Cold doubt flooded through me the moment I grabbed him. I'd just wanted to hold his arm, like anyone would do on any other date. My adrenaline levels shot through the roof and my palms began to sweat, so I’d have to let go anyway before he thought he had a tree frog clinging onto the steel of his forearm instead of a nervous ginger. What was wrong with me? You don’t grab someone who can’t see; someone who needs that arm to use his white cane; someone who can’t use that cane because his insensitive date has clutched hold of that arm with a flipping deathgrip. I let go, slithering off his arm in embarrassed defeat.
The subsequent big, deep-throated laugh caught me entirely off guard. He tilted his head back, and then stabbed his cane into the ground to anchor himself, and then he just laughed and laughed. It wasn’t a cruel laugh though, and I found my own lips tweaking into a smile. He looked so uninhibited and happy, and I turned my green eyes back to the rest of his body. This intriguing man was gentle and funny, though he still carried himself with the upright posture of a soldier, the painful limp which added a rocking lurch to his gait detracting in no way from the innate sense of power and calm. I felt like a slouchy teenager, not like someone who’s almost thirty, as he stood next to me, laughing like a drain. When he offered his arm back to me, I giggled nervously and took it – what else could I do? – and apologised again.
He was grinning, so I walked by his side into the ticket hall. There was something deeply and unexpectedly thrilling about being responsible for guiding someone who clearly didn’t really need my help at that moment. I knew I mustn’t try too hard, or I’d break the spell and everything would unravel at my feet. I’d been there before with previous dates…
We joined the queue, and I slowed to a gradual halt so as not to jolt him, and he looked down at me, or at least, he would have done if he’d been able to see me, and said conspiratorially, “Y-you know, you g-g-get in free because of me...”
“I do?” I asked, confused.
He huffed a laugh. “I’m r-r-r-registered bl-bl-blind, so I g-g-get two for one entry at the cinema. It’s y-y-your l-lucky day...”
“Awesome,” I laughed. Cinema tickets were extortionate.
“Though there is one c-c-condition though,” he added, leaning further into me. “It does mean you have to l-look after me…”
“Shouldn’t be too hard, right?” I joked, and the smile that he returned was not all humour.
He was so intoxicatingly close, and I was just wondering if he had any sight at all, when the muscles in his arm tensed suddenly. “Is it very busy?” he asked, turning his ears around to scan the huge foyer, listening to the echoing voices. It sounded like he already knew the answer to that.
“The queue’s pretty short,” I said, not sure what he was after. “But there’s a fairly decent number of people here. Why?”
He shifted his weight more onto his left leg, wincing slightly as he moved his right hip. “I...” he puffed the air from his lungs, and said quietly, “I sh-should probably w-warn you… um… I have been kn-known to... to... err... to g-g-get a bit... panicky wh-when there’s a l-lot of people...”
I’d read enough about PTSD because of Luke to know what he meant. “That’s ok,” I said quietly. “If you need to bail, at any point, that’s fine by me. It’s just a film.”
He smiled, a vague blush in his cheeks. “Thanks. J-just thought I’d... um... w-warn you... y-you know, in c-case...”
“Whatever happens – something, nothing – is ok by me,” I said, hoping to reassure him without being patronising. I had no idea what I was doing though, and fear began to billow up my chest like poisonous gas. I shut my mouth in case I said something stupid.
“L-let’s get y-you that free ticket then,” he said, shrugging my words and worries away with a grateful smile.
We shuffled down the queue until it was our turn to approach the ticket office. He had slid himself free of me, and held his white cane up so that it was as patently obvious as possible that he was blind. The young, pimpled, sallow-faced boy behind the counter looked confused, and then when Caleb showed him his disability card, he just looked entirely nonplussed. Caleb informed him patiently that he was entitled to free entry with one accompanying person, and that he needed headphones for the audio-descriptive track. A smile tugged at my lips as I noticed how he drew himself up to his full height and spoke in a slightly different way - perhaps more breathy? – seemingly to combat the stammer when he spoke to a stranger.
