Thinking Aloud On a Sunday

Disability.

Not for the first time, I woke up today thinking about disability. I will be 68 next birthday, and other than the usual ‘old man’ aches and pains, occasional bad Vertigo, and some eyesight issues, I have managed to escape anything worse so far.

When I was young, Polio was still a common disease. I would see children having to wear metal calipers to brace their legs, and saw documentaries on TV about people who had to spend their entire lives in an ‘Iron Lung’, a cylindrical machine that breathed for them. By the time I was at secondary school, aged 11, I was already counting myself lucky to be fit and healthy.

Many years later, I went to work in the London Ambulance Service, as an EMT. Soon after completing my training, I was shocked to become exposed to disabilities I had never even heard about, let alone seen. I learned about the ‘unseen’ sufferers, those too badly disabled or physically deformed to be able to go outside much, or participate in things that the rest of us simply took for granted. They were sometimes collected in buses, and taken to attend ‘special schools’. Schools that were not only adapted for their needs, but where they could be educated with people who had similar conditions, and understood living with them. Those too disabled to go to those schools might be home-schooled, or have private tutors.

I met young people whose bones were so brittle, they could break them just by coughing. Brain-damaged teenagers fully aware of their situation, but completely unable to communicate at any level whatsoever. One young lady who had been born with undeveloped bones in her arms and legs, so although she was twenty-five years old, she resembled a floppy rag doll, and I could pick her up as easily as I could a pillow. A man with such disfigurement of his facial bones, that he was unable to speak clearly, or eat and drink properly. His elderly mother cared for him, giving him liquid food and drinks through a tube that passed down inside his nose, something he had to keep in permanently. He rarely went out, as he had bad experiences of being mocked in public.

Many I encountered had been born disabled as a result of their mothers taking Thalidomide, for morning sickness. That great drug scandal of the 1950s left so many children without properly formed arms or legs. Or both. Alongside those who had congenital conditions, I also came across scores of people who had become disabled as a result of accidents, or after having to have limbs amputated surgically. They had led outwardly normal lives at one time, until that life was turned upside down by the events of one day, or by contracting a medical condition. Suddenly, they needed help with everyday things, often very embarrassing things to need someone else to do. They had to consider learning to cope with prosthetic limbs, using crutches, or being confined to a wheelchair for the rest of their lives.

This necessitated a re-think about how they lived, and everything they were used to doing. Beds moved downstairs, specially-adapted toilet and bathroom, and restricted access to public buildings, and most forms of transport. The loss of much-loved active hobbies in many cases, and even the break-up of relationships, when partners couldn’t cope, or the disabled person didn’t want to be seen to ‘tie them down’. Before I was 30 years old, I started to get some insight into just how much such things affect peoples’ lives.

Adding to the list were those disabled by Mental Illness, Epilepsy, complications of Diabetes, severe Asthma, Dementia, Arthritis, Blindness, and Deafness.

Most of you will not have worked in a job bringing you into contact with disability on a daily basis. And even those of you who have personal experience of your own disability, or that of a child, sibling, or parent, may well not have ever encountered those with ‘extreme’ disabilities. But over the last 20 years, we have all seen a greatly increased awareness and understanding around the whole issue. The Paralympics, injured soldiers returning from foreign wars, and disabled people working as presenters on TV shows and news programmes; as well as those actively campaigning for better access to buildings and transport.

Attitudes are changing, but there is still a long way to go yet.

What I learned during those 22 years was remarkable. With almost no exceptions, all those people stayed cheerful. Many were in fact much happier than I was, and they coped so admirably with things I could hardly imagine. They had no demands, few requests, and inspired me with their determination to live the best lives they could.

Moving Day: Part Twenty-Three

This is the twenty-third part of a fiction serial, in 1370 words.

For the rest of that week at school, Tilly stuck to Becky’s side whenever she had the opportunity. She started to use the bus each way again, and always sat next to Becky at the back, ignoring the moans of the two younger boys she had displaced. They seemed to instinctively know not to push it, and acted rather wary of Tilly. Lunch breaks were spent together, with the older girl cuddling Becky at every opportunity, and chatting to her as if they were the same age. Bridie ignored them both when they were on the bus, staring straight ahead, and not saying anything to either of them.

