The scent of jasmine was my first clue: a woman.
I was sitting alone at my usual table when she came and sat down at the one right next to me. I knew she was alone because the chair on the other side of her table had not scraped across the floor, and no one had spoken to her after she had sat down.
I sipped my coffee. On a good day, I could pick up the cup, take a sip and return it to the saucer, and if you were sitting at the table right next to me, you would never know I was blind. The challenge was to see how long I could carry out the deception Before the person sitting next to me realized the truth. And believe me, the moment they do, they give themselves away. Some began to whisper, and I suspect nod or point; some become attentive, and a few are so embarrassed that they do not speak again. Yes, I could even sense that.
I hoped someone would be joining her so I could hear her speak. I can tell a great deal from a voice. When you cannot see someone, the accent and the tone are enhanced, and those can give so much away. Pause for a moment, imagine listening to someone on the other end of a phone line, and you will get the idea.
Charlie was heading towards us.
“Are you ready to order, madam?” asked the waiter, his slight Cornish accent, leaving no doubt that he was a local. Charlie is tall, strong, and gentle. How do I know? Because when he guides me back to the pavement after my morning coffee, his voice comes from several inches above me, and I am five foot ten. And if I should accidentally bump against him, there is no surplus weight, just firm muscle. And then, on Saturday afternoons, he plays rugby for the Cornish Pirates. He has been in the first team for the past seven years, so he must be in his late twenties, possibly early thirties. Charlie has recently split up with his girlfriend, and he still misses her. Some things you pick up from asking questions, and others are volunteered.
The next challenge is to see how much I could work out about the person sitting at the table next to me before they realize that I cannot see them. Once they have gone their way, Charlie tells me how much I got right. I usually manage about seven out of ten.
“I’d like a lemon tea,” she replied softly.
“Certainly, madam,” said Charlie. “And will there be anything else?”
“No, thank you.”
Thirty to thirty-five would be my guess. Polite, and not from these parts, and now I am desperate to know more, but I need to hear her speak again if I am to pick up any further clues. I turned to face her as if I could see her clearly.
“Can you tell me the time?” I asked, just as the clock on the church tower opposite began to chime.
She laughed but didn’t reply until the chimes had stopped. “If that clock is to be believed,” she said, “it’s exactly ten o’clock.” The same gentle laugh followed.
“It’s usually a couple of minutes fast,” I said, staring blankly at the clock face. “Although the church’s perpendicular architecture is considered as fine an example of its kind as any in the West Country, it is not the building itself people flock to see. Rather, it is the Madonna and Child by Barbara Hepworth in the Lady Chapel,” I added, casually leaning back in my chair.
“How interesting,” she volunteered as Charlie returned and placed a teapot and a small jug of milk on her table, followed by a cup and saucer. “I was thinking of attending the morning service,” she said as she poured herself a cup of tea.
“Then you are in for a treat. Old Isaac, our vicar, gives an excellent sermon, especially if you’ve never heard it before.”
She laughed again before saying, “I read somewhere that the Madonna and Child are not at all like Hepworth’s usual work.”
“That’s correct,” I replied. “Barbara would take a break from her studio most mornings and join me for a coffee,” I said proudly, “and the great lady once told me that she created the piece in memory of her eldest son, who was killed in a plane crash at the age of twenty-four while serving in the RAF.”
“How sad,” said the woman but added no further comment.
“Some critics say,” I continued, “that it’s her finest work and that you can see Barbara’s devotion for her son in the tears in the Virgin’s eyes.” The woman picked up her cup and sipped her tea before she spoke again.
“How wonderful to have actually known her,” she said. “I once attended a talk on the St Ives School at the Tate, and the lecturer made no mention of the Madonna and Child.”
“Well, you’ll find it tucked away in the Lady Chapel. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.” I added.
As she took another sip of her tea, I wondered how many out of ten I had gotten so far. Clearly interested in art, probably lived in London and certainly hadn’t come to St Ives to sunbathe on the beach.
“So, are you a visitor to these parts?” I ventured, searching for further clues.
“Yes, but my aunt is from St Mawes, and she’s hoping to join me for the morning service.”
I felt a right chump. She must have already seen the Madonna and Child and probably knew more about Barbara Hepworth than I did but was too polite to embarrass me. Did she also realize I was blind? If so, those same good manners didn’t even hint at it.
I heard her drain her cup. I could even tell that. When Charlie returned, she asked him for the bill. He tore off a slip from his pad and handed it to her. She passed him a banknote, and he gave her back some coins.
“Thank you, madame,” said Charlie effusively. It must have been a generous tip.
“Goodbye,” she said, her voice directed towards me. “It was nice to talk to you.”
I rose from my seat, gave her a slight bow, and said, “I do hope you enjoy the service.”
“Thank you,” she replied. As she walked away, I heard her say to Charlie, “What a charming man.” But then again, she had no way of knowing how acute my hearing was.
And then she was gone.
I sat waiting impatiently for Charlie to return. I had so many questions for him. How many of my guesses would turn out to be correct this time? From the buzz of cheerful chatter in the cafe, I guessed there were a lot of customers in that morning, so it was some time before Charlie was once again standing by my side.
“Will there be anything else, Mr. Trevathan?” he teased.
“There will most certainly be, Charlie,” I replied. “For a start, I want to know all about the woman who was sitting next to me. Was she tall or short? Fair or dark? Was she slim? Good-looking? Was she-”
Charlie burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny?” I demanded.
“She asked me exactly the same questions about you.”