Mar 172016
 



ALT TEXT

Aussie Cyril

I cropped and rotated this pic by Aussie Cyril to create the geometry of the black box having its corner exactly at the image’s centre, and reduced the colour and contrast to achieve the sculpted look of the figure.

‘I assumed you knew, Bel. I thought word had got round. Sorry.’
    ‘No, I’m sorry.’
    ‘You didn’t hear about it from anyone who drew me, then.’
    ‘No. And I didn’t keep up with your Two Small Lives serial…’
    ‘Oh god, that! I mean, no-one does…’
    ‘…All along, you must have been thinking I knew. I’m so sorry.’
    ‘…Honestly Bel, I don’t expect people to read my story; it’s just my cathartic online drivel…’
    ‘I did read it faithfully every week, but then… I had a lot going on last winter. I’m just really sorry.’
    ‘No, I’m sorry!…’
    I go to put the baozi on a dish, no longer hungry. I don’t want to revisit last year. I wish I was under my duvet. Alone. ‘Actually I did email you at the time, but you were… I can’t remember now.’
    ‘Sorry, Suki.’ Bel is sidling towards the bedroom. Is she, like me, wanting to escape? Are we as bad as each other? ‘I had too much to deal with last year,’ she says.
    ‘No, it’s really alright. It was just, back then, I was thinking you’d be a good person for advice coz we’re so similar; like, in age, both single, childless and everything. I mean, what would you have done if you’d found you were pregnant at forty-seven?’
    ‘I have a daughter.’
    ‘A daughter?’
    ‘Sorry.’ She leaves the room.

I don’t know what to think. I need a fag. The rickety screen door to the balcony is permanently shoved back since cool December has seen off the mosquitoes. I go outside, light up.
    The way Bel and I relate is so disconnected. Life in Shanghai is altogether, in every way, disconnected. Huh. That’s why Bel’s so at home here.
    The tower-block opposite ours is chequered with murky windows, many now in darkness at this late hour, some still bluish from the depressingly low-wattage utilitarian strip-lights. Millions of people stacked up in functional boxes. At home in England there’ll be fairy-lights everywhere, and Christmas trees and candles.
    I look down onto the college’s ornamental gardens. The staff housing area is well landscaped, albeit in a Disneyland-ish style: ornamental ponds; fake rocks made of something synthetic; a toy-town bamboo bridge. The croak of frogs echoes loudly between the apartment blocks. Bizarre. But nearly lovely, in a way. When all’s said and done, it’s not desert. It’s not Parisian HLMs. It’s not bombed-out Baghdad, or an African refugee camp. Why not think positive?
    Someone on the paving below hawks and spits. Christ. I can’t get used to that. Day and night. The glistening globs make me nauseous. They are everywhere. I tread in them by accident. My skirt trailed into one. They are disgusting.
    And we don’t know anyone, and no-one wants to know us. And here in suburban Shanghai there’s no bar to go out for a drink. And the internet connection is crap, and anyway it’s all censored.
    From somewhere above, a dark soft nest comes floating down – the contents of a cleaned hair-brush: black hairs bonded by crud – and wafts onto our balcony, touching the back of my hand. Yeuch.
    For all that people are strange and inaccessible, they are much too close.

I go put the untouched baozi into the fridge and turn off all the lights.
    Bel is already in bed with the lamp switched off, thank god.
    How old is her daughter? Who, and where, is she?


 

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Mar 102016
 



ALT TEXT

Loiza

Schiele-esque’ by Tamara’s niece Loiza

Despite Aussie Cyril’s enormous enthusiasm for doing more shoots, weeks pass with no further contact.

