There’s a party next week and Gina’s Little Black Dress is about to become Gina’s Busted Seam Black Dress. But a chance visit to a Chinese food store and the impulse purchase of Dieter’s Tea will change all that…although perhaps not quite in the way Gina expected.
1. Finding the right mantra
The South East Asian food store smelt interesting, enticing. Its interior, so dark compared to the blinding, sunny white tiles outside, held a promise of spice, a soupcon of cheong-sam, a steaming bowl of noodles.
Gina swept aside the awful plastic flaps of fly curtain; her shoes sounded hollow on the old lino. She drew a deep breath of spilled soy sauce and dried mushrooms, and almost sighed in delight. Like so many other Asian corner stores, the shelves were piled to the ceiling with packaged goods, many of them labelled in Chinese or Korean or Thai. Several had English subtitles along the lines of “is good taste yum yum!” which were so endearing she was tempted to buy them anyway, regardless of whatever mysteries hid inside the tin.
Gina, it may be said, was a girl who liked her grub. She was Queen of the Buffet, the Yum Cha Princess, and two of her favourite words in the English language were “second helpings”. While she hadn’t achieved “globe of the world on legs” status yet, she wasn’t slim. It occasionally worried her – usually whenever she tried to fit into a cocktail dress – but the occasional worries were easily offset by the wonderful taste of food.
And even, like now, the wonderful smell of food.
Gina threw two packets of Cha Siew Pao – pork buns – into her shopping basket. Just to be healthy, she chucked a packet of tofu on top. The Chinese candies caught her eye then and all thoughts of health went out the window as she studied the brightly coloured packs and tried in vain to work out which were sweet and which were sour.
Noodles followed, and dried mushrooms. A new bottle of soy sauce, dark and rich as chocolate sauce. Gina almost salivated as she placed them all in her basket.
But best of all were the teas. The tea section in this shop was unusually large for such small premises. It featured a range of teapots that started with the cheap blue and white found in the cracked-lino-and-formica Chinese restaurants and finished with a superbly ornate rich red and gold leaf pot that twinkled in the dim light. Matching cups sat around it like piglets to a sow. Four shelves of tea completed the display. Incongruosly, Liptons and Tetley shared their space with mysterious Eastern teas. The occasional English words on the packaging gave the game away from time to time.
Gina loved tea almost as much as she loved chardonnay. Tea in the morning, chardy in the evening, and Gina was happy. Her pantry held no less than twelve different types of tea, one to cover most moods. Her current favourite was the Vanilla flavoured tea, aromatic to sniff and delightful to drink.
She picked up packet after packet and examined it, finally settling on an orange tea – which might be nice with breakfast and would make a change from lemon – and a Chinese labelled English Breakfast Tea. Well, that’s what it appeared to be.
Her knees cracking with the effort, she crouched to look at the bottom shelf. The teas became more progressively Asian as she went from shelf to shelf, and the bottom row of teas were as inscrutable as the old man reading the Chinese Herald at the front counter.
In the middle of the packs and tins, an English word caught her eye.
Gina picked up the black, rather plain and old-fashioned packet and blew a light coating of dust off the cellophane. “Dieting tea,” she snorted under her breath. “Huh!” She’d tried dieters’ teas before. Anything was better than the gym, with its leg-aching exercise bikes and bum-numbing step machines. Unlike the gym equipment though, dieters’ tea didn’t have any impact on Gina’s generously voluptuous shape.
On the side of the package, she read, “You have try other diet tea does not work. This diet tea work. You drink every day and you loose weight. Is guarantid.” A picture of a Chinese guy not unlike the one at the counter (who’d graduated from reading the Herald to thrusting a vulgarly long fingernail in his right ear) grinned at her from the side of the pack. He looked thin.
Gina glanced at her belly, which looked larger than ever while she was crouched. Experimentally she prodded it. The House That Chardonnay Built wobbled in response. She had a party to go to next week. Her Little Black Dress was stretched to the point of becoming either a Big Black Dress or a Busted-seam Black Dress. A vision of herself, (relatively) slim with the Little Black Dress hanging comfortably, even loosely on her, filled her with a sudden desire to hit the diet trail yet again.
She threw the diet tea into her basket.
The man at the counter withdrew his finger and Gina tried unsuccessfully not to be fascinated with the globule of orange wax under the fingernail.
He gave a smile that could only be called Chinese Inscrutable when he picked up the packet of tea (with, she noticed thankfully) his other hand. “Wi’ make you go to toi-ret more in first few days,” he said in a croaky old voice as he rang up the price and put it carefully into a plastic carry bag.
