The Colour of Pain
Illustration by Deena So Oteh
Content warning: Self-harm imagery
Tuesdays are always blue, no exceptions. Never a blood orange like today. And definitely not an orange that tastes of mud, dregs of coffee granules and wet ash. My dream comes back in snatches—hands rotten and black, stumps at the end of my arms, ragged stitches attaching new hands, bigger with bruised skin. My hands are the same, but different. So hideous. Why had I never noticed before? It’s hands that brush teeth, put clothes on, feed. Hard to ignore, impossible to avoid. They control everything.
It takes me some time to get dressed, hands not behaving as they should. Ben is ready before me.
“You need to hurry up. You’re going to be late. Again.”
Ben is never late for anything, but time has always slipped away from me. I can’t keep a grip on it. It’s easy for him though. He can shower and put on his mechanic overalls in five minutes. Colours are only something he sees if he pays attention to them. He doesn’t wake up with their taste clogging his mouth.
I don’t say that. Instead, I say: “My hands. Do they look any different to you?”
Ben smiles, bending forward and kissing my fingertips. “No, Sarah,” he says. “You know, you said this before, after the—”
“I know. I’m fine, it’s nothing.” It’s not nothing though. Deep in my sour gut, I know with complete certainty that these things at the ends of my arms are not mine.
It hasn’t felt this bad in the car since the accident. The 9 a.m. heat sucks my black uniform dress into a second skin. Inside my leather gloves, these things sweat and itch to be free. It is better though. Covered up, it’s easier to pretend they are still my hands. They change the gear, press an indicator, turn the wheel.
The cars thin out on the A-road and I give in and do what I long for—my foot hits the accelerator all the way down. The familiar thrill of electric blue prickles in my gut and I taste chocolate, my favourite colour in the world—the colour of pleasure. Even now after everything. A bit faster, a little more, and there it is. Outside the car, everything else blurs and there are no thoughts. Sweat drips down my wrists and face, even though the aircon is on full blast. The tingle of electric blue is changing to a churning green. They are doing it. Those horrible fingers are making me hot and sick. I watch them on the wheel. They look further away, stretched out from the rest of me. The rush of a van on the other side of the road makes my car wobble. Further ahead, a lorry is going faster than it should. The back of it sways a little. Why not give in and let the hands do what they want? Maybe it is better this way. The hands drop off the steering wheel, and the car veers, drifting well over the central white line. A loud horn blasts, and at the last second I grab the steering wheel, swerving back a few seconds before the lorry rushes past. The driver sounds his horn long after he passes.
Waves of green pound my stomach as I walk into the hair salon. But it doesn’t matter. I have cut and coloured hair a thousand times. Muscle memory, it’s called. It’s no big deal that I’m not feeling quite right. It’s the heatwave, hottest July on record, everyone is moaning about it.
Flies buzz around the backroom as I shove my bag onto the floor that looks dirty even after it’s been mopped. For a minute, I imagine what it would be like in one of those salons I trained in. All shiny white tiles, air conditioning and ambient lighting. Every year, I said I would get a new job.
Swapping the leather gloves for a pair of latex ones, I put my face shield on. That is an upside of all this COVID shit. I can just say I’m being careful if anyone asks about the gloves. These latex ones are not so good, though. The disgusting skin shows through. And you can’t cut someone’s hair without looking at your hands, even when you’ve been a hairdresser for twenty years. All morning there is no escape from them. Hands that aren’t mine but remain attached to my arms. The last appointment before lunch is a men’s wet cut, Luke. He is never much of a talker and today I am glad for it. Short hair close to skin needs concentration.
Holding the scissors tight, I snip the hair against his neck. His pulse pushes the skin in and out, and I try not to imagine what would happen if the scissors slipped. I grip the metal harder and keep cutting. But the hands are happy about that. They don’t want the scissors to casually slip and only scratch skin. I stare as they turn the point of the scissors towards the man’s neck. One hard and fast jab is all that’s needed. Straight into the vein. The blood will be warm.
At break, in the toilet, I put the hands in the sink. Letting the cold water run over them until they go numb. Pain is always red. Colours aren’t just something you see; they taste of something too. There was a fancy name for it and some famous people have it. But it’s not helping me pay off my debts any quicker. It is just something that’s there. Like the sky is blue.
There is no colour for how I feel now, though. When the pain is inside you, when it’s everywhere but nowhere, what colour is that pain? I switch the tap to hot and let it fill up the sink. The steam rises and I plunge the hands into the water—and there it is finally—red splotches in front of my eyes. Angry blood red that tastes of bitter chocolate and chillies.
Whatever this is might have started in these hands, but it is seeping through me. Infecting my blood and burying into my bones. Settling there. And now I don’t fit in my body the same way. Incomplete. Stretched too thin. No amount of therapy will make a difference. Because changing on the inside isn’t enough now. There are creases worn into my skin around my wrists. That’s where my body now ends. Ugly palms and fingers sticking out will become silky-smooth, rounded bumps. And I will be whole. No colours. No pain.
