The night air was really cold as I hurried back home from work on Friday evening, boots crunching on loose grit and salt cast up onto the pavements as the grit trucks had passed by. I’d burned my hand doing some soldering work that day and I left my glove off, the cold air kissing the red, blistered wound. As I turned down the avenue from the bus stop that would take me back home, I felt my phone buzzing in my pocket. My fingers were so cold I nearly dropped it, but I held it together and smiled when I saw the name on the screen. “Caleb!” I exclaimed.
“Hi,” he said, sounding hesitant. “Forgive me,” he continued haltingly, “T-t-talking on the phone isn’t r-r-really my thing…”
“That’s ok,” I said, flicking a stray strand of hair out of my face with a jerk of my head. A nerve twinged in my neck and I sucked the breath in as it caught me by surprise. Too much time at a jewellers’ bench that was the wrong height, I chided myself silently. “Is everything ok?”
“Yeah,” he said quickly, his voice breathy, nervous. “Yeah, I j-j-just w-w-w…” he broke off with a frustrated little pant, “Excuse me… w-wanted to see if, m-maybe y-y-y-y…” the sound ground to a halt for a second time and I heard the mounting tension in his breathing. “Excuse me,” he said again, his nervous tick only making me want to see him more. He was right, though, his speech was truly terrible on the phone. “If m-m-maybe y-y-y-y-you were free on Saturday, to-to-tomorrow that is, and if y-y-y-you m-maybe w-wanted to m-meet up in t-town for some l-l-l-l…” the ‘l’ consonant glued up his throat and I could hear the frustration boiling away. “For something to eat…”
“I’d love that,” I said without hesitation, and I laughed when I heard his exhale of relief.
“I’m gl-glad,” he said, obviously smiling. “Wh-where are you?”
“I’m just walking back from the bus stop,” I said. “Just finished at work.”
“Y-you want to c-c-come in for a dr-dr-drink?” he asked.
I was torn. I really wanted to see him – why wouldn’t I? – but I was all mucky from the workshop, and had been looking forward to a long soak in the bath, maybe with a candle or two, and a good read of a book I’d been meaning to get into for weeks.
He heard my hesitation, and added, “But y-you’ll pr-pr-probably just w-w-want to g-get home and re-relax after w-work. I’m sorry. F-forg-get I m-mentioned it…”
To my horror, there was a rustling like he was hanging up, and I yelped, “Caleb! Wait!” but he had gone. There was clearly only one thing to be done, and so as I passed the street where I’d first found him lying on the ground, I turned down it and marched along in the frozen air.
There were no lights on when I got to his house, and my heart lurched, thinking of course that something had happened. I knocked on the door and heard nothing. I waited another minute or so, and knocked again, louder. When I still heard no sounds from within, I bent down and called through the letter box, “Caleb? It’s me, it’s Alyssa. Can you hear me?”
There was a rattle and a knock, and then a softly mumbled curse. “Yes!” I heard him call out. “I’m sorry, I’m c-c-coming.”
“Great – it’s freezing out here!” I squeaked, releasing the letterbox, which sprang back onto my fingers with a snap that made my eyes water. “Perfect,” I winced aloud. “Another injury – just what I need.”
The chain rattled on the door and it swung open into a dark hall, revealing Caleb standing there looking sheepish. “I’m sorry,” he said, stepping awkwardly to one side. I saw immediately from the way his leg buckled that he didn’t have his brace on. “I don’t t-tend to answer the door on the whole…”
“That’s ok,” I said, stepping in and pushing the door shut behind me.
“Y-y-you d-didn’t have to c-c-c-c…” his speech was stubborn and awful, and he shuffled backwards, giving up with a sigh.
“Of course I did,” I giggled, moving quietly towards my shy boy and kissing him on the cheek which, to my great relief, finally made him smile. “You didn’t give me a chance to finish before you hung up on me…”
He slumped visibly, his chest caving. “Sorry,” he mumbled, the fingers of his left hand twitching convulsively, apprehensively, uncomfortably. “I g-guess I just… panicked a bit… N-not g-g-good on the phone…”
“You’re home alone tonight?” I asked, peering through the gloom.
He frowned. “Yeah, why?”
I giggled. “Well, it was either that, or Amy and your Nan have learned echolocation. It’s all dark…”
His vulnerable expression suddenly cracked and he chuckled sweetly. “I’m sorry,” he said, his hand creeping up the wall and searching for the light switch. “I forget sometimes…”
So he really can’t see much at all, I thought, suddenly feeling sorry for him. He must have detected it, because he moved the hand that had flicked the lights on through the air and after a quick search, found my shoulder. “Don’t,” he whispered.
“Don’t what?” I asked, following the gentle pressure of his hand on my back and stepping in to his embrace.
“Don’t sigh like that,” he said hoarsely in my ear, one hand scooping up the back of my head, the other propping himself up with his cane. “Y-you’ll make me all sad.”
I smiled. “Can’t have that,” I grinned, and kissed him. There was an urgency and a need behind his returning kiss that I hadn’t expected. I think it’s because he’s always so calm and quiet that when he lets go enough to kiss me, the passion is always a surprise.
“C-c-come on,” he smiled, pulling back and walking – no, hobbling – towards the kitchen. “I’ll g-g-get you a dr-drink, since y-y-y-y…” he halted, fingers of his left hand pincering the door frame in pain or frustration, I couldn’t tell which. “Excuse me. Since y-y-y-you g-gave up y-your evening to c-c-come and see me…”
He was behaving like an old man in a care home, I thought, being simultaneously grateful and resentful that I was there. The first thing I thought of to remedy that was to jam my hand in his back pocket. That would counter any ‘old man’ feelings he might have.
In the light of the hallway as he lingered between the kitchen and the entrance hall, I reached forward and slid my hand cheekily into his left hand back pocket. He stopped again, his already halting gait grinding to a dead stop, and he turned his face over his shoulder towards me in a way that had he had sight, he would have been able to gaze at me. As it was, his closed lids crinkled at the corners and his lips twitched. “I’m sorry I’m such a grumpy old git tonight,” he whispered, his stutter receding as he lowered his voice.
“My grumpy old git though,” I said, squeezing his muscles gently with my fingers, which seemed to make him weak at the knees, because his right leg dipped suddenly, like I’d drained the strength from him. He coughed and jabbed the black cane into the lino to right himself properly.
