MUSED Literary Magazine.
Fiction

Disadvantage

Kate Noble

Mavis sat - her mind lightly buzzing and her fingers fidgeting - in the clinically-white waiting room, along with what appeared to be representatives of all nations of the world. She felt not a little proud of her country when everyone could sit quietly in harmony in this way. Well relatively quietly...the children were a bit boisterous, but then kids always were. She tended to find the air funny in these places after a while. Not bad, but...well... used perhaps was a better description. She looked around to check whether there were windows to let in fresh air. The corner of her eye caught onto the only vibrant colours disturbing the overall whiteness; emanating from the two rather sad strands of tinsel across the ceiling. The only other colour was provided by a notice-board with its public health information posters, including a shock of plastic holly in each corner. Her head pivoted one way and then another to read what she could see of each poster. She squinted as the writing got too small to be bothered to get up and look further. She was just killing time really and waiting for hospital visiting time to start. Here to see friend Jude who was – sad to say – trussed up somewhat like a turkey (to pick up on the seasonal metaphors) after her unfortunate fall.

Jude’s leg was in thick plaster suspended from above her bed, the last time Mavis had visited, and her face was heavily covered over with bandages, especially around her clearly swollen mouth. All that veneer cosmetic work, Jude sighed pitifully to herself, trying not to obviously wince, and for what now? Her black eye had been...well Mavis told Jude it wasn’t too bad, which had been a bad move she realised afterwards, as Jude immediately indicated she wanted a mirror to check on this reported healing, only to be somewhat disappointed with both the result and Mavis. It did matter to such an extent to Jude, Mavis knew only too well, to look just right at all times. But how you were meant to do that in her state right now? You just had to make the most of yourself Mavis decided quietly to herself, just as she had had to do the whole of her life anyway.

‘How’s it going Jude love?’ Mavis asked as soon as the ward doors were opened to outsiders and she had found Jude in the same bed-bay as last time.

Jude clearly decided to barely acknowledge Mavis’ presence today. Perhaps she was in more pain than last time Mavis pondered.

‘Oh I am sorry, it´s going on like this. Any news about them letting your leg down?’ Mavis nodded upward to the suspended limb. Jude half managed to follow her gaze, and just perceptibly shook her head. Mavis shook her head in response.

‘Such a pity, duck, eh? Life’s not fair is it? When you think how you ended up in this state, well and you were trying to help me really.’ There was a faint shudder, only perceptible to the trained eye, from under the hospital blanket.

And with little chance of a two-way conversation again this afternoon, Mavis’s thoughts drifted back to the memory of only half a week ago

***

‘Can you not keep up there Mave? Up to 75% off at Richard Langton... first hour only...’

Mavis immediately recognised an irritation in Jude’s tone. It wormed itself through into her bone marrow somehow. Jude must be on one thought Mavis. The crudely emphasised words ‘first hour’, perceptible even through the mean blast of wind and weather swirling around the two of them – litter and leaves in its wake - sweeping the high street and everyone jostling alongside. Mavis’s knees were sure giving her gyp today, and different types of brewing soreness were beginning to heat up between both of them. From her armpit Mavis un-clamped the curve-handled umbrella she tended to always carry with her these days, and decided to make use of it to share the weight with her leg joints, even if only slightly. This was the first time she had had to deploy the brolly in this way, well publicly anyway, but she had known it was going to happen soon enough. Given Jude’s pace setting for today’s shopping, she had nothing to lose, and everything to gain as they say.

Jude bustled purposefully forward and markedly ahead of Mavis - through crowds, wind, driving rain - her head half turned only momentarily to direct her next semi-poisonous question. For that was what it was, Mavis knew deep down, a portion of her becoming slightly indignant, but always ultimately deflating herself and letting it go. (What, did Mavis need a prop now?) Avoiding the uncomfortable feelings which she found almost impossible to shape into coherent sentences, either in her head or in her mouth, whenever she tried to give it a go. They were sometimes straight in her mind and usually her guts, but never made it any further, as it meant avoiding potential conflict, and Mavis was all for that.

