Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Lost in Tiananmen Square

[Media prompt] Beijing installs facial recognition in toilets in a bid to combat tissue thieves. 
Lost in Tiananmen Square

I was halfway across the Tiananmen plaza, a stiff wind peppering my face with sand and grit, when I realised I couldn’t see the edge anymore. Even Mao’s shining forehead had disappeared in the gloom. A comrade loomed out of the darkness, asking if I could point him westward. I thought for a moment, wanting to give it my best shot. The side with the Great Hall of the People, you idiot, he said, cursing roundly when I said I had no idea. I’ve been here so long I’m losing weight, he said before disappearing. It can’t be that hard, I thought, starting to walk again. I checked my watch. It was five minutes past noon; I was late, and hurried on.

By one o’clock I still hadn’t found my way to the perimeter and began to panic. I was thirsty, and having had only coffee and a bun for breakfast getting hungrier by the minute. I staggered forward, a square shape appearing out of the murk. As I got closer I could see it was a hawker’s cart. I stopped in front, the smell of doornail bread wafting into my nostrils. What’ll it be, comrade? I bought three, gobbling them down one after the other, with nary a thought of indigestion or manners. That’s the last three, said the owner, bursting into tears. If I don’t return the cart by three o’clock, they’ll deduct fifty yuan. I burped and left. My own troubles were more than enough.

It’s criminal the government doesn’t do something about this pollution, a woman said, her voice booming out the darkness. I walked on; there’s no sense getting involved in political talk here, of all places. Besides, my stomach was rumbling. Who knows what they put in street food these days. My doctor had advised me to stop eating fatty foods. And here I was eating any old poison from a handcart lost in the smog. My wife would have something to say about it when I got home, no doubt about it. Stop worrying about nonsense, I said to myself; I need to find a toilet.

At four, almost without recognising it, I stumbled onto the footpath running along Eastside Plaza Street. I asked a cleaner to point me to the nearest public toilet. He demanded a cigarette, but I had given up, so gave him a two yuan note instead. Young people these days. By the time I found the washroom, I could only walk with my knees clenched, every step heralding a potentially volcanic eruption.

There was no queue, and I paid the attendant, who pointed with his filthy thumb at the wall where a facial recognition toilet tissue dispenser hung. Forget it if you’ve used paper today, comrade, he said. I stood in front of the machine, my bowls aching with an urgency that increased with every second. Twice the machine refused to dispense paper, and I called the attendant over. I asked if he’d seen me today. Sure, he said, about an hour ago. 

I cursed the Party. My twin brother, may his black heart rot in hell, was messing with me again.

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