Originally published on I, Science Magazine.
Photo credits: Kalyani Lodhia
On the morning of 6 December, 1952, Mrs Huntington opened her bedroom window, lazily meandered through to the kitchen, and started to prepare her usual bowl of porridge. It was a particularly cold December and she could feel that the damp, freezing air was making its way down to her bones. Mr Huntington had already left. Nothing about that morning impressed itself on her particularly. For her, it was just like many others. Mrs Huntington went out from her luxurious flat in Trevor Square, Knightsbridge, and stepped over the road to wait for the bus to take her to work. She could sense something strange in the air, but wasn’t sure exactly what.
The noise of a motorcycle got closer and closer. The sound stopped right behind her. Close. Too close. Despite everything, Mrs Huntington did know where things should be. She knew, for example, that a motorcyclist shouldn’t be on the pavement. “Which way to Knightsbridge tube stop?” asked the rider with a voice broken by panic. “Well, seeing as you’re on the pavement, carry on 20 yards, and you’ll go straight down the steps into the station!” replied Mrs Huntington with her unique tone that managed to perfectly blend perplexity, cheerfulness, and indignation. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry, today I just can’t tell where I am!”. “Oh, you don’t know where you are!” she thought. Instead, she said, “Are you alright?”. But the rider had pushed his bike onwards and he could not hear her anymore. “How rude!” she thought, mildly disappointed, yet somewhat amused. Mrs Huntington’s job required her to be invulnerable to rejection, made her willing to work on reluctance, gave her the ability to break the barriers of the body, and helped her to deeply understand human reasons. Mrs Huntington didn’t have a common job, nor an official one. Her job meant sitting, talking, asking, answering, then bundling it all up together to give a sense to everything, and writing it carefully out on her special typewriter. In the evening, Mr Huntington, a journalist for the Daily Telegraph, would read her notes from work which she had left on the table. He would consider if they held a good story inside. If they did – and usually they did – he would put them in his briefcase in the manner of someone who is borrowing money without permission, and have material for the next morning’s article. Mr Huntington liked to tell himself that her job was to be his unofficial assistant. Mrs Huntington had fallen in love with him because he smelt of a good man. At first, she hadn’t been able to detect his sloppiness, but when she did, she realised it simply meant that she couldn’t expect anything too horrible from him. He cared about his work – up to a point. He did his work well – up to a point. He liked people – up to a point. People liked him – up to a point. Because of Harry’s ‘up to a point’-ness, the union of the Huntingtons was enshrined in an impossibly unspeakable truth: that, without her, he would never have been anyone.
In front of her, cars were crawling along in a traffic jam. A little farther, a mother was scolding her son with a neurotic tone “Today you need to stay close to me! Do you understand?”. The air was thick with something, and passed with difficulty through the nostrils. It was material, tangible. Every breath was like inhaling on a cigarette. A bite of coal. Mrs Huntington was born in London and had never gone anywhere else for longer than a fortnight: this fact made her very used to dust and the strong odours of the city. Indeed, she loved them, they were part of her identity. But on that morning, of December 6th, there was something different in the air.
The bus hadn’t arrived yet. Time was sitting still, like the air around her. Mrs Huntington too felt still. The people moving around her were leaving an aura of stimuli. An old lady slowly shuffling past was wearing a tuberose perfume. A gentleman coughing loudly had just drunk peppermint tea. A girl, perhaps quite young, had jingling jewellery that was slamming against her chest with each of her steps. The smell of coal impregnated Mrs Huntington’s nostrils again. Across the street, two children were pretending to be on a secret spy mission, but both were coughing and spluttering between scenes. Someone slammed the door of a car. The driver got out and began shouting incomprehensible words with an ebbing voice and withdrawing footsteps. Mrs Huntington thought this was strange, although admittedly nothing particularly out of the ordinary for a Londoner. And yet, she wondered, something was slightly off. “Excuse me”, she asked to a young man standing a few meters away, “Do you know when the bus should arrive?”. “With what’s around today, I don’t have the foggiest”. She had the feeling that he wasn’t looking at her, that he seemed distracted. Well, there was definitely something peculiar, on that morning. Perhaps an accident? Or a fire? “I’m sorry to bother you, but could you elaborate a little bit what is it, that is happening today?” “Lady, seriously don’t you see the problem?”
Oh, there was the problem. When the problem is not being able to see, either Mrs Huntington utterly understands what it means, or she doesn’t know what you’re talking about at all. White, black, red, green; For Mrs Huntington these words are empty of meaning. People usually like to ask her if she sees all black, or all white, or any kind of shadow, but she never knows what to answer. She could try to explain that, for her, without sight, there’s no such thing at all. There’s no black, nor white. Light does not exist. The world of Mrs Huntington is made up of sounds, smells: tangible substances that make up an atmosphere dispersed around things and people. She doesn’t need to look upon a face to figure out whether it is beautiful, or if it is lying. She doesn’t have to lie beholden to the eyes in order to understand the emotional states of the people around her. She doesn’t even need to observe the colour of an apple to see if it’s rotten. There is a whole realm of fundamental details that you can smell, touch, hear, feel in the body, without sight, to understand the world. Often, Mrs Huntington felt concerned that other people might lose these essential details just because they were constantly overwhelmed by having to see too much. Always, people got distracted looking at the irrelevant surface of things. They relied on the sign of a shop to orientate in the space, they focused on a glimpse of a smile or a raised eyebrow, misunderstanding the tone of voice – and by doing this, they missed the real truth of it all. Mrs Huntington sought these eclipsed meanings with a peculiar kind of investigative strictness, pulling together information and building a structure that would give sense to the world.
