Damian Maximus is an experimental author, exploring the use of style and genre in storytelling. His work includes short story The Blind Ballroom Dancer, as well as novels Crownless Kings and The Romance of Unconnected Lives. His third and latest novel, Barry the Rogue Baguettiere, is a comedy of serious frivolity. You can find Damian Maximus on Instagram @Damian_Maximus or on his website, DamianMaximus.com.
The Blind Ballroom Dancer
Chapter one “Ready? Here we go. One, and, three, four. Five, and, seven, eight. One, and, three, four. Five, and, seven, eight. Keep going. Emphasize the rise more on the closing step. One and rise fall, five and very good. That’s better. Imagine you’re tiptoeing during the rise and fall. On four and eight you’re stepping on glass. Don’t break the glass. One and three four, five and seven eight. Good. Keep your head turned slightly to your left. You should be looking just past my ear. A little more. Good. Shoulders, David, shoulders. Good. I’m going to stop now. Lead me through whatever you feel works.” David and Larla had been dancing together for about three months now but the foxtrot was still new to him. Whenever he found himself learning a new dance it became a checklist of all the information and techniques he thought he’d already mastered. His concentration on the movement of his legs caused his frame to buckle. When he straightened out his frame – pulling in his belly button and pushing out his shoulder blades – he found his legs weren’t doing what they should. The steps were right but it was all the technique, the subtle movements, that got lost. The roll across the ball of the foot, the twist of the foot to ready yourself for a move three steps away, the slight corkscrew of the spine caused by the movement of the hips and the contrasting tension within the shoulders as he and his partner connected at the hips and twisted away from each other like a single martini glass. He had a good command of his bodily awareness – he always had – but every new dance brought with it new challenges, new skills, new mistakes to be made. He loved it. “Great, you’re improving very quickly, almost ready for the competition.” “Thanks. I have a good teacher.” “The best,” Larla smiled as she looked at David. “Again?” Every student of hers had a reason for why they wanted to learn to dance. Most were basic, couples wanting to connect more, individuals wanting to impress their significant others, wedding dances. The couples were fun; Larla basically just acted as a chaperon, teaching them what to do and then letting them dance together for most of the lesson. The individuals wanting to impress their significant others were a little trickier; there is a fine line between impressing someone and ostracising them and usually it worked best if Larla managed to get the two together as soon as possible so they could get used to each other’s dancing styles. Wedding dances were easy; there was usually a song and all that was required was teaching the accompanied choreography. Then there were the rarer students, those seeking to compete, those wanting to master a new skill. They were really fun and sometimes quite challenging. Larla loved getting into the technique, the mechanisms for all the different moves. She loved the students who wanted to nerd out on the dance, those who found it interesting to know that the secret to Latin hips was in the knees and the upper hamstrings. Many who find hip action difficult do so because they’ve conditioned themselves to stand with tightened upper hamstrings, particular in the upper adductor muscles. Nerd. Because you can’t actually move your hips. They aren’t a muscle group. To move your hips you have to move your legs and your abdomen in conjunction with each other. This action pulls your hips in different directions and really gets them rotating. If you keep one leg straight and drop the other knee, while simultaneously pulling up with the obliques on the same side as the straight leg you get a glimpse into what really goes on. And anyone who is genuinely interested in improving their hip rotation is a fun student to have. If you don’t get bored of walking up and down the dance floor, pausing with every step to pull your hip sideways with your back leg, while also dropping your hip with your front leg, and then driving your back knee forward with the next step and switching which side of the hip drops and which raises, all the while holding onto a broom like a trapeze artist to ensure your shoulders stay perpendicular to the direction of travel, then you’re a fun student. You’re a nerd student. And they’re always the best kind. David was an even rarer student. He was one of the golden few who did things because he could. He had no reason to learn, save for the greatest reason of all. He was a why not? student. And best of all, he was a nerdy why not? student. “What’s the time?” David asked after a third song had finished and he was beginning to familiarise himself with the various things his body should be doing. At least he wasn’t still at the days of old when he kept hearing “Chin up, David!” over and over again. It took a while for his neck muscles to get used to holding his head higher. “12:20. You’re free.” David smiled. “Finally.” He tapped his foot twice against the floor in an audible fashion and Maximus barked. The two dancers walked over to Maximus and sat down. “Good boy,” David petted the sitting dog before turning to Larla. “Where’s Delilah?” “She’s with my parent’s today. They’ve started going on these long hikes once a week so I let them take her whenever they do. It saves me walking her when I get home.” “True.” David turned again to his dog. “You enjoy hiking, don’t you? You’re free to run around and smell everything… twice.” Larla laughed. “You prefer it to when we work, don’t you?” David continued. “Nonsense,” Larla chimed in. “He’d be happy to be by your side all day. Come on, let’s get your harness on you,” talking to the dog now. “Would you two like to join me for lunch? My next lesson cancelled so I’m free for a couple hours.” “I think we’d love to.” David clipped on Maximus’ lead and stood up. “Heel, boy,” then turning to Larla. “Shall we?” They made their way out of the studio. The only clue to anybody passing them in the street was a guide dog harness wrapped around Maximus. There was little else to tell a stranger that David Wester was blind. He wore sunglasses, but so did many people. He didn’t walk particularly fast, but so did many people.
Chapter two David found out he was blind when he was five, though he didn’t really know what it meant. He probably still didn’t truly know what it meant, in the same way that those with sight don’t really know what it’s like to have never had it. It was raining on the day David’s uncle told him the news. David loved the rain. The rain opened up the world. When it rained, his ears could see all around him, 360°. He saw the cars parked out front as the rain fell on their metal shells, he saw where the concrete met the grass as the sound of raindrops shifted. He saw his house behind him as the tiled roof met the falling water, and he saw the sheltered doorway, where he and his uncle sat. “Now, son,” he said, though David wasn’t his son. Earlier in the year David’s father had told him that this was an expression, though what that meant David didn’t know. “I want you to know that you can do whatever you want to do, no matter what everyone else says. I hear you’re starting school tomorrow and kids in school can be mean. But no matter what they say, you are an amazing boy and you can do whatever you want to do. Work hard for it, and don’t take no for an answer. Just because you’re blind doesn’t mean you can’t achieve your dreams.” Five-year-old David nodded, unsure of what was being said to him. His parents never told him he was blind, and how else would he have known? He had never seen anything before and could therefore not possibly realise – or fathom – that there were things which could be seen. Sight was not a thing to David; it was not an entity that existed; at least not until David’s uncle told him otherwise. David was the third of four children. When he was born and the doctor told his mother and father that he was blind, his mother held him in her hands and his father looked at him with the eyes of a father and both realised that they loved him. They loved him – like they loved the rest of their children – more than anything in the world. Blindness or no blindness, what did it matter to the Westers? It’s a fact of life that anything different, experienced frequently, turns to normalcy. David’s blindness was no exception and soon the rest of the family all but forgot that there was anything different about him at all. Making adjustments to raise him became normal and ceased to be adjustments. And David was such a capable young boy that it seemed very few adjustments were ever made. It is another fact of life that when one sense is deprived, the others take over. Commands such as ‘look’, which to many would seem impossible without the use of sight, translate themselves into ‘listen, smell, feel’. When his older sister shouted at him to look at the big helicopter in the sky he listened to the thudding of the propellers. When his older brother wrestled with him, he learned to hear the sound of shifting feet, feel the movement his brother made. When his younger sister, still just a baby, pooped in her diaper, he didn’t have to see the looks between mother and father determining whose turn it was to change the baby to know what was happening. He was tuned in to life just like everyone else, only differently.
