It was entirely down to the director that Ayami started taking German lessons. Her second day working at the theatre, the director had told her about a woman he’d known since university, who’d got married straight after graduating, spent time as an exchange student with her husband in the same city as the director, but hadn’t been able to complete the course. Now back in Korea, she didn’t have any kind of steady job, and, after an unexpected divorce a while ago, urgently needed to start earning some money. She’d hurriedly applied for a position teaching English at a cram school, but because she was older and didn’t have any experience in this line of work they were reluctant to give her a by-the-hour contract. The money she did earn there wasn’t enough to cover her living costs, so she also gave private lessons at home, not just in English but also in French and German.
‘One of Picasso’s girlfriends earned a living teaching French to American women in Paris after the two of them broke up,’ the director said. ‘It must be a very classic step to take, one that transcends various eras.’
‘Which girlfriend?’ Ayami asked, but she’d already made up her mind to take the director up on his suggestion and go for private German lessons (or French, she wasn’t really bothered. At any rate, she was savvy enough to realize that it didn’t actually matter, as neither was likely to be of any real use).
‘Fernande Olivier,’ the director said. Ayami didn’t know the name.
The director’s friend was small, slight, and unfailingly elegant, even down to the long hair whose ends reached her waist. Her face, though, was severely marked from a childhood bout of smallpox, making it impossible to even estimate her age on a first meeting. Her skin was mottled, almost as though it had been burned. She had a strangely rolling walk, like a boat bobbing on gentle waves. She generally kept to the shadows, but when necessary would extend her right hand, its pale skin unmarked, into the light.
After the divorce was settled, she’d moved to an area about three or four bus stops away from the audio theatre. Although the neighbourhood was technically downtown, its location up a steep hill and general air of dilapidation meant the rent was fairly cheap.The woman occupied a one-room dwelling at the very end of an alley, where the sunlight never quite reached; it was quite a walk up the hill from the nearest bus stop. Ayami went there for a ninety-minute German lesson every day after work. Rather than having an actual conversation, they preferred to sit and listen to each other read from a book. Perhaps this was why, despite taking lessons for almost two years, Ayami’s German never showed much signs of improvement.
The German teacher always made them both a cup of tea. Hair pulled back from her forehead, she put her small brown feet up on a chair and sipped at the hot tea, hunched over like a monkey. She shed out the piece of lemon peel from her tea and rubbed it on the back of her hand. The German teacher was like a shadow glimpsed through frosted glass. When she wordlessly reached out to pass Ayami her tea, her sound right hand was a pale gleam emerging into the light of a midsummer evening. One time, their reading was interrupted by the sound of a radio, coming from within the room.
‘What’s that sound?’Ayami whispered.
‘The radio.’ The German teacher’s voice wasn’t dissimilar to the one coming from the radio.
‘Why switch the radio on just now?’
‘It must have come on by itself.’
‘Well, switch it off again.’
‘I can’t, it’s impossible.’
‘The radio … the switch is broken, you see. So it turns itself on, and then turns itself off again.’
‘Just pull the cord out then.’
‘I can’t, it’s impossible.’
‘Why is it impossible?’
‘I … because I’m frightened of electrical sound. It’s frightening, like gas, or knives, or lightning.’
‘Ah, I see.’ Ayami looked at the German teacher and nodded. They both returned to drinking their tea. Beads of sweat formed on their foreheads. The sole window opened directly on to the wall of the dead-end alleyway, thereby serving absolutely no purpose whatsoever, and the humid air collected in the house’s dark interior,so dense you could almost have swept it up with a broom. The scent of yellow sphagnum wafted from the fish bowl – the gold fish had died long ago – to mingle with the sweet smell of the mould blooming near the bottom of the walls. The house might as well have been a temple dedicated to the worship and propagation of tropical heat, heat which swelled like a bog within those four walls. Certain agonizing phantasms were bred in this place, a mental state known as monsoon disease. Given that the single, narrow room had neither air conditioning nor even a fan, if you opened the window hot air heavier than a sodden quilt rushed in, clagging your pores like the wet slap of raw meat, but with it closed the oxygen would quickly evaporate, disappearing at a frightening rate until the air was filled with nothing but heat. But Ayami probably wouldn’t have a tropical holiday this year, because the theatre would be closing down before the usual holiday period, and the possibility of her finding another job before then looked slim.
‘A while ago an unidentified node – that was the doctor’s term – developed in my left breast,’ the German teacher said, her whispered voice seem- ing to come from within a semi-concealed black mirror. There was a moment’s silence. ‘It’s actually quite common for people my age,’ she added. Ayami asked if this was true. If, that is, it was really just a node, something trivial, nothing to worry about. ‘That’s right, it’s true,’ the German teacher nodded. ‘It’s just a common thing. But it wouldn’t feel real to a young person like you.’
Ayami had never once thought of herself as particularly young; now, with unemployment staring her in the face and not much time left before her twenty-eighth birthday, she was even less inclined to feel that way.
‘In life. There is. A wound. Within. The soul. Slowly. Encroaching. Inwards. Like leprosy.’
The German teacher read from the book, her voice utterly toneless and devoid of all emotion. The German lessons progressed with them each reading a page per lesson from a novel in German. Their current text was The Blind Owl.