The Blind | Ewan Gass | Granta

The Blind

Ewan Gass

The boy sat by what had been the foot of the wall. Only scattered rubble marked where the line once stood: nothing now prevented the poisonous bush spilling over from the neighbours’ garden. A week ago, the boy had teetered on top of the wall, as he liked to do, peering over the tall rushes to glimpse the spot where two cats liked to sun themselves, when a large stone gave way beneath his feet. He would have fallen had he not instinctively grasped hold of the tree, whose bark flaked in his hands. His father was mowing the lawn, wearing his headphones, so only half-saw his son nearly fall. Perhaps this explained his father’s sudden insistence that they really should take down that shoddy wall. The boy did his best to seem ruffled by his near-accident, sensing this was what the adults required.

Now he sat on one of the piles of bricks, wrapped in polyethylene, which from tomorrow would be converted into a new wall. The heat had eased. The flies had taken the sinking sun as their signal. The boy thought of nothing. The family had lined up in a row, to wash and dry the dishes, so he had been able to slip away without being missed. Later he would be thinking of something, but he enjoyed this moment of not knowing what, or from where the thoughts would come.

A figure came towards him across the shaded lawn. Perhaps this is my idea, thought the boy. But then he realised it was Grandma Seaside – not from her face, which he could not see, but from her hunched posture. She walked so slowly across the lawn that he had time to sit up straight.

Grandma Seaside got her name because she lived in a sheltered home by the seaside, and to distinguish her from Grandma Mindy, who was inside, organising the drying of the dishes, and was named for the dog that she had christened after Mork & Mindy. It was true that an easier way to distinguish Grandma Seaside would be to call her ‘great-grandmother’, but this no one in the family seemed to do. It felt strange to think that Grandma Seaside was Grandma Mindy’s mother, and so the boy often forgot.

Grandma Seaside shuffled up all the way to the boy, then wordlessly lowered herself with painful slowness down to sit on another of the piles of bricks wrapped in polyethylene. The boy was about to be surprised, only to then remember what his uncle said about doolally people. Doolally people were apt to act in curious ways – and so you always needed to be on the look-out.

‘Hello, grandma’, said the boy.

‘Nice little fort you have here for yourself.’ He had forgotten how her voice rasped.

‘Well tomorrow it will be a wall.’

‘Yes, I suppose it will.’ She said this as if the local fact indicated some mysterious general truth.

The old woman made a strange contrast – her pressed paisley skirt against the red brick and billowing plastic wrap, her high white socks and flat black buckled shoes, placed squarely amid the drifting powder that had settled when the workmen cut the side-bricks on the lathe that morning. Her withered hands held each other in her lap. The boy wondered whether it hurt her to sit with him, whether she would ever be able to move from this position.

The patchy ochre lawn was still wet with droplets from the water sprinkler. The silence distended. The boy felt it in his stomach, like a stone in a shoe.

‘My dad’s car has six gears’, he said, because he could nearly see the shiny bonnet past the pebbledash garage – and because he needed to fill the silence.

Grandma Seaside gazed at him as if he was completely insane. Her blue eyes sat in the wrinkled folds of her flesh like an oyster in its striated shell. The boy could not bear her gaze, and looked down to where there was nothing but the fine powder of what had been bricks.

Try to make eye contact, his father had told him. But sometimes people engulf you.

He was pinching the skin of his wrist, covertly, behind his back. He was not very interested in the sixth gear of his father’s new car either.

It seemed Grandma Seaside lived in silences. She looked happy and maintained her gaze, but now the boy was not there to meet it, she looked instead at the patch of nettles that kept coming back. The boy had long since given up what he now understood was a fantastical ambition to eliminate all the nettles in the world via a series of well-aimed kicks.

‘Do you like to dance, Grandma?’ With a sudden epiphany, the boy had recalled another piece of advice that his father had given him – it was a good idea to ask questions.

Grandma Seaside made a noise. It came from so deep within her that it was hard to know whether it was, in fact, a chuckle.

‘I bet you were a great dancer’, said the boy.

The others would soon be done with the dishes, despite their best efforts to drag it out. Then they would come looking for the pair of them. The boy thought with mixed feelings of the family crossing through the conservatory.

