The Helmet

It has been just shy of a decade since the helmet was bequeathed to me by my late husband. The bulbous brass carbuncle was an aesthetic monstrosity that engulfed most of the wearer’s head and face, leaving only the mouth and chin visible to any onlooker. With its exposed gears, and bare copper wires that clung to its surface like ivy, I can be forgiven for my years of trepidation and hesitation in embracing the ultimately life-changing potential of this wondrous invention.

As I aged, the degeneration of my retinas resulted in near-blindness. A physician who examined my eyes fourteen years ago suggested the decline in eyesight is a mere symptom of growing years. Imagine looking through a camera obscura; you will see a limited spot of the world – colours and shapes are recognisable, but everything on the periphery is lost and shrouded in darkness. It has been necessary over the past two years to enlist the help of a guide or companion when venturing from my home.

During his final years, my husband spent much time working on the helmet, and I am ashamed to admit that I did not humour him. Although he managed to convince me its merits, I was anxious as to how I would be received by others and refused to even try it on for size.

Perhaps it is because my eyesight is now so lacking that I had my change of heart, realising there was nothing to lose and much to be gained. I wanted to paint again, to read again – all those things I loved so dearly that had become so remote and inaccessible.

My house servant helped me position the helmet over my head that first time. The smell of dust and oil combined with a sharp tug of my hair as I aligned my eyes with the lenses. I turned a small brass wheel above my left ear and the room came into focus.

I wept during those first moments as my husband’s study became revealed. The oaken bureau came into relief; books on physics, optics and philosophy piled haphazardly on shelves that were blots of opaque colour only a few moments before revealed themselves. I gasped as I saw his handwriting atop a bundle of papers – writing that snared my attention before we courted.

I removed the helmet for a moment, feeling its weight lift from my shoulders as the room clouded back into obscurity.

It was a curious and unnerving feeling. I was reminded of a tale my husband shared with me while we were honeymooning in Whitby about a group of men who only saw the shadows on the inside of a cave and presumed it to be the extent of the real world. I had lived for the past decade inside that cave, perceiving the shadow world and forgetting the brightness and vitality of everything beyond its margins.

I knew that beyond my doorstep was a living, breathing city: markets selling goods from foreign lands; the marvels of technology and engineering – the trams, trains, canals and mills; the glories of modern architecture and the infamous new statuary surrounding City Square that seemed to be the chief topic of debate at polite gatherings.

At that moment, I promised myself to venture out and explore the city and embrace the new age that was upon us. I experienced a rush of fervour that was only tempered by the knowledge that I would have to show restraint for a few days while I became accustomed to operating the helmet with fluidity, adjusting to its bulk, weight and ungainly appearance.

There had been nothing I could do to disguise the helmet’s form. I attempted to fashion a bonnet around its crown, but quickly found the gears to snag and the control levers impossible to articulate.

I did not sleep until the early hours that first night, so enthused was I by the prospects that opened themselves, my thoughts aspark with the places I could see again that had long been fading in my memory: the ruins of Kirkstall Abbey that set one in mind of ancient times, with its crumbling stones and swooping arches; the noise and clamour of the Corn Exchange and the market stalls along Briggate; the Town Hall with its impressive pillars and imposing lion statues; Hyde Park; the Aire; the Varieties; Whitelock’s; the library. They were places that had meant so much to me, but could have been at the other side of the globe, so remote were they through my impairment.

Over the next few days, I seldom removed the peculiar helmet, except to sleep and to give my shoulder and neck muscles respite, and indulged in exploring my own home once again. I kept one house servant who purchased all of my provisions, prepared my clothes and meals; kept rooms free of dust and clutter; and welcomed guests on their arrival. He was a trusted companion and confidante, and had been employed in our household for over two decades and, although we never spoke of my late husband, I always thought of him as something of a bridge between my life as a married woman and then as a near-blind widow.

I relished in the mundane day-to-day tasks I had not performed for many years. I cannot tell you my delight in choosing and laying out my own clothes or preparing my own breakfast. I was so reliant on my house servant that I had to ask the location of many things in my own kitchen. He was, of course, obliging, but his demeanour suggested otherwise.

When I finally ventured outside on the fourth day, the city assaulted my senses: horses pulled carts as their hooves clattered rhythmically along the cobbles; a tram rumbled by with a boy, no older than nine, clinging to its side to hitch a free ride; a smaller boy and an even smaller girl skipped past, pushing a metal hoop before them, laughing as they went.

