A trail of white smoke floats up from the chimney of the Red House and, just above the tallest of the eucalyptus trees in the valley, forms a thin, almost motionless, cloud. It’s only four o’clock but the pale sun is already hiding below the hill opposite the house. In the corner of the vegetable garden there is a triangle of frost, which has been there all day.
The Red House is next to the station, down the lane that leads from the farmacia, (the chemist’s shop).
Two dishevelled looking cars have just arrived at the same time. The occupants bundle out, and with cold-whitened fingers start to unload their stuff.
“Brr! Temperature three degrees lower here,” one of the drivers says.
“Don’t have to tell us!” says a passenger from the other car.
As well as cold, there is a dampness in the air. This emanates from the stream that rushes along behind the house on its way to meet its parent river beside the industrial estate. The stream used to have a name supposedly, but nobody in the village bar these days could tell you what it was.
Beck, the owner of the Red House, is at the door.
Beck is English and unfailingly polite. Hands are shaken, and kisses exchanged, both on arrival and departure. He is also punctual to a fault. The others have learnt that four o’clock at the Red House means four o’clock. Saturday afternoons are a serious affair – none of the usual Spanish tardiness.
Inside, the house smells of wood fire and cigarettes. Smoking is permitted but drugs are strongly discouraged on Saturday afternoons.
Serge is the first one to go into the side room to get things set up. The others stand in a huddle beside the fire drinking freshly made coffee.
Serge came in the same car as Ana. He’s French, while she’s a local Spanish woman. They’ve had their ups and downs recently, but they leave all that behind when they come to the Red House.
Matis is Greek. Of slight build and very Greek looking, he keeps his colourful woolly bobble hat firmly pulled down on these afternoons. Ana said he had “duende” after the first session at the Red House. Nobody else had heard the Spanish word before, and when she tried explaining something about fairies and magical powers, they were none the wiser. After the second session the penny dropped. From then on “duende” became defined as “what Matis has”.
Beck, ever the one to investigate the finer points of any subject, looked into the “Matis question” in more detail and came to the conclusion that he had synaesthesia.
“Oh my!” the others said. “Sounds nasty!”
To clarify, Beck quizzed Matis on one occasion.
“Didn’t you say that what we do here must be done through colour?”
Matis speaks some Spanish but he uses words sparingly, as if each one was a euro he had earned scaffolding during the week. He shrugged and raised his eyebrows: “Shouldn’t this have been obvious to everyone?” the gesture said.
“There you are!” Beck went on. “Synaesthesia. Especially prevalent is the perception of colour together with another sense. It’s a gift some people just have. But it’s also something we can all develop to some extent…if we try.” The last three words were directed at all the companions except, of course, Matis. For his part, Beck had already reached beyond Matis’ superior plain of mastery by dint of years of hard work and devotion…
…After ten minutes Serge appears at the door to the side room, two fingers pressed to his lips, sucking the remains of a limp roll-up.
“Come on you lot!” he says. “I’m ready.”
Beck’s partner, Jill, puts another log on the fire in the vain hope that some of the heat will pass into the side room, where they are all about to spend three hours.
Jill knows all about colour, too. The ladies’ Zumba classes in the Bar Bolero took on a completely new air when she first arrived in the village, with her hippy dresses and red hair.
“Ok,” Beck says as he places his empty coffee cup firmly down on the shelf beneath the poster of Charles Bukowsky. This is the sign for everyone to move.
Bringing up the rear of the group of six as they file out of the living room is Carl, the most recent arrival. Less experienced than the others, he is still pleasantly surprised just to be here.
Once in the side room – otherwise known as the “frigorífico” on account of its being almost impossible to keep warm – they make the last adjustments to the equipment.
Ana is last to be ready, as always. “It’s her Spanish genes!” the others say, though she doesn’t find this very funny. Today her left ankle is caught in a tangle of wires.
Serge, sat on his stool and anxious to get going, leans forward to see what the problem is.
“Oh, come on woman!” he says.
Ana glares back at him.
Freeing herself after a few seconds, she nods to Beck.
He is now standing in the middle of the room, in front of the microphone. Tall and imposing in his cowboy boots and flowery shirt – he never wears a jumper or jacket in the house, even on the coldest of days – he pronounces the title of the first one: “Trial and Error”.
“Eh!” Matis interjects. Everyone turns to him. Being a man of few words people are keen to listen when he does say something.
“Remember! With colour! Ok? If not, it’s worth nothing.”
The others force a nervous smile. The inference seems to be – “we’ll do our best”.
Serge gets a nod from Beck and clicks the drumsticks together. “1,2,3,4…”
The song is about the flight of Icarus. Serge and Carl lay down a mesmerising, rolling rhythm and, as Jill’s piano and the guitars kick in, it is as if the Red House is levitating.
Through the condensation of the window panes Carl sees the sun disappear finally behind the hill. The winter sky now takes on pink and orange tinges.
Above the other instruments, Beck sings of Icarus soaring, the foolish son oblivious to his fate. Everyone in the room feels they’re flying too. As the second chorus comes to an end and Carl senses the approach of the first note of Matis’ guitar solo, the goose bumps spread over his neck and arms…
…Then it happens.
Matis, looking downwards with a faint smile, moves his fingers over the strings of his white guitar and fills the house with shades of yellow and gold – the colours of the key of A major.
Synaesthesia is a neurological condition in which information meant to stimulate one of your senses stimulates several of your senses. People who have synaesthesia are called synesthetes. Synesthetes can often “see” music as colours when they hear it. From Liszt to Stevie Wonder or Beyoncé – many great musicians have been born with this condition.