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Shades Of Grey

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All was black. He had seen his last light, like the last ray of sunshine leaving the earth at dusk on the evening of the apocalypse. There was no hope of a bright moon coming to him out of the darkness, or stars showing themselves, eager to be wished upon. No hope of tomorrow’s dawn to bring a rebellious flicker of light to his heart.

We are all logs on a wide river, being swept along in life, Watched. Some of us are big logs, destined to knock into others, to change the courses of other people’s lives for better or for worse through powerful decisions. Many of us are smaller logs, who drift along, our lives being changed indirectly by the bigger logs we never meet. We only change the courses of the smaller logs, through our brief encounters with them as we roll forever forwards. All these logs are affected by their personal route through the river, and no two routes are identical. Some meet rocks that stop them for a while, before they change their course. Others meet little resistance on their path, but the undercurrent that finally sinks them. Some logs sink early. Some duck under for a few seconds, so the Watcher may think they have been sunk, but to his surprise and delight, they bob back to the surface with all the defiance and tactlessness natural to humans.

The news hit Timmy like a particularly heavy steamroller, but it hit his father harder. The doctor used lots of words that he didn’t understand. Those he did know were almost as hard to contemplate. Shocked, he sat there. For what seemed like hours, his normally active mind drifted in and out of the conversation, sluggish with an overload of information, and thinking about logs on a river.

With his conscious mind, he heard Doctor Stephenson say “irreversible” and “permanent” and pulled himself out of the morass of his thoughts and back into the real world, in time to catch his father with tears in his eyes. It was the first time he had seen his father cry. It would also be the last. He sank back into his reverie.

No doubt this was his big rock, this illness, something he might take a long time to find a course around. His father was also bumping against the same rock, out of love and sympathy for his boy. They had been inseparable as logs since Timmy’s birth, nine years ago, influencing each other’s lives every day. They had been inseparable as people through their mutual love and respect from the day that Tim’s mother had died in a car-crash. She was just twenty-six, and Tim only three. It was his father who called him Timmy.

He was pulled roughly from his dreamland into the doctor’s office again when some leaflets were passed into his hand. He didn’t glance at them, as he sensed an awkwardness in the atmosphere, in the way his father was looking at him, collecting yet more leaflets and pressing them into his hands to get his attention. The doctor was looking at him impatiently, and Timmy had the feeling that he had been asked a question.

“Sorry Sir, I was thinking about…about how I am going to cope,” he mumbled, embarrassed. The doctor smiled, immediately all charm and understanding once again. He asked for the third time if Tim understood, and Tim said he did, and then they were allowed to leave the warm creams of the office, pamphlets in hand. The receptionist saw them leave, as she saw so many others: shoulders bowed under a weight not present before, arms crossed against a new dread harsher and colder than the chilly wind stirring up the autumn reds.

In his dad’s pick-up truck on the way home, there was silence. Timmy saw that his father was trying to find the right words to say how he felt, so he left him to it. He glanced at the man beside him, and, without realising what he was doing, began a process that would shape his days to come.

He took in the way his father’s back arched, as if carrying a heavy load. Once when he was younger, sat in the pick-up with his hair blowing in the wind like so many blades of grass, Timmy had asked his father why his back was bent like that.

“It’s all that carrying you around as a baby Timmy-my-boy,” his father had said with a twinkle in his eye. Timmy had protested, until his father had told him a story of sorrow. Of how he had lost his parents and his brother in a house fire when he was younger. He had been working in the fields with their neighbour, Higgins, and his boys at the time, raising a new fence along some land. When he got home he found his house razed to the ground, his family with it, and all he had ever known crushed by the falling timbers and consuming fire. His brother gone, and he had never apologised for borrowing his shirt and ruining it. His mother and father moved on, never again to offer him comfort. He moved in with the Higgins family, and they treated him like a son. He gained the house and land, but he wanted nothing to do with it, lending the land to Higgins, and leaving the plot where the house had been black and burnt. After a short while, he found happiness again in his love for Higgins’ daughter, Lucy. She was a few years younger than her new housemate, but she adored him, and him her. They became inseparable, re-built the old house together, married. Inseparable until the day the drunk driver took her life, and the life of Timmy’s unborn sister with it. Sorrow and Death were the reasons for his father’s hunched back.

