I dream of broad, horizon-spanning colour that streaks across a pallid sky, showering the world in their haze. They go from black to dark grey, to grey, to a light grey and then to white. All the colours of the rainbow.
I draw the curtains as soon as I awaken. I see snow; little glistening stars floating down to the earth from a pale sky above. The buildings outside haven’t changed; nothing is new. They’re all grey and lifeless, like headstones in a cemetery.
I massage my eyes and cross my room. Inside the closet there are grey shirts and jeans of varying shades hanging from the rail. I grab a random pair, and dress myself.
As I get dressed, there’s tapping on my window. I see a hover-stall floating outside. The plain face of the salesman stares in at me, a wide grin revealing a pale set of teeth. I walk over and open the glass.
‘Mornin’ Mister Perry,’ the vendor says in a singsong accent.
‘Hey, Maziz,’ I reply, yawning.
‘The sky is beautiful today, no?’
I raise my eyebrows in reply. He passes me a coffee, and I hand him some cash.
‘This coffee better not be shit, Maziz.’
‘Is all shit, Mister Perry,’ he replies, winking.
While the window is open, I look up to the sky. It appears drab, grey and overcast. Like normal.
I get my notes together as I shovel crap, colourless cereal into my mouth. My eyes keep falling to the dark folder on my desk. For St. Taurus Art Fellowship, it reads. The day of the interview is today.
I scoop up my display folders and the required documents. I grab my coat and leave the apartment, taking a sip of coffee. I wince. I shake my head in regret. It’s shit. No a good start to the day. Not a good omen.
I place my thumb on the door handle, and my fingerprint locks my apartment. I can hear the sounds of a crying baby, and the yells of arguing adults. The TV in the apartment next door is loud enough to compete with the horns of the cars outside.
Plodding downstairs, the floorboards creak beneath my stomp. Outside, the snow has stopped. The cold air touches my skin, and I recoil further into my coat like a tortoise into its shell.
I join the throng of morning commuters, their clothes like uniforms. Pausing at a traffic light, I know to stop only because others have. I look closely at the crossing light, waiting for the white man at the bottom to light up. I place my hand on the button regardless, waiting for that rapid pulsing to tell me to walk. A woman next to me speaks.
‘Isn’t the sky wonderful today?’
The question is meant for me.
‘Oh yes,’ I say; an automated response. ‘It’s like a dance of colour, isn’t it?’
As I walk, I pass hundreds of billboards. They strobe from black to grey to variations of both shades and back to black again so frantically I can’t pay attention to them; a migraine beckons me already. A friend of mine a long time ago – I forget the name – used to rant about advertising; how they brainwash you with exciting colours. At the time, I had agreed. But I didn’t really have an opinion on it.
How could I?
I stand in the middle of a plaza, looking at a tall building with transparent doors. This is where the fellowship interview is. This interview will decide if the next year of my life remains the same, or gets a little easier. I feel a flutter in my heart, and my bottom lip quiver.
Oh c’mon, man, I tell myself. Not here. Not in the street.
It’s at least ten below, but my body starts to heat up. I’m overcome with a claustrophobia that chews at me from the inside out; my clothes feel like a cave collapsing around me, a darkness about to envelop me. I start to sweat, and my hand starts to shake.
‘Dammit,’ I mumble. I remove my coat. I roll up my sleeves. I breathe deep. In and out, I remind myself. You’re okay. I see a nearby bench, unoccupied. I put my coat down, and my folders, and pace back and forth. I rub my face, and repeat the mantra in my head.
I feel the attack starting to subside, and I inhale into my mouth the brisk morning air, and breath it out through my nose. A fine cloud of steam floats into the air. I sit on the bench for a minute, before gathering my things, and making my way into the building.
I enter through transparent doors into a big room with a floor so dull and white it gleams with ordinariness.
‘Morning,’ says the girl at the front desk cheerily. ‘Great sky today, huh?’
I nod and smile politely. People say that a lot now. “The sky is beautiful.” “The sky looks amazing.” – Ever since the Barrier went up.
Earth’s new defence net spread across the world, and now all people talk about is the sky. It’s supposed to be as amazing as a hundred rainbows. But I don’t know. The Barrier did something to people like me. I don’t know how, and I’ve never bothered to figure it out.
The receptionist directs me to the elevator, telling me to go to the third floor. I hate elevators. They’re always brightly lit. Just, white, everywhere. How is it no-one ever thought to paint an elevator? Seems like the perfect canvas; six sides of unlimited creativity to experiment on. And yet all elevators are the same. Maybe I’ll decorate one; buy half a dozen different paints and toss them about with uninhibited abandon.
In the elevator, two workers discuss a recent art exhibition.
‘What’s it like?’ I ask. I’ve read about it.
‘It’s… very different. Bizarre.’
‘Although,’ the other man interjects. ‘That’s all the rage, now.’
