The Cure-all

Food Glorious Food

We are delighted to launch this new Read Paper Republic series with 'The Cure-all', a short story by celebrated author Xu Xiaobin, translated by Megan Copeland. Xu Xiaobin was born in 1953 into an intellectual family in Beijing. She spent nine years in the countryside and at a factory during the Cultural Revolution and then began publishing her writings in 1981.

This is the second story by Xu Xiaobin to feature in a Read Paper Republic series. The first, 'Snow', along with her novel Crystal Wedding and essays like 'Amid a Sea of Red Flags', tackle gender and sexuality with searing honesty, and push the boundaries of what is politically acceptable in today's China.

'The Cure-all' is rather different: we follow one sad and lonely middle-aged man as he attempts a new lease of life during the recent COVID-19 pandemic. 'The Cure-all' is biting in its satire but it is also gentle, even tender. The man is ultimately his own worst enemy and food, for him, becomes a substitute for the other pleasures in life that he was never able to realise.

We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

—— Nicky Harman and Megan Copeland

You can see Megan and Xiaobin reading an excerpt from The Cure-all here.

The Cure-all
By Xu Xiaobin
Translated by Megan Copeland

That new Suzhou noodle bar had been on his mind for days.

It took him forty minutes to cycle to the restaurant. It was all the way over in the east of the city and he was riding one of those shared bikes. A forty-minute ride was really the limit for a man of his age and physique, but the smell that wafted towards him as he pulled up told him it was worth the effort. At the door, he dutifully scanned the QR code using the Health Kit app on his phone, but his heart sank when he looked down at the screen. A message had appeared right where the green code ought to have been. He couldn’t get into the restaurant without the green code! Damn! This had to be one of those dreaded pop-up notifications.

A week earlier, his throat had felt inflamed, so he had bought some medicine online. It was a box of Pudilan, a traditional Chinese medicine meant to soothe a sore throat. He had hesitated a little at the time as there had been a long form to fill out before you could buy it. Then he remembered that time when he had bought sleeping pills online last year. He had had to fill out a whole host of information then too. Anyhow, his throat really was sore, so he didn’t hesitate for long. He had forgotten all about it by the time the medicine arrived. His throat had recovered on its own and the box of Pudilan had been left unopened. Then two days ago, he had received a call out of the blue asking about his purchase. When he acknowledged it, they pressed him, “Was it for yourself or were you buying it for someone else? Were you unwell or was it just a precaution?”

At that point, he sensed trouble in the offing. With a slight tremble in his voice, he stammered out, "Just… just a precaution."

A lonely old hermit, that’s what he was. He had never married. In his younger years, there had been a few girlfriends, but somehow it never worked out. As the years went by, friends and relatives had drifted away, and he became cut off from the outside world. He had even once enrolled in a college for senior citizens to learn how to operate a mobile phone. But it hadn’t helped. Mobiles, instant messaging, really anything electronic was a complete mystery to him. He had long felt that the world didn’t have a place for him anymore. Even in his own neighbourhood, he was a shadow. He only ventured out for a stroll after dark.

He had tried occupying his time with different things, like growing plants or getting a puppy. But the puppy had run off after three months. He did everything he could think of to get the little thing back. He had asked around the neighbourhood and even put up flyers. Finally, someone said he had seen a stray matching the description hanging around near a local interchange late at night. He waited next to that interchange every day for more than a month in the depths of winter, but the mutt had never shown up. After a bad bout of flu, he gave up.

As for the plants, he had first bought a type of herbaceous plant that came highly recommended for beginners. Even if it dried out, the flowers were meant to be pretty. But as soon as the plant arrived at his house, it just shrivelled up and died. Nevertheless, he wasn’t to be put off, so he had bought some narcissus bulbs from a shop on Pinduoduo. The store had received rave reviews, with customers posting photos and videos of their gleeful reactions to the beautiful white and green blooms. Yet in his hands, not even a single green shoot appeared. Every day for a month, he had dutifully changed the water and watched for any signs of life. After two months, the bulbs were still resolutely inert. As New Year’s Eve approached, he finally gave up hope. On a dark and windy night, he took the whole lot outside and dumped it in the communal rubbish bin. As if fleeing the scene of a crime, he then turned and dashed back inside. Ten minutes later, his heart was still beating wildly. Ultimately, he had come to believe that he was one of those unlucky bastards, the type whose bread always fell butter side down, and there was no point in fighting it.

