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?
I reach for my iPad, shoot her an email (cheaper than international texting).
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.’
But I seem unheard. She is staring out at nothing. Then – ‘And all from a one-night stand.’ Is her little laugh ironic?
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…’
The rain starts. Little spits. Not enough to wash the filth from the air.
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.’
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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