Speakeasy #152 – Decision Day

speakeasy090314_3The flat was cold and damp – a single, bare 40 watt bulb pulsed and crackled in tune with Ri-Sang Choi’s own laboured heartbeat. A trembling kettle whistled, bubbles of condensation forming on the narrow, single glazed kitchen window. Through a circle, cleared within the dripping moisture, Ri-Sang could see it was another bright, spring morning. In the background a small transistor radio relayed the familiar voice of state control over its one and only pre-tuned channel. As if the people of North Korea needed to be reminded, today was Election Day.

Ri-Sang had lived in the same three-roomed apartment in the Pyongyang suburbs for forty-five years. His grandly titled role as a ‘Worker of Capital City Passenger Traffic Guidance Bureau‘ had won him two important advantages in life. The first was to call the North Korean capital home: to live in the same city as the ‘Glorious Leaders‘ was a privilege hard earned, and on occasion a privilege abruptly lost by even those once regarded as the most fervent of party loyalists. The second was the apartment itself, basic by western standards, but to Ri-Sang and his neighbours a jealously guarded luxury. While his younger brothers has remained in the countryside living in rustic, squalid conditions, surviving on the crumbs of failing crops and long days of back breaking toil, Ri-Sang had enjoyed a city life of comparative comfort – a life though that had demanded unquestioning obedience: a life only ever one careless mistake, one wrong word, one misplaced smile away from leaving the city – not back to his family, but riding one of the trains upon which people departed never to return.

Ri-Sang now lived alone. Distant the days when he would sit and watch his beloved wife Su-Dae sewing his threadbare serge grey party overalls. Where once his wife’s gentle smile, deep green eyes and raven black hair would brighten his days, there were now just stark reminders of duty, and of his increasing isolation. This day, as on all days, he was dressed in the self same grey overalls his wife used to mend: that anonymous covering which stripped its wearer of their own personality, presenting them as just another faceless soldier of the revolution.

Out on the streets there was no outward sign of excitement, the atmosphere as soulless and conforming as on any day. The worn front tyre on his twenty year old bicycle appeared to be flat – each bump in the road sending a jarring shudder up through the forks, and into his gnarled, arthritic hands. The pain shooting through his fingers reminded Ri-Sang that perhaps it was time. While Su-Dae was alive he couldn’t possibly risk disobedience. Even though their life and been a hard one, one unblessed by the joy of a child, it was still a life he’d shared with the most beautiful woman in Korea – the mere thought of her soft voice and tender touch brought an unexpected public smile to his wrinkled cheeks as he peddled.

At the doorway of the third district’s Polling Station, Ri-Sang paused. Looking up towards him was the angelic, gap-toothed grin of a small girl. As they observed each other, a glistening orange lollipop was carefully steered towards a mouth already ringed in sticky sugar; from her hair fluttered red and blue ribbons, an obsequious, parental tribute to the matching colours within the omnipresent Workers Party flags. The man alongside placed a protective hand on the little one’s shoulder as he spoke loudly to a visiting western journalist.

I will devote all my intelligence and strength to fortify our socialist system, which was built and developed by our great generalissimos,‘ the defiant voice said.

These were words Ri-Sang himself would have unthinkingly uttered many times if prompted. Most would say anything when all that mattered was staying alive. However, the grinding pain in his cough told Ri-Sang he had likely seen his last election day. Deep within his heart he knew it would be so easy to comply just once more, but his choice had been made.

On the crisp, yellow voting paper placed into his outstretched palm there was but one name, one party: one decision. Ri-Sang hesitated – as he watched those watching him, a steady left hand calmly lifted the chained pencil and scored out the only name on the ballot.

Moving towards him he heard the creak of polished shoes, caught the dazzle of a red lapel pin. Ri-Sang looked directly at the approaching man and smiled – too tired and too alone to be afraid any more.


These words form my entry into the speakeasy writing challenge. After reading the prompts on Sunday morning I was surfing through the leading news items on the BBC website. The story which caught my eye was one about forthcoming ‘rubber stamp’ elections in the secretive state of North Korea. In particular the following phrases inspired me to write:

‘Each of the 687 districts had only one candidate running for office.’

‘In the last election in 2009, turnout was 99%, with 100% of votes in favour of the given candidates.’

I hope you enjoy my story!

19 thoughts on “Speakeasy #152 – Decision Day

  1. Martha B

    I love the conflict presented by the circumstance alone in this piece, but what you did with it and where you took it… that made for an excellent read. I am constantly amazed by your vivid characters in these short pieces. You have an excellent grasp on where to use words and where to save them. Nicely done.

  2. Renada Styles

    Such a strong piece. Living and having a life are quite different things indeed. You displayed the depression of the environment and man quite well- his two smiles speaking well to where happiness really lies. Well done.

  3. Stacie

    Oh man, what world we live in. I love how you incorporated a third prompt from the news. And it’s sad that some people don’t really have choices, even if it’s a vote.

  4. Peggy Smith

    I enjoyed your skillful ability to quickly give dimension and character to Ri-Sang Choi. The details immediately captured my interest. The progression from his waking moment to the point of being “…too tired and too alone to be afraid any more” was Brilliant!

  5. christi74

    Your descriptions are so beautiful and understated. I really liked your unusual use of the prompts. Great job!

  6. Suzanne

    We usually think of dystopias as fictional worlds, but you’ve done an excellent job painting us a picture of the reality this is for some people. Stark and evocative. Excellent work, Paul!

    1. paulmclem Post author

      Cheers, Suzanne. I do like a dystopian tale and I bet one or two might think I made this setting up too! Hard to credit North Korea actually exists on the same planet as the rest of us. Just a sad, sad country – I really hope one day it’s people get to take part in the World.

  7. Valerie Milton

    Paul, you immediately drew me in with your description of the pulsing bulb and the whistling kettle. I enjoyed your unique take on the prompts. This piece is smart and well-written.

  8. tinsenpup

    What a bleak existence. You managed to really get inside your character and give him great depth – always impressive in such a short piece. His small, but far reaching act of defiance is a good reminder never to take the right to vote in a democratic election for granted.

  9. jannatwrites

    I like how you pulled me into Ri-Sang’s bleak world. The farce of the ‘election’ and his bold choice made me root for him to succeed, even though I knew there couldn’t be a happy ending for him, as free-thinkers must be dealt with so as not to spark any kind of revolution.

  10. Silverleaf

    You artfully painted a stark opening picture of the kettle boiling and Ri-Sang’s aloneness and carried that feeling through the rest of the piece with small but wonderful details. Your use of the prompts, especially “staying alive,” was inspired!

  11. EagleAye

    Yup. That describes North Korea very well. Without his wife, it seems Ri-Sang no longer had patience for the charade of democracy. It’s awful that so many in NK have lived real lives like this. You really brought this to life with your vivid descriptions.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s