Then came the pandemic. While the rest of the country sank into a state of panic and confusion, he was actually quite cheered by the whole affair. Suddenly he didn’t feel that different from everyone else. He had always secretly hated the high-flyers, the partygoers, and the stinking rich hosting their nightly banquets. He had sneered at the well-dressed young couples heading for the bars and nightclubs in town and watched enviously as happy families passed him by on the street. Now the playing field had been levelled, the balance had been redressed. He felt vindicated. Didn’t the old saying go, “It’s not scarcity, but inequality that’s the problem”?

He still went for walks alone in the dark, but the bitter thoughts that once plagued him lessened somewhat. As he passed the lighted windows of his community, he imagined the families closeted in those apartments, full of suspicion and fear, blaming each other, resenting each other. Not like him. He was free. He could walk alone, unnoticed by the system, unnoticed by anyone. Over the long, lonely years, he had become like a wisp of smoke, a puff of steam. He had become a creeping ant, easily wiped out with one stamp of the foot. Yet, that seemingly unfortunate situation was now a blessing in disguise. Without a fixed trajectory, he couldn’t be a target.

Of course, all this “enlightened” thinking was just talk. He was no Buddha. He was like one of those idiots who talked about the joys of being out of the rat race, when really he had been forced to leave or else suffer a crushing defeat. When he was young, he had tried to fight the good fight, but several rounds in the ring had left him broken. In the end, he decided to escape with whatever remained of his life. A graceful exit from the battlefield was the way to go. Anyway, his years as an accountant weren’t so bad. He didn’t make the big bucks, but he had had all he needed.

The highlight of his pandemic was a blind date. In fact, it was probably the best moment of his life. He was in his sixties and she was in her fifties. He spruced himself up a bit before the date, donning his most presentable striped jacket and slacks. Wiping the dust from his long-neglected mirror, he took a deep breath and appraised himself. The effect was better than he expected. He still had a full head of hair, even if it had turned grey and thinned out a bit. His lean face looked relatively fresh and unblemished, despite the wrinkles. He couldn’t do anything about his dour expression. But he was comforted by the fact that he had so far avoided the old man’s paunch, unlike so many men his age. That was definitely a point in his favour. All in all, while not perfect, he thought he looked just fine.

They had arranged to meet in a coffee shop. Women like to drink coffee, he thought. Overall, she made a good first impression. She looked like a descendant of the ancient Tangut tribe, tall, slightly hunchbacked with a protruding nose and deep-set eyes. Her clothing was fashionable but understated. He quickly clocked her Burberry scarf and LV bucket bag. They looked real. And she drank her coffee and nibbled on her food in quite a charming way. At the very least, she wasn’t irritating or pretentious, and the fact that she also hadn’t married was music to his ears. What a rarity! They hadn’t talked much at that first meeting, but she seemed something of a kindred spirit. When you get to their age, there is no need for meaningless chit-chat anyway. They had arranged to meet again in a week, and after three dates, it felt like they both breathed a sigh of relief.

Of course, she wasn’t perfect. For one thing, she was terrible at making decisions. Even ordering a simple meal was a lengthy ordeal. He was more of an intuitive diner. At most, he might look at online reviews for recommendations but normally he could pick a few dishes pretty quickly. But she changed her mind over and over again. It was incredibly frustrating to watch her agonise over the menu.

He told himself there was no such thing as perfect. Meeting someone new was always an adjustment, and after all this time, didn’t he deserve a little company? If he was honest with himself, he knew that beggars couldn’t be choosers. Still, he couldn’t help but wish things were going a little better. But, didn’t he always say, nothing in life is permanent. Something always comes along to turn everything on its head.