Timmy took in the way the Sorrow and Death stayed in his father’s back, like it was a cage for all the misery of his father’s life. The creased face he wore was not creased at the brow from years of frowning, but at the eyes, where the wrinkles at the corners split off from one another. They had forced his father’s earlier tears from one river into many distributaries, flowing into the sea at his jaw. The maze of cracks and channels that framed this beloved face were wrinkles of laughter. Timmy spotted one on the bridge of his father’s nose, and thought that that wrinkle might be a new one. That wrinkle might be one his father had made today, to show his sadness for his son.

As Timmy was scrutinizing every loving detail on his father’s face, and more besides, his father started to speak. Timmy could not remember most of what he had said afterwards, he was seeing his father properly for the first time. The way his coat melted around his body, the way his pockets were bulkily filled with useful things, the way his chin had a little dimple in the centre. Timmy saw for the first time why women found his father attractive, and Timmy felt for the first time a rush of gratitude towards his father for bringing him up alone, the two of them, without allowing another woman to try to take the place of his mother. He thought of the logs again, and realised that he and his father could beat down the bigger logs and even the rocks if they worked as a team.

When his father stopped speaking, Timmy looked at him with his grey eyes, striated with blue, and smiled at him. He told his father of the logs. Of how they were both little logs, made just to move along their own path, but that they were powerful together. That between them, Timmy and his father could do anything, even if in the end, it turned out not be a big-something, but an almost-nothing, because, after all, little logs aren’t destined to move big logs and gather everything along with them, they are destined to Be. Timmy’s father stared at him in shock, but with love. His boy, his little Timmy-Boy, was so perceptive; he would never need his eyes to see the world.

Timmy looked at the world in a new way the next morning. Like he may never see it again. He got up earlier than he needed to, so that he could watch the sunrise before his chores. He soaked in its light and beauty, drank it thirstily through his eyes and his skin. He watched the orange peek its head above the horizon, and saw the sky turn pink. Red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning he thought, but the beauty before him was not diminished by this prophecy. Patches of blue in a sea of grey, he thought as he looked at the sky above him. Just like my eyes.

He started from his inspection of the morning clouds, thick, and heavy with rain, as the cock crowed, and hurried to the coop. He quickly counted the chickens, and led them into the outer enclosure with a hand of corn, marvelling at the colours in their feathers. He collected the eggs, so round. A few were dark brown and more were a creamed-coffee colour. Some had freckles, and more than a few had earth and straw stuck to them. His father found him later, sitting on the wall, studying the eggs in his box. Before Timmy heard his footfall, his father noticed a concentrated melancholy in the boy, an aura of sadness around him that floated there as if he had repelled all of the happiness within a foot of his soul. Then his son heard him, and looked up, and the darkness within him was flattened and covered with a bright, cheery face, so quickly that his father wondered if he had been imagining Timmy’s mood, a reflection of his own perhaps. How long did the doctor say? 5 days at most? He might be seeing the effects already.

“How’re you feeling Timmy-my-boy?” He said. His eyes said far more than his words. Timmy looked into them. For a minute they were grey, before he blinked in surprise and once again they were a deep blue, like the patches between the clouds.

“I’m fine Dad. Just looking at the eggs.” But Timmy’s father had seen the flicker of worry that crossed his son’s eyes when he looked up, and he knew it had already started. He looked deeply into those pools of slate and aquamarine, tried to see into Timmy’s eyes, see the wrongness there, perhaps a glimmer of the evil that had embedded and fed on those young orbs, but he saw no deeper into the dark pupil than before. He patted him on the shoulder, and Tim left to wash the eggs for delivery.