Cheaper than regular laxatives, Gina thought with a grin. Who gives a shit? I do!
Gina swung the bag cheerily as she walked to the station. She had a week to fit into the dress, she had dieters’ tea and had planned an exercise regime of brisk walks every morning before work. As she waited for her train she planned her menus for the next week too, mentally rationing herself to one glass of chardy a night and the occasional small (huh!) bowl of low fat ice cream for dessert.
This was it! The start of her one successful weight loss campaign, the one that unlike her others, would actually be effective and long-lasting. The party was just a small milestone. She’d be a dress size smaller in a month. No more Size 18 for THIS little black duck – or little black dress!
By the time the train pulled into her station Gina had resolved to join Weight Watchers, too. And maybe even use the rest of her lapsed gym membership; she estimated she had a month on it.
She couldn’t wait to get home and have a cup of diet tea.
* * *
The tea tasted nice. Almost like brown rice. It certainly tasted far nicer than it looked, which was an awful cloudy khaki. And it definitely tasted nicer than it smelt, which left a faint tang of rotting garbage in the air.
It was surprisingly filling, too. After drinking it Gina could only manage one pork bun and some steamed vegetables – in soy sauce, very healthy – and boiled rice for dinner. To her surprise, she didn’t feel like her usual second glass of wine and was quite happy to stick to her diet.
“Another diet, Bridget Jones?” mocked Darcey, her flatmate. Darcey was one of those annoying girls who can eat or drink anything but still stay slim.
“Shurrup,” said Gina amiably through a mouthful of rice. She swallowed and pushed her shiny fair hair behind her ears. “Look at this tea. It’s really weird. I don’t even feel really hungry.”
“Mind over matter,” grunted Darcey, “Wait until your stomach catches up with your brain.” She pulled a thin, crackling sheet of paper out of the packet. “Great instructions. They’re all in Chinese. Hang on, there’s some English here.” Darcey grinned. “I wonder who does their translations. It says, ‘Three times day give result in large cases but beware effects long last. Tea is permanent.’”
“Large cases!” giggled Gina. “D’you think I’m a large case?”
“Nah….basket case more like!”
“I think I’m a large case. I’ll have another cup after dinner.” Gina deftly swooped her chopsticks on the last piece of broccoli, beating Darcey by a split second. “You know, I don’t think I’ll even have dessert.”
“I give it until tomorrow,” said Darcey in a voice that had seen it all before.
* * *
“Oh, God!” groaned Gina, putting her head in her hands and feeling her elbows dig into her thighs. There couldn’t be anything LEFT to come out, could there? This was her third trip to the loo in an hour, her sixteenth trip in the 72 hours since she’d started the herbal tea. “Shit a brick!”
And that’s what it had felt like, too. A brick, a whole bloody house brick, moving through her intestines like a Sherman tank.
That old Chinese guy hadn’t been kidding, she thought miserably, wishing she’d added toilet paper to the shopping list as she was going through industrial quantities of it. And air freshener. The rotted garbage smell of the tea had increased tenfold on its way out and it was too much for even the exhaust fan in the loo.
Five minutes later she thought it was over and lifted her elbows. They’d left a burning red mark in the dimpled orange peel of her legs.
“Little black dress,” Gina said faintly to herself. “And this’ll only last a couple of days. That’s what the old guy said.”
* * *
“It’ll only last a couple of days” had become Gina’s mantra. She’d drunk ten cups of tea and lost over two kilos in the first three days. Any day now the awful side effects that sent her barrelling into the loos at work at all too regular intervals would settle down to normality.
When she stood on the scales the next morning she was a kilo lighter.
Darcey said from the hall as Gina shouted in joyous disbelief, “It’s all shit, Geen. You spent half the night in the crapper.”
“I know – but it’s still weight loss, innit?” The scales creaked thankfully as she jumped off. “And the side effects only last a couple of days. They’ll be over soon.”
“Thank God for that,” muttered Darcey. “I’ll have to borrow the neighbour’s loo otherwise.”
Gina didn’t feel like her usual breakfast of a big bowl of low fat cereal followed by toast and eggs and a crispy rasher of bacon. Her insides were still churning after her pre-breakfast toilet trip, for the last three days a first-time vacation to foreign lands for Gina, who liked to settle into the loos at work around 10am with a woman’s mag or a crossword book. She settled for a small bowl of cereal and an orange juice. And a cup of diet tea.
