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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