Bec offered to drive me, if I’d look up the address. I went out to her car to grab the directory. Marie and Chris were across the way, still fixing up Barbara’s flat. They waved me over.
“Hey, where are YOU going?” Marie asked. “We-e-ell”… I began. How could I do this? They were onto me.
The only thing for it was to come clean. I explained my dilemma, the importance of spending the day with my Dad, the idea of the blindfold as a “legal loophole” in my own rules. They thought about it. Chris felt it could work. “It’s true, family comes first, you should definitely go. But you HAVE to keep on the blindfold the WHOLE time.” Marie was less sure: “If you ask me, leaving is leaving, no matter whether you cover your eyes or not.” They were still debating it between themselves as I sat in the passenger seat putting one of Bec’s silk scarves over my eyes. I waved to them blindly as we drove off.
Riding along with a blindfold induced a vague nausea. Luckily the trip from Petersham to Darling Point didn’t take too long on Easter Sunday, when the streets are empty. I felt the lefts and the rights and imagined the trajectory, occasionally checking in with Bec: “So, we’re turning right into Eddy Avenue now, right?”…
Dad came out when he heard us arrive. He thanked Bec for dropping me off, and gave me a hug. Then he grabbed my two forearms from behind and guided me down the corridor. “OK, there’s a step coming up, yep you’ve got it, now its straight for a while, then another step down, and now, stop here, I’ll install you in this chair.” I was greeted by Gosia and Veronica, with kisses to both cheeks. Dad and Gosia started in straight away. “Now look, this place is actually “Poland”. No wait, its an embassy, that’s right, so we think you should take off the blindfold now.”
I wasn’t so sure. I mean, I think if there was a strong popular push to “liberate” me, I would have gone with the flow. After all, I was on foreign turf, and who am I to impose my will on the rest of the luncheon party? But, well, I figured, it wouldn’t hurt to delay my decision for a moment. Gosia asked if my scarf was comfortable. She brought out an elasticated eye-cover, the sort of thing they give you on long-haul flights, and I put that on instead. That was much better.
Gosia’s friend Perry arrived. She had a Irish accent. There was the inevitable round of questions about what the hell I was doing. It wasn’t all that easy to answer at first. I kept wanting to resort to handing out my FAQ page. It’s difficult to address a tricky question when you can’t look your interlocutor in the eye. There’s no way to guage whether they’re interested, or if you’re in danger of losing them. All you can do is wait for an appropriate break in the conversation and then jump in, speaking firmly and loudly, in full sentences, until you’ve said what you need to say. And then wait for the reply (assuming the other person is still there).
Uncle Michael appeared. I stuck out my hand to be shaken, and then he disappeared into the kitchen to make some drinks. Veronica and Perry began a conversation about a project to recycle paper into fertilizer by adding some enzymes or bacteria to break it down. It sounded interesting, but Perry was a bit skeptical. Who was running the enterprise, and were they mainly profit motivated? she wanted to know…This led into a discussion about organic fruit and vegetables, and the way that vegies these days are pretty devoid of nutritional value. I was glad to have Perry around, I felt her wholistic approach was philosophically close to my own. She could come in handy if the blindfold-removal pressure became tough.
Gosia’s parents were the last to arrive. Again I stuck out my hand. I could hear Polish explanations going on, the only discernable word being “Petersham” (pronounced “Piet-r-sciam”) peppered throughout. No further enquiry was made. Jokes at my expense, of course, were popping up fairly regularly. The most popular (perpetrated, it must be said, by my Dad) was the old: “Wow, you really should take that blindfold off, you know we’re all naked in here except you!”
Eventually it was time to move to the dining room. Dad led me through. It was back along the hall: up those two steps again, and then a right turn after the bathroom. Along the way, Dad muttered under his breath “So…At some point you’re going to have to decide whether you’re keeping this up the whole time.” I was glad of this private moment to suss things out. “The main thing I’m worried about is whether I’ll be freaking anyone out. Do you think this is making Gosia really uncomfortable?” I asked. He wasn’t sure. We agreed to just monitor it as it went along.