She had to get off at three different train stations on the way to work for a loo break. Yesterday she’d managed to hold on. It occurred to her as she frantically lumbered along the platform at the last station with her handbag flying and her insides acting like a tumble dryer that it mightn’t be the tea at all. It might have been the pork buns. She’d eaten the last one last night.
If it was a bad pork bun, all it had to do was get completely out of her system, which could sometimes take a couple of days. History – the history that many a garbage-guts can relate – told her that she’d be fine by tomorrow at the very latest, if not by lunchtime today.
And if it was the tea, it would only last a couple of days. A couple of days of stinking ladies’ public toilets with paper like waxed baking paper if there was any at all and tiles that hadn’t been cleaned since they were first installed in The Great Train Station Refurbishment of 1952.
Gina staggered into the office with a green face at 9.30, an hour late, and raced straight for the loos. The secretary who’d been minding Reception for her wasn’t impressed.
“If you’re going to be sick, you could at least call in,” she snapped. “Then we could have got a temp.”
“I didn’t know I was going to be sick,” Gina snapped back. “I think I ate something bad last night and it caught up with me this morning.”
The secretary mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like, “I’m not surprised, you’re a pig with food.”
The secretary, a skinny girl with legs to her armpits, smiled sweetly. “I’m not surprised you’re not feeling so good. Will you last the day or should I call a temp now?” she finished sarcastically, walking back to her desk before Gina could answer.
Gina usually had lunch with two of the other girls, the Singles Team as they called themselves, each saying they didn’t mind not having a boyfriend.
In Laura’s case she definitely didn’t mind not having a boyfriend as she only dated girls, a fact that nobody at work knew – at least not yet, not till Laura made a move on that gorgeous new girl in accounts who’d been looking at her in rather a suggestive way.
Amber, on the other hand, went through men with the efficiency of a shredding machine. She had so many boyfriends so often that considered herself single; her relationships usually lasted a fortnight until she tired of the guy or thought he was falling for her. She was saving herself for the boss, and given her gorgeous face and even more gorgeous body, and calculating, intelligent mind, there was every chance she’d get him.
And Gina had felt too often the sting of the male barbed tongue. Not between her legs, which was where she wanted it, but about her weight. She munched half-heartedly on a salad sandwich, rather regretting it as lettuce and beetroot spilled out and made her look like a caricature of a fat person stuffing her face, and thought that until men took her for being the person she was, weight or no weight, she didn’t want a boyfriend. It was less of a hassle to be on her own and diet occasionally in order for her clothes to fit comfortably than to worry about whether she’d be dumped for being big.
“I’m full,” Gina sighed.
“No yoghurt?” said Laura in disbelief.
“No chocolate?” parried Amber.
“Nope. I think I’ll go back to the office and have a cup of my special tea though.” Gina’s insides had calmed down and for the last hour or so she’d felt normal.
“You don’t look well.” Laura stretched out a cool hand and touched Gina’s forehead, then smoothed her hair in a way Gina took to mean as comforting.
“I’ve had a gastric problem for the last couple of days,” Gina admitted. “I started a new diet the other day –” she ignored the merry eye-meet and little grin that passed between her friends ” – and I’m drinking this diet tea stuff that seems to affect my tummy.”
“No pain no gain,” said Amber cheerfully.
“More like no brain if you think some silly herbal tea will help you lose weight,” said practical Laura, crumpling her lunch wrapping and aiming it successfully at the bin. “Get thee to a health club, girlfriend.”
By three o’clock a health club was the last thing on Gina’s mind. The first thing was a toilet, and close proximity to one all the way home, and the next was bed. She left work early, but not before a prolonged bout of teeth clenching and groaning in the ladies’. The furious secretary who was again called to replace her at Reception was ordering a temp for the next day as Gina staggered out the door, feeling as pale-green as she looked.
“It’s only for a few days,” she said weakly to her reflection in the train’s smudged window. She had the carriage almost all to herself, which was a real blessing. “The tea or the pork bun….it’ll be fine tomorrow.”
Which was a comforting thought, as a new symptom had decided to show itself in the last thirty minutes. The Shit That Came From The Land That Time Forgot now had a new partner – The Fart From The Planet Gutwrench. Together they danced a tango in Gina’s intestines, making her double up with pain and clutch her stomach.
At first she thought she had appendicitis. It felt like an awful giant fist clenching her abdomen and giving it a bit of a twist for good measure. Then, before she could stop herself, she farted. Not a girl’s fart, not the kind of fart she could normally hang onto until she got to the sanctity of the bathroom and let out in a polite little odourless hiss. This was an express train fart with a powerful engine, and it roared out of the tunnel with a clackety clack that made Gina want to disappear into thin air.
