All My Life I’ve Had to Borrow Eyes

Nobody noticed at first. A newborn is always held, or asleep. Even a toddler is rarely not touching somebody. And how was I to know that everybody else got their own view of the world, one where they were at the centre, looking out? I started life mainly looking at myself, as I explored and discovered my surroundings. I remember that the rush of a swing at the park thrilled me, a snapshot of our neighbourhood each time Mummy clasped my hand as she brought me back for another push. I didn’t know that the intermittent darkness wasn’t normal. 

It wasn’t until I started school that we realised there was a problem. ‘Keep your hands to yourself!’ heralded blindness. And even when I was given the opportunity to see, what I caught was a whir of jostling, and so many faces, so many viewpoints, with little chance to ground myself. I tried to explain but didn’t know how to train my gaze. I was accused of being rude. Mummy held my hand and I saw those stern-faced teachers with low-eyebrowed disapproval. 

They taught me braille. Gave me a stick. Put me in a special class. But I wanted colour and life and smiles. I needed others’ skin, and with it I had a vibrant world. Without it, I was plunged into a velvet-thick darkness on every side. Mum and Dad understood, and showed me the world through their eyes. Mum and I, together, learned to do everything with one hand, clasping the other with our spare. Together, I learned to sew and cook, with her eyes trained to linger where I needed them.

Some things, though, I never saw, but fumbled my way with growing efficacy as I learned to care for myself. Dad showed me less and less, then stopped altogether. The last things I saw from him were the judgemental eyes of strangers as we held hands in Debenhams. Not long afterwards came ‘the talk’ from my mum, about hormones and changes and blood and cramping and how to contain it all. I hadn’t known that blood was red until my little brother had a nosebleed in the car one day and I grabbed his hand at his scream and saw it spurting out. I’d felt queasy then, with him, but also for myself, that that is what I had been mopping up from myself each month. 

I held Tommy Cousins’ hand throughout the whole of my first date, clammy and pulse racing, watching the cinema screen through his eyes. I liked how his gaze pinged to my face every time I laughed, and I noticed for the first time that I had one dimple when I smiled. I soon learned, though, that double dates were better, when I could swap from brushing the skin of my date, to my friend, who could show me his expressions, too. 

Going out with Maggie and John was the best, when I started dating Brian. Maggie knew that if I touched the back of her hand, she was to search Brian’s face. Together we watched him falling for me, his admiration morphing into devotion. And then I didn’t need Maggie so much. By the time Brian and I got married, I knew what each inflection of his voice, what each squeeze from his hand, meant, without a visual interlocutor. 

Making love, once we’d got the hang of it, was such an equaliser. Skin on skin, eyes closed, he felt his way as much as I did. Snatches of my own nakedness, seen through his steadfastness and the promises we’d made, made me feel alive. And stretches of darkness in each other’s arms meant that he had closed his eyes. His darkness looked different to my own, and I soon found myself at home in it. 

I watched my shape shift through Brian’s admiration, as my abdomen swelled. Saw the daffodil-bloom of delight in my own face when together, we felt those kicks: him from the outside, me from the inside. ‘It’s a girl!’ was pronounced through my sweat-hazed exhaustion, and I saw myself, briefly, fuzzy, black and white, through her brand new eyes, in between wails, before Brian touched my arm and I saw her red-faced, beautiful anger at the world she’d been pushed into. 

Then Ella became my little ally. I felt my way around motherhood, watching her grow through the eyes of others, sensing her smiles when she saw mine, singing nursery rhymes. She showed me the fine lines appearing around my eyes, and the silver strands at Brian’s temples. It became Ella who guided me round the shops, her fist clasped around my finger from her pram. I talked to her continually, to keep her awake, her eyes open. 

Before I knew it, I was getting the hip-high bouncing view of the walk to school. I stopped to gaze at ladybirds through the unhurried lens of four-year-old eyes. I marvelled, with Ella, at the miniature world reflected in the glinting globe of a dewdrop. Together we noticed the array of colours sparkling on the strands of a cobweb, and how many shades of blue and grey were possible in an 8:30am sky. 

The journey home, though, on that first day – that caught me out. After that first slow, shuffled, oh-so-careful return, I began bringing a folded-up umbrella to surreptitiously swing. I could never bring myself to use a white stick – what would the other mums think, when they’d witnessed me seeing? And I clearly didn’t qualify for a guide dog. But, I’d been adapting all my life, and I learned new tricks, muddling my way through, a law unto myself. On the school playground, the other mums talked of making things up as they went along, and I nodded enthusiastically – yes! 

My dear mum held my hand as together we watched Brian walk Ella down the aisle. I’ve never seen his head held so high, his back so straight. Ella always charmed anyone she came across with her bright cheeriness and dimpled smile, and I’ll never forget that day, seeing her from so many angles, how beautiful she was through the eyes of loved ones and acquaintances alike. I took stock of my family, then, with so many opportunities to hug and clasp hands, with everybody looking at everybody else. My little brother was older than I always pictured him, when we spoke on the phone. My father was smaller, somehow, than I’d been remembering.  

