He's always seen them, ever since he was a little boy. They were just lumps of shade in his earliest memories – basic, red and blue and yellow, bright things like building blocks in different shapes, circles and squares and triangles, fuzzy and indefinite when he looked at them out of the corner of his eyes. He asked his mum about it once when she was tucking him into bed, all warm and cosy with his cowboy pyjamas and his bright red bed socks – “Do you see them, mum? The colours?”.
She must have thought it was one of his little games of let's pretend, where he tells her he sees dragons or he's fighting to rescue a town from the clutches of an evil villian or he is a prince on a white steed with his sword in hand, and she just nods like she's doing now, a placid smile on her face. She ruffled his hair and pressed a dry kiss to his forehead, smoothing back broad tangles of curls and told him, trying to be stern, but her compressed laughter giving it away, that it was time for all little boys called Arthur Shappey to be wrapped up in bed and asleep. She'd play his game tomorrow, she promised.
He took her response as a no, watching the purple sliding up over her arms, awash with little diamonds of white, and decided not to mention it again. He didn't quite know how to put it. It wasn't something that had words for it; the patterns of fragments, blink-and-you'll-miss-them, sparkles and shimmers and little errant bursts wriggling out of the main and exploding in a short lived fiery luminescence. So he simply went on as he always had done, a smile on his face and a 'brilliant!' on his lips and a kaleidoscope of colour everywhere he looked.
He's learned to figure out what they all mean as he gets older, a secret language no-one else gets to see, like French or German or whale song all the way under the sea with the half-circles of sonar waves, but just for him to see, all by himself. He recognises them by rote, a scripture decorating everyone he meets as though face paint, that doesn't stain their clothes or rub on their skin, but layers over their entire body, as though someone's come along in their sleep and used them as a palette for their art. There are blues and reds and yellows in swirls and spirals, tattooed around elbow joints and knuckle bones and those knobbly bits on your knees, and then they spin off, curling around the crevice between fingers, or ripple down over the collarbone, and always always different; a universe of artwork imprinted on everyone he meets. It's brilliant, he thinks. Like learning how to read people, not like his Ipswich courses which were all about how people moved or spoke or if they shifted their eyes down or away while talking; it's all these wide strokes of feeling, happy or sad or a bit in the middle, or little splashes in between that are all the things that no-one says aloud, affection or melancholy or pride. He's not always good at seeing the obvious, but he understands the smaller things.
They're the most important, fairly often.
They're flying to Heathrow one day, and Arthur's burnt the shepherd's pie again, but only a little bit, so that it curls up in little black crusty bits at the side but is otherwise perfectly hot, spluttering and whining, and the cheese on the top bubbling. He wisely leaves it to cool for a bit, knowing he'll end up with burnt fingers otherwise, and he's walking up the galley to the cockpit to visit the chaps when he sees the man.
There are only a few passengers today, which is why Mum's taken a day off, saying she was going to spend it spurning Herc's offers for opera (but Arthur's not silly, knows what it means when his mum's colour refracts and crimps up around the top of her arms, when her purple goes navy in a flush when she says Herc's name). One of them is sitting quietly by the window seat, away from the clump of the other passengers, a family of three, staring out at the cloud's like he's trying to make shapes from them in his head. Arthur's done that before, lain on his back even though it made his t-shirt grass-stained and a bit damp, and made clouds look like sheep and otters and aeroplanes (and he's not sure that there ever really was a dragon up there like Douglas had insisted, but he tried to make one anyway). There's a frown creasing the man's forehead, his brain probably filled with so much stuff it's weighing him down. He doesn't look very happy, not in the way that there is something deliberately concerning him, but a more general unhappiness, like when you feel empty and wistful, like there is nothing in his life to fight for so he just drifts from day to day, frightened and insecure about a world too big for him.
