SHADES OF GREY, by Jasper Fforde
Chapter One: A Morning in Vermillion
188.8.131.52.021: Males are to wear dress-code #6 during intercollective travel. Hats are encouraged, but not mandatory.
It began with my father not wanting to see the Last Rabbit, and ended up with me being eaten by a carnivorous plant. It wasn’t really what I’d planned for myself. I’d hoped to marry into the Oxbloods and join their dynastic string empire. But that was four days ago, before I’d met Jane, retrieved the Caravaggio or explored High Saffron. So instead of enjoying aspirations of Chromatic advancement, I was wholly immersed within the digestive soup of a yateveo tree. It was all frightfully inconvenient.
But it wasn’t all bad, and for the following reasons. First, I was lucky to have landed upside down. I would drown in under a minute, which is far, far preferable to being dissolved alive over the space of a few weeks. Second and more important, I wasn’t going to die ignorant. I had discovered something that no amount of merits can buy you: the truth. Not the whole truth, but a pretty big part of it. And that’s why this was all frightfully inconvenient. I wouldn’t get to do anything with it. And this truth was too big and too terrible to ignore. Still, at least I’d held it in my hands for a full hour, and understood what it meant.
I didn’t set out to discover a truth. I was actually sent to the Outer Fringes to conduct a chair census, and learn some humility. But the truth inevitably found me, as important truths often do, like a lost thought in need of a mind. I found Jane, too, or perhaps she found me. It doesn’t really matter. We found each other. And although she was Grey and I was Red, we shared a common thirst for justice that transcended Chromatic politics. I loved her, and what’s more, I was beginning to think that she loved me. After all, she did apologise before she pushed me into the leafless expanse below the spread of the yateveo, and she wouldn’t have done that if she’d felt nothing.
So that’s why we’re back here, four days earlier in the town of Vermillion, the Regional Hub of Red Sector West. My father and I had arrived by train the day before and overnighted at the Green Dragon. We had attended Morning Chant and were now seated for breakfast, disheartened but not surprised that the early Greys had already taken the bacon, and it remained only an exquisite odour. We had a few hours before our train, and had decided to squeeze in some sightseeing.
‘We could always go and see the Last Rabbit,’ I suggested. ‘I’m told it’s unmissable.’
But Dad was not to be easily swayed by the rabbit’s uniqueness. He said we’d never see the Badly Drawn Map, Oz Memorial, Colour Garden and rabbit before our train departed, and pointed out that not only did Vermillion’s museum have the best collection of Vimto bottles anywhere in the Collective, but on Mondays and Thursdays they demonstrated a gramophone.
‘A fourteen-second clip of “Something Got Me Started”, he said, as if something vaguely red-related would swing it.
But I wasn’t quite ready to concede my choice.
‘The rabbit’s getting pretty old,’ I persisted, having read the safety briefing in the How Best to Enjoy your Rabbit Experience leaflet, ‘and petting is no longer mandatory.’
‘It’s not the petting,’ said Dad with a shudder, ‘it’s the ears. In any event,’ he continued, ‘I can have a productive and fulfilling life having never seen a rabbit.’
This was true, and so could I. It was just that I’d promised my best friend Fenton and five others I would log the lonesome bun’s Taxa number on their behalf and thus allow them to note it ‘proxy seen’ in their animal-spotter books. I’d even charged them twenty-five cents each for the privilege – then blew the lot on liquorice for Constance and a new pair of synthetic red shoelaces for me.
Dad and I bartered like this for a while and he eventually agreed to visit all of the town’s attractions in a circular manner, to save on shoe leather. The rabbit came last, after the Colour Garden.
