‘I assumed you knew, Bel. I thought word had got round. Sorry.’
‘No, I’m sorry.’
‘You didn’t hear about it from anyone who drew me, then.’
‘No. And I didn’t keep up with your Two Small Lives serial…’
‘Oh god, that! I mean, no-one does…’
‘…All along, you must have been thinking I knew. I’m so sorry.’
‘…Honestly Bel, I don’t expect people to read my story; it’s just my cathartic online drivel…’
‘I did read it faithfully every week, but then… I had a lot going on last winter. I’m just really sorry.’
‘No, I’m sorry!…’
I go to put the baozi on a dish, no longer hungry. I don’t want to revisit last year. I wish I was under my duvet. Alone. ‘Actually I did email you at the time, but you were… I can’t remember now.’
‘Sorry, Suki.’ Bel is sidling towards the bedroom. Is she, like me, wanting to escape? Are we as bad as each other? ‘I had too much to deal with last year,’ she says.
‘No, it’s really alright. It was just, back then, I was thinking you’d be a good person for advice coz we’re so similar; like, in age, both single, childless and everything. I mean, what would you have done if you’d found you were pregnant at forty-seven?’
‘I have a daughter.’
‘Sorry.’ She leaves the room.
I don’t know what to think. I need a fag. The rickety screen door to the balcony is permanently shoved back since cool December has seen off the mosquitoes. I go outside, light up.
The way Bel and I relate is so disconnected. Life in Shanghai is altogether, in every way, disconnected. Huh. That’s why Bel’s so at home here.
The tower-block opposite ours is chequered with murky windows, many now in darkness at this late hour, some still bluish from the depressingly low-wattage utilitarian strip-lights. Millions of people stacked up in functional boxes. At home in England there’ll be fairy-lights everywhere, and Christmas trees and candles.
I look down onto the college’s ornamental gardens. The staff housing area is well landscaped, albeit in a Disneyland-ish style: ornamental ponds; fake rocks made of something synthetic; a toy-town bamboo bridge. The croak of frogs echoes loudly between the apartment blocks. Bizarre. But nearly lovely, in a way. When all’s said and done, it’s not desert. It’s not Parisian HLMs. It’s not bombed-out Baghdad, or an African refugee camp. Why not think positive?
Someone on the paving below hawks and spits. Christ. I can’t get used to that. Day and night. The glistening globs make me nauseous. They are everywhere. I tread in them by accident. My skirt trailed into one. They are disgusting.
And we don’t know anyone, and no-one wants to know us. And here in suburban Shanghai there’s no bar to go out for a drink. And the internet connection is crap, and anyway it’s all censored.
From somewhere above, a dark soft nest comes floating down – the contents of a cleaned hair-brush: black hairs bonded by crud – and wafts onto our balcony, touching the back of my hand. Yeuch.
For all that people are strange and inaccessible, they are much too close.
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