Thankfully there’d been nobody beside her on the bench at the station. She’d doubled over, cried out and farted a seat rattler to an almost empty platform. The garbage bin was close enough to the bench to provide an alibi for the smell, too. She was dreading getting on the train home as the cramps started again, harder even than before.
Two more cramping farts had forced their way through Gina’s system by the time the train finally stopped at her platform. She felt wretched. And embarrassed, leaving behind an empty carriage that reeked of decay. Farting in an empty lift had been a giggle when she and her brother were children; they’d wonder who’d come in and smell it. The train carriage, as an adult, was a different matter. Gina didn’t feel like laughing at all. She’d long outgrown fart jokes and this wasn’t a joke.
“It’ll be over by tomorrow,” she told herself, letting herself into the flat with shaking fingers and heading straight for the loo. “Or else I’ll go to a doctor.”
By dinner time Gina was feeling normal again. The cramps had passed, and her stomach growled with a familiar hunger. She hadn’t realised just how wretched she’d been until she felt healthy.
Darcey was out with her current man and Gina settled down to a quiet evening. She eyed the food from the Asian shop balefully but decided that packaged noodles would be innocuous enough.
She added dried mushrooms and tofu, and a mix of vegetables from the fridge. It smelt wonderful and tasted fantastic. Not daring to risk upsetting her stomach again, she washed it down with bottled water. The half finished bottle of Chardonnay from last night stayed in the fridge, half finished and unwanted.
The Chinese man on the tea packet was still smiling at her with ancient eyes. Should she? Shouldn’t she? She’d felt fine now for three hours, which was a lot better than last night and this morning. Her body was getting used to the tea. It was doing its work, flushing out the bad stuff and leaving her healthier. Thinner.
The elastic waistband of her skirt wasn’t digging into her stomach as tightly as it had been. Or so it seemed. That HAD to be imagination, though. Nobody could lose THAT much weight in a couple of days, no matter how many trips to the toilet they’d had.
“Who gives a shit?” Gina said to herself. “I do!”
She stripped and stood on the bathroom scales, watching as the needle hovered in indecision then stopped – half a kilo less than this morning. The House That Chardonnay Built had lost a bedroom or two.
“It’s all shit,” Gina told her reflection. Did her face look a little thinner, too? “Anyone who’s crapped as much as I have in the last twenty four hours would be a kilo and a half lighter than the day before too.”
But it was the clincher in the Tea vs. No Tea debate. For better or worse, Gina wrapped her fluffy long bathrobe around her and boiled the kettle.
After all, the side effects would only last for a couple of days. And that time was almost over.
* * *
2. The Holy Trinity
That night she encountered the Holy Trinity: The Shit That Came From The Land That Time Forgot, The Fart From The Planet Gutwrench and The Dream From The Dark Side Of The Intestine.
In the dream the old man sat at the front of his shop, reading his newspaper and still picking his ear. Only this time his fingernail was obscenely long, far longer than fingernails should be. It curved in yellow horn for almost a metre, trembling on the end of a shaky octogenarian finger.
She could feel his eyes on her, burning through the newspaper. They mocked her, the fat girl looking at the dieters’ tea.
When she could take his furtive stare no more, she glanced up quickly, hoping to catch him with his newspaper down and his old eyes on her.
(a flash of nasty green)
his eyes for a moment, a split second. They had looked
over the top of his newspaper at her.
Dream Gina drew her breath. For a moment – that glowing green moment – he wasn’t an old Chinese man minding the till on a slow-moving Monday and letting life pass him by pleasantly until he shut the shop and went home to his family and a fragrant Chinese meal. He was someone (something?) else, someone who put a packet of dangerous, poisonous tea on the shelf to see which gullible fat girl would try it out.
“Wi’ make you go to toi-ret more in first few days,” said his croaky voice, but not the croaky voice she’d heard in the shop in real life. This croaky voice was deep, ageless, the voice from a thousand horror films, the voice from the crypt, the voice that goes with the hand sneaking greyly from the grave.
Dream Gina tried to put the packet back on the shelf, but her arm wouldn’t move. A force field hovered in front of it, pushing it back towards her with the tea clutched firmly. She opened her fingers. Or thought she did, but the pulse of nerves never hit their target, as her fingers remained clammily clamped over the dusty cellophane and the tea was hers.
She was the tea’s.
