Jul 072016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

Aussie Cyril’s photo is in the style of Emmanuel Sougez’s 1930-40s nudes, which “are meant to be sexually admired, but… represent the old-fashioned discreet view of women; an ideal of femininity reminiscent of 18th century artists Fragonard and Boucher,… purely and simply feminine, …seeming to shrink before our admiring gaze”. Yeuch.


My ‘alarm clock’ ( Bel’s hacking cough) goes off early today, but she manages to settle back into dozing.
    So I have got up well before her; left her rattling under her duvet. As I’m putting on my coat I call, ‘Make sure you get a chest x-ray in Antwerp.’ I pop back into to the bedroom, looking for my hat.
     Bel rouses her head. ‘More creativity with Cyril, this morning?’ Did that wheeze have a cynical tone?
    Look, I don’t want his pictures any more. I’m doing this purely for the money.’ I stare at her. ‘You look grey, Bel. I’m phoning the office for you. Don’t go to work. You can’t breathe.’

On the Metro to Moganshan Lu I become terrified I’ll arrive home to find Bel dead in her bed. An asthma attack. Heart failure. A strain of pneumonia that brings instant death.

Alone in Shanghai… God. I would die too.

    But she answers my text.

Am ok tanx. Hav good morning.

At the studio Aussie Cyril’s ten-day-old marriage proposal hangs in the air; brings an intimacy (uncomfortable, unwanted), like ten days into an engagement.
    I don’t refer to it. Maybe it will sink away, be forgotten…
    ‘Over to you, Cyril. You choose the poses.’
    Or should I do something about it? At least they would understand my poetry in Melbourne…
    ‘Thank you, Suki. Today I’m aiming to reproduce the classical nude portraiture styles of Harry Callahan, or Ruth Bernhard; also a fashion photographer who turned to Art Nude called Jean-Loup Sieff, who took “lively portraits of interesting girls”, to quote Peter Lacey.’
     ‘Girl? I’m not exactly a spring chicken.’

In the evening I receive an email with his “classical nude portraits” attached.

My dearest Suki-muse, permit me to regale you with information about the gentlemen who have been my influences. Here is a link to a fine example of Emmanuel Sougez’s figurative female nudes. Though his technique attends to composition, line and form, the individual femininity of his models is not subordinate to these concerns. Then there is Harry Callahan who creates images that are representational of the model’s nature or character (yes, a stark contrast to Edward Weston). Callahan brings out femininity and modesty, coupled with a psychological remoteness and elusiveness. He has chosen women: feminine, demure women; “like mythical beings” they are revered and turned into fantasy (quoting Peter Lacey). While Callahan’s pictures are not remotely pornographic – he maintains a distance and respect – his way of relating to the image of woman is nothing if not sexual.
     By the way, did I ever say, I love those images in which your eyes twinkle? Cyril x

I rattle off –

As so often, you are again trying to make something pretty of me. I don’t mind not being pretty. I’d rather not be. ‘Callahan-esque’ is a style I really don’t like. I’m not a mythical being. I am not remote.

But I must not sound so churlish. Cyril is still paying me. So I delete this, and write –

Thank you Cyril.
These are beautiful. I love looking at beautiful women. I am not one. But they are lovely. Thank you. Look forward to more sessions. Do suggest a date. Suki

Clearly Cyril is hovering somewhere, awaiting my responses. I immediately receive his reply:

Dear Suki, my darling muse, how about another shoot on Monday morning, first thing? Then lunch at the Peace Hotel? Let me know.



 

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May 192016
 



ALT TEXT

Mike Little

Mike Little’s photo of one of his wife Trish’s drawings, projected by her onto my skin. Bel’s movie of this unfolding project is almost complete.

