“Hello darkness my old friend”
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, The Sound Of Silence.
The early sun is a pleasant warmth on my face as I make my shambling way down Picton Street. I swing my white cane from side to side, tapping the uneven pavement and occasionally clonking hollowly into empty bins that boom like fetid base drums.
Reaching the end of the road, I listen for the wheeze of the extractor fan, sniff for the permanent landmark that is discarded chips and dropped kebab meat, and then step through the slicing shadow and into the shop. It is cool, the scent of news paper and magazine print is fresh as morning coffee. From somewhere in the back I hear the tinny voice of a radio announcer calling in the hour, like a town crier in miniature.
“Good morning there sir.”
Like most people, it unnerves me to find someone already in a room which I expect to be empty. Of course this is a shop, it would be ridiculous for it to be empty, and yet not knowing the location of people still unnerves me. It takes time to scan a room for sounds, scents, the slight tickle of air displaced by a body.
I turn my head toward the speaker, he is behind the counter.
“Morning, can I just get a pint of milk please.” I pause, thinking about last night’s pizza. “Better make that fully skimmed.” “No problem my friend.”
I feel a little daft, as I hear him leave his counter and plunge into the shop’s depths, skimmed milk is hardly going to off set a thousand calorie pizza.
Another voice from deeper between the shelves stops him and I hear a rapid fire exchange of a language, that I’m ashamed to say, I can’t identify. It sounds like he might be a while (kindness is rarely punctual).
And so, pulling out the perpetual sidearm of this magnificent age, I check Facebook. Nothing. No messages, no notifications. I sigh and flip over to Twitter which, in many ways is the cousin of Facebook, though a more spite filled, cynical, middle aged and drunk cousin.
The voice of the screen reader gabbles away through my bluetooth headset. I slide my finger down the screen, the voice obediently reciting recycled jokes, political vitriol, thoughtless brain farts and…
“@Blind Technology: A new app for the blind, Look4Me, uses AI to identify objects using your phones camera.”
I’ve heard of these sorts of apps before. Some clever algorithm processes the image and compares it with a database of known objects. Hey, it’s worth a try. I tap the link and begin to download the app.
“Here you go my friend.” The man behind the counter has returned and, before I can stop him, there is the rustle and he has plunged the tiny bottle of milk into a large plastic bag. Apparently, there is no need to save the environment where a blind guy’s milk is concerned.
I pay and with a:
“See ya…” A little joke of mine, I leave.
The return journey down the street is hampered by pedestrians, utterly oblivious to the blind man approaching from their rear until there is a collision of bodies and stammered apologies.
“It’s fine.” I say as I disentangle my cane from between a woman’s legs, “Completely my fault.” Of course it isn’t but, hey, she sounds pretty and smells nice.
I reach the relative quiet of the alley that runs beside my building, I let myself in and trot up the stairs, my cane clack, clack, clacks on the steps behind me as I attempt to juggle milk and keys.
The flat smells of last night’s pizza, my shower gel, coffee, and an odor which is difficult to identify. Living just off Stokes Croft in Bristol, one of the most diverse areas in a diverse city, odd smells are common, and are usually overlaid by a pervading scent of weed.
My keys clatter as I toss them onto the kitchen counter and set about filling the coffee maker. The rush of water, the thump of the tap as I turn it off, the gurgle of the machine as it awakes and then the increasing scent of coffee.
As I wait, I slip out my phone, an act as autonomous as breathing, and open it to the last viewed page. Yes, Look4Me, another half formed thought in a world rife with distraction. Telling myself that this could be useful and worth a shot, I open the app.
“Welcome to Look4Me,” announces my screen reader. “Look4Me is your key to distinguishing objects around the house, out and about and can even read text for you. Just hit ‘next’ to get going and start taking pictures.”
I follow these instructions, point my phone down the work surface and tap the ‘take picture’ button. There is the simulated click of a camera shutter and a computerised voice says: “Working, please wait.”. I too go to work and fix myself a large coffee.
