This is a story about seeing. Or, more precisely, it’s a story about seeing again, from a different perspective. It’s about how the pictures inside your head aren’t always the same as the pictures on the outside, and how seeing things through another’s eyes doesn’t always make the world a better place. And it’s about loss, and gain, and loss again. I don’t expect you to understand why I did what I did but I feel like I should try and explain it, because it needs explaining, and it needs not to happen again.
I was 18 when I lost my eyes. I was a soldier, keeping the peace in Northern Ireland, my first taste of duty. It was my second ever patrol, just me and a group of mates walking through the streets and making sure everything was running smoothly. I guess that wasn’t really in our power to ensure, though.
I don’t really remember much of it; just a big flash, and screaming, and noise. A nail-bomb in a car parked on the street, just a shabby old car like any others; there’s no way we could have known, no way the people who lay groaning and screaming on the streets could have known. We weren’t far from the car when it exploded, sending shards of metal flying in all directions, through the air and through flesh. People say that things slow down in situations like that, but I didn’t notice that; everything seemed to speed up, so fast that nobody could react, nobody could get out of the way. One second, normal street, the next second, pain.
I remember the pain. They tell me a nail went straight through the side of my head, through both of my eyes; I suppose there’s some irony in me not seeing that coming. I remember the impact on the side of my head; I remember the flash of red and then the blackness and the sharp, unbearable agony, the unbidden scream, and the whimper for my mum. I don’t remember much after that; I guess I must have passed out. Next thing I remember is waking up with cotton sheets wrapped around me and rough material on my face, and the cool hand of a nurse on my arm and that horrible hospital smell.
I don’t want you to think I’m looking for sympathy, or anything like that. What happened, happened, and I dealt with that; wouldn’t be telling you all this if I hadn’t. But you need to know what happened, how it felt, why I did what I did, because otherwise you couldn’t understand what happened next.
Obviously I couldn’t carry on in the army, or get another job, really; most things require you to be able to see. I mean, I got enough money to cope, and they gave me a dog so I could walk about, and I got a pair of dark glasses so people wouldn’t have to see the black holes where my eyes used to be. The rest of my face wasn’t marked at all; I just didn’t have any eyeballs left, and my eyelids were always half-open so that I had two craters carved into the surface of my face. It didn’t bother me all that much; I found it hard to imagine what I looked like, really, and it wasn’t as if I could get caught out by my reflection.
I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t hard. God, the first time my mum saw me, in the hospital, and I heard her crying; I wouldn’t go through that again for anything. But I didn’t have a girlfriend or anything like that, my friends were in the army and they did everything they could to make me feel better, even smuggled in some beers when they visited me in my bed. Yeah, it was hard, but like I say, I dealt with it. I learnt to cope without sight; let my dog be my eyes, learnt to use my ears and my nose, noticed stuff I could never notice before. And I couldn’t see new things but I could remember what things used to look like, could remember colours and scenes and the way the sun used to hurt when you looked at it and how the water in the lake used to sparkle and all that stuff. I missed being able to see things, don’t get me wrong, missed it so much it used to hurt, that crushing, stifling pain you get in your chest when you lose something you’ve taken for granted. Yeah, I missed it. But, there was nothing I could do about it, so I got on with life, got on with living however I could.
I spent ten years like that, blind, but coping. I coped, adapted to how life was, got used to it even; there was a lot of pain and regret but I always had my mum and a couple of good mates and the radio to keep me occupied. I learnt to not walk too fast, to let my dog lead me, to listen to the world around. It’s amazing how people who can see don’t listen, don’t listen to how a car sounds when it’s just about to speed up or slow down, how footsteps sound different when people are moving aside for you on the pavement, how people’s breathing changes when they stiffen up ‘cos a blind man’s walking past them. But I learned to listen. It was hard, that last one. It happened a lot. People treat you differently when they think you’re different to them, when they don’t know what they can say to you, when they think if they mention the eyes or seeing stuff it’ll make you miss what you once had. I mean, I did miss seeing things, of course I did, but I missed being able to talk to people more.
But like I say, I learnt to listen, and to smell and taste and touch. And that was okay; it’s amazing the pictures you can build up in your head when you just brush something with your fingertips, how you can see the toughness of rope through feeling its roughness or see the shape of a tree through the scrape of its bark. I could see the stillness of coffee from its smell and the ripples in a river from the sound of it splashing on the banks and rocks. I even learnt to see letters through my fingers, running them over bumps and lines and seeing each letter take shape in the dark behind where my eyes used to be in spidery blue flame against the blackness. It wasn’t the same as viewing things with my eyes had been, never quite so crisp and sharp, but I thought it wasn’t all so bad, because I got to see things no other person could see while they only got to see what everyone else could see as well. So yeah, it was hard, but I coped; kept going on walks, tried to ignore the bad sounds, seeing the silhouettes of shapes in the shadows of my head, kept putting one foot in front of the other and resigned myself to doing that forever.
And then I met her. Inauspicious beginnings, I guess; my dog, usually pretty well-behaved, got spooked by something, no idea what, jumped up, pulled me over. I felt her hand on my arm and she pulled me up, asked me if I was Ok, pressed my dog’s lead back into my hand so I could feel the soft leather on the roughness of my palm. I told her thanks; I mean, what else do you say? I was-not helpless, I could have managed, would have, in the end, found the end of the lead from the pictures in my head as it scraped over the hard tarmac, and let’s face it most people would have helped and she was just the closest, but still. And I made a joke about how I didn’t see it coming; I’ve always had that streak of self-deprecation in me, I guess, and anyway, things don’t seem quite so real, quite so close, if you can make a joke out of them. And I heard her laugh and it sounded like birdsong, like the sound that makes you happy when it gets you out of bed in the morning, and I realised I wanted to hear that laugh again and again, and so I asked if there was any way I could make it up to her and- get this, to a blind man she’d just seen fallen down by the side of the road, to a guy she must have seen as helpless- she said I could buy her a drink, if I wasn’t too busy. You could hear she was kind in her voice, and I wanted to hear it again, so I said yes, and I told her my name, and she told me hers was Heather.