A final session with Trish: the culmination of her chaotic art project.
    We leave the still-empty campus (Spring Festival goes on and on…) to go to the Littles’ apartment. Our suburb, too, is still a ghost-town. The urban population, recently-migrated from the countryside to settle on Shanghai’s new-built outskirts, has left en masse to return to home villages.
    At this annual gathering, do Chinese families fight? Like British families do at Christmas?
    With her project climaxing, Trish is dizzier than ever:
    ‘…because trying to reproduce an image that you see in a photographic or so-called “realistic” way is about certainty, but there is no certainty.’
    ‘As in, nothing can be taken literally?’ I clarify.
    ‘That’s it!’
    I shudder. ‘That’s how Shanghai makes me feel.’
    ‘We’ve moved away from the whole of the body’ – Trish points excitedly at an image on her monitor, ‘there – to focus on only a part of the body; hence we’ve moved from what is obviously a referent, to something which has lost that referent.’
    ‘So you can no longer tell it’s anything to do with a body.’
    ‘Exactly.’
    ‘Like these,’ pipes Mike, holding out his smart-phone. ‘Edward Weston’s nude studies. I’ve got the Francine Prose book that has a chapter on him.’ He shows me a couple of photographs.
    ‘Yes, I’ve seen some of these. And they get compared with his vegetable studies, like that one of a pepper that could equally be a woman’s torso.’
    Mike holds out the phone to his wife. ‘This the type of thing you’re on about, sweetheart? See – you can hardly tell whether they’re bodies or objects. It’s abstracted from what it really is.’
    ‘Technically clever – yes.’ Bel moves forward into the group from her silent observation-point. ‘But the great Stieglitz himself disliked Weston’s photography for that reason. It was all about technical prowess but totally devoid of artistic vision. Plus there’s no feeling in them. Even though they were often the body of Charis his lover.’
    ‘But they’re good, though,’ Mike insists. ‘They fox you into thinking they’re something else.’
     Trish, behind him, looks pained. ‘Haven’t you baked something for us, Mike?’
    ‘Sorry Trish, are we ready for tea?’ Mike heads for the kitchen.
    She sighs and flops in front of her monitor. ‘Wish I could talk to someone about my ideas. Wish I was more confident. Always feel I’m waffling, being a nuisance…’ She absently drops her mouse into the pocket of her fisherman’s smock. ‘Most people don’t listen to me like you two do.’ Is that an oblique comment on Mike? ‘Anyway,’ Trish yanks at the nest of coffee tables – ‘enough of me and my rubbish.’

From beyond the Littles’ Ikea curtains comes the constant, alien clamour of Shanghai’s Jing ‘an Temple district. Apart from sharing the ear-plague of incessant fire-crackers, we have no connection with the lives of the Chinese around us at this festival time. Within this apartment, we are in England.
    Mike is holding out a cup of tea. ‘So, Suki, do you think there’s any difference in how artists relate to their models, compared to Art Nude photographers and their models? After all, you’re the one with first-hand experience.’
    ‘Yes, there’s a fundamental difference.’ I take the cup and saucer. ‘Art Nude photography is dependent on the photographer’s personality and his or her connection with an individual model. A photographer can only produce Art Nude work if he or she has managed to get into a working relationship with a person who’ll pose naked one-to-one. Though of course, working with you two guys breaks this mould because it’s two-to-one.’
    ‘Three-to-one’ – Mike shoots a look at Bel, a silent island in an armchair: ‘technically there have been three of us making pictures of you.’
    ‘Well, okay, yes. Complicated, isn’t it! But I would say, really – Trish – this is primarily about your relationship as a creative artist with me as the model.’
    Mike gives Bel a wide encouraging grin; tries to draw her in: ‘It’s quite complex in the case of our little project, here, isn’t it? As the photographer I myself am merely observing the primary relationship – which is the artist-model relationship – and recording images of its fruits…’
    ‘But your photos are slanted, Mike. Not objective,’ says Bel gravely. ‘The photographer’s eye inevitably has an interpretative dimension.’
    ‘Accepted!’ Mike beams. ‘Whereas you, Bel, as a film-maker, are documenting all of our inter-relationships completely neutrally.’
    ‘Nothing’s ever “neutral”,’ I pipe up, without forethought – ‘I mean, the documenting of my Shibari sessions by a photographer was still shaped by his aesthetic. He was still selecting images.’
    Mike pauses from reaching some floral tea plates out of a sideboard. ‘What’s Shibari?’
    ‘Oh. Ah… It’s this traditional Japanese type thing… where one gets tied up…’
    ‘Ooh!’ Trish’s eyes shine, while English embarrassment turns Mike’s face pink.
    ‘It’s a kind of meditational practice really,’ I bluster. ‘The knots have to be really beautifully done. It’s more about the process…’
    ‘Bondage!Trish giggles.
    ‘Uff… Like I said it’s very much an aesthetic thing, mainly…’
    ‘How about some bondage, Mike?’ She reaches to take the cake-tray from him.
    I crash on – ‘…I mean, the bondage masters are quite nerdy actually, trying to get their knots absolutely perfect and symmetrical and everything’ – I see Mike is flustered, removing his pinny – ‘It’s more like macramé than anything else.’
    ‘Oh?’ Mike’s face brightens. ‘I used to be really into macramé. Do you remember macramé owls?’
    ‘Oh cripes, yes, macramé owls’ – Trish rolls her eyes – ‘nineteen-seventies. They were everywhere.’ She plonks the tray onto the coffee table. ‘Gosh, this looks lovely, sweetheart.’
    Mike raises his merry eyebrows at me. ‘Carrot cake?’


