There are a number of facts about the way the human body functions that people simply don’t know, even though they could experiment and find them. One is the way vision is influenced by air. An individual deprived of air often talks about ‘blacking out’ – about the way vision collapses to a point, an encroaching blackness filling the field of vision. In these moments, though, there’s a second effect that most people don’t notice – often due to the terror associated with being unable to breathe.
As the brain loses oxygen, it shuts down systems quickly to try and minimise what it takes to work the vital systems of the brain, and directly, the body. One of the systems that shuts down before consciousness itself does is the recognition of colour. All visual information becomes greyscale, washed out, and at the same time, sharp, thanks to the power of adrenaline.
It’s a hard thing to notice. Someone has to be deprived of oxygen a few times to truly recognise this phenomenon and not simply consider it part of the general spectrum of unpleasantness that comes with the sensation of being choked into unconsciousness. It’s a tiny little insight into the world, a shared secret only known amongst the small number of people who have suffered asphyxiation multiple times – a habit that most people avoid developing.
Not many people saw the world like that, even for an instant. Angus couldn’t shake the similarity, as he stared out upon the grey London.
“Excuse me, young lady,” the man said to Holland. She looked up in response, blinking at him owlishly behind her brown hair.
“Um?” Holland asked, in response, looking up and down the street. The past few weeks had been a terrifying place in the world, and Holland, already used to hiding herself in plain sight, was dealing bit-by-bit with a society that seemed to care more about big questions about the existence of magic than it did about any of the specific questions that had plagued her in high school.
“Mm, yes, you?” the man asked, shuffling forwards a little closer. The street was more or less empty – the bakery behind her, with its fluttering banners proudly displaying Australian Dairy didn’t do much to detract from the image of a bakery where fathers lined up of a Sunday morning, papers tucked under their arms, laughing and joking about the Friday night game and the Saturday night beer. The whole place was so … so wonderfully, painfully, banally normal, and this man just wanted Holland to answer a question. Right?
Shuffling closer still, he held out at arm’s length an old, copper pocket-watch, busted filth and concrete dust clinging to its contours. “Don’t suppose you can read this for me?” He asked, his tone a little shamefaced. “It’s hard to see with my eyes the way they are now… it’s a real c-” he began.
Holland ignored the typical punctuation as he spoke on, and leant down, bringing the watch up to her eyes. “Hm. Oh. Roman Numerals, right?” she asked, interrupting. “It’s ten to one, mate.” She said, closing the watch and setting it in his hand, a nagging thought bubbling up in the back of her head.
Why hadn’t she checked the time on her own watch?
Angus blinked himself alert again and looked across the field. It was no mistaking, a schoolyard. Not a schoolyard like he’d seen in London growing up – high fences of old style meant to fit in with the city’s aesthetic. No, this place was – well, it was large, for a start, larger than any school he’d seen before. Huge expanses of half-grassed fields, short and scrubby lawns that had patches of dirt where people clearly had walked too much, shortcutting around posts in the ground designed to curtail … what? Cars? Cows?
It sat some distance back from the fence, the fence that was, itself, a clear byproduct of London’s strange mirror. Leaning forwards, Angus murmured to himself.
“Schools,” he said. “Schools and buildings and homes… why?” he drew his breath, speaking louder. It wasn’t like he expected nobody to talk to him. He knew there were at least two voices he could expect to hear. “Is this a world without magic?” he asked, clearing his throat again.
Holland carried the bread home. The rest of the world had been losing its mind with magic. The disappearance of the school had brought with it a sort of disarmed tension and a lack of visits from DOCS. Wait, they weren’t DOCS any more. They were… uh… those guys. Anyway, without them checking, Holland had just stopped going to school. Chores and errands took up the day, and then the library had time and place and quiet to study.
See, the rest of the world was dealing with borders and wars where magic happened. In Australia, there’d been one incident with someone in Melbourne turning someone else into a frog in the middle of the crowd, before being shot to death by bodyguards, showing that the criminal underclass still had something quite efficient at enforcing their own set of rules.
That had almost been it. It wasn’t like Australia had this vast expansive history and all the witches and warlocks were coming out of the woodwork. There were superstitions, yeah, but it was a new nation – why weren’t there great signs of… Holland wasn’t sure. Something like the slave chains or the Eureka Stockade or the Rainbow Serpent thrashing across the countryside.
And why had that one school been taken?
And why hadn’t Holland?
