Taylor continues her streak of heart-breaking stories with “Spry Old Character,” about a man, Harry, who has been forced by circumstances (his sister’s death) to live in “The Home For The Blind,” where not a week passes without some “dispiriting jollity being forced upon him.”
Going blind was not easy for him: “This orderly aspetic world was not only new to him, but beyond him imagining. Food and talk had lost their richness; central-heating provided no warmth.”
He is juvenilized by the staff; he has been unable to learn Braille; and he decides that the other inmates are quite unfit for him because they are so virtuous, so wholesome, so upright–always turning off the radio when anything “suggestive” is on. Miss Arbuthnot is a particular nemesis: “She had been a governess in Russia in the Tsarist days and had taken tea with Rasputin”. She describes her English Ascot experience as being “The cream of the cream, as one might say, but; dear, dear me…my poor feet. I wore some pale grey buckskin shoes…”
Harry finds a way to escape his insipid companions by learning how to make his way to the bus stop with his white cane. There, bus drivers take sympathy on him and permit him to ride the bus route for free. He finds a sense of true fellowship there: “In their company he opened out, became garrulous, waggish, his old manner returning.”
He loves the bus, but the bus-drivers and the regular riders feel as if they’ve been “saddled” with an “old geezer”.
There are so many ways in which people fail to fit into the respective worlds into which fate has flung them. Miss Arbuthnot is the “Queen” of the Home for the Blind, but perhaps only in her own head. Harry feels that he’s in a community with the bus drivers, but they tolerate him and the warm feelings he had with his cockney friends in his youth are not reciprocated here.
Instead of remaining individual people, the elderly and infirm become “characters”. That Taylor makes his feel fiercely in favour of Harry as person and not merely “spry old character” speaks to her eloquence and skill as an author.