Oct 132016
 



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Aussie Cyril

Aussie Cyril took this on his phone and gave it a ‘magic lantern’ effect.

I’ve lost you. I’ve lost Ilka for good, too. And I’ve lost sight of my manuscript.
    What has Shanghai done for me?
    What did it do for you?

Dear Suki,
Thank you for all your assistance in my communications with Bella’s Shanghai employers in the last week. Thank you also for boxing up and posting Bella’s possessions, I am most grateful. I will of course refund all postage via your UK account if you could please provide your bank details – thanks. Pls let me know how many boxes will eventually be in the post and the approximate date of arrival. Below is a link to Bella’s obituary from the Guardian in case you have not seen it. The Guardian is one of the newspapers which used to publish Bella’s photographs.
Thanks again for your assistance at this sad time.
Best wishes, John

Did you find out you were terminally ill, Bel, and so decided to kill yourself? Was it not really about your daughter, or anything else? Did you not, after all, have it all planned before you left me?

Well. Your obituary is an eye-opener. Born in Surrey. Dutch father, Polish mother. Guildford Grammar School. Kibbutz before Cambridge. Dropped out of English Literature to go travelling with artist husband Eli Esteban in the Middle East – ‘an odyssey that stimulated Bella’s award-winning career in war journalism which brought an early end to the marriage. Their only child, Elise, was brought up by paternal family members. Bella’s recent loss of her daughter, who took her own life, may have been a factor in Bella’s suicide…’
    Things I knew: unsettled, questing, idealistic, brave. A love-child made with a stranger. Private – no: secretive.
    Things I didn’t know: divorced, award-winning, Jewish, your daughter died at her own hand. A medal for bravery.
    Things your in-laws probably didn’t know: their grand-child’s true parentage. Unless they did know but were compassionate?
    Was your accidental child the reason why your marriage failed?

Another Guardian Online obit, referenced in the sidebar, catches my attention: Astronaut Ludowic Kendal dies aged 87, Cornwall…

I’m just waking up your PC from sleep mode. There: your qq account’s now on-screen. Dozens of new emails are waiting to be opened. What am I supposed to do about them? I don’t know how to close down a life. I have no experience.
    Desk clearance is more straightforward. I’m binning all your printed-out articles – sorry. I can pack this last handful of books into one of those half-filled boxes. Hey – my poetry collection has a page-corner turned down. Christ, Bel. The poem on that page is Running joke – about suicide. Were you thinking of it?

The college’s waiban has issued me a deadline of fourteen days to leave the flat. I hate being here anyway. Empty of you. Empty of your stuff. Empty of food. That retch-inducing stench in the kitchen.
    I want to hear you ranting about another imminent catastrophe. I’ll pay better attention. Promise. Please come back.

Afternoon. Your students enjoying the cancellation of their class.
    Poor, miserable Lily Hong has just helped me book my flight. We’re on our way now to visit an exhibition – Cyril’s recommendation – by the photographer Adou. But on the Metro she’s inconsolable. What can I do?
    ‘Bel my best friend [sob]. I speak Bel all my sorrow [sob]. I lonely now.’
    I can’t help her, Bel.
    In the gallery she breaks down again. ‘My father at prison.’
    ‘Oh god – I didn’t know. That’s awful.’
    ‘Not bad man! Government say he corruption. Every businessman corruption. He only same. Government make example.’
    ‘Is there anything I can do?’ Stupidest question in the world.
    She trails after me into the gallery café, slumps mournfully at a table. What to do, Bel? I get her a latte.
    She looks up at me. ‘I want to go outside China, start new life.’
    ‘Where do you want to go? How?’
    ‘I tell Bel I want marry a foreigner, but she say “all men are bastards”. Not help me.’
    ‘Hmm…’
    Look, Bel. Sometimes pragmatism can work for people. This is what I can offer her.
    ‘…would an Australian be okay?’

On the Metro home I notice a new text. It’s always – ridiculously – disappointing when I see it’s not from you.

Dear Suki – saw Guardian obit for your Bel – my god, what’s going on? You must be in shock! Can I do anything?
Tamara

God. I haven’t even acknowledged her own bereavement.


 

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Oct 062016
 



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Bel

When I went onto your laptop last night I discovered you’d installed this pic as the screensaver. One from your movie about me, STILL LIFE, made soon after we first met. I look then how I now feel. Was I having a premonition about you? Is there such a thing as a ‘suicidal nature’, and might I have sensed it?

