Precious Treasure Chicken
It was mid-morning. I was alone in King Coffee, in the city of Baoji. In front of me were a cappuccino, a map, and a piece of cheesecake. I was studying the map carefully, translating what I could, trying to work out where to go and what to do. I knew nothing about the place I was staying in, other than its name: Baoji, Precious Treasure Chicken. From the map, I could trace a line of the hills to the north, a river to the south.
It was good to feel the caffeine working on my system. This was my first coffee in days. I had been sleeping badly over the last few nights, waking each morning with a kind of exhaustion hanging over me. It was muggy, and storms were predicted.
In my peripheral vision, I noticed a man sit down at the table to my left. I was the only other customer and the intrusion seemed unreasonable. The new arrival lit up a cigarette and started to slurp noisily as he sucked an iced latte through a straw. I folded my map and swallowed the rest of my coffee.
"Hello," he said. I looked up. He switched into Chinese. "Where are you from?"
He was slight, with a shaven, domed head, and was looking at me earnestly. "England," I told him. "And you?"
"I am a stranger."
This seemed unnecessarily evasive. I put my map in my bag ready to leave, but he leaned forward and took my arm. "I am from space," he said, pointing towards the sky. "From elsewhere."
"Yes," he said, gripping my arm even harder. "UFO."
I hesitated, and then, as gently as I could, I tried to remove my arm from his grip, but he held firm. Then I noticed there was something sincere in his manner, something almost likable. I settled back into my seat. "So," I said, "what are you doing here?" Precious Treasure Chicken seemed a strange place for an alien.
"I am waiting," he said. "Waiting for the mu chuan."
The word was unfamiliar. I cast around for a translation. Mu chuan, mothership.
Just then a strange, irrational thought took hold of me. I noticed how his ears protruded from his shaven head, his eyes almost almond-shaped, his face like the plectrum of a guitar, the way aliens' faces are supposed to be. "How long have you been here?" I asked.
"A long time," he said. "I want to go home."
I hesitated. "Oh," I said. "I'm sorry."
The alien let go of my arm and smiled. And when he smiled, the fleeting, irrational thought dissolved. It was his teeth that decided it. They were terrible. Three or four were missing, the rest rotting in his mouth. Aliens had ray guns, plasma shields, teleporters, infinite improbability drives, sonic screwdrivers; surely basic dentistry was not beyond their capacities.
I stood up to leave, and I put out my hand to shake his. Alien or not, he seemed a stranger there in Precious Treasure Chicken, as I was a stranger. Neither of us belonged, and there was a kinship of sorts in that.
"It has been good to meet you," I said.
He clasped my hand and smiled again, revealing those appalling teeth.
"I hope you make it home," I told him. "I really do."
"Thank you," he replied, "And you."
He went back to his sucking his iced latte, waiting patiently for his exile to end, as I left King Coffee and headed back out into the street.
About the Author
Will Buckingham is a novelist and philosopher based in Leicester, UK. His novel Cargo Fever is published by Tindal Street Press, and he has written a curious book on philosophy and storytelling called Finding Our Sea-Legs, and published by Kingston University Press. He also writes for children, and his book The Snorgh and the Sailor will be published by Alison Green Books in 2012. He teaches creative writing at De Montfort University.