But when his wife has gone to sleep and the house is filled with silence as stifling as the ocean waters, he sits outside on the balcony with his legs perched on the railings. The only companions he allows during this time are the bottle of the wine and the familiar voice spilling out of the old radio.
“Once, there was a rich man who couldn’t stand the fact that a lowly cook could live a happier life than him. So, he left a bag of gold coins on the steps of the cook’s door. When the cook found the bag, he was euphoric and poured the coins out, counting them one by one. Strange, there were only ninety-nine gold coins? Where did the last one go? His whole house was searched from bottom to top, side to side, and yet he could not find the last gold coin. As if his heart was pinned to the missing coin, he grew unhappy and sought any way to earn enough money to complete set of hundred gold coins.
The cook knew that his brother possessed a gold coin, but also knew that it was all the brother had left. The two brothers shared a close relationship and shortly after their parents passed away, the cook had held his brother’s hand every night to chase away the nightmares that plagued the younger one. But now, in a moment of greed, the cook ruthlessly schemed with outsiders to cheat his brother of the coin.
Greed and the pursuit for wealth have the power to bury one’s conscience, till the point where we can abandon and betray the people closest to us, without an ounce of hesitation. A rich man used ninety-nine gold coins to draw out the greed monster’s ugly head in a person, while one gold coin caused the cook to betray his closest kin.
In our society and in our lives, what actually is this bag of ninety-nine gold coins? The need for pragmatism and efficiency that our government constantly drills into us since young? The many years we spent in schools and tuition centres trying to search for our place in the world, but ending up like cookies cut out from the same mould? Or the loss of a good friend? Can you safely say that your life is safe from the temptations of the ninety-nine gold coins? Is your conscience truly clean of the taint that is the one gold coin?”
The Chinese dessert store is surprisingly crowded at this time of the night, filled with couples and office workers looking for a different sort of sweetness in the city after dinner. It’s incredible how the slight breeze blowing their hair as they sit at one of the outside tables, still carries the saccharinity of sugar syrup and soya milk but Soonyoung is glad for the fresh air.
The owner of the store lays down the bowls of soya beancurd, warm and inviting, between them on the table with profuse apologies of making them wait. It is instinctive on Soonyoung’s part to sprinkle brown sugar onto the smooth milky surface and smash the beancurd into white debris before stirring the contents of the bowl evenly into the sugar syrup. But for Wonwoo, who only does whatever he sees Soonyoung doing, the taste of this particular dessert is apparently not to his liking, and he grimaces as the syrup drowns his taste buds in sickly sweetness. Soonyoung laughs, a hearty genuine laugh that he has been gradually recovering since meeting Wonwoo, Junhui and Jihoon again after the long eighteen years.
“Shouldn’t we have gone to a bingsoo place if you wanted dessert?” A second spoonful of the silky beancurd goes into Wonwoo’s mouth and this time round, he nods in slight appreciation.
Soonyoung shrugs, realizing that he wasn’t thinking much when he asked to meet Wonwoo here tonight, instead of the pub they usually frequented. “Xuanyi likes this place because it reminds her of her hometown, and I guess it has become my favourite place too. Besides, too much cold food and drinks aren’t good for your throat.”
The face Wonwoo pulls at this moment is achingly familiar to Soonyoung and yet, strange to see, especially considering the best of their youth have passed them by. “Oh, don’t use that tone of voice with me, Kwon Soonyoung. You’re only a month older than me and there’s no reason why you should be as nagging as an ahjumma.”
It’s hard to believe that the voice imbued with a slight childish whine is also the same one that blesses the airwaves in the secret hours between night and dawn, bringing with it the nostalgia and longing for the city’s simpler days. (But it’s easy to believe that despite the older eyes and the matured facial features, the man sitting in front of him is the same boy he once had a crush on, dragging up the memories he thought had left him empty the moment said boy walked out of his life, memories of their simpler days.)
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