I found myself smiling, basking in the cheer surrounding me, and on that summer afternoon I was truly alive for the first time in over a decade.

That evening, however, I was struck down by a terrible migraine. Perhaps it was the parts of my mind that dealt with sight becoming re-accustomed to use, a long-dormant machine working through rust and stiffness. The sheer intensity of the experience left me overwhelmed. And although the headaches persisted during the evenings for the next few weeks, they were undoubtedly a small price to pay.

The following Monday, I finally went to see the statues surrounding City Square. I was made aware of them through talk of their brashness and frank nudity, but I was not convinced the sculptures could be as immoral and pornographic as my house servant had suggested. They depicted women as they really were: not the idealised beauties of Greek marbles that always struck me as being more akin to perverse male fantasy. It seemed incongruous to me that the Greek statues were preferred to those more realistic renderings.

While admiring the statues, I became conscious of being watched. I saw a group had gathered to stare at me from across the square. At first I ignored them, but the group became more brazen and a man with a tattered suit and flat-cap started calling at me. Soon after, catcalls of ‘freak’ and ‘crank’ echoed around the square.

I was pleased when a policeman approached me, but this feeling was quickly dissipated when he alleged that I was causing unrest. He asked me to remove the helmet and I refused. I explained that without it I would be unable to see to make my way home. He suggested perhaps I would be best staying housebound in future so as not to cause upset to others.

He treated me as though I had escaped from High Royds. I was dumbstruck as to how to respond. I have since played out the confrontation a number of times in my head, each time recounting the scenario with what I wish I had said to the officer (evidently I can be very witty in retrospect).

Arriving home, I was filled with anger at how the policeman had treated me. I had always respected the rule of law, but I took up a pen and began to write for the first time in many years. At first it took me a few attempts to make the writing legible to a reader, but by my third sheet of paper my writing became clear and neat.

I wrote to the Chief Constable, the Lord Mayor and to my Member of Parliament detailing my experiences. I told them I did not accept the advice of the officer to stay housebound and the letters became a long exposition on the rights of people to go about their business without interference from the authorities.

A sensation of guilt swept through me as the letters dropped into the pillar-box. I did not want to be seen as bold, as a crank or rabble-rouser, but another part of me was assured that I had behaved appropriately.

As the sun set and the sky darkened that night, and in spite of what the policeman said, I felt an urge to try out the helmet’s night-time functions. I tested the its ability to enhance the limited light of the gas lamps that hung above the cobbles at the end of my driveway. I was impressed by the way the night came to life: I saw a fox as it skulked around the side of the butcher’s shop; a young couple sharing a kiss in an alleyway; and torch-lit carriages bouncing over potholes on their way to unknown destinations. As the power began to fade from the helmet, I switched the lever and turned my attention to the heavens. With an adjustment to the lenses and aperture, I spent the good part of an hour staring in awe at the multitude of stars that spread out above me, more and more of them revealing themselves with increasing clarity. I saw what I believed may have been the planet Venus and wondered whether there was a being looking up at Earth with the same feeling of wonder. That night, I drifted into sleep feeling happier than I had since before the death of my husband.

A week or so later, I received a knock at my door as I was preparing breakfast. I expected my house servant to accept the caller, but when the visitor continued to knock, I quickly wiped my hands and ventured to open the front door. What greeted me was a short man with a round pinkish face, tweed suit and a grey mop of straggly hair. He started for a moment when I opened the door, before composing himself (this always surprised me, as I forgot the appearance of the helmet must have been quite shocking when first beheld). He explained he was a physics professor at the university, and had taken an interested in my husband’s work. He said he had heard rumours of the helmet, and was most apologetic about the unsolicited call. He was charming and friendly, and I quickly discovered that despite his slight stammer and mumbling utterances, he actually had a wickedly funny sense of humour that put me in mind of my late husband.

Over the weeks that followed, I spoke to the professor on an almost daily basis (save Sundays as we both attended different churches). I granted him access to my husband’s papers, and in turn he gave me access to the university library. Though open only a few years, the shelves were brimming with books on every subject: art, philosophy, chemistry, literature, theology – a single modern building filled with more knowledge than one could hope to consume in a lifetime.

I spent most of my days in the library devouring Shakespeare, Darwin, Plato, Newton, Descartes, Chaucer, Hume, Marlow, Hegel and Kant. I buried myself in the stories of the Bible (the deeds of Jesus and the Apostles, many which I had never heard in church). They filled me with a renewed sense of vigour. And although I could often sense I was being watched by students who doubtlessly found intrigue in the helmet, I was nonplussed, so focussed was I on this new world of knowledge.