I was seated at the head of the table, nearest the door, with Dad on my left, and Gosia’s father Andrzej (“Andrew”) on my right.
Being blind at a dinner party felt like channeling the experience of an old man. You sit, you stay put, you are served and looked after, you speak when you are spoken to, and you really appreciate the attention when you get it. But there’s no nimble jumping around from topic to topic, spotting when someone is bored or thoughtful, judging the situation and guiding it in a better direction. Soundwise, it’s either on or off.
On the other hand, I found I could follow two conversations at once, surprisingly well (as long as I wasn’t participating in either of them). I could tell by volume modulation whether an exchange was “public” (ie intended for the whole table) or private (just between two people). I wonder whether the rest of the table was aware, when I was just sitting quietly, that I was taking all that in?
Gosia had prepared some delicious dishes. The best was a fish tartar, which apparently contained three kinds of fish, as well as roe (!) and if I understand correctly, it was mushed and then reconstituted as a solid. It had a delicate aromatic flavour, almost sweet. Dill was the strongest recognisable herb. There was also a balsamic vinegar tomato salad, and another salad with beans and a soy mayonnaise. Various kinds of bread, hard boiled egg, antipasto. There was also a soup but it had bacon in it so I skipped that one.
Eating wasn’t nearly as difficult as I had anticipated. I learned to probe around in the bowl, sliding the fork under a morsel, and judging from the change in weight whether I’d been successful in picking up a chunk. The tomatoes were the easiest, cos you can spear ’em. The salad was the trickiest, with its little bits, and towards the end I had to resort to using my other hand to guide the food onto my fork. When my plate was removed, Andrzej was amazed: “Not much mess!” I groped around with my hands to make sure he wasn’t just having me on…
Andrzej and I got on very well. I imagine what we must have looked like, two old men leaning in conspiratorially to talk about important things like taxi-driving (he’s driven for eighteen years), tennis (he plays four days a week) and which TV stations are the best (ABC and SBS, in that order). It didn’t seem to bother him at all that I couldn’t see. I enjoyed his taxi-philosophy – he knew a lot about politics, history (although sometimes his facts on the formation of Polish democracy were contested by his daughter and granddaughter) and chemical food-growing: in Poland, he had done a masters in Agricultural Engineering.
At a certain point, the more mobile guests dashed off for an Easter egg hunt masterminded by Michael. They were gone for a while. His clues were cryptic and not at all easy to decode. Andrzej picked up my camera. I tried to explain to him how to set it up without the flash, but we didn’t quite make it there. He shot a couple of photos of us standing together facing the mirror. I asked him how they looked. “I don’t know. They’re all a bit dark” he said. I imagined him shaking his head as he inspected the (poorly designed) camera interface.
Later, Anja showed up. She’s another Polish friend of Gosia’s. It was her birthday. We all sang happy birthday. It was a little weird singing to someone you’ve never met. When the song finished, she asked: “And WHAT is THIS?” Something in her voice indicated that she was talking about me. “Ah…that’s my son,” said Dad. “He’s got … a terribly contagious eye condition.” The matter wasn’t raised again until later…
Andrzej leaned over and said “Oh, Lucas! I think you should take off this blindfold now. You are missing out on something quite beautiful. You are a man, and you should not avoid seeing a beautiful woman. And she is only turning twenty-five today.” Of course, he was having me on. But I had to concede, there was nothing in Anja’s voice to give away her age. Indeed she could have been anywhere between twenty-five and fifty-five. Anja, Perry, Andrzej and his wife: I had never laid eyes on any of them them before. I had absolutely no mental picture to associate with their voices. There was something quite lovely about this, something open. They eyes are so quick to judge, to separate and grade based on an instantaneous image. The eyes are the organs of the connoisseur. Ears are more generous. It takes time, listening, to generate an impression through sound.
