By Abby Crawford
Sam waited for the lift, palms of her hands buzzing after the long push up the maze of ramps to enter the office building. She was lost in thought, scratching her forehead as the lift arrived with a ping, steel doors sliding open to reveal two colleagues, both in blue wheelchairs. She recognised one of them but couldn’t remember the name, was he from finance? IT? As she rolled herself into the metal box and pressed the button for the sixth floor she heard a yell behind her. “Please hold it!” A man’s voice, accompanied by the unfamiliar sound of running feet. It had been a few months since Sam had seen a leg-user and longer still since she had shared a lift, or even a building, with one, and she found herself jolted by the surprise. He seemed enormous and she chastised herself for staring.
The leg-user ran to a halt, panting, just as the lift doors closed behind him and was still breathing heavily as they ascended to the next floor.
“Thanks”, he laughed.
The colleague who Sam vaguely recognised was tapping incessantly on the side of his wheelchair and Sam resisted the temptation to tell him to stop. The lift slowed as it approached the third floor and just before the doors opened the man tapping on his chair leant across and pressed his fingers against the leg-user’s hip.
“Excuse me?” he smiled. “I hope you don’t mind me saying but I think it’s great, that you’re out and about. My brother is a leg-user. He’s not great at leaving the house these days but people like you, you are a real inspiration”.
The man blushed and shuffled his weight through his feet, he looked embarrassed and Sam considered intervening. She bit her lip and was grateful as the man stepped through the lift doors at the third floor. She watched as he ducked to avoid the low ceiling and disappeared, still stooping, around the corner. He had to bend over to open the door handle into the office and Sam was hit by a surprise wave of sympathy.
She was feeling embarrassed at her pang of pity when the lift approached the sixth floor and she rolled out, along the familiar wide corridors to her office. Sam had worked for the council for three years now. Her initial ambition had been quashed by multiple rejections for promotion and for now she had decided she was happy with her lot. To even have a job in the current climate was good and she was grateful, she thought as she wheeled her chair around the side of the low sweeping desk, tucked herself under and reached to turn on her computer.
Later that afternoon Sam felt the familiar fog of an incoming headache and ventured outside for a wheel. Fresh air often cleared her head and Ryan, her manager, was out yet again. She snatched her coat from the rack and was soon outside, rolling over the smooth polished concrete streets beaming in the early afternoon sun. She found her thoughts drifting back to the leg-user, his condition restricting him to walking everywhere, stooping and bending at every door, desk and table. She wondered why he was in the building as she sat at the edge of the road by the traffic lights, waiting for the green flashing chair that told her it was safe to roll across. She remembered he had exited the lift at the third floor, human resources, and decided to ask Melanie when she saw her later that evening.
The queue for the concert that night wound round the side of the building and Sam could see Melanie waving frantically as she approached. She wheeled past the waiting chairs to where Melanie sat, beer in one hand, fanning her face with a pair of tickets in the other. The sun was clinging on into the early evening and the glint from the queue of wheelchairs reflected into strange shapes on the polished concrete of the walkway. They were early, but the doors would be open soon and Sam was looking forward to catching up with her cousin – despite working in the same building their only real interaction was a snatched wave across the canteen, or a quick catch up in the lift before one of them rolled off for a meeting they were inevitably late for.
Melanie worked in human resources, some sort of talent management role Sam didn’t really understand, and she grabbed the opportunity after they had kissed hello. “Did you see that leg-user today?” she asked. “Yes,” Melanie rolled her eyes, “He’s part of the new intake programme, something to do with leg-users being underrepresented in management, that sort of thing.”
“Oh, so he’s got a management job?”
“I think so,” Melanie frowned.
Sam felt her chest sink and was annoyed at herself for feeling hard done by. There had been two years of desperation to climb the slippery management pole and despite convincing herself she was content, she couldn’t help feeling a pang of envy at this newcomer, who would probably end up being paid more than her and getting away with doing less, if Ryan was anything to go by.
Just as Melanie noticed her cousin’s expression turn melancholy the doors to the concert opened and she felt a bump on the back of her chair as the man behind them nudged her into action. “Alright, alright,” she removed her brake and rolled slowly forward with the line.
They took their bays near the stage and Sam’s stomach was feeling warm with beer when she glimpsed a figure to her left. She turned to see a familiar body shuffling down the aisle, ducking under the low beams and flanked by two people in red wheelchairs. She watched him take a seat in the leg-user zone by the side of the stage, it was strange to see him lower himself into a chair without wheels, and she nudged Melanie. “It’s him,” she pointed, but just as she did the man looked across and saw her, pointing and animated, and gave her a small wave. “Great”, Sam exhaled, turning back to face the stage. She was unsure whether her cheeks were burning from embarrassment or the beer, but she was soon interrupted by Andi and the Banshaws rolling their famous golden chairs onto stage and the simultaneous yell of excitement from the crowd.