New ideas and connections between texts formed in my mind and I spent many lunchtimes and evenings debating with the professor. It was he who suggested I should start writing my thoughts down.

On a mid-autumn evening, I arrived home to find a group of around fifteen people gathered along my street to ask me questions about the helmet. I obliged and explained its functions. I bid them good evening, but as I tried to retire to my home, a few of them became particularly forceful and rude. One woman even insisted she be allowed to test it herself, grabbing at the helmet to try to remove it from me. I pulled myself away with a jerk and quickly pushed past her, shouldering my way to my front door.

I was quite shaken and found the house to be dark and cold when I slammed the door behind me. A feeling of estrangement I hadn’t experienced in months drifted over me. I lit a candle and it dawned on me that I missed the anniversary of my husband’s death without it passing my thoughts for a moment. The date was always something to dread, an ever-approaching marker on the horizon. But, for the first time since his death, it passed me by and I was gripped by a surge of grief, of yearning, of guilt, of heart-wrenching sadness. My large, empty house was larger and emptier than ever. I removed the helmet and began to sob – alone.

The following morning, I awoke to the sound of a commotion below my bedroom window and an ache thumping in my head. I didn’t know how I’d made it to my bed, but groping around my bedchamber for the helmet, I found it to be missing. I panicked for a moment before remembering I had left it near the foot of the stairs. I called for my house servant, but there was no response. I slipped on my bedshoes and wrapped myself in a dressing gown before making my way downstairs. I fumbled around for a good few minutes, bumping into furniture and stubbing my toe on a table leg before finding the helmet lying haphazardly at the edge of a rug. I quickly put it on and found my vision blurred and doubled. I adjusted the wheels for half a moment, and sighed with relief as the room became clear once again.

There were voices outside my front door. On drawing the curtains, I saw a crowd gathered outside. There were men with scrawny terriers, a butcher’s boy leaning against his blue and white handcart, and even a slender woman who was rather well-to-do and active in some of the city’s most exclusive social events. I opened my window and, before I could ask what the devil they wanted, the crowd lurched towards me with cheers and jeers, some of them pointing and gasping in wonder as if I were a pickled Siamese baby. I slammed the window shut and drew the curtains, cowering behind them to shield me from the tumult.

It took me a few minutes to regain my composure. I had a stern word with myself and, after some deliberation, I resolved to leave the house and head for the library. There were whispers and taunts from those gathered, but as I stepped out, they moved aside, clearing a path for me. I asked them to leave me alone, but many of them followed me. One particularly foolish young man asked if the helmet was magical, another if I had come from the stars. It was only when I passed a newsstand that I realised why the crowds had gathered: I was on the front-page of at least a dozen newspapers. Some of them proclaimed the helmet a scientific wonder; some made claims of black magic and satanic rituals; one tale even declared I was a Martian and illustrated this theory with a crude drawing of me alighting a spacecraft. Looking back, I can smile at how ridiculous it all is, but in that moment I was so very afraid.

I marched as quickly as I could to the sanctuary of the library. As the large oaken door boomed closed behind me, I inhaled the quiet calm of study. Yet, as I went to reach for the comfort of a large bound index, twenty or so people slipped inside, bent on resuming their insidious heckles. The librarian’s assistant chided me and asked if I would leave. I tried to reason with him and explained the mob was following me against my wishes, but he was insistent. At that moment I jumped with a start as a hand touched my shoulder. It was the professor.

He glowered at the assistant and asked if I cared to lunch with him and get far away from this ignorant young man. I agreed without hesitation. He led me through a side-door and along a corridor. We exited through a tradesman’s entrance and moved with haste to the city centre.

We dined at a small cafe on Great George Street across from the Infirmary, and took a dimly-lit table in the far corner. I spoke of my anguish of seeing myself as the main subject of speculation in the newspapers across town (I later found out the headlines went beyond York to the north and Sheffield to the south). Though the cafe was relatively empty, I noticed I had not escaped scrutiny: a woman dining at a nearby table took surreptitious glances past her apparent study of the menu and a youngster cupped her hands against the front window as she passed by before her parents shooed her on.

The professor joked the gawkers were not interested in the helmet, but rather by a woman who spent her days seeking knowledge. He tried to assure me that most right-minded people would recognise the stories as fabrication. But it is difficult to find humour, comfort, or solace when you are the subject of unwanted attention. I removed the helmet and lay it beneath the table. We ate in silence.

