What Else Will Be Lost?
Only the very oldest people remember a time when humans could see colour.
When asked to explain what colour is, an elderly person will talk about the vibrancy, delicateness, or harshness of colour. They’ll talk about colours blending or contrasting.
When asked to describe the form or size of this thing called colour, they become irritable, telling us that colour has no shape or size. It just is.
When asked if colour is a memory from long ago that has no further use in today’s world, like a treadle sewing machine, they shout, no, no, no! And refuse to say anything more.
‘Nostalgia,’ we say, dismissing their agitation with ease.
‘An affliction of getting old,’ we say in patronising tones.
But I am curious. It’s peculiar that fully cognisant old folk cannot explain this thing called colour. As a newly graduated journalist at True News, I decided to investigate against my editor’s advice.
‘We have to report the truth. Investigative journalism is simply a fancy name for speculation or opinions or the ramblings of those losing their grip on reality. And we no longer do that,’ my editor said.
‘You mean we have to report what we’re told are facts,’ I said.
I contacted an elderly, distant relative, Herman, under the guise that I wanted to record his life story for family posterity. He agreed to meet with me at the senior citizens’ lodge where he lives. We met on a Sunday afternoon in a secluded garden on the lodge grounds with his two closest friends, Stu and Ruby. Afternoon tea, provided by the staff, sat on a glass table surrounded by four cane chairs with blankets draped over their back. After initial introductions were made and each of us sat down, I opened my Y-Pad. I logged in. An awkward silence settled around the table.
‘Nice garden,’ I ventured. ‘Lots of different flowers, different aromas.’
‘Hmm, yes, just a shame there is no colour.’
My cue. ‘Colour? What is colour?’ The three exchanged quick glances but avoided looking at me.
‘I’ve heard that word, colour, but I have no concept of what it is. Is it something you remember from when you were younger? Something that is no longer in our world?’ All three sighed, and Herman rolled his eyes.
Ruby poured the tea.
‘Milk?’ she offered. I nodded.
‘Sugar?’ I shook my head.
Herman rubbed his hands together and cleared his throat. ‘So, lad, it’s my life story you want to hear. Best we get started, I tend to tire quickly, these days.’
‘No, sorry Herman, I don’t want to talk about your life, at least, not today. I’m curious about this thing called colour.’
Herman sighed, Stu coughed, and Ruby stirred her teacup vigorously.
Silence. The subject is taboo.
‘Okay, let’s start over,’ I said. ‘Did colour really exist?’
They nodded, then in a whisper, Ruby began to speak. She talked about the beauty of sunsets and how the brilliant colours created by the sun reflects in the clouds.
‘What I miss the most is the colours of autumn, the bright reds and oranges and yellows.’ Old Stu had a faraway look in his misty eyes.
‘And the arc of colours in rainbows after a rain shower. Looking at a rainbow, my heart would skip every time.’ Ruby, her hand shaking, sipped from her cup.
‘You know, I still dream in colour,’ Stu said. Ruby smiled.
I leaned forward on my creaky cane chair. ‘But there are still sunsets and falling leaves in autumn, arcs in the sky after a rain shower, and everyone dreams. What’s different?’
‘The difference is that colour is absent. We can no longer enjoy the vibrancy, joy, warmth, and power colour brings. Everything is the same: monochrome.’ Herman’s abundant beard shook, his face contorted with anger, and he thumped the table. The tray rattled, Ruby looked startled. Stu clutched Herman’s arm and smiled sadly.
‘Herman is so angry – that he sees red, as the old saying goes,’ Stu said.
My companions chuckled at my confusion.
‘Yes, red is a primary colour, as are yellow and blue. The secondary colours, orange, green and purple, are made by mixing two primary colours.’
‘So colour is or was an object that no longer exists?’
‘No, colour isn’t tangible. It’s… um, abstract.’
‘But you could see it?’
‘Yes, everything has its own colour. Colour is still there, but humans can’t see it. Like Stu said, we oldies still see colour in our dreams.’
‘You’re saying colour has disappeared?’
‘Colour hasn’t disappeared. Rather, our ability to see colour is lost,’ Herman, a sparkle in his eyes, spread his arms wide and shrugged.
I shook my head. ‘Lost? Like misplaced? Like losing your glasses? That’s absurd.’ I switched off and slammed my Y-Pad shut. These oldies were toying with me, having a joke at my expense. ‘You think I’m some gormless, gullible twit you can trick into believing this senseless story? Things don’t disappear without a sound reason.’ I should have taken my editor’s advice.
‘Ah, but there is a sound reason. Sit down and listen. Colour began to fade, become muted, and leak out of things after the deadly virus first occurred all those years ago. Over time, the colour disappeared, and the world became monochrome from dark to pale to almost transparent. But we old folk know colour still exists because we see it in our dreams.’
‘And the reason you younger ones don’t dream in colour is that you have never experienced colour,’ Stu said, his face drawn and sad. ‘Colour was gone long before your generation were born.’
I pressed further, asking him where the colour went, and more importantly, why.