Chapter three As Larla and David ate, she watched him. They had known each other about two years now and she was perhaps the only one who could tell when David was lost in thought. It was the shape of his mouth; a slight lowering of the edges and a relaxing of the jaw muscles which showed that his mind was not with him. She had first met David at university, in their second year. It was the most embarrassing day of her life. She was with her friends at the local pub and he was with his, both sitting back to back at adjacent tables, unaware of the others existence. Then she said something, she didn’t even remember what – something about a fat panda singing Celine Dion. She just remembered it was strange, the type of strange that only comes out of one’s mouth during a conversation with close friends. It was the type of strange that would make anybody listening laugh out loud. David laughed out loud and Larla turned around to face him. “Excuse me?” “I’m very sorry, it’s just a funny conversation. Do you always have these serious discussions with your friends?” “I’m sorry too, but I don’t talk to assholes who wear sunglasses indoors.” And she turned back around. David responded, “what about blind assholes?” He removed the glasses to show his eyes. Larla was mortified. She apologised profusely but David just brushed it off. “Don’t worry about it. Buy me a beer and we’re good.” She laughed nervously and her friend jumped in, not having clearly seen his eyes in the dimly lit pub. “Are you really blind?” “Yeah. Usually I wear a sign above my head but the battery is out on the flashing light above the ‘I’. Without that it just looks tacky.” Larla laughed awkwardly and continued apologising. They chatted for a few minutes and when half of Larla’s group left, the rest joined David’s table. That was it. Larla didn’t see David for a while after the goodbyes were all given that night. Then one day in the canteen she saw him with Maximus and went up to say hi. His friend Elliot was with him and as she approached, Elliot leaned in. “Hey, remember that girl at the pub, the one who called you an asshole? She’s here.” David sat up and tuned to the approaching footsteps. “Hi,” Larla said. “I’m not sure if you remember me.” “If you’re here to apologise again I’m leaving.” “No, no. I just wanted to say hi. And to thank you for easing my embarrassment that night. Even if you were just an asshole with glasses, it wasn’t right for me to respond like that.” “That sounds like an apology in disguise.” “It’s not. Maybe.” “Maybe?” “Maybe... So how have you been?” “I have a month left and a million projects. I’m fantastic. Please, sit.” David motioned to the chair. That’s how Larla remembered it, anyway.
Chapter four Life within the four walls of home was kind to David as he grew up; but life outside the four family walls was not like life inside them. When school began, David found himself in a strange new world. He was born at a time when people were beginning to realise that the visually impaired can operate within society at large, that they don’t need their own schools. Ten years earlier and David would have gone to a special school for children who couldn’t see well. Ten years earlier and he would have grown up in a school hierarchy where those whose vision was the ‘least bad’ would rule the school, where it wasn’t uncommon to find your way around by putting one hand on the wall and following it until you found the door. School was a strange new world for David. When he first arrived he was bombarded by peculiar new sensations; the sound of the school, feet smacking the ground as kids ran here and there, chatter from every direction, tapping tables, banging pencils, whispers, whispers, breathing; the smell of the classrooms, the polished fumes from the tables, the pencil shavings, the mass of sweaty people running around, the teacher’s perfume, permanent markers; the feel of the new world, tables he had never felt before with carvings etched into them, wooden floors beneath his feet that creaked as he walked, cold plastic chairs with cold metal legs, rulers, blocks, playdoh. It was a strange time, indeed. As David grew up, he experienced life just as any other child. By the age of sixteen he had fallen in love; had his heart broken; made and lost friends; experienced drama; owned the world; knew everything; made at least three terrible fashion choices; and suffered the onslaught of puberty. He had many friends, did David, and was perceived by most as a likeable guy. He did well in school, very well in fact, and everyone knew he would go far. He was, for all intents and purposes, like every other child. Except he wasn’t. There seems to be a phenomenon that occurs whereby, during the years of schooling as a child begins to make the transition from youth to adulthood, one who is different can be both a part of the team – social group, club, etc – and yet not be. Everyone knew David, said hi to him in the hall, stood up for him when a bully from another school picked on him. Everyone would have called him their friend without a second thought. But David was still disabled, at least in the eyes of the world, and nothing could change that. David was one of them, but he wasn’t. David remembered when he was a child. He was out with some of his friends, just hanging around in the village. His friends decided to have some fun and so they went to one of the houses and rang the doorbell. Then they ran away, leaving David there, very confused and quite discombobulated. A man answered the door and David didn’t really know what to say. He heard his friends laughing just around the corner. This and other instances happened many times during his childhood. Children are mean and sight was not required to see that David was different from the other kids. He picked it up quickly, much quicker than anyone else around him did. When he did something positive his praise was greater. When he did something negative his punishment was less severe. When he was caught talking during class his friend would get detention and he would get a warning; even though talking had nothing to do with one’s ability to see. It was during this time that David truly learned what it meant to be disabled. No part of it was to do with what he could or could not do. It was because he was different. He didn’t fit the structure of life. He was one of them, and yet he wasn’t. It was also during these early years of life that David learned to take everything with a sense of humour. If he let it get to him he would spend the entirety of his life angry and cynical. And he couldn’t have that. If he had that, he never would have become a cross country runner for his school. He never would have learned how to ballroom dance. And he never would have fallen in love with Larla.
Chapter four “Chin up, David,” Larla shouted over the music. Six months into learning how to dance and David, it seemed, was digressing. He didn’t like it. “I feel ridiculous!” he shouted back. David was dancing by himself around the room with Larla watching and judging. “Then get it right and I can jump back in. You want to win this thing, right?” “Right now, I couldn’t give a damn.” “Well find a way to give one. You’ll never get it at this rate.” David stopped dancing and Larla stopped the music. “Why’d you stop the routine?” “Because it’s useless. I’m dancing here by myself, very conscious of the fact that there should be someone with me, I have very little idea where I am in the room, and my chin won’t go any higher.” “Come here,” Larla said. When he arrived, she took his hand. “I’m taking you to the wall.” “Not the wall,” David laughed, half-jokingly. The wall was the one section where mirrors didn’t run from floor to ceiling. It was used by Larla to teach her students various techniques when it came to their posture. “Yes, the wall. Right, ok, back against the wall. Ok. Now pull your stomach in. Straighten out your spine, I want to see no space between your back and the wall. Good. Now lift your chin up. Up. No, don’t pull your head back. If you do that you push yourself out from the wall.” “It won’t go any higher.” “May I?” Larla asked. It was her way of letting him know she was about to physically move his body into shape. “You may.” With that permission, Larla wrapped her purple nailed hands smelling of lavender soup around his chin until her fingers reached the lobes of his ears. They were cold. Her thumbs brushed David’s check bones. With her hands in place she lifted his chin up until his jawline was parallel with the ground, then she gently but firmly pushed his whole head back. It was ever so slight, as if trying to realign the neck above the straightened spine. “It’s not meant to be comfortable,” she said. “I need you to imagine your spine is a pole running through your body. Your head needs to be directly over your shoulders which need to be directly over your hips. Stomach in, shoulders around and down, chin high. There. Now you look like you belong.” She stepped away to let David stand there for a moment. “Now do it again and don’t you dare break what I just created.” David stepped away from the wall. He took three controlled steps forward and seven to his left. Then he turned to face Larla. She pressed play and a 3/4 rhythm came on the sound system. “Begin with the Waltz,” she shouted over the sound. David settled into his left leg, weight slightly back as it prepped itself to move forward, right leg straight and out to the side. In his head went the rhythm 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, and. On ‘and’ he stepped forward, his left leg bent and his right moved to catch himself. His body twisted right and he began to pivot as he moved forward. 1. He began to rise again as his left leg reached left and backwards to continue his trajectory. He had now rotated 100 degrees. 2. His rise peaked just after 2, as his right leg passed his left, and he began to fall again as he continued onto his right leg. 3. He was now moving backwards, having spun just shy of 180 degrees. He continued his 1, 2, 3; his rise and fall. As he did, he continued to rotate. Each six counts took him just shy of 360 degrees of pivot and he began to move in a circular motion throughout the room. As he did, Larla watched. She was looking for technique, watching to make sure his frame did not break, his shoulders did not collapse, his chin did not dip. She was impressed with his bodily awareness. Few students could command their body to hold these positions so soon into their training. He had a regal air about him.