Unfortunately, the poor newbie behind the counter had clearly never come across audio-description headphones before, and to be honest, neither had I, because he had to call his line manager over. Eventually as the queue built behind us, a headset was provided, and we were shown to a seat that had an audio jack for the headphones, and, mercifully for me and my neck, wasn’t in the very front row as I’d feared – after all, if you can’t see it, why not put you right at the front? When we got to the foot of the stairs, the man from the cinema staff suddenly turned with a look of fear and horror in his small, piggy blue eyes, and said, “Um, the seats in this auditorium with the audio description enabled are... um... they’re not... they’re, like, up the stairs a bit... Will you be ok with that?”
He laughed and held up his walking cane, “That’s what this is for, right?” and then he turned to me and whispered, “And y-you’ll help me, r-right?”
“’Course I will,” I whispered back. “Seven rows up...”
“I’ll have to do, I’m afraid.”
“Y-y-you’ll do fine.” He grinned, but I sensed an undercurrent of fear.
Our progress was slow, but there were only seven steps. He leaned heavily on me with his right hand, judging the height of each step with a light, skilled tap with the end of his white cane, held in his left. Each time he would move his left foot up first and then raise his whole right leg from the hip because it wouldn't bend at the knee. The movement got me more curious than ever about his mysterious body. I wasn’t given long to wonder though, because as he repeated the manoeuvre for the fifth time his breathing noticeably heavier, his toe caught on the step, and his fingers clutched my arm a good deal harder. He grunted at the extra effort of beginning the move all over again. Once he'd made it up that step, he tugged at my arm, his breathing surprisingly ragged, and signalled that he needed a brief pause. He caught his breath and quickly nodded. With the final two steps conquered, I looked at where the attendant had pointed, and muttered, "The seat is at the far end of this row on our right, against the wall... Here," I said, putting his hand down onto the backs of the seats of the row in front of ours. "At the end of this row."
He nodded once, curtly, and in the lights of the pre-trailer adverts slowly cycling across the screen, I could see a very fine sheen of sweat just stippling the upper reaches of his forehead and along the hairline above his brows. That was when I realised he was covering up just what an effort this all was for him, and I sighed louder than I had meant to. I think he heard, but he didn't say anything.
After a little sigh of his own, he started to shuffle sideways along the row, left leg taking a big step, right leg sliding painfully over to join it. I wondered how he was going to get out the other way, but remained quiet. "How m-many seats in this row?" he asked me, tapping the row of chairs he was using as a guide. I counted the remainder aloud, and he smiled.
The usher left us with a quick, "If there's anything else you need," and ducked away before giving either of us the chance to ask anyway, leaving us to make our way down the row.
Caleb's left hand searched the empty air as he neared the end of the seats, clearly doubting my ability to count. I had been correct though, and when his hand found the wall, he flipped down the end seat and lowered himself painfully into the chair, his breath betraying the pain in his hip and knee. I turned my clear green eyes on him and watched him while he adjusted his weight and released his mysterious knee contraption and leaned back in the seat, his breathing short and shallow for a minute or two. In the gloom of the darkened room, I noticed that the hand that hovered – Nervously? Protectively? – over his right knee was shaking like a small frightened animal.
And then I felt the hairs prickling on the back of my neck and on my arms. It wasn’t the cold of the air conditioning or the residual frost on my jacket from outside. The eyes and stares of several other people arriving in the cinema made me realise with a sudden and excruciating clarity that I was with someone who was actually really quite impaired, though he was deceptively good at covering it up. Was it insensitive of me to have brought a blind man to the cinema? I had no idea. The theatre wasn’t packed – eleven o’clock was early in the day, even by matinee standards – but the eyes on me were enough to make me doubtful. Thoughts and niggling worries curdled in my stomach again and I began to fidget like I was the one uncomfortable with crowded places, not Caleb. "You ok?" he asked in his sweet baritone voice.
"I'm fine," I said, a bit too quickly. Now he was going to think I was having second thoughts about him, not about the film choice. Oh god, I thought in a mild panic.
