My relationship with Fiona had been over for nearly a year when I woke up in a hospital bed and found her at my side. We had met the previous summer when I was still painting and the owner of the gallery she managed asked her to display my work. She never really understood what my paintings were all about but she obliged him and, when they sold well, she was professional enough to know she was onto a good thing and ordered some more.
Before long she called me to ask if we could meet up and talk about arranging a full exhibition of my work. I was happy to talk about it but when I agreed to see her, I have to admit that there was something else on my mind. I couldn’t stand it that she didn’t get my work. I mainly painted in oils but I did watercolours and even sculptures in everything from clay to found objects too and every piece I ever produced was an attempt to portray the same thing; unexpected beauty.
When I walked into the bar and saw her waiting at a table in the corner I knew it was her and immediately stopped in my tracks. Before then I had thought the word ‘breathtaking’ to be nothing more than an exaggerated cliché, but when I set my eyes on Fiona I gasped and then suddenly forgot how to exhale. To say that her beauty was unexpected is much more than just an understatement and as I stood in state and watched her day-dream, the whole world disappeared.
I must have missed her noticing me because time seemed to jump forward between blinks and then she was standing up and waving me over with the most amazing smile I’d ever seen. We spoke about a lot of things that night but between my attempts to both flatter and impress her the main topic of conversation was the exhibition. It gave me a chance to tell her what was behind my work and although she said she got it I’m not sure she had a clue what I was talking about. Nevertheless, the near deadly combination of alcohol and her immense beauty led me to convince myself that not only did she get it, she was it; she was the physical embodiment of everything I had spent the last decade trying to create.
Can’t remember much of how that night ended but the following morning I awoke in what felt like a serious and long-term relationship. It wasn’t that we’d missed the honeymoon stage, in fact I lay in bed for an hour that morning just memorising the contours of her face and mentally naming each of her individual long golden hairs. Rather, I just felt completely at ease with her like she knew all of my secrets already and I had nothing left I needed to guard.
However, it soon emerged that our relationship had begun at the end and was running in reverse. As time progressed our differences rose to the surface and as they did defences were built on both sides. It wasn’t long before things fell apart entirely and we were left with nothing more than an awkward but inescapable professional relationship. I’m not truly sure if she ever felt as strongly about me as I did about her but there was definitely something there. What I know for certain is that as we grew increasingly distant and awkward with one another, my painting suffered.
The reality that followed my sudden discovery of Fiona and her unexpected beauty led to an intense felling of disillusionment and I began to think that my work had been nothing more than a naïve attempt to portray the sunny skies of a child’s crayon sketch. Sure, the concept remained strong. But I no longer felt inspired and within a year I had stopped painting altogether.
Fiona was tolerant but as weeks turned into months and the seasons passed us by she began to grow less so. The prior success of my work and the promise of enough to fill an exhibition were enough to keep her interested but I knew she had her limits. I took her advice and tried everything I could think of to get back to my best but despite an agonising trip home to see my father, a frankly boring holiday in Rio, and numerous walks around the galleries, museums and historical landmarks of Europe, nothing could inspire me.
And then it happened.
It felt like I was inside one of my own paintings. The whole world was black and lonely but far off in the distance a single blue light flickered repeatedly into and out of existence. I tried to move towards it but it felt like I had no control over my limbs. I don’t even know if I had limbs at that point. Hell, I don’t even know if I existed at all. But nevertheless, as I tried to move towards the light, and failed time and again, I realised that the light was actually moving towards me. As it came its flicker developed into a steady rhythm and grew in both size and intensity. It wasn’t long until the light and I occupied the same space and then it hit me; The light was me. It was my pulse, my heart.
At that moment the whole landscape filled with wisps of glowing smoke, all of differing colours. Some shot across my vision quickly and glowed with tremendous intensity; others meandered slowly around single points and were dull but constant in their colour. What they all had in common was that none of them felt meaningless. Somehow I instinctively knew that these were manifestations of something else. Something which could not be seen.
I’m not sure how long I lay there, admiring the spectacle, but when I eventually opened my eyes things at once became clear and yet simultaneously grew more confusing than anything I had ever experienced. The source of each wisp of smoke became immediately apparent. Most came through a door on the other side of the room; some originated from somewhere beyond a small window to the right of my bed; and occasionally a misshapen one found its way through the walls or even the ceiling. Only one came from within the room itself: The blue pulse. It emanated from a heart monitor on my left. It showed the rhythm of my pulse clearly on its screen and shot out a high pitched tone with every beat of my heart; and that was my light.
But I was not alone in the room. There at my side, with her head on the bed and my hand firmly grasped in her own, Fiona sat sleeping in a chair. She awoke as soon as I wriggled my hand free and immediately jumped up to shout for the doctors. But she wouldn’t tell me what had happened.
