K.O rea

All I wanted was coffee.

I walked into a pokey grocery store on my way home. There was a strong musty smell hanging in the air. It was my first time visiting this particular store. Right at the entrance, to my immediate left, I noticed a couple of old Korean people seated at a square, wooden table. They both looked like they were in their early 60s. The woman didn’t look happy; she merely stared out the window at the passers by, her mouth formed a thin, tight line on her wrinkled face. The old man, who was talking to her, stopped momentarily to stare at the incoming foreigner.

I ignored the hole being bored into the back of my head and ambled over to the coffee aisle. I passed the cashier, a middle-aged woman who took no notice of me and just stared at the couple. The couple resumed talking. Or rather, he continued with his monologue while she continued to stare out the window.

It was when I picked out my coffee that I finally heard the woman’s voice. It was high-pitched and scratchy. She had started shouting at him. For the umpteenth time I wished I understood more Korean. I handed the money for the coffee over to the cashier, but she was glued to the Korean drama unfolding in front of us. I turned to the couple again. They were on their feet. Neither of them was listening to the other; they were both shouting over each other. By now the shouting was so loud that three passers-by stepped into the store to watch. I was certain this was the highest number of people the store had in it at one time. The crowd was gradually growing. One man was standing outside peering through the window. He had his face pressed against his hands which were cupped against the window ensuring he had an unobscured view of the show.

I looked at the coffee in my hands and then at the cashier, who finally acknowledged me. I must have looked a little alarmed because she smiled at me weakly and said in Korean, “it’s okay, it’s okay.”

It was as she said that, that the man banged his fist on the table. I jumped. The old woman didn’t move, which made him angrier. And what he did next almost made me drop the bottle of coffee. The old man lunged forward, grabbed the woman’s neck and proceeded to strangle her. He shook her violently until her neck started turning white. She was screaming, he was screaming, the cashier was screaming and I was wondering how I managed to choose that grocery store out of the four on that street.

No one was pulling them apart. Eyes were locked, hands were clapped to mouths and legs were rooted to the spot. The woman was fighting back. While his hands were still around her neck, her fingers were clawing at his face. Her eyes were closed, but she was scratching at anything her fingers could reach. So hard were her scratches that his forehead started bleeding. When he realised he was bleeding, he let her go, bent over and held his knees while panting heavily.

The woman used this break to her advantage. She grabbed an electric floor fan to her left and heaved it at him. He dodged it, but staggered and fell back against an aisle. Packets of dried squid and tinned nuts scattered everywhere. He squirmed on the floor and groaned loudly. His hair, which I only realised then, was not real. It was now hanging loosely by his ear. He stood up slowly, his wig still dangling by his ear. He made for her neck again, but this time the cashier screamed and ran towards them. She grappled with him and managed to pull him off the woman.

For a moment all three of them stood there looking at one another while panting. The cashier then went over to the man and gently placed his wig on his head. The fan, table and packets of squid and nuts were strewn across the floor. The three people who came into the store for the show walked out again. The cashier came back to the till. The couple straightened the table and put the squid and nuts back in their places. I looked at the cashier – her hand was open waiting for the money for the coffee. I handed it over and noticed my hands were shaking slightly.

I stepped outside. The two were sitting side by side on the pavement in silence, watching the cars drive past. The old man’s wig was still slightly skew.

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