Jinjing watched from the doorway as the cleaver bit into the thigh, revealing a flash of bone amidst red spray. Huang, the restaurant’s head chef, hacked at the meat with mechanical, dead-eyed repetition. This is what happens to chefs at Golden Gate Buffet – any factory will eventually suck away your art and leave a machine in your place.
But he wasn’t entirely without passion. The proof was sometimes in the pudding, but more often in the savoury dishes; as Huang slopped the meat into the pot, he hacked up a dark ball of phlegm and spat it into the sauce. Jinjing remembered the first time she’d seen him do this, on her first day at Golden Gate. She’d done her duty and reported it to the manager, Mr Liang, who laughed and slapped her on the arse. ‘You’ll learn,’ he’d said, winking obscenely.
And she did. Within a week all such naivety had evaporated like water from the rice cooker.
‘Bean beef’s ready!’ called Huang. Jinjing scampered into the kitchen and took the tray from him. ‘Jinjing!’ he shouted, halting her on her way out. ‘Customers don’t want to see sour faces when they eat. You should try to smile. You’re a pretty girl, but when you frown you are ugly – like an unwanted dog.’ Jinjing sneered and spat into the tray, causing Huang to guffaw loudly.
Entering the restaurant, she slotted the tray into the buffet table and stirred the spit in with her finger before turning on the heating flame.
She stepped back and admired her work. Two rows of buffet trays lined each side of the table, surrounded by constellations of cutlery, pancakes and plates. Colours from sulphur yellow to pancreas pink spanned the buffet in an unnatural spectrum, like glutinous oils on an artist’s palette. Such horrendous hues always reminded her that the food at Golden Gate was as authentic as the plastic bamboo on the walls.
Which was fine by her. Why waste proper food on the slobs that came to Golden Gate? This slush was all they deserved, and all they would be able to appreciate anyway.
She looked at her watch. They would soon be here.
‘Jiinjiiing,’ sang a voice in her ear. She could smell the baijiu on his breath.
‘Mr Liang…’ she began.
‘Please Jinjing, call me Fengge. We are close, are we not?’ His hand strayed towards her hip and she slapped it away. Darkness flashed across his eyes, but he shook his head and smiled. ‘Such a playful kitten,’ he lilted. ‘But let’s be serious now. There has been a complaint.’
‘It’s about you, Jinjing.’
Jinjing rolled her eyes. ‘Mr Barnes?’
‘Yes, he’s complained about your rudeness. Again.’
‘So it’s rude to refuse to sit on his lap? This isn’t Hooters, Mr Liang!’
‘Shush, kitten,’ said Mr Liang. ‘I agree, this isn’t Hooters. But it is a business, and a business must cherish its customers. Mr Barnes pays your wages, Jinjing, so you must be nice to him.’
‘I’ll be nice to people who are nice to me.’
‘No,’ said Mr Liang. ‘You’ll be nice to anyone who walks through that door. I sometimes think you forget, Jinjing: you are just a waitress. You are being paid to look pretty, to be friendly and to clean up.’
‘I’m being paid?’ gasped Jinjing.
‘Jinjing!’ snapped Mr Liang. He clenched his little fists. ‘Don’t get cheeky! You get paid as much as the other waitresses, and if you’re ungrateful I will show you the door. It won’t be easy for you out there, Jinjing. You have no skills, no qualifications. Your family are poor. You are pretty but hardly the prettiest. You would not do well out there.’
Jinjing bit her lip.
‘So,’ continued Mr Liang. ‘Be nice to Mr Barnes, if not for him then for your own good. Start by smiling, Jinjing. Your frown makes you ugly. Now off you go. There is skin forming on the sesame chicken; give it a stir.’ He slapped her on the buttocks and headed back to his office.
Jinjing didn’t stir the sesame chicken. Instead she went to the toilet, after which she neglected to wash her hands. Every little helps.
She stood by the entrance and braced herself.
They came in with a clatter, full of chatter and cheer. And soon they would be fuller, thought Jinjing. Full of hot fat, salt, MSG and gelatine. Stuffed with reheated noodles and stale beer. Such idiots.
She swallowed her anger as she showed them to their seats and took their drinks orders. But it often rose again, pumped up her gullet by the shrieks of boob-tubed tarts, by the pretensions of fluff-faced students, by the arguing of spoilt, blubbery brats.
