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Murray and the city of souls

by balloonysaintjohn 

Posted: 10 May 2006
Word Count: 1500

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Start she says. Save she says. Always the wise words. Always the words to the wise. Always the sense of feet firmly on the ground. Though always sounds a little far fetched, so lets just say generally. Generally she is the one with the common sense. Mary Wollenstencroft wrote about a room of her own, meaning womankind. I am a married man living cheek by pretty jowl with my practical wife and my infectious in-laws. I too need a room of my own. There's space enough to swing a cat, luckily for all concerned we don¡¯t have a cat to swing. My head sometimes feels like that phantom room in which there isn¡¯t enough space to voodoo a cat¡¯s heart out through it¡¯s pink and sharp mouth. There¡¯s enough space to commit cruel acts, hard and fast with a feline but not quite enough sometimes, in moments of strict and heartfelt crisis I feel to allow this marriage of ours to blossom and bloom.
This is the height of modern living, or so they advertised in the brochure. I saw it, handed copies around to friends, well wishers and relatives with problems of their own and signs written hysterical in thick shaky black marker pen to prove it. Thing was I was foolish enough to believe it too.
The tap in the bathroom falls from its designated perch, (the shiny chrome winking through the rust, hair and smears of vibrant toothpaste) like a professional footballer whose been breathed on by an opponent. Those little flotsam and jetsom flies whose world in microcosm is the grating in the floor and the tiles there around. They have a tenacious, Churchillian never say die aspect about them that softens my heart whilst making my skin crawl. When sitting down book or less likely newspaper in hand, trousers round my ankles bowels emptying to brassy, improvised water music I can hear toddlers and their mother in the apartment directly above ours as they have a bath. They come through the walls strong and clear as if we shared the same apartment. Them splashing in the water and laughing. Or I can hear them scream and cry like the grim reaper has come to take them away, but that¡¯s bathtime for you. That¡¯s babies for you.
Then there¡¯s the tannoy system fitted in all apartments in this complex or cluster of apartment buildings. The speaker is high up on the wall in the kitchen, not far from the smoke detector. I almost forget it¡¯s there until at some random moment the static shocks the thing alive and everyone within earshot knows there¡¯s a message on the way. These obligatory messages, that are piped uninvited into our apartment, our kitchen originate from a small one room, one storey, brick built building that houses the ajjoshi responsible for rules, regulations and generally safety and security for the eight apartment buildings that surround his modest brick structure.