‘How so?’ I ask.
‘Just… go see it.’
When the elevator reaches the third floor, I step out, clutching my folders close to my chest. Taking a seat, I kill time by looking through them. I’ve shown my art at some small galleries before, on open nights for unknown artists. People usually walk past saying, “Weird” or “I don’t get it.” Sometimes I feel more and more insane each day that passes. When I finally realise I am sane, the burden of that knowledge weighs me down.
I find my thumbs twitching, and my legs tapping a beat on the smooth floor. I run through the interview in my head, imagining every possible scenario. I imagine difficult questions, and dream up responses, and then the follow up questions. Minutes later, I’m led into a room with big glass windows at the back. A man walks in. He’s dressed in a variety of greys, with a steaming mug of what smells like coffee in one hand, and a croissant in the other. He wears glasses and sports an oiled mustache; all the rage these days. He offers me a seat.
I sit on the black chair, and he combs through my paintings, scrunching up his nose at a few. He asks me questions like; “Why should we give you this fellowship?” and, “What do you hope to achieve?” The whole time, he’s scribbling in a notepad.
‘I do like the quirkiness of these,’ he offers, smiling.
‘Funny. My ex-wife didn’t.’
He laughs, and we talk about current artists such as Yorel Longe and Mindy Hutch.
Looking to his scanner, he says, ‘Jesus, is that the time? Sorry man, but I’ve got another meeting. Can you leave me that blue folder, please?’ he asks.
Oh shit. I thought they were the same colour…
I take a punt. I slide him a folder.
He chuckles with a kind of awkwardness. ‘Sorry, I meant the blue one.’
I smile and shake my head, trying to recover. ‘Right. Sorry.’ I take back the folder, and slide him the other. I watch him closely.
‘Thanks,’ he says, tilting his head at me inquisitively. ‘Is there anything else?’
I feel my body posture shift. I fidget in chair, and scratch my head. ‘No. No, that should be it.’
‘Great,’ he says, throwing his arms out. ‘Thanks for your time,’ he smiles unconvincingly, as if trying to discern a secret with a look.
I thank him for his time, and depart the office.
He chews at the side of his index finger, and raises his eyebrows, his eyes expressionless, like a detective in a noir film.
When I get home, there’s a single letter in my box. I tuck it under my arm and walk upstairs.
I hang my coat. I undress and put on some tracksuit pants and a jumper that lie on the floor. I brew myself a cup of tea, and, blow on it as I sit down.
All around my apartment are images. Different paintings that sit balanced on my kitchen bench, placed on stands, or on cupboards and leaning against the wall. Some of them are finished. Some of them aren’t. Some them are intricate images. Some of them are memories. Some of them are sadness. Some of them are love.
I sit down and open my letter. There’s a government emblem on the plastic envelope. I start to read.
It begins with my name, and then a paragraph that tells me everything I already know about the Barrier. I slow down. Going back to the beginning of the last paragraph, I re-read everything aloud, fearing I may have misunderstood it the first time.
“Unfortunately, there was an unknown affect on members of the population carrying faults in the retinal cones that perceive colour and light in the human eye – or – colour blindness…” I take a breath. I read the last sentence slowly: “…Thankfully, the damage can be undone, through simple eye surgery the government is willing to…”
I put the letter down. Didn’t misread it then.
I look to one of the paintings, sitting atop the fridge. There’s a little boy in a tree, and his father standing beside him, and they both watch the sky as several different splashes of grey erupt across the sky.
I try to imagine it in colour.
With words like blue and green and yellow floating through my mind, trying to attach themselves to images. It was so long ago. The words are concepts that mean absolutely nothing to me.
I need to go for a walk. I leave my apartment, walk downstairs, and enter the street. I put my hands into the pockets of my hoodie, pull the hood over my head and start to walk. The buildings of the city rise up around me, looking down on me like petrified sentinels with a long-forgotten purpose. I walk for a long time. Walking through the colourless trees of the park, the silver water of the pond. Before I can process it, the pale light of the sun is starting to fade behind the skyline.
The night is not fun for me. I can hardly see a thing, as everything fades into dark shades of grey and black, punctuated by sections of white from lampposts or headlights. People pass me like ghosts. I turn myself around, and start to walk as steadily towards my apartment, but there’s a panicked heat building up inside of me.
My clothes start to feel heavy on my skin. I start to sweat in rivers, despite it being freezing. My eyes start to dart from right to left to right to left, and my heart feels like it’s bashing against its bone cage to be free. Discs of pale snow melt on my face. Making me uncomfortable. Its like I’m trapped in a coffin, one million snakes slithering over my skin; streams of scales sliding down my body.
I pause at a set of traffic lights, my head on a swivel, looking around. My hands are hidden in my pockets, but they rub together and wring each other as I wait to cross the road.
Crossing the road, I see the dim outline of a building, and place my hand on it. I start to walk with my hand on the building. I’m not looking where I’m walking, and I bump into someone.
