© James Mackenzie-Carmichael
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Chapter 3 – Don’t Love Me
I was born the son of a professional negotiator. My father was an important man who hired himself out to wealthy and influential people, to broker deals on their behalf. He had a way of generating trust that I could sense from even a very young age. When my father spoke, people listened, and when he made promises I always knew they would be kept.
My mother died when I was very young. She was holding me at the time. As she died, she dropped me, and I landed head first upon a sharp rock on the ground. The hard stone broke my skull in the centre on my forehead. It left me with a dent in my face that I will carry with me all my life.
I am told that the injury is quite unsightly and disturbing to witness. I, myself, have never seen it, as the accident rendered me blind in both eyes.
The doctors call it Traumatic Optic Neuropathy or TON for short. For them, blindness is not sickness, but only a symptom. Growing up listening to doctor speak, I learned to think about it the same way. I have an illness in the front of my brain; and my inability to see is just an indicator of a deeper problem with my mind.
The last thing I remember seeing is my mother’s face. It is the only vision of the world that I can still recall clearly. She had light blonde hair with a parting but no fringe. It frames her face in my memories. I think she must have been beautiful, but I have no real way to judge or compare. At the time I lost my vision I was far too young to have any interest in such things.
Sometimes I think her face is the only true visual memory that I have. Everything else is little more than a faded impression that I believe is more imagination that anything else.
When I was sad as a child, I used to count the freckles on my mother’s face. I found it calming, like a meditation ritual designed to cool the mind when its thoughts began to race. When I was feeling particularly low, I would reach out with my hands, as if I could touch the memory of her, and feel my fingers on her skin. The attempt only ever confirmed that she was gone, and I would inevitably dissolve into tears. Nevertheless, I have never stopped trying.
TON, the illness that produces blindness, has been my constant companion. As a boy I used to talk to it, as if it were a living being that had made its home in my skull. Ton and I went everywhere together, and he was an excellent listener, although I could never trust what he said. I was a very unusual child in that I had an imaginary enemy instead of an imaginary friend.
Ton took different forms depending on my mood. Sometimes he was a snake, or a centipede that would wiggle and wind itself around the protrusion that was the hole in my forehead. On other occasions he was a wasp, and when he stung me I experienced the most terrible of headaches. I hated him terribly, but I grew accustomed to his companionship. Ton could not leave me any more than I could be rid of him. He was my prisoner as much as he was my disease.
Ton and I rarely went outside the house. The people of my home town did not like Ton. If they saw us they would heckle and shout. They would call my name, but I knew that it was Ton that they truly despised. I would tell him so and he would snicker in reply and inflict me with painful migraines.
I was ashamed of the way people treated us. I did not want to be unpopular and I did not want my father to see how much I was disliked by the townspeople. One day, however, the abuse was so unsettling that I told him. It was a difficult conversation, and I cannot now recall it in any detail, except that it was the first time I heard of Eugenix.
Our homeland is, of course, a democracy. Every five years the people vote for their choice of politician, and the twenty members with the most votes form the ruling Cabinet. Eugenix was a prominent politician and a respected member of the Cabinet. My father had met Eugenix on more than one occasion and he was well acquainted with his views.
Eugenix believed in duty and the morality of strength. He was a deep thinker, and he always tried to consider what was best for humanity as a whole, and our country in particular. Eugenix was also a long-term planner and he wanted to sow the seeds of the nation’s strength for decades and centuries to come.
Eugenix wanted to strengthen the people by removing those born with physical or mental weaknesses from society. Any baby born with a severe defect was deemed substandard and was meant to be cast aside. He also encouraged women to choose successful men to father their children, even if those men were not their husbands.
I had not been born unable to see and so I was not subject to the law of abandonment. Nevertheless, my hidden enemy Ton was a stigma that I could never escape. I would never truly be welcome in my home.
The only man who accepted me without reservation was my Father. He was a single parent, and the sole reason I survived. He cared for me with great devotion throughout my childhood. He clothed me, fed me and brought me books that had been written in braille, so that I had some understanding of maths, science and the arts. These books were very expensive as most shops were unwilling to stock anything designed for the physically impaired. My father spent a tremendous amount of his money making sure I had the best education possible, given my extremely poor circumstances.
When I was a teenager, my Father hired a housekeeper. Basira was a short woman, but she had a big voice, and I often found myself on the receiving end of a scolding. Basira’s only real concern was my Father’s approval, which is understandable in an employee. Nevertheless, I found it upsetting that she so clearly wished I did not exist, as I could not help with her job, but only made it more difficult.
