I was fascinated by him. His hands made depth and distance calculations, carefully and deliberately, that my eyes automatically made for me, and seeing each one occur in real-time, like individual lines in a set of code, was utterly, intoxicatingly fascinating. I noticed how he kept one hand on, or very close to, his coffee cup while he was talking, and moved the free hand down to meet the other when he wanted to raise the cup to his lips. He had beautiful lips. I just wanted them to keep kissing me. I liked too the hidden smile in the corner of his mouth that occasionally broke free into a full, beaming grin, but otherwise sat quietly and patiently for the right moment.
Yeah. I was hooked.
As Kay left us to attend to another customer, he asked me how I’d met her, clearly realising that we were social polar opposites, and I began to rattle on about meeting her art school. "We both took pottery class in the evening as an optional extra. She had purple hair then, not green, but that's not saying much because last week it was blue I think. Anyway, all the other people were really... er, how to describe them... boho? Hipster? Artsy? And not in a good way." He snorted, and I knew he understood what I meant. I really wanted this to work, and my nerves sounded loud and obvious, especially in my own ears. The second date is historically my fuck-up point. "So they didn't really take much interest in Kay – in either of us for that matter - but I thought she seemed really nice, so we got talking, and I saw a couple of her paintings and I was blown away by them. She's seriously creative..." I tailed off.
"I bet you are too," he said quietly, earnestly, and he impulsively reached across the table, holding his palm open, asking me silently to put my hand in his.
My little laugh floated away across the space between us. "I have my moments," I conceded.
"Y-you w-wearing anything you've made at the m-moment?" he asked, running his thumb over my fingers in an affectionately inquisitive way.
I was so unused to the touch of another, and this was all so new, that it took me a while to kick-start my vocal cords back into life. "I am, as it happens."
"M-m-may I see?" he asked, that handsome face smiling quietly.
Tension knotted in my lungs. I hadn't taken that necklace off since Luke first left for Afghan, and the superstitious little school girl in me suddenly screamed that something awful would happen if I undid the clasp. "Sure," I found myself saying. I couldn't refuse - how would that look?
My fingers stumbled to undo the clasp. The silken thread of the fine silver chain slithered deceptively over my skin, and I thought of the three sisters, the Old Norse Fates, and their silken threads. Stop it.
The pendant dangled momentarily above his palm, like a chopper with a load dangling on a rope. And then I let it go, into the hands of a man who was almost stranger.
He held it so delicately, exploring the contours. It was a strange shape, and I couldn't resist the mischief of keeping silent about it as he frowned, puzzled, trying to work out if it represented a specific object, or was just a random shape. "T-talk me through it?" he asked eventually.
I leaned forward. "The shape is a cut-out of an Ordinance Survey map of the area around the house where Luke and I grew up. I hand engraved the contour lines and other details."
"Wow," he said, clearly impressed. With a greater understanding of what it was, he walked his fingers around the boundaries of the pendant again. They were such beautiful hands, I thought. Delicate, deliberate, almost giving form to the things they touched, instead of discovering them. "Wh-what is it m-made from?" he asked, his lips tripping lightly on the sounds.
"The main body is white gold, and the little house, which is what that is -" I stretched over and brushed my finger down the upper side of his forefinger, leading it like one magnet on another to the small house near the bottom right. It was composed like a child's drawing of a house, of a simple square and triangle, and sat proud from the landscape of the pendant. "The little house is rose gold, soldered onto the surface."
"I l-love it," he smiled.
"Luke has one too," I murmured. "It's way smaller, because he's a guy, and he didn't want anything too showy."
He gave the polished surface of the house a final brush with his thumb, and then held my pendant out to me. "You are creative," he whispered.
I took it back and breathed an internal sigh of relief when I heard the clasp click. I hoped nothing bad had happened in the time it'd been off my neck. "You don't stutter when you whisper," I said without thinking.
