I’ve begun to learn that the most difficult thing about losing my sight in very complex and technical ways is not my lack of visual awareness but the perceptions of others.
Waiting for the brightly lit lift below Hungerford Bridge I stood behind the people already waiting and didn’t understand why no one entered as the doors opened. By the time I realised they were even talking to me that I ‘deserved’ the lift far more than they did and were waiting for me to go first, the doors and shut again. I got that usual, infuriating clasp of my coat without asking and poked towards the lift.
For all the public that treat people with white canes as though they are in dire need of help, how do you think I got to be in the same spot as you on my own, upright and human looking, in the first place? Did they think I live outside the elevator and these were my first steps of the day?
The left on the level before me and the old man said ‘God save you.’
‘God made me like this!’ I said back as the doors shut and as I ascended shouted to the lift door ‘Why on earth do I need saving?!
The only thing that I need saving from are the illegal evictions, without eviction notices, that the Thomas Pocklington Trust are using to remove 47 of us visually impaired people because it has decided we no longer qualify to live in supported housing for visually impaired people (anyone in the media or legal professions feel free to contact me on this travesty).
I don’t need God to save me. I don’t need pity for being disabled- I need a frigging lawyer.
There are women drowning to seek asylum and you think your deity needs to save me just because I can’t see? Me who is in my mothers fur coat in the most expensive city in the world living rent free on free travel costs and an iPhone in my pocket, wandering on my own safely, free to go wherever I choose, you think I deserve saving for the sake of two eyeballs? I don’t need the pity. I need a stick to tell my brain what I step on and although it can be scary as hell to not fall, in reality I’m probably back of the queue on God’s saviour list. It’s just the presumptions that somehow my life is less than those giving the blessings. I Know they are just being nice but it only adds to the frustration and feeling if difference, something lesser than their place in the city.
My trek across London began on the 211 bus that takes forever but shows me the old brick and backstreets of Fulham and Hammersmith. It’s a favourite thing of mine on bored afternoons. You see if God saved me from disability then I wouldn’t have free travel.
At the road alongside the County Hall I seemed to be the last to realise the amount of people hanging around the normally dozy route to the river were actually evacuated from a fire. With tunnel vision the first thing I notice is that the Starbucks (my second home) I wanted to write in was taped off. What happened to Starbucks, I gasp not seeing the three fire engines and cordoned off road next to it. It was just after the violet hour where my eyes feel a little drunk in the dimness of evening and I was concentrating more on getting around people. Then I saw the fire crew were up on a cherry picker above the roof. I asked a bystander what happened and he tells me there’s been an explosion and really big fire.
I look at the building- no fire, no smoke. ‘I don’t see any flames, I’m not blind,’ I say holding the stick and in reply in this surreal sort of laid back tone tells me there are really big flames. I presume he is taking the piss and exaggerating, thinking like everyone else that with a white cane I see nothing. If there were no people to bump into I wouldn’t even use a cane, I would dollop around London in my own little 4 inches square view of the world.
The Southbank has been my wandering and writing territory for so long but at night with nearly no night vision and the crowds as walking black cut outs in the tableaux of lamplights and kiosk signs it gets tricky. I used to write in the Royal Festival Hall every day but now it seems so busy that I left to wander Foyles for a bit and head over the bridge.
One end of Hungerford bridge has a lift and the other end a step free route beside the train tracks and through a little tunnel I used to sing in with an autoharp. It ends at what seems like London’s most hidden market above Villier Street and pops you out through a gap in the wall you barely see, into Charing Cross station. I’ve been using it for years as the stairs down the bridge are terribly lit and like some torturous version of a game on The Crystal Maze. I have always referred to this route as the ‘not-so-secret-secret-walkway’ – tonight the end is concreted up. The market stalls are gone and I felt like I was in one of those weird dreams or I had just imagined how it used to be.
How can transport for London block out the only disabled access route off a bridge?! I took the stairs with my stick and not enough lighting like that scene in Indiana Jones when they cross the bridge in the jungle. Yeah, I never thought something as simple as walking down some steps would be such a mental challenge of not wanting to sit down and cry until given a piggy back to the pavement, but I made it one piece. At least I can walk. What happens to disabled people who cross the bridge, the whole length of Villier St through the tunnel and just meet a brick wall at the other end? Who ticks the boxes for these decisions? I circled the grey walls while everyone else hopped onto the escalator I can’t use in the deluded hope that maybe there was a grey elevator hidden in the greyness.
When I eventually got off the bridge a very plummy posh woman stepped in my way and asked if I knew where I was going in the tone of voice only used for people coming out of a coma. I snapped yes at her but wish I’d said ‘no…I just thought I’d wander around London blind on my own for no reason.’
Reading all this you may think I hate London, the city I always described as my greatest lover no real person would separate me from. But even with it’s do-gooders who seem to think sight loss means brain loss, it all gives this kind of elated craziness: the feeling you get when you step of a fairground ride a bit giddy, a bit frazzled but laughing at it all.
I have a neighbour who tells me living in London is not about old buildings and museums but the people on it. Stood above the middle of the Thames watching buses pass over Waterloo Bridge at night and the hologram effect of St Paul’s I can’t help but wish that for a while London emptied of people. I had no one to try not to trip or walk into, no one to steer me around without asking or patronise me to make themselves feel good for helping the poor little blind lady with the terrible dress sense.
I would love that scene in the movie 24 Days Later when London has been evacuated and only one man left. I would run and leap around without hesitation. I think that’s the thing with damaged vision: the constant hesitations.
Someone one told me that the day you stand on Hungerford Bridge and look at the view down the river and don’t find it magical, that’s the day you shouldn’t be in London anymore. The people passing by are all semi invisible trip hazards but I can turn my back on them and I still see that view, still see the details on the Cathedral and the posters on red buses a mile away but I turn around and have to go back requiring a stick on the stairs.
On another bus that driver gets fed up at children ringing the bell over and over, he starts cracking jokes on the loud speaker, ‘keep ringing I can’t hear you.. did anyone hear ringing?’ Those tiny city fragments that make you smile in dreary weather.