“Which way is the Avanti ticket office please…”, I asked the gentleman standing outside the glass doors.
He didn’t seem to take notice at first.
I was standing just inside the glass doors of the station building. He was standing outside where people normally step out for a smoke, facing away from the doors. The doors kept opening and closing automatically due to the motion detector on top. I expected him to turn around, but he was looking down thoughtfully. He seemed smug.
I waited a few seconds. Wasn’t he thinking a bit too long? Is he going to respond? Was he secretly smirking at my question…was I at the wrong level or completely at the wrong end of the building or something. Anyway, since he was looking away from me, I couldn’t see the expression on his face in the dark. I now realized he was standing in line for something.
“Do you have any idea how many soldiers died in that bloody war…”, the man seemed to mumble suddenly without looking at me. Tired old raspy voice.
What does that have to do with anything, let alone my question about the location of the ticket office, I thought to myself. His remark was completely out of context. I was in a hurry, but I waited politely for him to complete whatever he was trying to say.
“Did you know that 30,000 British soldiers returned after the war with damaged eyesight…and 3000 of us returned permanently blind” he whispered.
Then it occurred to me that he was blind. But that seemed like a high number of casualties – which war was he talking about…
He seemed to have read my thoughts. He spoke softly now, barely audible. “Is any war worth it? Every war blinds soldiers like me. But the world turns a blind eye.”
He seemed to tap on the shoulder of the person in front. In front of the long line was a uniformed man in an admiral’s cap. He stood tall, despite his crutches. They all stood there quietly. Perhaps waiting patiently for their transport.
I stepped outside the glass doors into the balmy summer evening. Now when I looked at them with a bit more ambient light, I realized to my surprise that they were all blind.
There were seven of them. Each with their hand on the shoulder of the person in front. They started to speak slowly and solemnly like awakening one by one from the dead…
It was now starting to rain. I shook myself out of my reverie. Most shops had closed for the day. It was now past 9pm and I was standing outside the Manchester Piccadilly station.
Our hotel was steps away from the city center. I was trying to secure a seat reservation for the train journey back to London the next day by the high-speed Avanti West Coast Express. We had booked the tickets online and had realized quite late that there was no seat reservation confirmed. Given all the Covid travel precautions, we wanted reserved seats. I needed to get to the Avanti ticket office before it closed. I had no idea where the office of this newly formed train company was, whether it was inside the station building or outside in the city center.
Manchester Piccadilly is typically a very busy station. Over 30 million passengers pass through annually. There are several levels and many exits, and it can be a bit confusing. I had entered the station building from the familiar Fairfield street entrance that is used for taxis and buses. Then someone told me the ticket office was towards the main city center entrance - one level up via the escalators if one were to navigate there internally or up the approach road from the corner of Ducie Street and London Road.
It was perhaps a good thing after all that I got lost there for a while. At this hour, there were hardly any people around. Except this long line of people standing motionless in the dark.
Then I noticed a sign next to them.
This was a sculpture called "Victory over Blindness" to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the end of the first World War.
Johanna Domke-Guyot conceived this whole exhibit. After being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), she studied art to distract herself and it worked like therapy for her. Due to MS her fingers were quite numb which makes her sculpture even more amazing. Due to relapses, she lost sight in one of her eyes.
Johanna conceived this monument to be at eye level. The seven blind people stand quietly outside the station amid the day-to-day bustle. She wanted people to be able to touch the sculpture. No platform or plinth is in place, so that anyone including blind people can also touch it.
Johanna wanted people to interact with the soldiers in her sculpture who are on their path to rebuild their lives. I guess she has succeeded beyond imagination in this miraculous effort.