Unspoken goodbyes. At the street-side, beside the college’s waiting airport car, Lily Hong flings herself against Bel like a puppy. ‘Meet you at airport after fourteen days. Don’t worry, be happy!’
‘Be sure to get a chest x-ray,’ I say, as I too give Bel a hug.
She gives a wooden one back. ‘Fake.’ Her grin is humourless. She gets into the car, and it drives away.
I feel sick. ‘She‘s depressed enough to chuck herself out of the plane.’
‘I don’t understand,’ says Lily Hong miserably. ‘What mean depress, what mean chuck?’
‘S’okay. Nothing.’ I might never see Bel again. Paranoid thought? Anyway I don’t know what to do or who to tell, so I go about my day as planned, heading out into the surreal half-light, what Bel calls the ‘fake mist’ – man-made, from filth – for my appointment.
Nanjing Road West. Starbucks. I come up behind Precocious Loiza, and see over her shoulder a familiar bondage photograph – a Japanese woman semi-clad in traditional robes, trussed up with rope and suspended.
‘Oh!’ She jumps, then – ‘He-eyy!’ – reaches to pull me down by the neck for a kiss on the lips.
‘How’s art college?’ I hear a rasp in my own voice after sixty minutes of inhaling dirt.
Precocious Loiza points back at her iPad. ‘This is the bag I’ve totally gotten into in my second semester at the Slade. I love Araki’s work.’
I set down my rucksack, ‘Can I get you another drink?’
‘Tall skinny decaf latte thanks, and a biscotti. Wow, you’ve gone anorexic! Tamara says you were anorexic before she fed you up. In Year 10 at school we were forced to discuss this article about how very young models are coerced into retaining their pubescent shape instead of letting themselves physically develop. The school was, like, paranoid that we were all about to starve ourselves. Mind you, two girls did die of eating disorders but frankly they were loopy anyway and one of them had been, like, raped. Amazing that you’re starving yourself even at your age – looks like you need Tamara again.’
‘Yes. Gosh. No. I mean, great to see you. Back in a tick.’
Do I “need Tamara again”?
When I return with drinks, Precocious has unzipped a large folio-carrier which she holds open to show me an enlarged photograph. ‘For you. Tamara’s got the same one but three times bigger on the wall above her sofa.’ Next, she rummages in her leather tote bag. ‘And she asked me to give you this.’
It is a fat, weighty padded envelope, the top of which has been firmly stapled closed. Bombarded, I feel limp; and underlying that, a profound desolation. ‘Thanks for all this Loiza…’
‘So what do you think of Araki? Do you know he has sex with all his models? Like Picasso did, only with Araki it’s a high principle. He’s, like, totally against objectification!’ She reads off from her iPad: ‘Of course I had sex with all my models… I needed to break down the me-and-you barrier. I can say that I have collapsed the previous tradition of photography that emphasized objectivity. In the past, photographers felt they had to eliminate their subjectivity as much as possible. I consider myself a “subjective” photographer.’
Into my despondent silence the eighteen year-old suddenly orders – ‘You should leave Shanghai. My parents have gone back to the UK. They said they were being poisoned by the air and the food and that nothing is safe.’
‘People like me can’t afford to live in the UK. I’m a loser in the UK. Fucking neoliberalism.’
‘Embrace it! Marry someone rich – then it’s awesome! I’m going to.’
When I get home I open Tamara’s envelope. It contains a massive wad of 100 Yan notes, and a note.
I know your birthday is May, but this is a gift in advance. I do not imagine for one nano-second that you are going to remain happily ever after in Shanghai, so this is to cover the cost of a flight to Heathrow and a taxi to my apartment. When you’re ready.
To subscribe leave your email address
[email-subscribers namefield=”YES” desc=”” group=”Public”]
Please subscribe to my serial (it’s free)