Pyongyang Night, Final Part

Matt and Lou awoke in their hotel bed a few hours later from thin slumbers, and muttered enough words to each other to plan their day. They decided that it was too late to make a trip to the demilitarized zone, so they would go for breakfast at Kim’s Diner, then go and see the bronze statues of the three former dictators in Mansundae Park.

At Kim’s they sat not talking to one another over pancakes, coffee and unobtrusive jazz music. Lou felt the silence press him to reveal that he knew Matt had snuck out the night before.

“So did you go to that Comrades place last night then?” he asked.

Lou saw a wince of pained embarrassment flash across Matt’s face, as if he had been hoping that Lou would show mercy and not call him out on what he had done.

“I’m sorry,” replied Matt, weakly. It seemed easier somehow, to let Lou believe that something might have happened.

Lou was surprised to feel a sense of relief. Even though Matt had effectively admitted to him to having cheated, he himself was still alive and breathing: his world was no nearer to its end just because their relationship almost was. He stared out the window at men pushing crates of vegetables to the restaurants along the Drive, in preparation of the various meals that would be made that day.

*

They moved slowly up the escalator inside the cool, long tunnel. As the street in front of the station came into view, the first thing that caught Matt’s readjusting eyes was a hoarding for Beyoncé’s latest album Mama B, which featured the singer and her young daughter pictured in black and white, staring moodily out at the passers by.

They walked silently along the newly laid pavements in the direction of the statues. The park seemed to be full of life: tourists walking about in swarms, lead by guides with flags featuring indiscernible company logos; locals sat around, picnicking, smoking and staring at the foreigners as they passed. Looking over all of this were the statues of the three Kims: Il-sung, who had been proclaimed to be North Korea’s eternal spiritual leader upon his death in 1994, and his son Jong-Il and grandson Jong-un, who had successively kept the family business of despotism alive in physical form, until the Magnolia Revolution had put an end to it.

“I guess it isn’t surprising that the statues weren’t pulled down,” Matt said, noticing the forced casualness in his tone. “I suppose even at the time they thought it would be a good tourist magnet. I wonder what the real-life Jong-un thinks about it now that he’s banged up in Seoul?”

Lou didn’t respond.

“God he must have an awful time in prison down there, imagine the way the other inmates -“

Lou stopped walking abruptly, and turned to face Matt.

“Why did you do it?” he demanded.

Matt looked into Lou’s face, searching for the words with which to respond. He found nothing.

“I don’t know,” he said, quietly.

“For the last time,” demanded Lou. “Do you want to end this?”

Matt didn’t answer. He felt as if he had been placed at a fork in the road, and was unable to commit to either path.

“Just get it over with and end it,” said Lou. “If that’s what you want.”

Lou turned his back and kept walking, his eyes fixed resolutely ahead. Matt stood still and watched him from behind, as he moved further away from him towards the mammoth bronze statues. The statues meanwhile stared out beatifically at the horizon, as they would do forever, facing all the world, and all the unknown in it.

Pyongyang Night, Pt 5

Secured in the darkness of the room, unclothed under covers, Lou sidled closer to Matt. Yet no matter how he tried to negotiate his body against his, he received no response. Eventually, with a deep breath he rolled over, swinging his feet to the ground with a thud.

“What is going on?” he said, angry and confused, as he stalked off to the bathroom.

“Lou -” said Matt, to the slam of the bathroom door. Lying there, he didn’t know what to do, but he felt a strong impulse to commit himself to some course of action. A single word raced across his mind in yellow neon.

He reached out to the bedside cabinet and grabbed his phone.

“You know Comrades?” he typed out, to his most recently made acquaintance.

*

Alone in the bathroom, Lou sank down against the wall to the cold tile floor. He sat staring at the Korean text on the wastepaper bin label, his eyes following the angular lines and squiggles. He felt the scattered jigsaw pieces of his new reality come together in his head: the three years him and Matt had shared together were coming to an end.

After a long five minutes, he returned to the room and got into his side of the bed.

“Lou,” started Matt. “I’m sorry.”

Lou paused, before uttering calmly,

“Do you want to end it?”

“Lou, I just feel so confused at the moment with my job, and with me living down in London -”

Matt let the sentence hang there, the words suspended in the darkness. Lou sensed for the first time that Matt didn’t know himself what he wanted to do. But he couldn’t deal with any of this now: he felt exhausted, and found sleep to be gently pressing his eyelids shut.

“Let’s talk about this tomorrow,” he said, turning his body to face the wall, where the amber of an outside streetlight reflected dimly.

*

When Matt was sure that Lou was no longer awake, he got out of bed, put his clothes back on and left the room, completing all these actions as if he was on autopilot.

He felt a surge of excitement as he exited the lobby and headed out into the night. Soon, the brightly lit shop fronts of America Drive were flooding his senses. As he reached the seedy end of the Drive, a girl tumbled out of a doorway.