When I scoop up my phone Look4Me has processed the photograph.
“A kitchen counter with a white sink, a coffee maker and two plates.”
Hey, pretty cool. I point it at the kitchen table.
“A mug on a table on a brown mat.”
Cool. Each time it takes a good twenty seconds, not bad but not great either.
I snap a picture of the floor.
“Grass” it says. I snap another picture of the floor. “Grass” It seems pretty certain about this. Remaining seated, I point the camera at the window from which I can feel a spoke of sunlight stroking my face and snap another photograph.
“Window, plant, shoulder.”
I frown, the first two are right. There is a bonsai tree on the window ledge but I’m on the second floor, the ‘shoulder’ part is slightly odd… unless it picked up someone in an opposite window. I take the photograph again.
I guess it must still be buggy. Giving it the benefit of the doubt I continue for the next twenty minutes in, what I tell myself is a test, but of course, I’m just procrastinating and avoiding starting the day’s work.
It recognises TV, chess set, dumb bell (fortunately it doesn’t add, ‘dusty’), guitar, it also identifies my computer correctly, ‘Apple Mac Air’. It even tells me that ‘a white car’ drives past my house as I hold my iPhone out of the window.
I sigh. The day is marching on and I have work to do. I close the app, make myself another cup of coffee and settle in for the morning.
I stop for lunch, it’s early I know, but work has been gruelling, a blog post for a law firm entitled “What Post Brexit Britain Means For Your Investments”. I shut the lap top lid a little to hard, stretch and climb stiffly to my feet.
As I stroll through the flat I snap a few pictures here and there, a bookshelf, a pot plant, a picture of a ship. It’s still having some problems as it also announced, forearm, back of a man’s head and, for some bizarre reason, a peacock.
I’m reaching for a loaf of bread when my fingers encounter a cylindrical object, ridged and wrapped in paper. I take the tin can out of the cupboard. Tin cans, as a rule, are a problem area for the blind as they have no discernible features to say what they are. It is like the label has been ripped away. Mealtimes can become similar to games of Russian Roulette, though, instead of a bullet to the brain, you simply get a can of peaches on your toast.
“Heinz baked beans” My new and trusted app says, and then “Hand.”
I shake my head, odd, I didn’t think I had my hand in shot, ah well, these new lenses are wide angle, aren’t they. I set about making lunch, adding a little brown sauce to the beans; an old trick from my Dad who claims soul responsibility for the innovation. Now, where is that chef’s knife, I’m sure I left it here, on the draining board? It would be wrong to say that misplacing things is the worst part about being blind, there are many other things like being unable to drive, gaze into a lover’s eyes, draw pictures of pretty girls in cafes before presenting it to them and vanishing into the day never to be seen again, but it’s certainly up there. I give up and get a normal, far less deadly and more practical piece of cutlery out of the draw to slice the toast.
I sit at the kitchen table and eat lunch. The toast is crunchy and hot, not yet soggy with bean juice, just the way I like it. As I eat my lunch I listen to the familiar sounds about the building, the bang of a door here, the wrap of feet there, the creak of a floorboard there. Familiar, comforting in their own way. I recall first moving in, how noisy I found the place, the road outside awash with voices, shouts and cries. Coming from such a quiet village in Cornwall it seemed abnormally loud but now I find it hard to sleep in a quiet house.
I finish lunch, wash up the pan, the plate and crockery and leave them on the draining board to dry and put the kettle on.
As the water begins to boil, I think of the growing pile of post on the window ledge just inside the door. I usually wait for a friend to come over and read it too me, usually a humiliating process as most of them are bills, but maybe, with this new app I can avoid the blushes and famed joviality.
Look4Me struggles when I hold up the first letter until I realises that it is upside down. I try again and the app says:
“Christopher Cline, 2 Picton Street, Montpellier, Bristol, BS6 5QA… and a smiling man.”
