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- 1st Memoir


First Prize

In My Mind's Eye: reflections of a synesthete by Elissa Moss

Black lines dance along the white ticker-tape of my father’s speech. His eyes are closed, and I hurriedly shut my own again. The tape streams and coils over the table, spilling off the edges and winding around the legs of chairs to pool on the floor. Before I could read it looked like squiggles. Now I’m seven, and it’s in print. My father’s prayers gather us together around the meal and his words are there after I’ve opened my eyes, and I can still read them in my mind.
The stair case in my head climbs steadily to ten, with each number a different colour. At first the numbers barely went higher than eleven and twelve on the winder, when my position was not far from the floor and learning fractions was a problem (“There’s no such thing as thirds, Mum.” Because how can you have something that is both completely green and pure white at the same time?) Negative numbers unfold in mirror image, disturbingly upside down and below the floor. But the teens are a fragile, coloured bridge to twenty. Each decade reaches higher, step by sturdy step and turning at the burnished landings to catch a different shade of light. The background is dark, the drop is endless, but I can’t fall off my age. The numbers are always there and shining, until leaping over the crest to a white hundred. After one hundred it’s all the same. No wonder I have trouble budgeting.
The rocks punch out syncopation on the backbeat, but the trumpet dips and sways, dodging, leaping in spray and falling in rapid rushes downstream. The music is golden, shining like hair in the sun. It pours into deep pools as the instruments unite, and then slips smoothly over the edge into the solo. The old vinyl record sticks on a scratch and the water skips back to the rocks. We’re jumping off the lounge chairs, shaking the house, but I can’t dance like the water and my brothers don’t seem to realise it matters.
My father’s careful questions when I’m a teenager are the first inkling I have. Not everyone sees the numbers staircase, he tells me, and then asks if words have colours. The answer is so obvious I’m wondering if this is a trick question. He’s the first one to lift this phenomenon from subconscious to special, but it will be months before I discover what it’s called. And it will be even longer before Questacon runs an exhibition, inviting the world to understand.
Round and clear liquid comes over the phone, suspended in the shape of a cylinder as the stranger describes wedding decorations. I didn’t catch her name. But I’ll know her again by the shape of her voice.
The bore water at my in-laws’ place in the Central West tastes blunt. The only way to sharpen it is to drink it ice-cold – even then it’s still bent the wrong way. I’m dying for Sydney water, shaped like a fish-hook.
Real people have this name, but they can’t help it. Even their parents couldn’t have known – especially when the definition in the baby book is exquisite. The name is brown and slimy.
“Um. That name doesn’t work.” It’s a delicate way of saying his suggestion is trash. We’re sitting in the breakfast café, notebook on the table – our brainstorm tradition for each pregnancy.
“Why not?” asks my husband. He’s sitting back, humour lurking in his eyes.
Our decision is fraught with difficulty. Especially when choosing a middle name to go with the first. And when our surname is such a deep midnight blue.
“Because the colours clash.” In my mind’s eye, a deep summer sky and skipping green are calling, and my husband’s face breaks into a grin. I know what he’s thinking, but I also know exactly what to name our child.
Fortunately, my husband thinks the name is great.
A silver net crackles and spreads up my swollen belly in patterns of static lightning. The pattern pauses to gather force. Then every thread in the net tightens. The grip is titanium and all sounds around disappear into teeth-clenching concentration. A minute later the highest threads evaporate and I can breathe again. The web reluctantly releases; the crackling eases, subsiding down to rest until the next contraction. My husband’s sun-bleached coral voice re-emerges. I know he’s been coaching me all along, even when I couldn’t see his voice, and he’ll keep going until this work is finished. The pains are coming two minutes apart. It won’t be long now.
Small peels of sound crisp off and float down in the dark. Peel after peel curls, falling pale-green and turning to catch the light. The sound stirs through the fatigue and pushes me up, gathering speed. I’m getting the diver’s bends. Don’t rise too fast, or you’ll pass out. But the peels insist, and I race up to meet them, shedding the depths, to a shock at the surface pressure of consciousness. The peels are still falling; the sound of my baby’s cries. It’s midnight, and he’s hungry.
We’re colouring the calendar and annoyingly, the week is two-dimensional instead of on a swirling loop. Worse, the year is laid out on pages instead of a Ferris wheel with summer at the top. The days in the diary don’t even start properly at the bottom of the morning. I pass my toddler a rust-coloured crayon. Autumn colours for Thursday - the best I can do. She swaps it for a violet crayon. I pass the rusty one back. Violet is not right for Thursday.
She frowns. “But Thursday is purple.”
My husband’s face lights up and he starts laughing out chunky polystyrene blocks, and then I realise.
Perhaps our daughter too can see her father’s prayers. I can’t help smiling.

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