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The large gallery containing the museum’s restoration facilities had only a few workers as the summer holiday had taken its toll and left only two people working carefully on their respective projects. The room, mainly lit by natural light through very large roof and side windows, had a distinctive smell arising from the paints and workplace restoration chemicals. The wide benches and easels accommodated the paintings undergoing restoration and conservation. Helen was hunched over an early painting by van Gogh; she held a thin brush which she occasionally dabbed into a palette of several orange and yellow shades. She usually spent about an hour in close work and took time out to relax her shoulder muscles and regain focus. During one of these breaks she spoke to her colleague, Guy. “I’m going to the Canary Islands in a couple of weeks for a bit of renewal.” “Good for you. So I suppose you'll be chilling around the Lanzarote hotspots?” She laughed. “No way. I have a healthful and educational itinerary; some hiking around the island of La Palma and visits to art galleries.” “So, you still have work on your mind. That’s OK. I’m planning to go to the Amalfi coast again, just for the wine and food. I won't be seeing a gallery, I need to get away from them.” They sipped from their ceramic mugs. Guy returned to an earlier conversation about dreams. “Have you had any more sleep problems? Stress is the usual culprit.” Helen nodded and said: “Not so much. A break will do me good. I need some dietary reform and some fresh air. The air conditioning isn’t so good here.” “Agreed." They returned to their work. Helen’s sleep problems were not new. She had suffered a loss. Her partner of several years had suddenly announced she was leaving, creating a vacuum of loneliness which she had been unable to overcome. Their union seemed to have been a stable confection of love, respect and commitment to their joint enterprise. But she had been fooled. In the final undoing her partner had confessed to many years of infidelity. Her commitment was a cleverly constructed lie, artfully played out in front of Helen’s eyes. The whispered phone conversations were attributed to poor health and nightly absences, to work. The illusion of normality was sustained by regular tokens of affection, convincing statements of commitment and a regular energetic sexual coupling. The whole spectrum of their relationship was normal to her, and their friends were absorbed into the fiction by the resonance of their aspirational lifestyle. It turned out that their relationship which started as a single passionate encounter never blossomed, it had no chance, it wasn’t nourished, and just existed along a flat timeline of the present. Helen’s partner was unable to extricate herself because of moral weakness and so created the deceit. She did not have the courage to end the illusion and instead extended the underlying misery by years. Although it is said that a woman’s intuition is always on standby, Helen didn’t see the fault lines. The classic union of harmony and discord, anger and peace resolving into contentment was the template of Helen’s vision, and she imagined she had it. Now, on a distant island, for the first time in more than a year, she breathed different air and looked up at a different sun. From far below she heard the rumble of the restless ocean, pounding the sullen stones on a deserted shore. She stood on a moderate incline high among the volcanic rocks of La Palma, one of the Canary Islands. She stepped awkwardly on an uneven grey path strewn with sharp stones. It was not easy under a hot sun. After about an hour, she slowed and moved aside to allow a more energetic walker following her to pass. “No, no. I’m just fine. If I go any faster I’ll collapse.” Helen turned to see a woman with a heavy backpack wearing bright orange shorts, heavy boots and a peaked cap sporting a fitness logo. She smiled at the panting woman as she pulled level. Helen said: ”I wasn’t planning on a big hike as the map gives it as five kilometers, but the incline and the rough surfaces probably add on another kilometre.” The woman nodded: “Ha ha, it’s an old Spanish trick to wear you out, so you’ll spend more money in the cafe.” “Oh, where’s that?” “Just over the next rise you’ll see it in the distance. It will look like a mirage to us though.” Her breathless companion suggested a rest. “I can see a space ahead, shall we pause awhile?” “Yes, I’m with you on that.” They chatted as they sipped from their water bottles. Helen turned to look at the view. “It’s worth the climb, what a sight.” She introduced herself. “This is what I came for. I’m crouched over a table most days, so this is so exhilarating.” “I’m