Categories
Perito Prize Winners

The Spirit Can’t Be Confined – A Musical Reading by Margarita Meklina & Maja Elliot

A Musical Reading of the Short Story ‘The Spirit Can’t Be Confined’ By The Author Margarita Meklina

Margarita Meklina, awarded second place in the Perito Prize 2019, has been kind enough to produce and perform in a reading of her short story ‘The Spirit Can’t Be Confined’. This isn’t just any old reading though because alongside story writing Margarita also has a talent for music so she has got together with long time collaborator Maja Elliot to read her story with musical accompaniment.

The music and Maja’s singing really add something magical and very different to the experience. It draws you even deeper into the story and really sets the scene, smells and the experience of living as a disabled person in the Soviet Union.

You can find Margarita’s performance at the usual podcast spot –  and if you would like to find out more about Maja’s work then head over to her site here.

 

 

Categories
Perito Prize Winners

INTERVIEW WITH ABBY CRAWFORD, WINNER OF THE PERITO PRIZE 2019: – PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

In this transcript we visit the podcast interview with the winner of the 2019 Perito Prize, and author of the short story ‘Leg User’, Abby Crawford. Abby’s story can be found on the Perito website @ https://weareperito.com/perito-prize/winners or click here.

Perito: Welcome to the Perito Podcast – Our World. Without Boundaries. A Podcast all about creating an inclusive and accessible world for everyone, everywhere. In this episode we are pleased to be joined by Abby Crawford, the winner of the Perito Prize 2019: For Short Stories all about inclusivity and accessibility. Abby wrote the short story “Leg User” which can be found in the journal section of the Perito website and is a well-rounded tale chock-full of potent messages about the world, topped with a hint of dark humour.

(0m.24s) Hi Abby, and a very warm welcome to the Podcast and well what a great story.  What’s it all about?

 

AC: Thanks. The story “Leg User” is essentially imagining a world where everything is in reverse so a world that is set up purely for people who use wheelchairs. So lots of nice smooth streets, steps don’t really exist, buildings have low ceilings, everything is represented by wheelchairs not people who are able to walk around freely so the main character in this story is herself in a wheelchair and she comes across someone who isn’t in a wheelchair whose the leg user which is the title of the story. It’s a story that’s not necessarily that dramatic in terms of its plot but just follows our wheelchair user main character through her life and her experience interacting with this leg user who experiences the world a little bit differently then she does.

 

Perito:  (01m.20s) Sounds really innovative, what made you enter the prize for this and how did you find out about it in the first place?

 

AC: A few months ago I completed a creative writing course. I did an Introduction To Creative Writing at City Lit which is in London where I am based. At the end of that course there was quite a lot of inspiration in the room and the teacher advised us to take a look at some short stories and competitions that were out there and so I decided that I was gonna try and use my spare time to do some things kind of useful with it. Which is why I started writing some short stories and this is an area that I’m particularly interested in anyway, in terms of accessibility and equality.

When I saw the theme for this prize which was on a general website that was advertising short story competitions it just seemed to fit really well with kind of my own passions and my own interest and then the commitment that I’d made to start writing some short stories.

 

Perito:  (02m.19s) So was the access and inclusivity thing the key inspiration for this about making you starting to write it in the first place?

 

AC: Yeah, yeah absolutely. I was drawn into the theme because I thought it provided quite a good opportunity to see the world through a different lens and to imagine what it would be like if it was accessible for the people who its  usually inaccessible for if that makes sense. That was the  main inspiration.

 

Perito: (2m.35s) The judges across the board were very impressed with that. As you started the story it wasn’t immediately clear how it was going to pan out and then as soon as you start hitting with the key the topic there, it made me laugh because I saw very clearly where you were going with it and I hesitate to use the topsy turvy because we’re not really turning this upside down but this is actually such a neat way of packaging up a very complicated topic. Did you find it difficult to write to accessibility because of the complexity of the topic, the language that is sometimes used and I suppose the confusion out there when people see a wheelchair user or someone with an impairment and have a bias or approach that they take?

 

AC:  I think once I started writing the story and I knew where I was going with it, it was actually relatively easy because like you say it is a bit of a topsy turvy way of looking at things and its literally just thinking of the opposite of everything that I know so I thought of all the things that we’re able to do just on a daily basis. I’m not a wheelchair user but I have a family friend, an older family friend, who does use a wheelchair and who I grew up with knowing in my life and seeing her experience of just not necessarily being able to do the day to day things that I was able to do.

Things like change a lightbulb for example, or get on a train without assistance, or go to the toilet in a café and it really made me realise that you can only be as independent as the world lets you be and actually the barriers and the challenges around that possibility, they are made by us. They are the infrastructure that we put in place there, the paths we build and the office spaces that we create to work in. So it was quite difficult at first but once I started getting use to the thought of it I just realised how much of the world is set up for people that can just walk around it with ease. It was actually quite fun to write from that perspective, in terms of turning that on its head and, just like you say, being quite topsy-turvy with it.