“Hey, you want massage?” She screeched, giggling.

Matt didn’t turn to look at her. Walking with purpose, he reached the alleyway and saw there a lone silhouette, exhaling cigarette smoke that rose slowly up past yellow neon.

“Hi,” said SyunJoo, in a voice loud and confident.

“Hi,” replied Matt. He noticed that SyunJoo wasn’t as tall as he had expected.

“He your boyfriend, in Soho bar?” asked SyunJoo, chucking his cigarette to the ground where it smoldered.

“Yeah, yeah he is,” replied Matt.

“Really?” replied SyunJoo, laughing.

The laughter made Matt feel uneasy. But the mention of Lou reminded him of why he had come here. He took a step closer to SyunJoo, so there was barely any space between them. He smelt the tobacco on his breath; he looked into the eyes that stared curiously back behind glasses, then down at the lips, slightly cracked, and began to move his own mouth forward to meet them.

But as if a force outside his control was pulling him back, he suddenly took a step away from him. When he looked in those eyes again, SyunJoo was startled to see how fearful he looked.

“You okay?” asked SyunJoo.

“I’m fine, I just – I can’t do this.”

Almost tripping over, Matt stumbled back down the alley and out into America Drive.

Pyongyang Night, Pt. 3

Matt walked past the old man in reception watching TV quiz shows broadcast from Seoul and into the narrow street, darkened by tall apartment blocks looming on either side. After a short walk he was soon at what the guidebooks called America Drive, a street lined with an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants and bars, all aimed at tourists.

He walked past the stores selling old military uniforms and other genuine regime paraphernalia, now discarded by locals. There were corkboards outside full of hundreds of lapel pins, showing the smiling faces of the once Dear Leaders in soft-focus. He walked past the show-pubs, where women in traditional Korean dress performed choreographed song routines from the regime days. Many of them would have done this in at least pretend earnest at various official events prior to reunification.

He soon arrived at Kim’s Diner, a place Lou and him had noticed on their first night here as they had journeyed by taxi from the airport, deciding then in their jetlagged state that they would try it out during their stay. The place was done up like a typical 50s-themed diner: black and white chequered floor tiles, the walls painted red and covered with framed vinyl records and shelves full of random Americana. However, displayed amongst these were also casual iconoclasms that would have been unthinkable here only a few years before, such as old propaganda poster-portraits of the Kims, with moustaches, glasses, and stitched-up scars daubed across their faces, in thick swathes of black calligraphy ink.

Upon entering the diner, a young woman in her 20s with a short stylish bob emerged from the kitchen, grumpily showed Matt to a table and gave him a laminated menu, all without saying a word.

Connecting to the wifi using the password on the menu, Matt found that he had received a message from SyunJoo.

“Fun? ;(”

Before Matt could work out what the unhappy winking face meant, the phone buzzed one more time.

“*;)”

This made Matt smile himself.

“More pics?” he typed back, so as to forestall yet not completely turn down the suggestion.

*

“Hey,” said Lou as soon as he entered the restaurant.

“Hey,” replied Matt, putting his phone to one side. “How was the Magnolia Tree?”

“Oh you know, loads of tourists,” said Lou, trying to affect nonchalance whilst feeling a sudden hyperawareness of each one of his movements. “I’m absolutely starving though. Are you feeling better now?”

“Yeah, I think I just needed to rest,” said Matt, looking back down at the menu.

The waitress came back over, and they ordered. Then, silence. Matt felt that making conversation with Lou now just as he had been messaging SyunJoo would be hypocritical, so he affected looking around at the décor. Lou, meanwhile, cast his eyes downwards, and began to tap an arrhythmic, nervous beat on the tabletop.

“Yeah,” exhaled Matt finally, mainly because he wanted the tapping to stop. “I reckon I’ll go see the Magnolia Tree later this week. Did you go in the museum too?”

“I did yeah, before the monument,” replied Lou, ending the tapping with a full-palmed clap on the table that knocked the drinks menu to the floor. “It’s interesting, you know, how the collapse of that hotel precipitated the collapse of the regime itself.”

“Deep,” said Matt. He saw Lou’s cheeks flush red as he bent down to pick up the menu. By this Matt knew that his sarcasm had hurt Lou’s feelings, so he added quickly, “Yeah, it must have been like a fucking earthquake when that building came down, it was massive.”

Matt’s phone buzzed angrily. Now Lou noticed Matt’s face redden, as he covered the screen with his hand.

“Who’s that from?” asked Lou.

“Oh, it‘s nothing.”

“It really does show how fast things are progressing around here if the locals are using Grindr this much!” exclaimed Lou, only fully aware of how upset he sounded once the words had been said.

Matt let out a nervous laugh, but Lou only stared at him, hurt singeing his gaze. Feeling responsible for causing such pain, Matt reached an upturned palm across the table. Lou stared at the hand for a second, then felt himself plummet from anger to defeat in a heartbeat as he took it in his.