The cold air made my lungs seem full to bursting as I stepped from the taxi. I grudgingly had to accept the driver’s help to find my own front gate, but I drove that dampening thought from my mind before I let it spoil my, frankly amazing, evening.
The pain that shot through my nerves from ankle to pelvis was excruciating as I clambered clumsily up the front step to the house, but fuck it; it has all been worth it. And I couldn't wipe the grin off my gleeful little mug. How the hell she didn’t mind the fact that I could barely say her name, or even stand up properly, let alone the fact that she actually seemed to like me, I couldn’t fathom, but who was I to question it? I'm not one to sift through details endlessly, but certain moments from that evening spiked out of the background like peaks on a seismograph. I had no idea whether she had any experience with partially sighted people like me - ha, try 90% blind in my case - but she'd been surprisingly sensitive to how I moved, listened, and figured out the world. She seemed to be figuring me out ok. She was going to be quick to learn, I could tell. Or was that just hope?
I allowed myself a chuckle as I slid the key into the lock, because here I was, envisaging a future for myself with her in it, after one evening and a few drinks in a pub together. Come on, Starling, I told myself sternly, get real. She seemed kind of shy, but there was nothing reserved about her when she giggled like a four year old, and, strike me down with my own cane, that kiss had been something else. I had intended to pull her in for a kiss, fuck me if she hadn’t beaten me to it while I’d floundered around working up the courage. I could still feel her soft lips on mine and I smiled, closing the front door with a gentle snap.
I smelled Nan’s clean, soapy smell a few moments before her voice betrayed her presence. “Hey, Nan,” I grinned, speaking before she could chide me for being so late. “Amy in b-bed?”
“She is,” the dear old lady said firmly. She was smiling though, I could hear it. “She went up hours ago.”
I laughed. “G-g-g-good.” My voice was like treacle, thick and stubborn, the words lodging in my throat. Tiredness was dragging me down too, like clothes on a drowning man. I searched through the air with my right hand and found the hook where I always hang my cane when I come in, and I left the white stick hanging there for when I next went out. That house was familiar enough to me that the cane was more of a hindrance than a help.
“So,” she probed almost girlishly as I limped heavily into the kitchen after a glass of water. “How’d it go?”
I had to laugh. “N-n-n-no n-n-n-need to w-w-w-w...” ‘w’ was not behaving. No letters were behaving, but I ploughed on regardless. “N-need to w-w-worry about me, Nan,” I said, fumbling unusually as I looked for the knob on the cupboard over the counter. Maybe it was the beer. I put my stick down to rest against the counter so I could use both hands, and heard it slide away, scraping along the top before clattering to freedom onto the tiled floor. “Dammit,” I snarled. I heard Nan give a little grunt as she bent her old spine over to retrieve it for me. I should have known better. I should have rested it against my good leg where I could keep track of it - it's not like I was new to this. The back of my hand brushed gently on the cold cylinder of a tumbler, and it shunted perilously towards the edge of the cupboard. Panic made me freeze in case I broke it, and I said, “C-c-c-c..” the harsh repetition was loud and awful as a Howitzer in my ears. “C-can y-you g-g-g-get that?” I finally spluttered.
“Sure,” and I felt her lean close, that comforting, clean smell billowing out around her as she raised her arms to save the glass from shattering oblivion. “Water?” she asked. She patted me once on the back.
I sighed. I was twenty nine, had been an army captain, could field-strip a huge array of automatic and semi automatic weapons, but that evening, I couldn’t pour myself a glass of water. “Thanks,” I mumbled, closing my hand around the familiar spongy handle of my stick and hobbling a painful step or two back to give her some more room.
“So what’s she like?” Nan asked, pressing the glass into my hand and waiting for me to drain it in three gulps. I handed it back to her and she dumped it in the sink.
“Amazing,” I said immediately, and without stammering. “She’s a j-j-jeweller,” I felt my head nodding impulsively as the stutter returned, and the sound repeated slowly at the end of my tongue. “And her tw-tw-tw-twin br-br-brother is out in Afghan at the moment. She k-kind of fr-freaked a bit when I told her how I got hurt...”
I heard Nan's little gasp and knew she'd be shaking her head. “No wonder! I’m surprised she didn’t think you were a callous little bastard for that!” she scolded, walking away towards the warmth of the living room, her slippers slapping on the tiles. “I’m going to sit down; you coming?”