 

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May 122016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

I may seem obsessed with Schiele’s and Freud’s sexually explicit poses. Really it’s a case of being fascinated by the issues they throw up. In this photo by Aussie Cyril (from our second M50 session yesterday) I’m in a pose I copied from a Lucian Freud painting. I’ve over-photoshopped it, trying to make it look textured like the painting. Art critic William Boyd associates the two artists (he refers to ‘the disturbing power of … a Lucian Freud’) in an article primarily about the ‘sexual frankness’ of the chronologically much earlier Egon Schiele, whose notorious explicit nude studies were a ‘visceral shock to pre-First World War viewers’. Way ahead of his time, and condemned by many as obscene, the young Schiele endeavoured to “strip away the lies and surface pretences” of social hypocrisy – the repressive values and attitudes that prevailed at the beginning of the 20th century in Vienna and Europe-wide. Even today, many would be deeply shocked if I, as a life model, copied certain of Schiele’s famous poses. I can’t think of a single artist acquaintance who would be blasé about drawing me masturbating. Is this a case of similar “repressive values and attitudes” prevailing even nowadays?

Sunday. Two days since the end of exam week. End of semester. The campus is already eerily quiet, the students having left to join the national hordes flocking home for Spring Festival. So – at last – a chance for us to talk?
    It is end-of-January freezing and I am under my duvet, re-reading William Boyd’s Guardian article about Schiele and erotica. I turn to Bel. ‘Does copying Egon Schiele’s and Lucian Freud’s poses make me a wannabe porn-star?’
    Bel looks up from marking exam papers in her bed. ‘No. Why should it? Why should the fact that their paintings are sexually charged automatically associate them with porn? I mean, some of their really famous ones are quite grotesque, not at all beautiful.’
    ‘Yes – that’s precisely why I like them. I like edgy. I like disturbing. It’s sex but it’s not porn.’
    Bel yawns, stretches, seems relaxed. No frowning or agitation. Great!
    I warm to my theme. ‘Schiele is sex. That’s why every student in every college class I’ve ever modelled for is a Schiele devotee. He only drew the body-parts he was into. Never mind the head or the feet, straight to the genitals.’
    Bel actually grins.
    ‘The only place masturbation’s permissible in a school is in the Schiele catalogue in the art room.’ Ping! ‘Oops, excuse me – a text.’
    Bel instantly puts her head back into her marking. Darn. I love that we’re chatting about Art.
    I take a look. ‘Poo. Cyril. He wants to “continue our discussion of Picasso”.’
    Bel doesn’t look up. ‘Never stops asking you for dates, these days. You should go. Why not get a free meal out?’
    ‘For heaven’s sake, Bel, I don’t want to socialise with Cyril.’
    Bel raises her eyes from the exam papers, looks quizzically at me.
    ‘Quite frankly I’d rather discuss Picasso with you. I’d rather discuss anything with you.’
    ‘Go on, then,’ she sits back – ‘I’m bored of this.’
    ‘Oh! right – well: Cyril’s in total agreement with that feminist mad-woman Karen Kleinfelder who says Picasso’s late works are about male sexual power over women. You know. The fantasy of possession of the model. But there’s this other academic Marie-Laure Bernadac, who says those works are just – wait, let me quote: “a later-life exploration of the female realm.” As in, not exploitative at all.’
    ‘Or at least, not that specifically,’ Bel agrees. ‘And anyway, I always wonder – what’s actually wrong with artworks that show a power relationship – a sexual relationship – between male and female?’
    ‘Exactly my question! Why is Kleinfelder so derangedly angry with Picasso for relating to women sexually?’
    Bel shrugs. ‘I’ve never actually understood why artists having sex with models is a problem.’
    ‘Me neither. I mean, which way is the exploitation, in the end? Isn’t there a tradition of on-the-face-of-it ‘subordinate’ female secretaries exploiting their rich bosses for their own ends, by manipulating them with sex?’ I get out of bed. ‘Cuppa tea?’ Heading for the kitchen, I call – ‘Traditionally, surely most artists’ models would have been expecting it to get sexual?’
    I don’t hear a response.
    I come back from switching the kettle on – ‘I mean, Schiele’s so-called muse Wally Neuzil: she was integral to his life. His primary relationship. Can’t we assume it was mutually beneficial? Why insist on calling it exploitation?’
    ‘Maybe.’
    ‘Like, I’m sure Lee Miller fully intended her relationship with Man Ray to be sexual.’
    ‘Well of course, she’s a person who’d only have sex if she wanted to…’ Bel ponders for a moment, ‘though anyway she was working more with photographers than artists. I think there might be more likelihood of sex between photographer and model than artist and model, considering that with photography there’s much more one-to-one work.’
    ‘I think that’s definitely the case. Like, you know Charis Wilson, Edward Weston’s ‘muse’ who became his second wife? She expected sex with him from the outset. It was Charis who brought it about. Let me get Cyril’s book…’ I scoot to fetch it from the living room.
    Maybe we’ll go on being like this from now on? Maybe I could stay on with Bel after all?
    Should I get into her bed?
    I dive back into my own bed with the book. ‘It says here that the very first time Charis modelled for Edward there was a sexual tension that “had to be diffused with breathless conversation” – and the second session, they had full-blown sex which she initiated herself – because he was apparently “shy” – by giving him a “very compelling look”. And he goes, “I felt a response…”
    We both guffaw. ‘“Eyes don’t lie and she wore no mask… At last she lay there below me waiting, holding my eyes with hers.”’ Breaking off, I quip cheerfully, ‘Bel – is there anything we don’t agree on?’
    ‘That all men are bastards? Coz you seem very well-disposed towards Cyril.’
    Why this sudden barb out of nowhere?
    I do another guffaw, a bit over-hearty. ‘Obviously all men are bastards. And Cyril’s in the sub-category “fat bastards”. Speaking of which, listen to this: throughout Weston’s affair with Charis he also kept on a long-suffering and faithful wife in the background who was bringing up his four sons. Quote: “Poor Flora… I must try to be tender to her, it is not easy to thrust aside such a great love as she offers me”.’
    We both go, ‘Bastard!’