When I walk into the flat that evening, Ben is sitting in his boxers on the balcony big enough for one chair with the only fan aimed at him, earbuds in. A coffin inching towards its final inferno could not be hotter than in here. It doesn’t seem to bother him though. Probably because he grew up in one of these tower blocks. His whole life has passed by in concrete walls, balconies and lifts that stink of piss. I wedge the front door open and shove the window back. It’s the same in the other flats. Windows and doors screaming open for help, no one is afraid of being robbed.
The fridge is not even cold. I stick my head in there to check. It stinks and the milk is curdling. I pull out some fruit and reach for the knife and chopping board. My stomach is still too green to contemplate eating anything. And seeing as our bed is a few steps away from the microwave and hot plate, the heat will keep the smell of anything we cook alive all night.
I turn the tap to rinse the fruit, but nothing comes out. Just a few drops.
“Ben,” I shout. After a moment, he sticks his head around the door.
“Hey. What’s up?”
“There’s no water.”
“Yeah. There’s a problem. Pipe burst, something to do with the heat.”
I want to smack my head against the wall, but I’ve had enough red today. All I want is blue and sleep.
“Do you wanna go buy some water then?”
“Tried. Shop’s sold out. Got some coke and lemonade.” He brushes past me, his skin hot and ingrained with the smell of ten hours of working on cars. I watch his hands pick up the can and flick it open. His hands are tanned and calloused. Hard-working and honest hands. Ben glugs down the rest of the warm coke and goes back onto the balcony. There was a time when he was so fascinated with me. Never-ending questions about colours and me describing every shade and taste. I’m no longer interesting. Instead, his earbuds are always in, taking him somewhere that I can’t reach.
The bin is only a couple of steps away, but he’s left the empty can on the counter. Lifting the lid reveals that the rubbish is moving. Tiny white worms wriggle and little white dots coat the underside of the lid. Shit. The whole bin needs bleaching. Can I kill them though? These maggots will change and get wings. They will fly right out of this place. Each one of these wriggling things has more chance of escape than me.
I take the sharpest knife and start to cut into a melon. It is soothing, feeling the tough skin and soft flesh underneath give way. Quick. Sharp. Clean. The juice makes my grip on the knife slip. This could be a way. If I can stem the bleeding quickly or get to the hospital fast. And it would only be one hand. There was no way I could do both at once. But still, one hand gone. I let the blade rest against my wrist. Cold and smooth. My wrists are tiny with little flesh and unyielding bone. It might not work. But what about a little test, instead. Yeah, that will do. Moving the knife from my wrist to the crease at the bottom of my little finger, I take a deep breath. Quick. Sharp. Clean.
The finger now an inch away from the rest of the hand. I shove it down the sink plug hole. The stump where the finger was doesn’t know the finger is gone yet. It’s dry and pale. As I stare, the red comes to the surface and spills out onto the chopping board.
“Christ, Sarah,” Ben shouts, grabbing the knife from me.
Later, much later, after the hospital, we lie on our backs in bed staring up at the black heat.
“You know it’s not your fault, right?” he says.
“I know that you’ve said this before.”
“Yeah, but do you listen? Do you believe me or anyone?”
“A girl is dead. It was these hands driving the car. No one else’s.”
“It’s also your hands that cut people’s hair better than any other hairdresser in this town. Your hands that carry Mrs. Patel’s shopping up ten flights of stairs when the lift’s out. Your hands that painted the murals downstairs for the kids. Things aren’t black and white, Sarah.”
And I want to laugh or cry or scream but nothing comes out. Of course, life is not black and white. There are so many colours. So many that he will never feel.
Wednesday morning is yellow, which is a good start. Wednesdays are always yellow and my day off. I pretend to sleep when Ben leaves for work. Shortly afterwards, I make my way to the pharmacy and buy all their bandages.
My finger stump is covered up with a dressing, and that has given me an idea. Curling up my remaining three fingers and thumb into a ball, the other hand wraps layers of gauze over them to create a bump. Now I can feel what it would be like to have no hand. After a little while, the pins and needles stop, and the hand goes numb. Electric blue pings in my chest, trickling through me. If only there was a painless way with no blood. It would be easy then. Where does the blood go when you die? I remember reading somewhere that it pools at the bottom of your body. I never looked at her body after the accident. Only at her face. The half-opened eyes. The slack jaw. Nothing like the movies.
Walking around like this feels good. A bump suits me. It looks right, natural. It’s a shame that I can’t bandage the other hand, but that’s impossible without help. What about the simple things—eating, washing, and wiping myself? Would Ben stay with me? He’s a boyfriend, not a nurse. And I already know he won’t stick around. Even if it was an accident. Even though he says that the other accident wasn’t my fault. Not after growing up looking after his pisshead mum. He works night and day because he’s convinced that we’ll escape this life. Living in a concrete box, ten floors up, working twelve hours a day—at some point, we broke without either of us realising. The wear and tear of everyday life.
Sweating all day is becoming normal. Hot air and breath merge into one. Water, when it works, is warm to drink, hot to wash in. I have forgotten what snow feels like, jumping into freezing lakes, icy rain showers. Cold—that is what I need. Numbing ice with no colours at all. I cut the bandages off the hand. There is research to do.