And the worst was still to come.
The first batch descended like locusts upon the buffet. She always watched, as much as she hated to see it, for nothing fascinates more than the repulsive. Every night they barge each other around the buffet like pigs at a trough. And that’s all they really are: monstrous pigs. Vile, selfish, greedy and grotesque. The lardy dregs of humanity.
And she has to mop up their mess, bow to their greed, wipe the slime from their mouths. Grinding mouths with bodies for bibs – that’s all these people are. They live to gorge. Consuming is their sole contribution to the world.
It was the same every night. It was relentless. It was depressing. Some of them came most nights of the week, dragged in by tight wallets and by the pull of their pointless, black hole lives.
She moved in to get a closer look. A particularly portly man was stacking his plate with an obscene pyramid of food. It was the work of a culinary structural engineer: a mountain of noodles and sauces, supported by a framework of mini spring rolls and sesame toast. It would almost have been impressive, were it not so vile. She studied his face. It shone slick and grey in the light of the heating lamps, and his brow twitched with the intensity of his concentration. He licked the sweat from his lips and Jinjing was forced by a rush of rage to turn away.
But there was no sanctuary now – no direction in which to look which wouldn’t arouse her disgust. Several diners had returned to their seats now. She noticed a blubbery woman stuck between her chair and table like a ball of dough stuffed into a small mould. A roll of gut had spread itself along the table edge, and Jinjing stared at the vast amount of tit crammed into her straining blouse. Flakes of pastry fluttered onto her flabby plateau as she shoved spring rolls into her face.
Someone tapped her shoulder. It was Meifen, one of the other waitresses.
‘Jinjing, someone has asked for you.’
Jinjing closed her eyes. ‘Mr Barnes,’ she said.
Meifen nodded sympathetically.
Jinjing looked across the restaurant and saw Mr Barnes at a table by the bar, surrounded by his goons. He grinned and gave her a wave; it was too late to pretend she hadn’t seen him.
She took her order pad from her pocket and plodded over to his table.
‘Jinjing!’ he cheered, clapping his hands.
She looked down over him, noticing the bald patch that was steadily plundering his crown. He may spike his hair and wear garish shirts, she thought, but he’s not fooling anyone.
‘Jinjing!’ he repeated. ‘My favourite waitress! Did you know that, little Jinjing? Did you know that you’re my favourite?’
Even though she was standing above him, she could smell the acrid lager on his breath. His face was red from drinking, from too much red meat and too little exercise. She glanced at his belly and noticed that it was still growing. Not long now until his stomach muscles melt into fat and flood his gut.
‘Thank you,’ she said flatly. ‘I am honoured.’
‘Ah-ah-ah, Jinjing,’ smiled Mr Barnes, wagging a finger. ‘I think I hear a bit of sarcasm there. Is that right? Aren’t you going to be nice? Mr Liang promised you’d be nice.’
Jinjing restrained a groan and tried her best to smile. ‘I’ll be nice,’ she said, putting pen to pad. ‘What would you like?’
Mr Barnes grinned at his goons. ‘You hear that, lads?’ he said. Loud laughter circled the table, dragged down in pitch by lager and testosterone. ‘I think you know what I’d like, Jinjing,’ winked Mr Barnes.
‘What would you like?’ repeated Jinjing, ignoring him.
‘Okay. Get us a round of Carlings, and I’ll have sweet and sour pork with chow mein.’
Jinjing took a deep breath. ‘Sorry Mr Barnes. I will get your drinks, but this is a buffet restaurant. You will have to get your food yourself. That is what buffet means.’
‘Really?’ smirked Mr Barnes, flashing his teeth. ‘Mr Liang!’ he called.
Mr Liang’s head popped out from the office door. He scuttled across the restaurant, smiling and bowing apologetically to diners disturbed by his summons.
‘Mr Barnes,’ he said, joining his palms and bowing. ‘How wonderful to see you. Is everything okay?’
‘No,’ said Mr Barnes. ‘Your waitress is refusing to serve me, and I’m sure you told me she wouldn’t be rude.’
‘Is this true, Jinjing?’ asked Mr Liang.
