By Paul Youlten, 1998
There was once a tall, good hearted man. He lived in a friendly city which was the capital of the flat prairie lands to the south and east of the mountains. The city had been founded at the crossing point of a river that slowly looped across the prairie.
On clear days people walking in the streets could see the distant, purple coloured mountains.
There were no hills near the city so roads ran straight into and straight out of the city. A wind blew dust off the prairie and onto the city almost every evening. Every night a small army of old women swept and hosed the city streets, washing the prairie dust off the roads and into the gutters. Because of the prairie dust the city was beige. It is true that the stones of the older buildings had been cut from a camel coloured sandstone but even the glass and stainless steel of the modern buildings became covered with a thin layer of beige dust as soon as any rain or morning dew evaporated. Anything that was painted got dusty while it dried, cars parked in the street got dusty, the pigeons in the Plaza Mayor got dusty and even the city’s moths were beige (as a form of camouflage). Clothes left out to dry got dusty, so did children walking home from school. bars selling the typical fermented barley beer provided tiny paper umbrellas to protect drinks from the constant fallout from the sky. Hair, skin, finger nails, ears, even armpits somehow got dusty.
Because more or less everything was, or became, beige the people who lived in this city spoke a dialect that could differentiate twenty seven shades of colour between what english speakers call light-brown and what they call buff.
The good hearted man had been born and brought up in this city. All that he wore, owned, ate and drank was light brown. the grass in his garden was the colour of buttered toast and his car was a metallic mustard-brown colour (described in the brochure as “burnished wheat”).
it is true that the water in the taps was clear but visitors to the city complained of it tasting dusty. His wife and children were an attractive honey colour, while he was a more tawny, creamy colour. Like with most people in the city his urine was yellowish brown and his faeces brownish yellow.
By chance he had to travel to the capital of a different region. Here he met a beautiful woman. she was so beautiful it hurt behind his eyes to look at her. when she spoke it hurt his ears and it hurt his head when he thought of her. She came from the far north of the country and she spoke a different dialect. He could hardly bring himself to talk to her and when he did all he could discuss were the petty semantics of beige. He talked endlessly of the etymology of his light brown language, trying to describe the difference between buff and manila, sand and stone. The woman liked tall men and she was also attracted to his obsession with detail and the incomprehensible precision (one might say over-understanding) of his language. Thinking that he might be equally rigorous in bed, she suggested that they spend the night together at her hotel.
While making love she did her best to explain the seven words her language used to discriminate meaning between what english speakers call attraction, what they call desire and what they call passion.
After the beige man and the beautiful stranger had finished he fell asleep while she talked about the eleven words her language had for love and described fourteen different kinds of kiss. She started to explain the spectrum of meanings between come and orgasm but in the end gave up and: 1) wished she had paid more attention to her language teachers at school. and 2) decided to re-read a book of poetry by her country’s best loved poet.
As he slept she whispered the unspoken word for ‘detached-clear-love-desire-cool-breeze-passion’ into his ear. English speakers have no equivalent word, phrase, or even concept for this word.
Later that day the beige man returned to his beige city, his beige family and his beige car.
He never forgot the way the stranger looked at him nor the words she whispered as he slept.
This story links to:
This story was the first story to be written about life in Batan City. It inspired Tatiana Pelizzon to write the second story, A different shade of beige.