 

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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 312016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

Aussie Cyril has lent me another book. I’m being educated. So this latest crop of one of his photos is informed by the hard-edged geometries of Edward Weston who belongs to an important group known as the Photo-Secessionists. In 1902 this group split from the Camera Club of New York to pursue Pictorialism: techniques of manipulating negatives and prints to make them look like drawings, etchings, and oil paintings (and this group did include some women! Clarence White worked with Stieglitz. Also Annie Brigman). They drew inspiration from European art movements with similar goals such as the Linked Ring. The later works of group member Alfred Stieglitz and those of Weston (who was also influenced by modernists Sheeler and Strand) mark the decisive start of contemporary Art Nude photography. But I’m deffo not aiming, like Weston does, to ‘purposely neutralise the uniqueness of the human form by equating it with inanimate objects’. Weston got perverse satisfaction from achieving images of the nude that were ‘entirely impersonal, lacking in any human interest which might call attention to a living, palpitating body’. Is Weston the same type as Uglow? Two haters of humanity?


    ‘A baby froze to death on the Gaza Strip because it was living under a tarpaulin.’
    ‘Oh dear.’ I set down at Bel’s bedside her morning cup of green tea.
    Her not-long-awake face is already set in a frown. ‘This is why Muslim gunmen shoot randomly into coffee bars. It’s simple cause and effect. It’s people with no legitimate forum to protest all the historic injustices committed against them.’
    ‘Well, Merry Christmas, anyway’.
    She snaps shut her iPad. ‘I hate the world, Suki. Where is safe?’ –
    ‘Well, let’s see…’ Oh no – Bel is clearly about to cry!
    ‘We’re all just animals.’
    ‘Look Bel, I think that too. But come on…’ I pass her a Chinese rice-bowl overflowing with peanut M&Ms – ‘it’s Christmas Day.’ No response. ‘Sorry they’re not Quality Streets.’
    Bel throws off her quilt and heads for the bathroom. ‘“Empathy” isn’t innate in human nature; that’s just a self-righteous myth of Western culture because actually anyone who’s non-white and/or non-Christian-heritage is viewed as alien.’ I hear her landing on the loo. ‘Altruism’s a myth too. We only do stuff for others in order to get something.’
    ‘That’s fair enough, isn’t it, though?’ I hover outside the bathroom. ‘Like for example, if it’s to get love? Hey – are you off out or something?’
    ‘Told you: I’m teaching. It’s a normal day. Communist State, remember?’ The shower starts but she rants on. ‘So-called “values” are purely social constructs created for pragmatic reasons. For particular purposes. Everything’s fake. Love is fake. Huh. Lerv. I lerv ya, babe.’
    She is being scarily weird. ‘Okay – we’ll do gifts later, yeah? And I’ll cook!’
    Will my cooking lift Bel’s mood – or at least distract her? Or be the final straw? I don’t know how to help her. After she’s gone to work I prepare her an extra gift. A poem I wrote years ago called Bethlehem, after the 2002 Siege of Bethlehem that reduced to ruins the nativity scenes I had learned in childhood. I print it out and decorate its edges.
    How to spend the rest of Christmas Day?