He reached for my hand, fumbling gently over my thigh for a moment as he discovered that’s where my hand rested. I wasn’t going to complain about that, and left it there. "I'm gl-glad we came," he said. "Thank you." My heart lurched and I left his hand on my jeans, though I was a bit self-conscious that he'd find out that I wasn't in quite as good a shape as I might have been maybe two or three years ago. He broke the contact with a final, even affectionate, squeeze of his fingertips, and then he began to untangle the headphone cord, fingers working methodically down the wire like a Catholic with a rosary.
Within a few moments the lights dimmed and the soundtrack reverberated loudly in my chest as the studio emblems blared. As the film started I noticed how he rested his head again the back of the seat, tilted upwards towards the ceiling, and yet his hand remained in mine. I felt my palms tingle. Then I was acutely aware that they had rapidly passed 'tingle' and barrelled straight into 'unacceptably sweaty', but he stayed with his expressive hand wrapped around mine until I forcibly removed my own to wipe it down my jeans. No treefrogs, I giggled to myself. I pretended to busy myself with extracting some chewing gum from the packet in my coat pocket.
The film was beautifully shot, and it made me sad that he couldn’t see the rambling cobbled streets, or the wide expanses of green countryside, but a quick glance to my left told me he was getting something out of the film that maybe I wasn’t. About fifteen minutes in, the movement of his hand to his face drew my eyes away from the impeccably chiselled face of Eddie Redmayne, and, in the bokeh lights of one particular scene, I saw Caleb’s face properly for the first time. I saw him without his dark glasses on.
Sure, I’d seen it when he’d been lying, bleeding, in the road, but he’d been all defensive and shy then. Now, with his head tilted against the back of the seat, lips parted slightly, his straight nose and Grecian profile highlighted in the warm colours from the screen, all that enveloping, protective embarrassment from before had melted away, and I knew that in that moment I was just seeing Caleb. He kept his eyes closed, and under the resting lids and surprisingly long lashes, I could see the constant, rapid, rolling movement as his eyes searched for a light they would never find.
He chuckled as Eddie Redmayne made a flawless joke in the film. I returned my eyes to the screen, and put my small, strong-fingered, jeweller’s hand on his forearm where it rested on the arm of the seat. I liked this man, and I so desperately wanted to get to know him better. I prayed he’d keep letting me see pieces of him like that, so that eventually, like some ancient, Roman mosaic being brushed clean by archaeologists, I’d eventually see the whole picture.
I’d have lied if I’d said there wasn’t a tear in my eye when the film ended. The atmosphere was alive and buzzing as the few people in the theatre discussed and dissected it, but our little corner was very still and quiet. Caleb’s movements were slow, deliberate and extremely careful as he rolled the headphones up loosely around his hand to keep track of them, fished his cane from the side of the chair where it had never left contact with his leg, unfolded it, and then, using the back of the chair in front of him, had hauled himself to his feet. The merest wince, the tiniest grunt were all the outward signs he showed of anything he might have felt inside.
He disappeared from view behind his dark glasses, sliding them on with practised ease. “Cl-clear enough to get g-g-going y-yet?” he asked, head nodding as the ‘g’ sound repeated in his throat. The sound of his stutter did strange things to my heartbeat, and I seemed to have forgotten how to speak myself as I stood there like a dumb idiot. “…l-l-lyssa? Y-you st-still there?” he smiled. The way he kind of failed to say my name nearly floored me.
“Yeah, yes, yes,” I blathered, “And yes, it’s clear enough to start heading out, sorry.”
He laughed. “Was it me that str-struck you dumb, or something else?” he chuckled, beginning to limp down the tiny space between the seats.
I stayed where I was, feeling suddenly emboldened, and I let him come right up to me. A frown flickered across his eyebrows and he drew up to a curious and uncertain halt right in front of me. Just as he went to reach a hand out into the space, I went up onto tiptoes and planted a nervous, light kiss right on his lips before drawing back and whispering, “How did you know?”
His boyish grin only made me want to kiss him again, but he beat me to it and drew me to him with his left hand, his guiding hand that held his cane, and he pressed his lips into mine with an urgency that ignited more than just interest inside me. Here was not the place for that though. My mother had brought me up to look down on such public displays of affection, and I faltered, leaning back, shy, heart pounding, and dropping down off points like a tired dancer. I giggled though, and he knew he’d done nothing wrong. He was shaking his head with a boyish half-grin on his lips when I turned around to move down the row.