She pushed hard against the invisible force, grunting with effort to set the tea down. The old man stretched out an arm and that long fingernail, pointing at her, almost touching her (touching her? He was half the shop away) and a piercing pain grabbed her by the intestines. Dream Gina doubled over and rolled on the floor, eyeball level with dust bunnies and dead cockroaches in the corners under the shelves. The cramps inside were even worse than when she was awake. She opened her mouth to cry with the pain –
And sat up, sweating, her insides clenching and unclenching like a live thing with its own heartbeat. She felt on fire, faint and hyperventilating.
As she staggered to the loo she promised herself she’d stop the tea. Tomorrow.
* * *
Gina stood on the scales before breakfast – but after yet another trip to the loo – and discovered she’d lost half a kilo – again.
Her insides rumbled and shook like a blender in action, and she leaned faintly against the cool blue tiles of the bathroom, relishing their refreshing smoothness against her bare skin.
“Gina!” Darcey called, knocking on the bathroom door. “Are you okay?”
“Not really.” Gina sank down to the floor, liking the tiles on her bum and legs as well. “I think I’ll go to the doctor.”
“It must have been that pork bun,” Darcey said soothingly. “No tea could make you this bad. You’ve got food poisoning.”
The doctor, when Gina eventually got to see her after a half hour wait in the surgery and the use of the surgery’s loo, agreed.
“You have to be VERY careful with pork,” Dr Megan Fellows told her after poking and prodding and taking her blood pressure and temperature. “If it’s not completely cooked you can get very ill. Were the pork buns frozen when you bought them?”
“It’s a possibility too that they’d thawed at one stage and been refrozen. Never refreeze meat that has thawed completely. As for you, I’d recommend you eat very little and keep it very plain for the next few days. Lots of water, as you’re rather dehydrated. Stay in bed for a day or so. I’ll write you a certificate for work.” Dr Fellows typed a prescription on her desktop PC.
“What about this dieters’ tea?” Gina held out the packet.
Dr Fellows snorted. “Dieters’ tea! Gina, I’ve told you before. Do something SENSIBLE about your weight. Join Weight Watchers, cut down on alcohol and do more exercise. I’ve watched you get bigger over the years and you’ve let yourself do it. Weight is a manageable thing in your case. It’s a lifestyle decision. Both your parents are slim and active, you don’t have a thyroid condition or any other reason for your weight except your decisions with eating and exercise.” Dr Fellows had been seeing Megan since she was a child and had performed several tests at Megan’s tearful requests when she’d been very down about her weight as a shy teenager.
Dr Fellows read the package. “This seems harmless enough. But I’d question whether it was prepared in sanitary conditions. You can’t tell with some of these things. Don’t touch the tea again until your tummy is back to normal.”
Armed with antibiotics and the knowledge that a dodgy pork bun was the culprit, Gina felt better. Or mentally, at least.
She spent the rest of the day alternating between her bed and the loo, wondering when the pills would start to kick in and her intestines behave normally again.
“Who gives a shit?” she asked her reflection faintly after the third time she’d dragged herself out of bed. Her reflection in the bathroom mirror, wan, pale and almost approaching cheekbones, looked sadly back at her. “I don’t think I do any more.”
She slept fitfully, waking with a start when the old Chinese man grinned at her with yellow, rotting teeth and eyes that flashed (glowed) green when she knew they were brown, and started to reach out with his ever-growing fingernail. Every dream was about the food store, the shelves that mysteriously became higher, fuller, packed to overflowing with indecipherable goods. With each dream too the store itself got bigger until fifteen aisles of Asian delicacies awaited her, assaulting her with their smells that started sweet and spicy and enticing and turning to rotting garbage just before she awoke in a sweat.
Her sheets were drenched in sweat (rotting garbage) and she weakly pulled them off the bed and tottered to the linen press for clean ones. It was an effort putting them on the bed but she managed it and sat weakly on the fresh polycotton, her hair hanging in oily clumps about her face.
She felt better after a shower; the intestinal cramps and Farts From The Planet Gutwrench seemed to be occurring less frequently and, wrapped in a towel and smelling sweetly of shampoo, Gina convinced herself the pills were working.
The scales beckoned her. In the steamy bathroom with its scent of foaming body wash and toothpaste, Gina peered over her stomach – her now decreasing stomach it seemed, because it was easier to peer over – to discover she’d lost another half kilo.
“So at least SOMETHING good has come out of food poisoning,” she told Darcey cheerfully as she munched on a dinner of dry toast and washed it down with a glass of water. “That’s four kilos I’ve lost. That black dress’ll be hanging on me next week!”
