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Colour-blind

First it was motorway to Swindon; then A road to Gloucester; then B road to to Lydney; then a road, which had no name and no number, through the dark and houseless woods of the Forest of Dean to Welsh Trefford, a village a few miles from the border.

Welsh Trefford is in England. Across the Wye valley is Trefford Inglis, which is in Wales. This paradox must give the local inhabitants – amongst whom were now my old friends Bel and Steve – some amusement and satisfaction. ‘Things here are not quite they might appear’, might be another message: ‘strangers beware.’

We arrived just as a long September dusk was settling across the hills that surrounded their house on the outskirts of the village. It was a solid eighteenth-century dwelling set slightly back from the road. To the rear, I was to discover, were several outbuildings (one, with a strange faux-clocktower, painted an incongruously bright yellow) and a long lawn sloping down to a copse. This side of the house, where the others were gathered, was full of light and music. The front seemed shuttered and closed as if denying that anything was happening here, or ever had done so.

There were fifteen or so guests. Most of us had been at university together. Socially I could not have been on firmer ice. However, I often feel the need to absent myself, either in body or in spirit, from gatherings of any size, if only for a ten minutes or so now and then. Most people are able to lose themselves in a social function and become as one with it. I have never been able to. Perhaps others feel the same way but are better at disguising it.

This evening I was aware of a particular sense of isolation. The house, the garden and the event were all large enough to permit the occasional absence. At about ten, I retreated to a room full of books and browsed. An hour later, I took a turn around the house, feeling both curiously restless and also infected with lassitude. The village, or what little of it was visible, was totally dark. The front of the building was invisible. No lights were showing. More powerfully than on our arrival, it gave the impression of either having been here for ever or else not really there at all. There was something implacable and austere in its solitude. I felt, at that time, no threat from it.

I sat in the garden and watched the familiar shapes of my friends and my wife flit back and forth past the window. I felt comfortingly close to them and also very distant. The effort of even the simplest conversational ploy seemed beyond me. Above me, the stars twinkled in a black, moonless and cloudless sky.

Five minutes later I was back inside, the moment forgotten.

Penny went to bed slightly before me. When I got upstairs – we were at the very top of the house – the room was dark. Throwing my clothes onto a chair next to the window I stumbled into bed. As I dropped off to sleep I sensed a heaviness in my head that was, I was certain, due to something other than the wine.

I’m normally a very good sleeper so when I do wake in the night it’s often with a sense of unease. I felt faintly feverish but that hadn’t been what had disturbed me. It was as if I had been woken for a reason. My unease vanished, to be replaced by curiosity: for there was something odd about the room.

It took me a few moments to realise that, though it should have been dark, it was not. My watch told me it was just gone three o’clock. Feeling clear-headed and alert, I got quietly out of bed and pulled back the curtains.

Our room looked over the rear of the house. The lawn, the fence, the copse and the fields beyond were all flooded in a pale, lambent light that must have been the moon: but there was no moon to be seen, just as there had been no moon earlier. The lawn was not the dull green that moonlight normally reveals but gun-metal grey. This must be hoar-frost. I looked across the valley. Hills rose on every side, obviously creating a cold micro-climate. The yellow outhouse with its ornate little tower was recognisable but only a barely distinguishable from the structures on either side of it. Aside from its faintly lemony tinge and some similar hues on the edges of some of the moon shadows cast by the house and the trees, all the colour had been bleached from the landscape.

For several seconds everything was still. Then I saw the man.

He seemed to have emerged from nowhere, stumbling and looking over his shoulder as he hurried across the lawn. He left deep footprints in his wake which faded almost at once. He was carrying something in his arms. Within a few seconds he had vanished beyond the buildings to the left. The scene returned to its inert photographic stillness. I suddenly felt exhausted, as if I had been awake for days. I collapsed back into the bed; if, indeed, I had ever been up at all.

I woke the next day with only a vague memory of the dream. Penny was already dressed and went down just as I was getting up. I pulled back the curtains. My word, that shed was a violent colour: almost orange. Bel and Steve had only recently bought the place so I assumed it was something they’d inherited. Aside from this, the morning landscape was displayed in a range of subtle colours I’d not previously appreciated.

