Star Gazing - Extract
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This is not a ghost story. Not really. But it was Christmas and I did feel as if I'd seen a ghost. Or rather heard a ghost. Except that you don't hear ghosts, do you? Clanking chains, hideous moans perhaps, but on the whole people see ghosts, or so I understand. It's an experience I've been spared. But I thought I'd heard one.
The woman takes care getting out of the taxi, reaches inside and removes a briefcase and carrier bag. She sets them carefully on the kerb and fumbles in a capacious handbag for her purse.
As the taxi pulls away she turns to face the grey Georgian terrace, elegantly anonymous, typical of many in Edinburgh. Dressed in a full-length woollen coat and dashing velvet hat, the woman extends a leather-booted toe and places it, deliberately, on a manhole cover. She bends and picks up her bags, straightens, pauses for a moment, then without looking to left or right, she strides across the pavement towards the steps leading up to a front door. A keen-eared observer might hear her counting under her breath.
Before she has taken four paces there is a hiss of braking wheels and the sound of a bicycle skidding on pavement, followed by an angry adolescent shout.
'Jesus! Didn't you see me coming? Are you blind or what?'
Shaken, the woman turns to face the cyclist. As she adjusts her hat, knocked askew, her hands are unsteady but her voice is firm. 'Yes. As a matter of fact, I am.'
That's right, I'm blind. I'll just give you a moment or two to adjust your prejudices.
But, I hear you ask, shouldn't I have been escorted by a golden Labrador? Or waving a white stick? At the very least, shouldn't I have been wearing enormous dark glasses, as favoured by Roy Orbison and Ray Charles?
I know, I know - it really was my own stupid fault for wandering about looking normal. (Well, I'm told I do. How would I know?)
'I am blind and you have no right to be cycling on the pavement. If you have a bell, might I suggest you try using it in future?'
But the cyclist is already gone. She bends to pick up the bag she dropped, feels the shifting of broken glass, hears the steady drip of liquid onto the pavement. With sinking heart she mounts the steps and delves into her handbag again for her door key. The loss of the burgundy is a disaster - how will they cook boeuf bourguignonne without it? And the meringue nests will be as shattered as her nerves. Encountering the cold metal of her phone, she wonders whether to ring her sister with a last-minute shopping-list.
The door key falls from her chilled fingers. She gasps, straining her ears to locate the direction of the small sound it makes as it hits the ground. She bends, sweeps the stone with bare hands, cursing the cyclist, Christmas and most particularly her blindness. Something wet and weightless lands on the back of her hands.
She feels the prickle of tears, blinks rapidly and sweeps the doorstep again, then plunges her hand into the evergreen foliage of a potted plant, shaking it, listening for the clink of a falling key.
She is considering what comfort might be derived from sitting on the steps and bursting into tears when she hears footsteps approach, then come to a halt. She registers a habitual flutter of apprehension. The footsteps are male.
'Can I help?' A man's voice, not local, nor one that she knows. Or... ?
'I've dropped my door key and I can't find it. I'm blind.'
She hears the sound of change jingling in pockets as he mounts the steps quickly. After a moment he says, 'It's fallen on to the basement stair... Here you are.' He takes her chillled hand, places the key in her palm and murmurs, 'Che gelida manina...'
'Yes, I've lost my gloves too. Must have dropped them somewhere.'
'No, they're dangling from your coat pocket.'
'Are they?' She feels for the gloves. 'Thank you. And thank you for finding my key.'
'No bother. I hate to tell you this, but your shopping seems to be bleeding.'
'It's red wine. I dropped it. It's been one of those days.' She opens her handbag and pushes the gloves inside. 'Do you like opera? Or do you just break out in Italian every so often?'
'I'm a sucker for Puccini.'
She considers. 'Musically very appealing, but ideologically unsound, I always think. Women as passive victims of glamorous men. Rather repellent in the twenty-first century.'
'I hadn't really thought about it like that.'
'You wouldn't. You're a man.'
'A chromosomal accident. I'm sorry.'
She laughs. 'No, I'm sorry. For being so rude. Forgive me - I was rather shaken, losing my key. Cross with myself and taking it out on you. Hardly fair. I keep my key on a chain that I put round my wrist so I can't drop it, but I was in a hurry and I didn't bother... Are you from Skye?'
He pauses a moment before answering. 'Aye. Well, I was brought up there. I was born on Harris. But my parents hankered after bright lights and the big city. So they moved to Portree.' She laughs again. 'I take it you know Portree?'
'Only by reputation. I knew a Skye man... A Sgitheanach.'
'Sgitheanaich are loyal. We tend to go back.'
'Aye, when I can. It's a great place. As long as you don't crave excitement.'
'Your parents were disappointed then?'
'Och, no, they died happy in their beds.' She senses a smile. 'Of culture shock.'
'Well, there are worse ways to die.'
'Aye. A lot worse.'
'Thanks for your help.'
'No bother. Will you manage with the broken glass?'
'Oh, yes, my sister will deal with it, after she's given me a thorough scolding for being so damned independent. I'll just leave the bag on the doorstep. The food's ruined anyway.'
'Well, if you're sure there's nothing more I can do?'
'Thanks, I'll be fine now.'
She hears his feet on the steps again. He calls up, his voice more distant now. 'I'll run into you at the opera maybe? I presume Turandot meets your stringent feminist criteria?'
'Ah, now she's a girl after my own heart. Chews men up and spits them out. And if they can't guess the riddles - off with their heads!'
'But the Prince confounds her. With his name.'
'Yes. Puccini's misogyny always triumphs in the end.'
'You're getting cold. Away indoors. And wipe your feet - you're standing in a pool of red wine.'
'It was very nearly a pool of tears.'
'I'll see you around, maybe.'
'Well, you might see me, but I definitely won't see you. Goodbye.'