After all, Mavis enjoyed Jude’s company, plus Jude was hard to refuse when she requested anything. Especially something like visiting the Boxing Day sales, which secretly Mavis was quite keen to see for herself as it happened, but she would never dream of going alone. She simply wouldn’t know where to head for. Where was it she was meant to be going first? Just which outlet? It wasn’t her choice she often felt, but a secret and unfathomable route that perhaps even Jude didn’t truly know until she was actually on it. Funny that, as she’d been before and usually with Jude, and without her she feared her familiar maps and pathways would fizzle away. As though Jude held a kind of secret access key to all that lay ahead.

And anyhow, Mavis also was aware she struggled to know what to buy once she got wherever. Just why was it that Jude felt that such a top went with such a skirt, or such a shrug went with such a dress. Or this with that and the other with something else? What was the magic formula she seemed imbued with? So Jude provided excellent cover, in that respect, behind whom Mavis could be in the right designer space at the right time and copy the choices in colour, shape, size, style. This, unfortunately, was irrespective of Mavis’s overtly fuller and all-round totally contrasting bodyshape to Jude. Still, if it worked for one, it should work for another. Jude never contradicted her choices afterall.

‘Colours...your colours. That’s what it´s mainly about’ Jude had explained succinctly once when Mavis asked.

The intense look which followed seared into Mavis’ brain, silencing any hint of a follow-up query, which was burning in Mavis.

Through the crowds ahead Mavis spotted Jude’s head make a sudden right hand detour. Into a coffee shop. Jude did not turn back to indicate the altered route, but of course Mavis followed anyway. She could do with the sit down frankly, to take the strain off her knees. She found the brolly quite useful in steering a course through the crowds, using it like a dribbling hockey stick in effect. She found if she stuck it out in front of her and waved it from side to side a bit that people really did move out of the way. She received growling guttural reprimands from some, but what the heck, it was her best strategy, to get to sit down before she actually fell down.

The coffee shop was totally packed out Mavis realised once she got inside, and she had to peer through the mass of bodies to locate Jude, eventually struggling through coats, bags and bodies to reach her. She really needed to sit.

‘Prop yourself on here...’ Jude moving her neat pert buttocks sideways so that Mavis could share her luminous green pouffe. Mavis knew that she would be unable to mirror Jude’s balance on the pouffe, not least as her buttocks were that substantial proportion larger than Jude’s.

‘Needs someone to queue for brews.’ Jude’s heavily weighted suggestion followed.

Would Mave take her up on the offer? After all, she had awkwardly way-laid Jude’s shopping trip so far today, and owed her one. Much slower even than usual today, was the unspoken script here between them.

Mavis, meanwhile was concentrating on her knees, which had started to really burn inside the joints. Breathless with discomfort, she said ‘Give me a mo. Can’t stand any longer Jude.’

With an almost perceptible huff Jude stood and freed the ungenerous pouffe and Mavis immediately sank herself fully onto it in relief.
Jude looked down on her; her look betraying a superiority in the celebration of her quite simply stronger physicality.

‘Let me go for us both...’ soothed Jude unconvincingly. This was her nod to compassion for the week, she almost consciously decided, her over-arching unawareness pressing Mavis further down onto the stool.

‘I’m having the small freshly squeezed California orange so we can still get to Langton’s before the hour’s up. Like one too?’

Mavis - who had a distinct dislike for orange juice, ever since she had mistakenly swigged back two
glasses of the stuff at a nerve-edged convention buffet having made it through 72 hours of a committed carrot–only detox diet plan, and complaining loudly in her hyped up state that the carrot juice was ‘off’ – said ‘Ok. Why not?’ Her smile had more of a wince about it.

Approximately twenty minutes later Jude stood before the angular modernist architectural structure that simply could only be Richard Langton’s shopping emporium. Chest raised, taking in the promise of it all, despite the mainly hidden sense of disdain at feeling as though she was with the ‘also rans‘.

