In the garden behind Cafe No. 8 all was quiet. There was the buzz of mid-morning insects inspecting their plants; leaves and blossoms thrilling to their attention. The clatter of the blind man’s stick came to me through the passage and he glanced vaguely in my direction as he seated himself at the adjoining table.
He ordered coffee and cake from the waitress.
‘We only have lemon cake.’
We sat in silence while his order was filled. He stared into a void. He took a small piece of cake and ate it, sipped at his coffee. ‘Shall I tell you the story?’ he asked.
‘Please.’ I was happy he could read my thoughts; gratified to have my existence confirmed. Besides, it took away my residual guilt.
He did not turn towards me as a sighted person would have done, but spoke into a space somewhere in front of me but over to my right. ‘We were in a garden,’ he said. ‘I was nine years old and a more or less normal child. My sisters were older, both of them by several years. Two butterflies were hovering around me, beautiful, ephemeral creatures and my sisters laughed as they drew near and alighted on my head, on my shoulder, and took to the air again, circling now, far too close for comfort.
At last the butterflies fluttered their way to my eyes. My vision became unsteady and I sat on the grass and, eventually, laid myself down. I remember the pitched laughter of the two girls until one of them, I don’t know which, said, “I’m not really happy about this.”
They brushed the creatures away and saw they had removed, I suppose, eaten into the flesh of my eyes, tiny canals like the depiction of rivers on a map. There was no pain. But I have not been able to see properly since that day.’
He stopped and glanced in my direction. ‘Strange, no?’ And without waiting for my reply he continued; ‘We had a reproduction of The Sistine Madonna in my bedroom. It had hung there as long as I could remember, mother hung it there before I was born, something that would, supposedly, make a holy space for me, ensure some kind of reception for the child still in her womb.
‘I don’t know if you know the painting, but it depicts a rather confused-looking Madonna holding the Christ child, the two of them floating on fluffy white clouds. For some reason the Madonna has deformed toes. But what I remember in particular is the background. Raphael has lightly painted in a host of faces, either angels or babies, I can’t say for sure. Some say these babies are angels or unborn children. The faces are expressionless; we can’t see their pupils and they leave us with a feeling of lifelessness. It is not a picture to hang in a child’s room. Those faces fill one with dread.
‘In my case, after the butterflies were brushed away, I could see only a couple of insect-like creatures, almost comic-book insects, they are tiny like the faces of Raphael’s angels, reproduced infinitely wherever I look, but instead of forming a background they present as the foreground of my vision.
‘They are all I see. In one sense they form a curtain obstructing or concealing whatever might be there. And in another sense I can see, vaguely, better in some light, worse in others. What I see is like a pencil drawing behind or within the wallpaper landscape.’
He looked my way again. ‘That’s my story.’
‘Thank you,’ I said.
He reached for his stick and shambled towards the exit. ‘Perhaps you will pick up the bill for me?’ he said.
‘Of course. I’d be pleased to.’