Ajjoshi is korean for (the mode of address) for a married man in his 30¡¯s to 60¡¯s. I could be making angry love to my wife, eating a late dinner, watching the TV or enjoying an afternoon nap and all the same the tannoy will tingle with static and the loud, slightly obscured voice of a Korean man in his late 50¡¯s or early 60¡¯s will formally introduce himself and impart some information about a lost child, a residents meeting or an imminent invasion from the North. When I first experienced this means of passing on information I was astonished that people accepted it, having this intrusion into their private realms in this fiendishly crowded country. I didn¡¯t know what the hell he was talking about. I listened in a kind of mock-horror, I mean it could¡¯ve been the end of the world but I shrugged such melodrama from my mind. What would the North Koreans want with me anyway? I¡¯d be no good for hard labour.
I¡¯ve been married 10 years now. paradoxically it feels shorter than that and somehow a lot longer too. As if it was only the other day we walked down the aisle in the fading, gilt edged, Liberace-esque interior of the Grand Prix wedding hall. Yet at the same time it feels as if we¡¯ve been together for a lifetime. My name is Murray, Murray Hart. I came to South Korea first in 1994 to see if I could teach English, make some money and see a bit of the world. The word is still out on whether I can teach or not. I¡¯ve never had any problem earning money here, even during the IMF induced dark days, it¡¯s just that I¡¯ve been incapable of saving any. Regards seeing a bit of the world, when I venture home for a break and I tell people where I live they think I¡¯m constantly in a state of exotic travel, backpack over my sweaty shoulder, hitching lifts from the side of dusty highways from traditionally clad locals reeking of chillies, spirits and ginsaeng, miles from the nearest flushing toilet. They couldn¡¯t be further from the truth.
First no one in this manic, consumer-orientated half of the world¡¯s favourite peninsula either hitches or picks up hitchers. During the war thumbs were extended and vehicles stopped to pick up soldier and civilian alike. After the war as the dictator Park Chung Hee grabbed the country by the scruff of it¡¯s proverbial neck migrants, folk from the countryside moving to the cities, especially the behemoth Seoul would have sweated it out, crammed on rusty but trusty inter-city bus. Others without the money for the bus ticket would¡¯ve hitched a lift from one of the thousands of trucks heading up and down the country.
Yes, there was a time when South Koreans stood by the side of the road and other Koreans stopped to pick them up, in that universally accepted, civilized way. Until sometime in 1980, when a young farmer from Kangwon Province went missing driving back from town. It was summer and the rains were at their height. A time when flooding often occurs and people are inevitably swept away.
A night or two after the farmer went missing a middle-aged woman, a school teacher went missing. Worked late at school, exams coming up she just never made it home. You have to remember the country was in full up-swing, the austerities of the post-war decades were starting to fade. People were started to enjoy themselves. More private cars were on the roads, in fact there were more roads. The Seoul-Busan Highway (which the World Bank refused to finance) was completed in 1970.
On the television the farmer¡¯s wife said he always gave lifts to folk hitching, everyone in the countryside did. They found his bloody, battered body in an irrigation ditch by rice paddies 50km south. They found the school teacher¡¯s body still in her car but minus her clothes, her throat and her dignity in the Namhang river not far from her home in Wonju. The hitch hiking killer kept moving and the Police failed to link the deaths together. Next was a venerable but adulterous and balding Bank Manager from the beautiful lake-side city of Chuncheon. A man in his line of work would often have to travel to Head office in Seoul, attend meetings or conferences in other cities, So his disappearance didn¡¯t register with his wife and secretary until a day or two later. Three Middle school girls on their way to school found his be-suited body humped not far from the main road on the outskirts of Kangneung.
Maybe it was because the third victim was a well respected professional male. Perhaps it was because they were slowly cottoning on to the nature of the crimes they were finding, but the Police finally put out a national bulletin warning motorists to lock all their car doors, to make sure they told someone of their destination, not to travel alone, if at all possible and to never under any circumstances stop and pick up a hitcher.
That¡¯s how it is in the prosperous south. My guide book says the North is a completely different story though. You¡¯ll never get away from your Party chaperones to try it out for yourself but the general population does hitch hike and they pick up hitchers.
I don¡¯t drive and I don¡¯t hitch, well not in this country anyway. I am the passenger to plagiarise that washboard sam, junky monkey Iggy Pop. Me the passenger and she the driver. That's the wife. She could do the Paris-dakar piece of piss.Or be a getaway driver for the bank heist gang, only such a lowly role in such a caper wouldn't fit her militant leadership skills and visions of grandeur.

Murray she says you got to quit smoking. She says it¡¯ll kill me, her and the kids. Quite possibly she could be right,
but there¡¯s no need to go on and on about it. One little cigar for God's sake.

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Comments by other Members

Luisa at 14:01 on 10 May 2006  Report this post
I found this beautifully atmospheric and I found the subject matter fascinating.

Occasionally I had trouble following the narrative, I have to confess. It could be down to the formatting, though. I read a few parts twice.

I wasn't sure about this sentence:
There's space enough to swing a cat, luckily for all concerned we don¡¯t have a cat to swing.
I like the way you continued the cat metaphor afterwards, but I thought it might be stronger without 'we don't have a cat to swing' - or maybe you could tighten the whole line to something like 'There's space enough if we had a cat to swing'. I think 'enough space to swing a cat' is an idiom that's well-known enough to be played with, without explanation.

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