Bemused, I hit the repeat button. Again, the app says:
“Christopher Cline, 2 Picton Street, Montpellier, Bristol, BS6 5QA… and a smiling man.”
‘And a smiling man?’ What does that mean? There’s a picture of a smiling man drawn next to my address? I think. Could there be a reflective surface in front of me? The number of times I’ve spooked myself late at night by wondering what a noise is, only to remember I put the dish washer on, or the radio has been left on at the very edge of hearing, makes me certain that this can be solved. Maybe this app still needs a little work. Yes, that’s it, all this technology is still in its infancy, it’s going to make mistakes. I send a quick email to the developer to ask about these oddities. He’ll probably thank me for my feedback. I notice that the developer lives in America, oh well, he might not get it until later.
I yawn. There is one thing to be said about being a freelance copywriter, and that is the optional afternoon nap. And I wonder why I don’t sleep well at night.
I crawl onto my bed, put the radio on low and drift off to Vaughan Williams, soft breathing and the everyday sounds of the street beyond my window.
I wake up fuzzy headed, confused as to where I am, what time it is and a dry mouth. I clatter about in the kitchen, unable to find a clean glass and drink straight from the tap.
It’s early evening, or so my braille watch tells me. Presumably it is dusky out there, but then again, I don’t know. I shower and get ready to go out. I’m meeting a friend round the corner to watch some music at the Left Bank, a diamond of a place. Just before I leave I check my email, a response from the Look4Me app developer.
Thanks so much for your email. Due to learning curve of the AI that Look4Me uses, and that it is very new, it will produce false positives. A common example of this is, rather than saying it doesn’t know what a carpet is, it will make an intelligent guess and say it is grass. But please, feel free to forward any images so I might see where the AI is going wrong.
All the best,
I check the time, I’ve got five minutes so I upload all 25 images and mark the ones with, what my new friend Bill calls, “False positives.” I notice that it is over half of them. He’s obviously got his work cut out.
I shrug into my jacket, run my fingers through my hair, hoping it looks okay, and grab my keys. It’s pub time.
The witching hour
I’m pissed. It takes me a while to find my graffiti covered door and let myself in. I clomp up the stairs and, after dropping the keys several times, let myself into the flat. The familiar scent of the flat hits me, coffee, burned toast, my aftershave, laundry and that new smell, the one I still can’t identify.
I toss my keys onto the work surface. As I find and fill a pint glass with water and a pinch of salt, sure hangover cure, I notice how quiet it is in the street. It’s odd but not unusual. For a moment, I stand at the open window sipping my briny water, feeling the cool night air on my warm face and listen to the city. Distant car alarms chirp like urban cicadas, closer too, mens voices are raised in a song that I don’t know and, by the sounds of it, neither do most of the men singing it.
I sigh, and go into my room, put my pint of water on my bedside table, laboriously pull off my shoes and fall backwards. I feel dizzy and a little sick.
I hotch up the bed until my back rests against the Jenga stack of pillows, grunt as I pull my phone from my tight jeans pocket and check my notifications. A few messages from clients, they can wait. I blow a raspberry into the darkened room, the spittle lands on my face. Oo, an email from Bill, my mate Billy Willy… I snigger and nearly skip reading it, surely it can wait until the morning. Ah, screw it, lets see what Billy Willy has to say about his silly app that doesn’t work.
Thanks for getting back to me with the photographs. As I say, Look4Me is very young and can make mistakes however, apart from a couple of errors, i.e the peacock, very odd, the AI was correct. In the future, to make sure you don’t have the same problem, when you are taking a photograph of an object, you need a clean line of sight, difficult I know when you can’t see, but perhaps, you could ask your friend to not interfere with the shot. Bill.’
I read the last line again. A crawling dread creeps over my body, my skin contracts. I slowly sit up and turn my head trying to see through my eternal, impenetrable darkness. I then think of a missing chef’s knife. My throat has suddenly become very dry, I swallow. What malevolent thing does this darkness hold, this darkness just before me, standing right in front of me?
With a trembling hand, I reach out.