By Friday afternoon, Becky was feeling rather sad. Even though she knew it was all an act, this new-found relationship with the gorgeous Tilly was making her feel so good. She was ready early every day, and excited when the bus stopped outside Tilly’s house, and she rushed in to snuggle up close on the usual seats. Part of her wished that all the other stuff was just a dream, and that life could go on just like this for her and Tilly. She found herself dreaming about her at night, and having difficulty getting off to sleep, as she pictured her in her thoughts. It was a constant emotional battle to keep grounded, and to remind herself that it was just fake.

There had been no sign of Charity at all. Since they had talked in the bedroom, she hadn’t appeared. Becky had gone looking for her at the tree, but there was no trace of her, not even the lingering smell that indicated she had been there. But one thing was glaringly obvious. The tree was getting bigger. Much bigger. In the few weeks since she had come to live there, the trunk seemed thicker, and many more branches drooped down to touch the water too. Even when she didn’t crawl under the canopy, Becky could feel something by just standing close. An energy, almost like electricity. If she stood still and closed her eyes, she could have sworn she heard something too. A low humming, reverberating along the ground.

Around the house, Mum wasn’t mentioning the weekend. Irritatingly, she carried on as if nothing unusual was happening. Acting somewhat bright and breezy, making her favourite meals, and turning up with special treats, like the Belgian Buns that she knew Becky loved so much. But she wasn’t about to be fooled, or lulled into a false sense of security by all that. Although she could never be one hundred percent certain, she still didn’t trust Mum. And this out of character behaviour just made her all the more suspicious.

On the way home in the bus, Tilly was chatting constantly about what fun they would have when she came round the next day. As they got close to her house, she suddenly asked Becky for her mobile phone number. In all that time, she had never asked for it before, and Becky wondered why. “Is it so you can let me know if you are going to be late? Or perhaps you are going to cancel at the last minute?” Tilly grinned, and gently stroked the side of Becky’s face. “Nothing like that, I promise. I just want to phone you later, when you’re alone. We never really get the chance for a proper chat at school now, do we?” Becky told her the number, and watched as Tilly entered her as a contact at lightning speed. Then she turned the phone round, so Becky could see that she had the number, and could read the contact name she had added.
‘Beautiful Becky’.

Her face flushed as she read that, and she didn’t know what to say. Luckily, the bus stopped outside Tilly’s driveway, and she got off quickly, calling out “See you tomorrow” as she slid the door closed.

That night, Mum still didn’t say anything about Tilly coming round the next day. Becky went up and did her homework, and when she came down for dinner, she saw that there were more Belgian Buns as a treat. Mum had even taken the cherry from the top of her one, and placed it onto Becky’s bun so she would have two. After eating, they watched a film on DVD. Becky couldn’t concentrate on it, her mind was racing. Just before ten, her mobile rang. Mum jumped with surprise. Nobody ever rang Becky’s mobile. Grabbing her phone, she headed for the stairs. “I’ll take it up in my room, Mum”, she called out as she ran up them two at a time, swiping the screen to accept the call.

Closing the door tight, Becky went over and flopped onto the bed. “Hi Tilly”, She was going to try to sound excited, but realised she didn’t have to try. The voice at the other end sounded like an older version of Tilly. Slightly croaky, and breaking with emotion. A hint of breathlessness made it seem like a secret that they were even talking. “I’ve been thinking about you all night, Becky. Have you been thinking about me? Are you alone, maybe up in your room? Or is your Mum around? Can you talk privately?” The questions came slowly; measured, deliberate. “Yeah, I’m alone in my room, Mum’s downstairs”. Tilly purred like a cat. “Oh, that’s good, because I want to talk to to you about when I sleep over tomorrow”. Becky stretched out properly. She was still wearing her school uniform, not having bothered to get changed as she hadn’t planned on going anywhere. She pulled the tie from around her neck with one hand, and threw it on the floor.

Tilly started to say things. They were things that Becky hadn’t expected at all. Sensual things, outright rude things, using words that Becky had never heard before, and lurid descriptions that made her imagination go crazy. Even though she was alone in the room, Becky felt the heat as she blushed from her face all down her neck. Tilly’s growling voice and the things she was saying made her tingle all over, until she was visibly quivering. Her toes felt as if they were being tickled, and she wiggled them around so violently inside her thick tights that they started to feel sore. It was as if she was being dipped in warm honey, and she was beginning to give in to Tilly’s skillful seduction. Then she heard the voice grow louder, asking something. “Becky, are you still there? Can you hear me?” She snapped out of the reverie, and replied. “Yes, I was just listening”.