When I explained my experiences to her and the doctor they looked both concerned and relieved. I soon found myself on the psych ward and with Fiona refusing to talk about it I spent the next two weeks eliciting snippets of information from every doctor or nurse that passed my bed. It emerged that I had been in an accident. Somehow I had come off my motorbike and ended up landing head first some ten metres or so further on down the road. The paramedics had been shocked at how little damage my head had taken given that my helmet had cracked all the way from front to back. But I did fall into a coma. It wasn’t long, they said. Just a couple of days. But it was long enough for everything to change forever.
They called in synaesthesia. A crossing over of the senses. There were many variants of the conditions and the doctors explained that mine was ‘trauma related colour-hearing synaesthesia’. To put it simply, I could see sounds.
After my physical injuries had healed enough for me to be discharged the doctors explained that there was no cure or even treatment they could give me and since it was not considered life debilitating I would just have to learn to live with it.
Fiona insisted I stay at hers for a while and having still not got used to hearing with my eyes I was glad of the offer. To be honest, I think I was probably glad to be back close to Fiona again in any case. But there was one thing that really bothered me: I couldn’t remember anything about the accident, or event he days leading up to it, and every time I tried to talk to Fiona about it, she clammed up and refused to speak. In fact, the only thing of any substance that she would talk about was what it actually felt like to see sounds.
I stayed at Fiona’s for just under a month and all the while she acted as a sort of in-house shrink for me to discuss things with but who provided little to no conversation in return. It did allow me to explore this new experience however and before long I began noticing patterns in how it worked.
The first thing I noticed was that volume and size appeared to be inextricably related: Quiet sounds created small bubbles and fine wisps of smoke whilst loud sounds formed large clouds and huge flashes. Then I noticed that sounds of a very high pitch usually appeared blue or purple whilst very low pitched sounds came out red. Once that was clear it became obvious that the frequency of sound bore a direct correlation to the frequency of colour on the light spectrum.
My verbal explanation of these things is no better now than it was at the time and Fiona was as frustrated by this as I was myself but despite my vain attempts to sketch what I could see, nothing seemed to match my vision once I put it down on paper. It was only when I moved back into my own place that that finally began to change.
I was desperate to show Fiona what was visible to me in the unseen world and at last I picked up the brush once more. With access to my paints and material I could at last capture the colours that filled my head and I filled canvas after canvas with paintings of all my favourite songs.
Fiona was astonished when she came around and saw the product of nearly a week of sleepless nights. Astonished but not impressed. In fact, I couldn’t understand how unimpressed she was until I remembered a documentary I had watched years earlier about the northern lights. I don’t recall who presented it but I remember vividly that they had said it was impossible to show what the lights really looked like through a television screen. According to the documentary, the lights change so fast that even the most modern of camera equipment cannot capture them in their true likeness. Suddenly it hit home. If the most advanced cameras available could not do them justice, a still image must be far less able. And yet still images were all I had produced. Still images cast in paint of my own mixing, yes, but still images nevertheless.
It was nearly Christmas and I had no desire to spend it with my father so whilst Fiona headed north to be with her family I resolved to remain in my studio and create my last ever, and most beautiful, piece of art.
Fiona stood in the centre of the room as I flicked the switch and turned out the lights. The windows were boarded and blacked out and every surface in the room was covered in different material. Some were designed to absorb sound, others to reflect it, but all served a purpose. In all there were forty-two speakers of different shapes and sizes, all routed through one computer and with a single key press I set my recordings to play.
It began slowly with small geometric shapes of every size and colour floating through the air to cross each others’ paths at a single point just a few feet in front of where Fiona stood. One at a time the shapes came together to form larger, more elaborate structures and before long a recognisable figure began to emerge. It started round, about the size of a football, and with the sounds not yet aligned the colour was deceptively blue. But then it flexed and narrowed at the base and the middle began to squeeze together creating a vertical protrusion with a circular recess on each side as the colour faded into a soft flesh tone.
It was a full minute before the last of the speakers came into play emitting long wisps of yellow, white and brown smoke but by the time these had meandered their way into position the image was complete and the air was full of a million complimentary notes, each a work of beauty in themselves, I compared my orchestral image with the real thing. But for a difference in expression, they were exactly alike and I knew at last that I had been successful. I still could not paint but I no longer wanted to. What I had been trying to say for years had been said.
‘What do you think?’ I asked, sending a ripple of disturbance through the image.
‘It sounds amazing,’ Fiona replied. ‘But Sebastian, you do know I can’t see what you do, don’t you?’
‘I know,’ I said. ‘And that’s what makes it so beautiful.’