I was sixteen I was super fit, confident and set to conquer the World. I had been offered a try-out for the England basket ball team, which was due just about six months later, to represent my country at the Paralympics in Los Angeles. So okay I have one problem I use a wheelchair.
In preparation I went on an Outward Bound course. You know one of those things where you are supposed to tramp through woods, climb trees and swing on ropes? Well in a chair it was a bit different. The woods weren’t quite so woody and the swinging from ropes was purely down to arm power, but there were lots of fresh faced volunteers to help, it was okay.
I met a girl called Sarah, what my mates called a walkie talkie, on account of the fact that she could walk and talk fine – she wasn’t disabled. Anyhow, we got close, a bit of romance: hand holding, furtive glances, embarrassed smiles with red faces, it’s a quite a common thing when you are sixteen apparently.
Man was I happy!
Then two days before we had to go home reality came along and smacked me upside the head. It was a lovely day, but cold because it was at the end of summer. The weak dappled sun shone through the leaves.
My friends, Sarah, some of the volunteers and myself had spent most of the afternoon lounging about in a massive cargo net strung like a hammock some fifteen feet off the ground supported by the branches of two oak trees that stood right in the middle of the woods.
We laughed and joked, shared contraband cigarettes, when teachers weren’t looking … and Sarah and I were teased and taunted mercilessly in the manner that teenagers do every time we tried to hold hands in secret. The afternoon was drawing in. The others decided to start making their way back to what was laughingly called our accommodation, a group of huts, outside toilet and shower block at the edge of the woods. Sarah and I hung back a little from the rest of the group until they were out of sight and earshot.
We craved some time together, alone. Mates are okay but sometimes ….
… We followed slowly after a time, but it was a struggle on our own.
The narrow track that was just barely wide enough for my wheelchair, ran along parallel with a bubbling stream its waters swelled with recent rain. I know Sarah was doing her best.
Smack upside my head.
Mud, nettles freezing water.
Can’t move. Can’t see. Can’t breath!
The panic though brief was real. It was mad, I couldn’t figure it out. I was stuck, I couldn’t move. My arms, which could lift twice my body weight with ease just that afternoon, were useless; I couldn’t find anything to grip on to. My eyes eventually began to focus and I could see the bubbles dancing towards the surface, those precious bubbles of air.
No, oh no.
I struggled with renewed purpose. Come on! Come on damned cripple.
A gentle hand cupped the back of my head and lifted my face just clear of the water. A familiar voice shaking with cold and worry questioned me with my name.
“Are you okay?”
She pressed her face to mine. Warm salty tears mingled with the water drops on my cold gasping lips. I couldn’t speak.
“I can hear the others”
A lumbering teenager, clearly still not used to his growing frame, moved into my field of vision on the bank.
“Help us!” Sarah shouted. This was not a request.
“What about my new shoes?”
“**** your new shoes just help”
I looked at the offending new shoes. Huh, brown leather, well, more beige actually. That kind of beige that your Gran used to wear. And no not even leather. Plastic!
I have never had such clarity of thought again.
In that briefest of moments I realized that the world is made up of only two kinds of people: Those who would risk there very lives for you if need be and others who would just stand on the bank and worry about their shoes.
I also appreciate how fortunate it was that my life that day was in the hands of someone like Sarah because it was clear to me then that I was no longer invincible and that chances were I would have to depend on people
for the rest of my life with beige plastic shoes.
I was trapped under the weight of my wheelchair. The ‘raging torrent’ was only two feet deep, but trapped on my back as I was, the depth was enough. Sarah held my head above the water until my wheelchair was hauled
up the bank and righted.
I was man handled up the steep bank by the rest of the group, but not the guy with the beige shoes, and rushed immediately to the shower block where both I and my wheelchair shared a warm shower.
Shock took over the rest of the week. I didn’t see Sarah till the next day and when I did she looked scared, her eyes said go away. To my deep regret to this day I did. I stayed well away from everyone.
I was angry with myself for my own frailty, for my loss of invincibility. I looked inwards for the confidence that was always there to draw on that never let me down. But it wasn’t there. It wasn’t anywhere. I took to spending time on my own, just trying to figure it out.
Sarah? We never spoke again. A friend got her number, but when I tried it the woman at the other end said she couldn’t help me. Bet her shoes were beige.
I never got to Los Angeles after all, but that’s another story.