‘Some soft-in-the-head people believe that Mother Nature decided to take revenge on us humans and expunge all colour from the world because we’d trashed her planet. These doom-sayers believe that colour will never return. But this theory is rubbish. Colour is still there – it just can’t be seen in the physical world. There is no Mother Nature. No one has ever seen her, right? She’s a mythical creature, a fairy tale. The truth is elementary: booster shots.’
‘Get that Y-pad contraption of yours ready; you’re in for a long listen.’
As I tapped away on my Y-Pad, Herman talked in a steady, pedantic monotone, choosing his words carefully. He spoke about the deadly virus, Covid-19. The developed vaccines, then as potent strains emerged over time, like Delta and Omega, Gamma and Beta, the need for booster shots to combat these deadly strains. Inevitably, because each new variant was more contagious than its predecessor, the new booster shot was more robust, and people took longer to recover. Some people refused the shots. ‘They died, of course,’ Herman said rather off-handedly.
I tapped and nodded, saving my questions ’till later.
‘Our senses have been eroded more and more with each new booster shot,’ Herman explained. ‘By the third generation born after the booster shots began, the human ability to see colour disappeared.’
‘But the booster shots have controlled the virus and prevented people from dying, right?’
‘Yes, and the bonus is that we get to live to an ancient age if you can call this living.’ Herman snorted.
‘The boosters save us, but at what cost?’ Stu asked in a trembling voice. I had no answer.
‘Colour has been stripped from our lives. If we keep having booster shots, what else are we at risk of losing?’ A lone pearl-shaped droplet seeped from Stu’s eye.
A chilly wind swept through the garden. A bell rang from the lodge, and the trio, wrapping their blankets around their shoulders, stood to leave. ‘Wait, I have more questions.’
Herman patted my shoulder. ‘Think about what we’ve told you, lad. We’ll meet again next week, same place, same time.’ He tapped the side of his nose. ‘Keep this to yourself, okay?’ I did not need to ask him why.
All week, I’ve done what Herman said. I’ve thought about what I’d been told, about booster shots against a deadly virus being responsible for the disappearance of colour. But the dire consequences if people ceased having the shots – terrible illness or death, for the sake of this thing called colour, is too chilling to consider.
Having severe concerns about the soundness of pursuing the story, I considered not meeting with the trio today. I’d jeopardise my career, and the wisdom of keeping alive an absurd belief of regaining something lost is questionable, even if it had once existed. But something Stu had said kept niggling: what else are we at risk of losing?
Seated at the table in that peaceful garden, Ruby pours the tea.
‘Milk, no sugar, right love?’
‘We weren’t sure you’d come today, lad,’ Stu says, picking up his delicate teacup.
‘I’m so glad you did come, though,’ Ruby says. ‘I had the most wonderful dream last night, full of splendid colour that I wanted to share with…’
‘Be honest with us. You have doubts about our theory, right?’ Herman leans his forearms on the table.
‘Not doubts, as such, just more questions and concerns.’
I take a few moments to gather my thoughts, to choose my words carefully. ‘For humans to regain the ability to see colour, they need to refuse to take further booster shots.’
‘So when another strain of the virus presents itself, which it inevitably will, you’re proposing that people refuse the shot and take their chances?’
‘Correct,’ Herman nods. ‘We must learn to live with the virus.’
‘And miraculously, the colour will return?’
‘Not straight away. It may take many generations before colour is restored.’
‘By which time, you and probably me will be dead, so what’s the point?’
‘The point is… The point is… ’ Jumping to his feet, Herman splutters and slashes the air with his finger. As Stu would say, Herman sees red. He thumps the table with his open hand. ‘As you’ve so eloquently pointed out, we old ones will be long dead and to be honest, at my advanced age, it makes no difference to me if a virus takes me or old age. Huh, what sort of a life do you think we have, shuffling around in this controlled environment, not listened to, not included, no use to anyone? I’d have preferred a shorter life full of colour than this long, drawn-out charade of life in monochrome. The point is, we have to act before it’s too late, before colour is irretrievable, lost to the generations yet to be born.’
‘So having colour restored to the human eye is so important to you that you’re prepared to die for it.’
‘And to sacrifice the lives of others?’
Herman does not hesitate with his reply. ‘Absolutely.’ Ruby and Stu both nod.
‘But what if you’re wrong and boosters shots aren’t to blame for the loss of colour and colour never returns?’
Herman taps his nose. ‘We’ll all be dead, so we’ll never know, will we?’
‘Top-up?’ Ruby says, tilting the teapot in my direction. With my hand, I signal no. In the silence, I feel their eyes boring into my head.
I switch off my Y-Pad, close it, and shake my head. ‘I’m sorry. I can’t support your suggestion. To condemn people to die for something lost that the majority of the population has never had, is… ludicrous and barbaric.’
Ruby breaks the silence with her whispered voice. ‘We understand. It’s just that colour is such a beautiful thing. Let’s take a walk through the garden.’
Wandering along the well-groomed pathways through the clumps of flowers and bushes, Stu pauses, bends and sniffs a flower.
‘Why are you doing that?’ I ask.
‘Sniffing the flowers? I fear aromas will fade and disappear just like colour did,’ the elderly man replies, a look of sorrow clouding his eyes.