room and wonder to myself: Am I too drunk, or not drunk enough?

And then I smile and think again: Who cares?

LEADERBOARD

노인 30,228

늙은 여자 27,664

낚시 할머니 25,273

HANK 25,398

JOEY 20,967

나는 김밥을 좋아한다 19,224

LEAN 18,325

DUSTIN 8,096

나는 물고기를 좋아한다 3,728

Three minutes remain on the clock, and the pressure to catch a last-gasp fish starts to build as I realise it could win me the game.

I dangle my rod hopefully, but the only thing I catch is frustration. One fish has a curious sniff, only to swim away, and then another comes along and nibbles the bait straight off without even grazing the hook.

I set my rod down, defeated, knowing the game will be over before I can attach a fresh piece of bait.

With one minute left, it looks like Hank will be taking the victory. He lays down his rod and net, grinning pridefully as he undoes his apron, only waiting now to be crowned the Fisher King.

Further down the pool, I crane my neck to see Joey, still hunched over his rod and staring at the water.

I call to him, but he doesn’t respond.

I tap his shoulder, but he doesn’t respond.

I slap his bald head, but he doesn’t respond.

He just stares…

… and stares and stares and stares… at the water, at the fish, at the rod, at the prospect of losing to Hank, his nemesis, on his birthday.

And such a prospect slowly edges its way towards becoming reality as the clock ticks on. Tick, tick, goes the clock, and the intensity of Joey’s stare begins to fade…

But then suddenly, his eyes widen as he jumps onto his feet and yanks the rod with all his strength, his stare now bright and burning as he sees the flapping of the water - the flapping of a fish! The flapping draws nearer as he reels in the line, his arms bulging, his face showing more determination than a colony of ants. The flapping reaches the side of the pool and he throws himself forward to scoop up the fish.

He scurries alongside the pool and tosses it onto the weighing machine with only a few seconds to go.

And goodness gracious me - 3.5 kg and 7,238 points!

Hank and the Korean are left stunned, while Dustin and I applaud the surprise catch. Joey takes a bow and scans his wristband, dancing a jig as the fish gets catapulted back into the water.

‘How do you like that, eh?’ He steps towards Hank. ‘Even the split fish couldn’t save you from Joey the fisherman.’

*

For another pit stop, we return to the street-food alleyway.

The same old Korean invites us to sit at one of her plastic tables, and we happily oblige her, ordering a bottle of soju straight off the bat.

Frank and I light a cigarette while Justin inspects a couple of rotisserie chickens. Joey remains transfixed by the prize he won at the fishing bar, a fluffy toy fish about the size of his head.

‘Will you put that thing down now?’ Frank moans, swiping at the fish. ‘It’s been like fifteen minutes.’

‘No,’ Joey evades the hand. ‘It’s a symbol… of victory.’

‘Oh, stop it,’ Frank mutters, leaning towards me. ‘Was he always like this back home, eh?’

‘What?’ I smirk. ‘Drunk?’

Justin chortles like a horse and turns back around from the rotating meat, his glasses all steamed up. ’Oh, relax, guys,’ he implores. ‘Fishing is supposed to be fun.’

’I did have fun,’ Frank demands. ‘I did.’

He looks up from his cigarette to see Justin’s glasses and then starts giggling to himself. ‘Hey, stupid! Can’t you see all that steam?’

‘Oh.’ Justin snorts, rubbing the lenses clean. ‘I thought it was just foggy.’

Frank’s giggles then explode into laughter, encouraging the rest of us to join him, all four of us now cackling and glancing madly at each other until the soju arrives alongside some pretzels.

Time moves swiftly with the wind.

Soju pours.

Cigarettes are smoked.

The moon shines brightly above.

‘What’s next then, schedule boy?’ asks Frank.

‘I don’t know, actually…’ Joey shrugs. ‘I didn’t plan this far ahead.’