‘No, Mr Liang. I will bring him his drinks, but he wants me to fetch his food, which I don’t think is appropriate for a buffet restaurant.’
Mr Liang looked back and forth between Jinjing and Mr Barnes. A bead of sweat formed on his moonlike forehead.
‘Get your coats, boys,’ said Mr Barnes.
‘No!’ stammered Mr Liang. ‘No need for that.’ He cleared his throat and straightened his back. ‘Jinjing, fetch Mr Barnes’s food for him. He is a regular customer here and deserves our special attention.’
Jinjing tightened her lips and stared at her manager, her eyes beginning to plead.
‘Hurry, Jinjing,’ insisted Mr Liang. ‘Please don’t make Mr Barnes wait for his food.’
Jinjing turned away to hide the sting in her eyes. She headed to the buffet table, grabbed a plate and forced her way to the chow mein. Barged between two grunting customers, she piled noodles onto the plate. Squeezing back out, she stormed further along the table to the sweet and sour pork. She pushed her way between two more customers, one of whom was the structural engineer she had seen earlier. He was building another pyramid, and it was obvious that he had recently farted; the dull tang of faeces permeated the smell of hot oil, rice wine and sugar. She caught his eye and he shrugged at her. Gagging, Jinjing slopped some sweet and sour pork onto the noodles.
She extracted herself from the litter and made her way back. Blinded by the shame that welled up in her eyes, she could never have seen the shopping bags that a diner had left behind his chair. The bags caught her foot and sent her toppling forward. She span on her toes, emitted a tortured yelp, then fell onto her back as sweet and sour pork fell upon her in a sticky rain.
After blacking out for a moment, she came around and wiped the goo from her eyes. When she saw the entrails on her belly she let out a shrill scream that silenced the restaurant. A flicker of relief came with the realisation that she was covered in noodles, but it dissolved as her eyes drifted to Mr Barnes’ knees. They rolled from his knees to his crotch, and from his crotch to his red, leering face.
She had fallen at his feet, and was surrounded on all sides by a silent, bovine audience of diners. No-one lifted a finger to help her. The room was quiet and still, its silence broken only by the clanking of a few tenacious diners who refused to abandon the buffet.
She tried to pick herself up, but the weight on her ankle sent a spark of pain up her leg. ‘Can someone help me?’ she whimpered. No-one moved. An old lady chewed on a spring roll with her gums.
Jinjing felt the walls closing in. The diners gawped with ugly fish eyes at her vulnerability, at the cusp of breast showing through her torn blouse.
Mr Barnes turned to Mr Liang, and his voice swelled across the restaurant like a gong. ‘I’ll have a portion of that, please,’ he grinned, pointing at her protracted thighs.
The audience erupted into laughter. Jinjing covered her eyes, but could still see the bitchy glee in the eyes of the women – and the fresh appetite in those of the men. Keeping her eyes to the floor, she shakily picked herself up.
‘Mr Liang…’ she croaked miserably.
Mr Liang looked at her. He glanced at the grinning Mr Barnes and gave her a lame shrug. ‘Jinjing,’ he sighed. ‘Go clean yourself and bring Mr Barnes his order. He has already waited long enough.’
‘Fengge…’ pleaded Jinjing.
‘Jinjing!’ snapped Mr Liang.
Jinjing looked at his little shaking fists and knew that she had been abandoned. She looked at Mr Barnes. She looked into his eyes – two black holes in a pink lump of face – and knew that it was useless. Covering her face, she squeezed her way through the wall of ogling flab and limped painfully into the rain. She ignored Mr Liang’s whiny threats.
She heard Mr Barnes call out after her. ‘I’ll be back tomorrow!’ he shouted. ‘I still want my portion!’
The grunting and guffawing of Golden Gate followed her halfway up the street. She regularly shook her head in the rain, sending an angry spray from her lacquer-black hair. Weeping and muttering, and with agony in every step, she made her miserable way home.
By the time she’d slammed her front door she knew exactly what to do. The rain evaporated from her hair and shoulders, and she headed to her bedroom in a cloud of acid mist.
The next morning she got up early. As soon as her mother left for work she crept into her bedroom and removed a roll of cash from a sock under the bed. She threw on her coat and got the bus into town.