Caleb laughed softly. "No," he agreed, no longer leaning on the table on his forearms, his voice at normal volume again. He’d backed off. "It's one of the techniques that an old sp-speech therapist tr-tried to g-g-g-get - excuse me," there it was again, his little nervous tick after a bad stutter, "G-get me to u-use more in every day speech... But c-c-come on, it's just as r-r-r-ridiculous to wh-wh-wh-wh..." The word ground to a halt. "Excuse me, to speak l-like that as it is to st-stammer..."
I wanted to venture into choppier waters. I wanted to ask him what was wrong with him. What was wrong with his leg - did he even have a leg? But I wasn't quite brave enough for that. So I stuck to the current topic of speech. "Have you always spoken with a stammer?"
He nodded. There was a beautiful blush creeping over his cheeks, and I took his hand which was still on the table. His fingers reacted in pleased surprise to my touch a nanosecond after I had closed mine around them. There was something deeply sexy about that delay; I could see it coming but he couldn’t. It was only a brief touch, nothing too forward or awkward, and I moved away from his warm hand to my cold glass of water and took a deep drink. And it was in that moment that I think he knew he had to give me something about his disability.
He leaned even further back in his chair and said, "I suspect you've been w-wondering about me..." he said, a quiet, resigned confidence in his features and voice.
"Yeah," I answered truthfully. "But that doesn't mean you should feel obliged to tell me anything. I'm not here because I'm curious about that. I'm here because I like you, and I want to get to know you better."
I honestly thought for a moment that that big, broad-shouldered man was going to cry. Of course, he didn't, but his whole face welled up with emotion for an instant before it was hidden and he looked calm again. It reminded me of seeing someone's face as they pass by in a car: for an instant of complete clarity, their expression is yours.
"Thank you... for that," he said awkwardly. "I g-guess that wh-when a disability is such a huge part of your l-l-life, it k-ki-kind of becomes a huge part of early dating..."
"You date a lot?" I asked with the rapidity of a Wimbledon return shot, veering off topic for a moment.
Caleb barked a quiet, almost bitter laugh, and then said, "Erm, I didn't d-date a whole l-l-lot in the first two y-years after my injury, m-mostly because I d-didn't g-get out much, but I had a few g-g-goes in the l-last c-couple of y-years. N-not w-with much success though."
"Well, you can't have had a worse success rate than me on all those dates that Kay set up for me..."
He appreciated that, and his shoulders dropped, relaxed, as he breathed out.
He opened his mouth but, as if summoned by the mention of her name, Kay was suddenly walking over, her big platform boots clunking, and I realised that Caleb and I were the only customers again. It was frustration that knotted inside me this time, but I tried not to let it show. Caleb, I think, looked ever so slightly relieved.
"Urgh, finally," she complained, flopping down in the chair she'd left vacant about twenty minutes earlier. "I thought that guy was never going to leave. So, what did I miss?"
She looked at Caleb while she spoke, and he answered her. "Well, Al-l-l....ysssa," pause, blush, breathe, " Excuse me, just showed me the pendant that she and Luke both have, and we were just beginning the 'awkward ex' talk, I think..."
Kay laughed, somewhat unkindly it has to be said. "Lyssa doesn't have many of those. Awkward, ex-could-have-beens though, yeah, she's got plenty of them."
"Oh no," Caleb said, sounding serious, "That's the w-worst..."
My heart sank. More like 'plummeted'. "What do you mean? Why?" I looked from one to the other with the rapidity of a ping-pong ball in a small space.
He laughed, in that irritating yet kind of attractive way that only men you're into can get away with. "Because a l-l-long l-l-list of ex-could-have-beens means I've g-got my w-work c-cut out for me, tr-tr-trying to impress her... I don't w-want to become another one…"
He was grinning, and if I could have reached his shoulder, I would have smacked him for playing me so well. I chuckled and said softly, "You're doing just fine."
"It's true," Kay put in, standing up and leaving with a scrape of her chair. "I've not known her have a second date in, what, five years?" she winked at me and then strode back behind the counter, sensing it was a good idea to leave us to it for now.
"Five years?" he asked, a hint of fun still in his features.
