Get Lost - Barry Hill

Get lost

By Barry Hill


This months blog was inspired by an event that happened to me this week.  I was in my garden grooming the beastie on the decking.  I usually do this at the end of the decking to stop him dancing around too much.  However, on this particular day, the towels were hung out, and I didn’t want to get hairy towels, so I gave him his brush down further along the decking.  Of course, this gave him the opportunity to show off his rumba.  When I had finished, he’d turned me around 90 degrees or so.  I went to step off my decking and didn’t.  You know when you come down stairs and expect another step and crumple your knee into the ground?  Well, it was sort of like that.  Remembering that I’d been partnering my dog in a Latin dance, I turned 90 degrees and tried again, tentatively, to step off the decking… and managed fine, or so I thought.  Thing is, where I did the grooming was at the corner of the decking.  When I thought I was stepping off in one direction, I was stepping off 180 degrees or something.  Are you keeping up?  Nope?  Neither was I.  Anyway, the result was that I got lost in my own back garden.


Right, on with the blog.  When I first went blind, I went to a school for the blind in Liverpool (nod and thanks to the excellent Christopher Grange) and would have liked to have stayed living there (Liverpool, not the school), but it was just too big.  I could have probably managed it given time, but I felt that compact would suit my future outlook, or literal lack of it.  So, I came back to my little hometown that I know as well as the back of my hand.  Got to say that the back of my hand has scars from the accident that left me blind that I haven’t seen, and they’re much older and more worn than they were when I last saw them, pretty much the same as my home town really.  There’s also been a few alterations.  For example, one street in the town centre was one-way up hill and they changed it to being one-way down hill.  I’m convinced that it was only done to get me run over.


Despite the attempts of the town council to confuse and confound me, I still know my way around well enough to guide sighted people.  Got to say, I’m impressed when strangers stop me to ask directions.  Seriously, they do so on a surprisingly regular basis.  You’d think it would be like asking a one-legged man to join you in an arse kicking competition.


I think it’s a natural thing for blind people to quickly develop a mental map, a sort of 3-D moving map in the head.  I suppose it’s like my own GPS system but without getting Lorries stuck under bridges.  As I walk, the map moves with me, or do I move with the map?  Well, regardless, I usually know where I am.  It even works in cars if I concentrate.  This is most useful when I’m being driven by a taxi driver who I always get the feeling believes he knows better than I do where I live.


However, there are times when I can still get lost in my town centre.  To tell the truth, I can even get pretty disorientated in my own shower!  I kid you not.  I dance in my shower (don’t we all?), then I reach out for the soap only to find that the whole wall has moved 45 degrees.  So, what chance have I got in my town centre?  


There’s one particular place where I do regularly get lost.  My town has a very nice grade 2 Victorian indoor market.  It’s made up of stalls in a grid pattern with walkways between.  There are three sets of doors across the top and bottom, and one at either side.  In the middle is a large, round stall.  It’s my veg stall of choice, and this is where my problem lies.  It’s pretty easy for me to judge how far along a straight line I’ve gone, so I can usually know where I am on the grid lines, but I just can’t get the hang of figuring out how far around that roundabout veg stall I go (Answers on a postcard). When I think I’ve gone far enough around I head off along one of the walkways, hoping I’m going the way I think I’m going.  But, when I think I’m going north, for example, that magic roundabout has sent me west.  It’s like your cars satnav suddenly turning 90 degrees.  You would be happily driving along the A339 ring road around Basingstoke when your satnav suddenly tells you that Milton Keynes is straight ahead.  Yeah, frightening.  I mean, who would voluntarily go to Milton Keynes?  


You’d think I’d be sorted once I reached a door.  Oh no.  Outside there is a precinct area to two sides, and roads to the other two sides, so I’ve still got a 50/50 chance of being lost.


It’s not just that Magic Roundabout of a veg stall that can get me lost; I can get lost most places outside on my own quite easily.  It’s usually through inattention.  I’ll be sauntering along as much as a blind man with a guide dog can saunter, thinking about where I need to go after I’ve been to where I’m going or about where I’ve just been and totally forgetting to keep a check on where I am.  I’ll cross a side road and suddenly wonder if that was the side road I needed to go down or whether that one is coming up.  That’s it.  I’m lost.  


Some days when this happens (I say that as if it happens often), I toy with the idea of just letting my dog guide me wherever he likes and see where I end up.  Thing with this plan is that I know that I will end up at the pet shop on the precinct.  All my dogs make for this place with the instinct of a champion homing pigeon.  Can’t imagine why.  Still, it’s useful for the time that there’s a deaf persons conference in town where every human who I might be able to stop and ask where I am can’t actually hear me.  It’s surprising how many times we have those conferences.


