The fourth week of our first themed edition,Your Tech Life, continues today with a short story.
by Liam Hogan
On the fifth anniversary of the closure, we set up our feast in Room 11.
It’s not just the subject matter on the walls that brings Emily and me back to this spot. One of the smaller rooms in the cavernous building, Room 11’s high glass ceiling lets down the light, making this octagonal space brighter than the more traditionally shaped rooms that stretch from it in four, gloomy directions.
Nothing is lit, because we’re not supposed to be here.
They closed down the National Gallery after they’d scanned every picture with RealView technology. RealView, as the manufacturers proudly boast, makes museums and art galleries obsolete, because anything on a RealView Ultra-High Def 3D screen is indistinguishable from the real thing.
The real thing doesn’t let you swipe left.
According to the official data, the speed record for viewing the entire collection (and not just those that were hanging on the walls when they locked the doors for the last time) is three minutes forty two seconds. That’s under four minutes to view over two thousand paintings. “Viewing” might be stretching the term somewhat.
When you walk through, things take a little longer. And that’s the way we like it. It’s why we used to work here, back in the days when they needed guards to prevent occasional idiots doing daft things.
Though Emily, who claims she’s named after Emmeline Pankhurst, has a soft spot for suffragette Mary Richardson’s knife attack on a Velázquez.
The Rokeby Venus is “safe,” now. It doesn’t need its bullet-proof glass, doesn’t need someone to stand guard. We do other jobs. Better paid, but soulless. Which is why, on this day every year, we sneak back into the mothballed building, carrying a folding card table and as much food as we can.
The guards’ chairs are still here, so at least we don’t have to bring those.
Our clandestine feast takes inspiration from the paintings around us: The Four Elements, by Joachim Beuckelaer, each showing the bounty of the land, or sea, or air, or, and this always seems a tiny bit of a stretch, the kitchens: meat being prepared for the ovens. The large paintings, though by no means the largest in the gallery, are packed with sumptuous detail. His feasts are more opulent than ours.
We start with Water: our fish course. Smoked salmon on rye; a wedge of lemon and a small peppermill helps bring it alive. A tiny pot of horseradish as well, though Emily declines. There are salmon steaks in Beuckelaer’s fish market, fat and pink. Perhaps the whole fish was too large to portray, though there are a dozen smaller kinds on offer. Not all of them are particularly attractive looking; there was no ice to display your market wares on back in the sixteen century. Or perhaps Joachim took too long in their painting and was too faithful in his detail.
Though, not entirely faithful.
When you look closely at the paintings, something I doubt anyone online bothers to do, even though RealView lets you get as close as you like, close enough to see individual brush strokes or the weave of the canvas, you spot the little extras, the biblical backgrounds. I wonder if they were a condition of a commission, or something to widen their appeal beyond the secular market? I can imagine these paintings hanging in the private chambers of a rich monastery, the abbot feasting and drinking while silent novices in the refectory consume their gruel.
No gruel for us, thankfully. I’ve even brought a bottle of chilled Prosecco and the proper glasses into which to pour it.
Emily asks if I’m trying to seduce her and I have to think for a moment what the right answer should be. I used to have a thing for her, sure. But that was five years ago and we’ve both moved on, settled down with our significant others. I briefly consider using the line from The Graduate, but we both know that would mean “yes,” so I just grin and top up her barely touched flute. She shakes her head at me, but grins back.
We move on to the vegetarian course: Earth. Of the four, this painting is probably the most impressive and Emily’s favorite; a cornucopia of produce, baskets overflowing with fruit and vegetables, squashes and carrots and prize-winning cabbages. There’s barely room for the tiny religious scene, hidden in the background, of the Holy Family crossing a bridge, Mary on a donkey, Joseph leading the way.
Emily was a vegetarian when we first started work, though that stance has been softened by motherhood and time. She’s provided a smorgasbord of antipasto: grilled artichokes, an array of olives, and those little red peppers stuffed with soft cheese. A French stick – broken in half for ease of carry – greedily soaks up the oil and vinegar.
We begin our favorite game, The Judgment of The Judgement of Paris. There are a half-dozen portrayals of this Greek legend on the gallery walls, so which one is our favorite and which Venus actually deserves to win?
When we started as guards – started the same day, went through the same induction – Emily was a spiky-haired wisp of a girl. Once again, time and motherhood have softened her, but she’s still far better looking than all the Venuses and Junos and Minervas in all the Judgements. Fashions change; Reuben’s fleshy goddesses are not what we expect when we talk about beauty.
I’ve changed as well, though the bathroom mirror is kind enough to show this as a gradual process. I’ve lost my youthful trim, gained some weight. There are gray hairs appearing at my temples and the beginning of lines on my forehead. I wonder if the tensions of work and home show in my face and I have to assume that they do.