She was soon in the humid darkness of a reptile and insect shop. To the bemusement of its staff, she sullenly purchased a black tiger snake and an African fat-tailed scorpion. ‘So you’ll be wanting a habitat for each of these?’ they asked. ‘No,’ said Jinjing. She threw her cash onto the counter and they asked no further questions.
On the bus back, a young boy with a lollypop gazed curiously at the two boxes on her lap, one of which emitted the occasional hiss.
‘What’s in there?’ he asked.
‘Mind your own business,’ said Jinjing, keeping her eyes ahead.
He licked his lolly and shrugged.
Jinjing got home and peeked into the living room. Her grandmother had fallen asleep in front of the television. She took the boxes upstairs and into her grandmother’s room. The room also belonged to Ji’e: a poisonous red-headed centipede from China, who lived in a large glass tank by the window.
Ji’e wasn’t very popular in the household. Four years ago Grandad didn’t come down for dinner after his daytime nap. Mother went upstairs to find him dead in bed, with Ji’e coiled on his face like a string of beads. No-one ever figured out how Ji’e had escaped from his tank, and he hadn’t escaped since. Even more mysterious was Gran’s determination to keep him after what had happened. Strangely, her affection for the murderous centipede only seemed to blossom after the incident.
Ji’e was now lounging on a branch. He scuttled rapidly into his dwelling – a craggy hole in a large rock – as soon as Jinjing dropped the snake into the tank. The snake hissed and writhed in an aggressive panic, forcing Jinjing to hold the tank’s lid down with her elbows. She watched as Ji’e took advantage of the snake’s confusion. With slow stealth he crept out from his den and then crept back in. The snake didn’t even realise it had been bitten. Within a few minutes it started to slow, its thrashing subduing into a steady bob. It finally died, leaving Jinjing a little disappointed by its performance.
The scorpion put on a better show. The instant it was dropped into the tank it sensed the centipede and made a rush for the rock with pincers thrusting. Unable to reach far enough into the crevice, it angled itself sidewards and stabbed at the hole with its tail. A speck of poison glittered at the tip of its bristly barb, but found no victim. While it continued to jab, Ji’e crept through a crack at the back of the rock and along the foliage that lined the tank. The scorpion was taken by surprise; Ji’e launched himself and bit at a chink in the carapace of its underbelly. The poison took effect instantaneously. The scorpion staggered briefly, then collapsed into the sand with a pitiable click.
Jinjing gazed at Ji’e with admiration as he fed upon the snake and scorpion. Her awe made it all the more regrettable when she finally chopped him up with a heavy cleaver. Using a silk cloth, she carefully mopped up the honey-coloured liquid that oozed from his divided segments.
Mr Liang crossed his arms at Jinjing when she got to work that afternoon. ‘If I had my way I’d fire you,’ he pouted. ‘Perhaps that way you’d learn a lesson.’
Jinjing bowed her head to him silently.
‘But Mr Barnes insisted that you be kept on,’ continued Mr Liang. ‘He asked that you be given another chance. He wants you to serve him, although I don’t know why. You are only ever rude to him. Tonight is your last chance, Jinjing. Show Mr Barnes some respect. Give him what he deserves.’
‘I will, Mr Liang,’ nodded Jinjing.
Later that day she got the chefs out of the kitchen by recommending a huge rat by the bins at the back. While they were having a look she made a quick tour of the kitchen. Extracting the silk cloth from a case in her pocket, she squeezed a tiny drop of Ji’e’s essence into each dish that was being prepared.
‘That wasn’t so big,’ muttered Huang when he returned with his chefs. ‘I’ve seen bigger cockroaches.’
Jinjing smiled and shrugged, the cloth safely back in her pocket.
She was in great spirits at opening time. She smiled cheerily at the customers as they rumbled in, and led them eagerly to their seats. She laughed along with the boob-tubed tarts, flirted with the fluff-faced students, gave lollies to the blubbery brats. With prettiness and charm she urged the customers to head straight to the buffet table while she fetched their drinks.
Mr Liang noticed her change of attitude. ‘This is good, Jinjing,’ he said. ‘Perhaps you have finally learned your lesson. And your smile suits you. You know, you can be a pretty girl when you try.’ He bowed at a passing diner while discreetly pinching Jinjing’s buttock. She bit her lip and quickly recovered her smile.
