Published by WRITER'S HUB in December 2014
I met the blind man after I left University, while I was living in South London. I was unemployed for a time – it felt like a long time. I had no money, and the days became a dreary succession of ashen grey and lamp lit black, smudged at dawn and smeared at dusk. Autumn was being silently bludgeoned into winter. Half way through the afternoon the sky began to haemmorhage light. It crept back in the morning, but slowly, as if on sufferance, unwilling to stick around. The rain came down and as the season dwindled, day became unsure, and night unrepentant.
The pub at the end of the street was a colourful, cheery lung of a place, enlivened by the chirrup and ripple of fruit machines. There was karaoke on Wednesdays and a pool tournament on Thursdays. Next door was a shop that sold the usual newspapers, greeting cards, watery bacon and milk. In the window, handwritten cards advertised local services: black market domestic cleaners (ironing, cleaning and hovering, 4 pounds an hour) and local prostitutes (bubbly Australian blonde, new in town, exotic African beauty, 48DD.) I noted ruefully that I could afford neither hovering nor beauties.
There was a small section for ‘services required,’ and occasionally I scoured it for employment opportunities. Fast growing cosmetic companies sought motivated team players (50k+), telemarketing positions for committed self-starters. I called a few up in the early days. They all involved selling things over the phone – windows, natural health cures, women’s cosmetics and the like, or selling advertisements, or even selling selling advertisements…Pyramid schemes, commission only, no leads. You took the phone book and started at ‘Aabramovich.’
I pictured myself up in my room with the phone book open on my lap, cold calling the housewives in the rain sodden towers that poked through the South London gloaming – the balconies permeated with the lonely smell of chips, the sky keening with the far off sound of car alarms and baby wailing, punctuated by the occasional staccatto bark of dogs…
One afternoon I was peering in the window when, on the other side of the glass, a hard faced blonde woman put up a card. “Russian blonde (19)" it read, "need strict English lessons.” I glanced up at her, wondering if my TEFL might finally come into its own, but she glared at me and stalked out of the shop, rattling a pram away down the street.
Next to it, though, I saw another card. It was written in elegant copperplate handwriting – like a wedding invitation – in intriguing, purplish ink:
“Reader required for blind man,” I read. “Must have high standard of English (reading) and pleasant speaking voice. Must be trustworthy, dedicated and reliable. Apply in writing to etc. etc., London SW etc. etc.”
Well, I thought. It was worth a try.
Two weeks later, I was walking up the hill to the Blind Man’s house, about a mile or so away from my own. The houses took on a new aspect as I ascended, as it were, into higher elevations. In my gulley at the bottom, they crowded in upon each other like drunks struggling to hold each other up; here, they stood straight and sober, sensible distances apart, their bushes well trimmed and their porticoes swept.
Soon enough, I arrived. It was a soft autumn afternoon. The man’s front garden had been freshly dug, and the little whorls of loom made a pleasant contrast to the silvery wisps of cloud in the sky above. A steady tread approached when I rang the doorbell, accompanied by the sound of scampering claws on plastic. The door opened, and there he was, looking vaguely in my direction with mottled eyes. He wore bottle green corduroys and a grey cardigan, and there were prickly red lines on his face. His fine grey hair was brushed neatly back from his brow. At his feet was the scamperer – a golden Labrador looking up at me, lolling its tongue.
I explained who I was, slowly and clearly, as if he was deaf as well as blind. He grinned and waved me inside.
- Come in, come in, he said, and I entered, the dog squeezing past my legs and scuttling into the front room. A large window faced out to the front garden, and there was an old sofa by the wall, flanked by two deep, comfortable looking armchairs. The wall was lined with thick, shaggy books, and a gas fire fluttered over synthetic coals, giving the room a vaguely cozy feel.
The Blind Man shuffled in behind me, reaching for the arm of the sofa and performing a complicated, obviously well practiced manouevure which slid him onto the cushions. I complimented him loudly on the number of books he had, and he chuckled, as if I’d made a joke. Then he ruffled the cushions beside him idly, and frowned, as if he had forgotten something. He turned his head toward me and said, well, perhaps you’d like to make some tea?
