Sylvia Petter

Eyes to See

I’m on the Swiss Intercity from Zürich to Geneva and have just left my husband back in Vienna. I just walked away. And I cried, as I know he will when he finds my note on the dining room table: “We don’t see things with the same eyes.”

I slept surprisingly well on the night train, but this is the day route and grey hills roll down from the mountains. We will soon be in Berne and then only a couple of hours to Geneva where I must start all over again.

Green swirls from the landscape against the grey of the sky and my eyes slowly close.

“Stop! Sit here,” a woman’s voice says.

I open my eyes. We have just left Berne. Bright red, black and gold bustle in the doorway as a woman steers a young boy before her, one arm outstretched, the other dragging a suitcase. She stops in the seat in front of mine. The boy must have taken a seat by the window. From her manner, as she peels off her cropped red leather jacket, it must be one facing the wrong way. I have always hated travelling with my back to my destination.

The child does not make a sound. The woman pulls off her soft black hat and black hair springs from the grasp of now loosened hairpins. Her fingers tuck back the stray hairs as she turns about and scans the compartment. Her underwear glows through her white nylon blouse with its frilled collar and cuffs. She sits down.

I feel exhausted. Smoke rises from the seat in front of me – first in almost perfect rings, then in slow jets, the sort that might come from the nostrils of an ageing dragon. My eyes close again.

“Watch it! You’re going to sit on my son,” the woman’s voice shrieks.

I open my eyes. We are leaving Lausanne. A man in his late forties, early fifties, large in a soft sort of way, towers in the space in front of my seat. He reminds me of my husband.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“You should watch what you’re doing. My boy has problems with his eyes.”

“Sorry,” the man says again and sits down on the seat across the aisle, directly in my line of vision. He looks back to the seat he just tried to sit in, then over at the woman, across at the boy.

“Why are you staring at me like that?” the woman says.


“Why are you staring?”

There is a pause.

“Hush, dear.” (This to her son.) “Maman is here.” And then to the man again: “Well, what’s wrong with you?”

The man smiles and his eyes look towards me. “I am blind,” he says.


“Yes,” he says and laughs.

“But you were looking at me. Where is your cane?”

The man raises his hand and a cane telescopes from his sleeve.

“That’s splendid,” the woman says. “Then there is hope for my son.”

“Didn’t you notice?”

“No,” she says. “I thought you were trying to pick me up.”

He laughs.

“I thought you were trying to pick me up.”

“I was,” said my husband. “And I did, didn’t I?”

We laughed about our first meeting when he’d tripped and fallen into my arms in the café in Vienna where I used to breakfast. The account of the incident became an ice breaker at dinner parties during the first years of our twenty – year marriage. Then, I was well loved, alive and living in Vienna.

“What’s your name?” the woman asks.


“Well, then. Hi! I’m Belle.”

The man’s eyes droop, but he laughs again, and strokes a palm over his thinning scalp. He isn’t handsome, but there is something warm, trustworthy about him. Just like my husband, way back. Way back when.

I don’t know when things changed, when I stopped trusting my husband, when he stopped trusting me. It’s a little like what they say about pregnant women, or about people in love. When that state is yours then you see it in others. But there are times when you don’t want to see. I’m no longer sure which of us cheated first, or if in fact we cheated at all. Neglect is something that just creeps in and only later cries out for justification.

The ticket collector comes into the compartment and the man holds out his pass.

“He is blind,” the woman says. “But he sees everything.” The blind man smiles.

The woman leans forward and says in a loud whisper: “Are you sure you can’t see?”

“No. I can’t see.”

“Why are you looking at me like that if you can’t see?” She sits back.

“Your voice,” he says.

“My son, Billy, goes to school in Berne. I do this trip weekly – Berne – Geneva – Berne.”

The boy’s arm reaches across and holds out a toy donkey. The man squeezes it and it makes a noise. Eee Aaa.

“Do you work?” the woman says.

“I’m a clerk. I stamp papers.”

“How do you know what to stamp?”

“I can feel. I’ve been doing it for years. It’s all based on trust. In yourself. In others.”

She laughs. “And there I was thinking you wanted to pick me up.”

The man takes out a cigarette, feels it to his lips and the woman lights it with a red lighter. Then she light her own cigarette. They both smoke.

“Can I have your phone number?” she says. The man fumbles in the pocket of his jacket and gives her a card. “At work,” he says.

“You are so well dressed,” the woman says. “Your life. It gives me hope for my son.” She says to the boy: “Go and sit with the man.”

The boy does not move. I hear shuffling. “He won’t,” she says. “His mother is everything.” She laughs and draws on her cigarette.

“Can I give you my phone number?”

“Please write it down.” She scribbles and hands him an orange slip of paper. The man puts it in his pocket.

“Are you married?” she says. T

he man shakes his head. “But I have help. The essential things.”

“And your work? You are very clean. Do you dress yourself?”

“I follow advice I am given. It’s easier with someone there. Mornings are fine. If I feel there’s a spot or if someone notices and tells me, and if I have time, I change.”

She sighs. “You are so clean.” Then she stubs out her cigarette. “My son cannot dress himself.”

“That’s because he is always supervised.”

“Yes. He is at school all week. He comes home weekends. I go to fetch him. Like today.” She stops and says: “The children don’t always understand. Billy is happy, but doesn’t notice when the children tease him.”

Then there is a pause in their conversation. I lean back and think about what they have said. I think about the way they talked, too. Direct. Innocent. Saying what they thought.

My husband and I talked like that once. Then we began to talk in riddles, assuming the years had allowed us to read each other’s minds. Perhaps neither of us had really read what had been there.

Then as if out of nowhere, I again hear the woman’s voice: “Billy says how wonderful life is. Every morning he says that. Don’t you Billy?”

There is no answer.

“Do you have to pay on the train?”

“When I’m alone,” the man says. “When someone is with me, they don’t pay.”

“Same here. I travel free,” she says. “But not on the plane.”

Billy is fidgeting. I cannot see.

“Stop that,” she says. “Billy, stop it!” Then she is calm.

“He likes music, you know.”

“Does he play?”

“The piano? No. He sings. Sing Billy.”

“No,” says the boy.

The man looks at me. I wonder if he sees me watching.

“What do you see?” the woman says. “Do you see black? What did you see at the beginning? Now?”

“Nothing,” says the man. “It’s been too long ago. People only see black when they remember. I have nothing to remember, so I see nothing.” I wonder what nothing looks like.

The train pulls in to Geneva’s main station. The man unfolds his white cane and gets his bag down from the rack. Then he makes his way to the door and steps down. He says nothing. Does not wave.

“Goodbye,” says the woman. The man doesn’t answer.

One more stop to go until the airport. I settle back and think of my husband finding my note. “Billy, what do you see?” the woman suddenly says to the boy.




“How many?”

“Lots,” the boy says and then starts to sing.

The train pulls into the station. The woman puts on her red leather jacket and tugs the brim of her hat deep over her eyes. As we reach for our bags up on the rack our hands touch. The woman turns her head. “My son is blind,” she says. “He cannot help me.”

I hoist my bag down and, stopping to catch my breath, I watch the woman urge her son from the train. I step down to the platform and my vision blurs.

Published in Offshoots VI – Writing from Geneva

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