At about noon Steve needed to take a lawnmower back to a neighbour and I went along to give him a hand. It was just half twelve when we arrived and, after we’d got the mower out, he invited us in for a drink.

His name was Peter, in his mid sixties, a tall man with longish greying hair and slightly hooded eyes. While Steve and Peter’s wife Di chatted in the kitchen, we moved into the living room. This was over-filled, giving the impression that some items had been quite recently added to a place that was already fully-furnished. Several paintings and photos hung on the wall, with more photos on the mantelpiece. The two alcoves either side of the fireplace were painted a deep, ox-blood crimson, the one facing it faded gold and the others plain white. The double windows looked out over a garden which seemed as haphazard as the arrangement inside but in a more pleasing way.

I took all this in and then, more slowly, resumed my scrutiny. There was something that I had seen but also not seen.

We chatted for a while about this and that. He had lived in the area on and off for most of his life. He had been born in the village. While talking, I continued my survey of the room. It was like the first part of a game of Pelmanism, before the cards are turned over.

“The problem with this place,” he was saying, “is that while the beer is wonderful you can’t buy a decent bottle of wine for miles around. I don’t know why.” His manner was affable but his eyes remained watchful. “Maybe I’m just fussy. Here, try some of this. Not bought locally, I should stress.”

He moved over the side table and poured two glasses of a red wine. “It’s Bulgarian, a Starosel,” he said as he handed one to me. The name conveyed nothing. It was dark, almost black. I gave a sniff, more out curiosity than a desire to be seen as a connoisseur. It smelled dark brown and musty. I took a sip. For a few seconds nothing much happened: then there was a bright burst of magenta on the back of my tongue. On the second sip the same sensation was repeated but the colour was paler. After the third it was gone. I realised I’d drunk about half the glass. There was a grey, bitter taste in my mouth of something stale and decayed. Why had I been sensing the tastes as colours?

Peter was watching this with a thin smile on his face. “Different, isn’t it? I could tell you all about the vineyard and the grapes and so forth but most people aren’t interested in that. Are you?”

“Not particularly.”

“No matter.”

Steve and Di’s voices couldn’t be heard. It was suddenly very silent and very still. Outside, the sun drifted behind a cloud and a grey shadow rolled across the garden.

The view outside, which looked out in the same direction as did the back of Steve and Bel’s house a mile down the road, fleetingly resembled the tableau I had witnessed the night before. The colour seemed to have been stripped out of the landscape. The room itself was fading. The grey world outside was engulfing me.

Peter, a few feet to my left, seemed transfixed.

Then the sun came out again and the world once again became drenched in colour.

From the next room, I heard Steve and Di’s conversation. Di was laughing. It seemed to be the middle of a laugh. Somehow I had missed the beginning.

I felt as if I had been holding my breath in dark water. I looked around me slightly wildly. I wondered if I had in those few seconds done something foolish or indiscreet. I caught Peter’s eye and saw no surprise there. If anything he appeared satisfied, as if something he had suspected had just been confirmed..

Then Steve appeared in the doorway. “We should be off,” he said.

I drained my glass and turned to shake Peter’s hand. He looked me full in the face as he did so. At other times this might have been unsettling. “Thanks for the drink.”

“Not at all,” he said. “Very nice to have met you.”

More people turned up for lunch, a pleasant but rather confused gathering spread over several rooms and, when the sun came out, the back garden. When outside it chanced that I was sitting with a direct view of the yellow clock tower. What a colour it was. No one else had commented on it. I was going to remark on this to Steve but was talking to someone I hadn’t met before. Then he jumped up, remembering something in the oven. I turned to the woman. “So…” I began.

“Debbie!” a voice called from the house. The woman turned round.

“Yes?”

“Have you got the car keys?”

She stood up. “Excuse me,” she said and walked into the house. I was alone. There was not a breath of wind. Not a leaf moved. Then the sun went in.

As in Peter’s house, the view at once bleached. Now the tones were also inverted. The pale sky turned dark. The green grass became almost white. The only colour seemed to come from the clocktower, a faint, washed-out yellow that hung in the air around it like a sickly halo.