Chapter five “I’m sorry, what?” David tried to hold back the bubble of laugher that rose inside him. They were sharing lunch at a restaurant just next door to Larla’s studio, somewhere she had never tried before despite its proximity to work. It had been eleven months of dancing together now. “Seriously,” Larla laughed herself. “He really said that?” “Yes.” “He said you had to teach him?” “He did. He said he had every right to be a part of the class. He said he’d paid and he wouldn’t leave.” “What did you do?” “I said he forfeited his right to be a part of the group when he began shouting at his partner. I then offered him a refund and I told him to leave.” “What did he do?” “Well initially he just stood there but I’m pretty intimidating so he ended up leaving. The rest of the class cheered as he did.” “Wow, who knew group dance lessons could be so intense.” “Oh, it’s not the first time that’s happened. Occasionally you get people who forget they’re still in public and act unbecoming.” “Unbecoming, that’s a way of putting it.” “Isn’t it?” Larla took another mouthful of her sandwich. “Mmm, I like your idea of breaking up training with lunch. I really approve.” “Thanks,” David responded. “I try to intersperse my day with as many excuses to eat as possible.” “A fantastic idea. I’ve never been here before.” “But you work right next door. What do you do when you get hungry?” “Well I usually have back to back classes so I bring my own lunch.” “What a weirdo.” “Saves money.” “What do you usually bring?” “A salad and a sandwich.” “Yeah, not worth it.” “You haven’t tried my sandwiches.” “Are they as good as these?” David asked. “… No, they aren’t.” “I rest my case.” “Fine,” Larla smiled. Lunch in-between lessons was an idea broached a few weeks ago but only really implemented the week prior to this. David was on three, two-hour lessons a week now in preparation for the competition and the added time training was showing serious progress. David finished the last bite of his sandwich. “If you’re looking at me, I can’t see you.” Larla was looking at him. “What? Sorry. Wait, how can you tell?” “You have a particular kind of silence when you’re looking at me. You better not be thinking of what happened earlier.” “I am.” “Seriously, Larla, it’s ok.” “It’s not that.” “Then what is it?” Not a half hour earlier, Larla, David, and Maximus were standing outside the studio. Larla was just locking up. As she finished and the trio set out on their great expedition of fifteen steps to the restaurant a man came up to David. “Excuse me, how long have you been blind?” he said to a composed David and a very shocked Larla. Smiling, David responded “It’s nice to meet you. I’m David,” stretching out his hand in offer of a shake. “Er, Max. I was just wondering how long you’ve been blind.” “Oh, very nice. Max is my dog’s name. Well, Maximus actually. I’ve been blind my whole life.” “Are you actually blind?” “I beg your pardon.” “Well I know some blind people can see certain things.” “Are you saying they aren’t actually blind?” “Well, I suppose technically speaking.” “I see. Though technically speaking if you are registered blind it means you fall under the category of blind as according to the government, so I suppose even people who are blind but can still see certain things are technically blind. At least according to the government.” “Er, yes I suppose. So does that mean you aren’t fully blind?” “I am, yes. Though that doesn’t mean I can’t tell you’re waving your hand in front of my eyes.” “But how can you tell?” Max was doing exactly that despite the evilest of looks coming from Larla. “Sense is a marvellous thing. Now if you’ll excuse me I am going to have some lunch with my friend here. It’s been lovely to meet you, Max.” “Likewise,” Max walked away. “I have no words,” Larla said after a moment of silence. “It’s worth no words so don’t say anything.” And she didn’t, until she brought it up again halfway through their meal. “That man just came up to you and out of nowhere asked how long you’d been blind.” “Yes.” “Why? Why would you do that?” “Larla, it’s ok. It’s not the first time that’s happened and it won’t be the last.” “But you didn’t even know him.” “Look, Larla, I can’t let it get to me. Disabled people are like children in society’s eyes. You can just walk up to them and say whatever you want. It’s not ok but right now there isn’t really anything I can do about it.” “That’s horrible.” “It’s not the worst that’s happened.” “What do you mean?” “Don’t worry about it. And hey, stick with me long enough and you’ll probably see for yourself.” “I’m not sure I want to.” “Fair enough. A funny one though, to lighten this terrible mood before we go back to dancing. Back when we were flatmates, Elliot, who as you know is definitely not blind, was walking Maximus in the park. I don’t know if it was the guide dog logo on the lead or what but he was just standing there on the path when a lady grabbed his elbow and took him to the nearest bench. He was too disorientated – and probably too polite – to say anything. He just had to wait until she disappeared down the path before he unclipped Maximus and let him run around.” “Seriously?” “Yeah,” David laughed. He remembered Elliot running back into the house laughing his head off. It was so strange. Larla was quiet for a moment. “Surely that hints at a bigger issue.” “Oh, so many bigger issues, not least of which if Elliot was disorientated just imagine how it would be for someone who was blind. No, there are obviously bigger issues at play here but you have to laugh at something like that.” “Why?” “Because it’s funny. Look, at the end of the day it’s not ok. Oh, that rhythmed. Anyway, no it’s not ok; but try to think of her intentions. At least she was aware. You don’t want to make too much of a fuss and ostracise the good Samaritans. They’re the ones actually trying to help.” “But you aren’t helpless.” “No but there are times when I need help. If I ever do, then I’ll ask instead of waiting to be asked. But still.” “I guess.” “But we should probably be getting going soon. We’re already cutting into my training time.” “We are?” Larla looked at her watch. “We are. Let’s go. It’s also fine if we run a few minutes late. I have no lesson after this.” “You sure you won’t have had too much of me by then?” “Eh, we’ll see. I suppose I could tolerate it,” Larla laughed as she grabbed her jacket from the back of her seat. Maximus had risen from his slumber the moment his master signalled and as David stood up Maximus readied himself for work. It wasn’t particularly strenuous work as the studio was just next door, but Maximus enjoyed the times when he and his master moved as one. David and Larla were laughing at something one of them had said and when they arrived at the dance hall, Larla got her key out and unlocked the studio doors. The sound of their feet stepping on the floor changed as they entered the ballroom. It echoed more. Its taps were less muffled as the floor indicated to them the need to change shoes to ones with a suede soul. Maximus’ claws pittered and pattered as he walked the now frequent route to the seat where David would ready himself to dance. And where Maximus would curl up and fall asleep, beside Delilah when she was there. But she wasn’t there today.
Chapter six When David was nearly seventeen, a family friend named Jacob came to their house and told David’s father that their dog had just given birth to a litter. Sadly, the litter could not be kept and were going to be sold or taken to shelters. But then they thought of David. Why not enrol the dogs into a training program to become a guide dog? It was highly uncommon for Border Collies to become guide dogs for they were very active dogs and often had strong instincts to chase and fetch. But Jacob said that he had talked to the trainers and while it was uncommon, and Border Collies often made bad guide dogs, the best guide dogs the trainer had seen were if fact purebred Border Collies. Most might not work, but the ones that did worked well. It was all organised and one of the little dogs, the one named Maximus because it sounded majestic, was tentatively earmarked to be David’s dog. David spent time with Maximus – never Max – when it wasn’t training and the two started to get on quite well. Highly irregular and very possibly prone to failure, all knew the risks. But David was an active child and had been wanting a dog he could go exploring with for a couple of years now. All crossed their fingers. The trainers were brilliant and the little puppy, Maximus, caught on quickly. It wasn’t too long before they were taking Maximus into David’s school. This wasn’t just for the dog or David, but for the other kids in the school. Having a dog around was a great joy and the other kids needed to learn how to deal with a guide dog. The classes were particularly boring for Maximus, who as a young dog wanted nothing more than to run around and explore the world. But Border Collies are smart and while Maximus’ legs couldn’t be exercised, his mind could. When they walked into class, Maximus would walk alongside David until he reached his seat. Then, when his mission was complete, he would situate himself underneath the chair, between the metal bars of the desk and just behind David’s legs. It began rather haphazardly. Maximus was bored and so was David. David tapped his heel in an inadvertent twitch. Maximus’ ears pricked up and his tail wagged slightly. He reached out and put his paw on David’s heel. David’s head tilted slightly, as one does when they’ve just heard or felt something unexpected. He tapped his heel again and again he felt Maximus’ paw tap against that heel. He tapped the other heel. Maximus tapped his other heel. And thus a game was born. Like all dogs, Maximus enjoyed a snooze in the warm classroom. Often he would sleep through the lessons, dreaming about pastures where he could run and explore and travel the world with his beloved David. But when he wasn’t sleeping and when David wasn’t concentrating too hard on school – which was quite often as David was rather bright – the two would play the tapping game. It began simple, but eventually David found he could do several randomly alternating taps, and once he stopped Maximus would tap David’s heels in the same order. Maximus was still young and still needed lots of exercise. And he was still training so he didn’t spend all day at school with David. Not until David was nearing the end of his time at school and thinking of university did he do that. During the hours where human was trapped in education and dog was not, dog would run and go on long walks. Then when human finished and hurried home, both human and dog would go on more long walks. Sometimes these were walks taken through the streets, sometimes through the countryside, and Maximus quickly learned the difference between the two walks. Street walks were when he was really needed. These were the straight walks with sharp turns. Countryside walks were winding and it was important to follow the path even when it turned. Though, truth be told, David had been on so many of these walks with his family that he could all but walk them by himself. The favourite walks for Maximus were the walks where he was with David but so were other people. On these walks Maximus was off the harness and could run around and sniff and play. He would take the ball and run to David, placing it in his hand. David would then throw it and Maximus would run after it and repeat until David’s arm got tired. Usually he switched to his left arm but Maximus didn’t like this so much because David’s throw wasn’t as good with his left arm. Sometimes too they would play the basketball game, where David would take big steps and Maximus would run between his legs, weaving in and out like a basketball.
