HCK Creative Writing Competition ~ Senior Winner

“Do the Blind Dream in Colour?”  by  Caoimhe Devaney

Michael rested his head against the cool train window and watched as a smoky film appeared near his mouth. He had been dreading this night for a long time. He was tired of his old friends and their banal conversation. These outings, half-hearted attempts at normality; they were the things that annoyed him most about his small community.

The train leaned into a stop, and the doors slid open. The first thing he noticed about her was her bearing. She stood rod-straight and stepped onto the train with an easy grace. She shook her cane across the floor, clicking against the yellow support-poles. Her hair was white-blond. She found the edge of the seat across from him, and slid into it. She clicked her cane down until it was the size of a baton, and pulled herself in against the window.

Her eyes were a disconcerting shade of electric blue, almost as colourless as her hair. The pupils were like tiny black pinpricks, punched into paper. She stared into a distance he could not see, somewhere above his head. She relaxed into her seat, and crossed her legs, accidentally kicking him in the shin. He must have winced louder than he meant to, because she apologised immediately.

‘Goodness, I didn’t notice you there,’ she said. She seemed to be waiting for an answer from him. What was he going to do? He couldn’t answer with a vague shrug. When he spoke his voice felt scratchy and awkward.
‘S-s’okay,’ he said, finally.  She was hauntingly pretty, with skin pale and clear as a goose egg. He fixed his gaze on his shoes.

She tried to strike up a conversation with him, but he couldn’t offer her anything more than a few monosyllables in return. He excused himself, and walked over to the exit. He felt the train slowing down around him, but did not reach for one of the yellow poles. He enjoyed that feeling, swaying on the balls of his feet. The train stopped at an empty platform.  He was just about to press the button to open the door when he felt a nudge at his left foot. He turned around.

‘Same stop as me, quiet man?’ the woman said. Michael wished, at that moment, to have said something more dashing than ‘yes’. He pressed the button and the doors opened. She followed him into the biting air of the platform, and slid her arm into the crook of his.
‘How kind of you to offer to help me to where I’m going!’ she said, a smile playing across her lips.

He didn’t have the words to disagree. She told him a place name he knew vaguely, enough to be sure that it was in the complete opposite direction of the bar where his friends were expecting him. At the turnstiles he put his hand into the pocket of his jeans and pressed the off button on his phone.

They set off, and as they walked he would have to turn to her every so often, for direction. They threaded through the streets of the city, arm in arm. The frost had been chased into the shadows by the weak noon sun, and it lay there, glittering mutely. He accompanied her to a number of strange shops. He watched, admiringly, as she counted out her buys entirely in coin at every counter.

She explained to him that the coins were the only thing she was certain of the value of, and if she used notes someone might try to pull one over on her. She seemed to speak from experience.

After the last shop she tugged on his coat and turned to him, saying ‘C’mon, I know a place with a lovely view,’ the last three words were accompanied by a laugh. All the way there he could feel her hand on his arm quite acutely. It seemed the only concrete thing in this strange evening.

They got a little lost on the way there, and by the time they reached the park the winter sun was slipping slowly down the sky, like a broken egg down the side of a bowl. They went into the park and sat down on a bench together. It was, indeed, a nice view. She seemed to be looking at him to say as much, to break this comfortable silence that had been hanging between them. As the sun slipped out of sight, it left clouds like bloody veins throbbing behind a filigree of bare, black trees.

She turned to him. ‘Are you completely deaf, or just slightly?’
‘Completely,’ he replied.
‘How can you hear me, then?’
‘Lip reading,’ he confided.  He was glad she knew it now. It had been difficult, trying to turn towards her to read what she was saying and walk simultaneously. He had nearly tripped up about eighty times.
‘Sorry?’ she asked.
‘Lip. Rea-ding,’ he said, carefully enunciating each syllable. By the time he lost his hearing, he had grown to hate his voice. It had taken on the soft, nasally quality of every child with a hearing aid. It must be even worse now. She laughed, and Michael realised that he would endure many hours of hearing his own painful muffled voice to hear that laugh. It must be beautiful, clear like cold water.

‘We’ll have to find a way for you to talk,’ she said, taking out her handbag and digging round in it, with her head still turned towards him. ‘One with full-sentence possibilities.’
She spread out a serviette on her knee, and handed it to him, along with a pen.
‘Take this down,’ and she called out an email address.

The following night a black line blinked at the end of that address on his computer screen.  Michael sighed. Every message he tried to write wavered between overly keen and downright creepy. Perhaps he should wait a little longer. The light flicked on and off in the hallway, interrupting his thoughts. It was dinnertime.

