Blindness has an unfortunate way of announcing itself. It rarely goes unnoticed. Its presence is often made certain through the uncertain, waving radius of a black stick. Sometimes, there’s sunglasses too. Though, Alfred hated those. He thought they sucked all the sensuality out of him. A stick he could excuse; he treated it as an extended index finger, something to point impressively with. But sunglasses, no. His wearing them indoors was an unspoken signifier for his condition. A semiotic for his failed optics. “Semioptics,” we called them.
Sometimes, I was aware of how our pretentious humour, one which meddled with language in such a way, was more off-putting to onlookers than any stick or eyewear could ever be. Habits cultured within closed-off couples could sometimes be repulsive to outsiders. But that’s what others rarely understood. Language was one of the only faculties Alfred had left that he felt control over. Let us play, I wanted to tell the stares.
A few years back he meddled a little too much. With his own features, nonetheless. Blindness announces itself but does not continue to demand uncomfortable attention. Eyelessness, however, does so unashamedly. To not only be blind, but to not have any eyes at all.
Alfred had once had eyes: glossed over corneas that fulfilled no other function but to take up space in his skull. Always the utilitarian, Alfred had them removed around five years ago. He had likened the surgery to getting rid of a limb that had been rendered useless after a stroke. Dead weight. He now wears, daily, a bright emerald scarf wrapped around his head that produces two little dips where the material is pulled tight over the caverns of his empty sockets. Green, U-shaped valleys once carved out by glaciers of ancient tears. He had believed the green garment to be more sexually appealing than the sunglasses; confident and striking. But beneath the material, his face was a horrifying patchwork of absences and presences, of features banished and those that were permitted to stay.
He didn’t like when people called him blind. “I am eyeless,” he would say, “not blind.” Blind people have eyes that do not work. He has no eyes at all. He got a sick pleasure out of starting rumours that he was born without a pair, that they had been left to dangle, fully-formed, in his mother’s womb. His own creation myth.
As I make his tea I blow wishes into the mixture. I wish he could see my body, my breasts, my waist. I pay attention to their upkeep. I long for him to be able to make love to me properly; caress me where I want to be caressed.
I look at the sculptures in our long hallways with intense envy. I remember the day he received a Hepworth. The way he touched it, over and over, and under too, and around the head of the thing, curved, curbed. The straight lines of index. How he breathed close to its perhaps-mouth. His sigh of half-contentment: happy enough with the feel of the thing, but the feeling alone was all he got. Maybe feeling a little lost, too, the location of his corneas now well beyond his comprehension. Perhaps pickling in a jar somewhere. Perhaps in a ditch.
He asks me the colour of the sculpture. “Copper,” I informed. “With flashes of red.”
“The kitchen has copper tiling, yes?”
“It can be put in any room but that one, then.”
Back then I was to give no opinion on the layout of his home. It wasn’t yet mine too. I used to dislike Hepworth’s work. Maybe it was the way Alfred touched this particular piece – he hadn’t yet touched me in such a way.
Now he touches me every night. He is a very sensory man, revelling in touch more than any of his other remaining three. The blind usually depend mainly on their hearing as their new primary sense. Alfred the Eyeless much more relies on feeling through his free-roaming fingers. But he never touches me in the way I want to be touched. He can’t help it, and neither can I the effect it has in me. When he gets hard, I hear a kettle switch popping up in my head. I know that’s not a good thing, and maybe it has to do with all the cups of tea, but I my love for him perseveres despite the lack-lustre sex. That’s how I think I know it is a real love.
Art collecting and piano playing. Activities he excels at with an angered passion to prove he is not blind, used to be blind, not blind any more, never again, he is eyeless, he is not going to be shoved into that cupboard along with that three percent of the population, made up of the sick, the unfortunate and the elderly. He liked to play Chopin when he was in love with a sculpture, or in love with me. Vivaldi’s Winter when he was not. He once asked me if I would be prepared to amputate a finger of mine for him. I was scared, I refused, and I loved more and more.
The auction was later that night. Alfred had been reserved a seat in the front row, having gathered traction amongst the fine art community. There was expected a small, luminous yellow paper with sticky back on the dull wood of the chair, spelling out his name and title. He had to ring up the house and ask for another seat to be booked next to his. I am often forgotten by these types of people – I have all five senses, and less of a sense for art. A combination not seen as nearly as enigmatic.
We were met at the front of the gallery by a young woman, wrapped in an orange silk blouse and a black pencil skirt. She was carrying her mobile phone, waving it about in her hand as she gesticulated. That, turned out, was often, as she expressed her excitement at seeing Alfred with her hands – an expression of emotion that was obviously missed by him. As a correction, she laid a hand on his shoulder as she greeted him, and I suddenly realised how copper her outfit was. Her red lacquered nails flashed at me in a seeming non-sequitur.
