This morning’s Air Quality Index for Shanghai is only a slight improvement on yesterday’s: ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’.
‘Morning! How are you feeling?’
Bel coughs hard. Rubs her eyes. ‘Lily Hong says the air’s going to be [splutter] better in March.’
‘Good! Only a couple more days of this, then. Here – thought you’d prefer tea first, before the champers.’ I set down the cup at her bedside. My head is full of last night’s incident, of which I cannot speak.
‘Thanks, but the champers’ll have to wait til I knock off teaching.’
When I awaken my laptop I find among the morning’s freshly-arrived emails – bugger – one from Cyril, which I quickly skim:
…how wonderful every day would be, to be witness to that heady combination of your enthusiasm, creativity, and joie de vivre… As said, …so much materially to offer you… little me…
Lots of love, Cyril
Hey – there’s also one from Tamara’s photographer pal, Hong Kong Ron! Recently arrived Shanghai, wants to photograph another Shibari session, Tamara has put him onto a master rigger, am I available this week?
Bel, creakily sitting up in bed, glances over, then searches my face. ‘What’s up?’
‘Uff,’ I half turn – ‘nothing up. Just another booking for this week. All good.’ I hesitate. ‘To be honest, I’ve got a bit of a Situation.’
‘Cyril’s asked me to marry him.’
‘Actually it was late last night when I went out for that fag. Sorry. I’ve been in shock till now.’
Bel flings herself out of bed – ‘I always said “ulterior motive”’ – and slams into the bathroom. Is she that upset?
‘As you know, I find him physically repulsive,’ I call through the door.
‘There’d be plenty of advantages,’ she calls back. Crash – ‘Ow! Shit.’
Advantages? Having to dominate Cyril? I want to be the subordinate one. Told what to do. I want someone to take over my stupid life and govern it better than I do. But not Cyril!
There is no more talk. Bel slams off to her class.
Later I email Hong Kong Ron back, fix up a session for tomorrow night, in the Bondage Master’s apartment. For an evening I will gratefully be guided, led, controlled, instructed. All I have to do is obey. Submission is so uncomplicated. And furthermore, highly valued. It’s a good bargain for both sides.
Late afternoon. The Delightful Peony’s one heater breaks down, so I return to the flat to hunch over my little radiator with a fistful of new poems. Apocalyptic imaginings: a tsunami obliterating Pudong, the Jin Mao Tower collapsing due to the sub-standard concrete of its construction, the Peace Hotel bombed and in flames. I get two plastic tumblers ready for Bel‘s return. The champagne is chilling in the fridge.
A call from Lily Hong. ‘Miss Suki, please come. Bel’s daughter is died.’
‘Bel is here. In office. Please come.’
In the Foreign Affairs office I find Lily Hong seated in front of her computer screen weeping, together with Bel, around whose shoulder her arm is draped.The screen is filled with a China Airways webpage in Chinese.
When I walk in, Lily Hong nuzzles at Bel then relinquishes her chair for me.
Bel is impassive. ‘I’m booking a flight, but not for straight away. My brother can deal with it all.’
‘What happened?’ Fearful, I reach, lightly touch her cheek. ‘How did you hear?’
Her face twitches away. ‘John called’ – she looks at her watch – ‘about an hour ago.’
‘Oh, she just died.’ Pause. ‘About 11 pm Holland time. Heart failure. People like Elise are full of anti-psychotics and massively overweight. And she chain-smoked.’
I do what Lily Hong was doing. Bel’s shoulders under my arm are wooden, unyielding. She seems tight-coiled, ultra-controlled.
‘I’d rather miss the funeral and everything.’ She scrolls through dates.’ Let’s try for a ticket in three weeks.’ She looks up at Lily Hong. ‘I can buy this ticket now with my credit card, can I?’ Then, like an after-thought, ‘Maybe I don’t even need to go.’
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