“W-wine?” he asked, continuing into the dim kitchen, the movement away from me dragging my hand out of his pocket. “Or beer?”
“Wine I think,” I said. “Thanks.”
“Did y-you have a g-g-good c-couple of days at w-work?” he asked, moving slowly around the familiar room.
“Mmm,” I said vaguely, watching his every careful motion. He knew almost exactly where things were, moving faultlessly around the chairs and table where I came to rest a short few seconds after he passed them, and he reached for the fridge door, fumbling only slightly as he found the handle and extracted a bottle from where he knew it would be. He was confident, and that assuredness I found extremely attractive. I loved watching him pour the wine out for me, his ear turned to the glass, concentrating hard.
“Ok,” I said, clearly impressed. “I wasn’t going to ask you ‘how you do stuff’, because that’s patronising, but seriously, how did you do that?”
With no answer but an irritatingly handsome smirk, he crossed the room to me and held out the glass in front of me. As I took it from him, I heard his low, rumbling laugh again. I sipped the cold wine, and moved to kiss him, but he turned away from me, oblivious, busying himself by putting the bottle back in the fridge. When he was done, he leaned himself up against the counter and folded his arms, leaving his black cane resting against the cupboards below the countertop. He shrugged. “I listened,” he said simply.
“I could hear it,” I said, “But I don’t think I heard what you did…”
Again that sexy, even cocky, chuckle. “I know the sound those particular gl-glasses make when the c-contents are at a g-g-good l-level…” he explained, still not moving from where he had come to rest. The light from the hallway behind cast strong shadows on his face, throwing his sharp cheekbones into high relief, like a sculpture. A sculpture with big dark circles under his eyes though. He looked rougher than the last time I’d seen him. “I c-can’t do it with just any gl-glass, but I c-can with these.” He ran a hand through his hair and added, “I have a g-g-gadget that I cl-clip over m-mugs and stuff that t-tells me wh-when it’s full…”
I crossed to him, liking the way his ear turned to catch my footsteps on the lino floor. He smiled as I stood in front of him. “A man of endless surprises,” I smiled, adopting a similar posture to him and leaning against the counter beside him.
He turned his ear to me again, constantly moving his head like he was trying to pick up a radar signal or something from me. “Wh-what are you doing?” he asked after a pause.
“Nothing,” I smiled. “Just looking at you, I suppose.” I nuzzled up against his shoulder. “Thanks for ringing me. This was an excellent idea.”
He smiled at my words, seeming to inflate a little with confidence, his bravery in calling me rewarded. “You want to g-go into the l-living room?” he asked. “It’s m-more c-c-c-comfortable in there.” His torso jerked dramatically to chuck the consonant out.
I let him lead the way, seeing how his knee buckled with each step now that he didn’t have a brace on to keep it straight, and how his right shoulder tensed each time he took a step, preparing to take as much weight and strain down the cane as it could before it reached the damaged leg. He puffed a quick breath out halfway to the sitting room, perhaps in pain, but again, I couldn’t tell.
He headed for an armchair, beside which was a side table with what looked to me like a blank book on it, but in the dim, raking light from the hall behind, I saw the myriad raised dots of Braille, impenetrable and unintelligible as Morse Code to my eyes. A few steps into the room, he suddenly changed direction, making for the sofa where I had sat with Banjo and the others the previous weekend, instead of his lone armchair by the window. “Old habit,” he said by way of explanation before flopping down into the sofa with a loud grunt but barely a feel to check he was in the right place.
I lowered myself down next to him and tucked my feet up onto the sofa cushion like a small child, and leaned against his shoulder. I was on his right side, so as he leaned forward to rub his knee he elbowed me in the ribs.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, a grunt escaping his lips soon afterwards.
“Is it hurting today?” I asked. Captain Obvious strikes again, I thought.
He nodded but offered me nothing else. He leaned back again into the sofa and I took this as my cue to resume my position, resting my head on his shoulder, my hair tumbling down loosely over his arm. He brought his left hand up and began to run his fingers through the ends of it. “Y-you have r-red hair, don’t you?” he asked, stuttering softly in my ear.
“I do,” I smiled. “You like red hair?”
“I certainly u-used to,” he smiled, combing out a tangle. “It’s l-long.”
“I’ve not cut it since I was sixteen,” I said. “I shaved it for a charity then. Luke mocked me mercilessly for it, saying it was a waste because no one would want ginger hair anyway, and that I’d look like a gerbil, which, incidentally, I did, for the next six months, until it grew out a bit. What?” My head was bobbing up and down as he laughed, and I looked up to see his chin tilting up, his angular Adam’s apple dancing gleefully, eyes creased in happiness.
“Nothing,” he chuckled. “I just l-liked y-your description, that’s all.”
“Great,” I joked huffily. “Now you’ll just be picturing me as a gerbil…”
He started stroking my hair again. “No,” he said. “Anyway, that’s n-n-not how my imagination works anymore.”
The cookie-crumb trail had been laid now, and I wanted to follow it. I wanted him to tell me more about himself. “Oh,” I asked, bringing my hand up to his face and tucking a strand of his floppy dark hair back off it. “How does your imagination work then?”
A lopsided grin lurched across his face and he caught my meaning. “It’s more about sensations than sights these days,” he said evenly.
“Sensations.” I repeated the word. It was a delicious word.
His voice was hoarse now. We were on personal ground again. “Like what? What do you imagine when you think about me?”
Perhaps unconscious that he was doing it, he nibbled his lower lip and smiled.
“Show me?” I asked boldly.
He brought his palm up to find my cheek, and cupped the outline of my face in his hand for a moment. Then he ran his thumb over my eyebrows and down the sides of my cheek, tracing the shape of my lips with the soft pad of that thumb. I resisted the urge to kiss it as he rocked back and forth along my lips. His hand wandered happily, casually away from my face, down my neck and over my collarbones. I let out an involuntary moan at the sensation and he sighed a smile. “Mmm,” he said. “That’s something I think about.”
“What is?” I asked.
“What kind of sounds you’d make when I touch you.”
“You don’t have to imagine,” I crooned as he glided over my arms and down to my hips. I had the rest of the sofa rolling away to my right, and stretching out like a housecat, I lay my head on his bad leg, the two struts of the brace cradling the back of my head perfectly.
“That c-c-can’t be c-comfortable?” he asked nervously, his hand hovering above my hip.
