Dear Cyril, before our first 1:1 session tomorrow, a confession. See attached. Is the model allowed to change a photographer’s image of her? I did not ask your permission to change this and – sorry – others, too, of the ones you emailed me. I’m so sorry if I have broken the law. Most artists would cry ‘sacrilege !’ if someone altered their painting. Hope this doesn’t make you call off the booking. Kind rgds SukiWeek five of my Shanghai odyssey. A bright, warm mid-November afternoon.
Not long after leaving for the teaching block, Bel is back at the flat again.
‘Thought you’d got photography undergrads this p.m.?’
She drops onto her bed. ‘They’ve been sent out to sweep up the campus. Visit of dignitaries tomorrow.’
‘God. So chaotic. The way things shift and change without notice.’
Bel already has her iPad in her hand.
‘Okay, look, I’m sticking to my writing routine.’ Pause. ‘Do you want to come with?’
‘It’s alright. I’d like to just sit and read the news.’
‘Well… I’ll see you later.’ She’s obviously going to spend another afternoon silently, depressively internet-surfing. I head for the door with my bag, and look back from the threshold. ‘You’re addicted to those news sites,’ I joke. ‘All the world’s bad news.’
I set out, like every afternoon, for the recently-opened Delightful Peony Coffee Home – the only cafe round here with a shop-sign and menu in English. The employees are migrants from the countryside with no English. The so-called lattes are made of condensed milk, served sweetened with syrup. Never mind. It’s quicker and cheaper than trekking to a Starbucks in the city. And there is wifi.
I pick my way across the campus through gaggles of flirting students trailing the brooms with which they’ve been issued. The gymnasium, not five years old, is already tatty, its pretend-redbrick tiles coming unglued from the exterior and dropping off in patches due to the damp creeping up its cement structure. Pudong’s water table is barely subterranean. Dig six inches down and you’re in a pool.
At the Delightful Peony I hook up to the WiFi. Damn. Today both the BBC and The Guardian newspaper are blocked. Techie Bel has yet to set me up with the illegal software everyone uses to get onto the web – a ‘VPN’. But my Chinese ‘qq’ email account opens without a hitch. God – an answer from Aussie Cyril already. Is he pissed off? Pride made me want to show him my massively improved version of his photo – but not in person, in case of wrath.
Regarding the attached photo – I do not have a problem whatsoever with your changes, except that I am more than a little uncomfortable that the image now makes you look like the victim of the portrayer – a bit too ‘apres Freud’! Discuss further tomorrow, still greatly looking forward. Very best wishes, Cyril Sent from my iPhone
When I get back to the flat Lily Hong is coincidentally, as on previous occasions, just leaving.
‘This is always happening – it’s uncanny!’ I grin.
Bel calls out – ‘English practice!’ She comes over to the doorway. ‘I’ve given Lily Hong your website address and told her about the language notes you’ve put on A Small Life and Two Small Lives.’
‘I will read your story Miss Suki – thank you!’ Lily Hong flutters out, dimple-cheeked – ‘Have a nice day! Don’t worry be happy!’
I close the door behind her. ‘Don’t you find her a bit much? So frilly and effusive.’
‘I’m grateful. She looks after me.’
Am I being criticised? ‘Sorry – I’m crap at that. I’m deeply aware my only cooking contribution to this household is instant noodles. Bit of a liability, really. Bet you’re sorry I came.’
‘No.’ Bel takes my hand.
‘It’s so great you’re here,’ she says, not looking at me. ‘All those months when I was by myself… I was so lonely.’
Is she being romantic? Oh my god; I don’t… She’s so…
‘Uff.’ I know I’m going pink. I slip my hand from hers. ‘Cuppa tea?’
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