‘Round and round’, muttered Grandma Seaside, as if to the breeze, which had kicked up. ‘Round and round we go. In circles.’ She spoke tentatively, as if recollecting a long-buried thing.

The boy had forgotten his question. Remembering it made him feel that this must constitute an answer.

‘You danced in circles, Grandma?’ he asked hopefully.

‘Round and round we go’, said the old woman. Her tone was firm now.

But there was a danger that if she carried on repeating it, the phrase would lose its meaning. The boy knew how this could happen. On a sunlit morning when he was eating breakfast cereal having never known fear, he had thought bowl, looking at the cereal bowl. How strange words are. He repeated it, bowl, bowl, bowl, in his mind, until he could feel the lips making the shape. The meaning of bowl collapsed, with terrifying speed, like the rock from under his feet. Now he put a stop to all that when he recognised the sensation.

‘Was all this during the Blitz, Grandma?’ asked the boy. At his question the old woman laughed. The noise came from nearer the surface – it was certainly a laugh.

The boy dropped his red face down. He had thought the question stupid as soon as he had formed it. They had just covered the Blitz at school. He had enjoyed painting a scene from the war, with the watercolours, although the teacher had said the picture looked too colourful. It surpassed his understanding, how something could be too colourful.

He thought of this, his face burning, and of the fresh outrage of Grandma Seaside’s frank laugh. They would just sit in silence until the others came. He would become the owner of the silence. The conductor of the silence.

But then a sudden plan hatched within him. She’s got one screw loose, she’ll believe any word you say – that was what his uncle had said once.

‘I’m a spy’, said the boy.

‘Spy on who?’ asked the old woman. She could not even speak in proper sentences.

So it was working. The boy thought about the question. ‘Bad guys’, he said. ‘– But everyday people too.’ He liked his afterthought better.

The old woman looked at him quizzically and nodded her head very slowly. This was something like the desired response. The boy was thinking, on the spot, how to develop his story. But then the thought occurred that people could nod their heads so slowly that it no longer meant yes. He felt furious at Grandma Seaside, but this feeling lasted no more than half a second, to be replaced with a different sensation, so new that it took the boy a while to apply the word guilt to it.

‘Grandma, I like spending time with you’, said the boy. He was trying to compensate for his lie.

‘Why?’ she looked steadily at him.

The boy had not reckoned with having to field such directness. Most adults were indirect. ‘Because –’ he said, then stopped short, having been on the cusp of saying, because we need to make the most of you while we still have you. That was what his mother said when his father announced he had no desire to spend the whole afternoon by the seaside.

His explaining word hung in the air, explaining nothing. He wished that one of the cats would visit from next-door, though he supposed it was harder to creep through the tangled bushes than to jump on to the wall.

There was a sound from inside. But perhaps the boy imagined it.

He ran his hand along the shimmering surface of the tall grass, grasped a blade between his thumb and index finger, and yanked. It gave him a feeling of satisfaction to feel the unbroken blade slip from the soil. With alarm he saw Grandma Seaside put one of the red berries from the bush into her mouth.

‘– Grandma, those berries are poisonous!’ But it was too late. The boy wondered whether he had killed Grandma Seaside. The thought of his responsibility froze him from any attempt to make recompense. The longer he did not move, the longer she would not die. Ants crawled on the ground. He lost himself in their patterns and columns. Everything changed, his mother had once told him, when your eyes got strong enough to see tiny ants. Suddenly the world got full for you. He no longer sat on her knee so that she could tell him these things.

The old woman spat out the red shell of the berry. Its fruit was gone.

‘How are you feeling?’ asked the boy hopefully. Perhaps she would not die.

Feeling good’, said Grandma Seaside. She accented strangely, as if declaiming a song designed to be sung. For a moment the boy toyed with the possibility of returning to his speculations about dances during the Blitz.

He wanted badly to tell her something true about himself. ‘Mum and dad say maybe we can use that garage for a stable and have horses when I’m a bit older’, he said. He knew full well what maybe and a bit older meant, but neither prevented him from imagining his dappled horse.

‘And what gave you that idea?’