“Mmmm,” was all I said again, and he lowered his palm back onto my body, apparently satisfied with my answer. “If it’s ok with you…” I added.
“It is,” he said softly.
Silently, he worked his hands gently over my body, making me want to writhe and squirm with pleasure at his touch, but I kept pretty still and locked my eyes on his face. His eyes weren’t roving around today, and he looked peaceful as he explored more of me than he previously had dared. How long we stayed like that, I couldn’t have said, and I longed for him to explore further, but I could feel how tense he was. Nothing was happening tonight. I reigned myself back in before I did something I regretted. The yawn that followed shortly afterwards caught me by surprise though.
“Y-you’re tired,” he said kindly. “Y-you sh-should go home soon…”
There was one thing I wanted to do before I went home though. “Probably,” I said, sitting up. When I stood up completely from the sofa without another word, he looked hurt at my abruptness. He would forgive me though, I thought, because of what I was going to do next.
He made to stand up too, putting his left hand on the arm of the sofa and starting to shuffle towards the front of the cushion, but I quickly put my hand on his shoulder and gently pressed him back into the the sofa. He frowned, confused. Facing him, without speaking, I lifted my left knee and put it down next to his right leg, kneeling down so that I was astride him, with my weight resting on my own legs on either side of his. The crinkles that flickered into life at the corners of his closed eyes and of his smiling lips made my stomach flip over. “You are so gorgeous,” I whispered, my hands on his tense shoulders while his hands moved to cup my face again. He didn’t press his hands into my features to ‘see’ what I looked like, in a way I’d maybe expected him to do like they do in the movies, but he did seem to like the feel of my jawline sitting in his palms.
Caleb’s searching hands then began to work down my back, coming to rest on my sides, just above my hips. I wasn’t a skinny girl, but he seemed to like the fact that I went in at the waist and then out again at the hips. Significantly out at the hips. I rolled those hips just a little, and his hands knew they had permission to look further. He circled my ass once with the flat of each palm, and then he brought them to rest so that his thumbs hooked around my pelvis and his fingers rested down the sides of my hips, like a dancer about to lift his partner into the air. Only I was much, much too heavy to be a dancer’s partner. I giggled at the mere thought which only made his smile broader.
“Y-you are extraordinarily b-beautiful, L-L-Lyssa,” he said softly, running his hand back up my spine and pulling me in to kiss him. “How d-did I g-g-get so l-lucky?” he stuttered, his lips tantalisingly close to mine.
I had to laugh. I knew I wasn’t pig-ugly or anything, but neither did I see myself as particularly attractive. There was something ironically funny about a blind man finding me attractive I thought. “By being you, I guess,” I said rather lamely. “What are we doing tomorrow then?” I asked, changing tack by referring to the original reason he’d called me that evening.
“Well, Amy has a n-n-netball match in the aftern-n-n-n….” his tongue fluttered unexpectedly on the consonant in the middle of the word, causing his lips to pout gently. It took all my strength not to lean forward and kiss him right there. “Excuse me,” he mumbled. “In the aftern-n-n-noon, wh-which I’d l-l-l-like to tr-tr-tr…” The sound was just going to repeat endlessly and as he blew the air from his cheeks, I felt him slump with the effort of trying to speak. “Fuck,” I heard him breathe.
I leaned forward and we both rocked back into the sofa as I put my arms around his neck and hugged him. I had expected him to be cold, distant, about this, the way he had been before when things had got too close to home, but instead of waiting for me to finish my show of affection or support, or whatever he took it to be, he quietly wrapped his arms around me and buried his face in my neck, my long hair spilling over and almost completely hiding him.
“I hate this,” I heard him hiss from somewhere near my ear.
“It must suck,” I said quietly. “I mean, I love the way you speak, I love the rhythm of it, the way it lilts, but I understand why you hate it.”
He pulled away a fraction of an inch, so that his skin was no longer pressing against mine, and he whispered, “You like it?”
I shrugged. “Can’t help what I find sexy,” I said casually. “And yes, I think your voice and the way you speak are deeply sexy.”
All I got in response was a hand on the back of my head and a low laugh in my ear. “Well,” he said in a while, still barely above a whisper. “That m-makes this all a bit easier.”
“Good,” I smiled. I was losing feeling in my feet from kneeling for too long, trying not to let any of my weight crush his leg. I wiggled my toes a little and felt them tingle.
“I should have known,” he grinned wryly, pulling back as far as the sofa cushions would allow.
I sat up. “Known what?”
“That you’d be different.”
“Different?” I didn’t like that somehow. “How?”
He chuckled and ran his hand up my body from arse to neck and back again. “I think I have kn-known it for a while,” he continued without answering me. “From wh-wh-when y-you agreed to c-come to the pub w-w-w-with me… You d-didn’t sh-sh-sh-shy away from me l-like I was some k-k-kind of l-leper, with my g-gimpy w-walk, and g-gimpy talk… add in the fact that I c-can’t see… I’m every k-kind of ‘not suitable’…”
“You’re perfect for me,” I blurted without thinking.
He snorted. “You mean you n-need a man who c-can’t do anything?”
“Shut up,” I said harshly. “You’re a successful journalist, and your family adores you. I wouldn’t call that ‘not being able to do anything’… Weren’t you in Edinburgh, solo, not long ago? How was that, by the way, you never told me about it…”
“It w-was j-just a c-c-conference,” he stuttered meekly.
“But you take my point,” I said, shuffling.
He sighed, backing down. “Fine. But y-you do tr-treat me differently…”
“In a good way, I hope,” I added. “No one wants to be treated differently in the wrong way…”
Caleb laughed. “Nope,” he admitted, his hands patting my sides once. “Indeed. Well, I thought that t-tomorrow we c-could find something to eat, and then I’d d-d-disappear off to Amy’s match afterwards. J-just a qu-quick l-l-lunch – I d-don’t want to d-distract y-you from wh-wh-whatever else y-you have to do this w-w-w-w-weekend…”
“Sounds good,” I smiled. “I’ve only got a couple of things I need to make this weekend, so I shouldn’t have to spend too much more time burning and flaying myself like I did today…”
“You hurt yourself?” he asked, looking concerned and horrified in equal measures. “Where?”
I rolled my eyes. “My hand, but it’s nothing serious,” I said, raising it to examine where the piercing saw blade had bitten deep into the flesh when it had slipped cutting jump rings. The sticking plaster was beginning to peel of it already.
