Beauty creates its own mental environment. You have a choice: adapt or look away. I haven’t looked away for more than an hour. The only person not embarrassed at our end of the restaurant is Tara. Needless to say, out of the face mask and the costume Tara is younger-much, much younger. I can’t believe what’s happening to me, but I’m not looking away.
The waiters have all noticed and made various signals to one another ranging from the how sweet to the downright vulgar, and one young Frenchman sitting at the next table (whose companion is not beautiful) has said something despicably sarcastic, which he doesn’t know I understood. But who gives a damn? I’m not taking my eyes off my oxygen source. She reminds me somewhat of Chanya, with the same high cheekbones and wide generous face, but Chanya is from peasant stock, whereas this woman has something almost haughty about her. She speaks perfect UN English and hardly uses her left hand, which she likes to leave in her lap except when pressing it to her face in an odd, slightly nervous gesture. She does not drink alcohol, and I’m feeling self-conscious about ordering another beer, but I do so anyway. More as a way of soothing my nerves than out of professional interest, I decide to work on the case a bit.
“So, how was it, working with the great Frank Charles?”
“Great? Is he great in your country? We thought so, because he was very kind and thoughtful and always encouraged us. We said he was a natural Buddhist. Obviously, he had been exposed to Buddhism in some earlier incarnation.”
She has a soft voice which includes in its tone forgiveness and compassion for all living things. I’m thinking she reached the Far Shore some time ago and feel intimidated. I say, “He was famous, anyway. And very rich. A successful man and filmmaker.”
“Yes. He was always very professional.”
“Would you mind telling me what his film was about?”
She expresses suspicion with the simplicity of a child: “Why don’t you know?”
“Because it was never released, and I haven’t been able to get hold of a copy. Do you have one?”
She smiles. “No. Nobody has one.”
“Why not? What’s so secret about it?”
“Nothing. There is nothing secret. It wasn’t released because he never finished it. After we were through with filming on location, he told us he would finish the work in a studio in Los Angeles. That was five or six years ago. At first some of us would write to him, asking when the film would be done. He was always very apologetic. He would say that he’d run out of funding, but there were always ways of getting money sooner or later and we should be patient. He’d made sure we were all paid, you see? He was very careful about treating us honorably. He knew how vulnerable we are, how impossible it would be for us to enforce any contracts.” She looks up and smiles. It is not a seductive smile, nor a mischievous one. It’s a smile from the other side, full of lightness and freedom-a smile that really doesn’t give a damn.
“So, what was the plot?”
A frown crumples her brow for a moment, then she laughs. “I’m not telling you. We said we wouldn’t. We said we would wait for the final version before we talked in public about the plot.”
“But he’s dead. Murdered. Doesn’t that change anything?” She smiles again. “I’m a cop.”
“Are you going to arrest me for not answering questions?”
I blush deeply. “I’m sorry. I guess I’m pushing too hard. No, I don’t have any investigative powers over here. It just strikes me as strange that you don’t want to talk about the plot of a film you spent months working on. Were you the female lead?”
She shakes her head. “There were no leads. It wasn’t that kind of film. It was experimental, artistic. We didn’t use the star system.”
“Can you tell me who else worked on it? Maybe I should speak to someone else?”
“Yes. Perhaps someone else would feel able to talk.”
“Can you put me in touch? Do you have e-mail addresses, phone numbers-is there anyone in Kathmandu at the moment you could introduce me to?”
She takes a long moment to think about it. From her body language I believe she is carefully going through everyone who worked on the film with her, before she shakes her head. “You see, almost everyone was Tibetan apart from some of the technical staff. All the players in the Himalayan scenes were Tibetans like me. But most of them were illegals-that was something Frank Charles insisted on. They were illegal immigrants who knew something about film. Or maybe not.” She giggles. “A few didn’t know anything at all, and of course they couldn’t speak English or any of the Nepali dialects, so I had to translate. I don’t think they really knew what the film was about either, they didn’t understand how movies are made. They just did as they were told; mostly it was inspired improvisation.”
“That must have been difficult, even for an experienced director, to work with people who didn’t speak his language and to try to improvise?”
“Yes. I think for someone else it would have been impossible. But Frank Charles was very gifted. Very passionate. His inspiration was easy to go with.”
I shake my head. “It doesn’t sound like a Hollywood director to me.”
“How would I know? He’s the only one I ever worked with.”
“But doesn’t it seem strange to you, that a gifted director who was so passionate about the film should not get around to finishing it?”
My question seems to puzzle her. “But he surely would have finished it sooner or later. It’s only seven years ago we stopped filming.”
I say, “Do you know someone called Tietsin?” I don’t believe I gave the name any undue emphasis, but to me it was like dropping a piece of iron on a tiled floor: it clanged in my head.
She immediately whips a hand up to her mouth-it’s the left hand that she doesn’t like to use very much, but I can see from her eyes she is laughing.
“I know five hundred people called Tietsin, it’s even more common than Rinpoche.”
“Sorry, it’s a Doctor Tietsin.”
Now she doesn’t try to hide her laughter. “Every third Tibetan man is a doctor of something, it’s a title many still acquire in monasteries.”
“He gives seminars on Tibetan history and Buddhism in a second-floor room overlooking Bodnath.”
“I don’t go to Bodnath so much anymore. I’ve decided to try to assimilate more with the Nepalis who have been so hospitable to us.”
I take a deep breath. There is no point in pressing the investigation and alienating her; and there’s not a lot of point in pretending the case is the only thing on my mind.
Well, here goes. I say, “You are very beautiful.”
Corny? I suppose, but I think also honest and to the point. I’ve given her a choice. She can end the interview in a charming way, which a woman like her knows how to do-or she can pick up on my offer of courtship on any terms she likes.
I watch while her face changes somewhat. For a long moment I am convinced that she alone in the restaurant had not realized I have a romantic agenda. Now she stares directly into my eyes, offering a clear view of her limpid soul. Then she makes a little twitch with her mouth which is not without humor, before raising her left hand in front of my face, then bringing the right hand up to use its fingers to remove the top joints of the three middle digits of the other. She drops the tiny metal prostheses on the table with a clatter, leaving me staring at the black stubs of her left hand, which she then drums loudly on the tabletop. When the Frenchman with the farang wife turns to stare, she waves them at him, and he looks furious because she has spoiled his meal.
“Do you still want to sleep with me?” she asks in a tone entirely free of guile, then adds with a laugh, “I promise I don’t have anything else missing.”