Blind Ali 

‘So, Jean – just stay calm and remember what I’ve told you. I’m on my way now and I’ll be with you very shortly’ The confidence in Maria’s voice concealed her mounting anxiety. Outside a late autumn fog was gathering. And it was almost dark. Hardly ideal conditions to be setting out in a car. 

            The assignment itself didn’t pose any anxieties for Maria. She was experienced and confident in her role, used to making quick decisions on her own. And she knew that this particular client was unlikely to pose any problems though getting to her in time might not be so straightforward. Things weren’t made any easier by the fact that Jean Simmonds had delayed telephoning Maria. She hadn’t wanted to appear to be making an unnecessary fuss, ‘calling you out unnecessarily’ as she put it. Maria hadn’t liked to say that well-intentioned determination ‘not to be a nuisance’ could, just occasionally, lead to disaster. 

            She closed the door of her apartment behind her, heaved up her bag, and stepped out in to the gloom. A sulphurous taint in the air and occasional stuttering detonation reminded her that it was nearly November – it would soon be Bonfire night. Where did the people of this supposedly deprived area of the east end of London find so much money to just burn? She wrapped a scarf around her nose and mouth.  ‘I think” she murmured to herself, ‘I think I’d be better off walking.’ She did a quick mental calculation. It shouldn’t take more than twenty minutes and she knew the roads well. At least there were no other cases expected that night. 

The streets, normally busy at that time of the evening, were eerily quiet. From time to time, the headlights of a car loomed out of the mist, the drivers keeping to a crawl. It seemed to be getting worse, and once Maria missed a turning and had to retrace her steps. She forced herself to slow down a little, for a first time feeling a pang of anxiety. What if she were not to get to Jean in time? And there was no way that her husband was going to get back any time soon. She’d told her that he was working on a site in Birmingham all that week. The offer of work was not to be turned down lightly in a construction industry blighted by recession. 

Her bag seemed to be getting heavier, and she swung it round to her left hand. A few yards further on she nearly collided with two young men coming from the opposite direction. ‘Watch it, darling!’ one called out, ‘In a hurry, aren’t you? You’ll have someone over!’ 

Maria did not answer. At least they hadn’t said anything … well, personal. At any other time she would have smiled and apologised, but just now her overwhelming urge was to put some distance between herself and the men. She hurried on. 

The stagnant air was tainted with the stink of decay. A strange silence was falling – the street din and hubbub of traffic were subdued, distant. Even the noise of fireworks had reduced to just the occasional thud and crackle. The world seemed to be retreating before a sense of menace. She paused to peer at a sign under the dim glow of a street lamp. And then disaster struck: quite suddenly all the lights went out. ‘Oh no!’ she murmured, ‘Not a power cut! Not now! Please, lights, come on!’ 

Twenty, thirty seconds went by … nothing happened. Maria found herself in total darkness. Tentatively she moved to one side, in the direction, she guessed, of the street sign. She misjudged, and her foot slipped off the curb of the pavement. In the distance she heard the crunch of a vehicle connecting with something solid, followed by a man’s voice cursing. Painfully slowly, she made her way back across the pavement, coming into contact at last with a brick wall. She shivered, and hugged her bag to herself, seeking comfort and protection from it in her mounting desperation. A deathly silence had fallen, broken only by the drip of moisture falling from the leaves of a nearby tree. 

Then another sound, a regular tapping noise, drawing near to her. It was as if someone, something, was seeking her out, bearing down on her ‘My God …,’ she murmured, ‘what is that?’ And now there were soft footsteps accompanying the staccato rapping, heading towards her. A sob broke from her lips. 

‘Who’s there?’ called out a man’s voice. 

‘Don’t touch me!’ was the only response the terrified woman could summon up. She raised her bag higher against her body, clutching it to herself. 

‘I won’t harm you! What’s happened? Where is everyone? Why is it so quiet?’ She gauged him to be just a foot or two in front of her. And suddenly she realised that the man was blind, guiding himself with his stick. 

‘There’s a dense fog … and all the lights have gone out. I can’t see anything!’  

‘All the same to me’ said the man. ‘Don’t I know your voice? Aren’t you the midwife?’ 

Maria, overcome with relief, recognised in turn who it was who had found her. ‘You … you live in my block of flats, don’t you?’ It was the Asian man whose apartment was on the floor above hers. ‘I’m Maria McPherson. And you, you’re …’ She stopped, realising that she didn’t actually know his real name. 

‘Yes. I’m “Blind Ali”. Not my real name, of course. But it’s, well, convenient … and I daresay it has a certain appeal for some. And less of a mouthful.’ 

 Maria knew too well that the man was the target of name calling on a regular basis. She knew how he must feel. Or did she? And to her shame, she realised that the words had been just about to come to her own lips. Did Blind … did this man know? 

‘I’m sorry, but I never heard your real name …’ 

‘Chandra. Chandra Jayasuria. It’s Sri Lankan’ 

‘Oh, Chandra, you can’t guess how glad I am that it’s you. Are you able to find your way about in this?’ 

‘But of course! I knew there was a fog, but not that there was a power cut too. And you … you’re lost, aren’t you?’ 

She nodded. ‘Yes. And I’m desperately worried. I’m on my way to a woman who’s in labour. God knows what must be happening to her. She’ll be so frightened.’ 