He caught it before I put it down, knowing exactly where it was by some magic, and he supported it in his right hand while the fingers of his left raked gently over the surface looking for the damage. When he found the thick plaster I’d wrapped around the forefinger of my left hand, he rubbed it gently with his thumb, trying to gauge how bad the damage was by how big the plaster was. His fingers caught the blistered burn on my middle finger which made me gasp. I thought it was inaudible, but he obviously heard it and asked, surprised, “Did that hurt?”
I laughed. “No, but you caught the burn on the next finger over.”
He dropped my hand. “You’re hopeless.”
“I know,” I conceded, standing up and letting the blood flow return to my feet. “But there’s not a lot anyone can do about it…”
He grinned, levering himself to his feet. “Well, if y-you’re hopeless, then I think w-w-we sh-should do nicely to-together…”
“I already think so,” I giggled, watching him haul himself to his feet.
With a sharp cry of pain, his knee buckled completely when he tried to put weight on it, and he stabbed the black cane viciously into the carpet to catch himself, holding up his left hand to stop me. I couldn’t help it – I had lurched forwards to catch him. “It’s my own fault,” he gasped when he’d straightened up. “I sh-should be w-w-wearing my brace.”
“Why aren’t you?” I asked tentatively.
“It was r-rubbing,” he mumbled. “So I t-took it off. I’ll put it on for tomorrow though, don’t w-worry…”
“Do what you like,” I said, finishing the last gulp of my wine and heading out into the hall to put my coat back on. “As long as I see you tomorrow, I don’t mind how you turn up – whether or not you’re kitted up in hardware like the terminator …”
He grinned roguishly as he caught up with me by the door, and pulled me in for a final kiss. “L-l-look forward to it,” he stammered. “M-meet y-you here, or in town?”
“We can go together on the bus,” I said. “I’ll come by here at, what, half twelve?”
“Gr-great,” he smiled. “S-see you then.”
I held him close to me for what felt like ages. He smelled so good, and it felt so right. I couldn’t believe how little time we’d really spent together when I started to think about it. I was just steadily falling more and more in love with this complex and complicated man.
“See you tomorrow,” I replied, standing in the doorway and fumbling behind me for the catch without turning round.
“Y-you alright there?” he asked, hearing the chain rattling on the door but no sound of the latch opening.
I laughed and said, “I was trying to open it before I turned round.”
“You suck,” he grinned, reaching past my shoulder and undoing it for me.
“Luckily, you don’t,” I said, as the rush of cold air whipped in. “Smells like snow,” I added.
“That’s an odd expression,” he commented, his hand resting at my elbow, lingering casually.
“What? It smells nice before it rains, and it smells different when it’s going to snow… You think noticing how things smell is entirely the domain of those who can’t see?” I challenged playfully.
He tugged me off balance and back into his arms. “You smell good,” he murmured, raising my chin and bringing my face gently into his to kiss me. I know he felt my smile behind the kiss.
“See you tomorrow,” I said, stepping out into the black evening.
He didn’t close the door for a long time, and as my footsteps halted on the corner, just before I passed out of sight of the front door, he raised his arm and smiled. “Show off,” I giggled, and turned away.
Caleb’s laugh was still ringing in my ears while my mind replayed the way he had tilted his head back, one hand on the door frame which was his reference to the reality around him. It was as I skidded a little on the uneven pavement that I allowed myself a giggle. I was not only falling over in that moment, but I was falling head over heels for Caleb. He was quiet but confident, deeply attractive and yet deeply insecure. Some instinct in me to nurture was rubbing shoulder-to-shoulder with my own insecurities, and I knew that in Caleb I had found a man who I could take care of so that I could be taken care of. I needed that. I may be twenty seven years old, I thought, but I’m still as naive as a young teen. I sighed, thinking that Caleb must have had hundreds of women all clamouring to be with him. That would have been before, though, because he’d said he’d not had much luck with women since the incident in Afghan. That thought made me shiver twice over, once for Caleb and all that had been taken from him, and once for Luke, out there still.
Kit was in bed when I got home, but he’d left the porch light on for me and I blessed him for it as my shivering fingers tried not to drop the keys, fumbling in the cold for the lock.
I didn’t get nearly as much done as I’d hoped I would the next morning. I finished cutting some more jump rings to complete a silver and turquoise necklace I was making, and I soldered together the bezel settings for a couple more stones I was going to set at some point, but time just seemed to gallop away from me, and in no time, it was twenty past twelve, and I was still in my pyjamas – don’t judge me, I like to work in my pyjamas when I’m at home – and I had ten minutes to get ready and go to Caleb’s house.
“Thank goodness he’s only round the corner,” Kit laughed as he watched me helplessly dragging a pair of crazy coloured leggings from the dryer.
“Not helping,” I quipped.
“Of course not,” Kit chuckled, leaning back against the wall the same way Luke did.
Tossing a look at him, I gave a final yank on the leggings and the dryer emptied its contents all over the floor.
“And I’m not picking that up,” he added.
“Please, don’t be a dick,” I begged, darting away upstairs to change and put a lick of makeup on.
Finally, after I had squeezed my leggings on – I didn’t recall them being that tight last time I’d worn them – I raced out of the house and into a light flurry of snowflakes. Nothing that was going to settle, but it looked really pretty.
I’d bombed out of the house without my gloves, and by the time I was knocking on Caleb’s door, my hands were frozen. His whole demeanour when he pulled the door open and stepped back was completely different from the previous evening. He stood tall, and smiled confidently as I stepped wordlessly in and kissed him briefly.
“Y-your nose is all c-cold,” he smiled.
“You’re ready to go then,” I stated, taking in his warm, dark brown jacket, scarf and plain shoes under the bottom of his indigo jeans.
“Yup,” he smiled, unhooking the folded cane from a peg on the wall and unfolding the sections of it, tapping it once on the ground to make sure it was all aligned. He ushered me silently out the door with a gesture and stepped confidently out behind me, locking the door.
I walked down the path a little way and turned to watch him walking towards me. He limped, but not as obviously today. His right leg was straight, and occasionally dragged along the ground a little, scuffing up the snowflakes as they landed and began to melt. He had his glasses on today, shielding his eyes from my gaze, and perhaps it was that, I thought, that lent him the extra confidence.
Caleb swung his cane in a wide arc as he walked along the path, and when the tip collided with my ankle, he stopped. “That you?” he asked.