"Three. She's exaggerating," I mumbled, adding silently to myself.
He spoke softly, almost whispering again, and said, "Well, I don't honestly know why y-you're still here, but you are, so I c-count myself very l-lucky."
"You know what strikes me most about you?" I said in a sudden rush of honesty. I could feel the regret piling up behind it though, but I ploughed on through.
"Tall, dark and cr-crippled?" he smirked bitterly.
"No," I said flatly, brushing his sour humour aside, "You’re not arrogant." He seemed intrigued by that, but stayed silent. "I don't know if it's just the guys that Kay's been picking for me, or whether men in general become super arrogant around the age of thirty, but my last few encounters with men in the dating world have been... well, yeah..." I trailed off, unsure quite how to describe it.
"I think it's a thirty thing," he smiled. "You know? Y-you're past the insecurities of u-university, y-you've had a job for a while so you've g-got some money, and you're - pr-presumably - still pretty active and handsome. I gu-guess that's why..."
I laughed. "So you're telling me that you too are actually arrogant then?"
"What? No," he said, sounding a little hurt. It was my time to play.
"You're handsome, you have a job, you're thirty..."
"Twenty nine," he cut in sullenly.
I sighed a smile, hoping he'd hear it in my voice, and reached over the table for his arm. "What I'm trying to say, you’re different. It's why I'm here, and you're there, and we're on date number two."
Caleb moved his right hand along his left arm to where my hand sat, and closed his fingers around mine. I was conscious of how much I was touching him - not something I would be doing at this stage normally, but I knew of no other way to connect with him. He said nothing for a bit, just played with my knuckles between his forefinger and thumb, a barely-detectable smile on his lips. Finally he said very quietly, "We were talking about the less handsome aspects of me, before K-Kay interrupted..."
His voice went kind of dead as he said that, and I repeated what I'd said earlier. "Like I said, you don't owe me anything -"
"-I owe you at l-least £2.50 for getting this coffee wh-while I sat down..." he cut in, diffusing my sentence.
"You know what I mean," I said flatly.
"I do," he said earnestly, "And I'm gr-grateful." His strong, expressive fingers kept playing nervously over mine as he spoke, bordering on frantic. "W-w-well, as y-you have pr-pr-probably g-g-guessed..." he paused, a half smile on his lips and a blush on his cheeks, "I st-stammer pretty badly, especially wh-when I'm n-n-nervous..." I smiled but said nothing. He seemed to know when I smiled, though I had no idea how. "And, equally obvious, I c-can't see, and I don't w-walk too w-well..."
"Yup, I’m sorry Caleb, but I'm going to have to admit that I did notice those things," I said, hoping again that the green light that flashed playfully in my eyes would carry to my voice.
His answering grin reassured me. "G-good, ok, so we have a g-good pl-place to start from..." His thumb was still ticking fretfully back and forth over my finger. "So before the Army, I only had a very sl-slight stammer. Then I g-got blown up, and after a c-coma and a fairly massive head injury, it seems l-like certain things got exacerbated: my st-st-st..." he broke off, pursing his lips together in frustration to quash the sound before it could embarrass him any more. I thought he was going to say 'stammer', but resisted the temptation to fill in the word for him, and good job I did: "My st-stubbornness, my shyness, and of c-course, my bad speech..." There would have been a glint in his eyes if only I could have seen them behind his Oakley's. I chuckled. "Then I woke up and discovered I c-couldn't see, and things got interesting..."
"Must have been awful," I commented limply.
He nodded. "I had a bandage over my eyes when I woke up from surgery. They kept me in a c-coma for a while anyway, to l-let my brain heal up a bit I think, but when I w-woke up, they told me I'd suffered damage to my eyes, and that there had been m-massive nerve damage to my l-leg, which, incidentally, had been broken in six pl-places and re-re-required re-reconstructive surgery to my knee, ankle and hip..."