So with the decision to at least include the rabbit in the morning’s entertainment, Dad returned to his toast, tea and copy of Spectrum, and I looked idly about the shabby breakfast rooms, seeking inspiration for the postcard I was writing. The Green Dragon dated from before the Epiphany and like much of the Collective had seen many moments, each of them slightly more time-worn than the one before. The paint in the room was peeling, the plaster moulding dry and crumbly, the linoleum tabletops worn to the canvas and the cutlery either bent, broken or missing. But the hot smell of toast, coffee and bacon, the flippant affability of the staff and the noisy chatter of strangers enjoying transient acquaintance gave the establishment a peculiar charm that the reserved, eminently respectable tearooms back home in Jade-under-Lime could never match. I noticed also that despite the lack of any Rules regarding seat plans in ‘non-hue- specific’ venues, the guests had unconsciously divided the room along strictly Chromatic lines. The one Ultraviolet was respectfully given a table all to himself, and several Greys stood at the door, waiting patiently for an empty table, even though there were places available.
We were sharing our table with a Green couple. They were of mature years and wealthy enough to wear artificially green clothes so that all could witness the enthusiastic devotion to their hue, a proudfully expensive and tastelessly ostentatious display that was doubtless financed by the sale of their child allocation. Our clothes were dyed in a conventional shade visible only to other Reds, so to the Greens sitting opposite, we had only our Red Spots to set us apart from the Greys, and were equally despised. When they say red and green are complementary, it doesn’t mean we like one another. In fact, the only thing that Reds and Greens can truly agree on is that we dislike Yellows more.
‘You,’ said the Green woman, pointing her spoon at me in an exceptionally rude manner. ‘Fetch me some marmalade.’
I dutifully complied. The Green woman’s bossy attitude was not untypical.We were three notches lower in the Chromatic scale, which officially meant we were subservient. But although lower in the Order, we were still Prime within the long-established Red-Yellow-Blue Colour Model, and a Red would always have a place on the village Council, something the Greens with their bastard Blue-Yellow status could never do. It irritated them wonderfully. Unlike the dopey Oranges, who accepted their lot with a cheery, self-effacing good humour, Greens never managed to rise above the feeling that no one took them seriously enough. The reason for this was simple: they had the colour of the natural world almost exclusively to themselves, and felt that the scope of their sight gift should reflect their importance within the Collective. Only the Blues could even begin to compete with this uneven share of the Spectrum as they owned the sky, but this was a claim based mainly on surface area rather than a variety of shades, and when it was overcast, they didn’t even have that.
But if I thought she was ordering me about owing solely to my hue, I was mistaken. I was wearing a ‘Needs Humility’ badge below my Red Spot. It related to an incident with the Head Prefect’s son, and I was compelled to wear it for a week. If the Green woman had been more reasonable, she would have excused me the errand owing to the prestigious 1,000-Merit badge that I also wore. Perhaps she didn’t care. Perhaps she just wanted the marmalade.
I fetched the jar from the sideboard, nodded respectfully, then returned to the postcard I was writing. It was of Vermillion’s old stone bridge and had been given a light blue wash in the sky for five cents extra. I could have paid ten and had one with greened grass, too, but this was for my potential fianceÌe Constance Oxblood, and she considered overcolourisation somewhat vulgar. The Oxbloods were strictly old-colour, and preferred muted tones of paint wherever possible, even though they could have afforded to decorate their house to the highest Chroma. Actually, much to them was vulgar, and that included the Russetts, whom they regarded as nouveau-couleur. Hence my status as ‘potential fianceÌ’. Dad had negotiated what we called a ‘half-promise’, which meant I was first-optioned to Constance.The agreement fell short of being reciprocal, but it was a good deal – a concession that despite being a Russett and three generations from Grey, I might be able to see a goodly amount of red, so couldn’t be ignored completely.
‘Writing to Fish-face already?’ asked my father with a smile. ‘Her memory’s not that bad.’
‘True,’ I conceded, ‘but despite her name, constancy is possibly her least well-defined attribute.’
‘Ah. Roger Maroon still sniffing about?’
‘As flies to stinkwort. And you mustn’t call her Fish-face.’