I didn’t see the woman at first. I noticed her only when she was about half way across the lawn, her head bowed and her feet slightly dragging. She seemed to be trembling from a powerful emotion. She was wearing a thick dress, rather warmer than the weather demanded. It looked grey but could, in the circumstances, have been any colour. Then she was gone, vanished through the wide archway in the hedge. I could see where she had walked because there were faint footprints on the pale ground as if she had been walking in snow. There was a noise like the slamming of a door. Then the footprints faded and the scene was flooded an a thousand shades of green. The sun had returned.

“…a walk,” a familiar voice said behind me. I turned round.

“What?”

“You need to get your ears tested. So do I, for that matter.” She paused and smiled. I nodded. I was in no mood to have a discussion about hearing tests. “We’re all going for a walk. Are you coming?”

I stood up. “Absolutely.” I looked round me, then up at the sky. The clouds were moving slowly but purposefully towards the sun. “Yes,” I added. “Let’s do it.”

Away from the house and in the woods and fields that surrounded it, the strange moment faded, as dreams do. I was left with only a faint nagging sensation of unease. For the next hour or so, as we all ambled in ever-changing groups across the early autumn landscape, the sun went in and came out a dozen times but I experienced nothing approaching the colourless vistas I’d seen twice that day. These dissolved the memory almost completely. By the time we returned at dusk and were cracking open the first bottles of wine they had faded to nothing.

It was after midnight when I went to bed, my head thumping. Again, Penny was there before me so the stumbling around in the dark of the night before was repeated. Again, I fell asleep quickly; and again I found myself wide awake just after three o’clock, the room suffused with a waxy light that seemed to come not from the moon, nor from the stars, nor from any lantern, light or candle.

Again, I walked towards the window. Before I reached it I glanced down and noticed the doll. It was on the chair where I’d dropped my clothes.

It was wearing a dress, blue and frilled at the edges in an elaborate and old-fashioned way. The legs were bare apart from a pair of woollen ankle socks, one red and the other green. The face, classically round and apple-cheeked, didn’t have the normal bland half-smile of most dolls. It seemed rather to have caught a real expression, as if taken from a photograph. The emotion seemed to be one of surprise. I felt a curious reluctance to touch it.

I moved slightly and jogged the chair. The doll moved and the eyes opened, the over-stated eyelashes flickering once or twice before they settled on some hypothetical point just above and beyond my left shoulder. There was something real and not-real about it. The overall impression was of something that had once had life but now had none, rather than a dummy created from plastic moulds and balls of glass in a workshop.

Why I had not seen it before was, perhaps, answered by seeing my clothes from today, and some of those from yesterday, on the floor by the chair. Clearly, in getting undressed that night before I had dropped some garments onto the edge of the chair which then fell to the floor, pulling down some of their fellows and so revealing the doll.

Only partly satisfied by this explanation, I moved over to the window. The scene was much as the night before. The familiarity let me see details that had previously eluded me. ‘Scene’ – that was the word. It was a tableau down on which I was looking, constructed with the same formal symmetry as a painting from the Dutch Golden Age. The lawn was perfectly framed by the borders on either side. At a right angle to these ran the hedge, with the opening in the exact centre. Beyond this stood the clocktower and the outbuildings on either side which, because of my higher vantage point, I could now see in their entirety. Beyond that was the copse, each tree of which now seemed blended into a harmonious whole; and, beyond that, the unbroken field on the downward slope of the valley. Rising to match these, on either side, were the hills which, like the copse, gave the impression of perfect regularity. These, and sky and the field, merged together in ever-darkening shades of grey towards a vanishing point of total black.

The scene was both intensely real and utterly lifeless; simultaneously complete and empty. I might have been gazing at an artist’s preliminary pencil and charcoal sketch, drawn to set the scene and to provide the dimensions and angles over which the colours and characters could eventually be deployed.