That something arrived the day they met at a Japanese restaurant. The menu was very simple, as the restaurant only served set meals. Of course, even that was a challenge for her. She wavered for nearly an hour between the cod set meal and the eel set meal. Both sounded delicious, but the eel set meal came with miso soup and four side dishes: sugar snap peas, pickled radishes, kimchi, and a side salad, while the cod set meal came with a large, shredded cabbage salad, a vinaigrette and white sesame salad dressing, and a small cup of egg custard. The eel was the restaurant’s speciality and received rave reviews online, but the cod was the more extravagant option. The diner at the next table had ordered the eel. Her eyes lit up when she saw the dish arrive and she watched as they took a leisurely bite out of the fresh, fatty fish. Yet, she still couldn’t quite let go of the idea of the large cabbage salad. Perhaps she was desperately in need of fresh vegetables.

He had chosen the chicken curry set ages ago. It was nothing fancy, just chicken and mushroom with sides of seaweed and baby mushrooms. But he didn’t push her, he just waited calmly as the minutes ticked by. Only the quiet tapping of his feet under the table belied his growing impatience.

Finally, she decided on the eel, but when it came time to order, the server told him that the chicken curry set was sold out. Visibly upset, he ordered a bowl of udon noodles instead.

Seeking to redeem the situation, she hurriedly offered him a bite of her eel. He flinched at the sight of her proffered chopsticks and the glistening chunk of eel flopped onto the tabletop. An embarrassed silence descended and as neither was experienced in the art of dating, it was allowed to stretch on and on. Only the faint sound of chewing could be heard. He started to sweat. After a long time, he looked up from his food, and, in an attempt to clear the air, she gave him a big smile, revealing a mouth full of black teeth. It was only then that he realised he had never seen her smile before—and what a shock it was!

Suddenly, the image of her uneven black teeth was all he could see. How could each tooth be pointing in a different direction like that? Some were edged with black, and some were rotten to the core, clearly in need of extraction. He almost spat out his noodles. He grabbed a napkin and wiped his mouth. He was still a gentleman after all. Lowering his eyes, he didn't look up again.

Everyone says men are visual animals, but he’d never thought he was that superficial. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Despite his own uninspiring appearance, he couldn’t help but expect more from others, especially from women.

For the next two days, she messaged him with meaningless chat about the exercise classes she attended, the food she ate, and the interesting things she saw. He pictured her bewilderment and sadness at his lack of reply, but he was unmoved. She was trying to change the subject, she wanted him to forget what had happened, but that was impossible.

On the fifth day, he deleted her number, and suddenly she was gone from his life, the slate wiped clean. That was the first time he had really felt the wonders of the digital age. People became merely characters in your virtual world. You just had to say the word, and they were gone. He hadn’t expected to meet anyone, and now it was all over, even her phone number was no more.

On the sixth day, he went to the park alone.

How many years had it been since he had gone to Beihai Park? Maybe not since he was in the Young Pioneers. He remembered an outing, where they had rowed boats on the lake. There hadn’t been many kids who could row, but he could. The pride he had felt rowing his classmates around the lake came back to him. He remembered the terrified face of the class beauty as the swell of the lake waters rocked the boat. And they had sung a song, "Let’s paddle together, our boat will ride the waves…" Such great lyrics! “See the beautiful white pagoda reflected in the water, surrounded by green trees and red walls…" How long had it been since he had seen these green trees and red walls? Seeing them again brought back the memories of his childhood trip, stirring something deep inside him.

It was then that he realised how surprisingly beautiful the park must have been back in the old days, when there were no people to spoil it. As he gazed around, it came to him that whoever wrote that song had missed the most important part of the scene, the golden yellow tiles. They dominated the surroundings. Nowhere in the world had anything like this, the golden yellow of the Imperial Gardens.

He dimly recalled an ancient myth about glazed tiles… In the Spring and Autumn Period, Fan Li, a famous official from the State of Yue, was put in charge of forging the King of Yue’s sword. While smelting the iron for the sword, he discovered some coloured glass. Entranced by the beautiful colours, he presented his discovery to the King of Yue along with the sword. The King named the material “li” after Fan Li and gave some to him as a reward. Fan Li later made it into a brooch, which he gave to the famous local beauty, by the name of Xi Shi. When Xi Shi left for the state of Wu, her tears dripped onto the brooch and left a pattern, which years later, still looked like flowing tears. The modern Chinese word for coloured glaze is “liuli”, derived from the name, “li”, and the word “liu”, which means to flow. He remembered lots of these little anecdotes. He was rather proud of it.