“Yup,” I said, turning and resuming my path to the gate.
Caleb, however, did not start walking again. He turned his face to the sky and asked, “Is… is it sn-sn-snowing?”
“Told you, didn’t I?” I grinned gleefully from the gate.
He sighed, smiled, shook his head, and continued to the gate, closing the little latch after him. “Y-you did.”
I clacked my heels together slightly as I stepped aside for him to walk beside me and as he paused after closing the metal gate, he seemed to be caught between two decisions. Then he huffed a laugh to himself and asked, “M-may I take y-your arm?”
“Of course,” I smiled. “I didn’t think you liked it, which is why I didn’t offer.”
“Thank you,” was all he had to say in response. That man was endlessly confusing.
I liked the way he took my arm, just above the elbow, holding me gently, almost gingerly, while he limped along, using the black cane for strength.
The bus journey was uneventful, and by the time we arrived in the centre of town, the snow had stopped. “Wh-what k-kind of thing did y-y-you have in m-mind for l-lunch?”
I dreaded having to make decisions. I liked it when someone said ‘come to this café and we’ll eat there’. “We could go back to the Blue Bell?” I ventured.
He seemed happy enough with that, nodded, and squeezed my arm gently between his fingers. “Is it far?” he asked. “I c-can’t r-remember…”
“Round the corner,” I said.
We smelled it before we saw the blue bell sign swinging in the winter breeze. The smell of freshly baked bread and hot food drifted out the doors and my stomach growled.
The moment the door opened, I heard a shrill shriek tear from behind the counter. Kay. I’d forgotten she worked there at the weekends. “I’m sorry,” I whispered, explaining as much to Caleb.
To my surprise, he laughed. “She’s lovely,” he whispered, his lips so close to my ear that I gave a shiver.
Kay came trotting over, the buckles and studs on her gothy rubber platform boots clinking, and threw her skinny little arms around me. Leaning in close, her dyed black hair clogging my mouth, she whispered, “I’m so happy you’re still with him!” and giggled. “What can I get you guys?” she asked louder, pulling back. “Caleb, it’s good to see you again. You haven’t abandoned my sweet Alyssa – that makes Kay extremely happy.”
“I aim to pl-please,” he smiled gregariously.
“Come and sit, there’s your table by the window free, you want that one?”
I liked how she spoke directly to him, and he did too by the looks of things. “Sure,” he smiled. “Sounds g-good.”
“This way then,” Kay said with a girlish giggle, nudging her elbow into Caleb’s hand. He took it gallantly, and I swear he inclined his head at me in a kind of wink as he passed me. I laughed and followed them, watching while Kay lowered her arm to the back of the seat, allowing Caleb to run his hand down her bony arm and find the chair. Something about that intensely personal gesture stung me, though I tried not to let it show.
Caleb was still smiling when we sat down, and I tried again not to feel hurt that he had trusted her so quickly. I smiled at Kay as she left us. “What kind of thing do you fancy eating?” I asked.
He pouted thoughtfully, the winter sunlight glancing through the window and reflecting off his glasses. Bringing his hand to his brows and ran his fingers along the strong, dark line of his eyebrow, just visible above the glasses. Then, to my surprise, he took them off and laid them on the table. “R-read the menu to me, and I’ll see what I fancy,” he smiled.
“You’re in a good mood today,” I remarked with a smirk.
“Wh-why w-wouldn’t I be?” he asked with a smile, reaching his hand out across the table. “I’m spending the day w-with y-you, or at l-least part of it.” I slid my hand into his and he squeezed it gently. “Now, wh-what’s on the menu?”
He really seemed to enjoy having me read out the choices to him, and perhaps it was that small gesture that allowed me to forget the pang of jealousy I’d felt earlier with Kay guiding him. After the food came, and after he’d paid for mine too, as we were leaving, he took my arm easily and instinctively it seemed to me, and as I glanced up at his handsome face beside me, I saw the crinkles at the corners of his eyes, poking from beneath the arms of his glasses. I kissed him on the cheek and they grew.
Back out in the cold, with hot panini filling our bellies, we quickly discovered it had started snowing again, and harder now. “Will Amy’s match still be on in all this?” I asked, looping my arm through his as he swept the cane back and forth, heading for the grounds of the local grammar school.
“Pr-probably,” he admitted, closing his arm tightly around my hand for a second. “They have no mercy there…”
I saw as we approached it that the school was an old, Victorian establishment, made of grim stone, with the feel of a correctional institution about it. I didn’t want to leave him, but I thought I probably ought to.
“Y-you heading off now then?” he asked, stopping and turning suddenly before we reached the main gates of the school. His handsome face looked suddenly so vulnerable as he tugged me closer to him.
A motorbike started up nearby and suddenly gave an ear-splitting bang as it backfired. He flinched and froze. He just stood there, not even breathing. Then, suddenly, he cowered like a small child, clutching, panic-stricken, at the empty air, maybe searching for my arm, his breathing awful and ragged, his steps faltering and fragile.
“What? What is it?” I asked, feeling him shaking in my hand. “What’s wrong?”
He found me and clung to me, unexpectedly hanging off me, staggering back into the wall behind us, dragging me backwards with him. His breathing was horrible to listen to as he shook his head from side to side, and I honestly thought he was going to hyperventilate.
“Caleb?” the shout of a young girl rang out through the snow as he cowered against the stonework. Amy’s small feet pattered loudly on the stones. “Cay-Cay? What’s wrong?”
“I… I don’t know,” I stammered, wanting to shake him. “There was a bang… I think it was that bike…” I looked vaguely along into the distance, following the path of the bike.
Amy looked suddenly much older than her eleven or twelve years. “Caleb, stop. It was a bike. You are here, in the present, and not in the past. Ok?” he didn’t really respond, his chest heaving as the panic fogged his mind. “Caleb, listen to me. It’s Amy. I need you to stop this, ok? Nod to tell me you can hear me…”
Bless him he nodded. Swallowed. Hands shaking.
My heart was full of fear for him. I had read about PTSD, obviously I had, with a brother in the forces, but I’d never seen it happen, swoop down on anyone and assume control over their mind quite like that. “Caleb?” I asked.
Amy looked up at me, her big blue eyes trying to reassure me. “He’ll be ok. He gets like this sometimes.” She held his arm very tightly, until he gasped in pain, her tiny fingers gripping him. “Stop,” she said gently. “It’s me, it’s Amy.”