‘Didn’t plan this far ahead? What kind of a schedule is that?’

‘Hey,’ Joey waves a finger at Frank. ‘It was a good schedule. Alright? Let’s just leave the schedule out of this.’

‘Could go to a CU?’ Justin suggests, munching on a pretzel.

‘Yes!’ Frank applauds, and rhythmically starts drumming on the table: ‘Let’s-do-that! Let’s-do-that!’

‘Let’s do that…’ Joey echoes, sliding off his chair.

*

The closest shop happens to be a GS25 rather than a CU.

We bumble in one by one, trying to appear normal as we slide past the mopping shopkeeper. Joey goes to inspect the food aisle while Justin and I stand beside Frank as he asks himself the eternal question: ‘Cass or Hite… Cass or Hite…’

He begins unloading some bottles of Hite and hands a couple to me and Justin. ‘Hey,’ he calls to Joey. ‘Come and help, will ya?’

Joey grabs a packet of crisps and starts jogging towards us, sarcastically too fast, and just as he wraps his hands around the bottles, he loses his footing and tumbles to the ground. The bottles fall through the air in slow-motion, violently smashing against the wet floor.

Joey groans beside the broken glass as the shopkeeper charges over.

‘You drunk!’ he yells. ‘Out! Out!’

Joey groans again, still dazed.

‘Hey.’ Frank places a hand on the shopkeeper’s shoulder. ‘I’m sorry about him. It was a mistake. We’ll pay for the broken beers.’

‘Hey, I’m sorry…’ Joey whimpers, pulling himself up. ‘We’ll pay, okay… we’ll pay…’

The shopkeeper continues to glare at Joey.

Joey glares straight back at him.

‘Wait a minute…’ Joey says. ‘Aren’t you the guy who sold us those crisps the other night?’

The shopkeeper’s face then screws up like a piece of scrap paper. ‘I don’t know what you talking about!’ he growls.

’No, no… it is you.’ Joey grins, somewhat derangedly now, and bends over to pick up the packet of crisps he dropped on the floor – the same black packet from the other night. ‘Look - remember these?’ He shakes the bag in front of the shopkeeper’s face. ‘Extremely spicy! Remember? Remember?’

‘Stop it, Joey!’ Frank snatches the packet. ‘Christ’s sake. What are you doing?’

‘What?’ Joey frowns, his head spinning around like an owl. ‘I was only messing around.’

’Well, don’t.’ Frank sighs exasperatedly. ‘Just wait outside and let me handle this, okay?’

‘OK…’ Joey hangs his head towards the ground and stumbles out of the shop.

‘Look, I’m really sorry,’ Frank carries on. ‘He doesn’t know what he’s doing.’

The shopkeeper ponders and waggles his mop in contemplation, deliberating over what might be described one day as the trial of the century. ‘OK, OK,’ he smiles. ‘Just don’t do again. And go home safe. Call taxi.’

Outside, Joey leans against the shop window smoking a cigarette.

‘Sorry about that,’ he apologises. ’But I’m not that drunk.’

‘Sure you’re not,’ Frank sniggers, lighting a cigarette.

’I slipped,’ he insists. ‘It was bloody wet in there. I mean, who mops at this time of night?’

Justin and I also light a cigarette, then Joey calls for a taxi, specifically directing our attention to him speaking Korean on the phone, supposedly to prove his sobriety.

*

Back at the Kingdom, we slouch across the two sofas, a beer and a cigarette always by our side. Joey plays a selection of hip-hop tunes as the night begins to turn to day. Frank sneaks in a few rock ballads here and there, but ultimately retires from the disc jockey life.

He turns to me while swigging on his Hite. ‘So, you into this hip-hop a lot then, like your bro?’

‘I guess so. Are you?’

‘Nah,’ he leans back again. ‘Not really… I dunno. I prefer real instruments and that.’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘And most of these rap guys are just fakers, you know?’ He sticks a hand out towards Justin and Joey. ‘Like, what’s that show you guys watch?’