“Did you like what you heard?” The voice was back to sounding like a soft growl. Becky sat up, fighting to come to her senses. Something about the way Tilly was speaking made her feel hypnotised, and she realised what was happening just in time. “Er, yeah. It sounded great. But I don’t know anything about all that, you do know that?” A soft laugh came in reply. “Don’t worry, my beautiful Becky. Leave everything to me. Night, night, sweetheart”. With that, the call ended, a long buzzing tone indicating that Tilly had hung up.

She dropped the phone onto the bed, and walked quickly across to the bathroom on the landing. In the mirror, she could see the redness was still there. Her cheeks were still hot, and the colouring extended down below the open neck of her school shirt. Still trembling, she ran the cold tap, and splashed water onto her face, and the back of her neck. The shock of the water calmed her down, and gave her back her full senses. It had been close, very close indeed. She had almost succumbed totally, she knew that. Now she knew why Tilly had insisted on phoning her tonight. She was going to have to try very hard not to keep thinking about all the things she had said.

Back in her room, she jumped to see Charity sitting at the end of the bed. The girl had a grim expression, and was shaking her head.

“You have to be more careful, Rebecca. Keep alert, or it will be the worse for you”.

Kingdom Of The Little People

On Friday, I was sent a link by my close friend, Antony. Some of you will know that he used to work with me before I retired, and he is also an excellent photographer. He took the photo on my ‘About’ page, and many of the close-ups of Ollie that I have featured.

The You Tube film he sent me lasts only 17 minutes, and I urge you all to take time to watch this very affecting documentary.

The Kingdom Of The Little People is a theme park in mainland China. All the entertainers who perform there, and the staff who work there, are short people. Some have dwarfism, and others stunted developmental growth. Not one of them is any taller than four feet tall. They all live together at the Kingdom’, and perform shows for tourists to earn a living. They earn a good salary, about the same as an IT professional in the local region around Kunming.

The theme park opened in 2009, and is owned by a wealthy entrepreneur. The shows performed include dancing and singing, as well as scenes from traditional fairy tales, and Chinese folklore.

The whole concept of the park has been attacked and vilified by many western newspapers, as well as organisations like The Little People Of America, and Handicap International. It has been compared to a ‘human zoo’, and accused of exploiting little people, of and exposing them to ridicule. The British actor, Warwick Davis, who was born with a rare form of dwarfism, has called for the theme park to be closed down. He is well-know for his acting roles, including parts in ‘Willow’, ‘Star Wars’, and ‘Harry Potter’.

But if you watch the film, you may feel, as I did, that the opposite is true. In a country with no opportunity for such people, and where they are often publicly mocked in villages and big cities alike, this park has become a refuge, even an oasis for them. They live with people like themselves, and get well-paid to entertain the visitors. Their accommodation may seem basic and cramped by western standards, but they have most modern conveniences, form loving relationships, and enjoy sport and the usual recreational activities. Most of all, they have confidence, companionship, and a sense of self-worth that they lacked before going to work at ‘The Kingdom’.

I loved this film, and it really got to me. I watched it again before posting this, and didn’t change my mind.

Moving Day: Part Twenty-Two

This is the twenty-second part of a fiction serial, in 1058 words.

The next day at school, Becky was brimming with renewed confidence. The session at the tree had given her a new outlook on life, and all her previous worries about the new school had faded away overnight. By lunchtime, the weather had improved, and she went to sit on a wall outside to eat her sandwich. Before she could bite into it, Tilly appeared. She sat down on the wall next to her, smelling of perfume and clean clothes. As she crossed her legs, Becky heard the swish of nylon from her expensive sheer tights. The older girl edged closer, until their bodies were touching. Despite what she knew about Tilly, Becky couldn’t help but admit to herself that she was definitely attracted to her.

Lowering the sandwich, Becky looked up at her, raising her eyebrows. She wanted it to seem that she had not forgotten that she had been snubbing her for days. Tilly tossed her head to move her perfect hair from out of her face, and licked her pouting lips. “I was thinking, Becky. How would you like if it I came over to your place at the weekend? If the weather stays like this, we could go for a swim in the river. I’ve just got an amazing new one-piece swimsuit, or if nobody else is around, we could just go skinny-dipping”. She looked down at Becky with a wide smile, her eyelashes fluttering slowly, heavy with mascara. Leaning further in, so that Becky could smell her sweet spearmint breath, she added, “I could stop over the night too, if you would like that. We could have a nice sleepover, a pyjama party sort-of thing. Though I don’t wear any pyjamas, I should warn you”.