I was silent in the wake of that. There was nothing I could say that wouldn't sound patronising or lame, so I just sat there, and gave a little squeeze on his hand to let him know I hadn't turned to stone. After a bit I found a question on my lips and let it out. "How long were you in the hospital at Bastion before they flew you home?"
"Of all the re-responses I've had to that information, that's the first time I've been asked that," he said.
I had no idea what the right response would have been. "I'm... sorry? I guess I was thinking of Amy and how awful it must have been for your family... knowing you'd been hurt, but not being able to be with you..."
Caleb tightened his hand around mine and picked it up off his arm. I thought for a moment that he was going to kiss it, and half wished he would, but instead he just cradled it between both of his. "You are extraordinary," he muttered, blushing with embarrassment a moment after he'd spoken. "I j-just mean... You're unexpected... you know? Never mind..." He stopped talking and set my hand back down on the table, the apples in his cheeks turning crimson for a moment or two before fading back to normal.
"So are you," I said conspiratorially.
He cleared his throat at said, "I was there for six weeks, of wh-which I was unconscious for three and a half." I exhaled an exaggerated breath. "It was worse for Nan, I think," he went on. "She just told Amy that they w-wouldn't be hearing from me for a couple of months..."
"How old is she?"
"Nan? She'll be eighty l-l-later this year."
"Wow, that's pretty good going!" I grinned. "I never knew my grandparents."
"She's awesome," he smiled. "Wh-when mum died, she j-just knew how to l-look after Amy. T-took her to Ireland for a week, to let her get used to the idea that mum w-wasn't c-coming back. Mum's husband - my stepdad - decided he d-didn't w-want anything to do with us any more, and moved to Thailand w-with his secretary. So that l-left Amy w-without parents."
"Oh that's rough," I breathed.
"Yeah... They'd been distant for a while, but didn't divorce. Her death just gave him a way out, I g-guess."
"You don't seem angry about it," I ventured.
His face was calm and expressionless. "I w-was. Really, r-really angry. He was her father… But it w-was for the best in the end."
"Fair enough," I said, backing out of that one.
"So Nan and I became her l-legal guardians, and l-life goes on..."
I moved in my chair and watched his ear turn to catch the sound. "How much sight did you lose?" I asked gingerly.
Caleb smiled sadly and said, "Pr-pretty much all of it." My heart lurched for him. He gestured somewhere down to what would be the lower left of his field of vision and said, "I have some re-re-remaining sight here... Mostly l-light and dark, shadows, vague shapes, and then the rest is just... not there..."
"Was it hard to learn to use a cane?" I asked. "I can't imagine myself ever being competent enough to get from A to B without my eyes..."
He laughed. "I u-u-usually do ok g- g-getting from A to B... I just m-might accidentally g-go through C and D, and trip over E first..."
I loved his sense of humour. Even with something as serious as losing his eyesight, he found something to make light of. Then I supposed, as I sat there giggling like a small child at something as inappropriately funny as a fart at a funeral, that must be his way of dealing with it.
"Seriously though, it took me a l-long time to g-get the hang of it. But I got it much more easily than I g-got being led, for some reason. I hate the helplessness of it… I never… I never l-let go enough, never re-relaxed enough, to allow someone to l-lead me. I mostly pre-pre-prefer to use the c-cane and w-walk next to someone, if possible."
"Though 'w-walking' is a r-relative term..."
I wanted to ask if it hurt all the time, if there was anything more they could do for him, what it looked like... "Must be... interesting... juggling two canes..." I ventured and immediately regretted how bland I sounded.
His smile flashed. "I'm right handed," he explained, "So I should naturally use the cane in my right hand, but that's taken up with the bl-black one, so I had to learn left handed..." He paused and added quietly, "And there's no way I c-could r-really manage without either one..."
"So it won't ever get better?" I blurted unthinkingly.
He inhaled, held the breath for a second and then said, "Nope, I'm afraid not. If anything, it'll g-g-get w-worse as the replacement parts wear out and the r-rest of me decays around them... I'm sorry; that's not what y-you w-want to hear from a g-guy on a second date, is it?"