Basira had a cruel streak in her that I never understood. Perhaps she too, was a believer in the immorality of weakness? Perhaps she was secretly in love with my Father and was incredibly jealous of all the time he spent with me, while she was doing all the work? Or perhaps she just did not like me on a personal level? Whatever the reason, she made my life very difficult, and I began to hate her with a passion.
Eventually I went to my Father and asked if he could replace her with somebody else. He said I should not blame her for being short with me. She was just a housekeeper and no more could be expected of her.
I remember the wave of depression that overcame me on that day. It was the first time I felt truly hopeless about my life. I had been sad previously, as a child, but the moments had passed quickly, as childish emotions do. Now that I was in my teenage years, I began to understand just how much of curse my blindness was.
Ton slithered around in my mind in glee. He was pleased that my increasing maturity enabled me to fully appreciate just how much harm he had caused me. I imagined I could feel him moving under my skin, behind my damaged skull and I wanted to take a drill to my head to removed him. Ton only laughed at the thought, however, and I knew it was a bad idea.
In my eighteenth year, Basira began her campaign to force me to leave my Father’s house.
“Your Father has done his duty to you now,” she would tell me. “You are a bad person for destroying any more of his life.”
I would shake when I heard her words, for a part of me knew that she was right. My Father had not just spent his money, but also his time on my care. He had tended to me with a dedication that was far above what was demanded by society. In fact, many people would not have blamed him if he had abandoned me at the time of my mother’s death.
Basira had this annoying habit of giving voice to the hidden drips of guilt that Ton had secreted throughout my mind. I began to believe that they were in a conspiracy together, to manipulate and force me into leaving the one place of safety I had ever known.
Mostly I was able to hide this misery from my Father. I did not like to give voice to it as that would only increase the burden I had already laid upon him. Sometimes, however, my distress would become uncontainable and I would speak out about my wishes and dreams and the life I wanted for myself. Then my father would come to me and hold me. He would touch my face and kiss me on the forehead.
“I will always look after you,” he would tell me. “Basira is a good woman too. She treats you better than any other woman would.”
It was comforting to know how much my Father loved me, but it did not help with my depression. I would sink into low moods from which I would not emerge for days. Only Basira could bring me out of them, but I felt no gratitude to her for doing so. Inevitably she would replace my low moods with irritation, frustration and anger.
In my heart, I began to switch continually between two distinct emotions. In certain instances, I would believe that the world’s rejection of people like myself was justified, and then I would feel depressed. At other times, I grew arrogant and thought that I deserved more from life, at which point I would become annoyed. I would take out my annoyance on the world around me, breaking small objects around the house. When my Father found them, I would crash back into depression, knowing that in my heart I was neither a good son nor a moral person in general.
In my early twenties Ton began to take on forms that I found truly frightening. He would appear as a tiny, red imp, wreathed in flame and alive with dark demonic purpose. I would shudder and resolve to never leave the house in case Ton took over my mind and forced me into unspeakable acts of evil.
During the night, Ton would change into a lizard with burning eyes and black, oily skin. He would thrash against my skull, hoping desperately for release. In response I would harden my thoughts against him.
“The devil is in me, but I will not let him out!” I would whisper into my pillow as sleep eluded me for yet another night.
The lizard would make a hideous sound in reply. It was halfway between a croak and a roar and was so inhuman that I knew Ton harboured an alien intelligence whose purpose was so nefarious it might lead to the end of the world, if he was ever released.
“You and I are enemies to the end,” I would whisper. And Ton’s eyes would burn with an even deeper malevolence.
Around this time, I began to sense that the relationship between myself and my Father had changed. He still loved me and cared for me as he always had, but there was a distance between us that had not existed before.
I had excellent hearing, as many blind people do, and I would catch the ends of conversations between my Father and Bahira that were not meant for me. Gradually, I became aware of just how much time they spent together, talking about me behind my back.
I worried endlessly about what Bahira might be saying. Was she poisoning my Father against me? I knew from my own experience that she had a powerful ability to know exactly what to say to irritate a person most. Would she convince my Father that there was an evil hiding inside me? How much did she know about my struggle to keep control of Ton?
My Father was my only friend, and if I lost him I would be totally alone in the world.
I tried to make myself less of a burden. Despite my blindness I could move around the house with a certain amount of ease. I did the best I could to help with the housework. I hoped this would make my life easier, but it had an effect that I had not foreseen.
Bahira depended on my Father for her livelihood. He had been the sole source of her income for more than a decade and she did not appreciate my infringing on her role. She began to treat me not just as a bad person, but also as competition.
