Thursday, 4 October 2012
An excerpt from The Colourist (a big book of a story!)
Gifted with an extraordinary perception of colour, Rosa Carmichael looks back upon the events of her unusual life as assistant to a colourblind scientist, lover of a French soldier in Marrakech and mother to their daughter when he disappears. Now, at 88 years old, she feels the urgency of making sense of her past for her daughter's sake, unaware that it is about to catch up with her.
Am I dead yet?
I open my eyes slowly. Bright light fills the room. God or sun? I’m not sure.
And some early morning traffic noise, a thin yellow streak of birdsong. I wiggle an exploratory toe, feeling the rub of warm cotton. I doubt the afterlife affords such tangible sensations, so I must be lying in bed, my body barely disturbing the heavy white bed linen purchased from a Sicilian market trader many years ago. I remember his smoky breath as he leant too close and told me that these sheets would last a lifetime. Of course, this could have been a matter of days or months had I met with an unfortunate accident, but half a century later, here I am and here are the sheets. My room is pale: white walls; a white bed. Here and there are little collections of the colours I like together. It is a reassuring room; ordered, complete.
A prolonged struggle to kick my way out from under the covers leaves me rather out of puff. I consider calling my daughter to tell her that I’m still alive, but she’s in such a state of denial about death that she’ll look at me in that way she has, then I'll be sad for making her sad. Instead, I pour a restorative nip of brandy for breakfast from the secret bottle that I keep badly hidden behind the tissues in my bedside table and, in dressing gown and slippers, ease myself into the armchair at the writing desk by the front window. The rays of a pale sun squint through the curtains, warming my skin as the brandy clears a path to my stomach. Its fumes send little pin-like shivers to my nose so I close my eyes and think of the task at hand. Perhaps I’ll begin today.
At eight o’clock my daughter gives her three tentative taps at the bedroom door, wary of what might lie within. ‘Hello!’ I call hoarsely and can sense the relief in her tread as she crosses the room with the bitter herbal concoction she makes me drink. I realise I’ve left the brandy bottle out, but she graciously fails to see it. She’s an old woman herself now and sometimes I selfishly worry that I’ll outlive her. This thought fills me with horror; surely, after all this preparation, I'll be released to meet my maker first?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, of late. There’s nothing like impending death to necessitate the sorting out of one’s beliefs. I prefer to imagine we’re thrown together by cataclysm, a little big bang. Even simply pieced together by chance is better than being deliberated over, perhaps even recycled.
We chat for a while about this and that and I try to avoid the tea, which is the colour of pondwater and has things floating in it. It’s Chinese and made from some ground-up vegetable matter, and I’ve long forgotten what benefits I might gain from it. Then Anna gets up from the foot of the bed where she has perched her spindly frame and leaves me the newspaper, neatly folded, the crossword already completed but still dusted with the smattering of rubbings-out.
‘Mum?’ she hovers in the doorway.
‘Yes darling?’ Although I know what she’s going to ask.
‘Are you going to start today?’
‘Perhaps,’ I smile, childishly wanting to keep my plans to myself, for now. She nods and closes the door behind her. I pour the tea down the sink and settle myself at my dressing table, shuffling my bony behind into the cushion. I reach for the letter, tucked away in the drawer, with its three sparsely-worded lines that have provoked the mind’s imaginings. No, I won’t read it again; instead I bring out a faded photo of a girl in huge trousers and a ghost of a white scarf, taken in a long-ago desert. I nod to her, as if to signal resolve. I haven’t a lot of time to waste.