Nov 032016



My favourite by Bel. I look like Alice in Wonderland. She took it while making the movie ‘Under the gaze’.

I’m going to marry you. This will stop you from taking off again and make you write. In two days you will be at a desk in my apartment with your exciting new manuscript. Can’t tell you how much am looking forward. Tamara

    ‘I’m getting married!’
    The apartment block’s landing is sunny on this April morning. I am perched on a stool outside my flat in order to use an electrical socket to power my netbook, and to receive internet access from a teacher across the hall who has kindly given me her password.
    The waiban has not repaired the flat’s electricity since the fuse-box exploded. They are keen to see the back of me. I am not, after all, an employee. Without you here, Bel, I am nobody. No electricity means I have no hot water for a shower, no landline, no cooker or microwave or means of making a cup of tea. The fridge-freezer is dead and defrosting onto the floor-tiles. But I don’t care; I’ve given up on food, anyway, and tomorrow is my flight. At Tamara’s I will write, write, write. The novel, then Part III of my trilogy, then the next thing, and the next…

    Lily Hong shows up to help me carry seven cardboard boxes from the flat into a waiting taxi. She looks me up and down appraisingly. ‘Legs like bird legs. Break if you not careful. You need eat lot of rice.’ She leans across the small lake in which the fridge-freezer is now swimming, plucks from its door a tattered paper taped onto it, and stumblingly reads aloud my poem. It’s the one that Bel blogged about.

“The survivors”.

Stick-thin hipless bare-balconied oblong,
up top a penthouse’s smoked-glass pyramid,
at the foot topiary peacocks, a marble portico.
Its many square eyes stare down,
dark spectacles framed in chrome,
to where frogs chirrup and giggle
in a landscaped swamp among peonies,
willow, a large palm, privet cut in shapes.

On the day these blank-looking smoothed-off faces
rupture with black yowls, the day this concrete
topples into the car-parks, when girders snap
like breadsticks and cars get hammered flat,
when doors unhinge while lethal dust plumes up,

on that day these frogs will belly-flop happily
into the water pooling afresh among severed cables,
utility pipes up-ended, broken glass, detritus.
Across the trashed city these wide-lipped fat frogs
will plop goggle-eyed into water-holes, barking happily,
not squashed dead under rubble but smiling
slit-mouthed, fleshy-bottomed, belching happily
then belly-laughing in this freshly re-created world
amid the lushly-rotting corpses, succulents,
humidity, the vivid greenery.’

She finally looks across at me. ‘Not understand all words. Some words.’
    ‘You did great! Thank you. You did great. Really. Your English has really improved.’
    For once she doesn’t beam; remains pensive. A care-worn look. How old is she, in fact? Perhaps, setting aside the frills and bows, mid-thirties?
    ‘Please could you come to the post office with me, Lily Hong? I must be sure that these two boxes go to England – Yinguo – and the other five go to Antwerp, and I need a receipt.’
    ‘Of course I come with you!’ – at last she grins. ‘You help me a lot: promise find me husband!’

Ah, yes. A final issue to deal with.

Dear Cyril,
pls – a favour. Cd you meet up with Bel’s former colleague Lily Hong – that pretty girl you noticed at Trish Little’s preview? See her contact details below. She’s on Wechat. She wants to marry a foreigner and start a new life outside China. I think she likes photography. Well, selfies. Hope you hit it off. I wish you a happy return to Australia.
Suki x
PS I can’t marry you myself. Sorry. Am marrying someone else.



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Oct 132016


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.’
    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?

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



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Sep 292016



Greg-I’m-a-Kiwi says this photo is après Duane Michals. Most of Michals’ work isn’t Art Nude; he worked as a fashion photographer on Vogue etc. Also, a lot of Michals’ photographs have a hinted-at, if not strong, narrative, which is what Greg has aimed for in this photo. Greg experiments with interesting settings or situations for nudes; stuff that suggests a back-story. And perhaps due to being in the Orient, he has got into – of all things – paper-cuts.