Dinner was always a slow affair. One person signed while the others ate. They were a small family. Michael and his mother were totally deaf. His father could hear only very highly pitched noises. His younger brother, however, was a hearing person. The parents, despite themselves, were not glad of this. It was difficult to raise a boisterous child in a silent household. As well as that, the younger son had attended mainstream school. This meant that he didn’t understand some more complicated signs and sentence structures, and was a constant source of embarrassment to their friends.

However, tonight, Michael was the object of his parent’s disapproval. When they asked him about his night out, he proudly told the whole story, believing they would greet this interesting escapade with positivity. They listened to him with expressions of dawning incredulity.

‘Weren’t your friends annoyed when they found out you stood them up?’ His father asked.
‘I haven’t really spoken to them since’-
His mother interrupted him. ‘Are you interested in this girl?’ Michael went red. His brother sniggered, then choked on his peas.
‘I can’t believe this,’ she continued. ‘Why can’t you show some interest in someone from your own people, for once?’
‘Mum, we’re deaf, not a separate race.’ He hated when his parents were like this, acting like the rest of the world was something to be at war with. He was sick of their ‘community’, it was stifling.
‘This woman is blind.’
‘And?’
‘Don’t be stupid, Michael! You know-‘

Michael stood up from the table and turned away. He slammed the door as he left the room.

He met her again a week later, in a café halfway between his town and hers. He arrived twenty minutes early and ordered a coffee by pointing at the menu.  In the shops nearer to home everyone knew him, his family and his order. He felt self-conscious here. He was halfway through his coffee when she arrived. She wafted in the door, hair and scarf unsettled by the gusty air outside.

He went up to meet her and guided her to the table. She smelt like cold wet street, and her hair was coated in a misty halo of tiny rain droplets. They sat down, facing each other.

‘I’ve been thinking,’ she began, launching into the conversation without any pleasantries, ‘and I’ve come up with an idea. First I was thinking of one of those text-to-speech machines. But then I realised that they are really heavy and expensive and they make you sound like Stephen Hawking, not that he isn’t a great man, but-‘

She handed him a piece of paper. It had the alphabet written down the side, with little black dots and dashes corresponding to each letter. She touched his hand. He flinched, and raised his gaze from the paper.

‘Morse code,’ she said, proudly. ‘I’ve already learnt it off. The dots are taps and the lines are pauses.’ Their first proper conversation followed, Michael leaning forward in his rickety chair, tapping out tentative sentences on the soft skin of her wrist. On the way back to the train station she laced her fingers into his.

The way they spoke together was one of his favourite things about their relationship. They would walk down the road together, hand in hand, slowly tapping out secret conversations that no one around them could understand.  When they were apart, the space between his fingers echoed.

One night, four months after they met, he made his way over to her apartment, as usual. A question had been itching within him all week, but he had saved it for when they could talk in person.  He pressed the doorbell, feeling the click beneath his finger. A few seconds later she opened the door. She called out his name, and he stepped forward and embraced her. He pressed his nose into her hair, and inhaled her scent, familiar now, of rosemary and something like balsa wood. She knotted her fingers together behind his back. They stood like that for a minute or so, wordlessly, allowing the storms and stresses of their weeks to unravel and fall away.

They ate dinner and watched a movie together; subtitles and audio description both turned on.  When the movie ended, Michael slid the shoulder of her shirt down and tapped out a question on her bare skin. ‘What do you dream of?’ He had been wondering about it for a while. She turned to face him, carefully pronouncing each word so she was sure that he would catch them.

‘Most of the time I dream in noises and feelings. The older I get, the more of my life spent in the dark, the fewer images I see. People like my mother look forever as they were 15 years ago.’ She reached forward, searching for his hand.

‘For some reason, since I went blind, I have a lot of nightmares. Not about anything fantastical, I get lost, drop my cane, fall into a pothole, that kind of thing.’  Her eyes had drifted up beyond him, into that familiar faraway distance. He traced a comforting circle in her palm.

‘But most of all, I dream of you. You are a blur, an image of how I imagine you look. But I know your shape, I know your smell, I know your voice immediately. You’re always there, stretching out a hand to me if I need it.’
At that moment, the world shrank away. He took her face between his hands and kissed her. Not the first kiss, but the first one he gave unasked and untrembling.
‘I guess I know why, Michael. You’re always in my thoughts, from when I wake up in the morning to last thing before I go to sleep.’

That night they dreamt together; her head on his chest, his fingers woven in her hair. In the dark, Michael closed his eyes and drew her arms around her. His heart sped up a little and, slowly and deliberately, he tapped out three words on the back of her neck. She traced two back to him, in long block letters on his bare chest.
‘I know.’
He felt her smile against his skin.