The old woman had not moved since she sat down. Perhaps her joints were frozen stiff. Perhaps they would just have to push the bricks over, to get her to move.

The boy considered her question. He was committed to the path of truth, but he did not want to answer exhaustively. ‘Friend of mine’, he said. This was true enough. The full truth was the idea had come from his cousin who was now dead. The whole family tried not to talk about the dead cousin.

They sat quietly. His father frequently complained that the boy was too much in his own head, and so he tried to look at the world. We’ve come all this way to Spain, his father would complain, on the second or third day of that year’s holiday, where there are hawks and falcons, and all you want to do is sit in the tent with a book you could read anywhere. The boy realised he was failing all over again to look at the world. He thought back to when Grandma Seaside had told him he was growing, and he had unthinkingly replied, grandma, you’re shrinking, and how he’d been sent to his room even though he’d made Uncle David laugh out loud. Later he had protested that Grandma Seaside had not been upset, only to be informed that this was not the point.

With surprising fluidity, Grandma Seaside stood up from the pile of bricks, smoothed out her paisley skirt, and walked slowly toward the pebbledash garage. Perhaps she was inspecting its suitability as a stable. But then her buckled shoes pivoted and she walked along the mosaic-slate path to the unused side entrance. She stepped gingerly over terracotta pots. The boy could only notice the world when there were other people in it.

‘Grandma –’, he said, but stopped himself, because in his alarm he had nearly called her Grandma Seaside to her face. She did not know her full name. ‘Grandma –’, he started again, but by now he was too late to warn her that the side gate did not open, because the padlock had been rusted tight to its metal.

To his astonishment, the old woman opened the door and stepped out into the driveway where his father’s new car was parked.



Grandma Seaside did not seem to walk so much as float down the hill. The fear that she would die from the poisonous berry slowly subsided, to be replaced by the boy’s fear as to how she would make it back up the hill. Was this what it meant to be an adult? To be perennially worried?

‘Grandad came this way for his morning paper’, the woman said. It was as if her words carefully trod an old and overgrown path for the first time in many years. ‘His pack of smokes.’

The boy had never known Grandma Seaside to refer to her husband in any way. It was many years since he had died. It occurred to him that he had not been grandad, not to her. People, he thought, swinging his legs, were only who they were in relation to other people. For some reason, grandad had been fixed in a relation to a boy who had never known him.

It hurt his head to think in this way, when the situation required focus. In addition to the worry as to how he would get the old woman back up the hill, there came upon the boy a sudden concern for money. As a rule, adults had money. But he was not sure whether Grandma Seaside still qualified as an adult.

He would deal with these problems when he came to them.

He ran his hands along the different walls and fences that separated the successive front gardens from the pavement, whose tarmac was fresh enough to smell. He let his palm trail the grain of the wood, the uneven rocks, the exact metal. He clicked his fingers, but none of the cats answered his call. He would have liked to tell Grandma Seaside about the members of Cat Club, about Teddy Face, Fowler, Growler, Cocoa and Slinky, but without any proof of their presence, they might have sounded as impossible as his dead cousin’s dappled horse in the stable.

Grandmother Seaside ground to a halt, near to where a man in a polo shirt was washing his car. She looked confused, as if the figure before her did not correspond to her preconception of the scene.

‘Grandma’, said the boy. ‘Aren’t we going to look for grandad’s newspaper?’

The sun came out from behind a cloud, illuminating indifferently – the potholed road, where the hot tarmac hadn’t yet been poured, the soap bubbles, the old woman’s leathered face.

‘Grandad’s newspaper’, she repeated, and resumed walking with quiet determination.

At the foot of the road they had to turn and cross a zebra crossing, without a lollipop lady to assist, this being a weekend. The boy handled the responsibility with aplomb: pressing the button, checking that Grandma Seaside did not impetuously cross before the light turned green, fitting his stride to hers. Barely moments ago, walking down their road, he had let his mind relax enough to count pavestones, automatically, taking care not to step on cracks that could open at any time, happy that when they turned a corner the count was even rather than odd. But he was far too grown-up for all that now.