Annely and I do my bit of crouching too,” she smiled at Helen who was sitting on a large rock. After a pause she took a swig from her bottle and said “What’s your job?” “I restore paintings. The only fresh air I get is in the final restoration.” Annely watched her surveying the gallery of rocky outcrops and sea. “This time of year there are usually flowers and greenery to cover up the rough bits, but it was a tough winter.” “You sound like a resident?” “In a way. I come here for a few months at a time depending on the workload. I’m studying star systems.” Helen was surprised.”I didn’t imagine an observatory here.” “It’s high up in that mountain, actually a volcano. You must come and see.” They struggled along another incline and saw a blue and orange painted cafe with outside tables and chairs. Sitting opposite each other outside in the warm air their eyes met. Helen felt comfortable. Her circle of friends were similar to Annely, intelligent, approachable and dedicated in their work. “Do you have any attachments here, friends, family…?” “My family back home are close, and here my colleagues are very supportive and interesting, but not close personally. And you?” Helen shifted in her chair. “My life is a little more complicated. Without going into the murky details, I’m free from a rather unfortunate relationship.” She gazed over Annely’s head, mulling over the hurt she had put behind her. “I was sustained in a false reality, which one day fell off a metaphorical cliff.” Annely creased her brow and reached across the table to lightly touch Helen's hand. “I’d like to say we’ve all been there. But I haven’t. I had a short relationship as a younger student which was initially full of excitement, but it became rather boring so we agreed to end it without any acrimony.” Helen wanted to pour out the details of her hurt, but felt it was the wrong time in that pleasant comforting situation. Instead, they chatted about fashion, homes and gardens, and where their lives might end up. Annely was full of bubbly excitement, rather the opposite of what an astronomer should be , thought Helen. She was certainly career driven as she was keen to explain her work seeking to resolve scientific problems. “Looking through a telescope at billions of stars in such a beautiful vastness is beyond description. But there is a story to tell, which is hidden in the data we receive. Your work is beautiful too isn’t it? You have to recognise the beauty in the colours and brush strokes?” Helen considered her current project, a difficult early van Gogh restoration which had been damaged by water. “Yes, I have to try to understand an artist’s intentions and also the history of the work. Sometimes earlier works get painted over and affect the colour of the next layer. The colours too are sometimes hard to match because, as you know, the colour mixed on the palette changes on the canvas according to its surroundings.” Annely said: “This place is attractive in a strange way, but I would have thought Italy would be more inspiring for you?” Helen sighed. “Yes . I have spent some time there.” She paused, reflecting on her former universe of happy people enjoying life in exciting cafes, encouraged by smooth wines and accordion music. She was absorbed into the country’s towering history of the art she was studying. It was also the world of her former lover. “But I wanted a change.” They picked at an assortment of local foods laid out by the enthusiastic proprietor. They navigated their way back downhill in a higher mood fuelled by some wine. Arriving at a settlement of holiday properties, just outside the capital city of Santa Cruz, Helen pointed up the street at a small apartment block. “That’s my home for a week. Where do you live?” Annely laughed. “Ha ha I’m your noisy neighbour just across the street in that small white cottage with a red roof.” They stood a little awkwardly in the street. Helen said: “I suppose you are quite busy stargazing. But if you have free time, perhaps we could get together.” Annely nodded enthusiastically. “I am quite free this week. The telescope is on autopilot gathering data, so until it has finished its sweep, I have lots of ‘me time’. It would be nice to meet up again. Perhaps you need a guide.” She giggled and gave a little wave as she turned to go home. Helen trudged happily up the stairs of her complex and entered her apartmen. She sat peacefully on her balcony after a refreshing shower and pondered over Annely. She felt excited, not only about meeting a new friend, but by someone who could perhaps understand her anguish and her painful past. She recalled that brief touch across the cafe table; that fleeting connection stirred something deep inside. Her piercing blue eyes seemed to reach deep into her