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Moon still in the sky, sunlight spread slowly across Seoul through a front of haze and dust.
Dressed in her regular interview suit, piebald and matched to dark heels, Soobin Shin surveyed the mountain-cradled Nowon district from the window of her seventh floor apartment. No one yet stirred in the street, but the roads were already rolling with waves of cars and delivery bikes, and neon signs were alive with words: Singing Room! Sauna! Church! Soobin wondered if any of these establishments had even closed shop the night before. Probably not.
Rooms upon rooms, 24/7, she thought. Welcome to Seoul.
Soobin turned and sprayed perfume into the air, lingering beneath the cloud of aroma for a moment. This static emblem of smartness clashed with the tattered band posters on the walls, with the tottering piles of CDs and records around her slipsure feet and on the shelves, stacked-up releases that screamed with colours and nonconformity. Content that enough of the aroma had fallen upon her, Soobin then left for the station, gasping at the cold before blending into the sea of whites, greys, and blues streaming both ways on the road outside. Only a yellow van stood out from the bland wishwash, parked up on the kerb. Kindergarteners were bundled into it, one by one, by a college girl Soobin had seen before, a drowsy-looking young woman in a military cap and parka. Even younger women dragged their feet from the opposite direction, high school girls trailed by middle school boys respectfully keeping their distance. Sleepy herself, Soobin wondered how many of them had gotten any rest the night before. Searching at the traffic lights for a glimpse of sky, all she could see with her weary eyes were windows and air-con units, ugly dust-battered boxes scattered across the faces of apartments in a tic-tac-toe fashion. Electricity lines trailed from rusting and weathered poles. On ground level, the same store names repeated up and down both sides of the road, and stamped on the cargo of numerous delivery bikes, whose hell-bent couriers sped through the red light and buzzed between lanes, their takeaways tilting them perilously askew as they disappeared into the horizon at either end of the road. Soobin turned her thoughts to foreign lands: sun and greenery, island calm. It was the kind of escape sold by Xanadu Tours, as well as the many other Seoul agencies where she’d failed to get a job recently. As she watched the influx of drowsy commuters streaming onto the escalator down into the underground station, Soobin wondered if she should be trying for an island living, not this city one.
Her subway carriage sped away like the cars and bikes above her. Beside her, every head looked down at the screen of a smartphone, just as she was doing. As ever, Soobin’s screen filled with album covers, their nonconformity batted away one by one with the callous flick of her finger, their colours screaming like the screech of the train through Seoul’s tunnels. Soobin and the others sped through the shadows, hidden, kept safely away from all the accidents and pollution above. There was safety in numbers too. Each pair of shoulders kept one from toppling over whenever the train pulled into or out of a station, allowing in more bodies to the throng.
Looking up from her smartphone, Soobin saw the usual sea of album covers, comic strips, and puzzle games. But between two sets of shoulders, she could see the scrolling text feed of the morning news. The story woke Soobin up with a jolt:
Korea’s entertainment world is today mourning the loss of actress and singer Ahra Boo. The body of the idol, aged 28, was found at her Sinsa-dong apartment last night, in news that casts another shadow on the entertainment industry. Ms. Boo’s death follows the recent suicide of actor Jaeil Yoo in the summer, and the attempted suicide of JENNY member Nari Kong last month.
– from ‘Xanadu‘, chapter 1 of Funereal by Giacomo Lee.
© Giacomo Lee 2015