Apr 072016
 



ALT TEXT

Mike Little

At my first session (New Year’s Day) with Mike Little’s dotty artist wife, Trish, she draws me on her iPad, all the while chattering incomprehensibly about Saussure’s signs and referents and abstraction. Then she projects the drawings onto my body, and Mike photographs me. Meanwhile Bel, in fly-on-the-wall mode, is getting material for a movie about Trish’s work. Creative collaboration, or what?

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.’
    ‘Charis who?’
    ‘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.
    ‘His photos.’
    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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Mar 242016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

My spiky Schiele-esque crop of one of Aussie Cyril’s pics. Not at all suited to the festive season. But this Christmas is looking like a write-off anyway.

I wake up to find a text from ex-flingette Tamara:

Hey! Wish u cool yuletide. U getting on wid ur writing, u clever novelist?

Sigh.
    I reach for my iPad, shoot her an email (cheaper than international texting).

No not my manuscript. But readin JG Ballard about Shanghai wartime anarchy which is makin me write apocalyptic poems. Bel has put one on her blog this week if u fancy a read.

I doze until – ping! – Tamara replies.

Re poem – Shanghai and Bel are clearly bad for your mental health. I am good for your mental health. You SO need directing. I would direct you.

Bel’s bed is already empty. I get up to make tea and find her at the window, frowning out at the dirt-heavy sky, an unlit cigarette between her fingers.
    ‘Look’ – I show her today’s Air Quality Index graph on my iPad. The red line has steeply risen to ‘unhealthy’. Everyone may begin to experience health effects, members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects. Likelihood of respiratory symptoms and breathing difficulty. Citizens are advised to limit prolonged or heavy exertion outdoors.
    I grimace: ‘bad start to the day.’
    I barely catch her murmur.
    ‘What did you say? “What a thing to have in common”? What thing?’
    ‘The death of a child.’
    ‘Oh god,’ – an even worse start to the day – ‘you too? Your daughter?’
    Bel lights her cigarette. ‘It’s just… a dark thought.’
    ‘What is?’
    But I seem unheard. She is staring out at nothing. Then – ‘And all from a one-night stand.’ Is her little laugh ironic?
    Pause.
    I try to prompt. ‘At one time I myself was obsessed with wanting to be a mum.’
    Bel’s fingers are trembling. Maybe from emotion.
    She flicks ash. ‘I sometimes wish she’d never…’
    What?
    The rain starts. Little spits. Not enough to wash the filth from the air.
    What?Surely not…
    When I find a reply, my voice comes out funny. Like, too low. ‘Look, I don’t know what to…’
    But Bel abruptly steps out onto the balcony, into the rain.
    God. How have I ended up living with such a strange person? I don’t normally relate this badly. I’ve got friends, me.
    Well, not here in Shanghai, obviously.
    I join Bel outside. Racket! The building-site blasting away. ‘Erm. D’you want to talk?’
    Drizzle is settling on the grey frizz of her untended hair. Below us, the concocted Disney-esque landscaping; tawdry, on this grey December day. Beyond the campus wall, the incessant soundtrack of construction. Urgent clanking and drilling. On the horizon, scores of cranes that seem to multiply daily.
    ‘A decade ago there was nothing here except swamp.’ Bel is lighting another cigarette from her stub. ‘And I believe in another decade it’ll all be gone again.’
    ‘What – this suburb, or Shanghai?’ Pause. ‘Or the world?’
    ‘Fake is easier to live with than real.’
    Does she mean that positively or negatively? And how can she chain-smoke – isn’t the pollution quite enough?
    The drilling is horrendous. I zip back indoors. Relief!
    Oh how I love my iPad! A couple of jolly Christmassy emails. Tiffany! I’m even grateful for one from the plumber.
    But I need to escape further from all this. ‘Just popping to the Delightful Peony,’ I call out. ‘Quick stretch of legs.’
    No response.
    Hanging on the flat’s outside door-handle is – surprise – a gift from Aussie Cyril! Back from Australia! When was he at the door? Bel probably wouldn’t be happy about this. I shove it in my bag.
    In the café I unwrap it. A really interesting book: ‘The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired’. Inside is a rambling note.

Merry Christmas to my precious muse!
Please forgive my disappearance. Personal matters in Melbourne are now decisively dealt with and I am very happy to have ended that chapter for ever. On to higher things: am curious to hear your thoughts about Edward Weston, some of whose photos you may view on this link. His muse, Charis, is a subject of this book. Well. my dear Suki, I have no wish to intrude on the revelries you are undoubtedly having with your friends. Personally I will be spending Christmas quietly, alone, in nostalgic reverie rather than revelry. Such is life – but there is at least a bright star on the horizon who gives me delight and hopefulness for the future.

I could call Cyril. Now. Get him to whisk me from the Delightful Peony to… to the Peace Hotel, or the Radisson. A rooftop champagne bar
    Aussie Cyril? Yeuch! How can I even contemplate that idea for one nano-second?
    Because it’s bloody Christmas Eve.
    Because I am lonely.


 

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