From the zebra crossing, it was only a short distance to the newsagent’s. The old woman led the way, with the boy all of a sudden nearly struggling to keep up.

‘Ever so many supplements nowadays’, said Grandmother Seaside. ‘Pull-outs and brochures and coupons and I don’t know what.’ It turned out she could still speak in full sentences when motivated.

They stopped by the row of shops. The parking lot was full of cars, but there were no people. Grandmother Seaside had become prey to sudden confusion. The boy followed her gaze to where a bright blue neon sign said vapes e-cigs e-liquid. Blue neon light illuminated hookah pipes and bongs.

The old woman took a step toward the shopfront, as if dipping a toe into water.

‘Grandma, I don’t think you can get newspapers from here anymore’, said the boy.

The old woman froze, not withdrawing her advanced foot, nor bringing the other to meet it.

‘I think it’s because people don’t read paper newspapers these days’, he continued brightly. He wanted to believe in the saving power of explanation.

‘Maybe –’ said the boy, stitching as he went. ‘– Across the street, we might be able to find something.’

He was looking at the six or seven stalls that made up the small Sunday market. They were unlikely to sell newspapers, he knew, and their search would require them to travel yet further from the house – but he needed to extract his grandmother from this crisis of confusion.

He made the first move toward the Sunday market and turned back to find his grandmother docilely following.

‘Well I don’t remember any of this’, she muttered from behind.

‘It’s new’, said the boy, happy to be in a fresh conversation. ‘It’s because of the gentrication.’ He was not sure he had used his mother’s word correctly.

The first table had a sign that said artisanal products. He reflected that nothing might detain Grandma Seaside’s attention.

They passed a baker’s stall. The boy smelled cardamon, cinnamon, cloves, but he could not abandon himself to scent, because he was the responsible party. To his surprise, Grandma Seaside was popping small samples of cakes and breads, indiscriminately, into her mouth. First the poisonous berries, now this!

‘Don’t worry’, said the baker, smiling, ‘more where that came from.’

She cut a cinnamon roll into small cubes. Grandma Seaside put four into her mouth at once. Her appetite was becoming voracious. The boy ate a further two, to make her consumption seem a little less conspicuous.

‘Four for £5’, said the baker. Her apron was the cleanest thing the boy had ever seen. He wondered how it could be so clean when she had made all these rolls from sticky dough.

Grandma Seaside was tottering. She appeared to be sinking under some invisible pressure. ‘I’ll consider it’, she finally replied.

‘Let’s look for the newspaper’, said the boy, in bright counterfeit hope.

‘Grandma’, he said, trying to slow down their pace to give him time to think, ‘do you not like our family’s food?’ She ate next to nothing, everyone said, because she didn’t need to eat, but the boy was revising this in light of recent events.

Her eyes glinted. ‘Do you not like out family’s food?’ she asked, in sing-song mimic. The boy thought back to when his uncle had insisted on filling his plate with an unwanted second portion, telling him how it would put hairs on his chest.

They arrived at a stall of second-hand products. His grandmother was drawn to the stack of old vinyl records, which she flicked back and forth. She disregarded the cover art, stroking her fingers across the veins of the weathered spines.

‘Careful’, said the man minding the stall, looking up from his magazine, ‘the vintage ones are still in good nick.’ He aimed his warning at a space somewhere between the boy and the old lady. Grandma Seaside let the stack of records fall back against the wooden box. She appeared to be engaging with nothing. The boy turned through the pages of the first magazine he found, to give himself something to do.

The magazine was named BOUDOIR. On the cover, a blonde woman sprawled upon an ottoman, from where she smiled at the young boy, her chiffon nightdress inched down to show her cleavage, its straps down nearly to her elbows. Time had turned the smiling woman sepia-yellow. The boy turned the pages as he imagined an innocuous adult would do. The magazine fell open to a centrefold that he tried to unsee – staples entering the woman’s thighs. He hit the opinion page. ‘fellas, take it from me’, said the headline, ‘russian girls are exactly what they’re cracked up to be!’

‘Bit young for that, aren’t you, chevalier?’ said the man behind the stall.

‘He’s probably seen worse at school’, said a muffled voice from a van parked behind him.

