Fiction,  Issue 4

Above the Ginkgo Trees by Tomas Marcantonio

I moved to the Jeonpo area of Busan not long after my wife died. She was hit by a car on her way to work one morning and, as she was the main provider in our relationship and the one who paid the rent, I couldn’t afford to stay in our apartment by the beach in Haeundae anymore. 

The Jeonpo area was generally quite expensive on account of the ‘Cafe Street’. In fact, the area had grown so large over the past couple of years that it wasn’t just one street of cafes anymore, but a whole block of them. Some were large, three-storey affairs, others small nooks hiding in the alleys between buildings. Most were on the fancy side, decorated in a European style, with many selling either macarons or overpriced cakes, serving tea and coffee in expensive-looking china. It was a popular area for young couples on weekends, and its close proximity to the downtown hub of Seomyeon made it what Koreans liked to call a ‘hot place’. 

I was lucky, then, to find somewhere so cheap in the middle of such an area and in close proximity to my new job. In between two of the more upmarket cafes in Jeonpo, there still stood a worn-down goshitel that had been there for thirty-odd years. Goshitels were mostly a relic of the past, initially intended for poor university students in the eighties, but there are still thousands across the country, now populated mostly by downtrodden entry-level office workers and retired pensioners left with nobody to support them. With rooms the size of prison cells, they are generally soul-sucking places only for the desperate and lonely.

I had lived in several goshitels during my teenage years and early twenties when my parents sent me off to study literature at Busan National University. Following their deaths, within a few months of each other, I dropped out of university during my second year and took odd jobs to stay afloat. Whilst working as a doorman at Haeundae Grand Hotel I was fortunate enough to meet my future wife, a middle manager of the hotel. She was pragmatic and grounded, in some ways the opposite to me, but we quickly fell in love and embarked on a whimsical kind of secret affair in the hidden corners of the hotel. We were married only a few months after our first meeting, and because of her sizeable income she encouraged me to return to university to complete my studies. After I graduated five years ago, she continued to support me as I embarked upon a writing career, taking on part-time copywriting and editing jobs in between working on my own projects. When my wife died last autumn, I abandoned the novel I’d been working on and returned to full-time work, this time as a lowly library assistant on the outskirts of Seomyeon.

It didn’t take long to get used to living in the goshitel. In some ways it felt like a homecoming, a return to my youthful days. My work was not taxing but neither did it pay much. I came home each evening and in order to save money cooked instant ramen in the shared kitchen on the ground floor of the goshitel, or bought a microwave meal from the 7-Eleven across the street from the elementary school. After dinner I smoked two cigarettes on the roof of the building, and then I retired to bed. 

I knew very few people in the city. Although my wife had had many friends whom we would meet regularly at weekends, I stopped seeing them after she died. My only sibling, a sister eight years my senior, had moved to Pohang several years earlier and married a pastor. On weekends I took walks around the Citizen’s Park outside of Seomyeon, or else went hiking alone on one of the city’s many mountains. On Friday and Saturday evenings I would buy a bottle of soju from the convenience store and sit in my room and watch TV until I fell asleep. Although I had time to write, I didn’t seem able to begin anything. The words that went down on the page seemed distant to me, as if written by someone else, and I couldn’t stick to a project.

Almost a year after moving into the goshitel in Jeonpo I turned thirty-two. The goshitel was going to be torn down to make way for a new complex that was to include a coffee museum and a three-storey cafe, a popular chain from Seoul that was owned by a famous Korean actress. On the evening of my birthday, which was on a Monday, I began scanning the ads for a new apartment. Even though it was a weekday I drank a bottle of soju to myself, and when it was finished I took two cigarettes up to the roof as usual.

The cafe street area was usually asleep by the time I took to the roof for my cigarettes. One of the cafes next door had a patio area on the roof with tables and chairs and parasols, but it closed earlier than most of the other cafes in the area. The cafe on the other side was an older building with vines growing up its walls and on the roof there were just a few chimney pots and some potted plants. The building on the other side of that was about the same height, only three or four storeys tall, and although it was usually empty, on this particular night it was full of people. There were tables and chairs and even a patio swing and what looked to be a bar along the back wall. Fairy lights were strung up from a wooden gazebo in the middle of the rooftop, and at least twenty people in evening wear were milling about with what looked like glasses of champagne and cocktails. A young woman in the far corner was playing guitar, but above the chatter she could scarcely be heard. 

Although I was mildly surprised by the party, it did not come as a complete shock. Most of the buildings in the area had open rooftops with additional seating for the cafes downstairs, and I assumed this was perhaps the opening night for a new business. I myself could not afford coffees at six thousand won and cakes at seven, so I did not keep abreast of the quick turnaround of cafes in the area even though I passed many of them every day. After finishing my second cigarette I flicked the butt over the side in the space between the two buildings and went back downstairs to bed. 