Mavis pushed her way eventually through the hoards of keen shoppers and hobbled up to join Jude, propping herself on her brolly, which was beginning to bow slightly worryingly.

‘Well the best stuff will’ve gone, but what the heck? Hey Mave?’ Jude did not make eye contact with this speech. ‘It´s simply lovely being out with the girls.’

Mavis resisted the urge to look around her and check.

‘You really are struggling today chuck aren’t you though? With those painful legs.’ There was an element of this stated between gritted teeth.

‘It´s my knees mainly, Jude love.’

‘I’ve had a brainwave though’ said Jude actively not listening to the detail of Mavis’s complaint, in order to ensure no further diversion or delay.

‘How would it be...’Jude continued on her pre-determined trajectory ‘...if we asked about if...they....’ Jude’s speech was getting gradually slower, the gaps widening like a slow motioning yawn between each word. Her completing phrase formed a question through its slight shrug of an upward lilt ‘...they had a wheelchair service.’

Mavis stood stock still for a second absorbing the words, the sentiment, the implications; everything all at once whirring around the processors in her mind. What was Jude trying to say? But then again, my goodness it would be lovely to take the weight off her, by now, extremely painful knees. But, a wheelchair service – she had never heard of anything like it. It would, though, let her see as much as Jude and just as quickly. Let her keep up, it must do, and Jude had to push she guessed, which prompted the slightest level of glee.

Oh, but what if someone they knew saw her. What would she do then? But hadn’t she suffered enough pretending she could always keep going: indignance starting to dig in. She then thought the idea of being wheeled around felt quite regal. Quite special. Although you never saw the Queen doing that and she was over eighty? But heck, how did any of us know. She may actually never be out of one in the palace, all those smooth shiny floors to skid across. A secondary momentary flash of malice flashed across her. Someone like Jude might hate being seen out with a person in a wheelchair. It could destroy the carefully crafted image. But then, again think of all the celebrities who did plenty for disabled people. It seemed to serve them well. They didn’t do anything like that without taking advice from their agent or some such. So she’d read anyhow.

Mavis looked at the ground, whilst she worked all of these options through the pre-set filters of her mind. Jude took her lowered head to mean that Mavis was offended.

‘Oh Mavis, no, I mean...oh gracious....have I... ?’ Jude bent down to try and catch Mavis’s eye. To try and plead forgiveness; but as quickly as humanly possible.

Mavis’s head was just making its way back up to the daylight, a sly smile growing across her mouth, when she was heaved bodily from behind by an over-enthusiastic group of teen shoppers. Well that decided it she thought. No apology from them. She supposed you just had to accept it these days. She almost keeled over, but managed to right herself, no thanks to Jude who was busy peering into the main doors with undisguised impatience. You could almost feel the drumming fingers coursing through every fibre of her being, despite not being on show. She would agree to almost anything to get herself inside the store by now.

‘Well...’ said Mavis exploratively and a little coy ‘I ...could ...well...consider it, I suppose. Just this once’. It was a game worth the risk, as Jude was beyond listening to anything just now, in her retail-focussed shopping bubble.

‘Right. Well. Er.... let´s try customer services as a start. Just inside the mock art nouveau doors (no less impressive for it) stood a bell boy type character. Jude tittered nervously when she saw him.

He was, however, the consummate professional Mavis observed, and directed them efficiently and politely to customer services, without the batting of a single eyebrow or the flexing of any facial muscle other than was strictly necessary to the task in hand.

Under five minutes later, Jude found herself staring at a number of coat arms and bag handles and people’s watches from her seated position in one of the store´s corporate wheelchairs. On her lap she clutched not only her own, but also Jude’s bags and belongings, with the strict instructions to keep a tight hold and guard them with her life. Fair exchange she mused. For never having handled a wheelchair before, Mavis assumed from the initial first few hairy moments, she had to hand it to Jude that she really was managing to glide through the masses quite deftly. Tight groups of mainly women it has to be said, would part the way at the sight of a wheelchair and occupant, with nods of sympathy, to either of the women. Amazing what a potential bargain could bring out in people.

