“Are cherries in season?,” asked the man by the window, as she sat down heavily, pushing her parcels between her knees.
“I can smell them,” he continued. “They are very strong. I like them – lots. But I don’t like people who smell of them.”
Ingrid turned to snatch a hasty look at him. Although elderly, in fading grubby clothes, he seemed quite spry. She peeked again.
He was blind.
She did not reply and tried to swivel aside. Dignified silence was best.
But the man persisted. “Are you Jewish? Jewish women always smell like cherries. Sort of mixed-up sickly sweet and sour. You’re Jewish – aren’t you? I’m sure you are. I can smell you.”
Then he lowered his voice, slid his sightless eyes sideways and waggled his tongue.
“Whenever I’m asked ‘what do cherry blossoms smell like?’, I always give the same answer. Do you know what that is?”
Ingrid shuddered, still silent.
Ingrid was cornered. A rat in a trap.
The man’s monstrous crudity was an unprovoked assault – a verbal rape – she was helpless.
Worse, the weight of the extra passengers embarking at Victoria Station had pushed her deep into her seat and against his bulk. She could not move and was terrified by what may happen if she made a scene. In her imagination, she saw other passengers sympathising with her assailant, turning her from victim to villain. The reality would never be truly conveyed by the tram’s CCTV camera.
Finally, she spoke.
“We are strangers so I’ve no more idea of what you can see than you have of my appearance. I can only guess that you knew I was a woman because of my tread and by how I sat down.
The man grunted.
“I know a little about people with poor sight from my close relatives. My late grandmother ended her days in a home for the blind and my aunt, my mother’s older sister, is registered blind. Other people often remark that their dark, sour tempers were – are – caused by their sight loss. They suggest that the bad gene has been in the family for so long that it poisoned Grandma’s personality. I don’t buy that.”
“What d’ya mean?”
“People in my grandmother’s family develop problems with their vision gradually for different reasons. But there are many people who are either born blind or who lose their sight in other ways and yet lead full, happy lives without causing pain to those around them.
“Last week I heard two women who are close friends and blind since birth talking on radio about their condition. They were very matter-of-fact and jolly. One said she loved smelling flowers. Their one strong dislike is other people’s ‘political correctness’.
“Then there was the local young blind man, Gary Thompson who died when he slipped off the platform at St Peter’s Square and was crushed when he fell under a tram. It was a horrible incident made worse because he had been a volunteer safety adviser for the tram service.”
“I remember. He’d been out with his work mates for a Christmas party. I bet he fell because he was drunk.”
“You enjoy being nasty so I’ll ignore that,” said Ingrid. “But I want to tell you something else before I get off at Heaton Park.
“By chance I knew Gary. He kept himself very busy in many ways. We worked together at the Imperial War Museum North which sometimes hosts events relating to the Holocaust. He wasn’t Jewish. Neither am I. But I know some Jewish people and they’re like everyone else. They want to get on with their lives without having to apologise for just existing.”
Then as the tram slowed to a halt Ingrid scooped up her belongings and fled onto the platform.
But as she hurried by she caught a glimpse of the tram leaving the station. Her persecutor was at the same window, eating cherries. Mangled cherries. Her cherries. A bunch she’d left behind.
(Copyright, Natalie Irene Wood – 14 December 2012)