mind. She made an effort to shrug off such an innocuous event. “I’m 28 years old, independent and not ready to become embroiled in a fruitless holiday romance,” she told herself. But they were hollow words. The next morning she assembled an impressive array of breakfast food and sat on the balcony to enjoy it. It was later than her usual schedule but she reminded herself that she was on holiday, uncluttered with schedules, work and dependencies. At home she had friends who would phone to check on her, especially after her trauma. So she didn’t expect a buzz on her doorbell to interrupt her coffee. She opened the door to greet someone out of a beach fashion photoshoot. Annely had shaken off her dusty climbers’ image and was dressed in an attractive floral beach set with sandals, white shorts and striped crop top. Her long dark hair last seen bunched under her cap now cascaded down her back restrained only by a sparkly tie. Fashionable sunglasses rested high on her head. Helen’s heart beat a little faster as she welcomed her in. “So nice to see you.” Helen wanted to hug the beautiful vision in front of her, but she restrained herself. “I’m beach ready, are you?” She teased Helen, who was barefoot and wearing just a loose blue shift, her dark hair straggling from a hastily contrived bun. “I was just on my second coffee, would you like something?” Annely shook her head. “I was up early and gorged myself on fruit, baguettes and juice. I hope I didn’t disrupt your day. You’re on holiday, just carry on, ignore me.” Helen caught her breath, in her mind she was saying how on earth could she ignore such an amazingly beautiful sight. She decided to freshen up. She emerged from her bathroom to showcase her bikini. Annely clapped her hands excitedly. “We’ll slay them on the beach.” They chatted non stop on the way through the town to breathe the salty wind on the sandy shore. They found a quiet area near a beachside hotel. Annely said: “Now for some trickery.” She went through a gate into the hotel’s own beach and spoke to an official, then returned. “We have some private space.” The next few hours were spent frolicking in the sea, luxuriating on the loungers and joining some guests playing beach tennis. There followed a gourmet lunch. The biggest surprise was that they didn’t have to pay for it. “Our arrangement with the observatory includes use of these facilities.” Helen could hardly contain her pleasure. She wanted to hug that joyous person, but she hesitated and thought of the inevitable consequences. There was an inexorable force pulling her towards Annely which, at the time, seemed to be just physical. Their day wound down and they walked slowly with arms linked to Annely’s cottage partly obscured by the ubiquitous pink bougainvillea. They sank side by side into a soft, flowered couch. Annely had a folder on her knees which she opened gently. She spoke in a quiet instructive voice. “This is what I have been looking at through my telescope.” Helen looked at a spread of photographs, some of them pinpoints of light in a constellation, others showed images in a coloured haze. “This will interest you.” Annely pointed at a larger photograph on its own page. Helen caught her breath. She was mesmerised, her heart began to beat faster. She was looking at a large photo of a bright, deep magenta sphere. Annely studied her face. “You know this don’t you? It’s affecting you isn’t it? You don’t feel so good do you? But you probably don’t know what it really is. It is GJ504b, an exoplanet in the constellation of Virgo, which simply means it is outside our solar system and orbiting around another star, like our sun. But it is enormous, about four times bigger than Jupiter, our biggest planet.” Helen had to look away. She felt strange. Her brain seemed to be rotating slowly as in vertigo, but she was not dizzy as she had control of her body; she tested her leg muscles and shoulders. Annely was still watching her then reached out to touch her face. “What is it? Why do I feel so strange?” She looked at Annely who smiled holding her eyes in a steady gaze. “Don’t worry. It’s a phenomenon which very few people experience. It’s called the Magenta Subtraction.” Helen looked worried. “What on earth is that? Is it a medical condition?” Annely rested her hand on Helen’s shoulder then slowly stroked her neck. “No, it’s not serious. In fact, a similar condition, known as the Stendhal Syndrome was acknowledge in 1979 after dozens of incidents. When some people view great art they became unwell and sometimes faint. She put her arm around Helen, her face closer. Annely continued. “It really only affects people with a deep knowledge of colour, like artists, designers, photographers, so it is in some way, self induced. Van Gogh was influenced by it, although he rarely used the colour, even though the magenta pigment was discovered in 1856.” Helen raised an eyebrow.