Chapter seven The spring that David and Larla met was the spring before the summer before their final year of university. David was a very sociable person and loved meeting new people. But more than this, David and Larla found they just got along really well. So what began as gatherings of ten or more at the local pub turned, over the course of a month or so, into intimate gatherings of maybe four or five. These in turn changed to gatherings of two, David and Larla… sometimes three, including Elliot if all three decided to do something like bowling. Maximus was always there and therefore counted as David in these meetings. This particular gathering of two was a gathering in the park. The days of summer were at their height and anyone who was anyone knew the park was the best place to waste away the summer. Over the course of their growing friendship, Larla had become more used to David’s blindness and all but didn’t notice it now. A curious individual with a desire to learn more about him, she asked lots of questions. “I think the trouble,” David said, “is that many people think blindness affects everyone the same way.” Larla had asked why there was such an assumption of lethargy surrounding the blind. “Not only are there different degrees and types of vision loss, but the individual’s circumstances effect their life, just like it does with everything else.” “I think I understand. Can you elaborate?” Larla responded. Maximus could be heard running around and exploring the surroundings. This was the time during the walks when he could run and roam. David was sitting down and not going anywhere. A simple whistle would bring Maximus back immediately if needed but for now he was free, always making sure he was within a certain distance from David. “Well, ok so it’s a pretty painful memory but it’ll help explain the situation. A friend of mine lost her site when she was a child. She’s still very light-sensitive and while she could at one point see, she has no memory of sight. Anyway, we were talking and I asked her why she struggled so much with being blind. I told her just to get over it, that it was mind over matter. All pain is mental, that sort of thing.” David paused for a second. “I know. Anyway, she calmly responded that I have been very lucky in life. I’d had a family who had the money and resources to help me adapt. Did you know my older sister worked tirelessly when I was a child to help me learn about the world around me? We even had a system for locating objects that I couldn’t hear. Kind of like when you tell someone where something is by saying ‘3 o’clock’. My father would also buy me little models of things and teach me all about scale so I could get an idea of the world around me. He bought me a model horse once and then we went to a horse farm where I got to learn how big horses actually are. I almost died of shock. “Anyway, she never had any of that. She’s allergic to dogs and never had a Maximus to help enlarge her world. She grew up in a poor family with little. She didn’t have what I had.” “Ah,” Larla said softly. A family having a picnic fifty meters to the right of them were laughing at a joke. “Yup. The point is, I’m able to operate and do the things I do because I had a platform when I was younger which enabled me to. I am starting from the starting line whereas she is starting a mile back. She’s an amazing human and has done some amazing things but her fight has been so much bigger than mine.” “Ah.” “My mental map of my surroundings is bigger because I’ve been able to grow it. I can even tell what’s around me, to a certain extent. There’s a lamppost to our left, about four feet away.” “How did you know that?” “Because I can sense it. That’s another thing. Some people who are visually impaired are able to utilise some form of sonar, sensing what’s around them from the change in sound. Some aren’t. There’s no set list of difficulties in life for a visually impaired person. It’s just like everyone else, more or less. The life you’re born into and the life that comes to you affects what you can and can’t do. Yes there is some truth to the mind over matter thing but to assume universality of that is just naïve. And I definitely used to be naïve.” “So what do you think now?” “I don’t really know. Blindness isn’t a condition; it isn’t something which affects everyone the same way. Look at people like Simon Wheatcroft, a blind ultra-runner, or James Holman, a blind man who travelled around the world by himself. And everyone knows about Helen Keller.” “So what are you saying?” “Greatness is not limited to the non-disabled, nor is greatness by a disabled individual more impressive. Greatness requires the overcoming of obstacles, whatever they may be, and those obstacles are infinitely varied. I don’t think my ability to do something as a blind man is more impressive than a sighted man’s ability to do the same thing, at least not as a rule of thumb. I don’t know, maybe I’m such talking nonsense here, who knows.” “I think it makes sense.” “Yeah?” “Yeah. Because you aren’t saying that we need to place everyone, no matter their background or abilities, at the same starting block. But equally, to assume a universal equality of blindness is ridiculous.” “Exactly. But in no way am I cheapening disabilities, for there are huge hurdles to overcome with any disability. And maybe we’re using the word ‘disability’ too loosely here as well. I don’t know. It’s all very complicated.” Both David and Larla were silent for a moment. A slight breeze had picked up, creating a lovely challenge to the warm sun and giving some relief to the exposed and heated skin. The leaves of the trees responded to the wind. “Can I ask a question?” Larla broke the stillness between the duo. “Sure.” “I just noticed you keep switching between ‘blind’ and ‘visually impaired’.” “That’s not a question.” “Why?” “I suppose I don’t really know. I think the word blind tends to be misleading. Visually impaired is more accurate but more cumbersome to say. A bit like how it’s more accurate to say ‘a person who is blind’ than it is to say ‘a blind person’ as blindness doesn’t define the person. But it’s simpler to say a blind person. I am also completely blind so I run into the issue of explaining visual impairment a great deal less than someone who is legally blind but can still see light or movement. I suppose I switch back and forth to try and find the balance between alienation through political correctness and alienation through lack of political correctness.” “I see.” “Shall we continue our walk?” “Sure,” Larla jumped up. David whistled and Maximus came bounding back. His tongue was out and he was panting happily. “Ready to work?” David asked. Maximus barked. “Good, let’s go.” David clipped him and stood up. “On a less intense note, anything exciting happening in your life?” The duo began to walk. “Um,” Larla thought for a moment before responding. “To be honest, you know most of what’s happening in my life already.” “Fair enough.” “Oh, I’m starting to teach again.” “Teach?” “Ballroom.” “Dancing?” “Yeah.” “That’s brilliant. Did you used to teach?” “On and off. I’ve been dancing for as long as I can remember and I dabbled a bit in teaching when I started university. I loved it but I just couldn’t find the time. So we’ll see. I have a couple people who want to learn and it’s a good way to make money.” “Yeah, I can imagine. How do you find teaching over learning?” “Oh, so I still take lessons. The best teachers are the ones who never stop learning.” “Very wise.” “Thank you. So I’m still always learning. I love learning.” “And teaching?” “It has its challenges, but it’s so rewarding. There’s nothing quite like the smile on someone’s face when they get it, or the couple who learn how to love again as they learn how to move together across the dance floor. It’s great.” David didn’t have to see the smile on Larla’s face or the glimmer in her eye to know she meant it. Her voice changed, it built slightly, softening when she spoke about the couple. “I can imagine,” he responded. “It sounds really fun. Do you think you’ll continue during next year?” “I don’t know. It was hard enough in year one and this last year I barely managed it. It’s only going to get busier.” “True. What about afterwards? You clearly love doing it.” “Oh, I definitely want to continue afterwards. If I could do this for a living it would be incredible.” “I’ll bet you can. How hard is it?” “It’s pretty difficult.” “Really?” “Yeah. Once you build up the clients it’s easier but initially it’s really difficult.” “Oh, I guess I see that. Well how about you teach me while you’re building up clients.” “Really?” “Yeah. I’d love to learn.” Larla jumped at the thought. Maximus looked up, making sure she wasn’t going to jump in David’s way. “Yes, definitely. Let’s do it. I’d love that. And we could compete. David, let’s compete!” “Hold on, hold on. Let’s just start with the basics, alright. I don’t know if I’ll even enjoy this.” Larla thought for a moment about continuing to persuade him but she decided against it. A year was a long time and who knows what would happen in either of their lives? Would they still be friends then?
