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issue 42: May - June 2004 

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Ron ButlinCOLOURS
by Ron Butlin

 

At first, every day was the same and afterwards I'd fall into bed exhausted. An hour later I'd be jackknifed out of sleep, ready to scream the house down.
      Screaming's a therapeutic "plus," no doubt, but not a real option at three in the morning. So I lay and held my breath, it felt like, while the strokes of the church bell forced me another quarter of an hour closer to getting up, getting dressed and starting the day after you were killed all over again. Every chime and echo gave the darkness a few seconds' weight—like a paving stone, let's say, where I could rest before taking the next slow-motion step towards daylight. At 3 a.m. there'd be fifteen paving stones still to go—I'd be wide awake and dead beat on every one of them. Washing-cleaning-cooking-laundry-shopping-teaching-preparing-marking papers-the boys' tears-the boys' tantrums-chaos. It was when I was going out of my mind one long night at the end of that first week that I thought of a plan to bring the chaos to an end.
      The following afternoon as each boy straggled back in from school I met him at the front porch, then stood him against the wall to be measured: William, 3ft 10inches; Michael, 4ft 2inches; Frank, 4ft 4inches. That done, and with the through-doors wide open, I marched them in turn the length of the house (93 feet there and back), and timed them. I insisted they maintained a straight line and a steady pace throughout. At first they thought it a great laugh and chased each other up and down the hall as if it was some kind of race. I soon put them right. Once they understood how painstakingly I'd done the calculations, they respected my seriousness of purpose. William, as fair-haired and sweet-tempered as yourself, proved the most biddable and kept to his prescribed rate of 3.25mph with metronomic regularity; because of his tendency to be easily distracted, Michael needed shouted at; Frank, threatening adolescence in a couple of years, managed his set rate (3.75mph) only when I paced alongside him, blowing my whistle every few steps.

That first night together twelve years ago, I never slept either; nor did you. We kissed, undressed, made love, talked, made love again; then, all at once, it was time for the breakfast tea and toast. A whole night gone with nothing to show for it but your steamed-up windows—and me in love! Until then I'd thought love was a woman's country where men wandered in and out on limited-stay visas, sightseeing and collecting souvenirs, but never quite managing to settle. That one night changed everything. A kind of soft-focus madness began: I turned up at your flat the following evening with yellow roses, "to match your hair." Having trimmed them to fit, you put them in a vase: "I can look at them and think of you when you're not here." Not there? My idea was that from then on I lived in your heart . . .
      The days that followed were dream days when I sat blissful in a roomful of eight-year-old dinosaurs and pterodactyls without even trying to nail them to their seats. Benign from the heart outwards, I left them free to roam among the desks, like so many anarchic miracles come back from before the Ice Age, screeching and swooping with life. A man in love, set down in the mayhem of prehistory. Oblivious to the ravages of fifty million years' evolution happening around me, I'd appear to be cutting out paper dinosaurs and pasting them down in the Dinosaur Checklist when really I'd be imagining your arms around me, tasting your skin, feeling your tongue against mine.
      I'm still a man in love, so why can't I do that now? Why is there nothing, or even less than nothing—only your absence?
      Now that we have no car we've returned to public transport. Unfortunately, the boys' bus goes one way and mine the opposite. Hence every morning's frantic rush. Hence my plan. Measurements and calculations completed, it swung into action the following morning and worked like a treat: the previous night's dishes still in the sink, the previous three days' unwashed laundry still on the floor, I was running late when I got them lined up at the door—three paratroopers ready for the big drop—and set them off at the necessary intervals. By going separately they didn't interfere with each other's progress and so kept more or less to time. That was the plan. Three perfect days followed. Then came the fourth. The bins put out, the shopping list discovered, I was running even later when I locked up the house and marched myself to my bus stop. It was when I'd sat down in my seat and we were passing their stop that I glanced out the window. They were still there. Next second, I'd jumped to my feet, rang the emergency bell, explained to the driver and was off the bus before the end of the street. I returned to where the three of them stood in a neat line, satchels on their backs, grins on their faces. William clutching his gym kit in a Tesco bag. He smirked up at me:
      "It was early."
      The other two held their sides and howled with laughter. But not for long.
      The next bus wasn't for another hour. I'd have to phone their school, then phone my own. Teaching cover would have to be arranged, timetables altered. I walked them home ready to start all over again.

