THE GOLDEN PUMPKIN, 2

BUFFET


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The Western Passenger Station’s restaurant was vast, inside and to the right the bar, beyond that the buffet, and in the centre a newly laid parquetry dance floor. Dotted round the room stood Chinese women, uniformed in scarlet silk cheongsam–traditional dress–ready to help: wait on tables, fetch drinks, etc.

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Mr. and Mrs. Franklyn were waltzing away on the dance floor as was Prof. Eichelstein, who was attempting to teach an unfortunate waitress how to Foxtrot (the old goat).

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Posie held both chopsticks in one hand and a bowl of something crispy upon a bed of noodles in the other, she looked unhappily at her eatables. Prof. Pavlov managed to entangle a shrimp’s leg in his beard but hadn’t noticed that the wreckage of the crustacean upon his plate was missing a limb.

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Elisabeth Grey went with her father to the buffet first, her mouth watering as she surveyed the food. “It all looks and smells so delicious!” she exclaimed. “I can’t decide whether to have the chicken or the beef.” Then her eyes lit up with triumph, “But, of course, it’s a buffet. I can have both!”

Posie slid her bowl upon the table, covering it with a napkin. She approached Elisabeth: “Miss! Miss, these square knitting needles”–she was referring to the chopsticks–“are not praktickle at all. And I don’t much like the food, its eatiness–there’s no crackers or anything. You’d have thought Mr. Cheese would have provided some cheese.”

Elisabeth smiled at Posie. “I suppose the chopsticks do take some getting used to. I’ve learned how to do it, but I still prefer a fork. Still, hundreds of millions of Chinese people eat with them all the time and manage all right. It’s just a matter of learning how. I can show you, if you like. As for the food…” she surveyed the buffet table, pointing out a bowl filled with crispy noodles. “Oh, I love these. They’re noodles but they aren’t soft, they’re crunchy. Almost like biscuits, in fact. Would you like to try some?”

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“Crunchy noodles–like biscuits? Oh, yes please! As for learning how to use chopsticks, thank you, but I’m afraid I’d starve before I can use them like the Chinese do.”

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“Excuse the interruption, young ladies, I couldn’t help overhearing the little one’s dilemma with the native cutlery. Please, allow me.” Prof. Pavlov snapped his fingers towards a waitress.

The woman shuffled forward, her hands clasped together. “Xiānshēng?”

“Sháozi, qǐng,” asked Prof. Pavlov. He said to Posie: “I just ordered you a spoon, I think!”

Posie tugged at Elisabeth’s sleeve, and whispered, “That funny man has got something horrid stuck in is beard.”

Elisabeth lowered her voice. “I think it’s a piece of shrimp,” she whispered back.

The waitress returned with a spoon. Rosie plunged it eagerly into a bowl of crunchy noodles, as she brought the spoon up to her mouth most of the noodles slipped off and fell to the floor, “Oh bother!”

Prof. Pavlov watched on; when the noodles fell he cleared his throat “Ahem” and looked away pretending he hadn’t noticed.

He said to Elisabeth: “I vaguely recognise Mr. Grey, he’s with the British embassy? and you are his daughter? Professor Ivan Pavlov at your service.” His eyes twinkled–he realised that his small talk was boringly formal.

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Tatsuo entered the buffet with some difficulty–he had to wait until there was enough space for his massive bulk to pass through. He muttered quietly in very poor Chinese, “Ràng yi ràng ràng yi ràng ràng yi ràng ràng yi ring.” He finally broke through with all of his girth and walked towards the buffet table with grim determination. His mother close behind, hidden as she often was in the wake of Tatsuo’s obesity. Tatsuo grabbed a cart and began to heap dishes upon it. He paid little attention to the other guests. When the little girl, Posie, complained about the chopsticks, Tatsuo smiled and looked over at her.

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His mother was quick and ruthless. Arashi’s long wrinkled index finger dipped quickly into a small container of Szechuan sauce. She flicked a tiny globule of the sauce directly into Tatsuo’s eye with the precision of master seamstress threading a needle. The large sumo cowered away, rubbing the hot sauce from his eyes.

“Mind your manners little pig! Remember that this is all of your doing!”

Tatsuo quickly finished with his plates and rolled the cart to another table, setting out enough food for six men to eat.

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“I believe the crunchy noodles are meant to be eaten with your hands,” Elisabeth whispered to Posie before turning her attention to Professor Pavlov. “Pleased to meet you, Professor. Yes, my father, Samuel Grey over there, is the aide to the British Ambassador. I’m his daughter, Elisabeth. How do you do?” She extended her hand. “Are you the same Professor Pavlov who did the behavioral conditioning experiments with dogs?”

