‘Ni hao.’ Gravely Bel hands me a cup of green tea.
‘Bloody hell I’m in Shanghai!’ I pinch my own arm, laugh, a bit over-hearty; watch this strangely colourless, solemn woman, quite tall, average build, shoulder-length unstyled grey-flecked hair…
Are the best photographers this nondescript kind, the type of personality who manages to be fly-on-the-wall, invisible?
Bel is shoving apart the rickety sliding screens to the balcony.
‘Are they supposed to prevent mosquitos getting in?’ I show my blotchy arms. Alongside our beds – two singles jammed side by side in this teeny room – is an untidy stack of books. ‘Hey, wow, these are all on Lee Miller – I’ve just read her biography!’
Bel, texting on the balcony, only nods – wordless, grey; the world beyond her also grey: scaffolded half-built tower blocks, pylons, more tower blocks, then the exotic silhouettes in the hazy distance of some of the world’s most awesome skyscrapers. Is Bel secretly texting a friend Jeezus why did I invite Suki here?
Is there a sun, somewhere up above?
What the hell am I doing here?
Don’t panic. This must be ‘culture-shock’. Smile! I grab and flick through the first book off the pile.
Bel comes back in, brings her i-Pad over and props it up on my shrouded knees. She points at the on-screen graph. ‘The government issues warnings when the Air Quality Index rating is over 100. Today looks like a good day; see – pollution report “moderate”. AQI only 79. “Respiratory symptoms will only be experienced by people with unusual sensitivities”.’
‘God!’ My exclamation comes out with undue force. ‘Everyone warned me about the pollution. Have you got “unusual sensitivities”?’
‘Dunno really. I’ve been coughing a lot. It’s worse in other places; they say breathing Beijing’s air is the equivalent of smoking forty fags a day. But it’s bad here. Watch.’
She puts her palm down flat on the floor tiles, sweeps it sideways, shows me her upturned hand, the film of black smut. ‘It’s there every day, you can’t keep on top of it.’ Then she takes the book from my hand. ‘Ah yes – this one’s interesting because this woman Conekin talks about the dichotomies that underlie fashion photography – like, active-passive, male-female – which at first struck me as anachronistic; I mean surely they no longer apply in the 21st century?…’
I blink. Is that a rhetorical question? Am I going to get breakfast?
‘…but now I think maybe they still hold true; I mean, there’s still this primitive Adam-and-Eve dynamic going on in the photographer-model relationship; well, in lots of spheres really…’
Bel is – it’s weird – talking as though I’m not really there. More like, she’s addressing students in a lecture hall. Is she uncomfortable being one-to-one with someone? In her own home?
‘…but the great thing about Lee Miller is, she subverted all of that – even back in the 1920s and ‘30s – by being both model and photographer, and by being so assertive and free…’ Suddenly she stops, and for a single moment, her face shines. ‘It’s so great you’ve come!’
Phew. That means she’s okay with me being here, right?
We set off to meet Lily Hong for breakfast in the staff canteen. Bel has fallen into her default mode of solemnity again. ‘The food in Shanghai is good,’ she offers, addressing not me but the footpath, ‘as long as you mentally blot out that food safety checks are corrupt, obviously. No point worrying about absolutely everything.’
I am led beneath the shade of ornamental trees across the new-built grandiose faux-European college campus to the canteen.
Lily Hong is waiting like an excited puppy dog, a pink bow in her hair. ‘Please take fried jaozi. Foreigners like very much.’ Beam. Squeeze of my arm. ‘I like your hairs.’ A pat on my head. She’ll be licking my ankles next. Lily Hong definitely alleviates the atmosphere.
I think of having a laugh and a drink with my upstairs neighbour Tiffany back home. Being alone with Bel is no joke.
I don’t know if I can hack it.
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