“ I know he was mentally ill for most of his life, but I have never heard that explanation. Agreed that his works don’t have the warmth of the later Fauvists even though he eventually joined them. He was happy with yellows and orange. In fact, he seemed to prefer cyan themes.“I have painted with magenta, I’m sure, and of course I studied colour mixing and understand the science behind it. As you know, magenta is just one of the basic CMYK colours that make up the spectrum. But if you subtract any one colour you simply lose a range of colours associated with it. Magenta is key to forming the reds, so you are just left with the blues, green and yellows, which I suppose is a bit dreary for some people. So what’s your explanation?” Annely cited textbook physics. “Magenta is not a real colour, it does not appear on the light frequency spectrum because it is a combination of two frequencies at the extreme ends of the spectrum, red and violet. She added bizarrely: “It is not natural. It does not belong to God’s world. When we see it, our brain does the manipulation for us. It’s our ego wanting to enjoy the allure of redness.” Helen was a little shocked at the strange religious connotation She stood up to test her balance. “I feel perfectly fine now. I’ll better get some rest after such a hectic day.”Annely tentatively suggested a visit to the telescope. “We’ll go in the evening, the conditions are better. What do you think?” “Yes, certainly. I don’t think that anything serious is going on.” They had a brief hug which lasted a little longer than she was comfortable with, before Helen departed. Back in her complex she puzzled over the odd behaviour of Annely, but then dismissed it as too much sun and alcohol. She thought over plans for the next day: visit some art galleries and wander around Santa Cruz. In bed that night her thoughts again turned to Annely. She was attracted to her, perhaps she filled the vacuum left by her former partner. On the other hand, holidays provided unhindered opportunities for romance albeit fleeting. Even so, she could not get her image out of her mind; in barely 24 hours she had stumbled into a putative love affair despite her resistance. Was this something to do with the magenta subtraction, she mused. If so, it would surely be addition not subtraction. She decided to abandon the analysis and relaxed into sleep. Next day she stepped into the warm air of the city. Boisterous holidaymakers with chunky backpacks jostled good naturedly against her as she picked her way carefully through the busy, cobbled streets lined with colonial homes with overflowing flowered balconies. The muted appearance of the Insular museum in an old Franciscan monastery belied its extensive, but carefully curated collections housed in small, elegant rooms and cloisters. She walked along the polished wooden floors into the Fine Arts gallery which displayed a variety of works by Spanish artists such as Carmen Arozena, the island’s own prodigy. As a professional, she was drawn to the detail in many of the paintings and took time to study the colours and brushing techniques. At the far end of the cloister were paintings of the night sky; she marvelled at the ability artists to bring out the sparkling quality of distant nebulae. Just above her eyeline she saw a gap where a painting had been removed. She read the accompanying caption: GJ504b. It meant nothing to her, as she thought it was a gallery reference number. So she moved on to view other photographic studies of various constellations. A large photo of a star cluster attracted her attention, it was in the Virgo constellation. That jolted her memory; she pictured Annely talking about a magenta star. She hurried back to the missing painting. Immediately the number and magenta colouring sprang into her memory. She now needed to find out why it had been removed. She saw a woman with an official badge seated by the doorway. She hoped she spoke English, although her Spanish was passable. Helen smiled at her and pointed back along the cloister. “The missing painting, GJ504b?” The woman understood immediately. She adopted a sad expression and crossed herself. “ The artist has passed over.” Helen experienced a shiver creeping up her spine. “Who was he?” “Sofia Gonzalez Marquez. She was only twenty one when she died. So sad.” “Where is the painting now?” “It is with her family.” “Do you have a photograph of it, perhaps?” “You must go to our bookshop in the foyer, they may have it.” Helen later sat in a cafe and leafed through the retrospective catalogue of her work, held about two years ago. The beautiful magenta sphere dominated