HCK Creative Writing Competition ~ Junior Winner

“Dreams” by Lani O’Donnell

As I make my way to school, the sun beats down. I can feel the oppressive heat through my headscarf. I clutch my dress in my sweaty hand; underneath my feet I can feel the rocks, the thin leather of my sandals offering little comfort. The speed of my pace causes dust to whirl around me. I know I should slow down but the adrenaline has kicked in as I see the entrance in front of me.

I scan the path ahead and take a furtive look behind me. All clear. So I dash across the road into the safety of the white-washed walls with a cool fan whirring in the background. Here I am, comfortable. There is chatter and laughter as the clock hits 8 am. We take our books out and soon we are immersed, voices ring in unison as we answer questions, recite tables, learn new facts. Our teachers are strict but fair. They have had to fight hard to become teachers and want for us to do our best. Maps cover the walls and piles of well-thumbed books are stacked on shelves. Older girls help younger ones; we must do our work in school as when we go home we must help our mothers.

After school, we sit out on a takht and the teachers hand out naan bread and – if we are really lucky – some fresh fruit. It is during this time that we are allowed to read storybooks. Sometimes I dare to sneak one home in the pocket of my shalwar but it is a risk as my father would not be happy for me to waste my time on what he calls “fairy tales”.

I love to read about girls in other countries. I want to go to New York, Disneyland, London and Paris. The colours in these stories seem so vivid, I feel drab in comparison. My life – like my clothes – always seems dirt-coated and dull. There are no malls here, only street markets which day by day are becoming less vibrant.

As we prepare to leave school, we do it as individuals so as not to draw attention to ourselves. In our region of the North-West of Pakistan the Taliban have been moving in and they do not believe in a girl’s right to education; they have threatened to kill both us and our families. My father is getting more and more nervous but my mother is strong and encourages him to let me go.

We all line up to leave and our teachers straighten our hijabs. It is more a sign of affection as we rarely let them slip. I dread when the time will come when we have to wear a burqa but under Taliban laws not wearing it means flogging or execution. As I scurry out onto the street, my head is down but butterflies flicker in my stomach. I dream of letting my hair flow, bare legs running up the road and laughing and shouting with my friends. This will not happen but my books have given me a vision of hope.

My brother meets me around the corner. He walks me to and from school every day as it is risky to be out unaccompanied. If I were to be seen with another male figure other than my family, it would dishonour them and everyone would shun me. If a woman is not chaste she is unworthy of marriage. I don’t want to get married at 16. I want to go on and study, but I am good at cooking and cleaning, so my father says I will make a good wife. He has already started saving for my dowry. A local boy, Fazal, has expressed an interest in me. He is horrible, with crooked teeth and a limp. My mother has said I cannot marry him until I am 16, so hopefully he will have got bored and marry someone else. My brother scuffs the ground as we walk home. We don’t talk. I think he resents me and fears for the family, but, like him, I have ambition. I wish to be a lawyer to fight for real Pakistani people. But for now I lead a day-to-day existence.

At home I am happy. My mother is so kind and a hard-worker. We cook the evening meal together most of the time. It’s a lentil stew cooked over an open fire served with Naan bread. My brother helps my father with the animals and this is when my mother and I talk about my day. She is always interested in what I have learned but when I tell her about the stories I read she looks sad and shakes her head. I know to silence myself when my father and brother come in as they are irritated by my silliness.

Night time is cold and after the lamps are turned out I curl up underneath the blankets and watch my breath break the blackness of night; my mind drifts to other places, the heat of the fire and the smell of the food lulling me to sleep and, here, in my own mind, I can explore my hopes (ummeed) and dreams (khaab) until tomorrow.

I didn’t feel morning come, because it hadn’t. All I remember was the rush of cold as the door burst open, my mother’s screams as my father was dragged from beside her and pulled to his feet. Men shouting as they pushed my father and brother outside. They lined them up in front of neighbours who had stumbled out after hearing the noise. My brother looked at me straight in the eye and I could see blame and hate in his eyes. My father’s just registered fear. A quiet descended and without explanation gun fire started ripping through them, orange bursts just before they crumpled to the ground. The neighbours ran quickly back into their homes, fearful they may be next.

My mother is sobbing beside me. We are being held in a makeshift jail, awaiting Taliban trial. We know our fate is already decided, it is only a matter of time before we are executed as an example to our community. Each night, as I cling to my mother, I hope my dreams don’t turn to nightmares, but, in reality, they already have.