‘More butter,’ remarked the Green woman, ‘and don’t dawdle this time.’
We finished breakfast and, after some last-minute packing, descended to the reception desk, where Dad instructed the porter to have our suitcases delivered to the station.
‘Beautiful day,’ said the manager as we paid the bill. He was a thin man with a finely shaped nose and one ear. The loss of an ear was not unusual as they could be torn off annoyingly easily, but what was unusual was that he’d not troubled to have it stitched back on, a relatively straightforward procedure. More interestingly, he wore his Blue Spot high up on his lapel. It was an unofficial but broadly accepted signal that he knew how to ‘fix’ things, for a fee. We’d had crayfish for dinner the night before, and he hadn’t punched it out of ration books. It had cost us an extra half-merit, covertly wrapped in the napkin.
‘Every day is a beautiful day,’ replied my father in a cheery manner.
‘Indeed they are,’ the manager replied genially as we exchanged feedback, the hotel for being clean and moderately comfortable, and us for not bringing shame to the establishment by poor table manners, or talking loudly in public areas.‘Do you travel far this morning?’
‘We’re going to East Carmine.’
The Blue’s manner changed abruptly. He gave us an odd look, handed us back our merit-books and wished us a joyously uneventful future before swiftly attending to someone else. So we tipped the porter, reiterated the time of our train, and headed off to the first item on our itinerary.
‘Hmm,’ said my father, staring at the Badly Drawn Map once we had donated our ten cents and shuffled inside the shabby-yet-clean map house, ‘I can’t make head nor tail of this.’
The Badly Drawn Map may not have been very exciting, but it was very well named. ‘That’s probably why it survived the deFacting,’ I suggested, for the map was not only mystifying, but mind- numbingly rare – aside from the Parker Brothers’ celebrated Geochromatic view of the Previous’ world, it was the only pre-Epiphanic map known. But somehow its rarity wasn’t enough to make it interesting, and we stared blankly for some minutes at the faded parchment, hoping to either misunderstand it on a deeper level, or at least get our money’s worth.
‘The longer and harder we look at it, the cheaper the entrance donation becomes,’ Dad explained.
I thought of asking how long we’d have to stare at it before they owed us money, but didn’t.
He put his guidebook away and we walked back out into the warm sunlight. We felt cheated out of our ten cents, but politely left positive feedback since the drabness of the exhibit was no fault of the curator’s.
‘Why was the hotel manager so dismissive of East Carmine?’
‘The Outer Fringes have a reputation for being unsociably dynamic,’ he said after giving my question some thought, ‘and some consider that eventfulness may lead to progressive thought, with all the attendant risks that might bring to the Stasis.’
It was a diplomatically prescient remark, and one which I had cause to consider a lot over the coming days.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘but what do you think?’
‘I think we should go and see the Oz Memorial. Even if as dull as magnolia, it will still be a thousand times more interesting than the Badly Drawn Map.’
We walked along the noisy streets towards the museum and soaked in the hustle, bustle, dust and heat of Vermillion. On the street there were traders who dealt with daily requisites – livestock-herders, barrow-boys, water-sellers, pie-men, storytellers and weight-guessers – while the small shops catered for more long-term needs – repairers, artefact dealers, spoon-traders and calculating shops that offered addition and subtraction while you waited. Moderators and loopholists were hireable by the minute to advise on matters regarding the Rules, and there was even a shop that traded solely in Floaties, and another that specialised in postcode genealogy. In among it all I noticed a stronger-than-usual presence of Yellows, presumably there to keep an eye out for illegal colour-exchange, seed-trading or running with a sharp implement.
Unusually for a Regional Hub, Vermillion was positioned pretty much on the edge of the civilised world. Beyond it to the east were only the Redstone mountains and isolated outposts like East Carmine. In the uninhabited zone there would be wild outland, megafauna, lost villages of untapped scrap colour and quite possibly bands of nomadic Riffraff. It was exciting and worrying all in one, and until the week before, I hadn’t even heard of East Carmine, let alone think I would be spending a month there on ‘Humility Realignment’. My friends were horrified and expressed low to moderate outrage that I should be treated this way, and proclaimed they would have started a petition if they could trouble themselves to look for a pencil.