Dear Artists and friends of Bel! Party at Qi Qi’s Café Bar, tomoz 8pm, to launch Bel’s fantastic ‘Qi Qi’s Life-room’ movie – some of you are its stars! Be there or be square! All welcome, pls spread word. Suki x

It’s a full turn-out.
    Mike Little has chipped in with champagne and canapés, and has got some press representatives to come along. Trish has over-excitedly parcelled her bulky form into a black satin evening gown topped off with a net-festooned purple hat. Besides Greg-I’m-a-Kiwi and his artist friends there are half a dozen Art Nude group members, including Cyril, who inevitably heard on the grapevine, plus a bunch of Fei Mo Di’s designer friends and Alvira, Wei Wei, Qi Qi, Lily Hong…
    Where’s Bel? Everyone asks. It feels strangely like a Bel memorial event.
    Lily Hong pats my arm, as though comforting me: ‘She come back soon. Three days.’
    As if I’m not counting.
    How ironic, that a circle of international arty friends seems to have crystallized since Bel left.
    Could I stay on here, after all?

Midnight. A drunken conversation between die-hards Cyril and Greg-I’m-a-Kiwi who are propping up the bar. The talk meanders around photographers, sex, relationships, sex.
    ‘…Whereas Lee Miller, being both model and photographer, is totally outside the box.’ Greg drains another pint of Vedett Extra Blond. ‘She’s hard to categorize. Like, I totally agree with the photographer Duane Michals, that the nude figure implies both vulnerability and sex; but Miller, as a woman – whether as nude model, or as photographer of women – well…’ he sets down his glass – ‘she may not have seen either vulnerability or sex as part of the equation.’
    ‘Vulnerability and sex?’ I knock back the rest of my glass. ‘She’d certainly have disagreed with you about sex being automatically implied by nudity. Nakedness can be so unsexy. As for vulnerability – in my experience there’s a paradoxical combination in nudity of both vulnerability and strength.’
    Cyril is hunched over a Jack Daniels. ‘I share Michal’s view that the photographer of the nude is intensely aware of the presence of the body and is taking pleasure in looking at the body.’
    ‘Ha – honesty at last!’ I stab a finger at Cyril. ‘You’re motivated by sex, not Art.’
    ‘I’m simply quoting Michal’s words.’ Drunk, Aussie Cyril reveals a totally different side of himself. Assertive. ‘The viewer of the nude inevitably “responds out of a sexual curiosity”.’
    ‘Rubbish. That would mean, no gay guy would be motivated to photograph a female nude. So Robert Mapplethorpe disproves that, for a start.’
     ‘That pervert,’ Cyril snorts.
    ‘I think Michals was gay,’ Greg chips in. ‘He produced at least one gay-themed picture-series.’
    I gulp my wine (fourth glass). ‘To get back to Lee Miller – did you know she was into polyamory before the term had even been coined? As in, she actively encouraged her lovers to have other lovers.’
    ‘Loada crap,’ Cyril growls from his corner.
    ‘And obviously she didn’t expect her lovers to have a problem with her sleeping with others.’
    ‘My second wife was full of that shit.’
    ‘Well, I personally would like the kind of marriage Lee had with Roland Penrose. They let each other sleep with whoever they wanted.’
    Cyril knocks back his whisky. ‘As a matter of fact, the agreement between Lee and Penrose was that their love for each other would remain “sacred” – as in, they would be absolutely faithful in that respect. They just permitted each other to sleep around. Which is still a loada crap.’ Cyril looks directly at me. ‘I mean, what does wife mean, if not “belongs to husband”?’
    I look directly back at him: elderly, fat, slumped; his chin almost resting on the bar.

Dring dring!
    Eight a.m., the sun too bright. Jeezus. I crawl from bed to answer the landline. It’s Lily Hong.
    ‘Oh. Lily. Think my head’s going to explode. How’s yours?’
    ‘Miss Suki, please come now. We wait you in Foreign Affairs Office.’
    Lily Hong stands up when I walk in, her lip trembling at me like a little girl’s. The Director of Foreign Affairs gently tells me they have received news that my colleague Bel is ‘deceased’.

I am then left for some time.

By myself.

Peace and quiet.

The office is very simple.

After a while, green tea is served.

It is late evening when I finally get a message to your brother. I have to go on your laptop – sorry – and look in your contacts for his email address.

It takes him more than 24 hours to reply.



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