Ton and I had a mental map of the building. We knew the exact location of every piece of furniture, every doorway and every step. I would walk around the house with extreme care, concentrating on making sure all my footsteps were exactly the length they should be and that whenever I changed direction I knew precisely which direction I was now facing.
My system of motion had been built up over years and I had grown confident despite my disability. It was with some horror that I began to notice small changes in the position of some of the furniture. At the time, I thought this was due to lack of concentration, as I bumped gently into the corners of tables and the backs of chairs. Later I would attribute it to a deliberate campaign to be rid of me.
When I fell, my Father would rush across towards me and pick me up off the ground. He would speak gently to me and hug me until I had recovered from the shock. Bahira would say nothing in his presence, but if my Father was not at home then she would speak out,
“If you get in the way of my work, then I shall be very cross.”
I was surprised by how much her words hurt me. Bahira and I had been at odds for a long time, and I did not like her at all. Nevertheless, I valued her opinion. I cared what she thought of me and it was painful that I did not have her approval. Perhaps this was a weakness in me, or perhaps it was an inevitable consequence of having so few people in my life.
Ton would hiss and caper when she spoke. He would take the form of a weasel and gnaw at the lump on the inside of my forehead. I would curse at him and scream within my thoughts. Wrapped in my hatred, Ton only celebrated more furiously.
The situation placed me under tremendous stress. I dared not leave the house. I had no mental map of the outside world, no way to navigate its streets, and no money to provide for my survival. Eugenix had grown old as I had matured into an adult, but he was still a member of the Cabinet, and my Father told me that his views on disabilities still held tremendous sway with the people of the country. I would not be able to trust anybody and risked being physically attacked.
I could not leave, but with each passing week and month, Bahira became more openly hostile and unpleasant.
One day, as I shuffled slowly from the sitting room to the bathroom, she shoved me in the chest. I took a step backwards and tried to catch myself, but I fell hard against the floor. I heard my Father quickly stand and come towards me, comforting me and helping me back to my feet.
“She pushed me!” I exclaimed.
“Now, now,” said my Father, “there is no cause for accusations. Bahira did no such thing.”
Had I imagined it? I was sure I had felt two small hands upon my chest, not my fathers that I knew so well, but someone else’s who had rarely made any physical contact with me at all.
“You have to get rid of her,” I pleaded.
I heard my Father sigh and was reminded of just how great a burden I was upon him.
“I don’t know what to do.” His voice sounded exasperated. “I just want to help you. Tell me how I can look after you better.”
His words made me shrivel up inside. Was that all I was, a useless waste of space; a bag of needs and weakness? He was so kind to me, but his very gentle care was making me want to die. I found it ironic that Bahira’s campaign of malice increased my determination and my boldness, but my Father’s love only made me want to shrink back into the form of a tiny child.
That night, I lay awake and studied my mother’s face. Even after all these years it was still so clear to me. She was my oldest companion, who had been with me for even longer than Ton. I tried to ask her for advice, but she gave me no direction, just a faint memory of a time when life had been more than it was now.
I realised how little I knew about her and I began to cry. What had she been like in life? Had she worked? Had she had many friends? I did not even know her name. She was just Mummy, my Mother, whose face had calmed me repeatedly, whenever I felt that life had become so unbearable that I did not know how to go on.
The next day I asked my Father about her.
“Rachel,” he said. “Her name was Rachel,” but then he would say no more.
This was more information than he had ever given me previously. My Father did not like to speak of her, I understood that even now the memories were still too painful.
Knowing my mother’s name changed my relationship with her deeply. Mummy only gave, and had no needs of her own, but Rachel was a person with all the associated weaknesses.
Had she been happy? Had her dreams come true? Was she pleased with the life that she had found? I had no idea what the answers were, but I felt close to her in a new way. Now the comfort she offered was no longer blind. She would have had troubles, perhaps she would have sympathised with mine.
Bahira came to me that evening.
“What did you do to your Father?” she demanded. “I have never seen him so low. Is it not enough that you take up his time and his money? Would you now take away all his inner strength as well? Eugenix is right. Humanity is better off without the likes of you.”
I hated Bahira, with a passion all the stronger because I suspected that she was right. I needed to do something to escape this terrible status quo that had trapped three people together in a household dominated by misery.
My Father’s kindness, love and rose-tinted view of Bahira meant that he would never abandon either her or myself. Bahira’s devotion to my Father and her dependence on his employment meant that she could never leave him. The only one of us that stood a chance of improving our dark dependency and bringing some joy into our lives was me.