I had hoped to go to my grave without ever drinking a cuppa tea, so I turned on the kettle distractedly. I noticed that the grill pan had an old piece of foil wrapped around it, stained black and brown with bubbly fat – it surprised me, for some reason, I would have expected a Blind Man to be more fastidious. The kettle began to whoosh away to itself, and as I rifled through the cupboard, shaking at the enameled tins painted with spindly pictures of plants, I found one that had a likely lightness. I twisted off the cap, expecting to find the tea bags. Instead, I saw the teeth of folded banknotes. It was full of money.
I glanced down the hallway. I rattled a few mugs about for the blind man’s benefit, and then gently nudged the door closed with my foot. I slid out the wedge of notes and held it between my thumb and forefinger to examine it – there was a good inch of cash, and that was unfolded. I shuffled through it. Scruffy old fivers, tangerine tenners, mauve twenties – there was even a thin sheaf of fifties, emblazoned with the man with the neon salmon bouffant. I felt the thickness of the notes and gulped. Behind me the kettle began to rumble.
There were no tea bags, only old fashioned leaves, so the tea became quite bitty and dark. The Blind Man sipped at his in any case, and thanked me as he put down his mug.
- Well then, Ben, he said. Where shall we start?
He gestured at the table, where there were three books laid out.
- Take your pick
Laughter in the Dark, I read. Crime and Punishment. Dead Souls.
I looked at the blind man suspiciously. He was humming to himself, innocently nibbling on a biscuit.
- How about this one? I asked, picking up the first.
- Which one is that?
- Nabokov, I said. ‘Laughter in the Dark’.
He paused for a second, and then nodded.
- Good. I haven’t read that one for a while
I opened it up.
- It might be quite suitable! I said
- For this time of year, I mean…
- Oh? he said, pointing his face toward the window politely. I expect you’re right.
I settled into the armchair, and touched the pages of the book. It was an old hardback edition, and on its frontispiece, there was an inscription – the Blind Man’s name – and beneath it: “Berlin, 1954.”
Well, well, I thought. I turned to the first page and began to read.
- “Once upon a time there lived in Berlin a man named Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.”
The Blind Man let out a snort of laughter, and I looked up in surprise. Then, as I carried on reading, he gave a small, almost sensual moan, and sank back upon the sofa, his fingers reaching down absently to scratch Goldie’s head. I sank deeper into my armchair and read on, as the fire quietly whistled to itself, and the piercing sunlight stole silently away from the room.
It was dark when I left the Blind Man’s house, and the streets were quiet and empty. TVs flickered blue behind net curtains, and from up here on the hill, I could see a few tiny stars glinting in the sky above the flat, interminable plain of London.
Dinner chez moi was a generally dismal affair these days. Pasta, plain noodles, more pasta, occasionally enlivened by a slice of bacon from the shop – cheap Dutch stuff that leaked watery pus out into the pan. Brown plastic bottle cider. The occasional, beatific taste of tobacco – the confluence of alcohol and nicotine in the bloodstream, like a shaky rivulet of gold in the veins…
Things would be different this evening though. As I reached the shop, I slid my hand into my pocket, and pulled out the two magical, crinkling fivers – crumpled, glorious, tattoo blue fivers – crowned by twin golden nuggets of pound coin. The Queen seemed to smile at me encouragingly as I stroked her between my thumb and forefinger…a few ice cold Czech lagers! she seemed to be saying. The bacon that doesn’t discharge so much! Suddenly, I thought I caught her winking – could it be – some pesto?! Why not, ma’am!
I entered the shop and strode straight over to the East European beer section. The man in there marked the price ridiculously low by mistake. My worst fear was that one day he would realise his error, and correct it – I would have been left literally high and dry.
Outside, by the bus stop, was a fox. It glanced up at me for a second as I approached, then went nonchalantly back to clawing at a black plastic bag that spilled out of the bin. It had worried a hole in it, and was working out an old fried chicken box, pawing and nuzzling it open. It looked up at me, expressionless, then leaned down and went to work on the bones, jerking its head up and down and cracking them in its jaws.