Amy took his hand where it had curled into a claw around his white cane, and peeled his fingers off one by one until she had his hand in both of hers. Sweat beaded in his hairline, his jaw was clenched tight, teeth grinding together. “Caleb,” Amy said calmly. “Caleb, remember the photograph you used to carry with you?”
“Good. Picture it now. Remember my stupid, stupid grin, and tell me what was on my t-shirt.”
The rapid breathing slowed.
“I’m sorry,” he panted.
“What was on my top?” she repeated, obviously unsatisfied with his apology. I was shocked at how grown up she had suddenly become. This was not the care-free child that had bounded into the bedroom the other week. This was a carer, a nurse, an adult. “Caleb?”
“Unicorn,” he hissed, still shaking all over.
“Great,” she smiled, turning to look over her shoulder at me. “Of all the things I could have been wearing, and of all the photographs ever taken of me, that’s the only thing he remembers about the way I look.”
Caleb’s watery smile reassured me. He was coming back to us. “No, cutie,” he smiled, reaching out for her, finding her head and moving to pinch her cheek. “Your l-little dimples and those big bl-blue eyes have st-stuck w-with me too…”
Amy looked comically unimpressed. “Great,” she said. “You’re still coming to watch my game, right?” she asked her brother, like a sudden panic attack was no excuse for missing her match. I liked too how she still used ‘normal’ language around him, and in fact remembered that he’d asked me when he’d ‘see’ me next. It made his blindness less of an issue somehow.
“Of c-course,” he smiled. “I’m sorry…”
“It’s ok,” Amy said.
He seemed suddenly to wake up to what had just happened, sweat trickling down his face, mixing with the melting snowflakes. “I’m sorry,” he muttered. “I’m sorry.”
Amy threw her arms around her brother and buried her face in his jacket. “I love you,” she said. “I love you, Caleb.”
“I l-love you too, l-little one,” he smiled, reaching his arms around her and holding her. “I’m sorry.”
He looked up, or at least, turned his head up, and started to listen intently. “Al-l-l…. L-Lyssa?” he asked. “Are you… is she?”
“I’m here,” I said quietly.
“Thank you,” he muttered, stroking Amy’s hair one last time. “I’m sorry,” he added. “It… it just c-comes back sometimes…”
My own heart rate just beginning to return to normal, I said softly, “It’s ok,” taking a step towards him. He locked onto my footfall and smiled.
“L-let’s g-go watch this g-game, eh?” he asked, ruffling the woolly hat on her head before she could skip off.
He blew the air from his cheeks and I sidled up to him as Amy trotted on ahead. “You really ok?” I asked hesitantly.
“I w-will be. C-come here…” and he held his empty left hand out to me. As I slid my frozen fingers into it, he smiled. “J-just a passing memory…”
“As you say, let’s go watch that game.”
“I thought y-you w-were heading off?” he asked as we moved towards the gates and into the school.
“I think I’m going to stay a little longer,” I smiled.
He didn’t keep his hand in mine. He suddenly withdrew his hand from mine and closed his fingers around his cane and walked beside me, and I wondered if I’d done something wrong. Caleb was silent as we walked along the school drive in the snow, the rhythmic ‘tap-tap-tap’ of his white cane pinging up between us like radar blips.
Amy, a little way ahead of us, called, “Caleb, I’m going to go and get changed and warmed up, but I’ll see you out there, ok?”
He sighed, and I think I heard more in that sigh than Amy did. “Sure, g-good l-luck. D-don’t pl-play too dirty, ok? N-nothing I w-wouldn’t do…”
“Ok, just biting, scratching, gouging and deliberate tripping. Got it,” she giggled and ran off.
Caleb’s head suddenly started to turn a little, his ears straining, and it occurred to me that he looked lost, or at least uncertain.
“L-lyss?” he asked softly.
I stepped closer. “Yeah?”
“Don’t st-stay because you feel sorry for me, ok?”
That was unexpected. “Er, ok…” I said, confused. “Can… can I ask where this is coming from?” He turned his face to me and I saw in the reflection of his glasses just how worried my own face looked. Was it worry for him, or for me? Did I sound as worried as I looked?
“Y-you w-weren’t g-g-g-g…” he broke off and started again. “Excuse me, you w-weren’t g-g-g-going to stay until I had my… my l-little attack just then… I j-just want to m-make sure y-you’re st-staying for the r-r-right r-r-reasons…”
I didn’t know how to proceed. My rule is always to tell the truth, but that doesn’t always work out spectacularly well for me. Oh well, I thought, stick to the rules. “Look, I’d be lying if I were to say I wasn’t concerned for you – that’s only natural, right? When the person you’re with has a panic attack? Is it not ok for me to want to reassure myself that you are ok?”
Too blunt, Alyssa, too blunt. His face had kind of frozen again.
“I’m fine,” he said dismissively, turning away from me with a wave of his hand. “Look, g-go home. I don’t need a n-nurse, or a guide dog.”
Excuse me? Nurse? Guide dog? Dog? I had no idea what to say to that, so after standing there for a couple of seconds blinking on and off like a traffic beacon, I just turned on my heel and walked away. There were plenty of people around, so I figured he’d be ok to find the netball court. I didn’t look back, and I didn’t stop. My boots clacked loudly and quickly on the tarmac as I speed-walked off the school playground. I thought I heard him say something, but he wasn’t going to get a second chance today. I was too surprised and hurt by his harsh words to me. Call me a baby, or a madam, but I’m not a big one for being spoken to like that, by anyone.
My brain was occupied for the whole bus ride back home, trying to figure out how such a great couple of days had gone so spectacularly down the proverbial pan. I went to the kitchen and made myself a cup of tea, and was just sitting down at the kitchen table, when I heard the front door go, and looked up to see Kit hobbling over the door drenched in sweat after a run. He frowned when he caught sight of my face. “What’s up, kid?” he asked, unknowingly mimicking Luke’s way of speaking to me.
I shrugged. “I think I pissed Caleb off, and I don’t really know how… but he was pretty rude to me before I left him today…”
“What did he say to you?” his mass of curly hair was flattened to his head and he looked like a soggy spaniel. I nearly chuckled, but his eyes were so serious that I didn’t.
I stared down into my tea, Caleb’s words echoing through me. Guide dog. “It’s nothing, I’m sure.”