It would not be enough to leave. I had to depart to somewhere that my Father could never find me. I needed to make certain that his love for me could not drag him back towards myself and Ton.
I began to sneak out of the house at night.
Moving silently was not difficult for me. I had long developed a habit of keeping my own noise to an absolute minimum such that I could concentrate on the sounds of the world around me. Bahira had her own room in the house, across the hall from my Father’s. I would listen until I was sure they were asleep, and then I would walk carefully down the stairs, and out of the front door.
I began by slowly exploring the area right outside the house. Late at night, there were rarely any passers-by. If somebody did approach then I would inevitably hear them long before they reached me, and I simply stood stock still in the dark until they had gone.
I tried hard not to wander onto any of our neighbour’s land as I did not want to be mistaken for a thief. Instead I crept along hedgerows and felt the tops of fences and walls with my hands. I learnt the feel of the different textures under my fingertips. I made myself a mental map of the street based on counting footsteps, feeling for landmarks, and smelling the scent of the various flowers.
My exploration was frightening, but it was also exciting. Each day I would sit resting, waiting for the opportunity when I could come alive and go out into the world. I still planned on leaving, as soon as I felt I was ready, but for the first time in as long as I could remember, I had something to look forward to each day.
I tried to think of ways to gain more information about my world. I thought of how I could tell where I was in the house by the feel of the different surfaces under my feet. I did not want to go outside without shoes, so I took a pair of high quality Oxfords that my father had given me, and carefully cut away most of the soles. Now I could tell where I was simply by feeling the different cracks and tree roots under my feet.
All was going well until the night one of my greatest worries came true and I quite literally bumped into another person. I knew what had happened straight away. The feel of clothes over a body is quite unique and as soon as my hands touched the stranger I realised this was an actual person.
Instantly Ton snickered. He had taken the form of a diseased cat and was rubbing up against my brain. It had been a while since I had heard from him, but the experience was just as unpleasant as ever. He hissed and spat out a single word,
I was terrified. I did not think that it was likely I had bumped into Eugenix himself, but what if I had? Perhaps a curious neighbour had been watching my nightly excursions and had called the Cabinet Minister! Perhaps he was not alone, out here in the dark.
In any case, could I really be sure it was dark? Eugenix could have brought lights with him and filled the street with people ready to punish me for my disease.
No, that was pure hysteria. Normally people fidget so much that they give off a steady trickle of noise. One person could have stood still enough that I had not heard of him, but not a crowd.
“Evening,” said a deep, male voice.
“Erm, hi,” I whispered, irrationally frightened of making too large a noise.
Should I turn around and go back? That would appear strange, but I had a strong desire to return to the safety of my Father’s house. On the other hand, if I did that then this stranger would find out where I lived. Unless, of course, he already knew.
If this man was a follower of Eugenix then I was probably in a lot of trouble. However, if he opposed Eugenix then he might take me home and tell my Father what I had been doing. That thought filled my mind with despair. If Father found out I had been sneaking out of the house, then he would undoubtedly make sure I was locked in in future. He cared about me too much to allow me to risk myself in this way.
“We’ve met before, but you might not remember.”
So, he did know who I was. The thought made me want to cry. I cursed myself for being so pathetic and Ton bathed in the luxury of my self-hatred.
I gritted my teeth and attempted to take control of my emotions.
“I don’t know your voice,” I replied.
Damn! Why had I said that? If there was ever any doubt about my illness, then I had basically confirmed that I could not see.
“Maybe you’ll remember my face,” said the man.
I heard a rustle of clothing and then felt his hand close about my wrist. The grip was not strong, but I knew there was no point resisting. I was almost totally vulnerable to the whims of this stranger. Despite my excellent hearing, I had no doubt that even a weak man, who was free of my disease, could injure me whenever he wished.
Slowly but firmly, the man lifted my hand upwards and placed my fingertips on his face. The sensation was overwhelmingly intimate. Even before I explored his features, I felt honoured that this stranger would allow me such intimate contact.
I might have touched my Father’s face as a child, but I could not recall exactly when. I had a sense of what he looked like, but perhaps my image of him was totally inaccurate. I had never attempted such an exploration of either my Father or Bahira as an adult, although my Father would touch my face all the time when giving me comfort.
I touched the man’s eyebrows and felt the shape of the bones around his eye sockets. I was careful not to irritate his eyes, but I ran my fingers over his nose, his lips, his cheeks and his chin. My touch was feather-light and my investigation slow, but the stranger remained motionless throughout.
