The 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!