“Lyss,” he said, but the house phone rang and I stood up to go and answer it, leaving him in the kitchen to stretch out.
“Hey kid,” came an achingly familiar voice.
“Luke!” I practically screamed. “Oh God it’s good to hear your voice. How are you?”
He knew me like no one else. “What’s up, sis?”
“Jesus, give me a chance will you?” I sighed, twiddling the cord of the phone between my fingers.
“Sorry. I’m good. Really good, in fact…”
“Well, I’m actually coming home on leave next weekend…”
My heartbeat thudded in my chest and my ears. “You… you are?”
“Yup,” he laughed, clearly hearing my shock and happiness.
“OH MY GOD!” I shrieked. “Oh my God! Yay!” and I pranced on the spot like a young deer in a spring meadow.
Luke’s laughter suddenly sounded much closer than it really was, and I forgot all about Caleb.
I began to babble, “How are you getting here? Can I meet you at the airport, or are you going to base first?”
"No, straight to you." He chuckled in that way that always made me laugh too.
“Kit!” I yelled down the hall, only to find he was already coming to meet me.
‘Luke?’ he mouthed and I nodded.
“He’s coming home next weekend! Can we drive to the airport to meet him?”
“Of course,” he grinned. “We’ll wheel out the welcome wagon too!”
“I can’t wait,” I laughed. “Did you hear that?”
“I’m getting the fatted calf treatment, right?” he smiled.
“You’re getting the whole fat herd,” I returned.
There was a siren in the background, and he said, “Listen, I’ve got to go. Love you, and I’ll see you next Saturday. I’ll email you the details.”
“Take care, Luke.”
“Always.” And he was gone. And the world plummeted out from under my feet as it always did.
Kit made to hug me, but I shied away. “Yuck,” I grinned. “Go shower first, you disgusting specimen.”
He swiped affectionately at my head, which I blocked with a guard that Luke had taught me last time he’d come home, and ducked out of reach, heading upstairs and leaving my tea to go cold on the kitchen table.
The snow had properly settled by the next morning, so that a blanket a couple of inches deep deadened the sounds of the world outside. I knew the moment I woke up that something was different. The light seeping through the curtains was brighter, clearer, and the world seemed muted somehow.
It was only as I sat down to lunch that I thought to check my phone. Nothing. Not a single ‘I’m sorry, I over reacted’ message, or anything. A knot of frustration pulled in my stomach, but I wasn’t going to let it get to me. And as much as I didn’t want to let it turn petty either, I messaged him with a brief, ‘I’m assuming from what you said yesterday, you don’t want me over for dinner tonight, so unless I hear otherwise, I’m not coming. A.’
Almost immediately, I got a message back saying, ‘No, please come. I’m sorry. I’ll explain myself later. C’
I didn’t reply. He didn’t deserve to know I was coming.
To take my mind off things, I headed upstairs and chose an outfit to wear to Caleb's, and honestly, you would have thought I was dressing to meet the queen. The number of outfit changes I made for a man who would never see me seemed absurd even to me, but eventually I arrived at a jeans-and-top combination that I thought somewhere between sexy and appropriate. I didn’t know why I was really bothering anyway, but somehow it mattered to me.
Not fancying settling into any metalworking that day, I curled up and started that book I would have started on Friday evening.
Emerging later, having devoured the whole book in a matter of hours, the stairs creaked as I stepped carefully down them in my socks, just as Kit came back out of the kitchen, where he and his computer code had been camped out all day, and said, "You look nice," with a warm smile.
"Thanks," I replied, looking down at his mass of curly black hair. "Don't work too late tonight, will you?"
"There will be a raging house party here when you get back, I promise," he grinned. "Now get out to that boy of yours and try and have some fun."
"I actually a bit early," I said, dodging the ‘fun’ comment. "And I'm a bit distracted with Luke coming home..."
Kit caught the glint in my eye and laughed.
I looked at the kitchen clock, visible down the hallway, and saw I still had forty minutes until I was due at the Starling household. I toyed briefly with the idea of having a dirty great glass of wine before I left – maybe to quell my nerves at sitting down to a formal dinner with Caleb's family after yesterday’s awkwardness – and the thought reminded me that I hadn't got a bottle of wine to give his Nan. I scurried down to the basement and discovered a very old box of white wine which wasn't something I'd use to clean the sink, let alone give as a gift, so I snatched my wallet and flew out the door, heading for the local corner shop.
It was open til late, and I rattled round the shop until I found a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo that I thought would be appropriate, and as I left the shop, a little flurry of snowflakes began to scamper down through the cold night, tickling my nose and landing on my eyelashes. My breath billowed in my face and my boots clacked loudly in my ears. It had been a few years since we'd had any snow proper in England, and something about the fact that it had continued to settle all day ignited a childlike excitement in me. Coupled with the fact that my life-long partner in crime, Luke, was coming back, I was so happy I could have skipped.
Despite the cold, I arrived back home all hot, and even a bit sweaty, and I hoped I wasn't coming down with something. Kit commented on how pale I looked, and I wondered if I should cancel in case I passed anything on. I sniffed. "What do you reckon?" I asked him, feeling my elation deflating.
“See how you feel. You can always bail. Seems you need to straighten out what happened yesterday though…”
“Mmm,” I said noncommittally. “Can’t I just stay here and drink this instead?”
“No,” Kit grinned. “You can’t.”
I had twenty minutes, so I set off, knowing it would only take me five. I thought it was probably just the nerves that had made me feel funny.
When I knocked on the door, it was Amy who answered, and she flashed a broad grin and let me in. She giggled, holding a finger up to her lips. “Shh…”
“What?” I whispered back as she ushered me in and closed the front door almost soundlessly.
“Caleb…” she snickered, and pointed behind her. I had a straight shot at the back of the living room from the doorway, and I could see Caleb standing in front of the window, wearing dark jeans again and a light grey t-shirt. I felt overdressed by comparison in my warm sweater. Amy, it seemed, wanted me to see him like this, and I stared.
“What’s he doing?” I whispered, watching Caleb standing beside the huge bay window at the back of the house, his cheek and his large, strong hand resting gently, delicately on the cold pane, condensation frosting around his fingers.
Amy looked up at me with an odd expression on her face. She seemed reluctant to talk, but yet bursting to explain. Finally she hissed, “He likes to listen to the branch tapping on the window. He’s done it forever.”
