I was woken up at about 6.00 a.m. by a hammering on my door, followed by somebody crashing and banging about in my kitchen.
I shouted downstairs as I dressed. “You know Alun, sometimes I wish you wouldn’t come crashing round here so early, I like a lie-in. What can possibly be so important? The boatman hasn’t even been yet.”
“I stayed up late to watch the meteor shower last night Jed. It was something quite spectacular. I’ve never seen lights like it, all over the sky, like a message from God it was.” Jed’s shouting was interrupted by more banging. It sounded like the main reason he’d called round was to smash up my front room.
“What’s wrong with you Alun?” I shouted as I ran down the stairs, “You’re staggering around like a blind man.”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you Jed. I’m blind. My sight has been burnt clean away by the mysterious but treacherously beautiful lights in the night sky.”
It was true. I tested his claims by waving my hand in front of his eyes and pretending to stab him, but he didn’t flinch.
“It’s retina damage Jed,” he said, “I may never recover, the bright lights have burned by retinas clean away.”
I couldn’t argue with him. Before he became a general practitioner servicing the diverse medical needs of our island community, Alun had been the mainland’s leading specialist on all areas of meteor shower related eye health.
I tried to help Alun by soaking his eyes and giving him a range of pills from my medicine cabinet, but none of them worked. All I could do was help him find his way home and advise him to rest. I tried to contact the emergency department on the mainland but was told that it would take a month to send someone out and could he find his own way to the hospital instead? I made plans to take him the next day, though I was nervous about the trip, it would be my first ever visit to the mainland.
The next day I was woken early by a hammering on my door.
As I walked down the stairs Alun was walking around the room going “Tch, tch, tch, tch.”
“Why do you keep going “tch, tch, tch?” I asked.
“Echolocation Jed, I’m teaching myself to move around by listening to the sound vibrate around the room. I’m learning to see with my ears Jed.”
He crashed into my easy table and with great difficulty I lifted him up.
“Sorry Jed, I stopped going ‘tch’. I’m not used to talking and walking yet.”
“You can’t teach yourself echolocation,” I said, “bats took millions upon millions of years to perfect echolocation through a process of natural selection, you can’t just decide to do a 10-step course.”
“You don’t get anywhere waiting for your ancestors to evolve Jed, you have to force it, if I was a monkey I’d make sure I’d turned into a modern human being by Thursday tea-time.”
He left, after persuading me to postpone our hospital visit. "I'll manage without sight," he said and he wouldn't listen to my pleas.
For once Alun proved me wrong. Though he still stumbled occasionally, within just a few days he was moving around perfectly. He managed to walk along the cliffs at Refrigerator Bay without falling over them, he even avoided all the refrigerators. Using echolocation meant he was equally ‘sighted’ in the dark and all hours of day and night I would hear a distant ‘tch, tch, tch” echoing round the island.
On the Thursday evening of the following week I was interrupted from my doings by Alun hammering at my door. He stood there holding his snooker cue.
“I didn’t expect to see you tonight,” I said.
“Don’t be a fool Jed, Thursday night is snooker night. I never miss, not in these last seven years. Even at Christmas.”
“I sort of assumed we wouldn't be having the snooker any more,” I said. “You know, given your condition.”
“Don’t be a fool Jed, I can use echolocation.”
“Why not Jed. Bat’s do it.”
“What, bats play snooker?”
“All I’m saying is that my ears are as good as my eyes Jed.”
“Your eyes are blind Alun,” I pointed out.
“Let’s just play snooker Jed.”
I set up the table and for a while Alun stood there going “tch, tch, tch,” getting a feel for the position of the balls, the position of the pockets and the general girth of the table.
“I might actually win a game tonight,” I said breaking off. I was wrong. Alun’s snooker was as good as ever, if anything it had actually improved, as he was concentrating harder.
“You see Jed,” he said after potting an impressive long red, “I can hear where the balls are, I don’t need to see them.”
“But how do you know which balls are red and which are the colours?”
“Are you mad Jed, they sound completely different. Listen: tch, tch, tch – you can clearly hear how the blue ball there sounds different to the red balls here and here.”
The evening ended with a 4-nil win to Alun. I heardd his “Tch, tch, tch” slowly disappear into the distance as he made his way home.
The next morning I was woken at 6.30 a.m. by a hammering on my door.
“There’s a blind snooker tournament on Billiard Island Jed,” he shouted, as I came down the stairs, “look it’s in the local paper.”
“How did you manage to read the local paper?” I asked, “it isn’t available in braille.”
“Oh, I’ve learnt to distinguish the different reflected sounds of every single printed word Jed, but that’s not important. The main thing is I could make the Olympics.”
“The mainland are hosting the Olympic games this year Jed, we drew the short straw again. There’s a Paralympic snooker tournament as part of the contest. I could win a gold medal Jed, I could be the next, oh what’s his name, the guy in the boat.”
“Long John Silver?” I guessed.
“Don’t be stupid Jed, I said gold, not silver. Anyway, I could be the next him, whoever he is.”
I never did find out.
Billiard Island is at the far end of our archipelago and is the flattest island in the whole world, with not so much as a mole hill or sand-pile in the whole land: perfect for playing snooker on, as wherever you put the tables they were 100% flat.
We caught the boat over and I watched Jed take on the other blind snooker players, competing for the right to represent the mainland in the Olympic Blind Snooker event. Unlike Jed the rest of the competitors were partially sighted rather than fully blind. None of them had master echolocation like Alun. He had become simply phenomenal, bats had started bringing their young to him for training.
The standard of snooker was very poor. The other players took seven or eight attempts to pot a single ball, I could have beaten most of them. Alun stood out like a god amongst mortals, potting everything in sight (well, within hearing). He won every frame without dropping so much as a point.
“We’re going to the Olympics Jed,” he said, as we celebrated with Billiard Island Wine, I’m going to go gold.”
I was very excited. Going to the Olympics meant I would be visiting the mainland for the first time in my life. If Alun won I was promised I would get to meet the Queen, or Seb Coe, whichever was available. It was like a story from a fairy book.
Then, one morning, I was woken early by a hammering on my door.
It was Alun. “It’s my eyes Jed, I can see again. The effects of the meteor shower must have been temporary. I have twenty twenty vision.”
“That’s fantastic,” I said.
“No it’s not Jed, it means I’ll miss the Olympics. I no longer qualify. And what do I gain, my ears were my eyes Jed, I don’t need eyes. It’s such a tragic end to my tale.”
“Don’t be too down Alun,” I said, there are some sights that mere sounds can never replace.” “Why the very last thing you saw you described as beautiful, that meteor shower.”
“You’re right Jed, it’s worth having sight, just for the faintest chance that I will see that beautiful display of God’s own sweet light just once more before I die.”
“Of course,” I said, “if that happens it will turn you blind again.”
“That’s perfect. We’ll just have to time it a few days before the next Olympics Jed. I might win that gold medal after all.”