Monday, 4 January 2016

Observations from my chair

Before I got ill, I was the woman who ran everywhere in five inch heels.  Like nearly almost everywhere, I mean, I wouldn't get on the treadmill in a pair of skyscraping slut shoes. I would be the one (late) running across the school courtyard, five year old child in hand, mobile phone in the other... Running... Running across the courtyard, inappropriate clothing flapping in the wind and meaty puddles splashing in my over made up face.

Running through some old ladies front room, as you do

Mainly because I'm five foot nothing but also, because I was bloody good at it.  And I hardly ever fell over.  That's a skill right?  So.  Imagine my the juxtaposition I came face to face with at spending a good 80% of my time in a wheelchair..?  I was about two foot ten tops in my trusty wheels of thunder or my "lady pram" as it became affectionately known in our house, causing an instant and identity stealing,  distinct lack of height.... But I shall go into more details about this in another post some time soon.

In my lady pram

But of course it's good.  I jest of course, I pretend to be that shallow, but all the time I was doing that five inch heel dash, I was observing.  You can see a whole lot more of the world with those extra five inches. 

I have always had stacks and stacks of empathy, on the outside I look like a freaking cray cray desperate fish wife, but I'm always on the look out for other people and thinking about what they're feeling.  As a result, I considered myself a pretty good pioneer for anyone that suffers any prejudice.

When I was growing up, I was near enough the only Asian kid in town.  Definitely the only Asian kid on our avenue in Redcar anyway.  Lovely place, it's got a beach AND a race course...

Redcar beach and it's stunning vista

To say I was different looking was an understatement, a place so backward thinking in bygone times, that our neighbours in Hartlepool were collectively known as "The Monkey Hangers," (their football team are still known as this.) And why are they called the "Monkey Hangers?" Well, if you don't know, the story came about because a monkey was washed up on their shores, during the Napoleonic Wars with the French and they thought the monkey was a Frenchman... A Frenchman?! They took the monkey to trial and then decided to hang the poor monkey.

 The monkey hanger incident took place in Cleveland some time during the Napoleonic War which ended in 1805... Fast forward to Cleveland in the early 1980s and times didn't really feel as though they had a evolved an awful lot and let's face it.  I did kind of resemble a monkey but they knew I wasn't French.

Nice fuzzy photo from the early 80s, from left to right, I'm posing in my hot beige boiler suit, that's my cousin Joni in the red trousers, my dad in his Christmas jumper, my mum looking like a twig here and my gorgeous sister in the wheelchair rocking a red poncho which I was later forced to wear and hated.

Kids down our street would regularly come up to me and say, "Abigail, you're Chineeeeeeeese...!" (In a horrible Cleveland accent)

And I'd say, "Noooo."  (That was me trying to sound less Asian and more Cleveland)

Then they'd say... "Yeah, well, you are African then... You're not English."

And I'd say, "Noo, I'm not.  I'm English."

And they'd be like, "But you have to be.  You're black."

Black?  Me black? I'm like beige at best, but black?

"Well, if you think I'm black, then that must make you Irish." I'd say... (Probably letting the accent slip as I didn't feel the urge to fit in with them quite so much at this point.  Also, my Dad would tell me off if I sounded too "Middlesbrough." Not condoning it, his views not mine)

"Nooo, we're not Irish....!"

"French then?  Are you French?" I'd retort. (The monkey hanging irony was totally lost on the six year old me, I just thought I was being clever.)

"Noo, we're not French... You're stupid."

Would blue hair make me more understood?

I mean, I knew they weren't French.  I was trying to make a point.  I was six for God's sake.

Then one girl asked... "Do you know what a Chinese burn is?"

"No," I answered smugly, this was bound to be proof that I wasn't actually Chinese.  I'd never even heard of a Chinese burn.

"I'll show you." She said sweetly, gimme your arm.  