It was no surprise when the man appeared, again moving from right to left. At first, his progress across the canvas, carrying his burden before him, seemed identical to what I had seen last night. Then I saw that it wasn’t. Now I could see rather more of what he was carrying. It appeared to be a child. This time I managed, with some effort, to force myself to watch the scene to its end. This revealed something I had before missed: for, just before he vanished into the copse he half turned, as if checking he was not being observed. As he did so, I could see the child quite clearly in his arms.

I also saw two other things. Firstly, the child was itself carrying something else it its arms that had a human shape. Secondly I was certain, from the angle of the man’s head and the briefest of pauses before he finally ducked out of view, that he was aware he was being watched from this floor of the house.

Once again, I was suddenly drained. The tableau seemed to shimmer with uncertainty. As before, I groped my way back to bed and collapsed into a fitful and slightly feverish sleep.

It was after ten before I woke. Penny had long since got up. From three floors below I could hear the chatter of conversation, could smell coffee and bacon. I stretched and dozed. Something was missing from the moment. I was aware less of a feeling of unease than of incompleteness. After a while I sat up in bed and rubbed my eyes. They felt gritty and sore, as if I had been up most of the night. I got up and had a shower after which I felt better but still light-headed. As I came back into the bedroom, drying myself, I noticed the doll on the chair.

It seemed vaguely familiar. I took in the blonde hair, the red socks, the white dress and the bright blue eyes without any particular sense of having seen them before, or certainly not in any world which touched on what I could see all about me: the cherry-red towel in my hand; the yellow T-shirt on the floor; the green lawn stretching under a clear, fresh azure sky down towards the copse that was already decked in the infinitely subtle hues of early autumn.

I was pouring some coffee downstairs when Steve’s phone rang. “Yes, he’s right here,” He said. He passed the phone to me. “It’s Peter. We went over there yesterday.” I could tell Steve was curious as to why he was calling me. I was curious myself. I felt a flutter of apprehension.

“Peter, hello,” I said.

“Hello. Brian, isn’t it? I did get that right?”

“Yes,” I reassured him. There was a pause. I wondered if that was all he had to ask me.

“Do you own a black mobile phone? Nokia. Quite, how can I say, old fashioned?”

“Yes, I do. I must be the only person on the planet who doesn’t have a smartphone.”

He chuckled. “Well, I have your old fossil here.”

“I must have left it there when we came over yesterday,” I said idiotically. There was a pause. “Thank you very much. “Can I come over and get it? I think we’re going to be leaving quite soon.”

“Now would be perfect,” he said. I sensed a hidden edge to the remark: he could have said ‘the sooner the better’ and adopted the same inflexion.

I handed the phone back to Steve and explained what I needed to do. He offered to take me but I told him I could remember the way. It seemed important I should go there on my own.

Ten minutes later I was ringing on the bell. Peter appeared. I wasn’t expecting him to have the phone in his hand and he didn’t. Instead he ushered me in. We walked through the hall and into the same room we’d been talking in the day before. We faced each other across the sea-green carpet.

“My wife will be out for half an hour,” he said at last. It was if we were keeping some shy lovers’ tryst, neither willing to be the first to state their case. I nodded. There was another long silence. I watched the shadows move across the lawn. The sky was largely clear. I wasn’t sure if I was glad or not.

Partly as a continuation of what had been occupying my thoughts in that house the day before and partly from sheer nervousness, I began once again to cast my eyes around the room. Once again, although the sun was still out, I had the sense the rest of the world outside my immediate field of vision was fading away, that I was looking through some peculiar optical instrument that distorted perspective and shredded colour, causing me to focus on things in a way and to a level of detail that normally would not concern me. Beside me, Peter was taut with anticipation. This man, whom I had met twice and exchanged barely a hundred words with, had suddenly assumed some kind of sacramental role in my life.

Then I saw it. A small framed black and white photograph on the wall to the left of the mantelpiece. It was of a blonde-haired girl aged about six. It looked as if it had been taken about 50 years ago.

I walked towards the photo, drawn by the face. I stared at it for a few moments. The face stared unblinkingly back, the expression one of slight surprise. “Who is this?” I asked.

“My sister,” Peter said. I glanced at him. His voice now seemed less tense though I couldn’t work out why this might be. “Sally.” There was a long silence.