The thing is, Arthur's been reading the colour's for a long long time, and while they are all brilliant, obviously, with thick emerald eddies that crash into silver and cascade off into a shatter of light like fireworks, no one ever has the same waves, the same shades. It's always another combination, a change in the direction of the swirls, a tide moving in and out like a heartbeat, made of so many colours he couldn't count them all.
The man, short dark hair and a casual grey hoody, is a sorrowful navy, mournfully trailing a soft fern green which drowns under the rest of the blue – heavy and overpowering. And while it's not the same colour, has jagged irregular lines like the outlines of those rocky hills that aren't quite as tall as mountains, and the steady earthy feel of grassland and moor, but the feel of it, on the other hand...
Arthur couldn't describe what it's like to 'feel' the colours of a person to anyone, not when he isn't as good at explaining things as maybe Douglas, but it's a bit like this: when you touch a cold surface, like the tiles he's got at home going round the sides of the bath, and then with the other hand touch the carpet on the floor outside where feet have worn it down to the weave and it's all scratchy. That's kind of what it's like. He can't touch them because there's nothing there, but he gets a sense, like when you know it's going to rain, or when you know you're going to sneeze by that build up of pressure in your head. And so that's how he knows that the colours of the man sitting in seat 37C feel the same, exactly the same, as Skip's colours, with the normal bright shades he should be pushed down with sadness, like a sunny day swamped under thunderclouds.
Mum's got the same feel as Herc. Like one of those tartan rugs you have picnics on, that you can wrap around your shoulders when you get sleepy and your eyes start to droop and someone puts it over you with an affectionate peck on the forehead. He thinks that's why she's smiling more these days, why she goes for more and more 'dog-walks' and why Herc's having so many 'sleep-overs' at the house. Arthur just knows that when people have the same feel to their colours, they make each other happier when they meet.
Arthur wants Skip to smile more. He doesn't smile often enough. And the man in 37C looks like he doesn't remember quite how smiling works.
Arthur's still thinking about this, and wondering how he could get the two to know each other, to make each other happier, when he gets to the cockpit. Douglas is channelling a streaming self-assured orange today, a teasing tone in his voice that's reflected in the playful spirals that dot and dart all over his wrists and cheeks. He dips into a hazy terracotta upon Arthur's arrival.
“Please, Arthur,” Martin says, a flicker of red-brick warmth effusing up his throat and the tips of his fingers, before he turns to Douglas, and it dies again, swallowed up by a concerned grey that roils and brews over his skin. “Douglas – no.”
“Why not?” Douglas smirks again, a dappled citrus line along his throat. He looks impish, competitive, knowing he'll get his own way. “All the ingredients are here – one lemon pre-travel, less than four passengers in transit, three willing participants to the game now Arthur's here....”
“But I'm not willing – ”
“We might need to stir in a dash of coercion Martin, but I'm afraid you're outnumbered here.”
“Arthur.” Martin rounds on him, with a degree of authority on his face that isn't seen in the heady worry creasing in dark waves on his forehead. “Tell me you don't want to join in playing this silly game?”
“Actually,” Arthur says, thinking slowly, clipping the puzzle pieces in his head together really slowly, wondering whether this is what Douglas feels like all the time when he gets a really good idea. “I really think it'd be a good time to play The Travelling Lemon. Douglas, can I go first please?”
“Excellent!” Douglas shines a satisfied green while Martin groans, drooping into a darker grey with a low mutter of 'But I don't want to lose the brie again...'. “The Lemon is in play then.”
Arthur puts the lemon in play three times over the course of the rest of the journey. The shepherd's pie is all but forgotten as he works towards the completion of his master plan, each time placing the lemon around or near the man staring out of the window seat in 37C for Skip to find. There is no way they won't meet then, and Arthur is always grinning with a sensation of success when he comes back to the cabin, even if Martin looks miserable. It'll make Skip better in the long run, he knows, so doesn't feel too bad.
