Natasha Soobramanien is the author of Genie and Paul(Myriad Editions, 2013), a Guardian Book of the Year. Her short stories have appeared in The White Review, The Time Out Book of New Writing and with London’s Serpentine Galleries, who commissioned her as part of their inaugural Bridge Commission. She has been teaching creative writing for 10 years.
This story may or may not end in Venice and in silent, unacknowledged tragedy but let it begin here, in London, where RubyTuesday and CallMeIshmael first meet in person, having arranged to do so under the tapestry which hangs in the lobby of The British Library.
Neither RubyTuesday nor CallMeIshmael will realise until they visit the museum where the original hangs on permanent display some seven months later that this tapestry is actually a reproduction of a famous painting. They will wander into an upstairs gallery late one Sunday afternoon where RubyTuesday will stop dead, chin tilted, before a painting identical in image, if not in form, to the tapestry under which she and CallMeIshmael first met. She will point this out to CallMeIshmael who will say, A tapestry of a painting? That’s like a drawing of a photograph. And RubyTuesday will laugh in that gurgling way he likes, the way he secretly thinks sounds a little like she is being choked sexually – consensually – and while she’s still laughing, CallMeIshmael, to his surprise, will propose.
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The reason CallMeIshmael will not recognise the painting when they walk into the gallery in Edinburgh is that he never really noticed the tapestry reproduction of it in London, seven months previously, beyond the fact of its being a tapestry, and the one under which they had arranged to meet, being too nervous about his first ever meeting with RubyTuesday to consider it in any detail. Here he is now, fifteen minutes early. He’s standing against the wall, under the hanging tapestry, his back to it. If he were to look up at the tapestry he might notice the neuralgic sunset, the apocalyptic palm trees, the poet with a hearing aid cradled by a Gauguin babe; he might notice, in the top left-hand corner – though he may not recognise it as such – the watchtower of Auschwitz. But CallMeIshmael is looking down. He is inspecting his brogues, wondering if he should have left them unpolished. He is waiting for RubyTuesday to spot him. For one crazy second he panics that she might not recognise him: the photo she’s seen was black and white but here he is, in colour. And it’s while he’s thinking this, glancing once more with regret at his over-polished shoes, that a figure detaches itself from the general blur at the edge of his vision and begins to move towards him with a force that becomes – in the seconds it takes her to reach him – something more like fate the closer she approaches.
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According to their respective profiles, RubyTuesday is three years older than CallMeIshmael but CallMeIshmael has selected ‘Average’ under ‘Looks’ and ‘A Few Extra Pounds’ under ‘Body Shape’, while RubyTuesday, with calculated modesty, has selected ‘Attractive’ and ‘Average’ respectively. She has also, under ‘Sports’, ticked boxes for ‘Running’, ‘Yoga’ and ‘Cycling’, all of which she does indeed have a general interest in, but none of which she ‘Participates In Regularly’. Under ‘Religion’ both have selected ‘Agnostic’. Under ‘Has Children’, ‘No’. ‘Drinking’, ‘Occasionally’, ‘Recreational Drugs’, ‘Not Any More’ and under ‘Honesty’, both have chosen ‘Very’ over ‘Totally’. Neither party has voluntarily disclosed information which might be of some interest to the other: for example, one of them has never learnt to drive and the other once had an injunction taken out on them by a former lover.
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Coffee on a Sunday afternoon at the library sounds good, they agree. Neither wants a repeat of their previous date: RubyTuesday’s a three-course meal with a five star bore, CallMeIshmael’s a gig with a girl who got drunk and threw up. When the two kiss hello, Continental and now London-style, CallMeIshmael and RubyTuesday bump cheekbones, and from her perfume he gets a hit of vanilla and jasmine, then something dark and oily he can’t name. Other things they couldn’t know from the photos or emails reveal themselves over the next hour. He gesticulates vigorously, has dimples and a slow blink. She has a Scottish accent and her hair, he thinks, is actually the colour of apricots. They drink coffee and talk about their weekends so far, their jobs, his dog, her allotment. RubyTuesday eats cake for which CallMeIshmael paid. Then they head over to the manuscript room, dim with a violet light, the vitrines spotlit, the carpet thick, their voices hushed. She likes da Vinci’s notebooks, he likes Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. They stop in front of the handwritten lyrics for Help. The Beatles or The Stones? She asks. Stones, he says. We wouldn’t be here if your name had been Eleanor Rigby. She laughs. Sexy laugh, he thinks.