‘Well this is a turn up, Mave!’ exclaimed Jude leaning down into Mavis’s ear. ‘Its heavy I grant you, but much quicker with you in the chair. Most people just let you through...when they realise you’re there that is.’ As was normal, she didn’t give time for Mavis to answer. ‘Couldn’t you groan a bit, you know as though you’re in pain, to let them know in advance we’re coming through, it may speed people up even more.’ Mavis said nothing in reply. She was pleased that Jude’s better humour had returned and even more delighted that she didn’t have to strain her knees any further getting round the stores on foot.

An hour or so later, Jude had pretty well exhausted viewing all the sale rails in this store. She had tried on a dozen or so outfits and explained in detail to Mavis why none of them would suit Mavis, whilst at the same time helpfully pointing some options exclusively for her; which Mavis ultimately felt quite doubtful about, having tried on a couple. Jude was hot and flustered but exhilarated. Mavis felt pretty much the same as she did after any of these excursions; self-doubtful and body-image-crushed but happy enough to be spending time with Jude, who she so admired, particularly when it came to fashion.

‘Just the lingerie department...over to....here...’ said Jude speaking as she maneuvered them both ‘... and then we’re through here.’

There was, of course, likely to be somewhere else – if not many other places - for Jude to need to explore. And they may not have a wheelchair, considered Mavis. The medium level joy she felt sunk for a moment. Perhaps Langton’s Department store would let them borrow it and take it down the high street with them. How Jude would manage the pavement edges, if they weren’t ramped would need thinking through a bit though, pondered Mavis nervously as she valued her dignity. It had been a strange experience being wheeled around with her site-line at waist level to everyone else, which in a crowd could feel quite claustrophobic, but she recognised how useful the wheelchair had been; especially to Jude’s retail ambitions.

‘Mavis, isn’t it?’ said a familiar voice behind her.

Mavis swung round in a natural response to her name being sounded. It was her ex-boss. The one she had always held something of a flame for. She suddenly felt crushed and embarrassed to be gazing upward toward him, even though she had been in that position many times from her typing desk at work. Somehow this was different though. She felt at a distinct disadvantage.

‘Mr. Edwards, hello’. She said as she pushed herself upwards and out of the chair.

‘Oh Mavis. Please don’t...on my...’

‘Oh, no bother. I was just resting. You know. It´s for a friend.’ She said indicating towards the chair with her head, and slightly colouring.

‘Oh?’

Mavis made sure she stood to attention at this point and walked up to greet him. Knees having rested a while it looked convincing.

At that moment Jude came back from underwear scavenging having managed to re-locate where she had left Mavis, and found the wheelchair unoccupied.

‘Perfect,’ said Jude. ‘I was just coming to see if...ah no bother...’

And without finishing her sentence or looking around her she wheeled the chair away, behind the closely packed rails of knickers, camis and bras, so that she ended up quite out of sight down the next aisle. Better keep it close by in case Mavis needed it again soon. Where was she?

Mavis looked straight at Mr. Edwards and semi-shrugged, with an odd kind of smile and a, by now, high-pink face. She started to absently massage the bag´s handles she was holding together to discharge some of her embarassment. Meanwhile, Mr. Edwards was looking upward somewhere behind Mavis’ shoulder. Mavis was still looking straight at him, trying to find a way to discharge the excessive jittery energy she was experiencing.

Breaking into her reverie Mr. Edwards said, ‘Isn’t that your friend who just...?’

Mavis swung round to follow Mr. Edwards gaze, and sure enough, there was Jude in the other aisle, but towering over the clothes rails, and reaching sky high, her fingers nearly onto a pair of extra frilly-edged knickers, placed painfully high to any discerning shopper.

Both Mavis and Mr. Edwards were sure they heard her say under her breath to herself, ‘If I can just....one more try....’

And with that Jude slipped out of sight and there was an unearthly crashing sound and a scream from Jude who was certainly not within the sight line of either of them.