Exhausted by my brother’s wedding, I only wanted to get home as expeditiously as the train would allow.
“Would you mind if I joined you?”
What? I looked at what might be another incident to be added to the story of the wedding which, from the fear during it Jimmy might not prove interesting—at his own wedding too!—I’d already written in life. What I was then writing would be the journey from, to balance the journey to. That epilogue was a grinning woman in a wheelchair expecting my agreement she should seat herself opposite. “Haven’t you booked?” I looked away to the helper who nodded, so what was she asking me for? Oh, I realized, she’s being phatically polite. Oh no she wasn’t, because she was awaiting my leave which I refused to give, interested in how without it she’d proceed.
“We’ll be travel buddies!” she ended the hovering in a way compatible with her agenda.
What! What sort of language was that for a grown woman to be using? Was this a punishment my man was visiting upon me to end his story by means of a presumptuous female who used such language in order to reconcile me more readily to the loss of my brother to a nice woman by showing it could’ve been a whole lot worse? Nah, Jimmy wouldn’t have looked twice at a cripple. How could she fill his remit of a fuckee travel buddy?
She began dragging herself into position while the attendant steadied the wheelchair; and I could not but feel it was I who was being dragged into position by the pair of them but primarily by my man since she had, of course, booked and he’d make sure she booked across from me. This was one of his set-ups for the story. I was less, however, than agog, suspecting him of having a smile playing about his lips at the predicament he’d put me in, trapped for four hours at best—unless she got out earlier! “Is there a buffet, a bar?” I addressed the helpful attendant. For some fucking reason there was neither. I was trapped like a trap in a trap, as Dorothy Parker once said, to her boyfriend, Farethee Well, but that’s America for you.
Her agility from arm strength as she manoeuvred her rotund, not to say fat, shape came as no surprise to me. A quondam member of the writing group (that I went to, dear reader, is implied) had atrophied legs from an accident and wheeled himself about like nobody’s business. He’d’ve scorned help. She gave a little whoop, at which my heart sank, on succeeding at the minor task of seating herself she’d be well-practised at. Her co-conspirator was thanked as he stowed her chair away. And then she turned her full attention on me, the evil bitch.
What? I was disoriented by dread and that it was my sister-in-law’s name. Not the recently acquired. Another brother’s. (If this was, as seemed likely, part of the story, I didn’t want to confuse the reader.)
“I’m Wendy. Nice to meet you.”
“Is it?” slipped out, shortly followed by “Why?” I was genuinely perplexed.
She wasn’t sure what to say. “It’s nice to meet you ...because I think you’re nice and it’ll be nice to talk to you.”
“Ah, you thought I looked amenable.” I opened my mouth, about to ask was she conscious of having been compelled to come this journey this day at this time, of any difference to her usual feeling, that would indicate to me she was being possessed by my man, but I realised she’d be unconscious of it.
“You were about to say something.”
“Was it that you wanted to ask me something?” she sounded insinuatingly coy as if she could read my mind.
“Yes, but you wouldn’t know the answer.”
“Were you conscious of being made to take this trip on this day by this train that’s different to how you’d usually take it?”
There was a hiatus. “That’s not what I thought you’d ask.”
“But were you?”
“That’s what I thought.” He doesn’t make it easy. “What did you think I wanted to ask?”
“What people always want to know.”
“But not this time.”
She’d lost the place in her script. I’m nothing if not kind, “What do other people ask?”
“About the wheelchair. All wheelchairs have a story. Mine is no different.”
“Maybe the reason I didn’t ask. ‘I’m sat on by someone without the use of legs or by cats, wheeled about sometimes by people who do have the use of legs, my wheels pissed on by dogs and am sometimes pushed over cliffs with or without an occupant.’ There’ll be some variation.”
“I meant how I was...”
She wanted to say ‘crippled’. It is more natural, and exact.
You always were. “People do want to know. Usually I do the interrogation on the second meeting. You want to tell, at a first.” I was interested why, conjecturing her pride clutched at whatever distinction was available to her. She couldn’t take her eyes off me, the snake.
“I was an only child, in a small town.”
“You wouldn’t have heard of it. I was five when my best friend, Angie, died of a mysterious illness.”
“God works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.”