Anja sat to my left, between me and my Dad. I asked her how long she had been in Australia, why she had come, and so forth. “Oh, it’s a long story,” she said. But long stories are what I needed. I was (as they say) “all ears”. Her voice sounded warm and strong. At the end of her tale (arrival in Sydney without a word of English, miraculously making her way into uni, struggling through semiotics and post-structuralist theory, scoring a job as a tape editor at the ABC, taking voluntary redundancy and ending up at Foxtel, always learning something new…) I felt like we were firm friends. “And, you? What about you?” she asked. It was time to let her in on the fact that I (thankfully) don’t actually have a contagious eye condition…
All in all, I must say I thoroughly enjoyed my day as a blind man. It was calming. Despite the mild nausea, which stayed with me the whole time (and I must point out that for this reason I deliberately avoided alcohol), the social event felt very simple. I was totally unaffected by the schizophrenic sensation that, even though you are talking to one person, maybe you should, at that moment, be talking to another. I sat still, for longer than I would have thought possible. I only needed to visit the toilet once. I gave my eyes (ravaged by my umbilical attachment to this damn glowing screen) a rest.
It was time to wrap up. Michael, Gosia, and Dad decided to go out for a coffee. Instead of calling a cab, they figured it’d be easier to march me down the street and hail one. But “down the street” involved “down a lot of steps”, steep narrow old fashioned steps which felt like they were cut into sandstone. I gripped Dad’s bicep with my left hand. He had the dog Oscar on a leash on the other side. Dad moved quickly, and I soon gained my confidence, trusting that I wouldn’t whack my head into some low-hanging branch. I could smell some powerfully strong flowers.
Nobody moved to holler for a taxi. It seemed that I had been conscripted into coffee too.
So here we were, sitting in a public place (an outdoor cafe in Double Bay, or so I was told), and me with a blindfold on. I felt no sense of self-consciousness. Embarrassment is something for the sighted to worry about. We drank our coffees and huddled around the table, talking about sensory deprivation. Taking away only one sense (we have a whole FIVE!) really sharpens all the others. At a certain point the conversation drifted away, and all I could hear was a nearby TV (ugly channel nine advertising sounds) and further away, the faint chatter of people.
After a moment, Gosia asked me: what did you think about when it was quiet like that? I wasn’t sure. I told her that there was no way to interpret a break in the conversation. Was everyone sitting around uncomfortably, trying to some up with the next thing to say? No, she said. We were all gazing away, lost for a moment, looking at something beautiful.
My taxi driver didn’t ask any questions at all. We discussed the best route for the return journey. Parramatta Road? he asked. Yeah, that’d be fine, I said. Or else, Salisbury, off City Road, would be ok. No, he said, Cleveland Street is packed now. Oh, some sport thing? I asked. Yeah, rugby, he said. So Parramatta Road it was. Again, I could trace the route in my head, feeling the lefts and rights. When we hit the long straight stretch on Parramatta, though, I was lost. I had no idea of distance, and the lurching, squelchy softness of the taxi ride was raising my nausea again. I was able to tell him to take a right at the Oxford Tavern, then a left at Silvas, then right again. The fare was twenty five dollars sixty. I gave him the fifty that Dad had slipped me for the ride, and he gave me two notes in return, clearly stating “twenty-five-dollars-change”. He asked if I needed any help. No, I said, I’ll be fine. I groped around for the handle, opened the door, and stepped out. When I could hear the taxi move away, I raised the blindfold, blinking into the cool air. What a relief.
Inside, I looked at the photos. Dad had taken a few of me sitting stiffly at the table. These are good documentary evidence, to show that I really went through with it. But my favourite photos were the ones shot by Andrzej, with the two of us in the mirror. The light meter (its judgement distorted by the camera’s own flash) overcompensates, and the photograph is almost totally black.