Chapter eight David’s knees hurt. they had been training for the last three hours and he was a little worried he wouldn’t be able to make the walk home. This was a man who ran and explored and did many different activities, including occasionally playing tennis – though he wasn’t particularly good – worrying he might not be able to walk. Today’s practice had been brutal. They had been dancing together now for over a year and the competition was in two weeks. Training had escalated to three hours, three days a week. It was a lot, but David enjoyed it… mostly. Today was painful. It was all technique today, as it was most days. Learning the routine itself was easy and dancing it with Larla was equally easy. This was no social dance and because it was a routine, David wasn’t really leading so they didn’t worry too much about that. No, now it was just drilling the technique, usually with Larla watching from the side-lines as David ran through it himself. “Tuck in your hips.” “Bend your knees further.” “Stretch your frame.” “Leg out.” “Chin up!” Damn that chin up. As he began the routine again – for the final time today –, he gritted his teeth and took in a deep breath. Once more. The leg which held his weight bent at the knee in an automatic movement and his body began to move. He was off. Beginning with the Waltz, the routine which David now danced comprised of five different dances. After the Waltz came the Tango. It was International Tango and looked very different from the famous Argentine Tango, danced in milongas all around the world. It wouldn’t be till after the competition that David started learning Argentine Tango. After the International Tango came the Viennese Waltz. This was, by far, David’s favourite. He found the speed at which he moved around the room exhilarating. He loved the quick movements of his feet, crossing continuously in front of one another. He loved the feel of his partner’s dress as it frolicked constantly this way and that, brushing against his legs as both beings travelled around the floor. Truth be told, David enjoyed it most is because he imagined it to be the one most challenging for a blind person to do and he enjoyed proving the world wrong. He knew the room, where the walls were and how far he travelled each step. He had excellent geographical awareness, and it didn’t matter how fast he was going. As long as he was in control, he knew where he was. After the Viennese Waltz came the Foxtrot. Probably his second favourite, David enjoyed the Frank-Sinatra-feel to the music. He enjoyed playing with the contrast between the slow and quick movements of the dance; though in a routine he couldn’t actually do much playing. The Foxtrot made him happy and, though it was actually an incredibly technical dance, he found it made him relax. Finally, if the four before it weren’t enough, the competition ended with the Quickstep. And David did not like the Quickstep. It felt strange and silly, and the bouncing movements took some time to get used to. It was, out of the five, the most disorientating dance and the one which took the longest to get comfortable with. While David danced, Larla watched. She watched for imperfections in his frame. She watched for times his feet stepped too far off the mark. She watched for moments when the fluidity of the moment left and in those moments she watched to find the culprit. These were all things the judges would watch for and David had told her to be honest. It was this honesty, this refusal to sugar-coat, which was the main reason why David got this close to the competition. He actually had a shot to win it. Though this final run of the routine for the day wouldn’t make you think it. David knew the moment he stopped that it was bad. He could tell, not from what she said or the slow sound of her steps as she walked towards him, which were indicators nonetheless. No, David could tell because he felt it. He felt it when his body wasn’t right, when he stepped wrong, when he missed his mark. “I’m really tired,” he panted as Larla walked over to him. “I know,” she responded. “Don’t let this last run get you down. We’re there.” “Really?” “Yes. Two weeks of the same practice and you’ll be fantastic.” David was breathing pretty heavily and spoke between breathes. “Great… I’m glad… Don’t mind me… Just dying here…” Larla laughed. “You’ll be fine.” She turned around and walked back to the seat. A minute later, after catching his breath, David followed. “Question,” he asked without asking. “Yes.” “How will I make sure we don’t run into anyone on the day?” “That’s why I had us social dance the last few weeks. You didn’t run into anyone there.” “Yeah, well I could hear and feel them around me. But judging by my movements, this is a whole new level.” “It is, but you should still be able to hear them.” “Should be able to?” “Don’t worry, you’ll be able to hear them. And if not, that’s where I come in.” “Meaning?” “Meaning I warn you. But really, don’t worry. The ballroom is big and there are only a few competitors. Your awareness for what’s around you is very good and you won’t have any trouble. The only issue there might be is with the Quickstep, as that has a more unpredictable movement around the floor. But even there, you’ll be fine. If anyone gets too close I’ll just squeeze your shoulder slightly.” “If you say so.” “You’ll be fine. A month ago we went to my friend’s studio. How long did it take you to get the lay of the place?” “I just needed to walk it a couple of times.” “Well there you go. There will be an opportunity to walk this dance floor before the event, I’ve made sure of it. You’ll be able to hear the other dancers – trust me – and they will be trying avoid you just as much as you’ll be trying to avoid them.” “Alright.” “If you weren’t good enough I wouldn’t let you do it.” “But you haven’t done this before so how do you know?” “I do my research. It turns out my old instructor had a blind student, only it was a she and he was a he. We talked about how it all works. Admittedly, it’s slightly different because you’re the leader but you aren’t the first blind person to do something people thought blind people couldn’t do. Don’t start doubting yourself now.” “Fair enough,” David chuckled. “You’re a good teacher, Larla.” “Damn straight I am.” David sat down on his chair and started taking off his shoes. Maximus looked up. He was lying next to Delilah. Both dogs had fallen asleep despite the music and now Maximus realised his duty called. Delilah, who by now knew the routine of David and Maximus, didn’t bother moving. “So do you have any exciting plans tonight?” Larla asked. “Sleep. I’m going to be so sore tomorrow.” “You’ll be fine.” “Actually I am going out tonight. Meeting some friends at the pub.” “Oh, yeah?” “Yeah, we met playing Blind Football.” “There’s such a thing as Blind Football?!” “There is. It’s so much fun.” “Interesting. Well have fun. Don’t drink too much.” “Strange. You sound like you care about me.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I need you healthy for this competition.” “I see.” David harnessed Maximus up and saying goodbye, left the studio. When he got home he wanted nothing more than to laze away and listen to the latest in his growing collection of audio books – he never seemed to have time to read – but he only had time for a brief rest before he had to shower, change, and head out. When he entered the pub which was to be his dinner destination he was greeted by an “uh oh, don’t let him in. He steals.” “Any weirdo by the name of Ramesh here?” David shouted in response. “He claims he’s blind but I’ve never seen it.” “Quit yapping and buy us all a pint. You’re making everyone else uncomfortable.” “Oh they’re alright. Dinner and a show. Who am I buying for?” “Me,” Ramesh responded. “And me,” George chimed in. He was the first voice, the one claiming David was a thief. “And me,” Elliot’s voice was the third. “Elliot!” David said as he walked to the bar. “What the devil are you doing here?” “What? I’m not invited to your hangouts because I’m not blind. That’s discrimination.” He got up and walked towards David. The two embraced. “You are always welcome. How have you been?” “I’ve been good. It’s been a while,” the he turned to the bartender. “Get them what they want, drinks are on me.” An excited roar came from George and Ramesh and Elliot looked back at the bartender. “Within reason.” “I heard that.” “You were meant to.” David went to sit down with Elliot and the others. Soon all got to chatting about the various elements in their lives. Ramesh and George were both slightly older than David and Elliot and were both married. George had a three-year-old son. He had lost his sight not seven years ago, just before he met the woman who would be his wife, and the last three years had been difficult as he figured out how to be a father to a son he could never see. He had known David for about five years now and during that he had said upon multiple occasions that David was lucky. David was lucky because he never knew sight. He never lost it and he couldn’t miss what he didn’t have. There was, both men supposed, truth to that statement, for David did not know a world where red cars drove past and where leaves turned brown in the autumn. But mirrored, none who were sighted and even those who lost their sight, could never truly know life where it never existed. The world was seen differently for David. Sure, there were aspects where he was at a loss, for