Once the flow of people had calmed to nothing, we turned out of our little row and he found the first step with his cane, and I stood still while he looked for my arm with his hand and promptly took it. “I’ll need to put a bit of weight on you g-going down,” he apologised. “Is that alright?”
“Just tell me if I’m being counterproductive,” I smiled nervously.
“W-will y-you hold this for me pl-please?” he asked, holding his black cane forward.
I took it with trembling fingers. “Sure.” It was warm, and the handle was sculpted, but like an old shoe belonging to someone else, it didn’t fit my hand. It was so intimately personal to him that I felt a strange flutter in my lungs.
White cane tap, left leg step, right hip heave, repeat. That was how we made it down the seven steps to the floor without incident.
“Cheers,” he mumbled as he reached the bottom and paused for a moment, kneading his hip before nodding his head at the door. “C-come on,” he smiled. “Let’s g-get out of here before they start showing the next film.” And I handed back his black cane.
The rush of cold air stung my cheeks and lungs as we moved out of the warm, if somewhat popcorny, air of the cinema into the weak winter sun.
“Y-you want to gr-gr-grab a c-c-c-c…” the sound repeated on his tongue until he killed it and shook his head. “Excuse me… gr-grab a dr-dr-drink?”
“Sure,” I smiled. I liked that little nervous tick. “Anywhere in particular you have in mind?”
“Actually, yes,” he grinned and held his arm out for me again. “Shall w-w-w-we?”
That last little trip in his speech, like a record with a little imperfection, made my heart lurch. God, he was so cute. “Alright, where to then?”
“Y-you know the l-l-little c-c-c... excuse me,” he muttered again as one of his hardest letters, as I was quickly realising, refused to come out cleanly, “The c-c-café,” his lungs forced the word out and his chest contracted like an old spring, “On R-Renfrew Street? By the ch-church?”
“The Blue Bell?” I asked, my heart leaping. “Er, yes, is that where you were planning on going?”
“I w-was,” he’d heard the doubt in my voice and his steps slowed. “W-would y-you r-rather go elsewhere?”
“No,” I laughed nervously. “It’s just… A friend of mine works there, and… And I haven’t told her I’m… you know… seeing someone…”
“Ahh,” he grinned, resuming his original but still slow pace. I got the feeling that he’d have marched me straight in there just because I’d said that.
Lonely-girl confession time. “I’ve been… I’ve been on my own for, like, forever, and she’s endlessly trying to set me up with people – she even created a page for me on a dating site – and the last guy she set me up with was only, like, a fortnight ago? I told her I liked him because I couldn’t bear to see her face fall again, and I said I’d get back in touch with him.” I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear and got my silver earring caught in it. I untangled it while I carried on, grateful for something to think about. It tinkled loudly, like I had a fairy in my ear canal, and I watched him turn his ear more towards the sound as well.
“L-let me g-guess,” he smirked, “Y-you n-n-never did?”
“No prizes for that one,” I said glumly.
“And y-you’re worried she’ll think y-you’ve lost it, if you br-bring a bl-blind, stammering cr-cripple in to her c-café on a date with y-you?” he said.
I thought he was serious. I was so shocked by his tone and his words that I stopped. “No!” I exclaimed, my cheeks filling with that violent, stinging red usually reserved for that moment when you emerge from the bathroom and someone points out you’ve got your skirt hooked in your knickers.
My sudden halt had drawn him to a lurching stop as well, and once the wince had passed, he began to laugh again. Not quite as full-throatedly as before, but still, it was a chuffing baritone that reverberated through his chest and rang in my ears. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“You don’t look sorry at all,” I pouted glumly.
“C-come here,” he smiled, tugging my body closer with a gentle movement of his surprisingly strong arm. Instead of kissing me, which I knew would only make me more angry, he held my shoulders in a warm hug and said again, “I’m sorry.” After a few seconds, he leaned back and said very quietly and without any trips or stammers, “We can go somewhere else.”