There was still a gulf that needed to be crossed. It was hard to know where to start.

“I saw…” I began and then stopped. What had I seen, exactly?

Peter put his hand lightly on my shoulder. “Sit down. Would you like a drink?” I nodded. He poured another glass of the dark red Starosel. I was interested to see if would have the same effect as they day before. It didn’t. All my senses seemed to have become vitiated. Peter himself was making do with water, though I suppose it could have been neat gin.

He turned and stared at the fireplace for a moment though there was nothing to see there. “Did you know that she…that we, used to live in Bel and Steve’s house, where you’re staying?”

I felt a tiny shiver run down my neck. “No, I didn’t.”

“Yes…we grew up there. She was five years younger than me.” He sighed and quickly glanced at his watch. “My parents got divorced shortly before Sally was born. My father left and Martin moved in.” Again he stared into the non-existent fire. “Martin was not an easy man. He had…problems. Depression, bi-polar disorder – perhaps more. One didn’t speak of such things in those days, of course.” He smiled grimly to himself. “My mother certainly didn’t. I think she thought it was all some kind of…illusion, a phase. Just something that the neighbours talked up because they didn’t approve.” He fixed me with a level stare. “It wasn’t.”

I said nothing. Nothing seemed to be expected of me.

“In the last year before she was…before she died, I could tell that there was something going very badly wrong. I was 12 and was just starting to notice things about how adults behave.” He let out a long sigh and stared into his drink. “Of course, with a step-father like that you probably notice more quickly than usual. The family was falling apart and we didn’t know why. My father, when we saw him, didn’t know anything about it, or didn’t seem to. Of course, I never said anything. What could I say? Where could I start? Things like that just didn’t happen, did they?” He looked away again. “Then, when you reach a certain age you start to…well you get involved as well. Complicit…at best.”

I suddenly realised that he was wanting to be forgiven. I could not do this. I tried to meet his intense stare but it was focussed behind me, as if I weren’t there and he was looking at someone sitting about three feet further back.

For no reason at all, I had a vision of flashing lights: all were white but, in a way I couldn’t define, different kinds of white.

“Then there was the blindness. Of course, that was a problem.”

“He was blind?”

“No, he wasn’t. Sorry. He suffered from achromatopsia. Fabergé’s Achromatopsia, to be exact.”

“What’s that?’

“Almost total colour blindness, like life was like in the old movies.” He took a sip of his drink. “Achromatopsia is normally associated with being hyper-sensitive to light and generally having poor vision. With Fabergé the rods are all normal – in fact, there are rather more of them. Hardly any cones, though, which detect the colour. Some yellow ones, maybe a few of the other two. So, more like watching Casablanca with a pair of slightly yellow-tinted sunglasses. Perhaps easier to imagine than normal colour-blindness.”

I nodded. “It’s genetic, I suppose.”

“Yes, like everything else, as we’re told now. It seems it’s a triple mutation, each one very rare. I think there have only been a handful of people with his condition. All male.” He drained his glass; then paused with it half-way down to the table. “It’s funny,” he said. “That’s the thing I most remember about him. Because of Sally’s clothes.” He put the glass gently on the centre of the coaster and sat back in his chair. “You’ve got odd socks on.”

I glanced down. “I know.”

“Exactly. You know and you don’t care. People don’t. It doesn’t matter now.” He smiled, to show that he was merely stating a fact, not making a judgement. “It did then. Martin didn’t know but he did care. In those days, people noticed if things didn’t match. Marked you down. If it was a child they said the parents didn’t care. Particularly in a small village. Even more important then. Martin cared a lot. He knew he wasn’t welcome in Trefford. People didn’t divorce much in those days and the new partner always got the blame.” He paused. “In fact, all of us got the blame. We were tainted. If you had a disability as well, that made it worse. You were the object of pity, and contempt. And fear, probably. The evil eye. Anyway, he needed to try to prove he was a good parent to cover up…well, the fact that he very definitely wasn’t. But he couldn’t. Because of the socks.” He stood up. For a moment I thought that was the end of the conversation. “Would you like a top up?”

“Perhaps a small one.” He refilled my glass and sat back down.