Back to the game, I plump for an outsider, a Judgment hidden away in a room even smaller than our dining room, by another Joachim. Joachim Wtewael.
“The one with the wedding in the background?” she asks. “Room 17, 17a?” and I realize there aren’t any pictures on display that we haven’t both seen, haven’t both guarded.
“You old romantic, you,” she says, as I nod and probably blush. “A wedding on the eve of War.”
We move on. Air, according to Beuckelaer’s painting, is poultry. Poultry, and rabbits. And cheeses, and eggs.
It’s the second of Emily’s courses: coronation chicken and a pasta salad. As we eat we play another game: pick the most ugly child. They’re mainly the baby Jesus and the ugliest of them appears to have been painted by artists who must never have actually seen a baby. Not a live one, anyway; there’s a distinct blue tinge to the winner. There’s certainly little to be adored, King or otherwise.
It’s a cue for Emily to pull out her phone and show me the latest pictures of her daughter, not so young anymore. There’s an awkward moment when she asks if Catherine and I…? I shake my head. “Time’s not right,” I say; three words where a thousand wouldn’t be enough.
It’s on to the fourth and final course: Fire. Sometimes I wonder if we should save Earth until last, bring in a strawberry cheesecake or maybe just a selection of fresh fruit. But after we pack up and leave, our load lightened, we usually stop for a final drink and a shared slice of cake at the Cafe attached to the Gallery, the only part still open to the public. It’s a little bit of camouflage, a defense when we’re asked where we were today, what we did.
I unpack my secret weapon: a bulky thermos flask. And then a second, slimmer, one: hot water for a couple of packets of dried and spiced couscous.
Emily doesn’t do red meat, she even prefers to sit with her back to the haunches being butchered in Beuckelaer’s painting. So the Thermos contains another poultry dish: a rich tagine of chicken and chickpeas and vegetables. After all we’ve already consumed, it sits heavy and isn’t quite as amazing as I thought it was last night when I prepared it, but Emily praises it anyway, as I pour the last of the fizzy wine into my empty glass.
We have a choice, on our way out, depending on which of the four archways we choose to exit via. But as Emily tugs at my arm, I know that this game has already been decided, already has its winner.
“Sunflowers?” I ask, without having to.
“Sunflowers,” she echoes.
Even in the gloom the bright yellow stands out. We hold our phones aloft in torch mode and stand a long while soaking it in.
When we emerge via the discrete little side exit and step into Trafalgar Square, the day’s brightness is dazzling. A crocodile of tourists winds its way past, eyes fixed on their screens, ear pieces relaying their guide’s monotone narration. Perhaps they’re RealView-ing the Gallery’s most iconic pictures, Van Gogh’s included, as they walk.
I nod in the direction of the Cafe, but Emily shakes her head. “Better not. Best get back.”
“Never mind,” I say, hiding my disappointment. “Next year, perhaps.”
She frowns. “You weren’t really listening, were you? My fifteen-minute rant on the state of inner London schools? How we thought about moving to the ‘burbs, but after Mike’s father passed away… well. Like I said, we’ll probably be moving to-”
“-Exeter. To live with his mum,” I complete for her, just to prove I was listening. And I was; I just hadn’t worked through the ramifications. “Doesn’t mean you won’t be back?”
“Actually, it probably does. Sorry. And… and there’s another reason. Another child on the way.”
“Ah. That explains why I ended up drinking all of the fizz. Did I miss that announcement as well?”
“No,” she laughs, “No announcement. Not yet. In fact, you’re the first to know.”
“After Mike,” I correct.
“Including Mike.” She shrugs. “We’ve had a few… mishaps along the way. So, no telling, not yet, okay?”
“Mum’s the word,” I quip. “And… congratulations.”
After she’s gone, after we’ve hugged and she’s kissed me on the cheek, I sit on the edge of one of the two fountains. Over on the steps, there’s a noisy protest, a passionate campaign to bring back some online recipe archive or another. Taking out my phone, I clip the 3D viewer over the lenses of my glasses and thumb through the pictures until I find the one I’m looking for.
It’s not Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, or any of the other artworks sitting forgotten and forlorn on the Gallery walls. It’s a RealView of Emily.
One of the final jobs we were given was to assist with the scanning process that made us redundant. She looks embarrassed to be pushed in front of the three-eyed, monstrous device, arms crossed in defiance. And there’s a tilt of her head, a wry smile as if – I sometimes imagine – she’s wondering if I had another question in mind when, on our last day of working together, I asked if I could… take her picture?
A moment, frozen in time. Something lost, even as it was being preserved. I close my eyes, still seeing her; seeing her older as well, her hair grown out, the colour softer, sitting across the little card table I wonder if I’ll ever use again.
My thumb hovers over the delete button.
Indistinguishable from the real thing?
Not even close.