Oct 272016
 



Dear Fei Mo Di, I want to achieve one last thing in Shanghai. For Bel. She wanted Still Life, the first movie she completed here, to have Chinese subtitles. Have you got time?’

Hi Suki –
okay I can do it. I’ve got a window tomorrow. One condition: we do one final shoot together. Outdoors. This morning. Now. Ok? FMD

Then he shows up at the campus: very spontaneous, very Shanghainese, a fresh daisy in the vase of his Volkswagen Beetle, and drives us to a woodland outside the city. We bicker for the entire journey – companionable, mates-together bickering ( – in truth, we have so much in common), and the scenery and freshness is lovely. I am naked in the wilderness, climbing trees, lying in bracken. Fei Mo Di despises breasts and excess flesh and loves my newly skeletal form. He produces a picnic lunch from a wicker hamper: strawberries; elderflower cordial. We are in a Merchant Ivory movie. It is heaven.

The flat, when he drops me back there, is ugly: the massive never-used Chinese TV; grubby whitewashed walls spattered with small red messes of swatted mosquitoes. Our things are all gone: everything boxed up ready to post tomorrow, or already piled beside my suitcase in readiness for my day-after-tomorrow flight. I sit on the hard wooden bench devoid of your cushions and automatically waken your iPad to check news – but then I can’t face it.

I am seated, reading, wallowing in this loneliness, when a Skype call sings out of the iPad.
    ‘Tamara! Hey – this is great!’ The signal is strong for once. She looks terrific: casual in cap-sleeved top and sweatpants, yet elegant, against the backdrop of her apartment’s acreage of clean-lined, oak-floored, clutter-free space.
    ‘You’re crying.’
    ‘No. Yes. Coz I’m re-reading Lee Miller’s life. Comparing her to Bel.’
    ‘And you’re frighteningly scrawny. This is worrying. I’m going to put you on a diet.’
    ‘This book about her being a muse – it describes Lee at the end of her life as “a soul in hell, cut off from the work and the life she loved” due to alcoholism, drug abuse, manic depression and creative frustration.’
    ‘That doesn’t sound like Bel’s state.’
    ‘She was really obsessed with Lee, though. I’m just looking for… trying to understand. Lee’s son says she lost her looks after his birth and that’s when she really degenerated into a slob, and got really difficult and quarrelsome. In the end she was a total mess: alcoholic, obsessive, frumpy, entirely in the shadow of her husband who’d made himself a VIP in the art world – you know, the guy who started the ICA?’
    ‘Your Bel was an independent woman. Still working and functioning. But clearly she had some long-term mental health issues.’
    ‘She’d become really depressed… anxious… introverted…’
    ‘Suki. You’ve just spent half a year holding the hand of a dying person.’
    ‘I was useless at getting her to talk…’
    ‘You are remarkable.’
    [sob] ‘I just don’t understand it…’
    ‘You need some looking-after now. Which it is my privilege to offer. It’s ten months since you left Engl…’
    Crash. ‘Aagh!’
    ‘Suki! What the..?’
    I’m on my feet – ‘Christ!’
    Tamara’s voice – ‘You’ve gone dark – ’
    I reach for the wall to steady myself.
    ‘Are you alright?’
    ‘The electricity’s out – this iPad’s on its battery. I think the meter box just exploded – ‘
    ‘I saw a flash – ?’
    ‘The metal front panel’s gone flying across the room; there’s wiring and stuff from inside it scattered about in bits …’
    ‘But you’re okay? Are you okay?’
    ‘I’m intact, thanks; honest.’
    ‘Is anything on fire?’
    ‘Don’t worry! Look, I need to call someone – I’ve got no electricity. I need to call a staff member. Got to go.’

I am waiting in the dark for Lily Hong. Jeezus Christ, if I’d been sitting over there instead of here…
    But it has been a Eureka! moment. I’ve just learned I would hate to die.


 

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