MUSED Literary Magazine.
Fiction

World Wheelchair Day

F.M. Jones

Lynette chose her colours carefully. Sitting below eye level, outside of the average person´s field of glance, she must aim for a visually striking look. Wan but impressive. Pale and interesting. People must initially wonder what illness or accident she had suffered, and then, upon realising that she and her colleagues were riding wheelchairs for charity, must appreciate her manifest empathy for the genuinely disabled.

Over the last week Lynnette had spent five hours or more choosing her outfit for the World Wheelchair Day challenge. She and two of her colleagues had agreed to spend the whole day in wheelchairs, from the time of leaving their houses to the time they got home from work. It would help to augment her employers´ Disability Awareness status and would afford personal publicity to the participants—both in the local press and the company´s website and newsletters. But choosing what to wear proved difficult. Designers create clothes for standing, walking, even recumbent models, but rarely flatter the sitter, as Miss Blingy in that “Pride and Pemberley” movie knew only too well.

Cleavage, if Lynnette could produce it, held aesthetic possibilities... but how to combine cleavage with the diaphanous, draping style that might best disguise stomach-rolls and thigh-spread? In the end Lynnette had had to buy an expensive new outfit that she would never otherwise wear—a corset-shaped vest layer topped by a low-cut, wafty but embroidered tunic. Old-fashioned, it looked, so Lynnette decided not to curl her lashes but merely to thicken them and heavily shadow her lids. Her mouth needed work: both lips would require extra area if observed from above, and added area meant she must go for matte texture rather than shiny.

Lynnette left her house later than intended, but felt she had achieved the image she wanted: pale foundation, dark eyes and lips, carefully shaped hair and bronzer down her decolletage. A passer-by kindly offered to push her to the bus stop, where she languished picturesquely for twenty minutes before the next bus came along.

The one wheelchair space on the bus was already occupied, but the elderly man gave it up before Lynnette could demur, heaving himself awkwardly into a seat and collapsing his wheelchair with some difficulty.

“You in it for keeps or just the while?” he asked, nodding at Lynnette´s wheelchair.

“I´m in it for charity,” she replied proudly. “World Wheelchair Day. Raising awareness of disabled people and all that.”

“You what—faking it?”

“Role-play,” Lynnette corrected. “Raising awareness and showing empathy of—of things like the daily hardships faced by the disabled.”

“Daily hardships, eh? Got someone to wipe your bum and tie your laces for you, eh?”

Lynnette felt this to be unnecessary, and looked firmly out of the window. When she left the bus the old man said something she failed to catch, but she heard several passengers laughing. She felt nettled. The disabled could have shown a little appreciation for what she was doing.

Lynnette´s office building, fully wheelchair-compliant, nevertheless presented unforeseen obstacles, from the too-steeply-ramped kerb outside to the badly-placed water cooler at a tight turn of the corridor. She reached her desk 45 minutes late, but Deanna, her line manager, glanced towards her and smiled.

Lynnette, physically tired as well as irritated after negotiating pavements, lift and corridor, could not return the smile. Deanna´s cheerfulness mocked her very real difficulties. Deanna´s own mother was known to suffer mobility problems; Deanna of all people could surely show some sympathy.

“I´ve had such a time getting here,” Lynnette complained. “Chrissy—“ turning to her colleague at the nearby phone desk, “I´m dying for a coffee. Can you get me one? White, two sugars. No, three. Thanks.”

“Sorry,” Chrissy said without looking round. “I´m on hold. Maybe you could get me one when you go to the machine? Black. Thanks.”

“Chrissy!”

“What?” Chrissy looked round. “Oh, wow, I´d forgotten it´s wheelchair day. How´s it going? Did I say black, no sugar? Thanks—oops, that´s them.” She returned to her phone call.

Lynnette felt shocked. This was workplace discrimination! She could only carry one cup at a time safely, and would have to go to and fro twice where a walking person could go once. If real disabled people suffered such indignities, surely the unions would be all over it? She put two sugars in Chrissy´s coffee and slopped it slightly as she placed it on the desk, hoping Chrissy would complain so that she could escalate her grievances, but Chrissy merely nodded in thanks and waved her hand, still speaking on the phone.

Lynnette logged on to her computer, sighing loudly, rattling drawers and dropping a box of staples, but nobody took any notice. She let the scattered staples lie on the floor. Before she opened her morning emails Lynnette opened Twitter and checked the replies to her recent tweets. Praises for her altruism raised her spirits somewhat. “Your such a sweet person, so empathic,” her followers had written. “Good luck w/ your good deed.” “Cool, respect.” “My nans in a wheel chair like total chuffed what your done.” “Your a heroin.” Well, yes. Necessity was one thing, but doing this voluntarily showed real courage, Lynnette reflected.