"I'd always rather know where I am, with anything..."
"Fair enough," he said. "I'm sorry it's just a bit of a heavy topic..."
"I don't mind."
"If you ever want to ask me anything, about... I don't know... any of this... y-you must feel free to..."
"I will, thank you," I said, wondering how we were going to save the conversation from ending awkwardly.
A grin flared into life on his face and he said, "You know, you've handled this all r-rather well..."
"What, were you expecting me to ask you to feel my face to see what I look like or something?" I laughed.
"Wouldn't be the first time..." he said. "I w-was on a date with a girl about three y-years ago, and we were at a r-restaurant, having this k-kind of conversation, about how m-much, or l-little, I c-could see, and she gr-grabs both my hands and says, 'You should know what I look like by now - it's our third date and you don't even know what I look like...' I was so surprised I think I found it hard not to l-laugh and spit my food out into her face, w-whatever it looked like..."
As we began to move away from our first tentative conversation about his disabilities, I noticed how his stutter receded into the darker corners of his speech, only coming out for the trickiest consonants and combinations. It was as like the stress of 'the reveal' had faded and he was allowing himself to relax again. That was the first time I'd felt truly sorry for him, thinking about how he must have to go through this same spiel every time a girl wanted to get close to him. That led me on to thoughts of being close to him, and I found it harder to concentrate on what he was saying about his latest article for the paper he worked for.
Drawing out my phone to look at the time little while later, I saw I had a message from Emily. Then I saw the time on the screen. Once I'd realised that my eyes were not lying to me and that we really had been sitting there for two hours, I voiced my astonishment, "Ok, so I just pulled my phone out to see what time it was - do you know how long we've been here?"
He smiled and shook his head. "An hour or so?" he ventured.
"Two hours," I laughed.
"You know what they say," he remarked.
"Yeah, and I really have had fun," I slid my finger over the screen and said, "I've just got a text from Emily, the friend who's party I escaped early... You mind if I just read it quickly?"
"N-not at all," he smiled. "I should ch-check my phone too, in case Nan or Amy thinks I've g-got l-lost in town..."
Emily had messaged me to ask if Kit and I wanted to go round for dinner some time. Since you and Kit bailed on me and Roger last time, do you want to come round this week and make it up to us? We missed our fortnightly dinner with you guys! Hope all's well, Em x.
The memory of the last evening we'd all spent together made my head swim and I groaned aloud. "Everything ok?" Caleb asked.
"What? Oh, yes," I grumbled. "She was only asking if my housemate, Kit, and I are free to go round for dinner next week."
"Wh-what's so bad about that?"
I sighed. "Emily and Roger drink a lot, and Kit can hold his alcohol, but I'm not quite so good. I got drunker than I'd have liked last time, put it that way. And I don't recover as quickly any more it seems..."
He laughed, little crinkles pinching at the edges of his lips.
"How about you? Anything from Amy?"
"Yeah, an answer phone message. I'll l-listen in a bit. Sh-shall w-we head out soon?"
No. I wanted to stay there longer and learn all there was to know about Caleb Starling, but reality seemed to be beckoning us both. "Sure," I said heavily, and it turned out I was a more convincing liar than I'd thought I was. "I'll just say goodbye to Kay. She must be out back."
I left him at the table and dipped round the counter, calling into the kitchen at the back. "Kay, you there? We're going to head off now..."
"Ooh! Coming!" she shrieked from somewhere behind the massive refrigeration unit. She appeared, her skinny legs tottering slightly in her platform heels, with a big catering box of sugar cubes in her arms, and said, "Listen, I'm glad I've got you alone for a minute."
I rolled my eyes. "You're going to give your opinion on Caleb, aren't you?"
She pouted. "I have to say what I think, don't I? I like him, but I have to say I was a bit surprised to discover that you'd gone for a blind guy... Didn't think that was your type..."
"Blind is a type?" I asked, defensively.
She pouted again. "Everything’s a type for someone. Just... you know... be careful."
