The Bonfire (short story)
He was the first blind person I'd ever seen.
It might sound strange to you that I'd managed to go through almost 17 years of life without ever encountering a blind person, but that's just the way it was. This is a small town - even smaller back then - and I guess there weren't many blind people around. Of course, I'd heard about them, seen them on TV, and probably learned about them in school, but he was the first flesh and blood example that had crossed my path.
It was getting late and an almost full moon was shining through a gap in the clouds; I remember that much, though I don't remember why I was still out and about at that hour. He was sitting on one of the benches at the top of the high street, up where it widens as it meets the main road, and was the only person in sight. The main road wasn't so busy back then and there weren't any cars passing by, so the place was virtually silent. I thought he might be asleep judging from how he was sitting - either that or drunk - and I started walking behind him without paying him that much notice.
When he spoke, I almost jumped out of my skin.
"You going to the bonfire night?"
The bonfire night? I thought, stopping. That had finished hours ago. I told him as much.
"Shame," he said. He still hadn't moved. "Must be later than I thought."
"I haven't heard any fireworks for at least an hour," I told him. "Though I reckon the bonfire itself'll still be burning."
He sat up straight and turned towards me, though he was in fact looking at the lamppost next to me. It was then that I realised he was blind.
"Can you take me there?"
If I'd been paying better attention, of course, I might have noticed the white stick laying on the bench next to him, but I only saw this when he picked it up as he got to his feet.
"I can point you in the right direction," I said, even though I knew he was blind. If he was offended by this, he didn't show it.
"Don't think I'd make it on my own, son," the blind man said. He was still looking off to my side and this made his smile look a little manic. But he seemed harmless enough; even if he hadn't been blind, he was getting on a bit and I was confident I could have handled him.
We stood facing each other, neither of us saying anything. To a passerby, I expect we would have looked pretty strange, but there were no witnesses. I was starting to feel a little uncomfortable so made up my mind to just walk away. I turned and took a step, then he said:
"This is a lot to ask, son. But I'd really like to go to the bonfire tonight, before it burns out. It's not far and it would mean a lot to me if you'd help me get there. Don't have to stay, you can just leave me there."
I stopped. He was right of course, it wasn't far, but still I hesitated.
"But if you're busy, then I'll understand."
He began to lower himself back down to the bench. Something about how slowly he moved and how careful he was to check where the bench was in relation to himself before fully sitting stirred me. "Come on then," I said.
I helped him up again, then, with him holding onto my forearm, we began walking down the high street. It was so still that our footsteps echoed off the shopfronts as we moved in and out of the shadows, the amber street lights above us making the cobblestones below look both wet and aflame.
On my own, I could have covered the distance to the field where the bonfire was in six or seven minutes, but with him on my arm it took closer to a quarter of an hour. We cut through the alley between the butcher's and the pub, then went around the flats on Seabrook road, coming out just across from the trees that run along the back of the empty field behind the seafront.
"Blimey... windy down here," the blind man said, and he let go of me to button up his coat.
In that moment, I thought about running off and leaving him, and to be honest, I came really close to doing it. He took so long fumbling with his buttons that I could have been long gone by the time he reached out for my arm again. But I stayed next to him.
The area was dead at that time of night. Everyone had left hours before and there weren't even any cars parked up along the seafront. We crossed the road to the back of the field together.
Normally, I'd just have climbed the fence and cut through the trees, but I didn't think he'd be up to that even if he could see, so we followed the path down to the main gate. It was still sitting wide open when we reached it, so I'm guessing whoever's job it had been to close it after the fireworks hadn't wanted to wait for everyone to leave. As we turned into it, the bonfire suddenly came into view.
I was surprised that the trees had managed to completely conceal it as it was still burning strongly, with large flames licking up and out from the glowing wooden mound at its core. I guess the last people must have chucked on more wood before they left because it was so bright that the everything around it looked almost pure black in comparison; I could barely make out where the field ended and the seafront behind it began.
Not that the blind man would have been able to see any of this. He simply followed me though the muddy puddles around the gate.
"We there?" he said when he felt grass under his feet.
"Almost," I said.
"Yes," he said after a moment, speaking as if to himself, "I can hear it!"
I glanced at him as we walked. He was smiling and we were close enough by then that the light from the flames was reflecting off of his teeth. He had turned his head a little to point an ear towards the spits and snaps that were becoming louder with each step.
The ground had been left potted and uneven by the crowds earlier so the final few metres were slow going, and he gripped my arm more tightly with fingers that felt skinless. Soon though, we were standing next to the bonfire and looking up at the flames rising above us. And yes, he was looking up at it just like I was. Perhaps he still had enough eyesight left that he could sense its towering brightness, or maybe he hadn't always been blind and was laying the memory of a bonfire from his past over the nothingness in front of him, who knows, but he was looking up at it just like I was.
Even if he couldn't see it, he would have felt it hot against his face. It was a mild autumn night, but we both soon had sheens of sweat on our foreheads. With the wind behind us, the difference in temperature between our fronts and our backs was stark.
"Thanks son," the blind man said without taking his eyes off of the fire. "You don't know how much this means to me."
"No problem," I said.
"Get going now, I'll be fine just here."
At that moment, a gust of wind came in from the ocean and whipped the flames towards us. Instinctively, I stepped backwards, though we hadn't been so close that we'd been in any real danger. The blind man, however, didn't even flinch.
"Yes, sure. Off you get."
He was between me and the flames, and all I had to do was run at him and shove him hard in the back to send him crashing into them. I pictured myself in motion, felt the leather of his coat, and the frame of his ribcage beneath, against my palms, and I saw him flailing into the mass of heat and light like some great bird with broken wings, sending sparks and glowing wooden embers flying in a beautiful display as he fought to regain balance and to sense a way out of the fire; and I heard his screams, shrill over the guttural roaring and brittle cracking of the flames, and smelt his hair, singeing, flaring, then disintegrating. And then I stood over his smoking body as it writhed in the mud, a pulsing mass of wet blackness crawling feebly away.
I overlayed all of this over the image of his silhouette in front of me, the frail and crooked outline of an old blind man between me and the flames.
And I turned and I walked out of the field.