When I had finished I lowered my hand to my side. So many times, in the past few decades I had longed to touch my mother in that way. I still saw her face, when I was at my most depressed about my Father or filled with anger at the cruelty of Bahira. This man was not Rachel, my Mother who I loved, but somehow the act of knowing him in this very intimate way fulfilled my longest held dream.
I could sense an expression on my face. I understood it, even though I had never known it before. I was in awe of this man, who moments ago I had been so afraid of.
“Perhaps a part of you does remember me. It was only yesterday you saw me, standing outside the ball. Although I know you believe that you have been blind for close to twenty-five years.”
His words made no sense, yet on some level I did not doubt that they were true. Everything told me I could not possibly have seen this man before, unless it was decades ago as a child. Yet because it was this man that spoke them, I was certain it must be my understanding that was in error and not his confusing communication.
I felt I should say something, although I did not really want to speak.
“I was exploring.”
“Sometimes a journey seems necessary. If only to find a deeper love of home.”
“I do not love my home,” I declared.
The man made no attempt to contradict me, but his silence left me anxious to explain myself further.
“I should love it. I am ungrateful. I know it is wrong, but I hate it there.”
“It is home to a blind man.”
The stranger stated the obvious, but I had the beautiful sensation that his words held a deeper meaning. Perhaps one that I might comprehend in time.
“I would like to give you gift, but I do not think you are ready.”
I wanted to protest that I was fully prepared to accept his present, but I knew I needed more information if I was to be convincing.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Just a stick.”
“What is so special about it?”
“Nothing, although it is quite nice to look at. Here, see for yourself.”
He took my wrist once again and guided my hand. At once I felt a sudden surge of fear. Was this stranger a pervert? Perhaps his words were not filled with meaning, but simply a sign of some subtle insanity, playing in his mind.
Ton switched to his demon form and rubbed his tiny nude body against my damaged brain. Drool dripped from his mouth and he grabbed the soft flesh of my grey matter with both hands before thrusting furiously with his hips.
“No!” I pulled my hand back to my body, breaking the stranger’s grip with ease. “I have to go now.”
I did not want to turn my back on the man, but I knew I could not navigate safely in reverse. I spun about as quickly as I dared, knowing if I lost my orientation I might never find my way home. A sudden surge of panic smacked me in the face as I imagined I could feel the stranger’s breath upon my neck and his hands hovering around my waist. I ran as fast as a blind man can, which is to say I shuffled delicately away from the threat, feeling for the stone under my feet through the thin soles of my shoes and running my fingers along the top of the small wooden fence that marked the edge of the garden on my left.
“Until tomorrow then,” the stranger called out from behind me.
His tone and volume suggested that he had not moved but I could never quite be sure. I lived in a world where all my assumptions had to be questioned all the time. However good my hearing, it did not make up for the loss of my eyesight.
Ton shifted back to the shape of the diseased cat and squinted at me lazily through cruel eyes. Of the two of us, Ton was the one with perfect vision, although he had no need for it.
If blindness itself had come to life and walked the earth as a person, then its eyesight would have been so superhumanly good that all normal people would have been crippled in comparison.
I scrunched my face up at the thought. My terror seemed to be affecting my logic. One man’s sight did not come at the cost of another’s. Did it?
I shuddered with the sudden idea that society had made me ill to gain a greater sense of itself as healthy. Was I the boy the world whipped, as if through inflicting my pain its own suffering was lessened? Was I loved by all because I was hurting in their place?
Ton slithered in his snake form and bit me repeatedly. His motion spun my thoughts into a frenzy and his venom inflicted a headache the like of which I had never experienced before. My left hand was following the fences and hedges to one side, but with my right I rubbed aggressively at the dent in my forehead.
I hated it so much. I pressed into it, perhaps hoping that my thumb would break open my skull and I could reach inside and tear Ton away from my mind. The joints in my fingers grew pained and my headache increased but the malformed bone did not break. I felt a slick wetness on my fingertips and realised that my nails had drawn blood.
In my mind’s eye I saw the tiny trickle of redness increase until it was a steady flow. Then the pressure rose and rose until blood burst forth from my forehead like a fountain and covered the street, the gardens and all the parked cars in sticky redness.
Still, the torrent grew in strength and size. A river flowed from me. My life’s blood lay thick on the world until my every step was slowed by a knee-high swamp of clotting burnished plasma.
Surely, I must have died by now! My own life needed to be forfeit as I drowned the world in deep red liquid sin.