“No,” I said firmly. “No, let’s prove Kay wrong. I’m going to show her that I’m perfectly capable of finding a tall, dark, kind and handsome all on my own.”
Caleb huffed a shrug and listened for a moment, and when his ear was faultlessly parallel to the busy road to our right, he turned his attention back to walking. He didn’t hold my arm this time though, relying instead on his cane and I felt suddenly hurt by his lack of confidence in me. It was only when I flicked my eyes down to follow the back-and-forth of the cane tip that I realised how much that tiny pin-prick of contact told him. There were bumps in the pavement: cracks became canyons, and ridges mountain ranges, which could trip you up if you didn’t know they were there. He needed that cane as much as I needed my eyes, which I realised as I caught my toe on a tangle of grass that snuck up between two paving slabs. It barely broke the rhythm of my stride, but still, it made me think.
The sign of The Blue Bell glistened in the sun, the stainless steel rim flashing bright against the extreme blue of the deep winter sky. The brash whine of a low-power moped rang in our ears as the driver pulled up outside the café and parked the moped against an old, crumbling brick wall nearby. As the helmet was drawn of the rider’s face, I knew immediately who it was. The bird-like legs poking out of the black ruff skirt and impossibly tiny waist, wrapped tightly by a black corset, and the bright green hair told me that it was Kay. Her voice was perpetually hoarse, in that slightly sexy way that I only ever get when I have a streaming cold, which cancels out any of the allure of the accompanying voice. “Lyss?” she called, tucking the helmet under one arm and clumping over in her enormous and extremely high gothy boots. “Hi!” she giggled.
“Hello,” I said fondly, and though my voice was warm and friendly, I couldn’t help hearing the clanging of my heartbeat in my ears. It was loud enough that I was certain Caleb could hear it. “We’re just headed inside for a coffee – you working today?”
“Yeah,” she whined good-naturedly. “Jimmy’s called in a sick-favour with me so I’m taking his shift. Anyway,” she said, in that tone that digs you in the ribs without the accompanying physical prod, “Who’s this?”
I closed my eyes briefly, inhaled, and said, “This is Caleb. We’ve just been to see the new Eddie Redmayne film together.” I spoke in a way that I knew would rouse her curiosity.
“Oh,” she said, in an impressed tone, rather than the surprised one I had been expecting. Still, who was Kay to be judgemental – she had a new hair colour and fashion style every week. Maybe she’d be open to my dating Caleb? After deliberately keeping Caleb in the metaphorical dark for a while, Kay grinned, sighed, and said, “Finally! Alyssa Bowmore finds herself a man.” She skipped over to Caleb, who was looking unusually nervous, looked him up and down, and said, “And she appears to have much better taste than I do. Come on inside.”
When she’d skipped off again, Caleb half turned to me and said, “Phew, she had me g-going there for a second… I think l-like her though.”
“She’s great.” I smiled, breathed out all the tension I’d been holding in my chest, and went towards the door which Kay was still holding open behind her. “There’s a small step,” I commented, hoping it was said in the same incidental tone as you’d comment on the table decorations or the paintings on the wall.
“Cheers,” he said, following me closely, using his cane to find the step, and then tapping the tip once on the tread to judge the height. “Mind if gr-grab y-your arm inside?” he asked when he’d gone up the step. “It’s easier than using this – it tends to turn into a chopper blade in small spaces…” he held up the cane and began to fold it.
I laughed, and he shoved his cane into his pocket. “Table by the window is free.”
He held his hand out uncertainly in the blank space in front of him and I slotted my arm into his grip. A smile flickered into life on my lips as I felt his thumb secretly caress my arm. I knew he felt my head turn towards him, but he didn’t let on. We’d had a grand total of two dates now and we were already amassing a secret code of gestures. And I loved it.
What followed was a long and leisurely lunch in the quiet café, with Kay joining us when there were no customers, and we laughed, and shared stories about our time at art school together, and I watched as Caleb’s tight-looking shoulders gradually eased downwards, and he sat further and further back into the comfortable chair, while the winter light flooded in through the enormous picture windows which reached almost all the way from floor to ceiling. This was no-effort dating. This was dating as it should be. This…