certain things could be appreciated more with sight. But there were other aspects where the sighted were at a loss, for they would never feel the wind as the blind-from-birth did. Eyes saw the world through lenses, a field of vision maybe 130 degrees wide. But ears heard the world 360 degrees, and ears trained from birth to be one’s navigators could show a world far more complex than one whereupon sight was heavily relied. Elliot and David, who knew each other since school, had many of these conversations as each tried to discover the world within which the other resided. While their understanding always grew, they could never truly know. How did David dream, Elliot wondered? How did Elliot dream, David wondered? How did they each think, remember, imagine? Ramesh lost his sight when he was a child, though he could still see blurred images out of the corner of his left eye when they were within five feet of him. His was a world where he was neither blind, nor not blind. He could never fully see, but equally he could never fully not see. When he was in school, instead of a cane he used an umbrella to navigate around. A cane was a bullying point in school. So was an umbrella but with an umbrella you were bullied because you were weird for carrying an umbrella everywhere. That wasn’t as bad as being bullied because you were blind. The only cure for being bullied for being blind, it seemed to Ramesh, was to have a guide dog like David. Everybody liked guide dogs. Unfortunately for Ramesh, he was allergic to dogs and so that never happened. “So David, how’s the dancing? You twinkle toes yet?” George asked after a gulp of beer. “I beg your pardon?” David answered. “I don’t know, I couldn’t think of any famous dancers.” “So you went with twinkle toes?” “Yeah.” Elliot laughed and George fired back a “well you think of a famous dancer then.” “Um, Jennifer Lopez?” “Yeah, because David could become Jennifer Lopez.” “Hey, I could become Jennifer Lopez if I wanted.” “Do your hips lie?” “That’s Shakira, you idiot.” “Oh, is it?” “Yes.” “What about Michael Jackson?” Ramesh jumped in. “That works. Michael Jackson. So you Michael Jackson yet?” George asked. “Wrong kind of dancing.” “What do you mean?” “This is partner dancing, waltz and stuff. Jackson was solo, so was Lopez, and Shakira.” “So then what are we going on at me for then?” “Because you said twinkle toes.” “Fine,” George took a deep breathe. “David, how goes the partner dancing, waltz and stuff. You as good as a really famous partner dancer yet?” “Good save,” David laughed. “No.” “Oh. How is it with Larla? You two in love yet?” “What?” “You know, the strictly curse and all.” “What’s the strictly curse?” “Never mind. How’s it going?” “It’s exhausting. Training three hours a day, three days a week.” “Why?” “The competition is in two weeks.” “That soon. Can we come? We’ll shout and cheer for you. Give me a D. Give me an A. Give me a…” “I don’t know if you can shout and cheer. You can clap.” “Boring. We could make signs. You won’t be able to see them but who cares.” “Oh, thanks so much.” Through all this, Elliot was silent. Finally he spoke up with a “how long have I been away?” “Almost a year,” David responded. Elliot had moved out of the city because of his job. The two hadn’t seen each other in ages. “That long. Why didn’t you tell me about the competition when we talked?” “Don’t know. It just never came up. By the way, what are you doing here?” Elliot laughed. “I’m back for a few days. There’s a couple meetings I have to go to so it’s just easier for me to stay in the city.” “That’s brilliant, man. Why didn’t you say anything?” “I figured I’d pop my head in when I was down here to say hi. Didn’t realise you’d be so busy.” “Nonsense. There’s always time for old friends. I’m sure Larla would love to see you too. You remember her?” “Of course. We were all close. I’ll make sure to pop by the studio some time when you’re practicing,” he leaned over to the other two, “check out this budding romance.” “There’s no romance.” “Oh please, you two have always had a thing for each other.” “We have not,” continued the conversation. All four of them chatted till late in the evening, sometimes focusing of David, sometimes Ramesh, sometimes George. Neither Ramesh nor George knew Elliot so some of the conversation took up getting to know him. And all the while the four were alternating between the task of buying each other rounds.
Chapter nine Elliot and David first met during the end of their time at school. Though they weren’t actually in the same school together – they knew each other from a youth club they both went to a few times – it was easier for them to say they knew each other from school. It was essentially the same thing and now that they were out of university nobody actually cared where they went to school. So they said they went to school together. They got on because while everybody else that David knew treated him differently because of his blindness, Elliot didn’t. It wasn’t that he wasn’t aware or that he was insensitive to the difficulties of living with blindness. Elliot simply assumed nothing other than normalcy when it came to David, sort of expecting from him the same as anyone expects from anyone when they meet. David appreciated this. They were two people. Not a blind person and a sighted person. Not a disabled person and an abled person. Two people. Two friends. As with many friendships which begin at such a time when a potential end is near, David and Elliot’s friendship risked vanishing as both individuals went off to university. Few friendships not rooted in a shared memory bank survive such changes. Luckily for these two, however, both ended up at the same university. They weren’t on the same course – that would have been too coincidental – but that didn’t stop their friendship from continuing through their time studying. And it was a good thing too, for just after starting university, David began to fall into a very depressed state. University is a strange change for anyone, but for someone who was an active and energetic individual, David suddenly found himself in a place where he couldn’t really be any of these. David had found himself in society at large. Society at large was different to his time with his family or his time at school. Here he was truly disabled. He was someone to be avoided on the street, someone to be looked at questionably. It wasn’t that he couldn’t still explore with Maximus or do things that he did when he was at school. No, it was that he felt the restraints put on the blind. And it wasn’t anything specifically that had changed; it was just something that was there. It was a disbelief in possibilities for the blind, a refusal to accept that someone with visual impairment could be good at anything. And despite all David did and had done in his life up until this point – which was a lot for any human being – he slowly felt himself begin to accept these restrictions, these shackles, given to him by society. Elliot, who was a good friend and saw this change as it happened, decided to do something about it. He knew David, and he knew being active was a cure of sorts, a middle finger to the world of no, you can’t. The day Elliot decided to do something about it was a Tuesday, not that it mattered except for the fact that he had heard that on Tuesdays the local rock-climbing gym had a deal whereby a day pass was 50% off for students. Elliot walked into David’s room in his dorm and was greeted by a rather grumpy “What do you want?” One of the reasons David chose that dorm was because the wooden floors meant he could tell when people were approaching and departing. He could also hear Maximus’ wagging tail as it brushed the floor. “Get up. We’re going climbing.” “What?” “Get up. We’re going climbing.” “Yes I heard you. The what was for context.” “The context is that you’re a fat slob and I want to go climbing.” “You go climbing all the time.” “But you don’t. Let’s go.” “Why would I want to go climbing?” “Because I don’t think you can.” “Why? Am I not strong enough?” “No. I don’t think you can because you’re blind, and blind people can’t do things.” “WHAT?!” “Get up. We’re going climbing.” David was quiet for a second. “Fine.” Elliot knew that would do the trick. He had actually been toying with the idea of inviting David climbing for some time and had been figuring out how it would work for a few weeks. The gym they were going to was a bouldering gym, meaning they weren’t climbing that high. As long as Elliot guided David, they should be fine. They weren’t. It was an awkward first session, and it didn’t really work. What did work was Elliot shouting “You’re making Eric Weihenmayer proud”. David didn’t know who that was until he went home, googled him, and discovered the story of the first blind person to climb to the summit of Mount Everest. That did really work. David found the motivation needed to prove the world wrong and the duo continued to go back to the gym throughout their time at uni. David eventually got to the point where he hardly needed any direction, just basic statements to locate the next hold when it was a new or unfamiliar route. Elliot was just as active as David and both found they liked exploring new activities figuring out what they could and couldn’t do. That was when David began the journey of exploration which would eventually lead him to ask his friend Larla, who happened to be a ballroom dance instructor, to teach him how to dance.