That evening I wrote to the bus company. My first letter of complaint ever. I told them I'd done everything possible on my side: I'd timed the boys, timetabled their separate mornings up to the moment each of them arrived at the stop—only to find the Eastern City Bus Company hadn't done its part, the driver in particular. I pitched it strong, presented my case and the attendant circumstances with reasonable fairness. Afterwards I made a special trip to the post-box at the street corner.

Every so often since then, it seems someone hits the PAUSE button and the momentum I've managed to build up is abruptly stopped. I have to grab the edge of the table or the back of a chair to steady myself. Then the button's released and everything returns to normal. If the boys notice anything they never say.

*

Exactly a month to the day after you were killed I decided it was high time the boys and I wrote a joint letter to the bus company as my previous ones had gone unanswered. During lunch I explained how important this was; we had to demonstrate to the owners that their duty lay in their drivers' strict adherence to their own timetable. There could be no excuses. Each of us would tell his own story in his own words, explaining how the bus's leaving too soon that morning had affected his life. William, for example, had missed gym and that was the day they were picking the under-nines football team; I had arranged to take a class to the museum. Having cleared away the dishes we would sit at the dining table, each with a piece of paper and a pen. Stick to the facts I told them, but stress the personal. William, as the youngest, was to be allowed a set of coloured crayons should he wish to illustrate what he'd written.
      For a moment before going into the room to join them I paused outside. A pleasing, busy sound was coming to me through the door: the rustling of the scraping of someone's chair, whispers as the boys discussed what they were planning to write. It was a good moment.
      I pushed open the door and went in. Three faces were staring up at me. Trusting, hopeful faces. Another good moment.
      I gave out the pens and paper and was about to go over some final instructions then give them an opportunity to ask any last questions when, from over at the window, I became aware of an agitation on the outside of the glass. A small bird was beating its wings trying to get in. I crossed the room and pulled the curtains shut. There had to be no distraction from the task at hand. I returned to the doorway, clicked on the light then gave a slight cough to indicate we were ready to begin.
      "Right, boys: Top right-hand corner: our address and the date—19-2-00."
      Frank finished this first, then Michael. The three of us waited in silence for William to blot his way to the last digit and put his tongue back in his mouth. Then we continued.
      "Left-hand side, on the line below the date line. Write: 'Dear Sir', capital D, capital S."
      The clattering and drumming of the wings seemed more frantic than ever, but I was glad to note the boys paid no attention. Their three faces—Frank's first, then Michael's and, nearly a whole minute later, William's—were eventually raised from the paper.
      "A good start means the job will go well." I smiled. "Now, when you're ready, in your own time and your own words, continue your letter."
      Three heads bent down and three pens were poised to begin. Before a word was written the boys had immediately moved into exam mode, shielding their work from each other so there could be no chance of copying. It was a pleasure to witness such commitment, such enthusiasm. I'd wait until things were well and truly started, then begin my own letter. The bird must have flown away. Within seconds a calmness had settled over the room; and I was almost smiling when I took up my pen.