During the auction, the room falls even more silent than you’d expect of an auction – the rustling of papers are the last things to submit to the silence. This is when he approaches the front. Of course, Alfred isn’t always allowed to do this. If the sculpture was close to priceless, or one of a kind, he’d have to go on intuition alone. This always offended him. Sometimes, I get to walk him up the aisle, so to speak, to the alter to meet his sculpted bride. If it was a painting, he’d often make the same joke – “It’s still wet!” To which every room would titter. He was popular; coveted.
This time, however, the lacquered lady had demanded to assist him. She guides his hands over a language of copper, clay and stone. Sedimentary-semiotics, I wanted to say to him. A way to describe how he read a sculpture’s quality without any eyes to assist him. She had no joke to offer.
When the letter came through the door the following week, it was written in Braille. He hadn’t used Braille in years, not since he lost his eyes and gained me around the same time as an assistant. I read the letter to him, as best I could. The temptation to twist what it said, to disguise his admirer’s plans, were settled not-so deep within me.
The lacquered lady, Vera, had written to Alfred to request that he participate in a once-in-a-lifetime charity event. The event was a sculpture auction held at the Ashmolean, to raise money for the blind and visually impaired. It was Vera’s view that if Alfred could, “survey, scrutinise and study, if you will,” a sculpture that was kept anonymous to him, that he would serve as a wonderful spectacle for the crowd. A generous benefactor would even donate a large sum of money to the cause, if Alfred could guess the maker, and date the art correctly (with a margin of inaccuracy permitted). Vera would accompany him and provide an auditory commentary for the visually impaired members of the audience. And he would be introduced as not blind, but Eyeless.
On the night, I could identify that the statue was a Henry Moore piece. We’d been into contact with the Henry Moore Foundation several times in our past, so the donation of the piece for the “spectacle” did not surprise me upon entering the hall. The Ashmolean looked institutionally oppressive with the glow from the footlights shattered across its many stone ridges, its flags flapping to attention out the front – loudly, Alfred would add.
He was nervous. He pulled me to the side, into an alcove. There was a single, moist bead of sweat darkening the emerald material around his forehead.
“Just picture the audience naked,” I joked. He started to ring his hands. The pressure was buckling him. He asked me to look at the statue, to tell him what it was. To give him a better idea of its quality. I looked up the corridor, down the aisle, past the rows of seats to the Moorish bride of dark stone.
“Alright, alright. Well, it’s not exactly a school project”
We both heard Vera coming by the clack of her heels. Like a horse.
“Is that Vera I hear?” He was so hopeful of meeting her again that his absent eyes may have moved towards the clip-clop in whatever jar they were currently floating in. “Get me Vera.” As I saw her coming I almost wanted to throw myself down in front of the clopping stead she was, to obstruct her path. But he had wanted her. She could calm him.
On every seat, in Braille, was written that he statue was a Henry Moore piece. This was to clue in the blind members of the audience. Those attendees couldn’t see Vera’s hands on his hands, her eyes on the back of his emerald wrap.
He worked like a motherboard. Fast, methodical, relying on data that his hands searched for deeply, complexly. The room was punctuated with the question as to whether he could do it. On this day thirty years ago, the World Chess Grandmaster was beaten by a computer for the first time in a classical chess game. Historical. Except, now, Alfred the Eyeless was our computer, and our master was the piece.
Vera moved close to Alfred and looked as though she was tempted to whisper in his ear. She may have wanted to give him the information he had asked from me. But he moved the side of his head away from hers at the sensation of her breath near to his face. It wasn’t out of annoyance, or disaffection. He simply had more affection for his work, his prize. He knew he could do it. He sacrificed the knight:
“Is it… A Moore?”
An uproar of applause. A deaf man waves his hands at the edge of the crowd.
Blind men are advised against getting drunk, but that night, get splendidly drunk he did. Then again, he was not blind. He attended the party thrown in his honour afterwards with a consistent glow of pride; elated, ecstatic, elastic.
Vera and I watched him whittle amongst the crowd, stickless. People interested in him, for business or pleasure, demanded his attention one by one. Having proved successful at something that had shaken Alfred with such nerves had certainly had a positive effect on his mood, as did all the attention he was reaping as a result. I had a feeling in me then that that night would not be a one-time occurrence. A man, with a kind smile and a stick of his own, spoke to Alfred within ear shot of myself and Vera. He placed a gentle hand on Alfred’s shoulder.
“I have a blind friend who is virtuoso on the piano. He performs regularly for audiences in such a way as you did tonight.” Alfred smiled politely in response. “It would be wonderful if you could do a performance or two with him. You’d suit each other perfectly.” Alfred’s countenance turned. He shrugged away the kind hand.
“I am not blind.” Each word sounded oblique. His tongue was aggressive. “I am eyeless.” His words stuck to the high stucco ceilings, launched from his upturned chin.
Vera turned to me, like the onlookers we were, with the ripples of the look that has previously swam in her eyes from looking at Alfred still permeating there. “He is magnificent.”