“When you can see no colours at all it becomes quite hard to disguise it. Word got out. People latch onto weaknesses like that. Particularly…particularly children.” He bowed his head slightly.

“You used to…”

“You’ve got to understand,” he said almost violently, “that he was my step-father. I didn’t hate him. I just couldn’t understand what he was doing there, in our home, why my father wasn’t there. He tried to ingratiate himself with me in other ways, as I said. Give us something in common.” He wiped his hand across his face.

I felt like doing the same. The demands of this terrible confession – which I suspected wasn’t nearly over – were starting to wear me down. I wondered why he had chosen me for this. To make matters worse, I was starting to feel very unwell: feverish, light-headed and achy.

“I can’t remember a great deal about him, to be honest. Blotted it out, I suppose. But I do remember the socks.”

We were back with socks. I took a sip of my drink and waited.

“Sally loved bright colours. Red and green in particular. She had several pairs of socks, knee-length. The kind young girls wore then. All different colours. When it was his turn to get her dressed or take her out she…we used to play tricks on him. Of course, he couldn’t tell, could he? If she said they were both green, he believed her. If he did manage to get two of the same colour on then it was quite easy to change them. I did it the first time. I’d heard about his colour blindness and wanted to see. He didn’t notice. She was entranced. Red and green – her two favourite colours, both at the same time. It wasn’t her fault, of course. Nobody blamed her.”

From the hall, a clock chimed the half hour. It was a muffled, dusty sound: old-fashioned, as chiming clocks always are. There was a faint whir as the wheels disengaged. Silence descended once more.

“Then I got quite cunning. For a week or so I’d make sure she had matching socks. I could tell Martin was relaxing. Then I’d change them. He used to get her to tell him what colours they were but she turned it into a silly game. Do you have children yourself?”

“Yes.”

“Then you’ll know how hard it is to get a straight answer out of a four-year-old. He tried not to get cross with her, I’ll give him credit for that. He took it out on the rest of us, though. For me, it was a game. A rather nasty one, I admit. He suspected but how could he know? For my mother, it must have been hell. Then, in winter, we’d switch to gloves. Same for a week or so then – bang! – the old red-green switcheroo.” He put down his glass and looked at me again, full in the face. “We gave the man no respite. Frankly, he deserved it.”

He gave me a cold smile. Any charm he had earlier used to engage my sympathy had now evaporated. I felt in his power, unable to move. There was something chilling about his single-mindedness, even after half a century.

“But you have to use power sparingly, don’t you? Not every day. Every day and they build defences. It’s like terrorism. Wait a bit, then do it again. Each time is then like the first time. Much better. If you have the patience.” He looked grimly at the fireplace. “Which I did.”

I felt that unless I contributed something I was going to slide completely into this dark world that he was unleashing. “My father used to have this thing he’d say to me at bed-time,” I ventured. “’Is is going to happen now, or is it going to happen later; or is it going to happen when you’ve forgotten all about it and are thinking about something else…?’ And then he’d tickle me. It worked every time.”

Peter nodded slowly. “Exactly. It was the uncertainty that ground him down. That’s what drove him to it in the end.”

He stood up and walked over to the French windows that looked onto the garden. Then he sat down again and took a deep breath.

“It was freezing cold –  a gloves day. The 21st of December, in fact. The winter solstice.”

I was faintly relieved at this. By repute, these kind of events happened on anniversaries. Today was not the 21st of December but the 22nd of September. This rang a faint and sinister bell in my mind. Of course – the vernal equinox. Much of my unfocused unease returned.

Peter had paused, as if to let the implications of his last point sink in. Now he resumed the story. “Earlier, Sally had gone out with colours all over the place. She thought it was wonderful. Someone had said something to him, I think – no one admitted it later, of course – that must have really hurt. How he was a freak, a wife-stealer, a rotten father. He didn’t drink that often. When he did, he really went for it. And, of course, took it out on my mother.” He paused. “She knew, I think, what was going on. With Sally. She must have. She missed her chance to stop him. Like me. That gave him an extra power over her.