They look like ordinary ice cubes and there isn’t long before they melt. I touch one and the hand jerks back instinctively like you would if you touched fire. Pills and vodka. That will help. Fifteen minutes should do it.
There are enough ice cubes to fill a bucket. Warnings in red capitals shout at me to handle with gloves, but I don’t. All I need to do now is shove my hands in the bucket and keep them there. A quarter to three. The long handle ticks each second by, no longer and no shorter than any other second before it.
Five minutes in and the pain is changing. My tears are drying on my cheeks and no longer taste of sand. It’s funny how something really hot and something really cold can feel the same. The skin doesn’t understand. It burns when it is too hot, and it burns when it is too cold.
The longer my hands are in this bucket, the more colours I feel. The usual crimson red is gone. Red has never been one colour, but I move through every shade from light to dark, and then shift into every shade of brown, beige, yellow, green. Trapped in some nightmare colour carousel where sometimes the colours shift so quickly I retch, and other times I want to claw at my skin until the colour shifts. Every colour I have ever felt passes through me and colours that I have never felt take their turns to show themselves.
That’s the thing with pain. It’s a living thing. Growing and receding, starting as one shape and when you are used to it, contorting into something new. The pain in these hands is pulling out all these colours, unearthing them from memories I have forgotten. And deep down inside me, there are more colours. Colours I’ve never seen. Colours that maybe no one has ever seen.
Ten minutes in and I know for sure that I have never felt this much pain before. The ice is melting into smoke, leaving my hands dry and cold. The smoke reminds me of nightclubs, dancing under UV lights and drinking cocktails where colours collide. The hands are red now, and the skin is bubbling. There are no more colours. Not black, exactly. But it’s not nothing. It’s turning into white instead. Blinding me, making me wince. Rising in my throat and behind my eyelids. And I remember that without white light, there is no colour, nothing else can be seen. I thought there was no colour for the pain inside of me, but it was there all along. In every colour I’ve ever felt. That’s all I can see now. All that I am from head to toe. The colour of pain.
Fifteen minutes later and I pull my hands out of the bucket. There is nothing to feel in the deadened hands, but I want to be sure. What if frostbite is not enough? I slam them against the wall and watch them hit the brick. Then with the hands drooping from my wrists, and crawling on elbows and knees, I drag myself into bed and close my eyes.
Thursdays are turquoise but not today. I awake to a rainbow of colours and the sheet wrapped around me is drenched.
“Are you ill?” Ben says. “You’re burning up.”
“There’s a heatwave,” I mumble into the pillow.
“You’re hotter than me. Hotter than you usually are.”
I say nothing, keeping my eyes closed and my hands under the sheet. He goes around doing his morning routine, earbuds in. He doesn’t say goodbye when he leaves. As soon as the door clicks shut, I examine my hands. This is better. They are starting to look how they should. People saw pretty hands, slender fingers, painted nails. Now the skin is red turning to dark purple, fingers swollen. The bubbles on the skin look like they could pop if I took a needle to them.
Just a bit longer. Then there will be no other option.
Sage green is the colour of sickness. A few years ago I had gastric flu, and the days of aches and pains in bed, the headaches, the vomiting, it was all sage green. The body must know when it’s sick. The body wants to live, even when it’s worn out, it tries to carry on. Right now, it’s talking to me in seaweed green, a green so dark it is almost black, slimy and tasting of sour fish and rusty metal. But I’m not listening. A little more time.
Screaming wakes me. Cold hands on my skin, but not that cold, now that I know what real cold feels like. Hands shaking me. Shouting.
“Sarah. Fuck. What have you done? Your hands. Your fucking hands.”
There are other voices now. A shiny hard bed that moves quickly. People speak to me, but I don’t feel much like saying anything back. There is no hiding my hands. Everyone can see what I see. No delusions or pretty skin. The hands don’t look like hands anymore. Swollen to twice their size. Skin stretched and snapping. And fingers turning black.
When I open my eyes again, it feels like days have passed. Electric blue buzzes until I look down and see hands. There should be bandaged stumps at the end of my arms. But there are the same hands. Bloated, the skin darker, Frankenstein stitches around bloodied wrists.
“We might be able to save them,” the nurse says, walking towards me.
I try to move the hands that I can’t feel yet. Those ugly stitches. My teeth will be sharp enough to rip them out.
It is an orange Friday in September when I’m allowed to go for a walk by myself. It’s nice seeing the glances people try to hide and how little children stare. I’m wearing a sleeveless vest to show my arms off. They swing lightly in the breeze, ending in two round bumps that now and then catch the sunlight. It would almost be nice to have hands to feel their smoothness. But electric blue fills my body most days now despite the other challenges, so I can’t complain.
After a while, I find a park bench. Content to sit there and just be. A mum is struggling with getting a pushchair through the gate. Our eyes meet and the woman smiles. Not in the weird or pitying sort of way I’ve become used to. Normal. The child in the pushchair has a rounded bump instead of a foot. Smooth and whole. My feet are exposed in sandals. They are so ugly, fat little toes sticking out. Why had I never noticed before?
I try clinging to the electric blue inside of me.
But it is gone.