Inside the barn, Timmy ran the water and began to gently scrub the dirt off the eggs. He did this every morning within minutes, but today, he was fascinated by the run of the tap, the fluidity of the water, how it was colourless but every colour at once. He saw not individual drops of water but a stream of them, and even the running water could have been as still as an icicle suspended from the head, except where it hit the sink bowl, and the ice was smashed into a million pieces, while at the same time it regained its fluidity and rolled to the drain. Timmy stood there, and gazed at this spectacle. It seemed like his eyes were hungry for these everyday wonders. He felt his brain lovingly storing the sight of every curve of the water, every drop that flew free from the gush, or jumped as it hit the basin to land on Tim’s face. He looked down at his shirt. A grey polo neck, already scuffed with patches of darker grey from his work with the chickens. It too was splattered with the darker grey water, as were his grey jeans. He blinked, and his jeans were blue again, and his shirt green with a yellow stripe. He was not worried anymore; he knew what was happening to him. He knew he should tell his father, but he did not want his father to know the end was so soon.

Trying not to think of the colourless world he was being repeatedly plunged into, Tim packed his panniers with the eggs and continued the day’s jobs. He had a list pinned to the kitchen wall, but he had memorised it long ago. That’s a good thing then! he thought to himself, in a simple, distinctly feminine voice. This was the voice that spoke to him of practicality, and the voice that he supposed was also his conscience. Timmy had decided long ago that it was his mother’s voice. Perhaps deep down, he remembered her speaking to him, maybe even saying a goodbye the day she died.

Mrs Brown would want six potatoes and fresh herbs, as it was a Friday, as well as her usual salad leaves. And the eggs, of course. Doubtless the Sharnier family would want their usual tub of strawberries, their weekly cabbage, and any spare beans his father had to offer. Timmy knew all the names, knew all the treats they would give him to thank him, but he still tested his memory on the list anyway. It was more important now. He rode his bicycle all around the village, delivering goodies to the families and collecting payment for his father. Most houses gave him biscuits and cakes for himself, though he always shared them with his dad.

The leaves on the ground were picked up in whorls and eddies. They swooped and played around the boy’s feet, ducking and diving through the wheels of his bicycle, children around the legs of a favourite uncle. Multitudes of red, and gold, green-tinted yellow flew all around him, some as high as his head and others slipping along the dirt track, gathering dust. Timmy was overwhelmed with the colours. A red followed by a green. A deep auburn drifted past. A white skeleton of a leaf scudding on a breath of wind, all delicacy and detail. Enthralled, he watched this stately dance, the rise and fall of the smallest petals and the largest sycamore leaves, beautifully choreographed. Some piled beneath a tree, not by man’s hand, but by nature’s, a winter blanket for the cold earth. He wandered if the Watcher on the river co-ordinated these movements, or if these delighted him too, like watching the logs.

That night, as Timmy was getting into bed, his father came in. They talked for a while, and Timmy described the dance of the leaves to him, told his father of the depth of the colours as they swirled around him. His father smiled, and nodded his head, but inside he was proud of his boy. Proud of the way in which Timmy was going to cope. He almost told the boy, but he stayed silent. He did not know why, but he sensed Timmy was memorising these images. Perhaps he was not realising it, or perhaps he had decided it would help him, but he was soaking the beauty of the earth into his skin to prepare himself for the days ahead.

Tim woke to a boom of thunder, then rain, battering the roof of their cottage. He saw it sliding down his windows, and realised he had not closed the shutters the night before. A large drop at his window began its crawl down. Like an insect it moved, stopping and starting again. More drops joined it; they seeped into one another and egged each other on, down the windowpane and into the grass, there to be eaten by the sun-baked ground.

He slid himself out of bed and hurried through the kitchen to the barn, his bare feet slapping the terracotta tiles. Their draft horse, Kevin, was awake and afraid. The goats, Ginger and Paprika, were also nervous, walking around their enclosure aimlessly. He let them out, and led them into Kevin’s space, closing the door carefully behind him. He then sat with all three animals, comforting them, stroking the horse whilst the goats settled in the straw. He sensed the animals react to his comforting hands and his warm words, and he watched their shoulders move with each breath, and marvelled at the life they breathed in, the way their bodies rippled with energy.