Behind the yellow tiles stretched a sky of deepest blue. He gazed again at the old white pagoda. It bore the marks of history, but it was still standing strong after all this time. Suddenly his head snapped up. Isn’t that just like my life? he thought. Over the years, the beauty had gone from his life, and he had become jaded. When he looked around him, he saw only despair, exhaustion, and mistrust. But that was because there were too many people! The beauty of Beihai Park would soon be engulfed by a tide of people too. This was surely a sign from the Heavens that there was a life still waiting for him. What did it matter if that blind date hadn’t worked out? He had never had high hopes for the relationship anyway.

At his age, dating was nothing more than something to pass the time.

He had taken a lot of photos at the park and, remembering what he had been taught in that “Introduction to Mobile Phones” class at the senior citizens college, immediately saved them to the cloud. “Lone Wolf”! That was the name he had given his cloud storage folder.

From that day on, he decided to get out more. He started going on walks, anywhere within walking distance. But his thirst to explore soon drove him to try out one of the shared bikes scattered around the city. He would open Gaode Maps on his phone, pick a route, and then search for places to eat in the area. It was so easy! At last, he could go to all those busy little restaurants that he had felt intimidated by in the past.

He first went to a donkey burger restaurant that he had been dying to try. It was normally completely packed, the air heavy with cooking fumes and the smell of unwashed feet. But now it was empty, even the staff seemed to have disappeared.

He could see the fresh, pink meat behind the glass counter. It was actually one of those glass-topped refrigerators, the kind you saw in shops selling ice cream. He could easily reach in, he thought, snatch a bowl of meat, and leg it. But his years of education kicked in and, almost without thinking, he called out for a member of staff. Although his voice was barely audible above the humming of the mosquitos, the thieving impulse was gone in a flash.

Anyway, someone had already appeared behind the counter.

“Two, no chilli.” He ordered as if he had done this a thousand times.

The shop assistant deftly selected a piece of meat and started to slice. It certainly was fresh; he could still see traces of blood on it. The assistant stuffed the meat into two crispy buns, added the sauce and some coriander, then handed them over wrapped in a paper bag. As he took the first bite, he felt his whole body relax. He was saved. Good food really can bring salvation. It was only natural to want food and sex, wasn’t that the saying? That sounded spot on to him.

From that moment on, his sole purpose became to find that elusive feeling of release. And then one day, the greatest moment of his gourmet adventure arrived.

Of course, being hungry must have had something to do with it. But as soon as he stepped into the noodle bar in Pinganli, he was intoxicated by the aroma that filled his nostrils. Even though he couldn’t really call himself a true foodie, he could recognise the smell of quality, natural ingredients, untouched by enhancers or additives. Smells like these could produce almost biochemical reactions, like love at first sight. He ordered a dish. It arrived in a rough, deep green porcelain bowl. To all intents and purposes, it was just beef noodles. There’s nothing new about that. Yet, the portions seemed generous, the colour was just right and the smell… heavenly!

The soup was too hot, so he took a bite of the noodles first. They were just right, not too firm and not too soft. As he ate, he felt a glorious warmth spread from the tip of his tongue down to his stomach. The warmth rippled slowly throughout his body, settling deep in his chest. Through pursed lips, he took a small sip of the soup and the warm glow intensified. The soup was a rose gold colour, its texture like thick silk. He could taste shacha sauce and tomatoes. A few golden pearls of oil floated on the surface, along with slices of leek and chilli pepper. After a few more mouthfuls, beads of sweat formed at the nape of his neck. Now it was time to try the beef.

He looked dubiously at the large chunks. If he went by previous experience, he was about to bite down on a hunk of tough, sinewy meat. Hard to swallow but impolite to spit out. Nevertheless, he gave the beef a tentative nibble and was blown away by how fresh and tender it was. The texture was incredible!