‘Thank you, Fengge,’ she said. ‘I have learned a lesson, and am grateful for it. I think it is important that we all learn lessons.’
Mr Liang nodded to himself and belched gently, creating a brief aura of baijiu breath.
‘Will you be eating here tonight?’ asked Jinjing.
Mr Liang shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I have no appetite.’
‘Oh,’ said Jinjing. She thought for a moment. ‘Did you know that Huang has changed the recipe for the yellow curry?’
‘What?’ snapped Mr Liang. ‘He didn’t consult me about it.’
‘I’d better try it,’ said Mr Liang. ‘Huang will be in big trouble if he has taken liberties.’ With his fists clenching he strode over to the buffet table. Jinjing watched until he tried a spoonful of the curry, then returned her attention to her customers. She kept checking her watch, and was starting to worry when she heard the guffawing of gorillas from the bar – Mr Barnes and his goons had finally arrived. She caught his eye and he grinned and winked at her. She gave him her best smile and headed over immediately.
‘Lovely Jinjing,’ he said as she approached. ‘My lovely little Jinjing.’
‘Good evening, Mr Barnes,’ she said, bowing coyly. ‘Please allow me to apologise for my behaviour yesterday.’
Mr Barnes nodded approvingly and ran his eye over her hips. ‘I’m sure you’ll make it up to me,’ he said. ‘So will you be fetching my meal tonight?’
‘Of course,’ smiled Jinjing. ‘I would be honoured to serve you in any way that you wish.’ Her eyelashes fluttered like moth wings.
Mr Barnes smirked at his goons. His teeth were yellow and sharp, and became wolfish as his smirk twisted into a sneer.
‘That’s my girl,’ he said. ‘Okay, a round of Carlings, and sweet and sour pork with chow mein for me. Will you do that, waitress?’
Jinjing bowed once more. ‘With pleasure,’ she said.
Within two minutes the drinks and food were on the table.
‘Good girl,’ said Mr Barnes. He adjusted his crotch and downed a few gulps of lager. ‘You can go now,’ he said, his words garbled by the meat he was piling into his mouth. ‘But keep an ear out. I’ll be wanting you later.’
‘Of course, Mr Barnes,’ said Jinjing. With what looked liked motherly pride she watched him eat for a moment before heading to the buffet area. While she mopped up spilt rice and lumps of fat she watched the diners around her. They looked different tonight – perhaps because she knew what was coming to them. For the first time she was able to observe them clearly, with eyes untainted by the dull redness of anger. They were still vile, still disgusting, still pigs at the trough. But they were also sad. She could see now that there was loneliness in their hunger. There was rejection in the way they eyed up the dishes, failure in the way they shovelled forkful after forkful of mush into their throats.
Jinjing felt no sympathy. They were pathetic. They were truly dregs – even more so than she’d thought. She reflected upon the irony that these wastes of space seem to take up more space than everyone else.
Someone tapped at her waist. ‘Jiinjiiing,’ sang Mr Liang.
Jinjing turned around and looked warmly upon the little man.
‘One of our customers is having difficulties in the toilets,’ he said
‘Yes, he is sick. Go and attend to him.’ He eyed her curiously, awaiting her response.
‘Of course, Mr Liang,’ smiled Jinjing. ‘I’ll see to him immediately.’
Mr Liang smiled, perhaps relieved.
‘Oh,’ added Jinjing, looking back as she left him for the men’s toilets. ‘I think it may have been the Peking duck that Huang changed, not the yellow curry.’
‘Ah,’ said Mr Liang, nodding to himself. ‘I thought the curry tasted the same as usual.’ He headed for the Peking duck as Jinjing continued her stroll to the toilets.
She found the evening’s first victim on the tiled floor, collapsed as if exhausted by an intense struggle with the toilet. It was the structural engineer. He must have been the first to start eating. No surprises there. He lay in a congealing pool of pink puke, the sharp stench of which stung her nostrils. A beard of crusty vomit had formed around his mouth, which was mangled like shredded beef by an agonising death. It took all of her strength to lift his head by the hair and position his face in the toilet bowl. She flushed the toilet and whistled as she washed her hands.
As she walked out a middle-aged man rushed past her for the toilets, hands clasped between bulging cheeks. His scream as he saw the dead engineer was strangled by the acid chunks that spluttered from his mouth.