“Yes! Father explained God had taken Angie to heaven to play the violin for Him.”
“God’s ways no mystery to your father.”
“No. Not to Angie’s aunt either. Smiling through her tears, she told the congregation Angie was in the arms of the Lord, playing in his orchestra.”
All in the all-encompassing arms of the Lord.
“They meant well.”
“Did they? Angie’s aunt wasn’t thinking of you.”
“She scared me. I didn’t want to go to heaven. I had just started recorder lessons and my teacher said I was very good, I had real promise.”
“And you wanted to stay on earth till you’d fulfilled that promise.”
“God might’ve wanted me because I was good. I was terrified. I lay awake at night waiting for his hand to reach down, grab and deposit me in heaven. Next spring I started school.”
In Spring? At six? “Where were you? Where is this town? It’s not England.”
“South Africa. It doesn’t matter where I was.”
“I was assuming English.”
“I am. We lived on the edge of town and I could walk through town to school but that took longer than following the edge of a dyke round the back of the houses.”
“How? The school’d be in town,” having recovered, I was taking the offensive, looking for holes to put my finger on if not in. “Following a dyke round the back would take longer.”
“It didn’t. And that’s where I found the answer to my fear.”
A clatter at the far end of the carriage gratefully diverted my attention onto a not bad-looking young man enthusiastically promoting his wares to a captive audience in need of refreshment, or distraction.
Wendy leant toward to recapture my attention, holding my unavoidably reciprocating glance melodramatically for several embarrassing seconds before going on, “The dyke was about three metres deep with steep sides. Halfway to school there was a particularly steep deep part.”
“Four metres high.”
“A dry wall had been built along the edge of this section to keep people away.”
“That’s ...implausible. It’s a high dyke. If that doesn’t keep people off, building a dry-stane dyke alongside it won’t.”
“The wall was only two feet high.”
“It’d make more sense building the dyke to keep people off the wall!”
“I found I could climb onto it easily.”
“As I stood there for the first time, I knew this was God’s chance to take me.”
I gaped, “You want me to believe you’ve never walked this two foot wall before and your walking it now is a gauntlet to God! You’re a sure-footed six-year-old with impeccable sense of balance quite unafraid of heights. There’s a dyke there. Climb that for god’s sake!”
“I was standing there for the first time. I did know this was God’s chance to take me. I walked slowly, picking my way along the uneven wall and when I reached the end a few minutes later I jumped down in a surge of joy; I knew God wasn’t coming for me that day. I ran all the way to school. I walked that wall every day, on weekends too. My confidence grew and I was running along the wall. I was happy again. God didn’t want me.”
And nor did I. “I’ll have a large glass of red, please,” to dissolve the tiredness. Nothing could hold in suspension the disbelief.
“Sorry, sir. I’ve no wine.”
“Miniature then. Two. Of any kind, whisky preferably.”
He shook his sorry head.
“But you’ve no buffet car!”
“They forgot to couple it.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“A delivery was ordered. It wasn’t taken on board. I forgot.”
“I’ll have a tea, with milk, sugar, in a cup,” I thought it advisable to specify. “With a spoon. All the luxuries. And a straw!” The cup was plastic. I dallied over the sugaring, smiled at the straw he had given me and, after the spoon, stirred the tea with it, taking my time to sip and appreciate the Virgin vintage. Then I looked out the window at the flat landscape in the fading light. Home soon. I determinedly ignored Wendy.
“It took till I was ten for God to have enough of my testing him,” she had the audacity to chuckle.
Oh god! Take her now! for this is hell, nor am I out of it. “There is no God for you to test, and if there were, unlike mine, his patience is inexhaustible.”
“It had to happen eventually.”
“You were trying to exhaust my patience?”
“It was autumn, the leaves had started to fall and we had had an unusually high rainfall. I didn’t notice a pocket of soggy leaves trapped in the stones till too late. My foot slipped from under and....”
“Left or right?”
“I flew right, into the air.”
“You wouldn’t fly; you’d fall the two feet, deflected, landing the other way about on your bum and back, then head, but on rain-softened ground.”
“I hit the wall.”
“You wouldn’t hit the wall unless your right foot slid forward, unlikely on an uneven surface. You fell as I said. If improbably your foot had slipped forward you’d’ve landed on your arse on the wall.”