I smiled, wanting to show her I didn’t think her brother was weird. I liked it. Other people looked at the blossom on trees, he listened to the percussive tap of their branches on the glass. Same objects involved, same basic formula, same end result: sensual enjoyment of nature. I craved sensual enjoyment of him, but I kept that to myself because it surprised me. I thought back to his harsh expression the previous day and turned away.
I knocked the living room door against the wall as I moved, and it drew Caleb’s attention from outside to in, and he turned his ear in our direction. “Amy?” he asked, his voice low, a whisper with a rich undertone.
“Yeah?” she said, looking up at me. I shook my head, and she didn’t betray my presence as I retreated silently to the doorway.
“Is Al…l…l…” he couldn’t finish my name. “…ssa…” He gulped, “Is… is she here yet?”
I froze like hunted prey, and turned my eyes to him, seeing him breathing deeply. “I… I didn’t want to disturb you…” I said lamely.
“I’m gl-glad y-you’re here,” he said seriously.
I said nothing, watching him move, turn away from the window and take a single step towards us, black cane clunking once as he set the tip down and leaned on it.
His lips parted, trying to form words that wouldn’t come. Bad speech day. He looked tired too. Eventually he settled for, “Dr-drink?”
“No, thank you,” I croaked, my throat suddenly drier than the Atacama. The prickling at the base of my tongue might even have been a cactus, and it stopped me saying any more.
He inhaled in the way that people do when a conversation leaves ‘Easy Street’ and barrels down ‘Awkward Avenue’ with all the finesse of an out of control trolley. “Is it still sn-sn-sn-sn…” the sounds repeated at the front of his mouth and his eyebrows screwed up as his head dipped and his chest contracted. “Sn-snowing,” he forced. “Excuse me.”
“Little bit,” I said, walking over to the window, right past him.
I watched his head follow me, his ear locked onto me like a tracking device.
“Y-y-you do me a favour?” he asked, a sheepish smile on his face.
“Take me outside?”
That was it. He hadn’t said, “Come with me outside?” or “You want to go and stand in the snow?” but “Take me outside.” My insides tingled. This was his white flag.
“Alright,” I said, emotionlessly. His left hand moved away from his side and he raised it in front of him a little. Just a little, but it was enough. I picked up the contact with my arm so that he could grab onto my upper arm, above my elbow, and he seemed surprised. “What?” I asked.
“Y-you’re sh-shaking…” he frowned. “Are you alright?”
I looked up at him. His lashes were dark as they lay on his cheek, his eyes still closed to me. “No,” I said gently, too softly for Amy to hear, if she was even still there. I wasn’t about to turn around.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, his fingers twitching convulsively against my arm. I thought for a minute that he might punch through the soft cashmere of the jumper, but he didn’t. “I’m r-really sorry about y-yesterday.”
He felt me relax in answer, and let me lead him out through the patio door, stepping gingerly down the single step into the falling snow. He raised his face to the little flakes, letting them land in his lashes, and I watched as his eyes rolled lazily under the lids.
We were alone in the snow, and as the patio door closed gently behind us, he said, “I sh-should n-never have spoken to y-you l-like that. I’m sorry.”
“Why did you?” I asked before accepting his apology. The incident hadn’t been that big a deal in itself, but I was worried it was symptomatic of something bigger. I felt I needed to know what made this man tick, what his triggers were, so that I could avoid or at least react appropriately to them.
He sighed, letting go of my arm, letting his hand fall limply to his side. His right hand was, as usual, gripping the handle of his cane, propping him upright. “I fr-freaked out.”
“I got that much,” I smiled.
His head snapped up and I caught the glint in his features. “Yeah, but not how you think…” he added.
“So I fr-freaked wh-when the motorbike backfired, but I fr-freaked again wh-when I heard…” he paused. “In y-your voice…”
“What did I do?” I asked, completely nonplussed.
He sighed. “It’s not your fault,” he whispered harshly. “I heard how much y-you c-cared, and I freaked.”
“You freaked because I care about you?” I asked incredulously, my eyes bulging. “I can’t win!” I giggled.
He grabbed my arm. “Yes you can,” he said, and though his voice was quiet, there was a fierceness there that knocked me off guard.
Caleb’s eyelids were flickering slightly, and when they rose up a little, I caught glimpses of his eyes beneath. All I saw was white, but the flickering movement intrigued me. Don’t ask questions now, Alyssa, I thought, but curiosity was welling up inside me.
“L-L-Lyss…” he croaked. “Y-you still w-with me?”
I nodded mutely.
“N-nodding isn’t gr-great for someone who c-can’t see,” he smiled.
“You knew anyway,” I countered playfully, feeling the awkward spell of the previous day’s miscommunication evaporating.
He smiled and my heart lurched. Then he slid his hand up my arm and cupped my cheek. I gasped at his touch. “You’re hands are freezing!” I exclaimed when he touched my skin. “Don’t you want some gloves on?”
“I’m blind with gloves on,” he said, flooring me again with that cheeky smile. “And I w-want to see you now.” He lifted a strand of my hair back off my face and ran his thumb over my cheek. “Beautiful,” be breathed. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I spoke to you the w-way I did.”
“Forget it,” I said, putting my hand over his. “Let’s start over…”
“Thank you,” he muttered, eyelids twitching as snowflakes landed lightly on his lashes.
They had stopped rolling beneath the lids now. “What colour are your eyes?” I blurted unthinkingly.
He froze, the corners of his eyes tightening, and a little frown pinching into life between his brows. Shit, I thought, I've ruined it. “I…” he said, lowering his head, embarrassed. “I don’t actually re-re-remember what c-c-colour they were. I think they were blue though,” he said, his head turning away from me as his stutter returned more strongly. “Amy says they’re all w-w-white and m-milky now though.” He began to turn his body too, tearing his arm gently from my fingers as he moved. “Disgusting,” he breathed.
“No, stop,” I said, trying to reach for him without restraining him, just enough of a touch to stop his movement. “Nothing about you could ever be disgusting, Caleb. Not to me.”
He paused, my words filtering through his layers of self-doubt. He turned his ear to me. He was looking straight at me, even with his eyes closed he looked straight at me. “You mean that?” he asked, his voice low and quiet, the stutter lying low for a moment.
“I do,” I said gently, and, in a way I had always dreamed of doing, I went up on tip toes, ran my fingers through his short dark hair, and kissed him softly on the lips while the snow fell silently around us.
To be continued……