A CHIME OF REDS • by C.L. Holland

I was resting in my room, trying to shut out the noise and the colours — and failing. Spiky brown flashes erupted behind my eyes as a dog barked. Somewhere in the distance a car alarm went off, sending pulses of yellow-green on and off like someone was playing with the light switch. The key in the lock downstairs was a grey scratch I barely noticed.

My housemate Miranda had arrived home. She brought her cello in and then there was a series of flashes as she climbed the stairs and tapped at my door. There was an oily green creak as she opened it.

“Another migraine?” Her whisper was a horrible familiar puce, and I nodded before I remembered she wouldn’t see it with the lights out.

“Yeah.” It was a convenient lie.

“I brought you some earplugs.”

“I tried earplugs.” I spoke normally, because I hated the thin streak my voice became when I tried to be quiet. “They made me think I was dead.” Being used to having so much input, I couldn’t cope when there was nothing at all.

“Do you want anything? A glass of water?”

“No, thanks.”

She left and I flicked on the light since sleep was obviously a no-go.  There was a science magazine on the bedside table and I settled down to read.  The distraction might help to block the noise.

About halfway through I stopped, and stared at the face looking out of the page at me. For a moment I was a frightened six-year-old again, and had just corrected my sister’s spelling by telling her that as J was a soft green-blue and G a hard metal colour there was no way she should have mixed them up.

My parents had gone quiet and stared at me like I’d wet myself.

“What do you mean, Daniel honey?” Mum asked, with the same sweetness as when I had nightmares. Humouring me, although I didn’t know it at the time.

“You know,” I replied, because I really thought she did. “Letters have colours when you say them out loud. So if you remember the colours then you remember how to spell.”

The next day they took me to a doctor. That doctor sent me to another doctor, who sent me to a specialist. There were tests and tests and more tests. The specialist, Doctor Moran, said there wasn’t anything wrong with me — which was nice to know because by then I’d started to wonder — and diagnosed synaesthesia.

And now he was in a magazine talking about the condition, and what they thought caused it, and a trial for a new technique to cure it.

Cure it.

I thought about walking down the street without all the flashes in my head like some bizarre screensaver. I thought about never having to turn down a date because someone’s voice was a colour that made me want to vomit.

The next day I phoned the magazine, and they put me in contact with Doctor Moran. He remembered me, and he was more than willing to put me on his trial. Minor surgery would implant a dispenser under the skin, and drugs would control the synaesthesia until I needed a refill.

The evening before I went in for the surgery I felt like a prisoner about to get parole, the birds’ evening chorus around me in flashes like bursting soap bubbles as I sat and watched the sunset. Nearby, a church tower chimed the hour in shades of red.  If part of me was sad I’d never get to experience it again, it was nothing on the part that was glad I could finally be normal.

Once the drugs had kicked in I went out into the streets and just listened. People yelling, car engines, mobile phones — all noise and no colours. When it got dark I went to a club and danced all night to loud music, and flashing lights that weren’t in my head. Voices became flatter, more difficult to read because I was used to seeing changes in shade. For a while I forgot how to spell, and had to go and buy a dictionary. Both were sacrifices I was willing to make.

I went, as I always did, to listen to Miranda’s orchestra in concert. It was strange listening to the murmur of the waiting audience without seeing ripples of colour, although I was relieved not to see the clashing rainbow of the performers tuning their instruments. For the first time I sat back and really listened to the music, and found myself waiting for explosions of colour that wouldn’t come.

I’d forgotten what they looked like.

The realisation made my throat tighten. I knew that the woodwind instruments had been shades of brown, that the strings were blue, but I couldn’t conjure up the image any more than I could physically remember pain. Listening to the orchestra was like watching a movie blindfolded. Tears filled my eyes, and I bowed my head so no one would see.

The rest of the concert passed in a blur. I clapped until my hands were sore and waited until the crowd had filed away and I could sit in glorious silence.

“Daniel? What’s the matter?” I hadn’t heard Miranda approach. She sat down and I wondered why I hadn’t noticed how pretty she sounded.

“I miss the colours.”

Miranda frowned. “What?”

And so I explained it, my condition and what I’d done. “I thought it would make me feel normal.”

“What will you do?”

I closed my eyes and thought about when my overloaded senses collapsed from the strain, about her beautiful voice, and about the chime of reds coming from the church.

“The drugs run out in six weeks. Miranda… would you ever date a freak?”