The rest of the bowl didn’t last very long. He couldn’t believe the quality of the beef for the price. Every piece was nicely balanced between meat and soft, translucent tendon. It was so juicy; one bite almost overwhelmed his taste buds. Whoever made this dish had kept the ingredients simple, allowing the original flavours to shine through. He let himself bathe in the rich, meaty aroma. After what felt like a long time, he dragged himself away from the bowl to take a few bites of the side dishes. They were a refreshing break, but he soon buried his head back in the noodles.

As he slowly slurped down the last dregs of soup, he realised all his worries and exhaustion had melted away, and he was truly relaxed. Who needs a relationship, eh? Delicious food was the best cure-all!

And there were noodle restaurants all over the capital just waiting for him to seek them out.

But this Lone Wolf had forgotten that it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. He had forgotten that greed was an innate human weakness. He had forgotten why Buddhists put so much effort into guarding against it.

By the time he heard about the new Suzhou noodle bar with his favourite three-prawn noodles, he had already been to Hefu Noodles, and made his way through Chongqing-style “stubborn noodles,” “drunken noodles,” and Datong-style “knife-sliced noodles”. Riding a shared bike for miles across the city was nothing to him now.

As he approached the noodle bar, he spotted the cheerful placards announcing the restaurant’s main fare: red and white noodle soup, crab roe noodles, three-prawn noodles, two-crab noodles, crayfish noodles… Just the names were enough to make his thin body tremble with excitement. It was only when he scanned the QR code to enter that he realised his time was up.

He was told he had to go to the offices of his local Neighbourhood Committee. Even though he had lived in the same area for ten years, it was the first time he had ever been there. He was greeted by a woman that seemed to be around fifty years old. She wore a face mask, over which a pair of suspicious eyes flickered back and forth. Her eyes had that slightly triangular shape that came with the drooping of the skin. Give it a couple of years and she would barely be able to see, he thought. Triangle Eyes told him that the pop-up notification meant he needed to do two tests over three days. He felt himself break out in a cold sweat. He had never had to do a nucleic acid test before. He had been a bit haughty about that, and now it seemed his cherry was about to be popped. Oh, why did he buy that box of Pudilan? he fumed. He took out the unopened box and explained he hadn’t even used it. Of course, that made no difference.

In this brave, new, pandemic-ridden world, two tests really were the lightest of punishments.

She gave him a small slip of paper and directed him to the testing centre. The centre was empty, but he still felt breathless, his gaunt neck trembling like the crop of a cockerel. Following a path marked out by railings, he eventually came face to face with a terrifying sight, four figures dressed from head to toe in protective gear—the White Suits.

One White Suit took his piece of paper and directed him to another White Suit, who took his temperature and a picture of his ID card. Then it was time for the test. He was about to give the White Suit a full account of his current predicament when he was cut short by the words, “Open your mouth.” As he did so, he saw a flash of disgust on the tester’s face. How bad was it in there? He knew his teeth weren’t in great condition, and he probably did have bad breath. He flinched imperceptibly as the tester went in. The cotton swab felt like a scalding iron.

When it was over, he stood up and took a few steps, then looked back. The two White Suits were sniggering. They must be laughing at him, he thought. His stomach clenched, it suddenly felt like a ball of hot gas had settled in there. Dinner time came and went, but he wasn’t hungry. He couldn’t bear to look at his phone until about 10:30 in the evening, which was normally his bedtime. He cautiously opened his Health Kit app. The pop-up was still there! He had steeled himself for this, but it was still a shock. Why have the results not come out yet? Surely, he hasn’t tested positive?

He didn't sleep well that night, and by morning he felt like he was in a waking nightmare. Even though the nights were still cold, the public central heating had already been switched off. He had had to wrap every quilt in the house around himself to keep warm and there was still a dull ache in his stomach. Sitting there all alone, he started to feel truly wretched. If he died now, no one would care, it would be ages before anyone even found him. A joke he had heard recently popped into his head. It was about two mummies, one, perfectly preserved, had been named the Loulan Beauty, while the other was just given the label Corpse No. 2. It went something like, who said that in death we are all equal? Even after a thousand years, a beauty is still a beauty, and a corpse is still a corpse. The thought of it felt like a knife in the heart.

