By William David Baker
started as an idea for a ghost story but didn’t end up one, really
Coira McKay was about as perfect a gift as any man could ever wish for. I was sure of one thing – that this time I was not going to fall into my old habit of giving my unwanted gifts away. In all my past entanglements, I had always been the less significant half; never able to commit, never able to open up; able only to give so much and it was never enough. With Coira things would change.
I was sitting alone, daydreaming, in a coffee bar in Knightsbridge, when I first met her. She brushed past me and made me jump, and my chair scraped the floor, wood on wood.
“Oh, I am so sorry. I haven’t made a mess of your clothes, have I? Do let me get you another coffee.” Coira’s voice was velvet and lyrical, and had in it the vaguest hint of the Highlands.
I shot up from my chair with half a mind to have a go at this clumsy woman, when I noticed her stick. I saw too that, despite the dark interior of the coffee bar, she hid her eyes behind large reflective sunglasses. I don’t know why, but I imagined straightaway that her eyes would be the brightest blue steel possible. She had long black hair, imperfectly curled and roughly textured, which she wore with a deep side parting. Her pale but pretty face was a small smooth heart with a wide forehead and pointed chin. She had high wide cheek bones and apple cheeks. She had a long, slightly flattened nose. Her lightly glossed lips, thin upper and thicker lower, were slightly open in a permanent smile that seemed so perfectly natural.
“No. Just a near miss,” I replied. “And don’t worry, no damage done. Thanks for the offer, too, but I didn’t spill a drop.” I sat back down and watched her walk confidently up to the barista’s station, only occasionally testing her way. I couldn’t really stop myself watching, as Coira looked as good walking away from me as she did close up. As she talked to the barista I noticed that she seemed to be in the habit of flicking her side bangs, first one side, then the other, before letting her imperfect curls fall in small black coils onto her white shoulders.
It was late October, and the weather had just begun to turn wintry. Despite a strong chill, she wore only only a thin black silk scarf over a long sleeved pleated white blouse, open at the neck, and showing a simple gold chain. She wore tight black jeans that finished three inches above a pair of smart patent black leather corset heels. Coira was tall and slim and had an hypnotically narrow waist. A police siren wailed, closing in nearby, and everyone looked out of the window, curious for a second or two.
When I turned my gaze back to where I’d left it, Coira and the barista stood at my table. The barista placed two coffees down on the table. Coira thanked him in Caledonian velvet, and pressed a two pound coin into his reluctant hand. He went back to his duties, scratching his head and whistling.
“You don’t mind if I join you?” she asked, in a way that was unlikely ever to be refused. Sliding a coffee over to me, she sat down. “Skinny latte OK?”
“Yes – er, a skinny latte. Fine. How did you guess?”
“You just looked the type.”
“Oh, you can see? I’m sorry, I though you were – ”
“No, it’s me that should be apologising. I’m confusing matters. I am blind. I’ve been blind nearly half my life, but being blind has also made me sensitive in ways that most people would never understand. I just had you down as a skinny latte type. That’s all,” she said, then added “Coira. Coira McKay.”‘
Coira offered me her hand and I took it willingly; it felt warm, despite the chill. Her fingers were long and thin, with natural manicured nails. She pressed my hand firmly. “Alexander Thurston.” I mumbled, my brain momentarily attenuated from my tongue in favour of my eyes. I kept hold of her hand for longer than two Mississippies certainly.
“Hello, Alexander, and please tell me you are an Alex and not a Zander.”
“Alex is fine – Coira.”
“There, that was easy, wasn’t it? We’re getting along fine. Just as I knew we would. Now, tell me all about Alex Thurston and I shall tell you all you need to know about me.”
“Not a lot to tell really. I’m a graphic artist, or at least still trying to be. I’m 32 years old. About the same as you, I’d guess?” I said.
“You’d guess wrong. I’m 34. But, carry on. You’re doing fine.”
“I’m single.” She smiled, and waved her fingers in front of me to show that she too had no attachments.
“I like the way you look straight at me, Alex. So many people seem unable to do that.”
“You’re confusing me again. How can you see me looking at you?”
“You’ll get used it, the confusion, I mean. And, yes I can see you, in my own way, that is. It’s like I can feel you in my face when you speak. It’s quite lovely.”
“Can I – ”
“Yes, you can. Never be afraid to ask. It’s not that bad.” Coira removed her sunglasses to reveal the most piercing light blue eyes I’d ever seen. Not quite steel, but I was shocked at how close I’d been to getting it right, and found it even harder to believe that behind those two bright gleams there was nothing but darkness.