#

The parties went on every night for the next three nights. They were never raucous, always refined, formal but intimate. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that it was a group of well-acquainted friends. Each night I watched them as I smoked. They drank and they talked. There was nothing extraordinary going on, but I have to admit that the nature of the parties piqued my interest. On the fourth morning, a Friday, I left for work five minutes earlier than usual and took a detour to make a note of the name of the new cafe, only to find that the top two floors of the three-storey building were vacant. I stepped into the cafe on the ground floor, a small, white-walled place called Sweet Street. There was a variety of colourful cakes on display in the window and under the glass counter, but there was no one sitting at any of the tables inside. The young woman working there welcomed me as I came through the door and I asked her whether she knew anything about the parties each night on the rooftop. She was perhaps twenty-six or twenty-seven, with black hair tied to one side with a red clip with white polka dots. There was a mole the size of my pinky fingernail on the underside of her left earlobe.  

‘Parties?’ she asked, giving me a cynical look as if trying to decide whether or not I was pulling her leg.

‘Yeah, I live in the goshitel just across,’ I said, feeling the need to explain that I wasn’t just a random loon off the streets. ‘They’ve had parties there a few nights in a row now. Nothing noisy,’ I added quickly, ‘just, I don’t know, I was curious.’ I trailed off, suddenly wondering why I was bothering someone with something so trivial. 

The young woman tilted her head to one side and inhaled through pursed lips as if trying to think. ‘The previous place upstairs closed a few weeks ago,’ she said, ‘but I heard it’s been bought already. Apparently they’re doing a kind of bar-cafe hybrid up there or something.’

I tapped my fingers on the counter absently. ‘Just celebrating the opening then, maybe,’ I said in a final sort of way, eager to excuse myself and not take up any more of her time. 

The young woman looked at me curiously again. ‘I wouldn’t have thought so,’ she said. ‘The reason they haven’t started work on it yet is that they’ve had a hold-up with their alcohol licence.’

I nodded and looked at the chalkboard menu on the wall without really seeing it. When I didn’t say any more, the young woman went on.

‘I have to admit, you’ve got me curious,’ she said with a faint smile.

‘Oh, it’s probably nothing,’ I said. ‘Ignore me.’ Then, noticing the time on the clock next to the menu, I added, ‘I have to go.’

I turned to leave and headed for the door.

‘You haven’t even looked at the cakes,’ the woman said, sounding slightly hurt. I turned around and looked at the woman, then at the cakes. ‘I baked them myself. But, well, to be honest, they’re not selling well. There’s too much competition around here, you know? I mean, don’t feel like you have to buy something, I didn’t mean that. I just… I don’t know.’

I shook my head dismissively as though I had intended to buy something all along. I looked instinctively for the cheapest option and pointed out a large carrot cake that had a thick white icing on top and a sprinkling of nuts in the middle. It was already cut into thick slices and the woman scooped one up with a spatula, dropped it into a small white box and handed it to me. 

‘That’s six thousand five hundred won,’ she told me. I handed her a ten, thinking of how many bags of instant ramen I could buy for this one slice of cake, and she gave me the change, which I dropped into my pocket. 

‘I suppose it could be my birthday cake,’ I said, more to myself than to her.

‘Is it your birthday?’

‘A few days ago,’ I said, and before she could wish me a happy birthday, I turned and left the cafe. 

#

That evening I was just getting ready to go to the roof for my cigarettes when I heard a knock on the door. Curious, as I rarely received callers, I stood up to answer it. Standing in the narrow goshitel corridor was the young woman from the cafe that morning, carrying a large box.

‘Ah, it is you,’ she said on seeing me, sounding relieved. 

I looked at her for a moment, wondering how she managed to track me down. Suddenly very aware that she was able to see inside my shoebox room, I stepped out into the corridor and pulled the door to behind me.

‘The landlord told me this was your room,’ she said. ‘He said there was only one man in his thirties in the building. Said you were a quiet sort, kept to yourself. I said that sounded about right and came on up. Here,’ she said, holding the box out. 

I took the box from her. ‘What is it?’

‘Open it,’ she said, watching the box eagerly as though she herself didn’t know what was inside.

I opened it slowly, careful not to rip the cardboard handles that held it together at the top. Inside was a large purple cake.

‘It’s a birthday cake,’ she said, needlessly. ‘You said that it was your birthday and, well, business was slow today so I decided to bake you something. It’s a blueberry cheesecake. I didn’t know what kind of cake you liked so I baked you my favourite. If you don’t like it you don’t have to eat it, but I thought that everyone should have a real birthday cake, you know?’