Becky felt like a cobra in a basket, being charmed by an expert flute-player. She had to confess that Tilly was very good at this sort of thing. But the blatant sexuality of her words made her blush. That was something she wasn’t used to at her age; a girlish crush was one thing, but what Tilly was implying was something else altogether. Keeping her cool, and not wanting to give away what she knew already, Becky did her best to sound excited and impressed. She responded to the older girl’s attentions in the way she was sure was expected of her. “Oh wow! Really? Go swimming and hang out, and you would sleep over too? That would be great, Tilly. I have been so lonely since we moved here”. Tilly seemed to be convinced, and had taken the bait. She lightly placed an arm around Becky, and put her full lips right against the younger girl’s ear. “Well you won’t be lonely anymore, I guarantee that”. Then she stood up, and started to walk away. Without turning, she called back. “Shall we say Saturday, around midday?” She didn’t wait for a reply.

Biting into the sandwich, Becky watched as Tilly walked in the direction of the playing field. By the corner of the netball cage, she stopped and pulled a phone out of her bag. She had a brief conversation, smiling all the time. That far away, Becky couldn’t hear what was being said, but it was a safe bet that she was either ringing her father, or speaking to Cathy. She had only been at school for less than four hours, and the plan had already been discussed.

The wheels were in motion.

When she went to get the bus home that night, Tilly was there too. All smiles, and pulling Becky to the seats at the back. She sat close, whispering about how much fun they would have at the weekend, taking every opportunity to touch Becky’s leg, or push herself softly against the younger girl. Now she could see through all this, Becky enjoyed the charade. Let her carry on with her idea of seduction and flirting, she thought. I know her real character now, and I will just play along until the right time. But part of the impressionable young girl still inside her did enjoy the attention, and the convincing show of affection. She had to really struggle not to surrender to that.

When they got to the village, Becky stayed on the bus until the others were off. She guessed Bridie would have something to say, and she was right. Turning in her seat, Bridie shook her head. “I thought I had warned you about Tilly, girly. You mustn’t let yourself get taken in by her. She may look wonderful, but she’s rotten inside. Don’t believe anything she says, and most of all don’t let yourself get involved with her. I promise you will regret it”. Becky didn’t trust Bridie anymore than anyone else around the village. And she wanted her to know it, and to stop interfering. She walked to the side door, and then leaned forward, speaking quietly. “From what I have heard, you didn’t take your own advice, Bridie. Just because you can’t have her anymore, you want to poison her for anyone else. Just stay out of my business, and don’t come to my house again”.

Bridie’s face turned bright red, and she sat back heavily into her seat. She would like to have said something, but decided to shut up. This new girl knew her secret already, and it looked like she would never escape the Vospers.

In the house, Mum was standing in the hallway as she walked in. Her expression was serious. “I did as you asked, love. I phoned Reginald Vosper, and he said he will start things moving. I expect you will be approached by Tilly soon”. Becky looked at her Mum for some time, trying to read either truth or deceit in her face. “I have already. Tilly couldn’t wait, and spoke to me at lunchtime. She’s coming for the weekend, so she said. A sleepover, then swimming. Or swimming then a sleepover. She didn’t make that clear”. Her tone was deliberately sarcastic, but Mum hadn’t noticed. “I can make myself scarce, if you want to be alone with her, Becks. Leave you some food, and think of a reason not to be around. Whatever you think best”.

Becky started straight into her Mum’s eyes, her gaze was intense.

“Oh no, Mum. You have to be here”.

A funny short film: The Gunfighter

Thanks to my long-time blogging friend, David Miller, I got to see this excellent short film yesterday. A witty satire on ‘narrated’ westerns, it gave me a much-needed chuckle, on a day of dark skies, and heavy rain.

David resides in Nevada, USA. He blogs on WordPress.
https://millerswindmill.wordpress.com/about/
He is also a published writer, a song lyricist, and an accomplished compiler of limericks.

Moving Day: Part Twenty-One

This is the twenty-first part of a fiction serial, in 1021 words.

When Becky opened her bedroom door the next morning, Cathy was already awake, and sitting up in bed. Her daughter’s tone was flat, more like a statement than conversation. “You have to ring the school Mum. Tell them I am ill or something. I won’t be going in today”. Before she could reply, Becky had closed the door, and was walking downstairs. Cathy picked up her mobile and rang as requested, making up something about a high temperature. No point arguing about it. Becky had changed, and she had to admit to being a little afraid of her now.