    I go to the Delightful Peony with my iPad, and email Aussie Cyril.

Happy Christmas Day, Cyril! Am half-way through the book about muses. Edward Weston’s photos of Charis are totally about sex. Never mind what the book says. With muses there’s always something sexual going on. In Weston’s case he has sex with his model at the same time as objectifying the female body to the extreme. The model is no more than a tool. A lifeless plastic sex toy.

As ever, his answer is instantaneous.

Jingle Bells! Hope you’re enjoying today as much as our afternoon together yesterday, which has been the highlight of my Christmas. Aha – you think Weston’s work is about sex? He always insisted his intentions were purely formal and not in the least erotic. You must have read in the ‘muses’ book by now that his nude portraits of the back of Anita Brenner suggest faintly distasteful similarities with his toilet bowl! Yet these are in his own view his ‘finest set of nudes… in their approach to aesthetically stimulating form’. For him they are an ‘absolute aesthetic response… Every sensuous curve of the “human form divine” but minus imperfections’. Stieglitz himself did actually express dislike of Weston’s art nude images, calling them ‘sterilised’; that they lacked fire and life and were ‘more or less dead things not part of today’. No sex!

At teatime Bel returns from class with a polite greetings card from the university’s hierarchy and a very pretty box of dried fruits from Lily Hong. Nothing from any students.
    ‘Here’ – I hand her a Tsingtao beer and clink it with mine. ‘Cheers! Let’s do gifts!’
    Bel opens a small package from Belgium: a book on China sent by her brother. Then my poem, and a grey sweater. ‘It says cashmere but it might be fake.’
    ‘It’s great. Fake’s great – it means “authentically Chinese”.’ She hands me two packages wrapped in red paper. ‘For you.’
    In a pretence of gayness I rip at them. ‘Omigod, where the heck did you find a percolator? You’ve been trawling those fancy malls!’ My second parcel is – ‘Oh joy! Thank you so much!’ – ground Columbian coffee.
    Then she is sidling off onto the balcony. ‘Just making a call.’
    ‘Bel – why do you never say “I’m just calling my Mum”, or whatever?’
    ‘My brother. I normally call my brother on Christmas Day. Sorry. Excuse me.’
    ‘Got any sisters? Are your parents alive?’
    ‘My brother’s it. Childless bachelor, lives in Antwerp because of his solar panels business, very kindly acts as the contact person for Élise. With the unit. He lets me know if he’s been informed of anything by the staff. If there’s anything to tell.’
    ‘Staff? Unit?’
    ‘Sorry. Élise lives in a psychiatric hospital.’ Bel steps outside, tapping at her mobile.
    ‘Oh. Thank you. Sorry.’
    Élise. Like Für Élise. I guess she might be – what – thirty-ish?

Christmas night. Early to bed. Not a candle lit, not a carol played. Apart from yesterday afternoon (Cyril – overjoyed – treating me to a festive tea at the Peace Hotel), a truly crap Christmas.

Bel is a silent lump in her bed, her lamp already out.
    I’ll just do a last check for any emailed greetings.

One more gift: click on this link.
I’m sorry.
Thanks for being here.



 

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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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