‘What?’ Justin squeaks. ’Show Me the Money? What’s wrong with that?’

‘It’s ridiculous, man. And embarrassin’… I mean, like, they’re all Korean and tryna act like they’re from America and all gangster and that.’

‘So what…’ Joey murmurs. ‘Can’t they appreciate the culture? They’re making their own thing of it, aren’t they?’

‘Nah, they’re not. They’re just flat out copyin’ somethin’ and embarrasin’ themselves at the same time.’ He turns his head away and tokes on his cigarette. ‘No culture about it.’

I can feel Frank’s body tensing up beside me now. One of his legs starts shaking and his breathing becomes heavier. He stubs out his cigarette in the ashtray and reaches for another.

The song, Life’s a Bitch, fades out and a tender quietness fills the room.

Frank spins his head around to face us again. ‘So… what now, then?’

‘I thought you wanted to put a song on,’ Justin says.

‘Oh, yeah,’ he flicks away the comment. ‘I’m sick of music, though. Why don’t we watch something?’

‘Like what?’

‘I dunno…’ he says coyly, and his mouth slowly curls into a malevolent grin, with his tongue poking between his lips like a snake. ‘Somethin’ fucked!’

‘Like what?’ Justin repeats, more tiredly this time. ‘I don’t want anything too crazy, not like that other thing.’

Frank takes a drag and blows a grey cloud of smoke into the air, his eyes fluttering as he breathes out the following: ’Sodom of Serbia?’

Justin looks horrified by the suggestion, his jaw nearly dropping from his face. ‘Oh, no, Frank. Not that again.’

‘Yeah, Frank…’ Joey dazedly reiterates. ‘Not that, not that…’

‘What is it?’ I ask.

‘Banned in like ten countries.’ Frank laughs. ‘Including this one. But you can find it online pretty easily.’

‘It’s fucked up,’ Justin says concisely. ‘That’s it.’

‘Well, what’s the plot?’ I try again, but still don’t receive any kind of answer.

‘Hey.’ Frank nudges Joey. ‘Your bro seems up for it.’

Joey can barely open his eyes now, and when he does, they look dead and hollow. ‘Fine.’ He attempts to shrug. ‘If he wants to watch it, then go for it.’

Frank takes this as a go-ahead and pounces forward to search the internet for an illegal stream.

‘Oh, fucking hell,’ Justin cries out. ‘Well, I’m not even gonna look.’

‘Such a drama queen,’ Frank mutters.

And again, I glance around the room, asking: ‘So, what’s it actually about?’

And again, no answer.

Justin looks like he’s having some sort of mental breakdown while Joey remains lifeless, an unsettling smile on his face like he’s pretending to know what’s going on. ‘You’ll see…’ he mumbles eventually. ‘It’s pretty fucked, but we’ve all seen it.’

‘Exactly!’ Justin shrieks. ‘Why would you watch it again?’

‘Found it,’ Frank announces, waving the cursor over the Play button.

He drops his finger down and jumps back into his seat next to me.

The films plays, and Frank watches eagerly throughout.

Justin shields his eyes with both hands, occasionally peeking through his fingers only to grimace and then hide again.

Joey doesn’t do or say much. He just sits there, deflated and empty, like an airless balloon. I catch him gazing at me from time to time.

The sun gradually creeps into the room and the taste of stale beer reeks in my mouth, and through all the splattered heads, poured-out entrails, mutilated genitals, dismembered dogs, under-age blowjobs, baby molestation, and incestuous rape, Frank squirms in his seat, the sun glazing his cheeks and reflecting off his teeth as he snickers from scene to scene.

Joey continues to gauge my reactions but still he says nothing, only watches, thinking I haven’t noticed him in the corner of my eye.

At some point, the film ends.

And then, silence.

Silence and sun.

Hot, sticky sun.

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