The late morning sun was struggling to break the clouds over Trafalgar Square as Sarah and Maria emerged from the National Gallery. As they made their way down the steps they linked arms, like old school friends, and Sarah felt her companion lean into her slightly as she took the stairs. It was almost imperceptible but there was just a sense that Maria wanted, or needed, some support. Well she’s not a young woman. Probably mid 60s ? Sarah hoped Alex hadn’t made any observations about their guest’s age at breakfast. He was hopeless at things like that. Could tell you how old Saturn’s moons were but ask him to judge something, someone, staring him in the face and he’d be off by eons. She patted Maria’s arm at the bottom of the steps and suggested that they stop for a bit, that she really needed to make some sketches of the square.
They perched on the bottom step in silence for a few minutes as Sarah expertly pencilled the grey, granite lines of Nelson’s Column into her notebook. Feeling vaguely guilty at her absence from work she started to embellish the drawing a little, adding details that might be useful as hand holds or points that someone could hook a rope around. She started to pencil in Nelson’s details but couldn’t get the angles of his bicorn right and so gave him a makeshift fez instead. Nelson continued to stare stoically in the opposite direction, seemingly untroubled by her alterations. Maria had spent the minutes gazing at the square, watching fellow tourists idle past, but now she looked over at Sarah’s sketch, curious.
“That’s great but what are those extra bits sticking out ? And what’s with the hat ?”
Sarah sighed and flipped her notebook closed. “I thought he might fancy a change. The extra bits are for work. When they take my drawings and use them in the games they often need to change them so they’ll work for the player.” She sensed Maria wasn’t entirely following. “So in this game there’ll probably be lots of things to do in London, lots of things they want the player to explore and find. I was just making the column easier to climb up. They always like things you can climb.”
“Why’d they make them like that ?”
“Oh I don’t know. It gives the player something to do. They call it goal oriented game design or something. Lots of little, achievable tasks. Apparently you get a hit of… what’s that brain chemical that makes you happy ?”
“Dopamine ?” suggested Maria.
“Yeah, you get a hit of dopamine every time you complete one of these little tasks and that keeps you playing.”
“Sounds like life, wouldn’t you say ?” said Maria looking at Sarah intently. Sarah hadn’t really noticed how green her eyes were before; she had a slight cloudy patch in her left pupil, a smattering of blurred white dots. It reminded her a little of the view from their terrace at night. Like stars fighting to break through the haze.
“Well it depends on the tasks,” answered Sarah finally. “Put it this way, I’m not sure how much dopamine I’ve been getting lately.”
“Perhaps you need to go and climb up that,” said Maria pointing up at Nelson’s Column, laughing.
“Well, assuming I didn’t break my neck, then it would certainly give me a hit of something.”
“And a great view.”
“And a great view,” agreed Sarah. “That’s the other reason they make them like that – the games I mean, why I spend my life drawing towers. In the game, whenever you get to the top of something tall it opens up the world to you. Shows you new things to do and places to go.”
“So your art shows people where they are and where they might go ?”
Sarah shook her head. “I hadn’t thought of it like that but… at a stretch, maybe. I used to think that my painting outside of work was trying to do that. Or at least that it was trying to show where I was and where I might go and that that would resonate with some people.”
“You shouldn’t distinguish between the two,” said Maria gently. “What you call your work and what you call your painting outside of work. It all comes from you. It’s all how you spend your days.” She patted Sarah’s arm and smiled. “Anyway, would you listen to me, doling out advice to talented young artists. I have to say that, personally, I liked the flowers. The Monet and the Van Gogh.” She sounded out the Gogh to rhyme with dough, extending the ‘o’ sound, and caught Sarah frowning at her. “What’d I say ? Van Gogh ? How’d you say it ? Goff ?”. They both laughed. “You prefer the abstract work, don’t you ?”
“I do,” said Sarah. “And thank you for the advice. It’s nice to hear.” She wrinkled her brow, her nose crinkling in concentration, lost momentarily in thought. “I like the flowers too but there’s always something slightly sad about them to me. Something that beautiful but yet so fragile. Those paintings are just a snapshot of something fleeting, something that’s going to disappear.”
“Oh my dear. That’s not sad. That’s the very definition of joy. Come on, I sense you need something more modern. Take me to the Tate and I’ll buy you lunch on the South Bank.”
Inside the Tate Sarah felt a deep feeling of calm wash over her; the peace and vastness of the canopy above her seemed to absorb her anxieties. Gave them room to lift and dissolve. They walked in with nothing but the echo of their footsteps for company. The South Bank bustled, in here it was still. For a long time they just walked the floor, absorbed in the space, watching dust motes dance in the slats of light falling across the concrete from the high, vertical windows above. Eventually Maria pointed out that there was an exhibition running. Yayoi Kusama. They bought tickets and ventured into a world of coloured dots and circles and impressionistic shapes, endless patterns repeating, forms stretched and mutating. And then a room filled with nothing but giant, monochrome canvasses on each wall, monolithic blank tranquility. And then, at the end, a darkened room with mirrored floors, walls and ceiling. They cautiously ventured in, eyes adjusting, and then a myriad of LED lights overhead began to blink on and off. Pulses of colour that reflected back from the surfaces and into infinity. For a moment they were there, everywhere, and then they were gone. Sarah felt like she was standing in the centre of the universe watching its evolution on fast forward. Or like she was a single neuron firing inside her own mind, watching the millions of other chemical reactions trigger and blaze in her cerebral cortex. It was dizzying but euphoric. They both sat down and lost themselves in the ineffable dazzle of lights.
Later they sat eating lunch on the roof garden of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. A green oasis atop a brutal concrete slab of a building. The sun had won its struggle with the clouds and they sat watching a faint shimmer of heat haze dance across the Thames.