“Beautiful.” It was out before I could stop it.
“Thank you, but utterly useless too, except for captivating you it seems.”
“How long have you been blind?” I asked, with a little reservation, not wanting to frighten her off. I needn’t have worried.
“I lost my sight altogether when i was seventeen. I was born with a genetic form of macular dystrophy called Startgardt’s Disease. I was diagnosed at the age of three, but there was no cure, just the inevitable decline.”
“I’m not sure what could be worse. To be born blind and never know the difference, or to lose the sight you were born with.”
“Either way, you still can’t see.”
We talked over two more coffees, and I learned that Coira worked as a computer consultant with the Home Office and that one of her crowning projects was ‘Holmes 4,’ the latest version of the Home Office Large Major Enquiry System, a sophisticated data management system for managing major crime incidents. Coira heard how I was only just beginning to develop some serious clients for my work after quite a long struggle to break into the market. She owned a flat about a half mile from the coffee bar. I had a share with Barry, an ex-Uni pal, just off Baker Street. She loved to cook. I could manage the basics, but my real interest was wine, and I had recently enrolled in the London Court of Sommeliers. She kept a cat. I was allergic thankfully only to dog hair. We both loved to read. Coira had collected many Braille and Audio books since she went blind, but had also kept all of her standard prints from Hans Christian Anderson to Jung Chang. I too liked real books best but was also never far from my Kindle. I was also in my third year of trying to finish writing a first novel. There was very little music she disliked, and was an accomplished acoustic guitarist, mainly jazz. I was tone deaf, but had good rhythm.
“Gosh. Is that the time?” Coira asked, switching off the audio time alert on her watch. “I really must be going, Alex. There’s some work I must complete tonight.”
“I’d like to see you again,” I told Coira.
“And I’d like that very much too,” Coira said, squeezing my hand and breaking my heart with her smile. “There’s a Egon Schiele exhibit at the Courthold I want to see. The Radical Nude. You can be my eyes. I hope you don’t blush easily.”
I told her I knew and admired Schiele’s work and didn’t blush easily, and, anyway, she would not see me blush.
“No. But I will feel your heat, Alex.” She laughed. “We’ll meet at the gallery at 11 tomorrow.”
Coira left me sitting in the coffee bar, and it was only when I saw her standing outside the gallery the next day, prompt at 11, that I was properly convinced that I hadn’t just imagined our first meeting.
After the Gallery, we met another twice at the coffee bar before we became lovers.
“Alex, when you walk me home today I want you to remember one or two important things.”
“What are they?” I asked, hoping that this wasn’t going to be the big brush off, the DearestJohn of all DearJohns.
“I want you to remember when I ask if you would like to come up for a drink, that what I’m really saying is for heaven’s sake take me to bed.” She paused, and burned me with her blind stare. “And I want you to remember as well, when we make love, that I am not made of eggshell. I will not break.”
We left our coffees behind, untouched, and almost ran the half mile to her apartment. I’m not sure now who supported who in that mad, crazy dash. And people must have thought us mad, crazy. Running through all that sleet and rain when we could so easily have taken shelter. Coira, as I knew she would be, was as good as her word.
We made love, and the passion that we shared was so gentle that even the the most delicate of eggshells would not have had any concern, but it was also so honest, so deep, so complete that we sobbed liked babies in each-others arms when we were finished. Every time that we made love felt like that first time.
We spent Christmas and New Year apart, as we both had committed ourselves to visits home; Coira to see her father in Edinbugh; my mother and sister in East Anglia for me. We kept in touch daily, either through short messages, or long telephone calls. On the last day of the holiday, we skyped, and Coira said she had missed me so much she couldn’t stand it, and asked me if I wouldn’t mind moving in with her when I got back to London. I thought about it for about a second – it may have been less – and said yes. I had no choice, really, as I had planned to say something remarkably similar, but Coira had beaten me to it, and, in any case, her idea was better as it did not involve me having to sling Barry out of his own flat.
Then came the new year and with it new hope for both of us, but new fears for me too. Hope from Coira’s doctors that they might be able to help her gain some of her sight back, and fear for me that should they perform that miracle, then she may see me properly for the first time and hate what she sees.