Now it was my turn to look at her as if she might be pulling my leg. Then, seeing the expectant look in her eyes, I was about to ask her inside before remembering that the only thing inside my cell-sized room was a bed and a TV. She seemed to gather as much from looking at my face.

‘Would you like to show me the roof?’ she asked. ‘I’d love to see those parties you were talking about.’

I said that would be fine and I went quickly inside to pick up my cigarettes before leading her up the staircase. The hallway lights were yellow and flickering and there was a puddle on the floor outside the shared bathrooms on the fourth floor. The roof door, as usual, was unlocked. It was already dark outside.

‘The city looks so good from high up,’ she said, standing at the wall and resting her elbows on it. ‘Especially at night. I never even thought to come to my roof before. I’m just over in Beomnaegol. It’s a big apartment block but my room’s so stuffy and small, and I’m only on the second floor so I don’t get much of a view. That was one of the conditions from my mum, you see. She’s a real country bumpkin and she doesn’t trust these big apartments, thinks there’s fires every other day. She only agreed to let me come to Busan if I rented somewhere on the ground floor or near enough.’

‘You’re not from Busan?’ 

‘Gyeongju,’ she said. ‘My parents didn’t want me to leave, but I wanted to make a start on my own, you know? My name’s Jae-min,’ she added, turning around to shake my hand. ‘I don’t really know anybody in the city, to be honest. Sorry if I seem crazy coming over here like this, but I didn’t just want to stay in that stuffy apartment on a Friday night, you know? I went home to take my dog out, he’s a little shih tzu, and then for a long time I was back and forth wondering if I should bring you the cake. But like I said, I don’t get many customers and you wouldn’t believe all of the cakes I’m left with at the end of each day. I don’t know what to do with them all, so I didn’t want to have another one just lying around getting wasted. I must have put on twenty pounds since I came here.’

I shook her hand. ‘Ki-hyun,’ I said. ‘Don’t worry about it. Thank you for the birthday cake,’ I added. ‘I didn’t say it properly earlier.’

Jae-min smiled and looked back over the rooftops of Seomyeon. Scooters were buzzing through the streets and neon blinked from every floor of every building. 

‘Over there,’ I said, stepping over to the opposite side of the roof. ‘The party.’

Jae-min followed me over and exclaimed like a child, ‘Oh, it’s just how I imagined it.’ She leaned over the wall and craned her neck around. ‘There’s my cafe!’ she said, as though it had just appeared there out of the blue. ‘It looks so cute from up here. Doesn’t it look like a real cafe? I mean,’ she added, ‘I don’t know. It’s my own business, you know, so somehow it doesn’t feel real when I’m standing in there on my own all day. But from up here it really looks real.’

‘It’s a good cafe,’ I said. ‘Honestly, I don’t go to cafes much, but I don’t know why yours isn’t more popular.’

Jae-min smiled again and then looked back over to the roof above her cafe.

‘At first I thought you might be crazy when you told me there were parties on that rooftop, but now that I see it for myself, it looks so nice. The funny thing is, I only closed up the shop half an hour or so ago, and there was no one there when I left.’

‘Do you smoke?’ I asked.

Jae-min shook her head and kept watching the party. I fingered the cigarettes in my pocket and left them there. 

‘Do you have any soju?’ she asked. ‘Seeing them up there at that party, it makes me want to drink.’

‘I don’t,’ I said, ‘but I can go get some.’

Jae-min shook her head. ‘Let’s go together. We can see if we can get up to the roof over there; maybe we can crash their party!’

#

It only took a couple of minutes to get to Jae-min’s cafe. We had to step over the nuts that had fallen from the ginkgo trees that lined the pavement. Dozens of them had already been crushed underfoot by the pedestrians of the day and they were releasing their acrid, vomit-like smell. It was a smell that always made me think of the start of autumn.

We took the staircase next to the white door of Sweet Street and passed the second and third floors. The doors were locked and we kept on up to the roof. Jae-min knocked on the rooftop door loudly and tried to force it open, but it appeared to be locked, too. I took a turn myself, holding onto the doorknob and shouldering into the door, but it wouldn’t budge. After knocking loudly again, Jae-min put her ear up against the door and closed her eyes. 

‘There are no sounds at all,’ she whispered. ‘No music, no people, nothing.’

‘These doors are metal,’ I said. ‘Thick. They’re pretty good soundproofers.’

Jae-min shook her head and headed back downstairs without another word. Standing outside her cafe, she stepped backwards into the empty street until she could see something of the rooftop. ‘There’s no one there,’ she said, looking at me. ‘No lights, no sounds. Listen.’ 

We did. The streets were fairly quiet. There were the distant sounds of music and scooters coming from across the way in Seomyeon, but the cafe streets were virtually empty; almost all the cafes had closed up for the night. Unperturbed, Jae-min led the way to the GS25 on the corner of the street and picked out one bottle of regular soju from the fridge and a second bottle of blueberry soju. She also picked up a Twix bar from the confectionery stand.

