• Mike Richman

How partially blind became totally blind drunk and led to a re-enactment of ‘Scent of a Woman’’

Times was when my work used to take me to Dubai, where I’ d meet up with an old school friend, Wilf and the two of us would kick over the traces (those being the days when my MS hadn’t taken away my ability to kick!). Wilf had been living there for over 20 years, more or less since leaving school. He’s done very well as an oil trader and lives in very posh surrounds, on a polo estate. It’s perpetual seventh heaven for Wilf as he’s a very enthusiastic polo player.

Despite the passing of a goodly number of decades and in my case, the ravages of MS, if the opportunity presented itself, the years and infirmities simply melted away. Wilf and I would revert to how we oft times behaved as teenagers at boarding school. Back In those halcyon days, many a nightfall would find us breaking out of our dorms, normally, but by no means always, to sneak into our girlfriends’ dorms for an illicit, but I hasten to add, wholly innocent liaison. Among our most treasured sorties involved a scene worthy of the much-loved Dad’s Army, albeit we were at the other end of the age range of hopelessness and haplessness.

This caper would see us don dark clothes, daube on camouflage paint ‘rifled’ from the school CCF stores. If CCF doesn’t mean anything to you, the Combined Cadet Force was a sort of army for schools take on the Boy Scout movement. Anyway, suitably attired and blackened up, we’d wriggle, snake like across the school grounds, on our stomachs and down to the river (Wey), hugging the ground all the while. This somewhat bizarre behaviour was to avoid the ever-watchful gaze of the school’s security supremo, a retired army sergeant major. Having got to the river unseen, we’d untie a small boat and snick off into the night, lackadaisically paddling the boat, but altogether less lackadaisically, sip our cans of beer. We’d pause every now and then to snatch a drag on a ciggy, trying desperately to suppress the coughing fits which betrayed our innocence and which would have immediately given us away. What (mostly harmless) fun we had!

Back to Dubai. On my last trip there, Wilf kindly took me out to a restaurant in the 5-star Desert Palm hotel. It nestles in the midst of THE most impressive stretch of finely manicured parkland, complete with golf course, polo lawns, lakes …… Get the picture? Wilf lives in a very large house on the other side of this Neverland from the restaurant and like all the other denizens, he uses a golf buggy to get around. Off we trundled to the restaurant in Wilf’s buggy, with him driving, of course, as by this stage MS had rendered me registered blind.

We arrived at this awesome (even by Dubai standards,) place, or should I say palace, in particularly fine fettle. We rolled back the years and for those blissful few hours, neither of us had a care in the world. Lucky for me, the Overcoming MS (OMS) lifestyle programme I follow, in order to try and halt the beast’s progress (there being no drug which can help with my symptoms), has unearthed evidence to show that alcohol is beneficial (in moderation). So, I was free to raise a toast or two to bygone days and ways. However, I have to admit that after we’d whiled our way down many a happy memory lane, the drinks bill was testimony to the fact we drinking more for England than respecting OMS moderation!

Not to put too fine a point on it, we were well and truly all of nine sheets to the wind by the time we finally staggered out of the restaurant. For me staggering is my normal MS gait, even when I’m stone cold sober, as it is for very many people with MS, who, as a result, are often accused of being sozzled when they’re anything but. For Wilf swaying, uncontrollably from one side to another is definitely not normal. I can only think it was a tad too many tots which caused Wilf to take leave of all his senses. Forgetting, or simply ignoring the fact I’m registered blind, he thrust the buggy keys into my hand saying, “you drive us back”. As I was every bit as inebriated, like a shot I said OKaaaay!

To get a sense of what followed, you need to have seen ‘Scent of woman’, a very funny film starring Al Pacino as an army veteran colonel medically retired, having been blinded by a grenade blast caused by his inebriated, gung-ho behaviour. If you haven’t seen it, I really commend it. I’ll try and sketch out the most salient scene from the film so get the feel of what happened next in Dubai.

The other main character in the film is a hard-up student called Charlie, who sees a notice on a school noticeboard, advertising an opportunity to earn an easy $300 for a weekend’s work. Money he desperately needs. The job is to house-sit the very rude and cantankerous blind ex colonel, played by Al Pacino, whilst his daughter (his carer) and family go off on an all too rare weekend break. Through various twists and turns, Charlie very reluctantly agrees to chaperone the colonel to New York where the latter brow beats and bribes a car salesman into allowing his 18-year-old companion test to drive an open top Ferrari. Except that out of sight of the showroom, the colonel inveigles Charlie into letting him drive.

So a stony faced Charlie is sat beside at Al Pacino, giving him directions. They start off at steady, sedate speed, driving through a built- up downtown district of Manhattan. They veer alarmingly from one side of the street to the other, narrowly avoiding a dustcart. After a while they begin to get the hang of it. But all of a sudden, Al Pacino starts giving the Ferrari some ‘welly’. Although for the moment they are driving in straight line, the by now angst-ridden Charlie becomes understandably petrified alongside Al Pacino who is whooping with delight. The dialogue then goes:

Al Pacino: “OK, let’s see how this baby corners.”

Charlie: Incredulously, “Corners????”

Pacino: “Say when?”

Charlie: In near hysteria, “Say when, what?”

Pacino: Beginning to get annoyed, “Say when to turn the car Charlie”

Charlie: “Colonel you can’t turn the car”

Pacino: Very insistently barking “Where’s the turn Charlie? Three ‘o’ clock, two ‘o’ clock ……? Come on!”

The caper is terminated, not by a crash, bit by the wail of a police patrol car.

I can’t claim my experience was as nearly as hair raising (in any event I’ve no longer got much hair left to raise,) as the street scenes of a blind Al Pacino putting a Ferrari through its paces. After all, I was only driving a golf buggy, some 500 metres over the open grounds of the Desert Palm hotel to get back to Wilf’s villa. But my need for Wilf to shout out rapid fire instruction was totally akin to what Charlie was doing for Al Pacino. In our case, however, uncontrollable hoots of laughter and feelings complete abandon took the place of the angst, anger and frustration of the film.

“Turn hard right …. No, full right. Now left. Watch out speed bump ahead. Slow down, for god’s sake slow down. Now left …… All punctuated by bouts of hysterical laughter. It was as though we’d had a skin-full all those years ago, found a speed boat on the river Wey and were now hell raising, terrorising the gentle folk of Godalming out for a gentle Summer Sunday afternoon paddle.

After many a lurch this way then that and bone rattling encounters with sleeping policeman taken at much too high a speed, in a buggy with no suspension, we arrived back at Wilf’s palatial villa with nothing worse than strained voices, stomach muscles aching from the gut-wrenching laughter and spines in need of a bit of soothing rheumatological massage to iron out the pounding they had been subject too.

Although alcohol had doubtless stretched Wilf’s sense of fun and adventure way beyond even his very elastic bounds, it wasn’t sufficient to cause him to throw all caution to the wind in entertaining his very old chum. Back at his villa there nestled a particularly fine, very expensive collection of sports and super cars in his near football pitch sized garage. That evening Wilf didn’t even hint at letting me get behind the wheel of any of his cherished babies, even in the garage. And quite rightly so!

I’m still waiting for my Scent of a woman moment. I guess it may well come in a VR moment. And who knows, one day I’ll have an AR (Actual Reality) moment if scientists can give me (and many thousands like me,) back the 90% of vision lost courtesy of MS. Here’s hoping.

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