It happened in steps. The first was the seduction – covertly done. I think he may have enjoyed the feeling of her long, glossy nails against his neck which he could not see, his palms which he could not see, which she read like psalms, which he could not read.
Then, four or five shows in, in which he had correctly guessed the sculpture’s maker, or date, or material, and through which she had grown more in love with him (in steps, too), Vera asked Alfred to take off his scarf. This would the making of them. “It will bring in more people. They want to see what is beneath there. Nestled away.”
He had never taken it off for me. For years, when he replaced his scarves with new, identical ones, the transition from one to another was always done in a locked bathroom. For her, he’d display his naked, wounded sockets for thousands.
He moved out of our house for her just as quickly as he unwrapped his emerald cage for her. He took his metal women with him. I, alone, was the wife cast out of the polygamous marriage between me, him, her and those figures. I challenged my brain as to why it didn’t feel liberating.
Months later, I emailed him. I had to know why he had so preferred Vera, aware that Vera would be most likely scribing his reply. He wrote to me that he owed it was because he owed his impact on the world to her. Vera was arranging all his events now, and she was very efficient at it. He had a show, with a different statue, almost every day. He said he would get Vera to send me a formal invite to one at the Tate Modern next week.
When it came, the invite had been written in Braille. As was the accompanying letter form Vera. An act of secrecy, I supposed. It was an invite to come and see “Alfred the Eyeless and his Sixth Artistic Sense.” The title had been some variation of these obscene words. My Alfred. My Eyeless. The letter was also a threat. My attendance, and my silence over what I would attend. Or else Alfred starts to lose his fingers.
She’d come up with the idea of threatening my ex-lover’s fingers after he had posed her the same question he’d asked me one day, long ago. If I would lose a finger for him. He’d positioned it like a proposal – instead of giving me a ring, he’d expect me to lose my ring finger. Vera, and I, could both tell it came from a place of desire to have power, to be the most able. He, in his worst, angered moments, wanted other people to have the same disadvantages he did. It was like a wild, hidden fetish within him. Something he’d never actually do. But to have his own fingers removed? That would, perhaps, finish him. But not in the good way that art gets finished. In a terrible way like people do.
Upon entering the exhibition room in the Tate, the first thing I noticed was my own reflection. Second, the pane of glass that stretched across the room that was responsible for it. Thirdly, Alfred’s eye-sockets. He stood behind that pane, perusing a Papier Mache volcano that looked like it had been built by a school child for a chemistry class. It was far, far beneath him. Next to it, stood a De Andrea piece. There formed an assembly line of art pieces ranging from primitive to masterclass. He hopelessly shuffled around the white room beyond the glass pane, unguided by anyone. The two dimples in his face, scarred and scolded by operating tools, fascinated the crowd. He somehow managed to look tired.
He held his hand up. An excited voice over a Tannoy system – Vera’s – announced; “He has come to a conclusion!” The crowd waited for Alfred to open his mouth, but he said nothing. His lips formed a third, empty hole. He kept his hand raised. Vera entered the cage, from a door behind the glass, angered. They spoke. She stroked his neck. He continued to work.
The letter had discussed with me the disparities between his blind reality and what was his actual reality that Vera had curated. Alfred spent his days ogled by a spectator crowd, behind glass, circused. Alfred was her proudest piece. She was somewhat of a collector herself, she felt she needed me to know.
He was under the impression that he was driven to a new show event every day, Vera explained, where he would be able to purchase his favourite works, and some special onlookers could book to see. There was a quiet buzz of an auction room played into the glass cage via speakers. That’s how she fooled him. Having always focused on training up his fingers rather than his ears, he wasn’t to tell anything was wrong. Vera was adamant that he was not to know of the true nature of his work. He’d view it as demeaning, to be put on show in such a way, Vera had known. But she also explained how he couldn’t have dug his own eyes out of his face without knowing, somewhere within him, beneath his cratered surface, that he was becoming art. The blind art collector – the irony was too cosmic to be missed by anyone with a true artistic vision. Besides, he was happy: he had Vera. And all his fingers.
This was how he was to live out his days. She’d collected him. And though I could detect the tiredness in his features, I tried to search for misery, for entrapment. No such feeling could I find, but perhaps a tinge of contentment. It was a blind reality he was content with. His fingers brushed the back of a new, stone woman. A cold pleasure he would treasure every night, for the rest of his days.
Katie Stockton is a Masters student at the University of East Anglia, currently reading Scriptwriting, after graduating in Creative Writing and English Literature from the University of Warwick in 2018. She has written six plays, to critical success, including a Virginia Woolf adaptation debuting at Norwich's Maddermarket Theatre in 2018. She is going to be published in the poetry anthology Like the Sea I Think, and enjoys writing in poetry, script and prose. Her prose often explores the themes of magical realism, trauma, and education.