“Not the nicest way to drop a dress size though, Genie,” Darcey said. “I was getting really worried about you this morning, but at least you have some colour back in your face now.”
Gina rinsed her plate and opened the cupboard with her extensive stock of tea.
“Don’t even THINK about that bloody dieting tea,” Darcey warned her in a voice that sounded suspiciously like her mother’s in timbre and tone.
“I’m not. Peppermint tea, I think. Good for the digestion.”
“That dieting tea should go in the bin I think. The doctor’s right – you don’t know where it was made and the packet looks like it was done on a 19th century print press in someone’s garage.”
“It was the pork that made me sick, not the tea,” Gina argued, dangling her teabag in boiling water. “I’ll give it another go when I’m back to normal. It’s only herbal stuff, it’s sure to do some good.”
Gina’s bed felt cool and fresh and inviting later that evening. Her digestive system seemed to have settled down to somewhere to the left of normal but not out in the far suburbs. The occasional cramp was the worst she encountered before dozing off.
She knew this time she’d have pleasant dreams.
But of course, she was back in the Asian shop. This time the old man had ten long fingernails, all curling over and clacking eerily against each other as he read the newspaper and watched her fill her basket.
The tea shelves were now full of dieters’ tea, hundreds of dusty packets packed three and four deep. On each, the line drawing of the old man moved – he beckoned and winked, his eyes glinting a pale, malevolent green.
They can’t be green, Dream Gina thought. Because the line drawing is black and white. Only black and white. And he can’t move. He’s a drawing.
The old man on the packet in front of her laughed at that, throwing back his hair so his flowing hair danced on his shoulders. His black (green) eyes turned to tiny slits in his mirth, and from behind the edge of his image one of his hands appeared. Unsurprisingly, it had a long fingernail on its little finger.
More surprisingly, the fingernail reached out from the package of tea and touched Dream Gina on her lower abdomen.
Dream Gina screamed.
Real Gina woke up, gasping, frightened.
She was standing in the kitchen, one hand clasping the box of dieting tea so tightly it was crumpled out of shape, the other caught in the act of switching on the kettle.
There was a sudden stabbing pain in her intestines, The Mother Of All Cramps, The Chinese That-Oughta-Teach-Ya Torture.
Gina dropped the tea, vaguely aware that her hand was almost cramping as badly as her abdomen, and bolted for the toilet, where she spent the rest of the night.
* * *
3. Where Disbelieving Gets You
Dr Fellows recommended Gina see a specialist. She could have Irritable Bowel Syndrome – or something. The Or Something worried Gina. People were getting bowel cancer younger and younger these days.
In the meantime Dr Fellows had prescribed more antibiotics and a careful diet.
The antibiotics seemed to only taunt whatever had got hold of Gina’s body. For a couple of hours she’d be fine, sparkling from her eyes to her toes. Then the cramps would kick in, followed by a volley of uncontrollable farts and, to end the symphony, a weakening, hot flushing, almost fainting session on the loo. The cannons in the 1812 Overture had nothing on the noises Gina’s intestinal tract could produce.
Work was out of the question. Gina had had a good record of employment with the company and had no doubt they’d be supportive if she needed a couple of weeks off – or in hospital – to sort the problem.
Dr Fellows had also prescribed a mild sleeping tablet, agreeing that Gina’s fearsome dreams added to the problem.
For the first two days the sleeping tablets worked, then the nightmares started again.
The shop had grown to a cavernous size, and shelves reached higher than Gina could see. Packets of dieting tea were all around her, the old man on the pack cackling and pointing. It was an effort to move down the aisle – as she knew somehow she must – without one of the line drawn fingernails touching her.
“You d’ink tea th’ee time a day,” commanded a croaky voice above the shrill paper laughter assaulting Gina from all sides.
She swung to find the old man from the front of the shop beside her. He was shorter than her, and seemed even more ancient than the week before. His fingernails touched the ground as his arms hung by his sides. He smelt faintly of spices and something older and not so nice (rotting garbage?) and his head was peeling across its bald patch with mild psoriasis.
When he looked up at her, something (green) flickered behind the rheumy brown eyes. If she looked at him for too long, she felt she’d turn to stone and never wake up. There was something compelling about his face, his eyes, and what hid beyond them.
“Th’ee time a day,” he croaked. Moving quicker than she thought he could, he lifted both hands and prodded her in the belly.