I held my arm out obligingly, she put both her arms around it and squeezed it tightly in two different directions and back the other way with all her might.  Bloody hell..... It really fucking hurt.

Tears sprang to my eyes... "Would you like to play with my Sindy dolls?" I asked sweetly back...

"Yeah, alright then..."  So in they would come and play with the few bits of Sindy stuff that I had till my mum got fed up with them and threw them out.  The kids, not the Sindy's.

Chinese Burn... It what happens when you eat too many chillies, right?

This was a frequent happening.  Loads of kids down our street seemed to be a bully and also completely ignorant, so I made it my job to show them kindness.  There was always a reason for people's cruel actions, I put it down to stupidity even though I was so young.

Then one day, I was getting my gorgeous sister off her school bus.  She went to a special needs school, she has cerebral palsy, she was starved of oxygen at birth... She's eleven months older than me and can't do anything for herself and still lives with my elderly parents... But that's another story.    So, one day, when I was helping my mum get my sister off her school bus, one of those kids waved at me from across the green and then shouted, "Marie-Lousie is a bugger!!!"

A bugger?  I'm sorry but what exactly does one mean by calling someone a bugger?!  What kind of an insult is that?  Marie- Louise is my sister.  She's a cutie, she laughs a lot and needs to be fed and at the age of seven, if left to her own devices would just go wondering off up the street doing her funny little walk that she'd only just learned to do.  I mean, she dribbles and makes funny loud noises, but a bugger she is not.

I kind of passed it off in my head as absolute nonsense.  I was more impressed that the local dimwit family actually knew what my sister's name was... So I went inside with my mum and my sister and found my mum really, really upset.  She was not happy at all.  In fact, I'm pretty sure she was crying. I'd not seen her cry before.  We'd been screamed at and spat at in the streets by punk rockers... (Pretty scary that was...) Get back to your own country, were their words...  This is my country were my thoughts... I always wanted to put them straight.  In a calm and polite way of course.  I never got angry... I just wanted them to know that I am English.  Born in England.  Actually better at speaking English than them too...  But Mum would just grab my hand in a bad ass manner, walk even taller and say, "Just ignore them..."

This time, no.  My mum was crying... Or at least having a little sob.  Not sure of the facial wetness details... "What's up Mum?"

"That horrible boy, call your sister a bugger.  She is not a bugger.  Marie-Louie can't fight back. She never hurt him.  Nasty boy..."

"What's a bugger?" I asked.

I never got an answer.

This is me leading up to telling you, that after that, I spent more and more time hanging out with my sister and the other children she went to special needs school with.  They were lovely.  They didn't judge me.  

Girls in wheelchairs would roll up to me... "You've got black hair." Which I did. A true statement!  Lots of long black hair. "Can I touch it?"  Of course.

"You've got two legs..."  Yes, I did.  Couldn't argue with that one.  There was a gorgeous little girl with no legs at all who would either commando crawl across the floor or they'd put her in a plastic leg stand.  She was adorable, Tina I think her name was, she made me laugh a lot

They would say stuff about me that at least was accurate and true, I mean, some of these children were classified as handicapped and disabled.  (Don't get cross with me, this was the terminology back in the early 80s.)  And theses kids seemed far more astute and intelligent than my fully functioning neighbours...

"Will you dance with me?" All the gorgeous cuddly down syndrome kids would ask at the discos we used to have. I loved dancing.  I studied ballet and threw myself into music and
writing to escape the bizarre world that I lived in.  A world where I wasn't accepted based purely on the colour of my skin. And when I wasn't doing that, I hung out with my sister's mates at her group weekends.  A world where I was very much accepted.

And so I almost take you to my point.  My point is, that I have always had an extra dose of empathy.  A great deal more than others.  I liked to throw people off the scent with my mad clothes and bright lipstick.  But the fact is, as much as I have dealt with all manner of incidents and experiences in my life.  Nothing.  Nothing puts you in the empathy spot quite as much as actually being in that wheelchair.