‘The Fringes are the place of the slack-willed, slack-jawed and slack-hued,’ remarked Floyd Pinken, who could comfortably boast all three of those attributes, if truth be known.
‘And be wary of losers, self-abusers, fence-leapers and fornicators,’ added Tarquin, who, given his family history, would not have seemed out of place there either.
They then informed me I would be demonstrably insane to leave the safety of the village boundary for even one second, and that a trip to the Fringes would have me eating with my fingers, slouching, and with hair below the collar in under a week. I almost decided to buy my way out of the assignment with a loan from my twice-widowed Aunt Beryl, but Constance Oxblood thought otherwise.
‘You’re doing a what?’ she had asked, when I mentioned the reason I was going to East Carmine.
‘A chair census, my poppet,’ I had explained. ‘Head Office are worried that the chair density might have dropped below the proscribed 1.8 per person.’
‘How absolutely thrilling. Does an ottoman count as a chair or a very stiff cushion?’
She went on to say that I would be showing significant daring and commendable bravery if I went, so I changed my mind. With the prospect of joining the family of Oxblood and myself as potential Prefect material, I was going to need the broadening that travel and furniture-counting would doubtless bring, and a month in the intoler- ably unsophisticated Outer Fringes might well supply it for me.
The Oz Memorial trumped the Badly Drawn Map in that it was baffling in three dimensions rather than just two. It was a partial bronze of a group of oddly shaped animals, the whole about six foot high and four foot broad. According to the museum guide it had been cut into pieces and dumped in the river three centuries before as part of the deFacting, so only two figures remained from a possible five. The best preserved was of a pig with a dress and wig on, and next to her stood a bulbous-bodied bear with a necktie. Of the third and fourth figures there was almost nothing, and of the fifth there remained only two claw-feet truncated at the ankles, and modelled on no creature living today.
‘The eyes are very large and human-like for a pig,’ said my father, peering closer, ‘and I’ve seen a number of bears in my life, but none of them wore a hat.’
‘They were very big on anthropomorphism,’ I ventured, which was pretty much accepted fact. The Previous had many other inexplicable customs, none more so than a propensity to interpolate fact with fiction, which made it very hard to figure out what had happened and what hadn’t. Although we knew this bronze had been cast in honour of Oz, the full dedication on the plinth was badly eroded, so it remained tantalisingly unconnected to any of the other Oz references that had trickled down the centuries. Debating societies had pondered long and hard over the ‘Oz Question’ and published many scholarly tracts within the pages of Spectrum. But while remnants of Tin Men had been unearthed by tosh-squads and Emerald City still exists as the centre of learning and administration, no physical evidence of brick roads had ever been found anywhere in the Collective, either of natural or synthetic yellow – and naturalists had long ago rejected the possibility that monkeys could fly. Oz, it was generally agreed, had been a fiction, and a fairly odd one. But in spite of that, the bronze remained. It was all a bit of a puzzle.
We paused only briefly to look at the exhibits in the museum after that, and only those of more than passing interest. We stopped and stared at the collection of Vimto bottles, the preserved Ford Fiesta with its obscene level of intentional obsolescence, then at the Turner, which Dad thought ‘wasn’t his best’. After that, we made our way to the floor below, where we marvelled at the realistic poses in the life-size Riffraff diorama, which depicted a typical Homo feralensis encampment. It was all disturbingly lifelike and full of savagery and unbridled lust, and was for the most part based upon Alfred Peabody’s seminal work Seven Minutes among the Riffraff. We stared at the lifeless mannequins with a small crowd of schoolchildren who were doubtless studying the lower order of Human as part of a Historical Conjecture project.