The boy dropped the magazine.

The man directed a quizzical stare at Grandma Seaside. ‘This curious chap your grandson?’, he asked.

‘I believe I do not know this young gentleman’, said Grandma Seaside in an imperious voice.

‘I believe I do not know this young lady’, said the boy, mechanically repeating her tone of voice.

‘You’re a right pair’, said the man.

The old woman and the boy shared a conspiratorial look. He remembered a thing that his father had once said – the old girl only pretends to be doolally, to see what she can make you believe.

He navigated Grandma Seaside onwards. A look of unprompted rapture stole over her. He saw the bouquet of creamy roses at the florist’s table. He wondered whether he was finding them beautiful because his grandmother did. He tried to imagine how they would look to his grandmother’s blue sunken eyes. He saw folds, red veins, the curving stem, in a way he did not think he would have been granted, alone.

The florist was packing up to leave. ‘Lovely, aren’t they’, she said. ‘They’ve peaked. How about we call them twelve, seeing as it’s the end of the day?’

The old woman held the offered bouquet. For a moment he thought she would disappear into them, as she drank them in. But her small prune-like head resurfaced. She held the flowers at arm’s length, but did not relinquish her hold.

‘Would you like them?’ asked the florist.

Grandma Seaside nodded like a bashful girl.

The florist cut wafer-thin wrapping-paper. ‘On the machine, when you’re ready’.

Grandma Seaside froze. So this was why she had not completed the transaction with the cinnamon rolls. Perhaps Grandma Seaside still qualified as an adult, but an adult without money.

The florist was tipping out stagnant water onto tired grass. She was the sort of woman who let no free moment pass without completing some task.

The boy had a fit of inspiration. ‘Do you take cash?’ he asked, knowing the answer, for he had seen the sign.

‘Card only’, said the florist.

‘Oh. We only possess banknotes’, said the boy. The formal phrasing concealed the lie.

The woman looked up at them. It seemed she considered something, only to think better of it. She retrieved the florist knife she had just packed away and cut a single creamy rose.

‘Should about last till next week’, she said, with a wink.

The boy felt a hand on his shoulder.

There you are –’. It took him a while to recognise the voice of his aunt, who did not easily fit into this scene.

He turned around. She was already on her phone. ‘Call off the search. Found the fugitives. Down by the Sunday market. I know – the blind leading the blind.’



The boy lay on his bed. At night he enjoyed thinking. It would take him many years to label this experience insomnia, by which point he had lost the ability to enjoy it. It was still just light enough to make out the contours of his bedroom. Patches of the wallpaper had been torn down in strips. He and his father would finish the job later, but for now the wall in the back garden had to take precedence. He saw the blood-red eyes and metal carapaces of the robots he had loved so much, ripped at the waist to reveal the plaster underneath. He resented this reminder of his past love; his inability to stop loving these robots.

The adults were quiet, after all their commotion. He felt for the little dent where the rose had pricked his palm, as he felt his aunt’s hand on his shoulder. He reached for the small glass beaker, which he had insisted they place upon his bedroom table. He needed to touch it, delicately, before he could look at it, the single creamy rose, nearly merging into the dun light. He closed his eyes. Even now, he could see the rose – could see the minute contrast between its outline and the world.

He drifted, somewhere other than sleep. He was the ceiling looking down on the drifting boy. He saw the budded rose from above, as its many layers began to rotate. It became a cartoon, then was a real rose again, crystal-clear. Now the flower moved in time to music, carried aloft in Grandma Seaside’s withered hands. She passed the rose to him, and he passed it back. She caught the curved stem between her pearly dentures. It was their prop. They were dancing to soundless music while the Blitz’s fireworks illuminated the night. What remained of the boy attempted to make rational sense of the scenario. They steered one another through obstacles in the dark. Grandma Seaside was bald as a seal pup – for she had finally removed her wig. They moved in circles with silent grace. They were crying with happiness. They were perfectly blind.


Photograph © buddingphotographer

Ewan Gass

Ewan Gass comes from Nottingham. He lives in Munich, though he thinks he will have to leave soon. His debut novel, Clinical Intimacy, will be published by Doubleday in July 2024.

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