Headlights shone up over the brow of the hill, and the fox pricked up its ears. The light tipped toward us and it looked up, mesmerized. Then it broke cover from the bus stop, and skittered over the road into the dark bushes by the railway embankment on the other side.
I carried on walking down the street, feeling the exquisite combined weight of beer bottles, bacon and pesto dangling in the bottom of my carrier bag.
Sometimes I took a fiver, sometimes a tenner. Sometimes, if it was Friday night, and I longed to lose myself in the pub, as everyone else around me screamed and abandoned themselves to the booze, I took a twenty. Better the guilt than to sit there, knowing I could only afford another half, before going home, sober and alone, flipping out and kicking in the bins.
It was always when I was making the bitter tea, as the kettle whooshed away on the sideboard. I would pull down the tin and quickly rifle through the notes, pluck one out and slide it into my back pocket. Sometimes, I would turn around, and see Goldie sitting there by the door, looking up at me and grinning.
But, somehow, it was never enough. Even with the money that the Blind Man’s carer sent me for the reading itself, when the first of the month came round, the rent was never there. One evening, the TV and the lights flicked off, and the next day, the electricity people came round and put in a meter we had to top up with a card, paid for in advance at the twenty four hour garage.
Soon, I began to actively look forward to going up to the Blind Man’s house. It wasn’t just because of the money either. It seemed to calm me down, I noticed; I left with a little more cheer in my heart than when I entered. There was something mollifying about the front room on those clear winter afternoons, with the Blind Man lying on the sofa and Goldie stretched out in front of the flickering fire…the pale light drawing tidally away, the sound of the words flowing and fluttering until the air itself seemed to softly thrum…the feeling of peace that descended upon me then – like the clarity and contentment that comes of a quiet, comfortable railway carriage, a good book, and many miles yet to travel…
The back of the winter was broken. Slowly, the days began to lengthen. We had done Nabokov, and Gogol, and we were now getting to the end of Dostoyevsky. One afternoon, shortly before I left, the Blind Man stopped me, and sat up on the sofa, clasping his knees together.
- I’ve been meaning to ask you something Ben, he said.
The skin on my scalp prickled slightly.
- What is it that you mean to do with yourself? What is it that you mean to do?
It was the question I dreaded. My dreams and ambitions – so great and grand in those glorious months after I had left University – they all seemed to have dwindled and decayed that winter, almost without me realising. How flimsy they must have been, I thought – how gossamer.
I didn’t answer him for a while. Then I said, well, I had thought about trying to become a writer.
- Oh, ho! he said. Oh ho!
- Not that there’s any money in it…
- And what have you written so far, Ben? Have you been beavering away all this time? I hope that I’m not the star of any of your stories!
I chuckled politely. I hadn’t actually written anything, I explained. I had hoped somehow that someone might give me a job as a writer, and then I might finally get stuck in…
- I’ve been having problems finding inspiration, I said.
He looked confused.
- But surely there’s inspiration everywhere you look, Ben?
- Apparently not, I said. Apparently not.
He waggled his head, as if he was angry.
- But Ben – you can see! Is there really nothing? Nothing at all?
I didn’t know what to say.
- My goodness, he said. My goodness.
His head tilted and he seemed to look at me rather sadly. The furrow on his brow grew deeper, and his eyes became unclear – they seemed to me like portholes that looked out over some vast, misty ocean.
I wandered down the hill, slowly, feeling the chill of the still present winter upon my cheeks. I looked up at the tower blocks – charcoal slabs emblazoned with glowing yellow squares – and, to my horror, tears began to gather my eyes, and I felt a sob in my throat. I had to do something, I thought. Something, somewhere had to give.
On the first day of Spring, I read the last sentence of Crime and Punishment, and slammed the book shut. The Blind Man let out a vague yell, and Goldie leapt to his feet with a woof of alarm. The Blind Man smoothed down the dog’s ear, grinning, and gave a big dramatic sigh.