Like the water pouring on the ceiling was washing it all away, the colour began to seep out of everything. Tim found the floor as everything darkened, and made sure there was nothing he could hurt himself on. Within a minute, all around him was grey. His Ginger, aptly named, was grey, and the straw she slept on a lighter grey. The barn cat sleeping on the top of the wall opposite was black and a light grey. He looked at the dressing gown he still wore, and saw that it was not white with blue pinstripes, as it had been the night before, but a light grey and a slightly darker grey. Tim felt as though he was looking at an old photograph.

Everything was in black and white, as if all colour had been removed from the world. He sat there for a few minutes, marvelling at the sight around him, before he grew aware of a new darkness in the grey. The cat was no longer light grey with black, but a dark grey with black, as if now the light was also seeping from the photograph. The room got dimmer and dimmer, until Tim could hardly see his hand when he held it up in front of him. Quietly, Tim sat still. He knew what this was, knew that it was coming, but that didn’t stop him from being at least a little scared. Kevin picked up his anxiety, and snorted, making Timmy jump. He could not see where Kevin was. He could not see Ginger anymore. Nor Paprika. If it weren’t for the dawn light at the door to the barn, he might have been blind.

His father found him an hour or so later. He had curled up in the straw with the animals and gone to sleep. The black and white barn cat had curled up with him, and its tail was flicking dreamily over Timmy’s face, making the boy sniff and snort in his sleep. He gently woke his son as the animals began to get restless. The storm had finished, even the rain was slowing, and the goats wanted to be milked. Timmy sat up with his eyes closed, and the barn cat grumbled and slunk to a quieter corner of the stall. When Timmy opened his eyes, his father got the impression there was doubt there, or perhaps a quick flash of fear, the kind that crosses a kids face when ripping off a plaster. Do it quick, like a plaster, and it won’t be so bad, he thought, but he could not say why he got that impression from his son’s behaviour. Again, he asked Timmy how he was, if he was feeling okay, and Timmy smiled at him and said he was, and his father had to believe him.

By the time Timmy had collected the eggs and washed them, both goats had been milked, and he was able to set off on his rounds. He considered telling his father of the earlier darkness, in case he should have problems on his bike ride, but he didn’t. He knew everybody in the village, he would have to just crawl to a house nearby and ask them to help him. In that way he would not be worrying his father.

He set off, past the Higgins house, and off down the road. Old Higgins had died early last year, causing his father a lot of grief. Higgins’ boys had all left home, gone on to other villages, and one to the town, like seeds taken by the wind of life to faraway plots of land. Mother Higgins, as his father always called her, lived in the house alone. She often visited for Sunday lunch, or to borrow some eggs, but she refused to move in to their spare room, insisting that she was old, but independent. Tim resolved to go and see her after his rounds, and take her some of the cake he would earn.

He took the longest route home he could, preferring to see the fields and all his neighbours. He saw the wheat in the baker’s field, being blown in the wind like waves in water, ripples across the surface colliding with one another and causing the wheat to sway and bow. He watched a flock of jet-black crows perch on a scarecrow, and smiled as he watched them peck at the scarecrow’s hair in defiance. He took a rest from the bike, and lay on his back, stock still near the scarecrow’s feet, patient, hardly daring to breathe. And when the crows lit on the scarecrow again, Timmy jumped up, and the crows took to the sky in fright, whirling and swooping high, cawing at this new and unexpected face. He laughed in delight at the crows’ reaction, saw them circling the scarecrow, too afraid to settle down again.

Mother Higgins’ house had a small garden in front of it, where she planted her flowers that she grew to sell. There was a little stepping-stone path that weaved through the flowerbeds to the front door, and after leaving his bike propped against the picket fence, Tim hopped and skipped along the path. He didn’t bother to knock, instead opened the door and shouted to his grandmother. A warm, bumbling woman, rosy cheeked but wrinkled, appeared at the door to the kitchen, knitting in her hands. She smiled when she saw him, and cupped his face in her hands, almost poking him in the eye with the knitting needles.

“Oh my, Timothy, how you’ve grown,” she said, peering at him. “It’s like I haven’t seen you in months!”