When the local Courier´s photographer arrived, she seemed to spend far longer with Lynnette than with either Zac or Jenna from downstairs. Lynnette pouted pensively for the camera, drawing strength from the admiration of tomorrow´s readership. There was no reason why this story shouldn´t hit national news or even the Web; unique human-interest events sometimes went viral, and as far as she knew, this company was the only organisation taking World Wheelchair Day so seriously.

“Your turn for the bun run, Lyn,” Chrissy reminded her half an hour before lunchtime. The bakery where most of the office bought their filled rolls was barely a street away, but Lynnette quailed at the thought of combating corridor, lift and pavement once more.

“I thought somebody´d swap,” she said lamely. Yesterday she had looked forward to her bun run as an extra opportunity to raise awareness of herself—well, no, her wheelchair and that stuff—but she had begun to dread every move away from her desk. Notwithstanding her lateness and the photo shoot, she had got more work done than ever before in one morning.

“Oh, you´ll do fine,” Deanna said encouragingly. “Look, take my rucksack and hook it on to the wheelchair. Like this. No problem! Do you want Jenna from Reception to go along with you?”

“I´ll be OK,” Lynnette replied, wondering if she could leave her wheelchair and run the errand on foot without anyone noticing. Probably not. She sighed, picked up the order and the cask tin and rolled wearily to the lift.

The level street felt like an uphill battle. The chair seemed heavy and sluggish, and would not run straight. It expressed a decided leftwards tendency, forcing Lynnette to make frequent jerks back to her right.

“Do you know you´ve got a puncture there?” asked the sandwich lady when Lynnette had given her orders.

“Oh, is that what it is,” Lynnette said crossly.

“They´ll sort it for you at the bike shop,” the woman said helpfully. “Just down, cross the road and on your right. It´ll only take five minutes; I´ll hold your order for you.”

Surely, Lynnette thought angrily, she could justifiably abandon this stupid charade now. The photos were taken, half the day over... but she could just see Jenna´s and Zac´s smirks if she gave up before they did. She yanked her wheelchair round and out of the bakery shop, scraping the door frame as she went. Jerking herself back to the right at every few turns of the wheels, Lynnette felt resentment for the heavy traffic and the crowds walking around her, stopping and starting, getting in her way without thinking, as though nobody cared for her difficulties. Impatiently she twisted around to bypass two ladies chatting in her path, perceiving too late that her space was too narrow.

She felt the jolt as her wheel left the kerb, then she lost balance and turned over into the road. She felt the thundersome shock of a vehicle hitting her, then a mild surprise at feeling no pain. Was she killed? Weren´t you supposed to see lights or something? She blacked out.

Pain came later, hours later, in the hospital bed after who knew how many bonesetting and stitching procedures. A nurse showed her how to increase and decrease her morphine drip. It was weeks before Lynnette could be moved from her bed to a wheelchair, and months before time and physiotherapy brought her to the stage of using an upright walking aid.

“Dangerous things, wheelchairs,” said Jenna when she and Chrissy came to visit. “I had no idea how awkward they can be. To be honest, I´d have given up the bet by lunchtime if you hadn´t rolled past me, looking so determined.”

“Well, you hit the headlines all right,” said Chrissy. “I´ve kept a file on you.” The headline read, “WHEELCHAIR STUNT PUTS WOMAN IN WHEELCHAIR”, her posed picture contrasting starkly with her recent photo. One national news site had run an article on the accident; they had interviewed the representative of a mobility charity. He had emphasised that, while they appreciated the sentiment behind the World Wheelchair Day action, they would in no way have recommended individual Wheelchair Day challenges, either for safety or for their perceived helpfulness to the cause they supported.

On her first day back to work, Lynnette unsurprisingly missed her bus, progressing slowly with her mobility frame. Rain was falling, lightly; Lynnette had an umbrella in her bag but simply could not face the sheer hard work of taking it out and opening it one-handed. The next bus arrived mercifully on time, and she made her way to the nearest seat.

“Hello there,” someone said. “What´s it this time then? National Zimmer-Frame Day, eh?”

Lynnette looked at him without recognition. He was in a wheelchair. She had met an annoying man in a wheelchair before... the best part of a year ago....

“No, this is for real,” Lynnette told him. “I had a traffic accident. Spinal injuries.”

“Awww, too bad. Not for keeps now, is it?”

“No,” Lynnette replied. “Just the while.” She looked away, out of the window, not wishing to explain the tears that suddenly filled her eyes.