“My room was on the top floor, on the right. Sally’s was on the left. There were things being broken…screaming, crying. I got up and went halfway down the stairs. I heard him coming up and went into the bathroom on the landing below. He didn’t see me. I heard him get Sally up. She started crying too. A couple of minutes later he came down. He must have been carrying her but I had the door closed. He just walked out of the house and slammed the door. My mother was still screaming and wailing. I didn’t know what to do.”

There was another long silence. Peter closed his eyes. There was no question of his trying to remember what happened next: he re-lived that every day. He was gathering his strength. For fifty years he has held all this inside, revealing a bit here and a bit there. Now, for the first time, the whole thing was being acted out for my unwilling and inexplicable sole benefit.

“For some reason,” he began slowly, “he didn’t go out onto the road, towards the village, but out the back, across the garden. There’s a path on the left that leads through Lacey’s Copse. At the other side of that there used to be a railway line that ran down to Lydney. Gone now. You’d walk along the track for a mile or so and there was a station between Trefford and Dryslade. It was dark, of course. He was carrying Sally. Running, probably, to catch the last train.”

The white lights came back, flashed a couple of times in an angry way, and were gone. I felt as if I was going to retch.

Peter was talking again. “He probably didn’t hear the train, as if he was deaf as well as blind. The lights may have confused him as well. Who knows? Anyway, the train hit them. Both killed outright.” He paused, then shifted in his chair.

No reaction seemed to be expected of me. I felt a sharp pain in my head as if I’d been shot.

“My mother heard the news about an hour later. Old Owen Walker came up from the village to tell her. She was quite calm about it.” He looked at me, his expression was utterly blank. “She thanked him, got up, went out into the outbuilding – that one with the clocktower on it – loaded a .22 shotgun, put it in her mouth and…”

Peter stopped talking and remained perfectly still. Part of me wanted to say something to ease his pain. Then I realised I didn’t need to.

I was at that moment struck by a more powerful and immediate sensation. My skin felt hot, my eyelids felt gritty, my throat felt sore. I put down my glass and sat back in the chair. The edges of my vision were blurred and flickering slightly. Directly ahead were the windows leading to the garden. The sun went in and the shadows rolled across the lawn, the bushes, the wall to the right of the house, draining the life and colour from them all. The last thing I remember of that day was Peter standing over me, filling my narrowing field of vision. His mouth was twisted into a strange smile that might have been one of triumph: but the rest of his face wore a bleak expression that could have masked any emotion.

*                *                *

I have no recollection of how I got back to Bel and Steve’s nor how I got back home. For some time afterwards I was neither fully conscious nor fully awake. The backdrop was of flickering lights, shivering sweats, intense, searing headaches and a swirl of images that constantly fractured into ever-more complicated patterns, each demanding of me some kind of classification or solution that I could not provide. In the more lucid moments, these presented themselves one by one, as if on a broken television set. Most of the time they swarmed around me like bats, combining and separating at will and jeering at me with voiceless cries of delirium.

I woke up from all this clear-headed and ravenous. I called out. Penny came in, smiled and sat down on the bed. She put her hand on my forehead. “Welcome back. You look better.”

“I feel better. What day is it?”

It was Thursday evening. We’d left Trefford on Sunday afternoon.

I lay back and half closed my eyes. I tried to arrange the events of the weekend in my mind but failed. The scene that was clearest was the very last one, with Peter’s face peering down at me with that mask-like expression.

All Penny was able to tell me was that I’d collapsed at Peter’s house. A doctor had been called. I’d been to hospital, spent a night there and gone home in an ambulance. I could remember virtually nothing of this, beyond some bright lights and a drip being put in my arm.

“Was I tested for poison?”

“Poison? Why? Not as far as I know. You had a fever.”

I thought about this for a while. Slowly I started to remember other things. The clocktower, the doll, the people walking across the garden, the tricks of colour – but what had I imagined, suggested to me by the things Peter had told me, and what had actually happened?

After a while I started to become fretful. As night began to fall I could sense the chaotic demons gathering around me, waiting to resume their assaults.

I called Steve and told him I was trying to piece the weekend together..