This, of course, was not true. Tim had been to her house before they went to the doctor’s in the town over the way. Only three days ago now, but it seemed far longer. Seemed to Tim like it was another lifetime entirely. He had the feeling that Mother Higgins meant that he had grown in wisdom and maturity, as opposed to height. Timmy supposed his father thought the same from the way he looked at him sometimes. Imminent life changes had a way of making men out of little boys.

Once they were sat at the little table, eating a small coffee cake that Mrs Hawkins had given him, Timmy told her about the scarecrows in the field, and his bike ride around the village. He told her of the leaves the day before, and the river of logs, and even about the Watcher. He poured his heart out to his grandmother in the way only children can, telling her the latest episodes in his life. Unlike most children, Timmy already had a sense of importance, and left out the more trivial details.

When he was finished, Mother Higgins told him of her flowers, and her baking. She told him of her knitting, and how she found it monotonous, but that it kept her hands busy in the large, lonely house. While she talked, Timmy watched her. He watched her like he had watched his father in the truck, memorising every detail of her face. Her eyes, once a blue, had lightened with age, and were now a blue uncannily similar to Tim’s grey, and sunken into a maze of laughter lines and crows feet. Her face was also shaped by laughter, like his father. Deep lines ran from her nose to the corners of her mouth, and they were not so much distributaries, as his father’s were, but canyons. Her lips were thin and lipstick-free, framing her teeth in a natural pink.

She had a beauty mark on her forehead, which she had told Timmy was a sign of a good heart. Her curling hair was pulled into a knot at the back of her head, a sleek bundle of grey. She wore a demeanour that was full of pride, a shawl of emotion against the cruel, cold world. She had lost everyone she had ever loved, but Timmy and his father. She was the oldest person in the village, and none of her neighbours were her own generation any longer. She was a lonely woman, but a capable one. After the death of her husband, she had found her own means of living, planting and selling the beautiful plants she grew in her garden: roses of every shade of red, pink and white imaginable, sweet peas and blue bells, daffodils, and daisies with heads as large as Timmy’s hand.

His grandmother was not afraid of work. She had hands with patches of hard skin, burns and bruises from day to day life, but a joie de vivre strong enough for the whole world. She did not sleep in, as her age permitted her to, but woke with the sound of the first cockcrow, and was up perhaps before even Timmy’s father, tending the garden, baking cakes and bread, and knitting. When Timmy visited they sometimes played chess or backgammon, games that Mother Higgins had taught him from a young age, or he read to her, him delighting in her books, and her delighting in his sweet young voice. They had a relationship of trust and pure love, Tim being the child of both her daughter and her fostered son.

They retired to the sitting room to play a game of chess. Mother Higgins lit the fire for warmth against the autumn chills, and Timmy was entranced by the jumping flames. They were dancing on the wood, leaping and twirling, like dancers they flew, orange and yellow, a bright shot of blue, each limb of the flame stretching away from the body, and curling back again. He was sat there, feeling the heat of the fire and watching it spark and crackle, when the colours turned from a bright orange to a light grey, and quickly into a darker grey. He blinked in shock, but the picture did not change. Around him was night. He could see shapes in the darkness, and the fire was throwing some light onto his surroundings. He felt, rather than saw, Mother Higgins return to the room, the chess set in hand, and he turned to look at her shape- a dark, moving mass, sitting down at her chair. He stood slowly, fairly sure of his surroundings, but not sufficiently to abandon caution. He shuffled towards her, trying to keep his undesired fear under control. He felt for his chair and sat down, pleased that he had not tripped. He heard his grandmother speak, but could not see enough detail to see her mouth move.

“Come on Tim, we had better take you home. Don’t deny it, I can see it happening to you, I saw your shuffle and the way you sat down. It would be best if you were in your own house, you will be more familiar there. Besides, you couldn’t play chess in your condition anyway.”

Just like his grandmother, Timmy held on to his independence, and walked unaided. His grandmother walked behind him and wheeled his bicycle, which Tim had forgotten in his blindness. Mother Higgins was worried about the potholes in the road, but Timmy knew his village like the back of his hand. He walked cautiously but proudly, navigating his way through the labyrinth of potholes and stones by his memory. Next door, Mother Higgins leaned his bicycle in the barn, and walked out the distance to the door to the kitchen for him.

