Coloured Babel

I was listening to somebody talking at the next table in Starbucks the other day. Well, actually, it could have been any day, because I like to listen. I figure it’s sort of like window shopping. Anyway, the grey haired man sitting next to me was leaning over his table and whispering to another younger looking man, and nothing attracts my curiosity more than a whisper.

Some of what he was telling his friend was lost in the babel of louder words that seems to define coffee shops, and what I heard was initially trivial: he was losing the colour of his words. Nice metaphor, but commonplace, nonetheless, so I turned my attention back to my sausage and egg sandwich which I had separated into its component parts so the egg and the meat could both cool. I began to center them more appropriately on their respective bun-halves, when I heard the word colour again –this time reiterated more clearly by the younger man. I centred my ears on their table.

“You mean different words have different colours for you?” The young man sounded excited, so I focussed my ears.

“Not all words, Sydney, just names, mainly –but only some names.” the grey man whispered in response.

The young man appeared to think about that for a moment. “Nothing else –no other words?”

Grey closed his eyes and was silent for a second or two. “Well, maybe the months had colours once…”

“How about the days?”

Grey shook his head. “No, just months and certain names.” He appeared to sigh, although I couldn’t hear it in the din. “And now, even they seem to be fading…” He looked unhappy. “My wife’s name, for example. Flora was green…”

That seemed obvious, even banal to me, so I withdrew into the relevant details of my sandwich arrangement. The last remnant of my ear shopping trip was the fact that Grey was divorcing Flora so maybe that had something to do with it fading. Sydney’s name was still the colour black, he said, though –I didn’t feel like psychoanalyzing that any further.

And yet, that snippet of overhearing started me thinking about synaesthesia. It’s some sort of cross-synapsing, or maybe alternate routing of messages in the neurons, I think I recall reading. Colours get attributed to sounds, or numbers and the like. I remember reading Oliver Sacks’ ‘Musicophilia’ where he mentioned some of his patients’ ability to see notes or chords –even key signatures- in colour. Numbers have colours for me as well when I think about them, but I only feel the colours –I don’t actually see them coloured on a page.

It’s interesting to me how some abstruse topics like that somehow materialize out of the gestalt, seem to grow like crystals for a while, and then dissolve once again into the void as if they’d never existed. Retirement fodder…

I decided to have breakfast in the local bakery a few days ago. I rarely go there in the morning and didn’t realize it would be so busy. All the tables were full, but I saw a red-sleeved arm waving from one of them; it was attached to a person I hadn’t seen for months -or maybe even years. I think she’d been away. I groaned inwardly, realizing I was trapped.  I remembered that she seemed always to have done or read something bizarre and then wrapped herself in it like a patriot in a flag. Basically harmless, and sometimes childlike, the last one, I think, was her fairy phase. She believed she’d been given the power to grant wishes to the select few who asked, but unfortunately, after she was medicated, she lost her powers, and had settled back into the shadows –at least until now.

“Shirley,” I said, walking over and sitting down in the seat she was pointing to. “I haven’t seen you for a while now. Were you on vacation?”

Her face lit up and although she barely nodded her head, I could see she was excited to tell somebody about it. “I was in Europe,” she answered, leaning across the table conspiratorially, but with a wink that commanded me to ask more about it.

“And…”

But I couldn’t even finish the sentence. “I was in Greece studying, actually…”

I took a bite of my bagel and smiled. I didn’t need to encourage her.

“Colours,” she continued. “I was studying colours.”

I nodded, to show her that I could both eat and listen at the same time, but she stopped talking and just stared at me. Clearly, I was required to ask her to explain, but before I could finish my mouthful, she decided to skip that step.

Word colours,” she added, scanning my face for interest. “I’ve always thought that language –words- should be assigned colours…” Although I was still chewing, I tried to smile. “This was a course for synaesthetes actually…” She tightened her eyes to see if she needed to define the term, but I nodded recognition and her whole face relaxed and welcomed me to her table.

“I’m not a practicing synaesthete, as you probably know…” Actually I didn’t know, and it’d never occurred to me to even ask. “But I thought I’d pretend I was writing an article on the subject, so they opened up to me.” She immediately sighed, grinned toothily at her cleverness, and then sent her eyes out to capture me again. “Most of them were grapheme-colour synaesthetes, you know -the ones who see words or numbers in colours,” she explained. “But most of those only felt the colours rather than actually saw them…” She obviously thought this deserved a shrug. “I suppose that’s still synaesthesia …” She seemed disappointed, though –as if the ones who couldn’t actually see coloured words were just the poor cousins: wannabes who had gone to the conference to improve their skills.

I went,” she continued, “because I have always felt that although some words maybe already have colours, many many more deserve them.” Her forehead ruffled pedagogically. “So I went to Greece to learn how to colour them for other people. I think that a coloured language would be far more descriptive, far more… poetic.” She deliberately italicized the word, maybe hoping that might somehow colour it. But although I think I saw the italics, there was still no colour that I could detect.

I had finished my bagel by this stage, and so I suppose she felt she now had permission to ask some questions. “What do you think?”

I sipped at my coffee to buy some time to think. “You mean, about whether or not words deserve colours…?”

Her eyes suddenly morphed into saucers and her face wrinkled from forehead to chin when I said that; I have to admit I recoiled slightly, fearing I may have triggered something in her again. “How did you do that?” she said, barely able to say the words.

I cocked my head, puzzled at her reaction. “Do what?”

Colour that word?” Her eyes circled around my face like a pair of bees near a flower, but then they flew away.

I was lost. “What word did I colour?”

She recalled her eyes, and hid them briefly in shadows. At first I thought maybe one of the overhead lights had burned out, but nobody else in the room seemed to notice. Her eyes peered out at me as if they were tethered to perches beside her nose. From a safe distance they were inspecting me more closely than before, as if they were looking for a special amulet, or ring that I might be wearing. And her face wore that mysterious smile I’d seen so long ago: the fairy smile. “Even the Syns couldn’t do that,” she said with reverence. Then she laughed with a delightful tinkling sound and touched my hand as if I’d finally been unveiled as an undercover member of her synaesthesia church. She winked conspiratorially -a gift she thought she owed me for the coloured word.

Suddenly she scraped her chair back from the table and stood up. She still seemed impressed. “You are one of us…” she whispered loudly, her eyes almost pleading with mine to confess. And then she was gone, slipping through the crowd like a fish swimming through some reeds.

I could only stare at her as she disappeared, and felt a little sad that the doctors had decided she needed medication.

Some of us are afraid of magic.

 

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