“Sure,” I said, feeling about five years old again as I floundered to explain myself. “I obviously d-didn’t know about her br-br-brother at the time,” I said. “But she handled it qu-quite w-w-w-w-well...” the knot around my neck that came with worsening speech was tightening. Soon, I knew I’d hardly be able to get a word out. Thank god my own personal hangman had waited this long before slipping his noose over me, I thought.
I heard the soft flump as she sat back in her chair. “Come on, boy,” she barked gently. “Take the weight of that leg of yours. You’ve gone the colour of cold porridge – make sure you take something before you go to bed.”
She could always tell when my leg was burning. I could hide it ok from dear little Amy, but not from Nan.
I looked for the arm of a nearby chair with my free left hand, and lowered myself down against it, right leg throbbing and stabbing.
“You look happy though,” Nan conceded. “I’d like to meet her. Are you going to see her again?”
“Technically I haven’t seen her at all,” I smirked playfully.
Nan tutted in disgust. “Don’t you get cheeky with me, young man,” she chuckled. “You know full well what I meant.”
I returned her laugh, and said, “Wh-wh-wh-when I dr-dr-dro-dropped her off, I said I’d t-t-t-text her...” speech was rapidly disintegrating, and I wanted to go to bed now, and be alone, where I didn't have to force my thoughts to take form.
“Well, you’d better do it tomorrow then,” she smiled. “And take yourself off to bed,” she waved her hand at me, her gold chain chinking against her watch. “Before you collapse and I have to drag you upstairs myself.”
I grinned at her tough love, and heaved myself to my sore feet, feeling my body sway slightly. Pain suddenly burst into life in my knee and shot in a series of pulses up to my hip, making me gasp. It was as sharp as the day I was blown back into the dust in Afghanistan, and I felt that itching, gnawing panic at the base of my lungs which I knew I had to contain, stop, and force back because today was not a day for a panic attack. Today was a good day. Today was a bloody good day. My hand clenched around the handle of my cane until my fingers tingled as the blood flow was stemmed by the force of my grip. That brought me back gradually to the dark sitting room in a quiet suburb, and Nan, as usual, ignored the whole thing, probably figuring I’d ask if I needed help. Maybe she wasn’t looking anyway.
I took a moment to let the pain and panic simmer down, my breath coming in short, sharp pants as my diaphragm contracted suddenly. Embarrassed, a deep blush stinging my cheeks, I muttered, “’Night,” and hobbled from the room, my body feeling Nan’s age, not my own.
Amy’s door, as ever, was open, and I heard the soft rhythmical breathing of a sleeping soul, and passed on by to my own immaculately tidy room at the end of the narrow corridor. Exhaustion washed over me, and I considered flopping down on the bed without even taking my brace off, but something, perhaps the old military habit of sticking doggedly to regime, made me go through all the motions until I was finally clean, fresh-breathed, and ready to climb into bed. I’d checked my skin for sores and rough patches in the bathroom, and used my crutch to hobble over to bed without the brace, which I carried in my free hand and ditched beside the bed. It was always a relief to abandon the contraption and slide into the sheets. I lifted the twisted remnants of my leg up, cupping my thigh in one hand and guiding my withered calf with the other, coaxing the stiffness out of the clenching muscles so that I could eventually lie back and not have to think about it. Any of it. Sleep reached up for me and took me instantly, sped on my way by a vicious cocktail of pills.
Mud baked in the white sun. Mirage water shimmered illusively on the horizon as the heat sucked down into my lungs, burning me from the inside out. The washed surface of the house on the corner was peeling like sunburnt skin, chipping off in chunks as the wind snuck its warm, sneaking fingers beneath the loose flakes and tugged them free. A shepherd drove his small gaggle of goats away towards the east, his white clothes billowing in a gust of wind, and the white of the goats catching my eye, distracting me for a second while the unit began the routine of clearing a building. One cleared, two entered. Repeat for the next. We were all in the first room except for Tommo on rear. Dear Millie was behind me. The boys ahead suddenly went quiet. There was a shout from one of the rooms ahead. The crack of live rounds ripping through the still air. "Stop! Back up!" someone shouted, maybe Jones, but in the confusion I couldn't be sure. I grabbed Millie and shoved her behind me, her medic band flashing past me in a streak of white and red, back out into the open air and away from the rounds that were buzzing around the house in short awful bursts: lethal blowflies around bleeding corpses. Then, in the gaping silence left behind after the final round, I saw Smiley and Banjo staggering backwards through the open doorway from the second room, yelling, "Get clear, get clear! He's going to fucking blow us all up!"