“I slid down into the dyke. Submerged up to my waist,...”
“In stone? You’re lying. You’re not on the dyke. You’ve fallen off a two foot high wall. You don’t have the momentum to be submerged in mud, never mind stone, even if you did fall feet first.” I was reminded of ‘Instance....’ in which I imagine myself passing through a door, my molecules coinciding exactly with the spaces between its, like two galaxies colliding, but getting stuck halfway and having to be buried with the door.
“In the ditch part of the dyke.”
England is another country; they mean things differently there.
“I managed to cling onto some roots sticking out of the bank. I lay there for almost two hours, waiting for the skies to open.”
Hopefully to drown. “Why? Pick yourself up, dust yourself down, and....”
“This was it: God was coming for me now. But he didn’t. I felt abandoned.”
Sola perduta, abbandonata.
“Why hadn’t He come to get me? Wasn’t I good enough? When they found me I was sobbing, not with the pain because there wasn’t any; I was crying because God didn’t want me.” She leant back, eyes almost closed, for some effect or other. “Believing God didn’t love me was worse than losing the use of my legs. All those years I’d been grateful He didn’t want me. He didn’t want me. Taken or not, my life was over. I had been rejected by God.” Wendy opened her eyes without looking and gave a would-be self-deprecatory chuckle. “It was a week before the pastor came to see me in hospital. I was far too unhappy to notice him entering the ward and come to my bed side. I suspect my parents put him up to it. After giving me a bar of chocolate, he tentatively and awkwardly hugged me and told me God loved me. ‘He doesn’t,’ I said, bursting into tears. I told him how I knew. The story was a little garbled but he understood.”
“I had attended Sunday school but there were gaps in my knowledge of the bible. The pastor quoted Luke 4:12, ‘And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.’ He told me we must not test God; that we must have faith, trusting in His plan for us, that when I had fallen into that ditch and broken my back God was giving me the chance to be closer to Him. He said I should never test God again,” she paused, “and I never have.”
Oh I don’t know.
She shifted her weight, reaching into a pocket and took out a piece of rock. “I took this from the wall where I fell,” she said, smiling happily with the completion of her story, “It reminds me every day that I’m here by God’s will and that He loves me.” She leaned back in the seat, slowly exhaled and closed her eyes. I looked at her, waiting to see if she’d the common politeness to talk of something other than her dump on me, but no. I was so seething with resentment you could’ve fried chips in it. According to her, our train journey was to be completed in silence. Even so I warned, “Brace yourself.”
“What?” As the train juddered to a most abrupt stop—probably leaves on the line—Wendy flew, her spin only half-completed as she hit the compartment wall, off which she stotted down, hitting the edge of our table, then the leg of the one the other side the aisle, before coming to rest on the floor, looking up at me with unseeing eyes. She wouldn’t be dead. My man has never polluted my presence with death. He is god of life after all, as of truth. She was crippled—the dead weight of her legs had added to her momentum—but I’d never know how. God is not mocked, I reflected on the glazed reflexion of carriage bedlam, and sighed, the train would be late arriving at Euston. There’s always a price to be paid for one’s art.
s story is an exercise in improving one given at a writing group, by Susan Kent.
Born a bastard at Shoreham, Sussex, I was brought up by an aunt in Scotland before my mum married after the war.
I had the highest IQ ever in Methil and was Denbeath junior school dux. (Mum pawned the silver medal.) I was top of the first year at Buckhaven High and relaxed thereafter, nevertheless becoming history dux before going onto Edinburgh where I decided against working for a first, being more interested in treating people as psychological cases. I wrote these out in a novel I posted off to Iris Murdoch whose thirteen page criticism is in the John Cairns Archive. That book gave me entry to the Glasgow literary scene and Betty Clark (Elizabeth Thoms Clark, who used the pen-name Joan Ure). Though the author of a book, CORRESPONDENCE
, which I’ve made from my archived correspondence with her and which was designed in life by my unconscious, it also stands as the magnum opus of my friend, Betty, whose own unconscious collaborated in its construction. While awaiting its publication, I’ve had a story published by Chômu Press
in Dadaoism, An Anthology
and poems by Hieroglyphic Press
in Sacrum Regnum II