Until that moment, however, Mrs Huntington had missed something very important: London was, in fact, muffled by fog, as if the whole city had been picked up and dipped in whipped cream. She couldn’t know, until that moment, that everyone was blinded apart from her. But now she could see what was so strange about December 6th.
A scream interrupted the revealing exchange with the young man. A group of people were shouting confusedly, a little farther from the two of them. With difficulty, she got up from the bus stop bench, and walked toward them. “A doctor! He needs a doctor!” they shouted. An old man was lying on the ground. “A doctor, quick!” Mrs Huntington cried out with them. She turned to a woman “What’s happening?” “He’s choking!”. He was coughing to death, and they were coughing with him, despaired, screaming like a bunch of crazed monkeys. “The hospital! A doctor! Help!”. Then, finally, a long gasp from the ground plunged them into silence.
She ran home and called Harry. Everything was fine. He had had a mad day, he would’ve told her once he was back at home. No, he wasn’t coughing. Yes, he was fine. How was she? She was fine. A little shocked, she had to tell him what happened. Yes, he was about to leave work in a moment, it might take him longer, because of the fog. Mrs Huntington went to her room and picked up the suitcase with her Braille typewriter. She took it into the kitchen, and placed it on the table. She crossed her legs, then straddled them, continuously crossing, then straddling, and crossing again, whilst leaning her elbows on the table. Eventually, she got up, sat back down, and put the pieces of information of what she had smelled and heard together, trying to make sense of the sick air, and of that man’s gasp.
“I have a story for you” she said welcoming her husband home. “The paper’s already full.” he replied with an awkward satisfaction. Apparently, the fog allowed people to hide, to be unrecognisable, to escape easily. London was in chaos, in the hands of pickpockets on their bikes, in the hands of thieves climbing up the façades of the buildings: looting, beating, killing. Ambulances couldn’t rescue many people, there were too many cars lying abandoned in the road. Mrs Huntington felt all the excitement of her husband, his compassion blended with the enjoyment he felt when dealing with disasters. Yet, she was also feeling embarrassed for him. “What did you want to tell me?” he asked, still revelling in the particulars of his own stories. “A cough” replied Mrs Huntington. A cough? Yes, the air was making everyone ill. It took away a man’s breath, his life, as he lay on the street. “Well, humidity makes people sick! But coughing doesn’t kill you, you don’t suffocate on the spot! He must’ve already been ill” Harry rebutted. “But still: whilst it remains, the Telegraph should be advising everyone not to go outside.”, argued Mrs Huntington over Harry’s ignorance. But why would the fog persist? “Because it smelled like the pit of a fireplace, Harry, it wasn’t fog, it was coal.” Harry implied she was being catastrophic, as always. Mrs Huntington never was catastrophic though, she handled her senses with care and balance. “Anyway, how could London continue to function if everyone barricaded themselves at home? What’s the sense of making people panic over a bit of fog?” went on asking the dear, sloppy, husband. Maybe it is worth the panic, suggested Mrs Huntington. How? For example? “Well, if the coal factories are poisoning the air…” She stopped for a moment. She already knew what his answer would be. She already knew how her thoughts would sound like nonsense to the majority of people. She went on anyway. “Perhaps, for example, we should ask whether the coal factories are so necessary?”.
“Don’t be ridiculous”, he replied with the classic tone he always used to try and patronise her. “It’s impossible to live without coal”, he said. Other words sounded like they were stuck in his throat, as if he was trying to think about something, trying to picture something in his head. He concluded “It’s impossible to even imagine a working world without coal energy. You just don’t know how these things work, Emma”.
At that last sentence, Mrs Huntington decided to drop the discussion. She got up from her chair at the kitchen table and began to prepare the dinner. In any case, she would’ve left on the table her straightforward story of the choking man. Then, accepting or refusing the truth would’ve been his decision – the predictable decision of a sloppy man. In the end, Harry, as always, would decide to close his eyes to unpleasantness. He would decide to shut his mouth, take his fingertips off his typewriter, and consciously avoid the hard path. He was a coward, a victim of the desperate need for social recognition: what was true – or rather beneficial – to the relevant people, was true to him. Stick to the approved version, that was his journalistic golden rule. For this reason, Harry often deliberately made himself mute, deaf and blind, to those truths which were too painful, too awkward, too difficult to mould into something graspable. Not so for her. There was definitely something big going on for Mrs Huntington, on that December 6th: she had never felt less blind in her life.