They'd known we were coming. That sickening realisation drove through me, in a seemingly endless moment of stillness and horror, like the last nail in a coffin. And then the air ripped around us, enveloping us in noise and dust and blood and pain, and I was thrown backwards, the wind knocked out of me as my back crashed into the dirt.
I woke with a start, soaked in sweat and shaking, not knowing if I were in the Bastion trauma centre, or Selly Oak Hospital, or in my own bed, and it took me a while to get my shit together and work out that it had been four years since that bastard had blown half of my body and half of my unit up.
The dead, electronic voice on my alarm clock told me it was 4:48am. I groaned, rubbed my aching leg, wiped the drenching sweat from my face and neck, and tried to go back to sleep. I wasn’t optimistic.
I must have done though, because I became suddenly aware of a bouncing pressure on the bed next to me, and heard a light, excited, shallow breathing, or maybe giggling. Amy. I forced myself to wake up a bit more, and asked her what she was doing there. “I need to hear about last night!” she enthused, full of childish energy. “How did it go? Where did you go? What did you talk about? When are you seeing her again?”
I couldn’t help but laugh. Then I tried to sit up, and all the laughter drained out of me as my hip lit up with pain. I suppressed a yelp and kneaded my sciatic nerve until it stopped thrumming quite so sharply.
“Cay-Cay?” she asked, sweet concern replacing her excitement.
She still called me that, and, provided it didn’t happen in public, I didn’t mind. If forced to confess, I might actually say I liked it. Reminded me of simpler times when all I had to contend with was a slight stammer. “I’m alright,” I said, a tremor only I could hear shaking my gravelly voice. Aside from the pain of waking up after meds have worn off, I love the morning. I hardly stammer for at least an hour on a good day. A bad day will give me two minutes of easy speech if I’m lucky. “What t-time is it?" So far so good.
"Half seven," she chimed as though critical of her slovenly brother.
I sighed. "Well, there isn’t m-much to tell,” I said, propping myself up against the headboard, taking a few panted breaths as my nerve jabbed again. “We m-met for dr-dr-drinks –” bad day, I thought as I began to stumble on more words already. “And we t-talked for ages. She’s a j-jeweller, wh-which is pr-pretty cool...”
“She makes jewellery!” she exclaimed with an extra bounce that jolted my leg. I think I somehow kept the wince from her. “Wow. Do you think she’ll make me a necklace like the one Charlotte has?”
I laughed. Charlotte, the coolest girl in Amy’s class, had everything she’d ever even thought she’d wanted, and the thing of the moment was her Tiffany’s heart charm necklace. The girl was eleven years old and had a Tiffany’s necklace. And so, of course, girls being girls, every other girl in the class also wanted a Tiffany’s necklace. “M-maybe,” I smiled. As much as I wanted to, there was no way I was buying an eleven year old something that expensive. “But I haven’t kn-kn-known her l-long enough to ask, yet, ok?” The hangman was placing his noose back around my throat already, I thought with a sigh. The rope was heavy, weighing on my collar bones in a way that made my stomach churn bitterly.
“Ok,” she conceded. "What else did you talk about?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said dismissively. “J-Just stuff... Y-you know, g-g-getting to kn-know each other a bit...”
“Did you kiss her?” she giggled immediately.
And we'd come to the heart of it. “Amy!” I pretended to chide her. “That’s n-none of your business!”
She giggled again and slithered off the bed.
“Wh-where are you going?” I asked, instinctively reaching out into space for her, hoping to catch my little fairy before she flitted off, but I failed. Instead, I turned my ear towards the door where I thought her tiny, bare feet were paddling over the carpet in near-silence.
“I got my answer,” she laughed from the doorway. “You did kiss her.” And she skipped off down the corridor, singing some pop song with the tuneless grace of an excited child.