As soon as he was able, he rushed over to the Neighbourhood Committee offices. He arrived just as they opened the doors to start work, but he couldn’t see the lady who had helped him the day before. A young man shot him a question, “You got a pop-up?” He was startled yet again. Did the whole world know about this? He wished a hole in the ground would open and swallow him whole. In fact, almost all the residents who went to see the Neighbourhood Committee at the moment had the same problem, but of course he didn’t know that. For some, even buying athlete’s foot cream would result in getting a pop-up. What athlete’s foot had to do with COVID-19, no one knew.

He told the man that he had done a nucleic acid test yesterday. “Two tests in three days!” the young man barked. He didn’t wait for a response and quickly filled out another small slip of paper, while saying, “Take this to the same place as yesterday and do another test!”

He took the piece of paper, his mind racing. He had actually wanted to know why the first result hadn't come out yet and how long it would take to get rid of the pop-up. But the young man had already moved on to speak to the next person. The offices were filling up and he was afraid of bumping into someone he knew, so he hurried out. It was like a repeat of the day before, except with new White Suits and rougher swabbing. As he came out of the testing room, his throat itched and he couldn’t stop coughing. He covered his mouth and nose, but you could still hear the sound. Hiding his face, he crept back to his house. He was still coughing, but the pain in the stomach seemed to have eased a bit.

Time passed slowly. As the clock reached quarter to five, he became desperate. The Neighbourhood Committee offices would be closing soon, but his pop-up remained stubbornly in place. Taking out his recently restored mirror, his thin face stared blankly back at him. Suddenly the image of a thousand-year-old corpse flashed before his eyes. Dropping the mirror, he ran wildly out the door. Thank goodness, Triangle Eyes was back on shift. She would understand. She wouldn’t mess him around. “Now look,” he demanded, dispensing with any formalities, “why haven't my nucleic acid results come out yet?!” His voice came out higher pitched and louder than he had intended.

Triangle Eyes’ reply was abrupt, “We’re dealing with loads of pop-ups. You aren’t the only one in a hurry! I told you to do the test twice in three days. Didn't you just do one yesterday?”

Blood rushed to his face as he exploded: “Just do one?! Just do one?! You people told me to go get tested again this morning! My first test result hasn't even come out yet!”

“You people? Who? Point them out!”

He looked around the room and—thank the lord—he saw the young man at once, “That's him!!”

It was probably the first time in his life that such a thunderous roar had issued from his lips. “That’s him!” It was like in the old movie, Manhunt. It must have come out forty years ago. It was really popular at the time, and he distinctly remembered someone yelling “That’s him!” at the main character, Du Qiu. The shot of Du Qiu and Zhen Youmei fleeing on horseback was burned into his memory.

It had all been a set up for Du Qiu, but he was telling the truth. The young man came over, claiming he couldn't remember. Rage overcame him again and he slammed his hand down on the desk. He repeated the conversation from earlier that day over and over again, until Triangle Eyes said coldly, “The two tests need to be taken at least 24 hours apart, so even if what you say is true, the test you took this morning doesn’t count.”

At that point, he completely lost his mind. His aged body suddenly sprang to life, and he leapt forward swinging his right-hand round to land a resounding slap on Triangle Eyes’ face. The earth-shattering crack sent all the onlookers into a panic.

Of course, all that was in his imagination. It felt like an out-of-body-experience, watching the leap and the slap unfolding before his eyes. In reality, he just stood there dumbfounded, looking like a fool.

His sudden stupefied expression still frightened the wits out of everyone there.

“What's wrong with the old man? He looks terrible…” A crowd began to gather, their voices rising in excitement. Triangle Eyes took a look around and decided to take the high road. She’d seen it all before. Keep a cool head in a crisis and everything calms down quickly. It was best to reassure the old man, let him sit down and have a cup of tea, she thought. Seeing Triangle Eyes take charge, the other staff and volunteers of the Neighbourhood Committee all swung into action with more words of comfort, chairs, and tea. How could the Neighbourhood Committee, an erstwhile haven of peace and tranquillity, bring such a wizened old man to his knees like this? At the very least, they could stop it going any further.

