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An Absence of Colour

by Josh Lowe about a month ago in Fable · updated about a month ago

A short story

Jayden moved his pencil back and forth across the face of his colouring book as he lay belly-down on the living room floor. His face was a depiction of pure concentration. Not even the loud car horns which emanated from the busy traffic on the streets below the apartment could stir him from his trance. Laya watched curiously from her position on the old vintage couch, her laptop had sent itself to sleep due to lack of use, and the barely started essay for her psychology course had been long-since forgotten.

Piece by piece, Jayden filled in the outlines of the parrot in his book. It was fascinating to observe. His colouring technique was unlike any eight-year-old Laya had ever seen. It was incredibly organised; almost machine-like. Suddenly Laya’s phone buzzed from the couch beside her, she glimpsed over at it to see the words ‘Mother Bird’ on the screen. It was Laya’s pet name for her mother. She turned away from the phone instantly and listened to it ring-out. It wasn’t that Laya had a bad relationship with her mother, but she was a bit too clingy at times. Laya wanted to be more independent after she’d started her tertiary education, but her mother was hesitant to let her ‘spread her wings’ so soon, which of course made her pet name all the more ironic.

Jayden’s hand moved left to right as it scanned across each section of the page, stopping only to swap pencil shades in between segments. He was like a human printer. The strangest part, however, was not Jayden’s technique, but rather, the fact that he wasn’t colouring in using any colour at all. Instead, he was using a range of different graphite pencils to create an entirely black and white image.

“Doesn’t that kind of ruin the point of colouring in?” Laya asked curiously. Jayden didn’t respond. He didn’t even seem to notice. His hand continued to scan across the page, adding shades to the parrot with incredible detail. It was impressive to say the least. Laya sighed, she’d babysat Jayden only once before, but she’d had plenty of warning from his father that he was a bit ‘different’ to other kids. Still, it was frustrating how poor his communication skills were. She wanted to know more about him.

“Ok then,” Laya sighed as she stroked the keypad of her laptop to wake it up, “You keep working on your parrot and I’ll keep working on my essay on Pavlov’s dog.”

“It’s a scarlet macaw,” Jayden said bluntly without shifting his gaze.


“It’s not just a parrot – it’s a scarlet macaw.”

“Oh,” Laya said curiously, “I see… Well, why don’t you use some coloured pencils? They’re meant to be very colourful animals, aren’t they?”

“They used to be…”

“What do you mean?”

No response. Laya stared at Jayden’s back for a few more seconds, hoping he’d give her the privilege of hearing his explanation, but she got nothing. She let out one more sigh of defeat before turning back to her monotonous essay.

Ivan Pavlov played a fundamental role in the development of modern psychology, largely through his contribution to our understanding of the concept of classical conditioning.

Laya paused for a moment to think, and then continued typing.

His experimentation with dogs was a novel approach to understanding this phenomenon, whereby he measured the levels of saliva secreted just prior to exposure to food. Pavlov then paired this exposure with the sound of a bell, and, after many repetitions, he found that the dogs would still salivate when they heard the bell, even in the absence of actual food. Thus, Pavlov managed to condition the dogs to associate the sound of a bell with food, and hence to respond in a way that they would not have initially responded.

“Uhh,” Laya muttered to herself as she glimpsed at the word count, “Only 1384 more words to go.”

Laya’s phone buzzed again from across the couch, but she didn’t even look up from her screen this time. Her mother could wait.


“So for four hours, does $100 cut it?”

Laya smiled at Mr Davis, he was always a lot more generous than the other parents she babysat for.

“That’s plenty, thanks Mr Davis,” Laya replied as she took the notes from his hand. “I did have a question though, if that’s ok?”

Mr Davis smiled, “Sure, what is it?”

“Well, I noticed Jayden loves his colouring book, but I don’t understand why he uses graphite pencils instead of colour? Is he colour-blind or something?”

Mr Davis chuckled, “No no, he’s certainly not colour-blind.”

Mr Davis took a seat on the couch and signalled for Laya to do the same.

“He’s passionate about animals you see. He spends all of his spare time reading about animals and wildlife, and when he found out about endangered species and the impact we’re having on their habitats, his passion just became stronger.”

“Oh, I mean, I’d noticed he’s quite an avid reader for his age… But how does that explain the colouring?”

“Well, when he colours in the animals he has drawn, he only uses colour on the species that are not endangered. For those that are endangered, he shades them with graphite pencils instead. It’s quite symbolic really.”

“Wait, so he draws the outlines of the animals as well? I thought it was just a colouring book…”

Mr Davis nodded but Laya didn’t seem to believe him at first. She picked up the colouring book from the floor in front of her in disbelief, which Jayden had dumped before falling asleep on the other couch. She began to flip through the book in amazement, with images of all types of incredible animals, some in colour and some in greyscale, until she paused on one of the images. It was a black and white portrait of a woman, with beautiful, caring eyes, and a deeply soothing smile.

Noticing Laya’s interest, Mr Davis spoke up, “That’s Jayden's Mother,” he said softly, “You’re wondering why she’s in black and white?”


Mr Davis sighed sadly, “About a year ago, Jayden’s mother was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. But the strangest part was that he drew this picture before she'd even received the diagnosis. I mean, the symptoms were there, but it was like Jayden knew what was wrong before anyone else did… She passed away a few months ago.”

“I’m so sorry,” Laya stumbled, “That must have been really hard for you both.”

“Yeah, it was tough,” Mr Davis said, with clear notes of melancholy in his voice. After staring nostalgically at the image in Jayden’s book for a moment, he suddenly piped up, “Which is why I appreciate your help babysitting Jayden when I have late shifts, Laya. It’s been a great help and I hope you’re keen to stick around for more babysitting?”

“Of course!” Laya chirped.

Mr Davis nodded thankfully with another smile.

“I should probably get going though, I have to finish this essay by tomorrow,” Laya said, patting her laptop bag.

As she walked out of the apartment, Laya’s phone buzzed again in her pocket. After a moment of stumbling with her bag, she pulled it out and stared at the screen. A beautiful, coloured photograph of her mother was displayed on the screen alongside the words ‘Mother Bird’. Laya smiled affectionately and answered the phone.

“Hi mum…”


Josh Lowe

Neuroscience student from Brisbane, Australia. Just looking for a little creative outlet. Thanks for taking an interest!


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