Eight o’clock and the tubes were on strike again. Graham started at the bus stop closest to his bedsit but after two 19s sailed past, both packed to the gills, he began to walk down Blackstock Road. He passed three more stops, all besieged, before reaching the tube station at Finsbury Park, the first place the 19 took on passengers. People were standing three-deep in the road, shifting for position, waiting for a bus to come and carry them off to work.
A big red Routemaster hove into view, the conductor on his platform at the back, arms spread, barring entry. The shuffling of the crowd grew more urgent and Graham was swept forward in a tide of bodies. “Is it the 19?” asked a woman’s voice and at first Graham ignored it. But she asked again and, in spite of himself and the bus that was now starting to fill up, he told her, “It is, yes.” And then he couldn’t help turning round for a look because, as a rule, people didn’t approach him for directions or to lend a hand—women least of all.
At first he didn’t get it. The woman was looking away over his shoulder, not at the bus at all. She had a long nose and seemed about his age. A man forced his way past, causing Graham to lurch against the woman. Something hard and thin printed itself against his leg. Recovering his balance, he saw she was holding a white stick. Surprise made him breathless. “Excuse. . . me.”
The bus began to pull away. The crowd in the road fell back and now it was the woman who lost her balance. He went to catch her elbow but before he could she’d righted herself. “Missed that one,” he told her and she smiled and nodded as though this were good news and she’d seen it all with her own eyes. Her jacket and skirt were stylish—did she choose them herself?
Still side by side, they waited for another bus while the crowd got bigger, impatience beginning to simmer. Didn’t it make her nervous, he wanted to ask, but they didn’t speak. Sidelong, he studied her face: pretty, if you could ignore the too-wide-open eyes.
“Is there another bus to Highbury Corner?”
“I don’t know. Don’t think so,” he told her. “No sign of any more 19s either.”
“How far to walk?”
“About a mile. Straight up Blackstock Road. ” His answers were coming out all wooden.
“Could you show me?”
As they walked away from the scrum around the bus stop, he felt the tension rise off him. He wondered should he take her elbow but decided instead to keep in close beside her, half a pace ahead, and this seemed to work. As if she could feel him there, or make out his footsteps perhaps. They crossed Seven Sisters Road and still she didn’t say a word, just drifted along by his side, a faint smile and the stick tap-tapping the pavement, sweeping her way ahead.
He grew bolder, turning to study her as he walked. A cottony piece of blossom was caught in her black hair, by the ear; he reached and plucked it deftly away. She didn’t seem to feel it; her eyes went on blinking, lapping up the spring sunshine. But then she stopped. “I’ll be okay from here.” She addressed the words to the space beside her, slightly behind him. “Don’t want to slow you down.”
“No trouble at all. I’m a slow walker myself.” It was true, though he’d learned how to walk so the limp hardly showed. It was only really obvious when he was tired, or if he tried to go too fast. For a moment he thought of sharing this with her, but then he saw how that might sound. It didn’t really compare with being blind—from birth?
“But won’t you be late for your work?”
“Everybody’s late this morning.” He raised his hand to indicate the bus stop across the road—people spilling off the pavement, consulting watches—then let it fall.
“Then maybe you could take my arm.” She spoke like she was an old woman but the arm as she slipped it over and under his was firm and cool. The white stick went beneath her other arm. They set off again and Graham felt a terrific uprush of feeling. It wasn’t just that he was doing good; it was the sunshine, too, the Spring, and the daffodils he hadn’t even noticed half an hour ago as he hurried down to the station. It had never occurred to him to walk to the office; he could have been halfway there by now. But then he’d never have met this sweet, mysterious creature.
The buses seemed to have given up altogether and there was barely a car on the road; nobody was going anywhere. He could still walk in to the office—what did it matter what time he got there? He imagined the impression the pair of them must be making on the people they passed, waiting and watching them go by. On an impulse, he threw a glance; a couple of women in smart office clothes were watching them, and smiling. That made him happy too. Usually, when he was out, he kept his head down, but today he felt well disposed towards everything and everyone, himself too.
They were at the hill now and passing the Arsenal ground, but perhaps that wouldn’t interest her. Everything seemed equal to her, precise little steps and her smile so serene. How would it feel to be like her? To live like that all the time, exposed, like life on the edge of a cliff. The strange openness of her face, eyelashes fluttering. Like life on the edge of a cliff and leaning out into a breeze. The image was so vivid he almost described it to her.
He felt he could tell her anything. Like how he put people off. It was nothing to do with him, or just the way his face settled itself, his stupid leg, but that’s how it had always been. Blind people saw through appearances though; they made up for their sightlessness by seeing in other ways. Hadn’t she picked him out from all those people at the bus stop? Taken his arm and trusted him to show her the way.
He wanted to communicate all this but he wasn’t sure how. Instead he slowly closed his eyes. As they walked, his arm drew hers tighter just a fraction, but if she felt it she didn’t react. He had to fight his eyelids, plunge the panic down, but then he mastered it. He took small, careful steps, matching his stride to hers like a dance. There was bright sunshine, pink on his eyelids, and a breeze that made him lift his face—they were coming to the top of the hill.
He could hear birds above and to his left. The corners of his mouth twitched into a smile. He was in her world now; she was guiding him through it. He wouldn’t mind this at all, not with someone like her. Letting his mind go, he saw ranks of dunes in the desert, a fine mist of sand rising off their brows. She must see beautiful pictures all the time, in her head. But the next moment his foot stepped into space and he froze. He gripped her arm tighter but his eyes stayed shut.
“What is it?” she asked in alarm.
He opened his eyes and they were poised on a low kerb, a drop of four inches at most. He felt foolish, wanted to laugh, didn’t know what he should say. But why lie? He could explain and she would understand him; it didn’t matter if the words weren’t exactly right. “I had my eyes shut,” he told her. “I wanted to see how it felt.”
With a swift, brushing motion she removed his arm from hers. “Like blindman’s bluff,” she asked, “is that what you thought?”
“It wasn’t like that. I think it’s incredible that you can do all this.”
“This isn’t all I can do.” Her mouth was drawn in tight, like she was sucking on a cigarette. “Try walking from here to the tube and buying a ticket. Try getting through the barriers and down the escalators and onto the right train. And then get off at the right station and try finding your way out, try finding your office.”
Graham took a step backwards, down into the road, but she didn’t seem to notice. She spoke more softly now but with emphasis, like she was explaining to a child. “Try going to sleep and waking up tomorrow and not opening your eyes. And it won’t be the same because you can!”
Graham turned and stalked away. If she didn’t want his help, he wasn’t going to give it to her. See how she got on without him, ungrateful bitch.
Without looking back, he turned into the first side street. As he stormed along, however, his bad leg began to drag behind him, like a wounded soldier in an old film. And when he took the first left it was as if the leg had directed him, dragged him round the corner like a rudder. He let himself go with it, walking fast with his head down and leg trailing. Two hundred yards and his feet took another turn.
The street brought him back out onto Blackstock Road. He came to a halt on the corner, breathing fast and shallow, pain throbbing in his hip, and looked back down the hill. Fifty feet of pavement stood between them. There wasn’t another soul about and she was coming his way.
Ten feet in front of him there was a deep hole in the pavement. He could see red-brown clay and a length of green tubing. Red-and-white plastic tape, slung from iron posts at each corner, marked off the crater. But on the far side, the side from which she was approaching, it had been torn down. The warning tape trailed across the pavement.
Tip-tap, tip-tap. Like the cue ball rolling straight for the pocket. Trembling a little, he went on watching.