‘Do they really eat their own babies?’ asked one of the pupils as she stared with horrified fascination at the tableau.
‘Absolutely,’ replied the teacher, an elderly Blue who should have known better, ‘and you too if you don’t respect your parents, observe the Rules and finish up your vegetables.’
Personally, I had doubts over some of the more ridiculous claims regarding Riffraff. But I kept them to myself. Conjecture was a dish mostly served up wild.
As it turned out, the phonograph would not be demonstrated because both it and the music disc had been put ‘beyond use’ with a very large hammer. This wasn’t due to mischief, but a necessary outcome of Leapback Compliance issues, as some fool hadn’t listed the device on this year’s exemption certificate.The staff at the museum seemed a trifle annoyed about this, as the destruction of the artefact reduced the collective’s demonstrable phonographs to a solitary machine in Cobalt’s Museum of the Something that Happened.
‘But it wasn’t all bad,’ added the curator, a Red with very bushy eyebrows, ‘at least I can lay claim to being the last person ever to hear Mr Simply Red.’
And after giving detailed feedback, we left the museum and headed off towards the Municipal Gardens.
We paused on the way to admire an impressive wall painting of great antiquity that was emblazoned across the brick gable-end of a house. It invited a long-vanished audience to ‘Drink Ovaltine for Health and Vitality’, and there was an image of a mug and two odd-looking but happy children, their football-sized eyes staring blankly out at the world with obvious satisfaction and longing. Although faded, the red components in the lips and script were still visible. Pre-Epiphanic wall paintings were rare, and when they depicted the Previous, creepy. It was the eyes. Their pupils, far from being the fine, neat dot of normal people, were unnaturally wide and dark and empty – as though their heads were somehow hollow – and it gave their look of happiness a peculiar and contrived demeanour. We stood and stared at it for a moment, then moved on.
Any colourised park was a must-see for visitors, and Vermillion’s offering certainly didn’t disappoint. The gardens were laid out within the city walls not far from the bridge, and they were a leafy enclave of dappled shade, fountains, pergolas, gravel paths, statuary and flower beds. They also had a bandstand and ice-cream stall, even if there wasn’t a band, nor any ice cream. But what made Vermillion’s park really special was that it was supplied by colour piped direct from the Grid, so was impressively bright. We walked up to the main grassed area just past the picturesque ivy-swaddled Rodin, and stared at the expanse of synthetic green. It was a major improvement upon the park back home, because the overall scheme was tuned for the predominance of Red eyes. In Jade-under-Lime the bias was more towards those who could see green, which made the grass hardly coloured at all, and everything red turned up far too bright. Here the colour balance was pretty much perfect, and we stood in silence, contemplating the subtle chromatic symphony laid out in front of us.
‘I’d give my left plum to move to a Red Sector,’ murmured Dad in a rare display of crudeness.
‘You’ve already pledged the left one,’ I pointed out, ‘in the vague hope that Old Man Magenta would retire early.’
‘Did I?’ ‘Last autumn, after the incident with the Rhinosaurus.’ ‘What a dope that man is,’ said Dad, shaking his head sadly. Old Man Magenta was our Head Prefect, and, like many Purples, would have trouble recognising himself in a mirror.
‘Do you think that’s really the colour of grass?’ asked Dad after a pause.
I shrugged. There was no real way of telling.The most we could say was that this was what National Colour felt the colour of grass should be. Ask a Green how green grass was and they’d ask you how red was an apple. But interestingly, the grass wasn’t uniformly green. An area the size of a tennis court in the far corner of the lawn had changed to an unpleasant bluey-green. The discordancy was spreading like a water stain, and the off-colour area had also taken in a tree and several beds of flowers, which now displayed unusual hues quite outside Standard Botanical Gamut. Intrigued, we noticed there was someone staring into an access hatch close to the anomaly, so we wandered over to have a look.
