Thick blue smoke plumed and pooled around the old man's head. His grandson sat crosslegged before him on the harsh concrete floor of their subterranean shelter, watching the coils of smoke slowly unfurling upwards and collecting beneath the low, stained ceiling. There was one window in the room; a small rectangular pane of filthy glass close to the top of the wall. A pallid stream of light penetrated the layer of grime welded to it. The boy's grandfather sat across the room drinking in the meagre ray of light, the leathered seams of his face moving subtly with each inhale and exhale. He would sit there until the light was gone. Sometimes he would read a book, an old newspaper, or a magazine. Sometimes he would simply sit and stare and smoke. But on rare occasion, he would speak. Sometimes he would even tell a story, a story of the way things used to be. The boy could count the amount of times such stories had passed from his grandfather's lips on one hand. He could count the times he had slept soundly through the night with the same fingers. Those were the nights where he would dream of a better world, a world with televisions and internet and schools. A world with blue skies and sunlight that wouldn’t peel the skin from your body after more than thirty seconds in it. A world where everyone had had a place and a purpose, and the surface had not been a barren tundra of death, decay, and baking heat.
A world full of life and colours.
The boy often had questions about colours, much to his grandfather’s irritation. Colours were difficult, if not impossible, to describe to someone who had never seen said colour before, as his grandfather had explained to him. But a young boy’s curiosity is not something to be quashed. Only something to be sated.
He asked his grandfather to describe green to him. The old man remained silent for a long time, first appearing annoyed, until his lip trembled and tears welled in his eyes. He shook his head ever so slightly and eventually leaned down, at least as far as he could, towards his grandson. He closed his eyes and removed his glasses with a shaky hand.
The boy had never seen his grandfather at such close proximity; usually he was a statue in his armchair, ancient and unmovable. His eyes were squeezed shut, the crow's-feet either side deep, splitting crevasses mapped into his face. Stamped on either side of the bridge of his nose were little indents from where his glasses sat. The bags under his eyes were damp and tears threatened to well out despite his eyes being closed, but with a tight, rattling breath, they suddenly opened.
"Look," he said huskily.
"I'm looking," the boy replied. "Your eyes are blue, like mine."
"Look closer," he said, not unkindly. The smoke from his pipe curled between them like something alive, stinging the boy’s eyes. He blinked the mild pain away.
The boy squinted at his grandfather’s eyes.
"Look between the strands of blue. What do you see?" he asked the boy.
The boy looked again, knowing where to look this time. He inspected the glassy convex of one of his grandfather’s eyes, following the wavering threads of blue that curved out from the pupil. His forehead and eyebrows relaxed and his eyes widened.
"What...what is that?" he said. "There's... there's more than one other colour there. I know that one...that's yellow! And that other one..." He suddenly grabbed his grandfather's face with both hands, holding it in place. "How many...how many colours are there in eyes?" he demanded.
His grandfather wheezed a chuckle. "As many as you can see."
"I like green," the boy decided, returning to his original sitting position, his own blue eyes round and lit up.
"Yes," his grandfather agreed, "it's a good colour." He sucked on his pipe and sighed the fumes out, a cloud of bluish smoke once again rising above his head like a thought bubble in a comic, slowly dispersing.
"You want to hear a story then?" he asked.
The boy only scooched in closer on the ground, the answer obvious on his face.
"Alright. Well, once upon a time, there was a grumpy old man,’ he started.
“Are there cars in the story?” the boy interjected.
‘Not this one,’ his grandfather said, with a shake of his head. He opened his mouth to continue.
“What about healthcare?” the boy said.
“No,’ his grandfather replied. “I don’t know why I ever tried to explain healthcare,” he grumbled. “And before you ask, there’s no aeroplanes or chocolate bars or…or fridges or anything like that either!”
The boy looked up at him meekly and swallowed, his eyes almost perfect circles.
“What’s a fridge again?” he asked, quietly.
“Keeps things cold,” he replied. “Don’t ask me how!” he added quickly. “Anyway, where was I. Once upon a time, there was a grouchy old man.”
“Grumpy! Whatever.” He sighed and took a drag of his pipe.
“Truth was, he was both grouchy and grumpy. He was very sad, too. And bitter and resentful. He had a lot of reasons to be. He hated sitting in a stinky, cramped shelter all day every day, and he hated that his daughter had to go out and risk her life on the surface in order for him to survive. He yearned for the ways of the old world from whence he'd come to return." He smiled at that little turn of phrase. "But a miracle occurred," he continued, his smile growing ever so slightly. Little jewels of moisture sparkled in his eyes and trickled down his cheeks when he blinked. "He realised, that he gets to spend more time with his grandson than he ever would have in the world the way it was before. He realised that that boy, that wonderful boy, was the only thing that sustained him in this miserable existence. And slowly, he's learning to appreciate what he has. Slowly."
He took a draw of his pipe, tears streaming freely down his face now, collecting in his many wrinkles.
He caught his grandson's eye, and they were both grinning, both crying. "And guess who taught me that?"