"About what?" I asked, conscious to keep my voice down. "You think he's a secret psycho that's going to beat me to death with his cane?"
And then a nanosecond before she opened her mouth to reply, I remembered Kay's younger brother. "No, but disabilities are energy-drainers, and not just for the disabled. I should know, with George..."
"I'm sorry, I forgot he was deaf."
"I don't mean it in a harsh way - I love George to bits - I'm just saying, watch yourself. Don't let him take up more time or energy than you want him to..." She tucked a strand of her lurid green hair back out of her eyes, and when saw my expression, she added, "Here endeth the lesson. Go forth and make smoochies with your new man..." My smile didn't hide my uneasiness from her and her shoulders slumped. "I'm sorry; I've put my big old platform boot in it and fucked it up. I shouldn't have said anything. Forget I did, ok?"
"Sure." I turned and headed back out into the main cafe. "I'll see you around, Kay," I called over my shoulder.
I glanced at our table and saw that it was empty. A thrill of fear went through me. Had he got up and heard what she'd said? Did he think now that I thought he'd be too much trouble? Or had he just left?
I peered through the enormous plate glass window just as a white stick swung into view, emerging from behind the brick pillars of the entranceway. He had his walking cane in his right hand, but he wasn't using it. Instead, he had his phone pressed to his ear and was limping slowly along the line of the building, making sure that he kept a true course by repeatedly tapping the white cane's tip against the brickwork. He wasn't walking like he wanted to get anywhere, rather pacing while he listened to the message from Amy. I toyed with the idea of staying inside and watching him, but I decided to leave in case Kay came back and offered more advice.
It was freezing outside and I wished I'd brought my gloves. I stuffed my hands into my jacket pocket and let my footsteps ring out loudly on the paved stones outside The Blue Bell. I saw his head twitch in my direction, but he kept the phone against his ear for another minute, before hanging up and turning slightly.
He laughed. "Yeah." He looked really happy, and when I commented on it, he elaborated, "I had two messages. The first was Amy asking if I w-wanted anything from the shops because she and Nan are j-just g-going, and the second was fr-from one of the guys in my old unit. He's g-going to be in the area next weekend and w-wants us all to m-meet up."
"That'll be nice," I smiled. "It's been a while since you've seen each other?"
"A year or so since w-w-we’ve all met up," he said. "How are you getting home?"
"I w-was g-going to take a taxi, but if you're getting off at m-my stop, I'll go w-with you..."
Caleb's stop was one before my own, but I didn't begrudge him that. "Good, let's go then."
We didn't have long to wait for a bus, and as it drew up, I asked, "Its coming - you want to take my arm, or are you alright?"
"I'll take y-y-your arm, if I may," he said, to my pleasant surprise. “Again, easier than pl-playing piñata with a moving vehicle…”
I snorted, and as the bus came to a stop next to us, I stepped up and Caleb, left foot first, right foot dragging slightly, stepped up after me. The disabled seats at the front were free, and as we got to them, I straightened my arm, pointing my hand at the headrest of the seat. He slid his hand down my arm in a way that made goosebumps rise on my skin, and he felt for the rest of the seat before starting to lower himself carefully down. The bus lurched off before he'd sat down properly, and he crunched down with a heavy gasp. I watched his brows knot themselves tightly, and heard him give a throaty growl as he bit down the pain. His leg was still sticking out straight and he grimaced as he leaned forward and clicked the contraption at his knee which released the leg and allowed it to bend. "That was unexpected," he whispered at me, leaning back into the seat, breathing heavily.
Then he began to laugh.
"What?" I asked, finding myself smiling too.
"I have to be the most awkward, ungainly date you've ever had, right?"
"I don't know about that," I grinned. "You're the most fun though."
"Kay was right," he said more gently this time, and I felt another pang of fear which fizzed in my lungs until he added, "You really can't have had that many good dates if I'm you're best so far..."
"I'll thank you to keep that kind of remark to yourself," I giggled, and impulsively leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek while he leaned his head back blissfully against the head rest and laughed and laughed.