He was little more help than Penny had been. I’d met Peter twice. On Saturday he had no idea what we’d discussed as he’d been in the other room talking to Diana. The second time, when I’d collapsed, I’d gone there on my own.

“Have you got his number?”

There was a short pause. “He’s…they’ve gone away. Went early this week. I’ve no idea where. We don’t know them very well.” His words seemed a bit rushed.

I thanked him and hung up. I lay in bed and tried to arrange what I could remember into two piles: things that had really happened and things that hadn’t. Into the first went most of the conversations with Peter, waking up on both nights, the walk in the afternoon, the woman on the lawn and the doll. Into the second went the night-time visions, the shifting colours I had from time to time experienced and some parts of the what Peter had said. There were also a number of impressions and briefer incidents that I couldn’t classify. I had mentioned none of these at the time. Peter was away. It was all therefore down to me to sort out. Then I saw there was one thing I could establish, I called back and Bel answered.

“I’ve been thinking about that doll,” I said once she’d asked how I was.

“What doll?”

“The one on the chair, in the room we were sleeping in.”

She laughed. “There’s no doll there. We’ve only got sons, remember?”

I thought about this. I had touched it. I could still feel the smooth sheen of the plastic beneath my fingers, could remember the rustle as I ran my hand down the dress. My previous certainty on this point evaporated…and yet, I had touched it. It had been there. I could feel my mind spinning. More than ever I wanted to talk to the one person who could help anchor my recollections.

“A shame about Peter,” I said.

“Yes,” Bel agreed. There was a pause. “Fortunately the doctor got there in time on Monday. I don’t know what he’d taken. Then he was raving, apparently. Awful. I don’t know when he’ll been out of hospital.” She paused. “Steve mentioned this?”

“Oh yes,” I replied, “he said he was away.” She seemed re-assured.

Steve had obviously been being kind to me. That he had felt the need to do so made me more alarmed still. Whatever had happened had twisted not one mind but two. For the first time I wondered if this tragedy, the details of which I could only partly remember, was over. I felt fearful: also inexplicably guilty; and, above all, terribly sad.

I now realised I had one more thing to ask. “How long have he and Diana been married?”

“What an odd question. Why?”

“Just interested,” I said with a brightness I was far from feeling. “Trying to piece it all together, you know.”

“Since you ask and since I know, not very long. He mentioned something when we met him about his having been a confirmed bachelor until he met her, about three years ago I think. She was a widow. Yes, I remember now – he said they’d bought the house just after they got married. Did you know he grew up in Trefford, in our house, in fact?”

“Yes. He did mention that.” There was a pause. I could tell she wanted to ask me more but I had too much to think about. “Thanks. See you soon.”

So, he’d told no one but me. A late-life marriage needs to avoid secrets like this. Probably he’d had no one else to tell. I shivered under the duvet. What had passed between us had done so in a time of half-light to which there was no return. What I had unwittingly been given was now mine to keep. I doubted that, even if he were prepared to discuss it, he would be anything more than a highly unreliable narrator. All those years it had been inside him, trapped until I had appeared in his life, weak with a feverish susceptibility.

For about five minutes, this almost convinced me. Then I saw that this assumption depended on the events unrolling in a certain order, that I had been told things by him before I’d seen them for myself. I could now never be sure that this was the case.

I slipped into a fitful sleep, sure that there was still one certainty that eluded me.

I was suddenly awake. Penny was asleep beside me. Moonlight was streaming into the room through the unclosed curtains. I looked at my watch. It was exactly three o’clock. I got up and moved over to the window. One of the cats was lying on the chest at the foot of the bed, his limbs spread wide in an almost artificial pose of relaxation. I reached down and stroked my hand down his flank.

Then I knew what I had missed.

The doll had been real, as real as the cat. There was no doubt in my mind. Bel had known nothing of it but this didn’t matter. I knew what I had touched and seen.

It was an hour later, as I lay restlessly in bed, that the real truth hit me. On Sunday morning, both the doll’s socks had been red: but the first time I had seen it, on Saturday night, one had been red but the other one green.

Brian Quinn

• For further articles, please click here
• For rants and musings set to music, please click here
• For
Colour Blind the song, written after finishing this story, please click here

 

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