Bel is later back from teaching than usual. I’ve been happily awaiting her return because I’ve got a suggestion. It might get her out of herself. It might kick-start her Art Nude project with me.
‘How was your morning?’
Bel drops her briefcase. ‘Crap.’ She undoes her coat but doesn’t take it off, and flicks on the heater beside her desk. It is noticeably warmer recently, with spring round the corner.
‘You seem to feel permanently chilly these days, Bel.’ I set down a tray laden with tea and Shanghai-style custard tarts. ‘Listen: do you want to make another life-room movie?’
‘I can’t. I’ve just been booking a flight to Antwerp. Lily Hong helped me.’
‘Oh!’ (God, can I survive here by myself?) – ‘I thought you’d decided there was no reason to go back.’
‘My brother’s insisting. There’s bureaucracy to deal with. I leave ten days from now and come back after two weeks.’
‘Two weeks?’ (Phew, I can survive that) – ‘Well, this life-room thing’s tomorrow at Qi Qi’s Café-bar in the French Concession. It’s some designer friends of Fei Mo Di. It’s an actual life-drawing session.’
‘Okay. Yes. I’ll do it.’ A slight, albeit wan, smile – ‘There’s two weekends before I fly when I can work on it. Should be able to get it finished.’
‘Brilliant! Hey – you could try and get some shots of me to start the ball rolling for our Art Nude project when you get back!’
‘Will you still be here when I get back, Suki?’
Gulp. ‘Why wouldn’t I be?’ I feel a blush of shame.
‘You’ve got options. Do what you want.’
‘You need Lily Hong more than me. To survive here. I’m rubbish at helping you…’
‘Not true!’ Pause. ‘But I only want you to stay with me if it’s right for you.’
‘I don’t know what’s right for me, Bel.’
Uncomfortable silence. Then – ‘If I were never to return, you’d have to decide something.’ She wanders off to the kitchen. Obviously a rhetorical musing that I don’t need to answer. Phew.
Afternoon. I head out – keep to my usual weekday routine, even though on Mondays Bel knocks off earlier. I need to leave her behind; her silence. But ten minutes after my arrival at the Delightful Peony the power goes off. With no heating or lights, the café is miserable. I quickly finish my latte and scurry home.
The whine of the neighbour’s erhu is floating down from the upstairs flat as I let myself in. I urgently need to pee. The bathroom door is off the bedroom, so I storm on through. The quilt on Bel’s bed is puffed up high, covering the single trunk-shape of Bel and Lily Hong. Their twin heads look conjoined on the one pillow; their bodies must similarly be pressed close.
‘Sorry!’ I slam the bathroom door, yank at clothing, crash onto the loo. I understand it. Warmth. Comfort. I don’t know whether they’ve taken off their clothes. Is it sex too? It is silent out there. I bustle back through the bedroom without looking and scuttle to the kitchen. Then I pick up my iPad and go for a walk. Give them privacy.
I settle on a lonely bench on campus, near enough to the library to get a weak-ish signal. I’ve received a new email with photos attached. Sent at 04:00 UK time.
Hi – just quickie – Hong Kong Ron emaild me more fab pics fr that last session. They did good work wid u. Followd my instructions 2 letter. Am in hospital waitin rm. Tamara
‘Control freak’ is barely sufficient to describe Tamara’s megalomaniacal omnipotence. I like being controlled.
I feel comforted.
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