Martin comes back flushed and flustered the first time, begging anew that this game is unprofessional, that's silly and childish and he doesn't want to be part of it, because it makes him look foolish, and for god's sake, he's the captain, he shouldn't have to put up with this. The second time he goes out, he's out longer, and Arthur goes back out to check on him before he notices that the man and Skip are talking – both brimming with a coiling blue, blushing furiously, half unable to get their introductions out with embarrassment (Arthur thinks that maybe he shouldn't have hidden the lemon in the overhead compartment – it appears that during Martin's effort to retrieve the fruit, he seems to have lost his balance and fallen onto the man instead). But Martin's colour has lightened to a streaking silver through the pink of his cheeks, and the man is smiling, however nervously, with the curve of his ears a forest green that's seeping down and dyeing his neck, and Arthur knows to leave them to it.
The third time the lemon is in play, Martin has to be retrieved back, an irate Carolyn on the sat-com who chides him that he is being paid to fly the passengers, not to harass them, so could he please contain himself until the plane lands before he goes to bother some poor soul and inevitably affects the company's reputation by making an ass of himself. There a suppressed grin on his face, however, even as Carolyn tells him off and Douglas chips in a teasing comment or two, and he's beginning to look like he always has done beneath, with the colours Arthur's always been able to pick out under all the grey and the sad: like a clear sky at thirty-thousand feet, wisps of snowy cloud barely distracting from the sway and hum of blue, star-bursts peeking out under his sleeves, dancing curls tracing the contours of his chin.
His colours don't lessen. Even when he loses the brie, the next three word-games, even when it's spitting rain as they touch down in Heathrow, and the wheels skid slightly, and GERTI stutters a complaint, and still he's sparking blue all the way across his skin, mind still back in the cabin, barely focused on what Douglas is saying. Arthur knows that under his uniform, along upper arms and torso and pelvis, the colour will be the same, burnished and far too hopeful, and there, right at the centre, his heart will be thrumming with the shades of a sunrise.
Arthur will see them together later on in the day. He's helped the passengers depart, but the young man with a rouge of newly sprouted green skirting across his collarbone and a nervous shift in his motions lingers at the airport arrivals section, without quite knowing why he's stayed. GERTI isn't departing again until their afternoon flight to Newcastle then back to Fitton, which is delayed, what with the poor visibility and cloudy weather, and Arthur sits in the lounge tapping his foot and humming a song he heard snatches of from someone's headphones, waiting for Douglas to get back from his search for a place that sells drinkable coffee.
It's about then he sees Skip, ginger hair frizzy with the rain, the shoulders of his uniform damp, and he's talking to the man, blushing steadily and stammering, but his whole body lit up like a live wire, his skin the colour of sky. And the other man is a twisting brown and green, the colour of earth and land and everything that's grounded, and he's smiling self-consciously at Martin, quick fleeting smiles, blinking a lot like he can't quite identify that funny jumping feeling in his chest. And Arthur grins to himself a sunny, happy grin, and wonders if this place sells Toblerone, and whether Mum is going to cook turkey dinosaurs and potato smiley faces tonight (she usually does if she's in a good mood, which she should be if Herc's been over) and whether the piece of paper scrunched tightly in Martin's fist is the other man's number. He hopes it is. He wants Skip to be able to be happy, find that perfect happiness that everyone's looking for in some way, the one that feels like bubble baths and juggling apples and singing to yourself without worrying that anyone can hear you, the one that people find by being with other people in whatever way, whoever they are.
Arthur sees the name printed over the number in neat black letters when Martin slinks back over to sit with Arthur, his other hand flexing as though not quite assured that what happened, really just did, and to him, him, of all people. He spreads the paper out over his knee, reads the name and number out under his breath to himself, and then folds it carefully up, and places it in his pocket, his hands shaking but his whole body glowing.
The man who signs his name 'Henry Knight' is going to be around a lot more from now on. Arthur can just tell.