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Posie’s mouth formed an O as she listened to Elisabeth.

She plonked herself down at Tatsuo’s “private” table and began to ladle with her spoon into his dishes. “Ràng yi,” she giggled. After Arashi Akiyama dug in the sauce, Posie said to the big man: “Your mummy is not very nice to you, is she?”

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“Good Lord, how delightful! Miss Grey, you are as well educated as you are beautiful.” Prof. Pavlov, pleased to be recognised, forgot his resolution not to be dull. “Yes, I am the same Professor Pavlov. It was the Summer of 1912 when I first had my theory … or was it 1911? I was spending my holiday with dear Laika, my Alsatian, in a dacha just south of Petrograd, when I–”

Elisabeth felt a faint tickle on her ribs, then a chin rested upon her shoulder and a voice spoke quietly into her ear, “I’ve come to rescue you.”

“If you’ll excuse me, Professor,” said Elisabeth. “It’s a delight speaking with you, but someone else needs me at the moment. I do hope we’ll see each other again this evening.”

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Mingzhu linked arms with Elisabeth and walked her away from Prof. Pavlov. She paused to light a Pall Mall cigarette. “Cigarette?–they are imported from Liverpool. It is so sad,” said she, the edges of her mouth rising, “that Father refuses to bring in Western clothing, ‘not enough profit.’ Where do you get your clothes and make-up from?”

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“No thank you, I do not smoke,” replied Elisabeth when Mingzhu offered her a cigarette. “My clothes and makeup come from England. Some I brought with me when I came here with Father two years ago, and others I’ve arranged to have shipped in via the embassy. Perhaps I could arrange to import a few items for you. This dress I’m wearing is from Savile Row, in London. It’s the best one I own.”

Mingzhu dropped her newly lit cigarette, crushing its tip beneath her shoe and exhaled blue smoke away from Elisabeth. “Yes please, I would like that very much!”

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Tatsuo smiled at Posie’s usage of the Chinese word for excuse me. It did not apply in this specific situation but he appreciated the young girls intelligence and courtesy. The large sumo wrestler bowed his head to Posie, and then looked for his mother. Satisfied that she was occupied he said,

“When you steal a fat man’s food you say Duìbúqì. When you want people to get out of the way because you are too fat to squeeze by you say Ràng yi.”

Tatsuo looked again for his mother at the buffet table.

“My name is Tatsuo, little one. It is a pleasure to grow fat with you!”

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Posie giggled louder than before. “And it is a pleasure for me!” She slurped up a long string of noodle. “I wish to grow fat with you too, Tatsuo. Duìbúqì,” she repeated the word over and over again.

Tatsou grinned and returned to his food. When his mother approached the end of the buffet table he politely raised his head and bowed to Posie. “It was a pleasure to dine with you little one. With fat comes honor! Now if you will please offer my mother her seat–I am afraid she is not as hospitable as I. But we met well little one–I will look forward to our next opportunity to grow fat together.”

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“I’ll just need your measurements,” said Elisabeth. “I can get you a dress just like mine. It’s expensive, but it’s worth it. I also have a couple of catalogues from which you could pick out other clothing you like. I don’t have them with me, but I can bring them the next time I see you, or you could pay me a visit.”

“I hope that one day I’ll be as fat as you,” said Posie to Tatsuo. She stood up and, whilst holding dishes and her spoon, curtsied to Tatsuo’s mother.

Mingzhu clasped her hands together and performed a little jig of excitement. “Yes and yes, oh yes!” She stood in front of Elisabeth ready for some impromptu measurements, “I’m a bit thinner than you are, but your bust is bigger, we are about the same height–I want a dress just like–

“Oh no, what does she want?”

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“Shénme?” said Mingzhu. Chunhua leaned forward to Mingzhu and they exchanged some heated words.

Chunhua walked off towards the buffet table where Tatsuo gorged.  She stared at Tatsuo until they made eye contact, then she walked towards the gaming tables.

Tatsuo looked down quickly to his many plates of food and he continued shovelling. When Arashi joined him with her usual scowl, Tatsuo smiled warmly at her.

[Japanese] “Have you tried the shark fin soup mother? It is very good!”

Arashi glared at her son. [Japanese] “Do not try my patience, Tatsuo. You haven’t the years nor the brains to deceive me. I saw you with that little girl. You remember the last one do you not? Remember my son that this is all your doing! You lie in the bed that you make, Tatsuo. Please show some restraint.”

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