By Shanley McConnell
The convenience store was in an alleyway. There was nothing else in the alley, only the concrete wall of the Seungi apartment complex, the permanent metal structure of what had once been intended as a temporary construction site and the underbelly of Lingi-ill Bridge. A plastic banner warning denizens of debris and the carbon release of unfinished plans hung at the end of the street. The banner was wilted, peeling from the shingled roof like a hanging plant. Even the store had lost its signage. On occasion a couple of the letters flickered neon. Even so, the walk was always dark and the Seungi convience store entertained few people.
It was no longer in good condition. From the sixth floor of the Seungi complex, double-hung windows overlooked the disintegrating building. Haedeki often looked out the window of her room and watched the few customers, mostly other Inging University students, struggle with the thin, aluminum door. Although the boy who only worked weekends had tried loosening the frame, the door frame remained stuck in its crescent swing. He looked to be about seventeen. Other employees, too. Secondary students. They walked to their shifts, swapped uniforms and worked their hours alone. They laid textbooks on the counter surface and poured over the problems with lonesome, distracted expressions.
The owner of the convenience store was a middle-aged man whose children saw less of him than Haedeki. They wandered by every now and then, their mother behind them. On such occasions, the man closed his shop and sat outside on the porch with his young wife, son and daughter. The children sipped strawberry milk, knees to chest on brick steps, while the shopowner’s young wife held her husband’s hand and pretended not to feel how calloused they had become. They had, after all, married when she was twenty-two and he, near thirty-nine. Besides a little room on the east side of Yeung, the convenience store was all they had left by which to remember the family who had arranged this union.
Close to the window Haedeki closed her eyes, open. The sharp, mid-afternoon sun blurred her reflection. It curved around the half-curtains and refracted the glass. In less than forty minutes winter would turn the Sakura highrise into a watercolour. Seungi winters were like this. They muddled the skyline until it no longer resembled the silhouette of a lavender cloud but instead, fell heavy upon the city in thick, soot-like snow.
Had this moment been cinema, with camera panning the complex, lens focused on the window, this scene might have been forgotten. It only served to introduce Haedeki, who was kneeling beneath the view from which she so often admired the mini-mart. She preferred the ground; the carpet was softer than the bed, if not newer, covering the room like a grey blanket. Haedeki rested her back against it and looked up at the ceiling.
Although it was owned and managed by an Inging alum, the complex was oddly unkept. Potted plants at the entrance wilted within days of their arrival and the glass cover of the fire alarm had never been repaired. It remained cracked; the only remnant of a fire that destroyed half the original building. Few of the rooms were properly insulated and a majority of the downstairs residents complained of leaking heaters.
The plaster built to hide the awkward bulge in her ceiling had begun dissolving and now covered the room in a fine, ash-like powder. The window had been weakened by years of misuse. If twenty flies flew in, the window only collected eight. The reason for this was simple. The Seungi apartment complex met the requirements of Sakuri living regulations. On paper, only two students lived in each room. So long as the landlord paid for a turnover clean, they were responsible for removing all rubbish from the shared spaces. But a cycle had been circulating for many years.
No deposit had ever been returned to a resident. The landlord always found something amiss with every room. Cigarette smoke. A broken lamp. A scratch in the surface of a desk. Some watermark tucked in the space between bedframe and wall. Even if the current resident was not at fault, the landlord reused the marks. Although the landlord’s contract demanded a thorough cleaning, the lack thereof and growing awareness of this meant that the rooms were left worse than years before until, year after year, the Seungi complex was synonymous with scam.
But no could afford to care if mould crept round the crowning. The city was expensive and limited in space. And so, it mattered not whether one left the room better than before mattered not. The real issue was that no deposit had ever been returned to a renter. Without incentive, aware of the scam, prospective students cared little for posterity. On top of this, no cleaning company bothered with its job. The landlord paid them too little for the mess that was his complex. Haedeki watched them arrive once. The van pulled into the parking space, stayed for a moment and left.
Haedeki had never been to the Seungi convenience store. She doubted she ever would. There was one located two minutes from the Ruskin Governmental Building where all classes were held, private tutorials exempting. Not only that, but the mini mart had come to represent something very intimate. It reminded her of Yoshimo, and the little room where her grandmother and sister still lived. It boasted of nothing special and held that which was most precious. On weekends Haedeki travelled back to Yoshimo via train through Lingi-ill.