Coira’s doctors wanted her to undergo stem cell implant procedures. Early stem cell research was initially focussed on finding a cure for age-onset macular degeneration. Promising stem cell successes in treating Alzheimer’s and spinal injuries hit the headlines at the time but research had continued quietly into macular degeneration, and blossomed. New treatments were succeeding in re-seeding lost retinal photo receptors. Success rates were low to begin with, with only one thousand cells taking out of two hundred thousand implanted, but the numbers were improving all the time, and the real breakthrough was that the re-seeding appeared to be stimulating a natural regrowth of receptor cells too. Following treatment, volunteers for this pioneering surgery were reportedly able to see shades of light, colours and object outlines. Coira’s doctors believed her genetic variant of the disease was prime for this new treatment.
Coira underwent stem cell implants for a total of eighteen months, and every few months she would tell me how much more she was able to perceive. It started with seeing something other than black, just a suggestion of light. She would sit opposite me for hours, using first her fingers to sense my face, then she would remove her glasses, and stare. The first time Coira did this, her delicate fingers easily found the second nose break I’d received when playing rugby as a schoolboy.
“It didn’t completely ruin me, did it?” I asked when she managed to drag the story from me.
“Oh, not at all. I think it gives you gravitas. Like a venerable Roman Patrician.”
“Steady on, Coira. I hope I’m not that bloody ancient.” She laughed.
On another occasion her fingers even found the tiny square scar I had above my right eyebrow, a long forgotten reminder of an encounter with a homemade wayward childhood arrow, a scar that even I could no longer see.
“You’ve never told me what colour your eyes are.”
“I have,” I told her. “I told you several times, I’m like David Bowie. I’ve got different coloured eyes.” Coira curled her right hand into a fist and punched me in the chest, and not lightly too.
“I’ve been waiting for you you to say that again. Liar! I looked it up. Bowie’s eyes are the same colour. His best friend George Underwood hit him in the eye when they were kids. Arguing over a girl. Boys! Men! His nail damaged something and the wounded eye was always differently dilated after that, making them look like they were different colours. Now, own up. And I shall know if you you lie, so watch it.” Another punch emphasised her point.
“I give in. I give in. Green. They’re green. Both of them.” She laughed.
A few weeks after her penultimate session she again sat with me across the table.
“I’m so close, Alex. So close that I’m afraid.”
“Why should you be afraid. You’ve come so far.”
“I’m afraid something will go wrong and I’ll go back to the darkness again. When I look at you now I can see the outline your head makes quite clearly. And I can see your awfully funny sticky out ears.”
“Thank you. I always thought they were my best feature.”
“They’re not bad, silly,” she said, gripping both and pulling my face towards hers, kissing me hard. “Got their uses, too,” she said, breathlessly.
“What else do you see?”
“It’s facial recognition all over again like every baby has to learn. A combination of eyebrow positions and eye and mouth shapes. I look at your face and I know you now. I could pick you out in a crowd of people. Even from a partial glance. And I can see your moods. I can’t risk losing this.”
We talked for hours until her confidence and bravery returned.
Then came her final treatment in the schedule the doctors had given her. For a month or so after the treatment Coira just clammed up and would talk about anything but her progress. Fearing a setback, I didn’t want to push her. She would tell me when she was ready. Then over coffee one morning she just came out with it.
Coira was already at the breakfast bar, pouring filter coffee from a glass jug.
“Coffee darling?” she asked. “You look tired. Haven’t you slept well?”
I had gotten used to her intuitions and and so didn’t get it at first
“How do you want your milk? Full fat, or semi?” she asked.
I looked at Coira, who had two almost identical cartons of milk in her hands. She held each one in turn in front of her face and said “I’ll try again. Do you want this one? Full Fat. Or, this one? Semi-skimmed. And don’t looked so puzzled.”
Coira could see again. Her doctors estimated her recovery at almost 80 percent, by far the best they’d achieved up to then, and though they were pretty sure there might be even better to come they could not guarantee it.
It was a few days later that Coira had her stroke. An awful, terrible stroke. One minute we were talking and laughing over a nightcap of single malts, the next I knew I heard her glass shatter on the floor and she lay slumped beside me on the sofa. She died almost immediately.
As Coira took her final agonal breath it must have taken, oh, about the same length of time that it must take for light to travel from the moon to earth; probably less than the time it takes for another cosmos in another place to be created, but for me that time is frozen, it has never ended. Now Coira and I are ghosts. Not in any chain-clanging, white-blanketed way, but we live on together, forever suspended within those precious final moments.