The man drifted out of view and out of Sam’s thoughts as the band started up, thumping with percussion and their familiar melodies. During the second song she was temporarily distracted by the leg-user dancing, standing up and towering over everyone else, moving his hips and legs in a way she’d never seen before. How did he manage? Didn’t it hurt? She found herself staring and Melanie tugged her arm, handing her another beer and pointing back at the stage.
At the final encore they joined the sitting ovation before wheeling off to the exit by the end of the aisle. The building was an old Victorian concert hall, and Sam admired its swooping ramps and ornate low ceilings as they rolled, undulating with the swell of wheelchairs heading for the same door. As they slid over the exit ramp and out into the street Sam reached for her jacket on the back of her chair. The temperature had plummeted in that unpredictable spring-like way and she had a bus journey to endure before she’d be back in her bungalow. Still warm with beer she kissed Melanie goodbye and found her eyes reaching for a last glance of the leg-user, though the reason eluded her.
Sam decided to wheel to work the next morning, taking the wheelchair road rather than the path and as she joined the lane of commuters she noticed how uniformly tired everyone seemed, sitting slumped in their chairs, pushing monotonous wheels of metal and rubber over the colour coded concrete zones alongside the road. At the traffic lights near her building a woman dashed between the queue of chairs, another leg-user, dodging the stream of wheels, barely fitting on the pavement between the crowd of seated commuters. As she reached the office it struck Sam that it wasn’t constructed particularly well for leg-users, and she was surprised that this was the first time she’d noticed it. She felt like she was seeing the building for the first time – low ceilings, wide sweeping ramps, wheel pumping stations at the end of every corridor, a canteen with its waist-height counter and bottom shelf access to the clip-on lunch trays. She thought again of the leg-user from the concert, stooping under doorways and leaning down to open handles, and the wave of sympathy from the day before slammed back into her chest with a thud.
Her day went slowly, punctuated by the usual requests from Ryan but also a weight in her stomach that pulsated every time she thought of the leg-user. She’d heard of people like him having to wait for housing, heard the horror stories of long lists of leg-users desperate for rare high-ceilinged bungalows, a supply that never seemed to meet demand. She’d heard of people being turned away from jobs for not ‘fitting in’, claiming endless benefit payments for lack of employment. She was wondering whether she might see him again as she left the office that afternoon and rolled to the bus stop across the road.
When she reached it she felt an arm brush the back of her hair, far too high to be a wheelchair user and the unfamiliar feeling sent her spinning her chair around. “Are you following me?” He laughed. It was him.
“No, just waiting for a bus, sorry”
“I saw you at the concert last night, pointing at me”
Sam sniffed and pulled her jacket around her.
“I’m sorry. It wasn’t what it looked like, I was there with my cousin and she works in the council, well I do too, I saw you in the lift yesterday,” she stumbled.
“In the lift at the concert?”
“No at the council.”
The silence filled the empty bus stop and she was relieved when the number 24 appeared around the corner.
“Your bus?” he asked
“Yes, you?” she replied, her relief snatched away by the possibility of having to share a journey home with the man who had occupied her thoughts too much already.
“Great,” she mumbled, “need a hand getting on?”
“No I should be alright.”
The bus came to a stop and the ramps slid out from underneath the door. Sam wheeled on board into a bay and was about to swallow her pettiness and introduce herself to the leg-user when she heard a commotion behind her.
“There’s no free standing bay, sorry pal” the bus driver seemed embarrassed.
“I can just squeeze in there though, look” the man was pointing at the space between the ramp to the upper deck and the luggage rack. Another leg-user was awkwardly leaning in the only standing bay, sandwiched between the back of Sam’s chair and the emergency exit window.
“I’ve told you mate, I’m sorry. There’s another 24 due in 15 minutes.” He went to close the door but the leg-user refused to move. He looked across at Sam just as two other passengers rolled forward, annoyed at having to wait and becoming increasingly incensed at the man’s refusal to get off the bus.
“You heard what he said,” a woman in a pale green wheelchair lurched towards the leg-user. His demeanour suddenly shifted and he slumped his shoulders, turned down the ramp and headed back onto the pavement outside. As the bus rolled away Sam glimpsed his face through the window and wondered why she was like this, always investing in other people’s problems. She turned away and counted the stops til home.