Just checking your emails. S’okay, none are personal. Just spam and stuff.
    ‘Scuse me while I check my own emails. Oh! – your brother again:

…basic details are, one week after her daughter’s funeral Bella took Élise’s ashes onto the Ostend-to-Dover ferry to scatter them at sea. Remarkably Élise had managed to write a note asking for this, indicating a rare moment of rationality. The note compounded the tragedy for Bella by proving Élise’s suicide was pre-meditated.
… passengers saw Bella jump, but the rescue was not quick enough to save her life…
…have no idea about a chest x-ray. Are you sure? She never mentioned…

I think John thinks I’m just the person you were sharing a flat with.
    I suppose he’s not wrong.
    And here’s a long email from my ex, Ilka!… Well well… She’s going to marry a 72 year-old widower who likes art, because she’s lonely. I’ll just quickly acknowledge it:

Dear Ilka – CONGRATS! Wishing you peace & contentment & hope ul be happy. He sounds good person. No need get defensive about going straight. Have had marriage offer myself. New life in Australia. But need my independence. To be honest sth horrible hs happened here will write more v soon not now. Sx

We’re wondering, Bel… did you leave us a note? I’ve been searching this desk, but there’s nothing much… My last poetry collection; a couple more books: ‘Chinese Whispers’ by Ben Chu, ‘The Good Earth’ by Pearl Buck; all these print-outs of articles that I’ve kept for you in a neat stack… You’ve put a big red circle round a paragraph on this first one, the Paul Verhaeghen:

‘…the freedom we perceive ourselves as having in the west is the greatest untruth of this day and age… We are forever told that we are freer to choose the course of our lives than ever before, but the freedom to choose outside the success narrative is limited. Furthermore, those who fail are deemed to be losers or scroungers, taking advantage of our social security system.’

Exactly what Tim Lott said. The culture of our homeland sets us up for terminal frustration, disappointment and a sense of failure.

I, too, hate this world. But as you say – which corner of the planet to run to?


 

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Jan 072016
 

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Bel

Bel took this photo for the cover of my poetry collection Thin Bones Like Wish-Bones. When I think about it, we’ve done a lot together. Maybe we are pretty good friends

Berlin to Shanghai – out of the frying pan into the fire?
    The night before I fly I am in my sleeping bag, nose-to-nose one last time with Ilka’s bookcase.
    I can’t sleep.
    I scan her books for something – anything – post-feminist; none of this po-faced anti-sex nonsense. Karen Kleinfelder’s tome has been replaced in its alphabetically rightful slot. I leaf through it again: maybe her erudition will helpfully put me to sleep.

‘…any representation that explicitly thematizes the act of representation is self-referential twice over, the act of representation playing a dual role as both signified and signifier.’

I used to have patience with this kind of academic writing, but it requires a kind of optimistic belief in our layers and layers of sophistication as humans. Doesn’t age and maturity bring the realisation we’re simply animals?

Or is it only me? Getting lazy in my old age?

‘…Situated at the point of intersection between these two co-ordinates is the image, precariously balanced between the formal configuration and the enframing metafiguration…’

Zzz…zzz…
    But then a footnote wakes up my brain: Kleinfelder reacting to another academic’s opinion that flies in the face of her own thesis that Picasso‘s act of painting equates with the sex act. Lise Vogel benignly suggests that Picasso ‘has a certain sensitivity to the nature of contemporary social and sexual relations’.
    ‘Traitor!’ cries Kleinfelder (my précis). Then Vogel offends Karen even more, directly ridiculing feminists who say men’s creative work ‘is essentially equivalent to sex from the standpoint of a man, with the ever-present implication that such endeavours are perhaps not quite so valuable, so virile, as a good fuck.’
    ‘How dare you let Picasso and all these other bastards off the hook!’ yells Kleinfelder (My paraphrase again).
    For god’s sake, Karen, men are men. Let them be.
    Have I become an anti-feminist?
    Whatever. I use a pen lying on the bookshelf to mark the text so that Ilka might one day be entertained by it.

    ‘Are you defacing my book?’
    ‘Ilka! God – you made me jump! No, not defacing. Just asterisking some bollocks.’
    Ilka grins, ‘Still wanting to educate me,’ yet looks deeply sad. She flops onto my sleeping-bagged feet. Her raincoat is wet. Her hand lands on the hump of my knee.
    ‘Thought you were staying over in Leipzig! Why have you come home?’
    ‘Because it’s the end of our story. Because we have to say goodbye. Because I’m worried about you. Because we’re both going to be lonely again.’
    ‘Get this’ – I tap the page I’m on: ‘even though Kleinfelder concedes Picasso’s images present a little bit more ambivalence than simply the – quote – “familiar theme of art-as-creative-rape-of-the-model,” she’s got this fixation that his entire approach is about likening creativity to sex, from a man’s standpoint.’ I look up. ‘My question is, why is that actually a problem?’
    Ilka takes me by the shoulders. ‘You’re such a crap listener.’
    Will she – for once – give me a good shaking? Lay down the law? Isn’t that what I need?
    But then she lets go again. Looks at her hands. ‘Are you going to have one of your so-called “fling-ettes” with Bel?’
    ‘I’m going to Shanghai to write my novel.’
    ‘Why can’t you just stay still and love somebody? Relationships are hard work. You have to stick at them. Please, Suki. Change your mind. Please.’


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