*

We might have gone swimming that day, or played football, or gone for a bicycle ride, or stayed at home. Or anything. Instead . . .
      I'd been accelerating past the Fairmilehead sliproad when I began waxing teacherly about the mystery trip I'd thought up that morning. No one else knew where we were going. The whole thing was my idea.
      Mine alone.
      The boys were in the back seat performing low-volume animal impressions to pass the time; you were sitting next to me. You wanted to join in with them but had just asked me for a clue about where we were going, so as not to have me feel left out.
      "Not far from Edinburgh. It's a kind of farm, but only for the one thing—there'll be hundreds and thousands of them though, more colours than you could imagine." To tease you, I added: "They migrate here from Spain, from Mexico even."
      You were looking so puzzled I couldn't resist one final clue: "They fly all the way, but you'd never believe it."
      Out of the corner of my eye I could see you were half-laughing. You must have been humouring me all along because a moment later you smiled:
      Fragments of glass had risen in a broken-coloured shower that for a split second seemed to hang motionless in front of me. Your voice had come from beside me, from the point of impact:
      "Butterflies?"
      From behind came the boys' screaming.

This letter was going to be the best yet. Polite, but a real stinger. I leant forward to begin.
      Then stopped. My sheet was already half-covered with writing. How had that happened? I looked up again: the curtains were open once more. William was now the only other person still at the table, the only other person still in the room even. What the hell was going on? He was looking at me, his face a smear of red and blue ink and tears.
      "They're outside, you told them to go outside," he blubbered.
      I'd told them?
      "Have they finished their letters?"
      Without meaning to I'd shouted at him. He rushed from the room. I heard the back door slam.
      I began reading what was in front of me. A mess. A furious scrawl of obscenities. Was that handwriting really mine? Here and there the paper had been ripped.
      I leant on the table to pull myself to my feet. None of the boys had managed to get anywhere near finished. A few lines, nothing more. Well, they could finish them later. I smoothed out the sheets and started stacking them, mine at the bottom, then Frank's, then Michael's; William's I placed on top. He'd not written a single word—it was a drawing of three small stick-boys and their stick-man of a father chasing after a bus as it disappeared towards the edge of the paper. I was about to scrunch it into a ball when a detail caught my eye: he'd made the driver a woman. A woman with long, yellow hair.

It's nearly midnight. I've returned to the dining room to pull the curtains as I always do last thing; and I've just noticed a hairline of refracted light running across one of the panes. The left-hand window's cracked. Surely that bird beating its wings couldn't have broken the glass? I would have heard it at the time, wouldn't I?
      But there it is. I stare at the laceration of reds, greens and dusk-blues . . .
      I want to pull the curtains closed.
      I want to turn and leave the room.
      To shut the door behind me. To lock it.
      . . . As if, at any moment, the colours might gradually unfold and, with the very slightest quiver of unsettledness, begin to lift themselves free from the glass. As if they might begin to mean something. But what can colours mean?

Ron Butlin 2004

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author bio

Ron Butlin was born in 1949 in Edinburgh. Having worked variously as a footman, a male model, and a barnacle-scraper on Thames barges, he has become one of the acclaimed Scottish writers of his generation. His works include the novels Night Visits and The Sound of My Voice, and a collection of stories, The Tilting Room, as well as four books of poetry and several radio plays. He won the Scottish Arts Council Award 2003 for work-in-progress, which included Vivaldi and the Number 3, published this year.

See Ron Butlin's author page
To order Vivaldi and The Number Three, click here
See also in TBR: Vivaldi, the Jumping Cardinal, God, Clint and the Number Three and The Mighty Handful Versus the Rest of the World

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issue 42: May - June 2004 

 
Short Fiction

Oscar Casares: RG
Ron Butlin: Colours
Kathryn Simmonds: This Little Piggy
Bruce Henricksen: The Celebrated Stripper...

non-fiction
Barbara F. Lefcowitz: The Luminaries of Marienbad
Neale de Sousa: Dromedary

picks from back issues
Frederick Barthelme: Driver
Dorothy Speak: The View from Here

Quiz

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald
answers to last issue’s quiz
19th-Century English Literature

Book Reviews

The Gravedigger’s Story by Ged Simmons
The Hollywood Dodo by Geoff Nicholson
Handsome Harry by James Carlos Blake
In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami
Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin by Marion Meade

Regular Features

Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)
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