This week’s five-page excerpt from my memoir, Spiral to Edinburgh, is about the mental adjustments I was making and not making as a fifteen-year-old in a new country with a new disability.
Among the recurring characters is the friend I call Al, mentioned two posts ago in “Meg; The Bowling Prize.” Like me, he was a summer student at the Oak Hill School for the Blind to improve his adaptive skills. In that post, I relate how he saved me from an awkward situation involving a girl. In this excerpt, we have kept up our friendship while going to regular schools in neighboring towns.
Mr. Sobel is the guidance counselor who welcomed me my first day at Middlesex Junior High three posts ago, in “Transition.”
It is the spring of 1969, and I am fifteen.
Mum or Dad drove me to Al’s home or his mother or sister drove him to ours, where we stayed in my study, closed the door and played records. We talked about the obstacles to making friends in the “sighted world” and what Oak Hill had called “attitudes toward the blind.”
I told him about a student at school who had asked the people around him to lend him a dollar. I’d held out a dollar bill, but he’d refused, even though no one else offered.
“You’re not supposed to be handing out money,” Al said. “You’re supposed to be taking.”
One afternoon I left my tape recorder on the desk in front of the guidance counselors’ couch. My readers used it to record assignments for me. When I returned, it was gone.
“This is troubling,” Mr. Sobel said. By the next day it was apparent someone had “liberated” it.
“I can’t believe anyone would steal something from a guy who can’t see,” said Wally, the boy I thought of as the swaggering cowboy, between classes.
When I was sitting on the guidance counselors’ couch during the lunch break, Margot, the girl with the swinging hair, approached. “On behalf of the student council, I want to say how sorry and embarrassed we are that this could happen at our school. We’d like to take up a collection to replace your tape recorder.”
The habit of delayed reaction I’d cultivated in the hospital gave me time to think. No one else’s stolen property had been a fundraising cause. By consenting to my case becoming one, I’d acquiesce to being treated as special. On the other hand, if I refused, I’d be seen as denying the student council an opportunity to do a good deed. Even if I accepted but urged them to consider all theft equally important, they might take it as criticism.
So I said, “Thank you. That’s kind of you.”
“It’s the least we can do.”
Hovering in the background, Mr. Sobel said, “Nicely done, Margot.”
In the family room, after I related the story, Al shrugged. “What can you do?”
“We wouldn’t be patronized at Oak Hill,” I said.
He chuckled. “No, we wouldn’t.”
* * *
Dad and I played a version of cricket on the front lawn. (The backyard had too many trees.) We didn’t bother with wickets, but did adopt the formal batsman’s stance, the bat held vertically, its bottom end near the ground. In cricket the bowler typically delivered the ball so that it bounced once before reaching the batsman. Dad would call out, “Coming,” and I’d listen for the thud of the ball on the grass. I used the two events to time my swing. When I connected, the ball caromed off a tree in the next yard. “Good shot,” Dad would say.
The cost of missing was that he’d talk me through to the place where the ball had stopped. One direction followed the next. “It’s there, two inches left of your left foot. No, forward and to your left.” I imagined our elderly neighbor watching through parted curtains. In time Dad bought several tennis balls and retrieved my misses in groups of six.
When we switched roles, my objective was to prevent him from getting hits. I relied on a spinner, where you flick the wrist on releasing the ball to make it go off at a misleading angle when it bounced. But I rarely prevented him from punishing the ball.
He bought a shortwave radio and slung an antenna to a tree outside the kitchen. Now we could listen to cricket scores on the BBC. But the games themselves weren’t broadcast to America. Without the games and people to talk to about them, the scores became data on something lost.
* * *
On Sunday afternoons, I plowed through homework in my study while a baseball doubleheader played on the stereo. As the braille letters developed into words that gradually formed sentences that I eventually understood, I envisioned the players and Shea Stadium. The Mets’ broadcasters, Bob Murphy, Lindsay Nelson and Ralph Kiner, assumed the audience had grown up with baseball. It was for me to figure out that shortstop was between second and third and that “mound” really meant “mound,” elevating the pitcher so that he loomed over the batter.
As I listened to the baseball game, my mind wandered to Garfield Sobers, the Barbadian cricketer. In cricket, it wasn’t three strikes and you’re out. A time at bat could unfold over a couple of days and lead to a score in the hundreds. I became Sobers, smacking one ball over the boundary for six runs, nudging the next away from the wickets. If the batsman didn’t stop the bowler from knocking them down, he would be called out. I built up huge scores and carried the side past a first-rate bowling and fielding team. Then I grew aware again of Bob Murphy’s voice and found my fingers listless on a terrain of dots.
The Sunday the Mets beat the Cubs 10-0, an unimaginable result for the low-scoring Mets and so in my experience of baseball, I escaped the airless family room and sat at the top of the stairs with a transistor radio at my side. Mum, Dad and Tim were all out somewhere. As the score mounted, I pushed energy from the back of my brain along the optic nerve to the network of nerves and blood vessels that made up my right eye’s retina. I could restore my vision if only I tried hard enough. When I succeeded, I’d make amends to the people I’d hurt or forgotten to thank. I’d be better to Mum.
When the game ended, I went downstairs to do homework. Passing through the dining room, I rested my fingertips on the sideboard, which Mum and Dad had shipped with the rest of our furniture from England. I remembered how it had gleamed when the sun shone through our dining room windows in Sheffield and how the dust motes that somehow survived Mum’s cleaning had risen and danced in the yellow light. The polished surface, shape and coolness of the wood still pleased me.
In the family room, as I composed an essay on the Olivetti, I played a Zombies record and daydreamed to the lyrics:
And the breeze would touch your hair
Kiss your face and make you care
About your world
Your summer world
I was taken back to the woods at the bottom of Sheffield’s Button Hill, where I used to cycle. The woods changed into a garden of exotic flowers, soft but penetrating sunset light, big-trunk trees, a vaguely defined woman who beckoned, then faded out of view.
With the scent of spring at the window, I got up from the desk and went outside. The breeze touched my hair, my face and hands.
* * *
I was passing through the living room as Mum sifted through the day’s mail. She said, “They can do everything else in this country. Why does it take so long to deliver letters?”
I remembered the gesture that accompanied her emphatic statements. Pausing at the side of her armchair, I mimicked the downward sweep of her hand.
“How did you know?” she asked. Her brown eyes would be open wide with pleasure.
I turned and headed upstairs, embarrassed to show how much the memory had also meant to me.