Jinjing walked into pandemonium. All around her diners were shitting themselves, spewing onto their plates, clutching their guts and crawling in their bile. The air reeked of vomit and diarrhoea, and the windows were fogged by a mist that turned Jinjing’s stomach. All around her were moans and grunts and screams, as if Golden Gate had become the venue of a brutal orgy.
She saw Mr Liang on the floor, propped up against the bar. He was hugging his knees, rocking back and forth in a watery brown pool that expanded rapidly around him. She looked over to Mr Barnes’ table. Sat amidst his retching goons, he stared in shock at the bilious stew that spilled over his cupped hands, marbled by streaks of blood.
Grinning and glorious, Jinjing grabbed a wok and leaped onto the buffet table. She used a ladle to bang on the wok’s base and danced like a sprite to its staccato rhythm.
‘Pigs!’ she whooped. Some of the customers looked up from their misery, trying to focus their bleary eyes on the silhouette that pranced amidst the heating lamps. ‘Listen, pigs!’ she laughed, banging the wok. ‘Do you hear this? This is your death toll!’ She crouched so that the lamps illuminated her gloating face. ‘Be happy – your miserable lives are about to end. As I speak, gu poison is working its way through your guts to your heart.
‘It’s a fitting poison. Do you know of it? A centipede bites and poisons a snake, then bites and poisons a scorpion. It feeds on its prey, and its poison becomes three poisons. It is a greedy, excessive poison, with consumption at its core. It is perfect for fat, ugly pigs like you!’
There was a roar amidst the moaning of diners. It was Mr Barnes. He glared at Jinjing from his table, glutinous strands of saliva trembling from his open mouth. He tried to shout something at her, but painfully belched up more blood. He roared again and heaved his table aside, knocking dishes and glasses onto his shattered goons. Red-eyed, he stumbled towards her and managed to build his stagger into a lurching charge.
Jinjing was ready for him. Narrowing her eyes, she clutched the wok’s handle with both hands and raised it behind her. She turned her side to face him and took careful aim. With admirable timing she swung the wok so that its curved base met his nose and caused it to explode over his face. Several of his teeth were launched across the room by the wok’s heavy arc. With his head knocked back, his feet flew before him and he landed on his back with a hideous crunch.
Jinjing pirouetted on the table and kicked a cutlery tray onto Mr Barnes’ twitching body. ‘Pigs!’ she cried, banging the wok again. ‘I must be serious now. Listen carefully to what I say.’ She clanged the wok until she had everyone’s attention. ‘Pigs, you have around ten minutes to live. Ten little minutes until the gu poison reaches your hearts. These are the last ten minutes of your useless, depressing little lives. Tell me, what will you do with these last, precious moments? For the first time in your lives your time is golden.
‘So how will you use it? Will you use it as you’ve used it so far – to barge, to gorge, to consume? For greed, for selfishness, for throwing away? Or will you finally do something good? Will you call a loved one and tell them how much they mean to you? Will you tell someone that you’re sorry for something you did to them? Will you comfort one of your dying neighbours?’ She paused for effect.
‘This is your last chance for worthiness, pigs. Tell me, what will you do?’
She dropped the wok to the floor with an ominous clang and gazed expectantly at the diners. For a moment there was stillness as they took in her words. Gradually they raised their heads and looked around at their neighbours.
Jinjing thought that the expression growing on their faces might be empathy – but something was wrong. There was too much tension stirring on their brows, too much alertness dawning in their eyes.
The restaurant was filled suddenly with loud grunts as diners heaved themselves to their feet. Jinjing watched in horror as they stampeded towards the buffet. They screamed and shrieked, shouted and shoved. With terrifying resolve they knocked each other to the floor, kicked one another into shitty puddles, grabbed at hair and gouged at eyes.
Jinjing gawped with growing depression as they fought for the buffet. With their lives slipping away, they clambered over each other’s spew-covered bodies for fatty slops and oily dregs.
Accepting defeat, she got onto her knees and dipped her ladle into the black bean beef. She lifted it to her mouth. To her surprise, it tasted very good.
Darren Simpson writes because he can. Find out more at darrensimpsonwrites.wordpress.com
Original artwork by Christopher Baldwin