It is the fourth Sunday in Advent, and we are hanging out in the flat, not doing much.
    Bel is definitely depressed. I don’t know why. I realise she’s been like this since I got here. Or perhaps, since I’ve known her.
    It’s hard not to get depressed when you’re living with a depressed person. Should I stay here, in Shanghai? I wish she could bat it away, like we all have to. She scares me. Look, you have to just battle on.
    We have free time, the opportunity to do some photography… Should I suggest it? Will I only make her feel worse?
    Bel looks up from an email. ‘Your Cyril friend. Apparently he went to Australia.’
    ‘Darn. No more lucrative shoots with him, then. Never mind! Guess what – I’ve just been booked via Wechat by a school-girl for her project!’
    Loiza, half-Spanish, a pupil at one of Shanghai’s elite European high schools, turns out to be the niece of my ex-flingette. She has been given Christmas money by scheming Aunt Tamara with instructions to book a session with me immediately (it’s school hols)…

…to do Schiele-esque photos 4 my A-level project.
Btw Tamara sent me ur novel & poetry bks – love ur writing – reviewd Melanie Alone 4 my Eng lit homewk SO ENGLISH – god, UK gay culture total throw-back –

A new fan! Thanks, Tamara.

Hi Loiza, u r right re throw-back. Novel is set in north, v diff fr London. Ta 4 praise, if u intrestd, 2 more of my bks free online see www.sukithelifemodel.co.uk Lookin frwrd our shoot! c u tomoz 3pm Suki x

And so, the next afternoon…
    ‘I’m interested in sado-masochism.’ Loiza snaps, crouches lower, re-focuses, snaps.
    ‘Ah. Runs in the family, then.’ I hitch the black lace she has provided further up above my bony red-stockinged knees. The airy studio that Tamara has financed is, like everywhere in Pudong, brand new, still smelling of fresh paint, minimally furnished other than scattered spotlights, equipment, light-deflecting white umbrellas. Thankfully, white blinds block the views of the financial district’s space-age towers that would otherwise give me vertigo.
    ‘Groovy, that’s groovy – ‘ snap snap snap. ‘Yeah… When I told Tamara we were doing Schiele at school she posted me the Angela Carter book The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography and that book Venus in Furs by Masoch – have you read them?’
    ‘Can’t say I’ve…’
    ‘She’s always encouraging me to be an artist; an experimental, subversive one, though.’
    Gurgle, hiss – the electric percolator completes its cycle.
    ‘Espresso break!’ Loiza springs over to the kitchen area. ‘Here’ – she is turning through her school-issue folder of the print-outs of Schiele’s sketched figures; the poses I’ve been carrying out for her. ‘Let me read you something… Charged and explicit eroticism… Near-pornographic intensity… A subversive and challenging vision’ – she looks up. ‘That’s William Boyd the art critic. Coz like, Schiele did like loads of drawings of himself masturbating? So cool.’
    ‘Um. Yes. Very before his time.’
    ‘Maybe we can get to some of those poses next’ – sips espresso – ‘You’re Tamara’s girlfriend, right?’
    ‘Er…’
    ‘Everyone at my school is, like, bisexual, even my Chinese friends. Especially my Chinese friends. Straight is just so last century. Do you know the photographer Ren Hang? He’s so cool, you’ve got to check him out. Hey, you sprawled right there holding your cup’s great! Wait – [snap] yeah! [snap] Awesome. Can you like, hitch the skirt up further, just like in this picture? So I get more cunt?’

It is suppertime when I walk into the flat. ‘Baozi!’ I hold up the bag of still-warm dumplings. ‘God, precocious as hell! That scheming Tamara. Got a thousand yuan for it though!’
    Bel is in the bedroom doorway on her mobile. She quickly finishes, flips closed her phone. ‘My brother. Did you say a thousand yuan? So this Tamara… She obviously likes you…
    The comment hangs uncomfortably in the air. Is this some kind of jealousy again? Like her thing against Aussie Cyril?
    A flurry: Lily Hong rushing through from the bedroom, a fairy in pink mini-dress, pretty as candy, clutching Bel’s iPad.
    ‘Miss Suki’ – Lily Hong is actually weeping! – ‘I reading your stories on internet…’ She strokes my upper arm – ‘Your baby die. Sorry for you’ – squeezes it. ‘Too much sad, very sorry’ – then turns, hands the iPad to Bel. For some reason, the back of her dress is fully unzipped. ‘Sorry I still here too much long time.’ She hurries out.
    I am left with Bel, who is looking at me blankly.
    So I have to explain.


 

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