The old man was still shaking, but he felt somewhat mollified. He still had some life left in him after all. Glancing at Triangle Eyes, he noticed water stains on her mask, but her eyes looked calm. “How about this,” Triangle Eyes proffered, “go home for now and we’ll call you in about an hour. I’ll call the folks with all the results now and find out about your two tests.”

What else could he say but, “OK.”

When he got home, he sat down in front of his wall clock and watched the minutes slowly tick by. His body still felt shaky and there was a chill in his bones. Probably, he needed to eat something. There were some instant Lanzhou beef noodles in the cupboard. Looking at the preparation instructions, it seemed that you only had to soak them in hot water. The packaging proclaimed that there were big chunks of meat inside, but he couldn’t see any, not even a shred. He didn’t think there was any beef in the flavouring either. After forcing down two mouthfuls, he gave up. He longed for the taste of those Suzhou-style three-prawn noodles. His tongue tingled at the thought of them, imagining how delicious they would taste. He avoided looking in the mirror for fear that the face staring back at him would put him off his food even more. How had his life turned out like this? How could he have lost control like that in front of the whole Neighbourhood Committee? All because he wanted to go out for a bite to eat. His younger self had despised men like him! Better that he didn’t continue with that line of thought… Had he been lying to himself for all these years? Human beings really are something else. Most animals survive by trickery, but for human beings, self-deception is all you need.

The call from Triangle Eyes never came. With his last hope he decided to call the Neighbourhood Committee himself. The person on the other end of the phone casually answered, “Oh, are you the older gentleman who was here just now? Yes, we’ve got your results. Take a look at your Health Kit.”

He hadn’t forgotten about his Health Kit, but he didn’t want to open it without the go ahead from the Committee. He’d been that way since he was a child, always needing the approval of others, always feeling like he was treading on thin ice. But he thought he had managed to loosen up a bit recently. Faced with life’s impermanence, he had seen how important it was to live in the present moment. He was just an ordinary guy after all, no one cared what he did. But the whole pop-up incident had taught him a hard lesson. The age of big data had arrived, and everyone had been caught up in its net. The arms of the law were longer than ever.

The code on his Health Kit was green again! He was over the moon. And it was just in time for dinner! Without changing his clothes or even glancing in the mirror, he grabbed a bicycle and sped off to the Suzhou noodle bar. He rode like a bat out of hell, running two red lights. He guessed that, apart from a few curse words, no one would give too much trouble to a shrunken old man. He didn’t even stop when he had a hair-raising side-on collision with an electric bike, so eager was he to get to the restaurant. He could see the young delivery driver mouthing something at him from under his helmet as he pedalled off.

Finally, he arrived at the restaurant. But there was no one there and no lights twinkled within. He faltered a little, looking around at the other restaurants on the street. They were all closed too. As he stood there wondering what to do, someone came out of the restaurant next door. The man’s face bore a dark, anxious expression. “Excuse me sir, are these restaurants all closed in the evenings?” the old man asked.

The newcomer gave a start, and raising a pair of sharp eyes to look at the old man, he said, “Haven’t you heard? Everything has been shut down. All across the city.” The old man turned pale, “When did this happen?”

"Oh, yesterday. It was on the news.” The man gave him another look then turned and left carrying a small bag.

He didn’t remember how he got home. Aching all over, he fell headlong onto his bed, it was almost too awful to bear. He started to cough again, his twice-swabbed throat itching horribly. The cough didn’t ease off as he lay there, and he started to feel feverish. His every pore felt like it was screaming.

His eyes flitted to the box of Pudilan on the bedside table. That had been the start of all this. Now, it actually might come in handy.

He unwrapped the box, popped a few pills into his mouth, and fell asleep. Only in dreams could he escape this nightmare.

Yet his dreams were chaotic. He saw blurred images of his blind date, the descendant of the ancient Tangut tribe. She was smiling at him, her mouth open, revealing rows of black teeth. In one hand she held a bowl of beef noodles, the bowl was a rough porcelain and deep green in colour. He breathed in deeply, but he couldn’t smell anything. The crooked, black teeth came nearer, and he backed away, further and further, but finally he was engulfed by the darkness.

He really was sick this time.


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