‘Does she live nearby?’ 

“I – I’ve no idea. I have no idea where I am, for a start. Do you know?’ 

“Of course. We are by the factory in Denman Road. Where were you trying to get to?’ 

She told him the address. ‘OK. We’ll be there in about twenty minutes …’ 

She did not immediately grasp what it was he intended. ‘But how …?’ 

‘Miss Maria … all the streets within a couple of miles are imprinted here.’ He raised his hand to his forehead. ‘Just put your hand on my shoulder and we’ll set off. No need to be afraid.’ 

Yet she was afraid. Not of the gentle man who had come to her rescue, but of the menacing silence about her. And desperately anxious for the young mother who was waiting for her. As if sensing her fear, her guide began talking quietly. 

‘You understand, I’ve been walking these streets every day for more than twenty years, since I first came to this country. Safer, I think, than where I lived in Sri Lanka.’ 

Maria’s curiosity was roused. ‘Because of the troubles there?’ 

‘Goodness, no. We lived in a rural part of the island, nowhere near the fighting. My family ran a tea plantation. But even living in such a quiet spot carried its own risks’ 

Distracted from her anxiety Maria remarked ‘I can’t imagine anything much frightening about that.’ 

Chandra chuckled again. ‘Well, you are right, of course. But alarming things did happen, even if not very often. I used to be sent out to work when I was a boy. Would you believe it, a herd of elephants once strayed on to the plantation and did terrible damage. Trampled everything and very nearly trampled me!’ 

‘Chandra, you’re kidding …’ 

‘No. Really. But I think Pa and Ma were less upset of what could have become of their beloved son, than the devastation caused by those elephants!’ He went on talking about his past, his coming to England to take up a place at University, and the difficulties he had experienced in adapting to his new circumstances. It was all small talk, calculated, Maria thought, to put her at her ease. He told her pretty much nothing about himself, and never once referred to his blindness.  And then he asked ‘So will you tell me, Miss Maria, how you came to be a midwife? I’ve always admired you. And I’ve always wondered how you came to have such a lovely Scottish accent.’ 

And so she told him about her own life and how she came to be where she now worked. She told him that she had been raised in Edinburgh, and how her choice of career had not met with approval from her adoptive parents. They were disappointed that she had not trained as a doctor. ‘I am sorry to hear that, Miss Maria’ observed Chandra. ‘If you will forgive me for saying so, I should have been very proud were I to have had a daughter who did as you have done.’ He paused as if considering something, then said, ‘And I know too that you have to contend with … with insults as I do.’ 

How did he know? 

‘But enough for now. We are here at the front door of your patient.’

How did he know that I am black? 

At that moment, the street lights came on. With a gasp of relief, Maria could see that the fog was thinning. She saw the lights flickering in the windows of the surrounding houses. Yes, this was Jean’s house. ‘Chandra – bless you for being such a wonderful guide to me. And for being so kind and reassuring. You must have thought me very silly.’  

 ‘Not at all, Miss Maria. It was my pleasure, and a privilege.’ 

He faced her and – later she wondered why he did it – he removed his heavy dark glasses. She stared at this face. It was horribly scarred. She realised at once that at some time in the past he had been burned dreadfully. She had to force herself not to recoil in shock, not doubting for a moment that he would sense her horror. 

‘Chandra – oh Chandra … what happened to you?’ 

A painful smile flickered across his lips. ‘Fawkes wasn’t the only guy they set light to, Maria. And your parents were not the only ones denied the pride of having a child become a doctor. That much we have in common.’ 

She shook her head. ‘No …’ Maria took his hand and squeezed it. 

‘Now, you must go in’ said the blind man. ‘You are needed.’ And again he hesitated before saying: ‘They are just ignorant, you know. So perverse, isn’t it, when we all should be grateful to people like you who come to live and work among us’. 

So you must know – must have heard …  they have a name for me as well. 

She turned and walked towards the door. Another wave of anxiety gripped her. What might have become of her patient?  Alone, progressing rapidly in labour, and in total darkness. The thought appalled her. 

She knocked on the door. She listened intently for a response from within. She heard nothing. She knocked again, harder. 

Fifteen, twenty seconds passed. Still silence. Her anxiety quickly turned to dread. She turned, hoping that Chandra might have waited. He could go to the nearest telephone … call the police, an ambulance. But there was no sign of him. 

And then she saw a light come on through the frosted glass panels. ‘Oh, thank God …’ she murmured. 

Slow footsteps approached the door from within. A hesitant voice called out ‘Who’s there?’ 

‘It’s Maria, Jean. I’m so sorry … I got delayed.’ 

The door opened. Jean, dishevelled and wearing a towelling dressing gown stood in front of her. Her hand rested on her swollen abdomen. For a moment she seemed to struggle to get her breath. 

‘I’m sorry … I was …’ 

‘Jean, are you OK?” Maria interrupted, “has it been terrible …?’ 

‘No, not really. The contractions are regular and getting stronger. But I did just as you told me. I took some paracetamol and went and lay down. And I dropped of to sleep!’ 

‘You’ve slept all through …’? 

‘Yes. I was out for the count. Your knocking brought me to my senses. But come in out of the cold. It looks miserable out there. Did you have trouble getting here?’ 

‘Just a bit. But my guardian angel came to my rescue. Now, let’s get you sorted …’ 

2181 Words

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