its page, her visualisation of the planet evoked a strong association with its surrounding constellation in which it was painted like a child in a stellar embrace. But she experienced no unsettling emotion. The brief note about her life were melancholic; she had died of cancer some 15 years ago. She puzzled over the date. How could she have painted a planet that was not discovered until five years after her death? She also thought it strange that her work coincided with the so-called Magenta Subtraction. Was her death connected to this? She felt an urgent need to find out more. She took out her phone and searched for her name. There was no result from the search engine. As she paid for her meal she asked the proprietor if he had heard of the artist. He creased his brow then said: “She came here to live after her family in Madrid rejected her because she had fallen in love with another woman. That’s all I know.” Helen felt a strong empathic response and recalled that Catholic countries were very much opposed to same sex relationships especially the old Francoists, who were Sofia’s family in Madrid. They abhorred such couplings, even though EU law had prevailed in Spain for many years. “So who was her lover?” “I don’t know, but she is still alive and lives on the island.” The afternoon sun blazed down as Helen wandered along the beachfront dotted with sunshades and loungers, now partly deserted because of the siesta. Her holiday had turned into a pilgrimage, as she sought alignment with this lost soul. But who was that lover and what was she like? It could be regarded as somewhat intrusive to seek her out, because she too would have suffered from the rejection of society. But something in her heart urged her on. Her intended local tour was abandoned in favour of a trip to the only cemetery on the island in the village of Villa de Mazo. She had reasoned that a lover would always take care of the grave of a partner. She hired a scooter and had great fun zooming along the twisting highway leading up to the village. The cemetery was spread out over a wide area, so she inquired at the office about the location of Sofia’s grave. The official was helpful and pointed out a quick route across the grassy hillside. Helen crouched in front of a small white marble headstone engraved with her name and dates. Below this inscription in a smaller typeface were words in Spanish: Mi corazón está contigo. Mantenlo a salvo hasta que yo venga. Gabriela (My heart is with you. Keep it safe until I come. Gabriela). Tears began to prickle behind Helen’s eyes as those simple words seeped into her heart. She glanced down at a fresh posy of white margaritas. Then, quite out of character, Helen crossed herself and the tears rolled. The official was yet again helpful. He knew who Gabriela was, but he warned: “She is a very private person.” Helen parked her scooter some distance from a white-walled cottage with small windows and a host of flowers carelessly hanging over the porch. She stood across the narrow lane trying to imagine those two fated women sharing their love in the peace of a countryside nest. She turned to go, but as she moved forward she heard the faint clatter of a door opening; she turned and saw a figure in the narrow crack. Helen stood still and waited. Soon the door space was made wider and the figure became recognisable as a woman probably in her forties holding a grey cat. Helen gave a small wave of acknowledgement. The woman beckoned. In the surprisingly bright interior, dominated by modernistic furniture, pinewood book shelves and a hanging display of greenery, she sat opposite Gabriela who looked keenly at her across a glass table inlaid with multicoloured geometric shapes. Helen put her small backpack by her feet, then looked around the room. There were several paintings on the wall which she studied from afar. “Sofia was extremely talented. Her paintings are eternal.” Gabriela spoke slowly with the Madrid intonation, sounding like a university lecturer. But with warmth. Helena looked across at the slim woman dressed in a long purple and red caftan almost touching her bare feet. Her grey tinted hair was cut into a straggly pixie style exposing her ears pierced with dangling silver hoops. Helen agreed. “Yes, her work is remarkable.” Gabriela went on to talk about Sofia and then asked about Helen’s interest. She described her restoration work and meeting Annely, mentioning the magenta planet and her quest. Gabriela had a faint smile on her face as she slowly stood up from her chair and indicated that Helen should follow. She opened a door to a large airy room untidily furnished with an old couch and a couple of stools and easels. It was recognisable as a studio. “Sofia worked here. All her paintings began