- Well, then. How about that.
- Well then.
- So. That’s the end then.
- Yes. That’s that.
- Well. You think that you’d still like to be a writer, eh? After reading that?
I wondered. Yes, I said. I rather thought I did.
He drew his hand over his face – stubbly today, I noticed – and nodded to himself.
- Well, he said. Good luck to you. The very best of luck to you.
He paused. Ben? he said.
- Before you go…
- Perhaps you’d like to make us some of your lovely tea?
The kettle whooshed, and I glanced up at the tin, almost out of habit. The stack had grown scanty these past weeks, and, sure enough, when I leant up and shook it experimentally, there was only the vaguest rattle, as if there was a dead moth inside. I looked around, and unscrewed the lid. To my horror, there was just a twenty there, and a fiver.
It would be the last time, I thought with a sigh. Well, it would have to be, wouldn’t it – I wouldn’t ever be seeing the old man again. I stuffed my fingers in, and pulled out a fiver. Then I dipped back and took the twenty as well.
There was a bark, and I spun around. Goldie was standing in the kitchen doorway, and behind him, staring at me, was the Blind Man. I clutched the notes in my fist.
- Sorry to interrupt.
He moved toward me, his fingers bobbling along the wall, and I pulled back, the kettle boiling and steaming behind me. I scrutinized his pallid eyes as he moved closer – exactly how blind was this blind man? He let go of the wall, lunging forward, and I shrank against the formica – then he twisted round, grasping onto the fridge. The switch on the kettle clicked off, and the clattering of the water gradually faded to a murmur.
He took something from the top of the fridge, and held it out toward me – a box of PG Tips, wrapped in cellophane.
- I forgot to tell you! I bought some tea bags!
Gingerly, I leant forward, plucking at it. He released it and smiled.
- I thought you might find them easier than those leaves.
I laughed and he laughed, and finally he turned around, and shuffled off down the hallway, his finger trailing lightly along the wall. I took down the tin again, and looked at the crumpled notes in my palm, my brain jumpily calculating millilitres of lager, grams of pasta.
I sliced open the box of tea bags, and put three in the pot. I put the tin back up on the shelf, and poured out the tea into a mug. Then, experimentally, I poured another cup, and stood there, leaning over, inhaling the pale fresh scent rising up in the air.
We stood outside the front door and he held out his hand clumsily, poking me in the stomach. I took it, and shook it slowly.
- Well, thank you, Ben, he said.
- It’s been my pleasure
He kept holding my hand in a limp grip.
- When you get to my age, you’ll understand what it means to have company in the Winter.
I shook his hand again.
- You take care of yourself, I said.
Suddenly, he grasped my hand tightly, and brought his face close up to mine. I could smell the milky tea on his breath, and as I looked into his eyes, I saw they were the colour of lavender rags, bleached away by the sun.
- Get yourself out of here, son, he whispered hoarsely.
I tried to speak, but my voice came out as a croak.
- Get yourself out of here Ben. It’s a fucking shit-hole.
He let go of my hand, and walked away up the path. When I reached the street, Goldie barked, and I turned. The man was standing in the doorway with his hand raised. Then the dog slipped inside, and he went in after it and closed the door.
In the shop, I went straight over to the Czech lagers, and gathered up three bottles. I only had two pounds in my pocket, but I thought it would cover it. I placed them on the till, and the man rang them up. My heart froze.
- You sure that’s right, mate?
- Sorry, mate. New price.
- They never used to be that expensive!
He waggled his head.
- Sorry. New price.
I sighed, and took two bottles back to the fridge. I paid for the remaining beer, took my change and walked out into the rain.
Down by the bus-stop, I saw the fox again, working its way through another box of fried chicken. It glanced up at me for a second, uninterested, then went back to its dinner. There was the noise of a car, and, as usual, it looked up at the headlights as they arced over the hill before scuttling away across the road.
I watched its retreating shadow, and then looked down at the greasy box of old abandoned bones on the pavement. I started to walk home in the rain, melancholy, my solitary beer dangling beside me in its black plastic bag.