That night, our home felt so quiet. After the noise of the disco, the conveyor belt of good wishes, the cacophony of perspectives to gaze through, there didn’t seem to be much life in the house. After we drove my ageing parents home, Brian and I watched TV, holding hands, late into the night – neither of us feeling ready to turn over and sleep. But I kept letting go of his hand, giving my sight a break. Craving a bit of the blackness I was usually foist into. 

My days, then, were blacker than ever. Brian was out at work most of the day, and I felt my way around the housework, pottering in the garden and imagining the vibrant purple of the buddleia I could smell, listening for the buzz and chatter of insects and birds. Brian held out his hand for me to see to the cooking, but his gaze wandered from what I needed to see more and more. I saw newspaper headlines in between each slice of an onion. 

Weekly phone calls to Mum became near-daily visits, where I got glimpses of my childhood home, much the same as before, but faded and worn. It seemed bigger, through my mum’s eyes, when they were open. Her hand in mine felt fragile, like a delicate-boned bird. Dad bustled on as ever, making tea and flicking through the TV guide. Until he stopped, suddenly, one day, digging carrots, I’m told by the neighbour who heard his brief shout. That was so like him, to suddenly give out in the middle of a task. Useful until the end. Mum was slower, more cautious about her end. But reached it, as expected, not long after Dad. The colour drained out from her, a little less remaining with each visit Brian and I took to her hospital bed. I held that almost weightless hand and stared at her darkness. 

I became a grandmother the same year I became an orphan. Twins kept Ella’s hands, and my vision, full. When they began to really stare, as toddlers do, I was startled at how old I had become. I didn’t coax Brian to be my mirror as often as I used to, and we were so used to each other that we never gazed long. One Sunday lunchtime I held boysterous Henry’s hand as he giggled over Grandad, and discovered that I was married to an old man. A little of Brian’s colour had started to seep out too, and I felt a thunderbolt of panic through me at that. 

As it happened, other things leached out of him first. We circled each other in our house and he asked me one day why I kept touching him. Later that day, he knew, but in that moment, he’d forgotten what I needed. What I was. And what he was for me. There were support groups, of course, for couples ‘like us’, and they helped. They did. But I never quite fitted in. I was used to being in between – not quite independent, but not totally reliant, either. My circumstances depended entirely on who was around. Being unexplainable brings its own kind of loneliness. 

Photos were supposed to help Brian. And as we held hands and flipped through snapshots of holidays, outings and Christmases, I drank in the life we’d shared. It triggered memories, emotions, for Brian, and for me it brought life back into my sight. Shoulder pads and perms, ice cream sticky fingers, that synthetic fir tree with the coloured lights. Though the photos had faded and were marred by thumbs over lenses, they gave my memories, as much as Brian’s, a focus. 

Deep, bruised-looking pockets appeared under my eyes as Brian clung to me, asking where we were, what was happening. I saw the hurt in my own face the first time he called me ‘mum’. I grimaced when I saw how plain my own frustration was when he asked me, again, where he was. Ella intervened, when I began looking like that. She talked of nursing homes, of getting him support. But what would I do without him here? We needed each other. 

‘You are still in love,’ one visiting carer commented, ‘You’re always touching your husband. It is so nice to see.’ 

I nodded, attempting to meet her eye by focusing on where her voice had come from, by mapping her face from what Brian was looking at, as I’d learned to do over the years. I pulled a tight smile. But she wasn’t wrong. We were still in love. Love changes over time, that’s the nature of it. It warms from the sweetness of spring, with new shoots and buds, to become the heat of summer, all sweat and poppies and fireworks. Then the autumn comes and it’s bright and comfortable, stretching on like a walk through a familiar patch of countryside. Just because it cools in the winter, doesn’t mean it’s not there. The cold wind hurts, at times, but there is beauty in the frost. And what human hasn’t felt that the winter will never end? 

It always does, though. The feelings linger, of course. I take comfort in the fact that the last thing Brian saw was my face, wrinkled and smiling a faint but unmistakable smile of love. I don’t know at what point the blackness changed from the dark of his closed eyes to the enfolding nothingness that was my default when not touching a living person. He looked peaceful, when Ella arrived and took my hand, and together we cried. Her vision blurred through her tears as I felt my own sliding down my cheeks. 

It wasn’t long after that that I moved in with Ella and her family. Violet, her youngest, was just about to start school, and I volunteered to walk her on that first day. That sunny September morning I delighted, again, at the shades of blue, as we held hands and she chatted, chatted, chatted, bobbing along, so like her mum. We were nearly there, when I caught something in the corner of her vision. ‘Stop!’ I commanded, and together we stooped to admire the surprisingly shiny orange-red dome of a ladybird’s back, before we carried on our way. 

Author: Katie Holloway has never been able to help being a writer. She is fueled by strong tea and snatches of alone time. Her stories have been published in a number of journals. In 2022 she was awarded a DYCP grant from the Arts Council England. She tweets @KatieLHWrites.

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