“Noooo!” Dream Gina screamed, clasping her hands over her stomach as the pain whipped through in a ferocious summer storm. Dream Gina collapsed on the floor of the shop, packets of tea tumbling around her, on her, burning her with their touch, spilling open to let teabags fly across the floor. Dozens of little line-drawn men jumped off the packets and collected the teabags, stuffing them back into the packets, heaving and grunting in dusty black clothes. Their long fingernails pulled teabags towards them and acted as forklifts to heave the bags back into the boxes. Under the shelves their eyes flashed like green torches as they creaked and carried and panted and chattered to each other in their own tongue. The feeling of their little feet tickling her legs woke Gina in a gust of revulsion.
Gina found herself sitting on the kitchen floor and burst into tears. She was holding the packet of tea – which she’d stored absently in the back of the cupboard as a “just in case” – and had drawn out the flimsy paper directions from inside, with their cryptic message in English hidden at the bottom of closely packed Chinese characters.
The side of the pack facing her had the drawing of the man on it. His eyes flashed green at her. “Th’ee time a day,” he croaked.
Gina threw the packet to the floor, and thought – just thought – she heard a faint cackling noise. Still dreaming, she thought. Still dreaming. It’s not real.
But the instructions were real. ‘Three times day give result in large cases but beware effects long last. Tea is permanent.’
Gina’s intestines gave another warning squeeze. She ignored it with difficulty, gasping. Who gives a shit? Not me!
Tea is permanent.
It was time to go back to the shop and ask about the ramifications of drinking too much tea.
Tea is permanent.
Gina felt sick at the thought. She staggered to the bathroom, but this time threw up instead, until she had nothing left to throw, dreading walking through that plastic fly curtain and looking at flashing green eyes.
* * *
The plastic fly curtain had gone and the windows, which Gina remembered as a bit dusty and milky and piled high inside with goods, seemed to sparkle.
The exotic smells were the same. Not rotting garbage, as she had feared, but five spice and coriander and ginger. Someone in the back of the shop was cooking and the aroma wafted out and made Gina hungrier than she’d been for days – hungrier than she’d been before she started the dieters’ tea.
Behind the counter the old man had been replaced by a young Chinese woman whose age could have been anywhere from 16 to 25 reading a womens’ magazine – in English. She had glossy dark hair held back in a ponytail and a hint of pale pink lipstick which matched her t-shirt.
“Hi,” she said cheerfully.
“Um, hi,” Gina returned with a watery smile. She noticed a Buddha with lighted candles in pride of place beside the cash register – another thing she didn’t remember seeing before. It looked friendly and harmless and almost welcoming.
Gina’s feet carried her to the last aisle of the little shop, where she’d found the tea.
The display of teapots was still there, although someone had bought the expensive looking red one with its attendant cups.
Neat rows of packaged tea stood below. Again that mix of local and imported teas at eye level, ranging downwards into more herbal stuff. But nowhere could Gina find any dieting tea. None of the packets looked remotely similar. Most were brightly packaged and none had a line drawing of an old Chinese guy with eyes that might or might not have been green.
Busy sales week for dieters’ tea, thought Gina. I wonder if everyone who bought that stuff had the sort of week I’m having.
She turned to the girl at the counter, ignoring the warning spasm in her abdomen. It was only a mild one, she’d had lots worse. She’d eaten so little there was nothing left to get rid of, anyway. Ten days and she’d lost over seven kilos.
Gina drew the crumpled packet out of her bag. “I bought this here last week, and I wanted to ask a few questions about it. It’s made me sick, I think.”
The girl looked at the packet, bemused. “We don’t sell anything like this,” she said in a low, unaccented voice.
“There was an old man here. He looked a bit like the guy on the packet.” Gina pointed to the line drawing, being very careful that her hands didn’t touch it. Even looking at the picture revolted her, frightened her. “He had a long fingernail on one hand.”
The girl wrinkled her nose. “No idea! This is my nanna’s shop. I’ll get her for you.” Glancing behind her as if she were afraid Gina would make off with the till, the girl ran to the back of the shop and called out.
Gina watched as a rotund old lady made her way down the first aisle. She had a sweet, peaceful face, the face of a female Buddha, and Gina warmed to her. This was Everyone’s Chinese Grandma, the kind who whipped up a feast for twenty at a moment’s notice, who had small children huddled happily on her lap every evening playing with the jade pendant she wore around her neck.
The girl chattered to Nanna in Mandarin, and Nanna shook her head. Even Gina could make that out. What old guy?
Then the girl picked up the packet and showed it to Nanna, and Nanna’s cherub face turned pale and her eyes round. She even backed up a step and shook her head violently. “Bad!” she said in English, which was what Gina thought too.
