‘A baby froze to death on the Gaza Strip because it was living under a tarpaulin.’
‘Oh dear.’ I set down at Bel’s bedside her morning cup of green tea.
Her not-long-awake face is already set in a frown. ‘This is why Muslim gunmen shoot randomly into coffee bars. It’s simple cause and effect. It’s people with no legitimate forum to protest all the historic injustices committed against them.’
‘Well, Merry Christmas, anyway’.
She snaps shut her iPad. ‘I hate the world, Suki. Where is safe?’ –
‘Well, let’s see…’ Oh no – Bel is clearly about to cry!
‘We’re all just animals.’
‘Look Bel, I think that too. But come on…’ I pass her a Chinese rice-bowl overflowing with peanut M&Ms – ‘it’s Christmas Day.’ No response. ‘Sorry they’re not Quality Streets.’
Bel throws off her quilt and heads for the bathroom. ‘“Empathy” isn’t innate in human nature; that’s just a self-righteous myth of Western culture because actually anyone who’s non-white and/or non-Christian-heritage is viewed as alien.’ I hear her landing on the loo. ‘Altruism’s a myth too. We only do stuff for others in order to get something.’
‘That’s fair enough, isn’t it, though?’ I hover outside the bathroom. ‘Like for example, if it’s to get love? Hey – are you off out or something?’
‘Told you: I’m teaching. It’s a normal day. Communist State, remember?’ The shower starts but she rants on. ‘So-called “values” are purely social constructs created for pragmatic reasons. For particular purposes. Everything’s fake. Love is fake. Huh. Lerv. I lerv ya, babe.’
She is being scarily weird. ‘Okay – we’ll do gifts later, yeah? And I’ll cook!’
Will my cooking lift Bel’s mood – or at least distract her? Or be the final straw? I don’t know how to help her. After she’s gone to work I prepare her an extra gift. A poem I wrote years ago called Bethlehem, after the 2002 Siege of Bethlehem that reduced to ruins the nativity scenes I had learned in childhood. I print it out and decorate its edges.
How to spend the rest of Christmas Day?
I go to the Delightful Peony with my iPad, and email Aussie Cyril.
Happy Christmas Day, Cyril! Am half-way through the book about muses. Edward Weston’s photos of Charis are totally about sex. Never mind what the book says. With muses there’s always something sexual going on. In Weston’s case he has sex with his model at the same time as objectifying the female body to the extreme. The model is no more than a tool. A lifeless plastic sex toy.
As ever, his answer is instantaneous.
Jingle Bells! Hope you’re enjoying today as much as our afternoon together yesterday, which has been the highlight of my Christmas. Aha – you think Weston’s work is about sex? He always insisted his intentions were purely formal and not in the least erotic. You must have read in the ‘muses’ book by now that his nude portraits of the back of Anita Brenner suggest faintly distasteful similarities with his toilet bowl! Yet these are in his own view his ‘finest set of nudes… in their approach to aesthetically stimulating form’. For him they are an ‘absolute aesthetic response… Every sensuous curve of the “human form divine” but minus imperfections’. Stieglitz himself did actually express dislike of Weston’s art nude images, calling them ‘sterilised’; that they lacked fire and life and were ‘more or less dead things not part of today’. No sex!
At teatime Bel returns from class with a polite greetings card from the university’s hierarchy and a very pretty box of dried fruits from Lily Hong. Nothing from any students.
‘Here’ – I hand her a Tsingtao beer and clink it with mine. ‘Cheers! Let’s do gifts!’
Bel opens a small package from Belgium: a book on China sent by her brother. Then my poem, and a grey sweater. ‘It says cashmere but it might be fake.’
‘It’s great. Fake’s great – it means “authentically Chinese”.’ She hands me two packages wrapped in red paper. ‘For you.’
In a pretence of gayness I rip at them. ‘Omigod, where the heck did you find a percolator? You’ve been trawling those fancy malls!’ My second parcel is – ‘Oh joy! Thank you so much!’ – ground Columbian coffee.
Then she is sidling off onto the balcony. ‘Just making a call.’
‘Bel – why do you never say “I’m just calling my Mum”, or whatever?’
‘My brother. I normally call my brother on Christmas Day. Sorry. Excuse me.’
‘Got any sisters? Are your parents alive?’
‘My brother’s it. Childless bachelor, lives in Antwerp because of his solar panels business, very kindly acts as the contact person for Élise. With the unit. He lets me know if he’s been informed of anything by the staff. If there’s anything to tell.’
‘Sorry. Élise lives in a psychiatric hospital.’ Bel steps outside, tapping at her mobile.
‘Oh. Thank you. Sorry.’
Élise. Like Für Élise. I guess she might be – what – thirty-ish?
Bel is a silent lump in her bed, her lamp already out.
I’ll just do a last check for any emailed greetings.
One more gift: click on this link.
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