‘It’s my weakness,’ she said as she plonked it on the counter while the cashier was ringing up the soju. 

We took the bottles back to the goshitel and walked back up to the roof. Once there, we both stood at the wall and looked out over the rooftops. If Jae-min was surprised to see that the party was still going on on the roof above her cafe, she didn’t show it. I can’t say that it surprised me, either. Even when we had gone over there ourselves to see what was going on, part of me didn’t truly expect to find anything or anyone there. Now, watching the party again from a few buildings away, it seemed to be just another part of the nightscape, as much as the ginkgo trees that lined the street going up to the subway station and the great smouldering silhouette of Geumyeon mountain behind.

‘We must be very lucky to be able to see it,’ Jae-min said, accepting the fantasy quickly. ‘My mum once told me that she used to talk to a woman who came into her room at night when she was a little girl. Nobody believed her, of course, they thought she was just dreaming, but mum was certain that she was awake. She thought the woman was her grandmother, who had died before mum was born, because she only came when mum really needed her.’

Jae-min opened the green soju bottle and poured two shots out into the paper cups that I’d picked up from my room. We touched the cups together and downed the shots, smacking our lips afterwards in satisfaction. 

‘Now you have to follow it up with the blueberry,’ Jae-min said. ‘It’s the chaser.’

I laughed openly. ‘I’ve never heard of soju being chased by soju before.’

Jae-min opened the second bottle and poured out the shots.

‘I learned it when I was younger. Honestly, I’ve never been able to drink soju well, even when I was a student and all of my friends were drinking two or three bottles a night. I don’t like the taste it leaves in your mouth, you know? This was the only way I could keep up with everyone, drinking one flavoured shot to take the taste of the last one away.’

I laughed again and downed the blueberry shot. It was sweet and hardly tasted like soju at all. I smacked my lips again and looked at the party. 

‘I haven’t done this in a long time,’ I said.

‘Haven’t done what?’ Jae-min opened her Twix and started biting off the top layers of chocolate and caramel.

‘I don’t know. Talked to someone. Laughed. Wow, that sounds pathetic when I say it out loud.’

Jae-min gave me a look and started on the biscuit part of her Twix. She was nibbling away at it like a hamster. ‘How did you come to be here alone? I mean, you’re a bit old to still be a bachelor. You got something wrong with you?’

I smiled and filled up our cups. ‘A few things, probably, I guess,’ I said, necking the latest shot. The original soju now tasted all the stronger after the sweetness of the blueberry. ‘My wife died last year. Crossing a road. The driver didn’t stop at the light. Actually, this week is the anniversary.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Jae-min said.

‘It’s okay. I’m coping with it.’

Jae-min gave me a sceptical look, but it was softened by a smile.

‘Okay,’ I admitted. ‘I haven’t coped all that well. I guess I thought that as long I was working and eating I was doing fine. I didn’t really think about anything else. I guess I’ve been kind of cut off for a while.’

Jae-min nodded as if I’d said just the right thing and turned back to look at the party. She licked her fingers after finishing off her Twix and returned to her soju cup.

‘Do you think they’re from another world?’ she asked. ‘Maybe we’re looking through a wormhole or something, and you can only see it from here.’

We looked at them some more. A chorus of cicadas erupted from the ginkgo trees on the street below. 

‘I love that sound,’ Jae-min said. I picked the blueberry bottle off the floor to pour for us. ‘Every night at the end of summer I always worry that it will be the night they stop singing.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I love the summer in this city. The beaches, the mountains, there are so many people outside. I guess it makes me feel less lonely. Whenever I walk beneath a cicada tree I always try to find them, you know? I look up in the branches to see them, but I never can. How can something that makes such a racket be so hard to see?’

‘Maybe they’re not there at all,’ I said. ‘The ginkgo trees have dropped their nuts, that means it’s autumn. Maybe the cicada song is all in our heads.’

Jae-min smiled. Her cheeks were slightly flushed now from the soju. She wrapped one of her arms around mine and rested her head tentatively on my shoulder. 

She sighed heavily. ‘I suppose I can live with that,’ she said. 

Over at the party on the other rooftop, one of the guests was standing apart from the others. She was a woman about my age, looking over at us. I couldn’t make out the details of her face, but I didn’t need to. She nodded, satisfied, and turned back to her party.

____________________________________________________________



Tomas Marcantonio is a fiction writer from Brighton, England. He has been published in over a dozen journals and anthologies, most recently Soft Cartel, Schlock!, and X-R-A-Y. Tomas is currently based in Busan, South Korea, where he teaches English and writes whenever he can escape the classroom. You can connect with Tomas on Twitter @TJMarcantonio.

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