“Two steps forward and six right to the step,” she told him as he waited at the barn door. He tentatively counted his steps, and true to her word, his toe nudged the doorstep to the kitchen. He looked up, and there was the white door, a dark grey. He felt his way to the kitchen table and sat down, while Mother Higgins made him a mug of hot chocolate. He heard his father come in, and cry out in sorrow, seeing his son so defenceless. Mother Higgins sat him down too. As he drunk the hot chocolate, he began to feel the room get lighter. The white barn door was now a light grey, and the mug in front of him was getting lighter.

Within seconds, colour was flooding back into his eyes. His mug was a light blue; his father’s a yellow. Mother Higgins had put on her green outdoor coat; the terracotta tiles were again that orange-brown of clay. He felt a rush of relief flood his body and fill his face and eyes. His father turned to see his son flush with life again; life that he didn’t know was missing until he saw it return. He hugged his son fiercely, kissing him on the cheek, and instead of resisting like he would have before, Timmy hugged his father back. His grandmother beamed at him, and he memorised the curve of her lips. He looked around the kitchen, and studied every counter top. He raced around the house, feeling walls and corners, learning the shape of the house with more urgency than before. When he returned to the kitchen, he heard his father explaining the details to Mother Higgins.

“It’s cancer in his eye. He loses colour vision, and then all sense of light and dark, until he is plunged into darkness. That’s what the doctor said. Its very gradual, but difficult to know that there is a problem until it is irreversible. He will be entirely blind.”

Timmy left the house with his grandmother a little later. They walked around the village, and Timmy began to count his steps. He learnt how to walk the length of the village for his rounds. They went into the town and bought him a large rucksack to put the eggs and goats milk in. He built a map of the village in his head, and recorded every hill on it, and he tried to walk much of the route with his eyes closed, learning to feel the way and use his mental map. He didn’t have his eyes closed for too long, for fear that he would miss the colours and sights all around him. Mother Higgins bought him an ice-cream, despite the cold weather. He arrived back a normal, happy, nine-year-old boy, flushed from the cold, and the running the last little bit to Mother Higgins’ to get her an umberella before she got too wet. He stood dripping in his kitchen, his heart beating fast beneath his ribs, and his knees shaking from the cold. He slumped in the kitchen chair to recover, then made himself a cup of tea. His father came in to find him staring happily at the whorls of steam from the kettle, and he smiled too, knowing that his son still found beauty in the world.

Together, they sat near the salad plot for tea. The rain cleared up, and they lit a campfire on the grass there, and cooked sausages and baked beans over it. They dug out some marshmallows from last year, and laughed when mice had nibbled at them. They toasted bread on the flame, and talked about life, about colour. His dad named colours that they could see, so that one-day, the colours could be described to him. The green of the grass, the maple-brown of eggs, they each found colours in every subtle shade and gave them names. And they laughed about other things. They laughed about Mr Sharnier’s pony with a fiery temper, and how he could not control it. They laughed about the Bringham child, who had fallen into a cowpat in her bad luck. They laughed about the time the chickens had escaped, and they had to round them all up again with the help of a sheepdog from down the road.

As the sun turned orange over the horizon and disappeared, and the sky was blue and the clouds were pink, as the chickens clucked contentedly in their roost and the fire was fed by more and more wood, a thrill came over Timmy as he realised that his father and he were past that log in the river. It no longer held a power over them. They knew that he could somehow cope. He felt his spirit rising to meet whatever life threw at them, and he knew that the Watcher was willing him on.

Suddenly, the sky turned grey and the fire with it. It darkened and darkened, until all was black. Timmy knew he had seen his last light, like the last ray of sunshine leaving the earth at dusk on the evening of the apocalypse. There was no hope of a bright moon coming to him out of the darkness, or stars showing themselves, eager to be wished upon. No hope of tomorrow’s dawn to bring a rebellious flicker of light to his heart, but Timmy was content.

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