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staring deep into his eyes with the ragged golden irises that look like sunflowers
On her ceiling there are stars. They are in her old bedroom, the one she had as a child. It’s been seven months since they met and now she’s brought him home for the weekend and when her parents go out after Sunday lunch he and she scramble up the stairs and tumble into her girlhood bed and fuck. If you were to ask her how she knows it is love she would not be able to answer – not right now, while they are still fucking and she is beyond the reach of language, unable for several seconds after she has come to remember her own name, let alone his – but a few seconds after that, staring deep into his eyes with the ragged golden irises that look like sunflowers, their hearts dark and velvety, she could tell you. My molecules have been rearranged, she might say. Because she does feel that, at a cellular level, she is not the person she was before she knew him. Elsie – and Elsie for this moment only – lies in her lover’s arms, their bodies overlapping in the narrow bed, and stares up at the plastic, greenish white stars that tonight, in the dark, will glow. She says, Tell me something about you I don’t know.
I love you, he says. And you?
I can’t drive, she says.
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All he did was post rosebuds through the door every day for six days until her new boyfriend called the police. The last time he did it he looked through the letterbox and caught her cat – a spite-filled, cubist cat with a silly name–staring at him. Man and cat were locked in that stare before the cat broke it off to pounce on the rosebud, worrying it like a Jack Russell would a rabbit, petals shaken off like drops of blood. After the police had called round (for one crazy second he’d thought: Arrest the cat) CallMeIshmael, known then by another name entirely, thought two things: (1) If she were still in love with him, she would have considered the gesture romantic. (2) because she had done what she’d done to him, because she had behaved with no feelings for his feelings, he had had the right to do that. He had the right to disregard the fact that she did not want rosebuds posted through her door on a daily basis, just as she apparently had had the right to disregard the fact that he did not want her to fuck another man while she was still (though, admittedly, not simultaneously) fucking him. The woman he loved had peeled away his skin and massaged with vinegar the raw flesh she’d exposed. That is how it felt. What she’d done to him. And where was her punishment?
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Both are stunned by the proposal. RubyTuesday, because no one has ever proposed to her sober, CallMeIshmael, because until that moment he was not even aware he wanted to marry RubyTuesday. Both have stopped thinking about the painting, let alone the tapestry. Neither is considering the tapestry’s strange relationship to the painting, that is, the fact that it might be odd to make so invitingly touchable a reworking of something that in the original was most definitely never intended to be touched. In fact the tartan-trousered invigilators in the gallery where the original hangs and where RubyTuesday and CallMeIshmael now stand, are employed specifically to ensure that the rule of no touching, except by experts – of the exhibits at least – is observed. Neither CallMeIshmael nor RubyTuesday notices the invigilators in tartan trousers. And neither notices the explanation of the painting’s title, taken from the Catalan-Aragonese Oath of Allegiance, printed on a card alongside it.
We, who are as good as you, swear to you, who are no better than us, to accept you as our king and sovereign, provided you observe all our liberties and laws, but if not, not.
Say if they did get married. Say if they did get married and they went on honeymoon to Venice. If they did get married and went on honeymoon to Venice and they were to visit the Gallerie dell’Accademia, then they might just see Giorgione’s celebrated painting, The Tempest. They might see this painting but it is unlikely that either of them would notice that this is the painting on which the famous painting before which CallMeIshmael has just proposed to RubyTuesday is based. It is unlikely that RubyTuesday would notice the relationship between the two paintings because The Tempest looks nothing like the painting in front of which she was proposed to but there is, nevertheless, a conceptual resemblance. And it is very unlikely that CallMeIshmael would notice The Tempest at all because for the first time since meeting her, looking at RubyTuesday in that dusty, late Venetian light, her face angled upwards in a certain way in vague consideration of the painting that inspired the painting before which she was proposed to, faintly haunted by a sense of familiarity, CallMeIshmael would realise, for the first time, with a shock, just how much RubyTuesday brings to mind someone else.
‘If Not, Not’ was first featured in The White Review.