When she got to the willow tree, Charity was waiting for her.

“Don’t forget what I told you, Rebecca. For the tree to show the future, you sit facing the other way. Put both arms around the trunk, and your head against the bark”. Becky nodded, her mouth a little dry with apprehension. Kneeling against the tree, she wrapped her arms around it and lowered her head until her forehead was pressing hard against it. With her eyes closed, she spoke out loud. “Show me my future, and all my secrets”.

It was different than before, much scarier. She experienced the strange feeling of melting into the wood, as if she had become part of the living tree. Fighting to overcome the desire to pull away and break the bond, she allowed it to happen, ignoring the icy cold that seeped into every part of her body. She could sense the branches as extensions of her fingers, and imagined the leaves pulsing as they took nutrition into their veins. It was as if the tree was feeding on her energy, like she was being sucked dry.

The rush of images made her catch her breath. She saw things she expected to see, and many things she wished she had never seen. She discovered secrets about herself, and saw herself in the future, older. First in her twenties, and then with grey hair. As the vision slowed gradually, she could see something very clearly. Something about Mum. Her and her Mum.

Breaking the connection, and rocking back on her knees, Becky blacked out, unconscious under the branches.

A long time passed before she woke up. Crawling out from under the canopy seeking escape from the bitter cold there, it was obvious that Charity had gone. The tree had showed her future, and confirmed some of her worst fears too. But one truth was comforting. She would get old. That must surely mean she would not die in the river, by the hand of Tilly. But could she trust the tree? Charity had said she could, but she still wasn’t sure she trusted her. She did believe her, but trust was a long way from that.

As she walked back to the house, Becky felt stronger, wiser, more mature. She could see how you could become addicted to asking the tree. It offered solutions, and also gave you back some of the power it had taken from so many people over the centuries. Mum’s car was gone, so she went up to her room, and did some research on the old laptop. She needed to know more about willow trees. Wikipedia gave some interesting facts, and she copied them down in her notebook.

‘In China, some people carry willow branches with them on the day of their Tomb Sweeping or Qingming Festival. Willow branches are also put up on gates and/or front doors, which they believe help ward off the evil spirits that wander on Qingming. Legend states that on Qingming Festival, the ruler of the underworld allows the spirits of the dead to return to earth. Since their presence may not always be welcome, willow branches keep them away. In traditional pictures of the Goddess of Mercy Guanyin, she is often shown seated on a rock with a willow branch in a vase of water at her side. The Goddess employs this mysterious water and the branch for putting demons to flight. Taoist witches also use a small carving made from willow wood for communicating with the spirits of the dead. The image is sent to the nether world, where the disembodied spirit is deemed to enter it, and give the desired information to surviving relatives on its return.’

‘In Japanese tradition, the willow is associated with ghosts. It is popularly supposed that a ghost will appear where a willow grows. Willow trees are also quite prevalent in folklore and myths’.

‘In English folklore, a willow tree is believed to be quite sinister, capable of uprooting itself and stalking travellers.’

‘Hans Christian Andersen wrote a story called Under the Willow Tree in which children ask questions of a tree they call ‘willow-father’, paired with another entity called ‘elder-mother’.’

‘In Central Europe a “hollow willow” is a common figure of speech, alluding to a person one can confide secrets in.’

‘”Green Willow” is a Japanese ghost story in which a young samurai falls in love with a woman called Green Willow who has a close spiritual connection with a willow tree. “The Willow Wife” is another, not dissimilar tale. “Wisdom of the Willow Tree” is an Osage Nation story in which a young man seeks answers from a willow tree, addressing the tree in conversation as ‘Grandfather’.’

Reading back over her notes, Becky gave a low whistle. From Japan and China to North America; in England, Denmark, and many other European countries, the willow trees were associated with ghosts, knowledge, wisdom, legends, and fables. Maybe Charity was right all along. Perhaps she could be trusted after all.

When her Mum got home, Becky was waiting for her in the living room. “I want you to arrange whatever it is Mr Vosper has planned, Mum. Stop trying to find a way around it, and let’s just see what happens. I will be going back to school tomorrow, one day off was enough for what I needed to do”.

Cathy watched her walk up the stairs, and a chill passed through her, reminding her of the old saying.

“Someone is walking over your grave”.