Gina said, “It says inside the packet to drink this three times a day. The old man at the counter said it might make me go to the toilet more for the first couple of days. I drank it three times a day for two days. Even though I’ve stopped taking it, I- I’ve been on the toilet ever since, my stomach hurts, my intestines hurt, I can’t stop f-farting, I’m h-having n-nightmares about old men with f-flashing green eyes and packets of t-tea that come to LIFE and –” Gina choked. She felt tears flooding her eyes and hiccuped.
Nanna reached across the counter and handed her a box of tissues, patting her arm kindly. Gina burst into full blown sobs, pulling a handful of tissues out and covering her face with them.
The girl spoke in Mandarin again, glancing at Gina, obviously translating what Gina had been saying. Nanna spoke back, her voice rising and falling but ultimately going up in pitch in a way that told Gina the news was not good, in fact, very far from good.
Finally the girl said, “Nanna thinks it’s a curse. There was a man many years ago in China who was bad in spirit. He used to drug his followers with a special tea. When they’d drunk it once they were cursed with what they wanted in a nasty way until they submitted to whatever he wanted them to do.”
“That was a long time ago in a different country,” Gina said between gulps and hiccups. She grasped the tissues so tightly her fingernails almost shredded them. “How do you explain this packet of tea?” Cursed with what they wanted, she thought. I wanted to lose weight. But not in a nasty way. And it’s been nasty, no doubt about that.
“We can’t. We’ve never seen anything like it.”
They watched Nanna read the instruction sheet from the tea packet. A frown line furrowed its way between her eyebrows and she rattled something staccato at the girl.
“Nanna says the herbs in this are poisonous. If you were drinking this three times a day it could kill you. The more you drink, the worse it gets. They stay in your system. They are very bad.”
Nanna kept talking, and the girl translated with disbelief.
“There is no cure for these herbs. If you’d had only one or two cups from the pack you might be okay. Your insides might hurt but you would be almost normal.”
Nanna looked at Gina. “How many you have?”
Gina calculated. “About…..twelve,” she said in a small voice.
Nanna shook her head. “You in pain?”
Gina nodded. “Lots of pain.”
Nanna’s kind face took on the sort of sympathetic look people reserve for the terminally ill. Gina shrank from it. “No get better.”
“I’ll talk to my doctor,” Gina said steadily. “Modern medicine is good, I’m certain there’s something available that can cure me.”
Nanna patted her arm. “So so-ly,” she said gently, “No get better. Poor gir’.”
Numbly Gina left the shop, absently thrusting the tea packet back into her bag. Nanna was grasping her jade pendant as if it might ward off evil spirits – perhaps it did! But it obviously hadn’t worked hard enough if that packet of tea found its way into the shop – and her granddaughter’s beautiful young face was scrunched up in concern.
She walked to the train station in a daze. She was vaguely aware that her insides were nearing explosion point again, but after the last week that was nothing new.
They’re winding me up, she thought finally and positively as she walked along the platform. It’s all crap. Chinese curses and herbs that can’t be cured. I’ll talk to Dr Fellows and get a referral or go to hospital or something. The only positive thing about all this is that I’ll easily fit into my black dress tomorrow night.
Gina doubled over as another massive cramp tightened the vice on her intestines. She stumbled down the stairs into the ladies’ loo, more angry than anything else. To add a little icing to Gina’s cake of the day, there wasn’t quite enough toilet paper in the booth.
Gina stomped back upstairs, angry at her body for not behaving like its usual self, angry at the gentle old Chinese lady for telling daft stories of curses.
She pulled the packet of tea out of her bag and stared the line drawing of the Chinese man straight in the eyes. “I don’t believe in curses,” she said to it. “I don’t believe that I’m going to be in pain for the rest of my life because I’ve drunk tea with a curse brewed into it.”
Was it just the sunlight, or did she see a green flicker of fury behind the unreadable eyes?
Gina held the packet over the bin, then thought better of it. If the tea WAS faulty – not cursed, mind you, just badly prepared enough to give someone Food Poisoning From Hell – then it was better that nobody else get hold of it.
The drop from the platform to the tracks was generous. Beneath her feet Gina felt the hum of an oncoming train, an empty-stomach rumble from the earth.
It came into view, sleek and silver and with no intention of stopping, an express that was Taking Care of Business. The perfect shredding, obliterating end to a packet of bad tea.
She looked at the train. Looked at the packet of tea (that flash of green) and threw it onto the track. Only her fingers couldn’t let it go.
© Copyright 2002 Caroline Sully
Reproduction without the author’s permission is strictly prohibited.