‘My German boyfriend has just walked out on me after seven years.’
Seems Fei Mo Di has other motives for our ‘skills exchange’ arrangement. He’s needed a shoulder to cry on.
‘Seven years! I split with my German girlfriend after seventeen years.’
Being the self-obsessed type he doesn’t pick up on this. ‘He said I was too British. Emotionally stilted.’
‘That’s rich, coming from a German.’
‘At Eton I was too Chinese.’
‘Is there a place to live on this planet where you don’t get stereotyped?’
We both have a think. I come up with – ‘Alone in a lighthouse on a rock off the coast of Scotland.’
Fei Mo Di looks morose. ‘I wouldn’t get a visa.’
We are drinking pastis in the after-lunch peacefulness of the Café des Stagieres on Yong Kang Lu. Our conversation meanders while we slave over the subtitles for Bel’s movie.
An afternoon of happiness.
And then I am back in the flat. Bel working on the movie; me staring at my emails. At some point I make Bel a mug of tea, place it by her elbow, squeeze her shoulder. Wish you could be happy.
It’s as though she hears that thought. ‘I just don’t think I could settle back in the UK, Suki.’
I sit down beside her. ‘Why not?’
‘I feel alien there. Did I ever show you what J.G. Ballard wrote about the English when he first arrived in England after the war? After he’d grown up in Shanghai?’
‘No. But I guess it’s not an uplifting read.’
‘He influenced me to come here. In fact I’ve just blogged about it’ – she quickly taps on her iPad. ‘I’m sending you the link to a bit that I copied out. Although his descriptions date from 1946, so much of what he wrote is still true.’
‘Oh… narrow English attitudes; English greyness; English misery. Since all my international travelling – my photo-journalism work – I’ve felt utterly alienated from England. The culture, the politics…’
‘It wasn’t only to escape from your daughter then. Coming here.’
‘Not really. It was mainly coz I got this job offer and thought – why not? Good as anywhere. And J.G. Ballard had made me curious.’
‘But we’re alien here, too.’
Bel turns even more glum. ‘True. When all’s said and done, J.G. Ballard lived in a privileged and comfortable ex-pat bubble. Today’s equivalent of that here in Shanghai is repulsive and I avoid it.’
I push Bel’s shoulder gently. ‘Tell you what. Let’s go live in a lighthouse on a rock off the coast of Scotland.’
‘Drink your tea.’
And since then until now, late in the night, we’ve been immersed in our respective silences, our separate virtual worlds.
Cyril – your original version of the attached portrait embarrassed me: I had an expression like a parrot. I wish you’d acknowledge that apart from when I do a big smile, I am not photogenic. Don’t patronise me with the pretence that I am anything other than interestingly ugly. A “straight” portrait photo of me is a non-starter. There are millions of photos of amazingly gorgeous women’s faces out there in the world. I refuse to be entered into that competition as the booby prize candidate. Anyway – the way I’ve now cropped it, it’s primarily about the hand, though the face is still discernible even though I’ve cut off half of it.
I do sometimes wonder whether my extensive adulteration – “ abuse” – of your oeuvre is eating at you and will, eventually, suddenly come out of you in a big rage… S
But Cyril’s response is, as ever, dotingly acquiescent. Tsk.
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