1st January. Bel is let off lessons. The new year begins with us slobbing in bed, drinking Columbian coffee, reading.
‘He’s definitely after you.’ Bel tosses aside a note.
‘Oh – is that my note from Cyril?’
‘You left it in this book he gave you. Do you like being considered his “muse”?’
‘God, no. I hate how he puts me in that role, being so over-complimentary and acquiescent and submissive with me.’
‘Told you he’s into submission.’
‘Yes, I know.’
‘Proper BDSM scene. Collars and chains.’ She is looking at me a bit sternly. ‘Does that give you “writing ideas”? That why you want to do more shoots with him?’
Sigh. ‘He pays me, Bel. That’s the main reason. And secondly, I have free rein to mess about with his mundane photos and turn them into fantastic images. I love that.’
But Bel has stuck her head back into ‘Chinese Whispers’, the book her brother sent. Is she sulking?
I grab back Cyril’s ‘The lives of the muses’ and open it at random:
Charis knew that Weston had a horror of female competition, therefore never touched a camera herself. …a swooning acolyte who fell at Weston’s feet… united with him in a common purpose – his life’s work as a photographer…’I try to re-engage with Bel. ‘You know – Lee Miller is in here as Man Ray’s so-called muse, but she just isn’t one. Not like Charis Weston was. Lee Miller used Man Ray to learn and perfect her own photographic skills.’
‘The model and second wife of that obnoxious photographer Edward Weston. He picked her up when he was 48 and she was only 19.’
‘Oh. I quite like Edward Weston, though.’
‘…humourless and egotistic, it says here.
Success! I’ve got Bel talking about photography. ‘Shall I make us more coffee?’
The kitchen stinks of drains. The superficial semblance of a decent fitted kitchen doesn’t bear close inspection. Blackened cracks vein the worktops. Door hinges are broken. We put up with the mess of mysterious leaks and dirt traps. It’s a mere temporary residence, after all.
Waiting for the coffee to percolate, I receive a call.
A chirpy voice: ‘Hello Suki and happy new year to you! Mike Little here. We met at the Shanghai Art Nude Photographers’ group about three months ago. Listen – might you be interested in a series of shoots led by my wife Trish who’s an artist?’
‘Hey – brilliant! New Year, new opportunities! Totally interested!’
‘Lovely jubbly. It’s her Masters project. Something to do with the Swiss semiotician Saussure. I’m just along for the ride. Well: if you can drop by this afternoon for a first ‘go’, we could make a New Year’s Day party of it? Bring Bel along! Long time no see – she hasn’t been to the group for months.’
‘Wonderful. Don’t worry, I’ll drag her out.’
‘Champion! That’ll be grand.’
‘Just thinking on my feet now, Mike: could Bel be a fly-on-the-wall for this project and make a film recording its progression? Would Trish be up for that? Bel’s made some great movies; we can show you some.’
‘Sounds magic! Happy days – let’s discuss it anon.’
When I return to the bedroom with tea, Bel looks up from her book. ‘I’m like Somerset Maugham.’
‘Good grief,’ I set down her cup, ‘why?’
‘He felt alienated from the Chinese. Way back in 1900. Just like I do now. Listen to this: ‘You cannot tell what are the lives of those thousands who surge about you. Upon your own people sympathy and knowledge give you a hold: you can enter into their lives, at least imaginatively… But these [Chinese] are as strange to you as you are to them. You have no clue to their mystery. For their likeness to yourself in so much does not help you; it serves rather to emphasize their difference.’ Bel’s face is desolate. ‘That’s like me. I have no connection with my students. They don’t want to know me. They’d be more interested in me if I had a Gucci handbag. If I were a Gucci handbag.’
I sigh. ‘Never mind – we’ve just been invited to a party.’
‘But don’t you identify with him, Suki?’
‘Look Bel – it’s New Year’s Day. Think of positives. Plans for this year.’
‘Right. So’ – Bel snaps shut her book, tosses it aside – ‘when are you going to write your novel, Suki?’
‘When are you finally going to start your Art Nude project with me, Bel?’
‘Dunno. It’s the teaching. Takes up my headspace.’
‘That’s not the real issue.’ I take Bel by the shoulders and ask, dangerously, ‘Why are you really here?’
‘What are you really doing here, Suki?’
Holding each other (at arm’s length), we laugh. Raucously, theatrically: what is this life? – ha ha ha… (furiously, desperately) – ha ha ha why have we run away to China ? Why?…
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