One time, I was trotting along nicely with my guide dog, not paying attention to where I was, and suddenly realised that the road I had just come up to shouldn’t be where it was.  Well, of course, it was me who wasn’t where I thought I was.  So, being pretty well lost, I asked a passer-by where I was.  On this occasion there was no deaf conference in town.  His reply was an accurate but not very helpful, “You’re in Wakefield.”  


Actually, he didn’t say ‘Wakefield’, but I’d rather not let on where I do actually live.  I’m a little paranoid about the vulnerable blind thing, plus I don’t want people from Milton Keynes finding me to painfully point out that the place is not frightening.


To find a shop I’m looking for when the whereabouts of which I am not perfectly familiar with, I use the ‘suck it and see’ method.  I come across a door, go in, find out what the shop is, then leave if it’s the wrong one.  If I’m way out with my guestimation of the whereabouts of the intended shop, I can weave in and out of several shops like a robot vac trying to get a clear run in a teenagers bedroom.  Whenever I do this, which happens quite often, I always ask what the shop is.  My thinking is based on Douglas Adams Dirk Gently navigation, which goes something like this: 

“"... A few turnings later and I was thoroughly lost. There is a school of thought which says that you should consult a map on these occasions, but to such people I merely say, 'Ha! What if you have no map to consult? What if you have a map but it's of the Dordogne?' My own strategy is to find a car, or the nearest equivalent, which looks as if it knows where it is going and follow it. I rarely end up where I was intending to go, but often I end up somewhere that I needed to be." (Taken from ‘Long Teatime of the Sole’ by Douglas Adams.  It’s an entertaining book, but quite mad.


Using the Dirk Gently method, I might not end up in a shop I was intending to go, but one of these mystery shops might just be where I need to be.  Granted, it probably wouldn’t be at that moment in time, but I log it away for future reference.


Still, on one occasion I was looking for a mobile phone shop and came across a Chinese alternative therapy shop.  A lovely Chinese woman asked if she could help me (I’m not going to lower the tone to spelling out some parody of a Chinese accent, so stop doing it yourself).  She told me what the shop was then asked me about my eyesight, or lack of it as it is.  I explained about the dead retinas and broken optic nerves, but she told me that, “because your eyes are working on the outside, then we can fix them on the inside with acupuncture”.  Ya reckon?  Just where are you thinking of sticking those needles, love?  


This is just the town centre that I know oh so well.  When I first moved to the street where I live now twenty minutes or so from town, I got lost on the way home a couple of times.  I don’t mean that I got lost en route; I got lost on my home street on the way home.  I knew the way to the junction I live off, but that’s where I get a little fuzzy.  I think I came here sighted once way back when I was a mere stripling of a lad, and I’ve been drunk once or twice since then.  


The first time I got lost coming home, I managed to get nearly home with my first trusty guide dog, Uska, and told him to “find home” at the beginning of the road I live on, or so I thought.  You could do that with guide dogs back then – Say, “Find home” when near enough for them to figure it and they’d, well, find home.  Don’t know why that’s not part of the training anymore.  Maybe it is and I’ve just not used it.  {Mental note to Barry – Teach Chester ‘find home’} Anyway, back to my story of Uska finding my home, or not.  It wasn’t long before he started going uphill.  My road runs along the hillside so is flat, so I made him go back and tried a slightly different route.  Nope, he tried taking me up the hill again.  I tried changing course more and he took me to a step.  That really wasn’t right.  I turned around and he started taking me down an alley.  This really was alien territory for me, so I concluded very calmly that I was lost.  Well, when I say calmly, is it inappropriate for a grown man to cry like alittle boy lost in the woods?  


As it turned out, I now know that the hill was on the bend just at the start of my street, the alley was just after the first house in my row, and the steps are almost directly opposite my house.  Sigh.  Poor dog was doing his job admirably and the stupid human was screwing it.


Thing is, these are stories about me getting lost in my hometown or near my own home.  If I go somewhere unfamiliar on my own, somewhere out of town, I’m like a Tory politician being asked to explain the austerity measures without hesitation, deviation or twisting the truth to make it more palatable for us prolls – totally lost.  Yeah, I’ve got technology to help me out, like the excellent Maps on my iPhone, but what if I lose signal?  It’s bad enough losing my mental GPS in the market, the thought of losing the real thing in an unfamiliar place just stops me from trying in the first place.  I’d rather get that accupuncture blindness cure.


I take my hat, gloves and scarf off to blind people who I know get to all sorts of places around the country and totally understand those who just don’t go out without a guide.  I mean, if you couldn’t see, would you ever leave your house alone?


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