These were the thoughts punched through by the sudden garny voice of a woman by the bus stop. “Hey, excuse me, mate,” she said, her short black hair and thick black glasses working together, “Do you have the time? My phone’s out…”
Holland looked up at the woman – god, so confidently androgynous. He could feel a little squirm in his stomach as he shuffled for his watch, fishing around in his pockets, before remembering it was on his wrist. Pulling his shirt back, looking at the display, and mumbling out, “It’s one thirty, miss.”
“Thanks, mate,” she said, turning away and looking down the street for the bus. She’d finished her sketches for the day and had places to be – but she could tell the boy that just walked past her had felt enormously uncomfortable, and more than a little attracted. Well, that was nice.
“A world without magic?”
“Is it really, now?”
“It’s hard to say, isn’t it?”
“After all, didn’t you grow up in a world without magic?”
“Hardly seems right to me that magic is to blame for everything to do with colour.”
“Mm, yes, there’s spectrums, isn’t there?”
“And crystals. Also Newton, one believes.”
“One believes a lot of things.”
“Perhaps that is the problem.”
Angus turned to look back, to the opposite wall. Whenever he heard those voices, he knew it had to be connected to them, the twins who’d been following him since he found himself here in Grey London. Rather than standing on the wall behind him, though, they were just there. In the street. Within arm’s reach.
Suddenly, the wishes he’d had to be able to touch them felt a little dead in Angus’ heart. Why would he want to touch them? What was he going to do? Prove they existed or something? In this vast grey London, chances are they did anyway. She and he had that oddly reminiscent face. A freckle on one’s left cheek, mirrored on the right. The same birdlike expression in their eyes, a sort of distant curiosity that spoke more of boredom than of interest.
Angus hadn’t even realised he’d raised his hands, like he was going to reach out to grab one of them – and hastily, he brought his hand up to clear his throat, smoothing the front of his shirt. “I… who are you?”
“I don’t see how that’s the slightest bit of interest,” she said.
“Well, he did ask,” he responded.
“That doesn’t display interest, that’s just small talk.”
“Answering questions is what this place is all about, isn’t it?”
“I think you’ll find that’s the exact opposite of what it’s for.” She said, her expression a frozen unsmile.
Behind Angus, hollering out over the fields, a school bell. He didn’t even mean to turn his head, but turn he did, knowing that when he looked back, they’d be gone. That’s what they did, right? Turning to the fence, committing to the loss, he stepped forwards, and leant forwards to look through the grille, drawing his breath slowly, a lurching anticipation in his heart. What was it, then? What was this new horror going to show him…?
Students. Normal students, emerging from classrooms, without enthusiasm, simply shuffling around and moving to their bags, retrieving food, sitting on benches. One or two of them listlessly kicked a ball between one another. Angus didn’t know how long he’d stared at the scene before he realised what it was he was seeing. It was eerie in its subdued simplicity.
This was just how students weren’t. It was quiet and boring and dull and safe. Nobody was going to get hurt, because nobody was going to do anything that might endanger them.
Angus turned back to the twins – who, of course, weren’t there. Gripping his jaw like he wanted to tear off a beard he didn’t have, Angus dragged in his breath and turned, stomping down the gravel path, away from the school anew.
This wasn’t ‘without magic,’ he could realise that much. What was this world, then? What was it that made this world different?
Holland pushed the front door open, seeing the letters on the mat. Bending down to pick them up, fingers trembled at the familiar logo.
Holland sighed heavily and set the bread on the countertop. These letters were the worst. There were so many things really wrong with the home situation, but they never wanted to talk about that. They all wanted to talk about the same thing, which always came out the same basic way…
“Are you fitting in at school?”
“Are you having any problems finding friends?”
“Are you doing any sport?”
Are you using the change rooms never came up, but how much they wanted to ask. Holland just let a sigh escape and slouched into the cigarette-stenched sofa. Hands flopped helplessly over the side, Holland reflected absentmindedly.
The important thing, really, was that Holland never stopped thinking about ways to understand. Surroundings changed, but Holland had to keep thinking about them, or something might slip up, someone might hear something wrong, something bad might happen. Attention had to be paid, and, in as much as possible, understanding had to be reached.
Magic didn’t bring the world colour. Light did that. Human ability to perceive light gave that colour context, and that colour with its three simple bases had given rise to artistic shapings that had shaken the core of what humans considered their souls.
No, it wasn’t magic that was missing…