I tried in vain to focus on my lunch. I reflected that all I wanted was to get on with life like everybody else. My near-blindness was never a problem to other people until I resolved to overcome it. That I ventured out wearing something so unsightly had made me more conscious of my impairment than ever. It was other people with their pitying and accusatory looks, their quick glances and nudging whispers that made me feel this way. I hated them all, I hated myself and I hated the helmet.

Following our lunch, the professor volunteered to guide me home.

In the comfort of my own bed chamber, my head and heart ached with the pains of the previous days. I called for my house servant to bring me a soothing cup of tea. When he didn’t respond, it occurred to me I hadn’t seen or heard from him in a number of weeks. I was in need of a friend to talk to: I wanted to hear how his children were growing up, about his mother’s health and his sister’s awful husband. He had been a solid and reliable companion since my husband’s death, and it struck me that I didn’t even know where he lived.

Having to fend for myself, I began to use the helmet again in a utilitarian capacity as elective blindness proved unsustainable. I made the decision to keep away from the university library until the newspapers lost interest. My husband had kept a number of books in his study. Though many were too technical for me to find of interest, I knew there were some broader, more general texts that would suffice. He kept a copy of the Old Testament on his desk, along with the works of Aristotle and Plato, so at least with them I could be satisfied.

Entering his study, I noticed to my horror the lock on the bureau was broken. I looked inside and a file of share certificates, bonds and other financial documents were missing. I frantically searched the room, pulling out the drawers and emptying them onto the floor. But it was in vain.

My suspicions began to mount and after seeing no signs of a forced entry. I concluded my house servant must have stolen them. Although it pained me to draw such a conclusion, there was no other satisfactory explanation.

It dawned on me that the dividends paid out from the investments formed my income since my husband’s death. Although I had enough funds to last me for another month or two, there was the troubling realisation that this would leave me financially ruined by the spring.

Perhaps my house servant would not have committed such a theft had I continued to be reliant on his care. No longer did I need him to take me for walks, to cook, to clean. I had become self-sufficient and was quite unaware of how long I’d not needed his services. Maybe there was a part of him that needed me as much as I did him, or more likely he was an opportunist waiting like a snake to strike when the moment was right. However it fell, whatever his motivations, I felt betrayed and powerless and concluded the helmet brought me nothing but anguish. In finding this new life, I had left my old one behind, but I was mistaken in believing in this ridiculous notion. The helmet made me self-centred, even selfish, and I would have to live with the consequences.

The next morning, I heard a knock at the door – it was the professor. I was glad to see him, though my mood was sour. We talked in my late husband’s study and, as I told him of my suspicions about my house servant. I broke down. I was such an old fool. He tried to turn the conversation to extolling the virtues of the helmet and I began to berate him. I shouted for him to leave and forced the helmet into his hands. I told him he should do what he wanted with it and I never wanted to see the cursed thing again.

He left, deflated; his voice full of hurt. I took myself back to my bed. I was back in the cave and seeing only shadows. Only now I knew the shadows were but a mere glimpse, a mere spectre of the reality that lay just beyond my reach.

The next few days were the worst days I have ever known. I lost the helmet, lost my house servant – I was bereft and my blindness was worse than ever. My eyes were raw from tears: I thought of slicing my wrists, or ingesting a poison, or launching myself from a high building or bridge. But in the end, I didn’t have the will to make any realistic steps in that direction.

After more than a week indulging in shameful self-pity, the professor returned with the helmet. Evidently he had returned each day to apologise but I was so engrossed in my own desperation to pay the knocking at the door any heed.

He explained that within my husband’s papers were the sketches and diagrams of the helmet’s design, and sought to sell the plans to an interested party if I was willing, and the monies from such a sale would keep me financially secure in my twilight years. He also mused if more people wore similar helmets, they would not be such a novelty.

We agreed upon terms and, over lunch, the conversation turned to the subject of the ridiculous outrage that was still ongoing about the statuary on City Square. The professor compared it to a similar storm that a statue of a nursing mother adorning the British Medical Association’s headquarters in London had prompted. I told him I had not seen those works, but would like him to show me.

It took some effort, but I resolved to ignore the derisive looks and whispered remarks of the ignorant, telling myself that the real world, the wonders of art and nature and the marvels of science and technology were all outside the cave waiting for me.

I vowed to wear the helmet with pride.

This text is copyright 2016 by Jon Cronshaw, released under a BY-NC-ND Creative Commons Licence.

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