here. This was her sanctuary and the home of her imagination. Inspiration in great art comes from within. As an artist, you understand that, don’t you?” “Yes, my work is mainly understanding an artist’s intention. I can absorb their passion and quantify their range of emotions simply by studying their work. Everything an artist does, says or feels appears on the canvas in some form.” Gabriela drew back a cloth covering a picture. They were both silent as the iridescence of the magenta sphere permeated their being. Helen felt no adverse effects, only the joy of seeing great art at first hand. Gabriela said: “She didn’t name it with that soulless number the gallery gave it. She wanted to call it Mujeres Untas Como Una meaning Women Together As One, but the gallery wouldn’t allow it. Then Helen asked the difficult question. “Did it have any effect on her well being? When I first saw it, I experienced some sort of vertigo, as though I was being drawn into its power.” “I have never heard of that nonsense. But you saw a photograph, is that correct? ” Helen nodded in some confusion. “This painting was the result of her imagination and had no external source. The planet was discovered long after Sofia’s painting.” Helen was thoughtful. Sofia had imagined a beautiful concept, while the astronomers had discovered a somewhat malign object. How could they be reconciled? Her scooter puttered along the seafront, now packed with people, a colourful, heaving mass of women, children, men, families, couples and singletons; a playful agglomeration of noisy, but happy, humanity. Perhaps she was seeing what Sofia saw, perhaps we don’t see the world as it is, but as we want it, she mused. So could that mean that Annely had some sort of malign influence, although it was a thought she was deeply uncomfortable with? Tonight she would find out. Annely had brought her car and as they ascended the steep twisting road she spoke about the ethereal solitude that astronomers needed. “We are able to transfer ourselves into the systems we are looking at because a single stellar object is submerged in the middle of a huge interdependent complex, and we are just observing one tiny element.” At the mountain top, Annely led Helen into the cavernous sphere where a cluster of instrumentation hung down from the roof. She operated a control panel and sat Helen in the observation seat. It took time for her to see anything. The telescope processed the location and moved to the coordinate. Annely could see what Helen was seeing on a separate monitor. “The cluster of brightness on the left is a more distant constellation; slightly to the right is a bright object, do you see that?” After a pause Helen shouted excitedly. “Yes, I can see a bright sphere, but it isn’t magenta.” “Just wait a second, I’ll resolve the bandwidth and, now look.” “Oh, that is magnificent. Truly gorgeous, and magenta too.” After a little time she rested her eyes and turned to Annely. “But I don’t have any bad feelings as I did in your place. I wonder why.” She returned to the viewer. Annely stepped closer to her and said quietly. “It is very deceptive. Concentrate on its bleakness. The bright colour masks its malignancy. It is not pure. It is a fabrication of depravity.” Helen turned and looked up in disbelief. “What are you talking about, Annely?” “You have to see it in context. Come outside see the whole panoply of God’s world.” They walked in the chill air towards the volcano crater. In the silence they looked up at the endless carpet of light. Annely had her arm around Helen. They moved closer to the crater edge. Annely’s tone of voice had changed. It became deep and authoritative. Helen felt a tight grip on the back of her neck. “You are despicable. Women are the perfect creation for men to enjoy, not other women. They do not engage in filthy practices. You are a whore in God’s paradise. You do not deserve this life.” Suddenly Helen was staring down into the deep crater thousands of feet below. An inexorable force was pushing her over the edge. She screamed. She could hear voices, shouting, she twisted her body away from Annely who was now running away along the edge of the crater as two men arrived to help. In the distant darkness they heard a long, pitiful scream. “She’s gone over,” said one of the men. Helen was recovering back in her apartment from her horrific experience. Two policemen were talking to her. She hadn’t yet explained how their conversation by the crater had turned ugly. Instead, a policeman said. “It’s very dangerous up there, even though there are fences and warning signs. There have been three other suicides of young women jumping over in the past two years. All of them gay. What a waste.”


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