We expected him to be a National Colour engineer working on the problem, but he wasn’t. He was a Red park-keeper and he glanced at our spot-badges, then hailed us in a friendly manner.
‘Problems?’ asked Dad.
‘Of the worst sort,’ replied the park-keeper wearily. ‘Another blockage. The council are always promising to have the park repiped, but whenever they get any money they spend it on swan early- warning systems, lightning protection or something equally daft.’
It was unguarded talk, but we were Red too, so he knew he was safe.
We peered curiously into the access hatch where the cyan, yellow and magenta colour feed-pipes fed into one of the many carefully calibrated mixers in order to achieve the various hues required for the grass, shrubs and flowers. From here they would feed the network of capillaries that had been laid beneath the park. Colourising gardens was a complex task that involved matching the osmotic coefficients of the different plants with the specific gravity of the dyes – and that was before you got started on pressure density evaporation rates and seasonal hue variation. Colourists earned their perks and bonuses.
I had a pretty good idea what the problem was, even without looking at the flow meters. The bluey-green cast of the lawn, the grey appearance of the celandines and the purplish poppies suggested localised yellow deficiency, and this was indeed the case – the yellow flow meter was firmly stuck on zero. But the viewing port was full of yellow, so it wasn’t a supply issue from the park substation.
‘I think I know what the problem is,’ I said quietly, knowing full well that unlicensed tampering with National Colour property carried a five-hundred-merit fine.
The park-keeper looked at me, then at Dad, then back at me. He bit his lip and scratched his chin, looked around and lowered his voice.
‘Can it be easily fixed?’ he asked. ‘We’ve a wedding at three. They’re only Grey but we try and make an effort.’
I looked at Dad, who nodded his assent. I pointed at the pipe.
‘The yellow flow meter’s jammed, and the lawn’s receiving only the cyan component of the grass-green. Although I would never condone rule-breaking of any sort,’ I added, making sure I had deniability if everything turned brown,‘I believe a sharp rap with the heel of a shoe would probably free it.’
The park-keeper looked around, took off his shoe and did what I suggested. Almost instantly there was an audible gurgling noise.
‘Well, I’ll be jaundiced,’ he said, ‘as easy as that? Here.’
And he handed me a half-merit, thanked us, and went off to package up the grass clippings for cyan-yellow retrieval.
‘How did you know about that?’ said Dad as soon as we were out of earshot.
‘Overheard stuff, mostly,’ I replied.
We’d had a burst magenta feed a few years back, which was exciting and dramatic all at the same time – a cascading fountain of purple all over the main street. National Colour were all over us
in an instant, and I volunteered myself as tea-wallah, just to get close. The technical language of the Colourists was fairly obfuscating, but I’d picked up a bit. It was every resident’s dream to work at National Colour, but not a realistic prospect: your eyes, feedback, merits and sycophancy had to be beyond exemplary, and only one in a thousand of those who qualified even got to sit the entrance exam.
We ambled around the garden for as long as time would permit, soaking in the synthetic colour and feeling a lot better for it. Unusually, they had hydrangeas in both colours, and delicately hand-tinted azaleas that looked outside of the CYM gamut: a rare luxury, and apparently a bequest from a wealthy Lilac. We noted that there wasn’t much pure yellow in the garden, which was probably a sop to the Yellows in the town. They liked their flowers natural, and since they could cause trouble if not acceded too, were generally given their own way. When we passed the lawn on our way out, the grass in the anomaly was beginning to turn back to Fresh Lawn Green, more technically known as 102–100–64. It would be back to full chroma in time for the wedding.
We stepped out of the Colour Garden, and walked back towards the main square. On the way we passed a Leaper, who was seated by the side of the road, covered entirely except for their alms-arm in a coarse blanket. I put my recently acquired half-merit in their open palm, and the figure nodded in appreciation. Dad looked at his watch.
‘I suppose,’ he said with little enthusiasm, ‘we should go and have the rabbit experience.’