It was a dull Sunday afternoon at the club. I could see young gentlemen strewn about in varying degrees of immobility. It wasn’t a mystery how they ended up here. Not to us in the club anyway. These men were sent on errands by their womenfolk, never to return, at least until sundown.
I spotted Proffie amongst a group of fascinated gawpers near a cuckoo clock. They were waiting for the bird to emerge, they said. I raised an eyebrow. It wasn’t an ordinary cuckoo clock, they replied. The automaton was made in the image of a rare bird which was the last of its kind. It promptly died after the clockmaker added the last touch to his wooden creation. I had no idea there were many species of the cuckoo bird. One learns new things in the unlikeliest of places.
I spent the rest of the afternoon reading the papers. “Has war broken out?” asked Proffie, walking in. The elusive bird still hadn’t showed itself. No one knew what hour it chose to herald the passage of time.
I put the papers down. “I’m afraid not. The Grecian states had a tiff over a princess, but the League of Nations settled the matter.”
“What did they do?”
“They sent her to a nunnery in Vienna.”
The prospect of peace dulled our spirits. We were born in the wrong era, we decided. Too late for the swords and sorcery of the Dark Ages and too early for an overthrow of humanity by mechanical men. We sighed in unison.
“Look at the Financial section. Perhaps its time for a collapse.”
I shook my head. Everyone seemed to be paying their debts on time.
It was nearing nightfall when Proffie and I heard the joyous screams of the bird watchers. The cuckoo had been spotted. We did not notice the man who must have walked in unnoticed in the midst of our celebrations and was now sitting in our chair and reading the paper.
“Are you a doctor?” asked Proffie, studying his appearance.
“No,” replied the man, who was middle aged and smoking a pipe, “I am an anthropologist.”
He proceeded to tell us a tale so bizarre, I would not have believed it if it weren’t for the sadness in his eyes. The eyes don’t lie.
He pointed at the picture in the papers. It showed a vase painted in different shades of red.
“Can you identify the colours?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“Neither can I,” replied the man, “I’ve marvelled at the ability of women to perceive shades of colour like cerulean or fuchsia but it turns out there might be an unknown number of women who see many more colours than the average woman. These tetrachromats, as they’re called, can see a hundred million colours, which if I may say so, is like looking at a world painted in a palette of colours beyond our imagining.”
We were amazed. What did they see when they gazed upon in wonder at the sun rising over the sea?
The average eye had three types of cone cells he explained, which meant we could see up to a million different shades of colour. The tetrachromats had four types of cone cells, which activated a super vision. There was possibly a fifth type too, he said uncertainly.
“A fifth? Wouldn’t that mean the existence of a mythical pentachromat?” asked Proffie.
“What would they see? The colours that only exist in an astral plane?”
“Strangely enough, that is probably what they see. I have had the misfortune of being married to a woman who could see these colours and insisted that our house be painted in a colour of the fifth scale. I could not perceive this magical colour unfortunately, by virtue of being a mere trichromat, so I found myself surrounded by four walls painted in the greenest hue of a singularly awful tinge of purple. My vision was overwhelmed after a year and I saw spots dancing around everywhere I looked. Our marriage ended and I now live in a house painted in the white of clouds and Heaven.”
“She sounds like a fascinating woman,” I replied, “What became of her?”
“She is awfully fascinating, indeed. The last I heard of her, she worked as the royal outfitter for a certain European monarch who I cannot name. She unveiled her masterpiece on the day of his wedding, a suit like no man hath worn before. No one knew the colour of cloth she used to make the suit, but our eyes could not perceive it no matter how hard we squinted. We could only see the Emperor appearing as the day he was born. The wedding did not go well. She seemed to have escaped in the ensuing chaos. I have not seen her since.”
The anthropologist also told us of his dreams where she appeared; she was always dressed in colours of the fifth scale. He could not look at her directly but he longed for a glimpse of her. Miserable at being reminded of her again, he excused himself and left. We never saw him again.
What was the origin of the extinct cuckoo clock? Proffie and I discover the shocking secret behind its creation in a later chapter.