I shook my head and tried to get up. Then I remembered it was a Saturday, and that I didn’t have to get up, and sank back into my pillow with a sigh of relief. I pulled the pot of painkillers from the top drawer and swigged my first rations of the day down, then reached for my iPad which sat beside my bed. I lowered my finger in place on the screen where there was a tiny raised bobble fixed in place and listened while it told me I had indeed found the mail app. I got it to read my emails to me in its soulless voice, and I typed out some replies, getting it to speak them back to me first. There were all sorts of apps for blind people to help with technology, including ones where you can point your phone’s camera at something and someone on the other end will tell you what you’re looking at, but I’m a stubborn bastard and I like my privacy. Many of them also require you to be able to speak clearly. Given the accuracy of Siri’s comprehension with someone who didn’t stammer, needless to say, that programme and I hadn’t got along at all.
My phone buzzed on the table about an hour later, and I surprised myself with how wide my grin was when my phone announced that the sender of the text was Alyssa. “So I know the proper thing is to wait for you to text me,” it read, “But I thought I’d pre-empt you. If you fancied doing anything today, the weather is set to stay beautiful, if cold, and I’m free. Really enjoyed last night, and I hope you did. A x”
I had to chuckle. What a strange, unpredictable woman Alyssa was turning out to be, and in all the right ways. “You don’t play by the rules,” I texted back. “I like that. I’m actually free this afternoon –” I paused typing and realised I should see what state my leg was in before accepting anything. I had my crutch if things got really painful, but I almost never use it. With every click of the crutch tip on the ground I feel like another pair of eyes have locked on to me. Besides, nothing says ‘cripple’ like a crutch. It doesn't take much to shatter my confidence, and when that goes, I spiral into stammering hell too, despite the tricks I've learned in years of speech therapy.
Putting a brace on blind isn’t as hard as it might seem. Once the sock is on, it's really only a case of sliding my foot in at the bottom and securing the straps. As its familiar embrace closed around the oddly shaped muscles of my thigh, what remained of them anyway, I felt a cramp flicker into life, but it didn’t blossom. I swayed when I stood, but since the meds had kicked in, I was able to walk along the corridor and back without my cane, and without too much difficulty.
Bad speech day, good leg day; the universe remains in balance.
“I’m actually free this afternoon. What did you have in mind? Could go for a short stroll by the river –” let’s not push it, I thought, “ – or we could catch a film at the Odeon if there’s something on you want to see? Don’t mind either way, so you pick. C x”
Her reply didn’t come immediately, and I began to worry that I’d typed something funny without realising it. Wouldn’t be the first time. When my phone buzzed next, I had made it downstairs, and was tucking into some pancakes that Amy and Nan had made for breakfast. “These are amazing,” I said, unable to speak clearly, this time because of the sheer volume of pancake and maple syrup that I had wadded into my mouth. I washed it down with a hefty gulp of orange juice and had just lost track of my fork when my phone buzzed in my pocket.
“No technology at the table,” Amy said indignantly, imitating Nan’s voice as she barked out our fiercely-enforced rule.
“I think we can let him off just this once,” Nan said her voice crackling kindly like old newspaper, and I could imagine the wink she gave Amy as my sister giggled.
“Fetch me m-my earphones?” I asked Amy, not wanting her to hear what Alyssa had to say, because Siri was not discrete or discerning about the company when he read things out for me.
Her chair scraped on the floor and she stood, but didn’t leave the room. “Ask me nicely,” she pouted.
“Pl-pl-pl-pl...” the ‘l’ was sticking like a car engine that wouldn’t turn over. “Pl-pl...” I froze, lips clamped together as the frustration boiled inside me and a deep rage threatened to break. I screwed my eyes shut and she scampered away, obviously satisfied that I would have said ‘please’, if only I could.
In the short space of time her absence created, Nan took advantage of the time alone, and said, “You know, that speech of yours has been pretty bad lately. You’re not overdoing things, are you?” I shook my head immediately, defensively. “How’s that leg then?” she asked, unleashing her next missile with all the subtlety of Iron Man.
“Sore,” I confessed. “But not all the time. It’s been fine so far today...”
“It’s only eleven o’clock,” she grumbled. “But I mean it when I say to keep an eye on it. And those headaches of yours...” she warned. “You must tell me if they start coming back... A traumatic brain injury like the one you had needs to be looked after...” That was her way of saying ‘brains are delicate things, and you can seem fine one moment and be slumped in a coma the next.’