‘Jesus, man,’ says a voice. ‘Watch where you’re going.’
I fall onto the ground, hyperventilating. I cover my face with my hands.
‘What’s your problem, man?’ says a different voice.
‘I think there’s something wrong with him,’ says the first voice again.
‘Well, we should help, yeah?’
There’s a pause, and I feel a hand on my shoulder.
‘What’s wrong, buddy?’
I don’t even realise that I’m crying until I try and speak; my words come out shaky. ‘I’m freaking out… I, I just want to get home. I don’t know where…’
‘Home? Where’s home, where do you live? Here in the city?’
‘234 South Terrace.’
‘Dude,’ says the second voice. ‘That’s right around the corner.’
Muttering words of encouragement in my ear, the stranger helps me to my feet. ‘You were so close, man. Here we go.’
The stranger leads me into the lobby. Inside, the atrium is lit up, and nothing feels so dark anymore.
‘Jesus, there’s ninety floors. Which is yours?’
Stair-by-stair, flight-by-flight, the stranger helps me up to my floor. My breathing gradually slows, and my cold sweat reconfigures itself into nausea. I hold a hand to my forehand.
‘Are you ok?’ Asks the stranger. He’s a thick-set man with a thin beard and messy, long hair that appears to be clumped together in sections. I can smell smoke on his breath. I hold my thumb to the door.
Inside, I dash to the kitchen table, and lean against it. He pats me on the pat assuringly. ‘I get it. My sister gets episodes too…’ he seems distracted. ‘Holy…’
He must’ve noticed the paintings.
‘Oh, it’s just…’
He laughs. ‘You realise your walls have paint all over them?’
I pause. The panic fades from my body; like a whisper slipping from the mouth. I laugh. ‘No. No, I didn’t.’
He chuckles again. I offer him a cup of tea.
The letter sits on the kitchen table.
For me, seeing in colour would be like learning a new language. I look around all the paintings of my life, pondering how they would change for me. Do I even want them to? I’ve been holding out for a long time. Surviving in black and white. I pick up the letter.
I scan my paintings; there are images of city workers in the square, and of church bells in high steeples, and of a woman, sipping at a cup of tea she holds in two hands and wearing a jumper that’s two sizes too big for her. Of a man, his back to the painting, walking down a hallway with his hood up and his hands in his pockets. Of rivers and cliffs and sunsets in God knows what colour.
The damage can be undone, I think.
The letter stares at me. I stare back.
The next morning greets me in a familiar manner.
‘Morning, Mister Perry.’
‘Yesterday’s coffee was rubbish, Maziz.’
Maziz shrugs and laughs, pretending that he doesn’t understand what I’m saying.
As I sit and sip on the once-again shit coffee, I read the paper, and notice a light flashing on my answering machine. I walk over and press the button.
“Hi, Perry. It’s Malcolm here from the Fellowship office. Could you come in again this morning? About 11 alright? Call me back on this number. Cheers.”
I somehow reach the office in time. I tap my foot impatiently as the elevator climbs slowly to the third floor. My folders are gripped even tighter today, and I can already feel the oncoming attack as my heart beats like a hip hop rhythm.
Malcolm, my interviewer from the day before, greets me as I approach his office, and leads me inside. We sit.
I take a deep breath, my feet drumming rapidly. ‘Look, before we start, there’s something you should know.’ I decide to explain my condition.
Malcolm nods along, this stranger who doesn’t realise the power he holds. He chews on his pen, raises his eyebrows once or twice, and just… nods.
‘Wow, Okay,’ he says. Then he pauses and looks down at his notepad. ‘Look, in all honesty, you’re probably not the right fit for this fellowship…’
‘But…’ he continues, wagging a finger. ‘I hear rumours. My brothers wife… her brothers, they have the same affliction as you do.’
‘Affliction?’ the words sits strangely on my tongue, fizzing and crackling uncomfortably like a sweet.
He smiles, and shrugs. ‘The government fixed them.’
‘I don’t need to be fixed.’
‘You’re an interesting artist. You could be groundbreaking.’
I hug my folders like a mother holding their child. ‘This is me.’
‘You won’t reconsider?’
I stand up slowly, something disgusting and ineffable sitting in my throat. I ride the bland elevator down to ground floor, and walk out the building. In the plaza, I see people. Ordinary people with untold stories, images.
Who would invest in an artist who can’t see colour? The Barrier brought so many new ones to the world. Tarafax, voilo-pink, harmon, and gorange, I’ve never seen them. I never will.
People like those colours.
I wonder if they’d understand if they could see like me. There are a hundred ways to look at art, life, without colour. You appreciate different things. Colour is just a doorway to perception. I have no idea which of my paintings are bland. I have no idea which colours clash. I don’t know if they’re pretty or ugly, dark or bright.
But I have always known what is beautiful.