Chapter ten The air fell heavy on the streets of Central London as the smog-filled cloud bank stretched over the city and trapped low the heat of the day. It was only midmorning and the temperature wouldn’t reach its peak for some time now but the day already hinted strongly that it would be a humid one. Little relief the underground provided on days such as this, where the smog was replaced by the body heat of London as it descended down the lifts and steps to the city’s underbelly. Larla and David had made their way to London for the competition and though they missed the madness of rush hour, there was rarely a moment of peace on the underground. “I don’t like London,” Larla sighed as they waited for the Piccadilly Line in Paddington Station. The dance competition was to be held at a hotel in London’s centre but as neither David nor Larla had the money to stay in such a hotel, they decided they might as well just take the train into London. The competition wasn’t until the afternoon so there was plenty of time. “Really? I kind of enjoy it.” “Why?” “It’s bizarrely easy to navigate a city like this.” “How?” “It’s noisy. I can hear all around me.” “Well it’s a good thing you can’t see all around you because it’s gross.” “Oh, don’t worry, I can smell.” “Good. It means you suffer with me.” “Are you alright? You seem a little short.” “Oh, yeah, I’m fine. Sorry, I get like this sometimes before competitions.” “You’re not nervous are you? Because you’re the teacher. You aren’t allowed to get nervous. Only I’m allowed to get nervous.” “Are you nervous?” “Little bit.” “You’ll be fine.” The air flow in the station changed as the train blew in. Larla was standing close enough to David that her hair flicked up and hit him in the eye. “Oy.” “What?” “Your hair hit me in the eye.” “Really?” “Yes.” “Sorry. Blame the train.” “I blame you.” They stepped on the underground and the doors closed behind them. Neither said anything for the remainder of the journey. David was lost in the noise of the carriage and Larla was lost in her preparation for the competition. She had done this several times before but this was different. She would have to think more, have to be more aware than usual, if she was going to guide David accordingly. All students needed guiding and the occasional squeezing of the arm to make sure they don’t collide with the fellow dancers, but this was a higher level of guidance and though she knew it would work, in truth she was a little nervous. As Larla and David exited the underground, the city air hit them both out of their own thoughts. They had to arrive 30 minutes early and it was a ten-minute walk to the ballroom. They had given themselves an hour from this moment. Plenty of time. “Do you want to grab a coffee and wait for a bit or get there early?” Larla asked. “We have about 20 minutes to spare.” “Let’s get there early, just in case.” “That’s probably wise.” The ballroom was located in one of the grander hotels of London, one old enough to have a functional ballroom with a sprung floor. When they walked through the sliding doors, the air conditioning swept into them. The hotel smelled of polish and disinfectant with a hint of perfume. The flowers in the lobby added to the smell their soft fragrance. The marble flooring highlighted the sound of incoming high heels. “How can I help you?” “We’re dancers, for the competition.” “Yes, certainly. The ballroom is this way. You’ll be getting ready in Suite A, adjacent to the ballroom. If you’d like to follow me. Did you already send us your dress?” “No, I have it with me.” Larla held up the plastic wrapping of what was clearly a dress and refrained from responding sarcastically. “Of course. Right this way.” “Thank you. Would it be possible for us to visit the ballroom before heading to the room or is it already blocked off?” “Of course you can! It will be blocked off thirty minutes before the competition starts. You have,” she paused to look at her watch, “20 minutes. Plenty of time.” “Brilliant,” Larla said as she, David, and Maximus followed. “Good thing we arrived early,” David whispered to Larla as he began to psych himself up. Maybe he was more than a bit nervous. As they walked into the ballroom the sound of the footsteps changed. There weren’t enough people around to dampen the echoes of the giant room and every sound seemed to come from everywhere. It was a mesmerising experience. David took a deep breath. Let’s do this, he thought.
Chapter eleven University was only two months away from finishing and David and Elliot had taken some time out of studying to go climbing. “You’ve got a good hold to your right, up, 1-2,” Elliot shouted up at David. It turned out it was easier for the two to communicate the location of certain holds by using this system. The first number, the 1, corresponded with the ‘right’ and meant about one foot to the right; the second number, the 2, corresponded with the ‘up’ and meant about two feet up. This way Elliot could shout to David his holds on a new route quickly and David didn’t have to hang around waiting for instruction. David reached up and grabbed the deceptively bad hold. “That’s not good!” he shouted back. His hand curled around the hold in an attempt to strengthen his grip but it didn’t work. His feet began to peel off the wall and he let go, falling the few feet to the padded floor. He hit the mat and rolled over. “That’s a terrible hold,” he said when he regained his seated position. “Oh, sorry,” Elliot said sheepishly. “It looks good from here.” “Yeah, it feels like it’s going to scoop in to create a little cup but it flattens out at the top. It’s terrible.” “Really?” Elliot stepped back a few feet and looked up to get a better view. “Oh, yeah I see it. Sorry.” “No worries. I think I just have to move my feet first. Do I have any good foot holds?” “You actually do,” Elliot pointed to the wall even though he knew full well David couldn’t see. It was instinct. “You’ve got a pretty decent one about a foot to the right of where you were. It’s the top of the start hold for your hands.” “I thought I was using that.” “No, you were using a smaller one just to the left.” “Oh. Yeah that’ll do it. Ugh,” David made a sound of mock exacerbation as he got up. “Alright, here we go. What’s it like after that?” “It’s a pretty straightforward ladder climb actually, just the hand holds suck after that one.” “Fun,” David stepped to the wall. “A little to the left,” Elliot guided David to the start. “Yup, there you go. And there’s the feet, too.” David tried again. He had incredible core strength from having to feel for each hold and not just jump up as a sighted person could. He climbed slowly and deliberately, pausing if he ever needed to and always making sure he knew how far he was off the ground if he was ever to fall or drop off. In bouldering, the climber doesn’t climb that high so there is no need for ropes. Still, it freaked David out the first few times he fell. He had to train specifically for falling, jumping off the wall a foot off the ground and getting used to rolling when he landed. After he got used to that, the height was raised to two feet, then three, then four. Once he hit five, the stakes didn’t really change so he didn’t bother training higher than that. He had fallen from that height before, and it freaked him out the first time he did, but he was fine. David reached for the top. “Nope,” he shouted as he felt it. “That’s not happening.” He proceeded to climb down the wall slowly. “Why not?” Elliot answered. “I do not have the grip strength to hold that with both hands.” “It does look pretty brutal.” “It is.” David reached the ground and went to sit beside Elliot. Both climbers sat there for a moment, David breathing heavily, Elliot surveying the climb he was about to make. As his breathing steadied, David rolled his head around slowly. “You alright?” Elliot asked. “Yeah, it’s just a little tight. That last move is pretty strenuous.” “Good to know,” Elliot got up and went over to the wall. A few moments later, after attempting the climb himself, he sat down with a thud. “I see what you mean.” “Yup. It’s kind of fun though.” “You ready to go again?” “Couple minutes. Hey, did you know I’m gonna start ballroom dancing.” “Wait, what? That’s random.” David laughed. “Yeah I just thought of it.” “I mean that you’re doing it, not that you told me now. I’m used to that randomness.” “Oh, yeah. Larla’s gonna teach me.” “Larla does ballroom?” “Yeah,” David laughed again. “You should really learn more about your friends.” “Apparently. Though let’s be honest, she’s more your friend than mine.” “True. But yeah, she wants to get back into teaching once she’s finished with university and I said I’d be her first student.” “Cool, I guess. I don’t really know how to process you dancing.” “Just think of something incredible.” Elliot laugh turned into coughing, “nice.” Both students sat there for a moment in silence until Elliot turned to David. “So what’s up you with and Larla, anyway?” “What do you mean?” “You hang out a lot.” “Yeah. We’re good friends.” “And you’re gonna be dancing together.” “Just friends.” “If you say so. You giving the wall another go?” “Yeah, I’ll do a couple more. I may have to shift my feet slightly on that last move to make it more stable.” David got up and headed towards the wall. A couple more goes turned into a couple more and it wasn’t until a while later that Elliot and David found themselves leaving the climbing gym. “Bus?” David asked. “No, not today. I have to get back quickly.” “Oh yeah, the interview. Do you just wanna grab a taxi?” “Yeah, sure. There’s one coming.” Elliot reached out and signalled. The driver pulled up and lowered the window. “You take guide dogs?” Elliot asked. “Yeah, just jump in the back.” “Brilliant, let’s go.” It was always necessary to check if Maximus was allowed in the taxi as not all drivers would allow him in. It was rare to be refused and legally he couldn’t be, but just because something is illegal doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen and David had been refused once or twice before. As they drove home, David and Elliot sat in silence, letting their tired and aching muscles rest and enjoying the strangely masochistic pleasure of a workout’s aftereffects. The driver was nice and chatted away with no worry that neither passenger had must interest in talking. He had a calm and friendly voice. As the minutes ticked on and the journey neared its end, the driver asked about Maximus. David’s ears pricked up, a little concerned. A few mumbles about how long they had been together. Then the question came. “So how long have you been blind?” David recognised the two lefts and a swooping right of their block of flats and let out a sigh of relief, aware that the conversation would soon be over. “All my life.” The taxi pulled up and stopped. The doors locked and the driver turned around. “Can I pray for you?” David smiled a polite smile. “No thanks. I really have to go,” he lied. Elliot beeped his card on the card machine to pay. “I’ll pray for you. I know God can heal you. You just need faith. Let’s pray.” “Thank you, but I really have to go. You can pray for me when I’m gone.” David reached for the door but they were still locked. “Do you mind?” “Not before I pray for you. I know my God can heal you. All you need is faith and you can see again!” “Sight is not required to see. Now if you can let us out, I would really appreciate it.” “Do you not want to see?” Elliot had been sitting quietly until this point, knowing full well David could fight his own battles. But this was different, they were locked in the car. Before David could respond to the driver’s question Elliot raised his voice. “Let us out, NOW. Or else,” “Elliot, it’s ok.” Any show of threat could escalate the situation and David didn’t want that. “Let us out now.” His voice was final. There was silence for a moment and then the driver turned back around. “Fine, I guess you don’t want to be healed.” The doors unlocked and David and Elliot got ok. The taxi drove away. “Unbelievable. I hope it wasn’t bad for me to jump in there.” “No, you’re fine. I appreciate it.” “You good?” “Yeah, I’m good. It’s not the first time I’ve been offered spiritual healing.” “In a locked car?” “Yeah, that part was a little unnerving. I’m glad you and Maximus were there.”