I tried to smile gratefully. “Thanks,” I said, finding my fork again and beginning to shovel another boatload of pancake into my mouth. One of the upsides, I guess, of being blind, is no one comments on your being a messy eater. They just assume you can’t manage to do it nicely, which isn’t exactly true. It’s hard, don’t get me wrong, and it takes practice, but it can be done, with help. But that morning I was merrily troughing pancakes like a hog in a barn.
Amy bounced back in with my earphones and I plugged them in to listen to Alyssa’s message. “Actually I’ve wanted to see that new Eddie Redmayne film for a while but never got round to it. Since you suggested cinema, do you fancy that? Fine if not...” She clearly wasn’t aware – why would she be? – of the miracle of audio-described tracks and headphones. Not the sexiest of things, but it means not having to sit through hours – arts films are the worst – of hoarse breaths, twinkly music, endless silences and rustling clothes... A bit of to-ing and fro-ing later, we arranged to meet outside the cinema, mainly because that’s the most practical place to be dropped by taxi when you can’t even see the cinema building, let alone pick out your date in a crowd.
As I stepped awkwardly from the taxi, having shaken off the overly-conscientious driver’s help with great difficulty, I wondered if she was always as punctual as she’d been on our first date. I had at least let the driver orientate me so that I faced the building and I slowly made my way in what I hoped was a straight line across the wide paved plaza at the heart of the cinema complex. My tiny patch of light-and-dark sight in the bottom of my vision was not enough for me to make my own feet out with any clarity or certainty, despite the strong winter sunlight, so I relied mostly, as ever, on my ears.
People hurried past me, couples laughing, groups of young teenage boys pranking around on BMXs with bike chains whirring, pigeons flapped raucously as passers by disturbed their foraging, and a dog barked way over to my right. Shortly, the sound of automatic doors whingeing open and shut, followed by the unmistakable smell of popcorn drew me closer to the cinema, and so I slowed down even more, hoping she’d come and find me soon, because my hip was throbbing again, and I’d need to sit down to release the nerve that would inevitably become pinched after too long on my feet. Turns out being blown up in Iraq isn’t took good for the musculoskeletal or nervous systems. Or for your confidence.
“Caleb?” I heard her voice rise above the sound of cars in the car park behind me and of feet on the stones of the precinct, and though relief washed through me, I couldn’t pinpoint her. I knew I was turning my head like an owl, but I couldn’t help it. Where are you? “Caleb,” she said again, much closer this time, and I locked my ear onto her. Thank God I still had my hearing, despite the suicide bomber's best efforts.
Momentarily I forgot that speaking was not really happening that day, and I started trying to say her name, and then, horror of horrors, I found I couldn't stop the sound as it just came out as a horrid, gloopy gulping, followed eventually by, “...ssa...”
“Hey,” she said, and then, bless her, she had flung her arms around my shoulders. Then, as quickly as the hug had begun, it was over.
Come back, I thought, longing for that contact again. I was jealous she could see me, but not because it was sight. I was jealous because of how isolated I felt. “Y-you alr-right?” I asked, hoping I didn’t sound as nervous as my bloody stammer made me feel.
“Yeah, I’m good. You?” And bless me if she didn’t just take my left arm like we were a lady and gentleman going for a promenade along the seafront. “You mind?” she suddenly asked, her fingers surprisingly strong as she clenched them nervously into my forearm.
I’m so used to taking someone’s arm that having someone take mine like that was a complete surprise. I must have let it show, because she slithered her hand out and disappeared beyond my immediate perception with a muttered, “I’m sorry.”
I laughed. It just tore up from my lungs and I had to stop walking because I’d tilted my head up, which put me off balance, and I had to catch myself with my stick. And I didn't even care. My big, booming, bearlike laugh just roared out of me and I knew I had to stop or I'd put her off. I didn't want to though; it was a laugh I'd forgotten the sound of.
“What?” she asked, sounding genuinely worried now.
“I’m sorry, it’s fine,” I chuckled. “I’m just u-used to being the one taking the arm, that’s all.”
“Did I do the wrong thing?” she asked. I could imagine her eyes, green as spring, widening.
“C-Come here, c-c-c-come back,” I said, holding my left elbow out again. “I l-like it.” She giggled nervously, and slid her small, delicate hand into the crook of my arm. And that was how we went into the cinema, arm in arm like any other couple on a date, and I felt suddenly high as a fucking kite.