Yoshimo overlooked the Lingi-ill National Forest. The government constructed the plant using all the best agricultural engineers years ago, and the peninsula now flourished from an influx of tourists. Horticulture professors brought with them students from varying academic departments, secondary schools visited on annual field trips, and, when the President of Geoyjing named the near-island a Heritage Site, the district developed in both size and prestige. No longer did the city look as it had: a shabby industrial area divided in two by an oily stream that swept through its centre and curled around both sides like foam on a rock beach.
Haedeki’s grandmother could no longer see. She had been diagnosed with cloudy vision. In the beginning, Haedeki read all there was to know about cataracts. She applied for an additional examination to be held, but there was no money for surgery. That, and the doctor told her that pressure so extreme might affect more than her grandmother’s eyes.
Because grandmother had gone blind before the city’s refurbishments, Haedeki spent hours describing changes. The concrete crosswalk that now ran along the coastline. The magnolia shrubs and dwarf flowering cherries potted under growing skysweeps. Even the community center had undergone refurbishment and widened bike parking for the students who travelled, like Haedeki, in from closer parts of the city. Sure, there was still the scene of metropolitan-chocked traffic. But, at least for now, it represented economic growth.
The Yoshimo complex had grown as well. It was now twice its original height and hosted a reception desk. The room where her grandmother and sister slept was still unimpressive, but it was always clean. Even if grandmother could no longer see, she woke early, cooked broth with shallots and swept surface areas with leftover windex. She dusted the corners of the thin, reach-in closet and reorganised the shelves Haedeki’s father had nailed to the wall. The old photographs. She fingered their frames carefully. She knew the imagine of each one by the feel of its surround.
It had been many months since Haedeki had last come to visit. A knock woke Haedeki to the mirror. Light refracted and made visible the dust in the air. The knock on the door came once again. Haedeki opened it, cautious. No peekholes had been added to the newest addition of the Seungi complex.
On the other side was an elderly woman with half a bucket of cleaning supplies in one hand and a small mop in another. ‘Mi, 22?’ She asked.
Haedeki shook her head. Holding the door open with a slippered foot, she pointed to the second door on the left end of the hall.
The woman struggled relifting the hamper and began walking towards her intended destination. Were it not for the lines in her face Haedeki would have aged her sixty. She was clearly older. In a photograph, one might have clocked her at eighty, and this would have been true. Her hair was knotted in a frizzy bun that neither looked opposing nor tight. Her back curved slightly, as if her life had been spent carrying heavy things.
Haedeki followed the woman into room 22. It smelled damp, even as the woman budged the window open a crack to let the stagnate, winter air inside.
Haedeki covered her mouth and coughed twice. The wall was hidden behind a sort of white fungus turning mint as it scathed the left wall. The roof was falling in, and it was not the kind of ceiling to be so flexible. The wood fixture of the floor above peeked out from beneath wallpaper. The spirit of the place had retreated long ago.
The old woman retrieved a bottle from her container and sprayed the room three times. She could no longer kneel to scrub strewn specks off the carpet, nor could she reach the window frame to wipe the dust free. The mould along the wall would require something far stronger than elbow-grease and bleach.
Haedeki gathered the supplies. The lid of a chemical bottle was leaking, and Haedeki wrapped it in an extra paper towel before replacing it in the narrow bucket. The old woman watched silently. Haedeki waited for her to speak, but she only watched. She had been watching Haedeki for a long while.
The old woman visited this room over twenty-six times in twenty-nine years. She watched it decay, and now there was nothing she could do for it. The room was near empty and held a weeping heaviness. The metal post of a single bed, and the mattress. Both were the colour of the wall. To think that emptiness could acclimate, to disquietude.
To think that this room had once been hers, mother who knew so little of Seungi and the adjacent university. The bassinet placed, there, beneath the window. The view still looked over the convenience store where her husband worked night shifts after day courses at Inging. Environmental Law. She remembered willing a glimpse of him appear, walking as a partition to and from the mart.
Haedeki coughed. How could someone so fragile be expected to fix such a mess? Perhaps that was just it. The old woman had not been hired to clean, but employed because she could not. ‘Are you ok, mi?’ She felt nervous, a little. In light of the silence, Haedeki felt the spirit of the space rise. Her will had left, a strange weight on her limbs. She was giving way.
The old woman was walking with her left hand on the rail, slowly, and Haedeki admired her, for she neither complained nor seemed annoyed by the decelerating pace with which she made her way down the wall. The room left behind.
It was halfway down the fourth stairwell before the old woman spoke. ‘If everyone were this sad on the outside, the world would be silent and lonely.’
Art by Abigail Hodges