Chapter twelve A small dog was barking and a baby was crying. “It’s not usually this busy,” Larla said as she sat down with the coffee, a little nervous since this was the first time her and David had hung out as friends. After their first embarrassing meeting, they had met in groups and had got along really well. Then one day David asked if she wanted to hang out some time, as friends. The as friends was a way of ensuring there was no awkward unknowns. Larla was too busy to date anyway and hated the rule that guys and girls couldn’t ever just be friends. But she was still nervous. Would they get along well when it was just the two of them? Or did they need the added structure of a group of friends to get along. “Don’t worry about it,” David answered the unspoken apology. “I’ve never actually been here before.” “Oh, it’s brilliant. The coffee is magnificent. I’ve spent many a day here studying.” “Oh, see, I can’t study with background noise. I prefer a library.” “What? But it’s too quiet!” “That’s literally the point. No distractions.” “I don’t know. I feel like the silence would be a distraction.” “You’re a strange type of human.” “Am not! Ask anyone. You’re the weirdo.” “Well I guess it was only a matter of time until you realised.” “I realised instantly.” “Was it the glasses?” “Shut up. You know I feel bad about that.” David laughed, “I’m just kidding. So how’s the studying coming along?” “Ugh, I don’t want to talk about it. I’m so done with university.” “We still have a whole year left.” “Shhhh.” “Hey, how was the exhibition?” Jay, Larla closest friend at university was studying photography. Every year one or two second-years were invited to join the final year students in their end-of-year exhibition and Jay was invited. Larla promised to accompany her opening night to help calm her nerves. “It was incredible. I don’t understand how some of these people can come up with such creative images. There was one, I don’t know if it was the lighting or how they did it, but it was incredible. It was just a simple portrait but the way they shaded it and the way they did the make-up, it was incredible.” “That sounds really cool” David chuckled slightly. “What?” “Oh nothing bad. I just rarely talk to people about things like this.” “Why not?” “I think a lot of people can feel uncomfortable.” “Yeah, I see that. But you asked, so I answered.” “I appreciate that.” “Good, because I could talk about this for hours.” David sat back and shifted his weight to his left slightly. “Go on then. Let’s hear it.” Any nerves that Larla had, or that David had for that matter, were dispersed of. Both individuals sat there and chatted for the next two and a half hours. Larla ordered another coffee; David, who had ordered a pot of tea, poured another cup, took a sip, realised it was cold, then ordered another pot. Maximus was given a dog treat and a bowl of water by the barista.
Chapter thirteen David sat back in his chair, listening to Atlas Shrugged on audiobook. He had bought it because the length of the book both daunted and inspired him. He was in awe with anyone who could create such an epic. It was over 60 hours long. Two and a half days of solid listening, without sleeping. Of course, it would take longer because David couldn’t simply sit and listen for two and a half days straight. Even if he had the time he couldn’t stay awake for that long. No, books like these usually took about a month for David to listen to, average of 2 hours a day listening time. They were rare, for longer books such as this were harder to get in audio form. The classics were done but most newer epics didn’t have audio versions. It was a fair feat to translate from written word to spoken word, and an even fairer feat to translate from written word to braille. Nobody in their right mind would produce a braille version of Atlas Shrugged. It would be way too thick. David wasn’t actually listening very intently and soon switched it off, knowing he would have to repeat the chapter next time. He was thinking about the competition. It happened yesterday and David and Larla came second. He was slightly annoyed with himself because he had made a few small errors that he knew cost him the gold. But at the same time he had come second and that wasn’t bad at all. He thought about possibly competing again next year but he didn’t really need to. He didn’t need to win; he’d proven to himself that he could do it and while he really enjoyed the competition he much preferred the learning and the getting to dance with Larla. Something strange had happened with Larla on the night of the competition. While they stood there, awaiting the results, they were both very excited and they held hands. But they didn’t hold hands with fingers locked together as if in mittens. They interdigitated. And what was weird was that something about it actually felt quite right. They were closer then than they had ever been. David wasn’t sure what it meant or if it was just part of the whole excitement of the day. They had talked afterwards and David was now going to move on to learning the Argentine Tango which would be loads of fun. It was a very technical dance with an immense amount of body control and David was excited for the challenge. Although he had done what he wanted in regard to competing in ballroom, he had no desire to stop learning. He learned to learn and he thoroughly enjoyed the learning. Perhaps soon he would try his hand at something else that many would find surprising for a blind person to do. He might try fencing. Fencing sounded like fun. David leaned over and pressed play on the stereo system, finding again the beginning of the chapter, before leaning back in his chair and settling in for an hour of reading.
Chapter fourteen “What are you thinking about?” Larla interrupted David’s thought process. The two had now been dancing together for years. Larla no longer taught David; they just danced. He smiled a sad smile. “Maximus.” “I miss him too.” “Yeah,” David sighed. Bronto sat up to make sure his master was ok, nuzzling his face in David’s fallen hand. “I think he understands,” Larla referred to Bronto. “You’re a good boy, too. Don’t worry.” Bronto wagged his tail. “And you’re coming along really well.” “I was going to ask,” Larla asked without asking. “Yeah, he’s improving. Still young and a little distractible every now and then but not when he needs to focus.” “Good. And you’ll both grow to be as close as you were with Maximus.” “I know, but Maximus was my first dog. We grew up together. He showed me just how big my world could be; we went to university together; we travelled, we explored. We met you together.” Larla smiled as she rested her head in her left hand. The sun glinted off the ring on her finger. They were sitting in the park. It was afternoon. And the cool, slight breeze made a lovely summer day a million times lovelier. “If you’ll recall, you met me when you were at the pub and your dog was nowhere to be found. Maybe if he was there I would have not said something so embarrassing.” David laughed. “I doubt it. You were pretty upset with me.” “I’m still embarrassed.” “You should be.” “Hey.” “But don’t worry, I’ve said just as many embarrassing things to you over the years.” “That is true. You can say some stupid things if you aren’t careful.” “Hey now.” “What?” “You know what.” “You started it.”