“No,” she replied.

I lurched to my feet and she took my hand.

“I’d date you. Colours or no colours.”

“Oh,” I said, and let her pull me down into a kiss.

C.L. Holland has a Bachelors degree in English with Creative Writing, and a Masters degree in English, and was a winner of Writers of the Future for 2008. Her secret identity is that of a humble officeworker. She has an evergrowing collection of books and expects them to reach critical mass any time now.

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Every Day Fiction

  • Paul A. Freeman

    Excellent. The vivid use of colour brought this unusual piece alive. The ending was pleasantly surprising. I was expecting something dark.

  • This is a very unusual story, and works beautifully too!five from me. Thanks!

  • Gerard Demayne

    I was hoping for something dark. Too “Lifetime movie of the week” for me. Well written, I just didn’t care for the ending which seemed too convenient.

    I do wonder why on the one hand he seems to be suffering from his condition, but on the other he deliberately goes to concerts by his flat mate – who until now he’s apparently never noticed or had any interest in – despite the cacophony and riot of colours which he’d have to endure.

    Then she immediately says she’d go out with him after he confesses he has a medical condition and is currently under the influence of (medicinal) drugs. So I’m assuming she’s had her eye on him for a while. Or he’s guilted her into going out with him because he’s “ill”. Or she’s really easy.

    Sometimes you can over-think these things.

  • Gerard Demayne

    Incidentally, is the “Writers Of The Future” award the Scientology one or one of the other ones?

  • Celeste

    I’m writing a book which features a girl with synaesthesia. I loved that story – well-structured, flowing dialogue. Very pleasing end.

  • Oscar Windsor-Smith

    This is a fascinating, well imagined (assuming the author is not in fact a synaesthete), well-written story on an intriguing subject. The only thing that stopped me voting five stars was the ending. Such an excellent story would, IMO, be set off better by a more ‘open’, thought-provoking ending.


  • Bob

    Nicely written all the way through, and I liked the fact that you allowed your hero a happy ending.

    That said, I’m with Gerard in thinking the ending came a little too “easy”; up until the very end we had no inkling that he was interested in Miranda of the puce-colored voice. A little more development of the relationship early on would have helped the conclusion.

  • I had a friend once who had this “affliction.” I envied him, in a way. So reading this story was like a brief visit with that friend. The vividness of the writing and, of course, the colors, is excellent throughout. But I was a bit disappointed in the ending. I’m not sure what I expected but what I got felt a little “grey”.

  • Roberta SchulbergGoro

    Very interesting story written in an effective deadpan style. Since everyone’s mind is “synaesthetic”, we have a story of a normal boy surrounded by abnormal people who are afraid of normal thought and want to quash it with drugs and other means. He ought to have been taught how to direct it instead. As for his noticing Miranda before the drug was taken, kissing was probably going on all the time, but he was able to give other things his attention too. Purple-brown is a lovely color. Maybe she’ll help him regain normality.

  • huh?

  • Jen

    This was a wonderful story. The imagery and writing were beautiful and I love the sentiment that not everyone has to be so-called “normal” to have a life they love. I gave it a five!

  • I liked the ending, he feels “crippled” without his synaesthesia and wants it back, then realizes he can live a normal life even with it.

  • Oh, I like a happy ending now and then; perhaps too simplistic, but a soft and sweet story goes down nicely for me today.


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  • I used to see people as colours – still do sometimes but people thought it so weird and pestered me when they found out, I stopped heeding it and now it rarely happens – and I miss it… So I identified with this.

  • Did I see you on Flashscribe?

  • C.L. Holland

    Hi, thanks for all the feedback. 🙂

    Gerard – Writers of the Future is indeed “the Scientology one”, although it actually doesn’t play any part in the competition.

    Oonah – yes you did, my story “Progress” was published over at Flash Scribe yesterday.

  • One man’s disability is another man’s super-power. Sometimes it’s both. Very nice story.

  • Good story. Definitely made me feel for the protagonist. But I’m gonna have to agree with a number of the comments about the ending. It just didn’t satisfy me and brought my rating down from five stars to four.

  • I also loved the story right up until the end. If the housemate had been featured in the story more maybe I would have felt some emotion, but as is the ending felt tacked on to an otherwise brilliant piece

  • I particularly enjoyed the metaphors surrounding his perceptions of colours – some fine writing going on there… And it was enjoyable to have a happy ending, for a change.

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