 

Perito: (4m 33s)  I’m just under 6’6” and I could relate to the male character in this because he’s struggling in a world which is you are meant to be shorter. I find it difficult to, sometimes, exist in the world we’ve got as well but in the other way. When he was cramped up on the bus and the idea of having these bungalows as the staple accommodation. He’s looking for this high roof bungalow. It was excellent and I could directly relate to that.

Did all these things come to you just as you were writing or kind of spontaneous creativity that gave you ideas or do you ever have conversations about this at work or with other people?

 

AC:  My work is directly linked to this topic. I’m an Equality Manager at the London Fire Brigade so some of my work is definitely around accessibility and I’m definitely inspired by that every day, in terms of the people that I meet and learning about the kind of barriers and the challenges that people face.

I had this idea for a while, I actually saw a video quite a while ago now which was a short film. It was a French film so it had subtitles and it imagined the world if it was flipped from a gender perspective. Basically, imagined men as women, so the sign to the cross the road was a flashing green woman rather than a man for example, all the builders were women, they would, you know, wolf whistle at the men.

It was the men that you know were pushing the prams and dropping the kids off at nurseries predominantly staffed by mean and it really stuck in my head and it’s something that I thought about for quite a while, so when I was thinking about this theme and when I saw the competition, that’s when the penny started to drop and I thought, you know, I found that short video that I saw really inspiring and I thought it would be really interesting to try and do that from a different perspective. By focussing on accessibility for disabled people and not just on gender.  The thought was there and has been there for quite for a while but then I started to develop it as I was writing the story.

 

Perito: 6m.27s) It is quite a serious topic but you’ve definitely brought out quite a lot of humour in the way you do it. It’s such a mundane day to day experience for this lady. it’s humorous, the way you finish it’s humorous. Is being funny a natural talent for you or how did you build the humour in?

 

AC: The French film actually wasn’t funny. It did have a bit of a darker side to it, so it actually examined women’s experiences of assault for example, there was quite a difficult to watch scene to watch in it where a man was actually assaulted by a woman within an alleyway and I actually want to steer away from that in the story.

I think, a lot of the headlines and the kind of reports and things that we see about disabled people’s experiences can be really quite negative and I wanted to stay away from doing something quite dramatic or something quite negative about a disabled person in a wheelchair whose having a really negative experience.  I wanted to just explore that kind of mundane day to day – kind of what’s it like just to get out of bed, go to work, go to a concert and explore those day to day experiences.  In terms of the humour I probably credit that family friend that I mentioned earlier. She’s been in a wheelchair since she was 14, she contracted Polio when she was a child, and she’s been a really longstanding friend of me and my mum’s and she always approached her accessibility issues that she faced with humour, I remember being on a train with her once where we got someone to assist her onto the train and the train guard was pushing her down the aisle of the train and he kept shouting “there’s a wheelchair coming through, please mind out, there’s a wheelchair coming through” and my mum’s friend kind of making a real joke of it and saying “oh gosh, they must have forgotten me it’s just the chair that’s coming through” down the aisle.

 

 

So she’s definitely been an inspiration for that, and it was actually her that had the experience of someone saying to her “oh my brother’s in a wheelchair, you know, it’s really great that you’re out and about” and that’s where I got the flip story and the kind of opening of the story which is when someone taps the leg user and says “oh my brother’s a leg user, you know, you’re a real inspiration” because I remember my mum’s friend just kind of giving a massive eye roll and you know, I understand where you’re coming from but come on you know I don’t need pity I’m just trying to go about my day to day business and that’s, yeah that’s where that came from.

 

Perito: (8m 37s)  Did you feel like you grew your own understanding as you wrote it or was it more of a case of you just, sat down for half an hour and you popped a couple of drafts out or was it more that you developed the story as you changed your concepts and ideas?

 

AC: Oh, I definitely grew as I did it. The more I wrote and the more I edited, the more kind of just tiny nuances of things I realised are set up for people can walk around. The example of when she crosses the road and it’s a green flashing chair that tells her that she can cross, the kind of concept of having wheelchair lanes on pavements much like we, we expect a pavement to be a space that people walk on and that’s kind of what its broadly thought of and so all these things, all these small nuance things came as I was writing it and I had to try to imagine, for example, what an office building what that would look like. That it would have, perhaps, wheel pumps at the end of the corridors and that the canteen shelving would all knee height for someone who was walking.  So yeah, it definitely came to me the more I wrote into the story, the more I started to understand.

 

Perito: (9m 36s) What was most valuable about going through this process do you think. They’ll be other people who will want to follow in your footsteps, who will be listening to this hopefully for many years to come?

 

AC:  Most valuable for me, I think, was the opportunity to use the story to reflect on something that I’m passionate about on a general level, but actually to get a little more in depth. It’s rare that you get an opportunity to just stop and step back and look at the world and try and imagine it from a different point of view and start to understand other people’s experiences. Because my day job is to work with diversity and inclusion related issues it seemed like it’s a kind of my professional life, and I’m definitely interested in the topics that I cover but this was actually a nice opportunity to just get really stuck into it quite personally and to really attach my personality through writing about a character and inventing a person. That was a really nice way to do it, so I found that was really valuable.

 

Perito: (10m.38s) Right at the end without spoiling to anyone who hasn’t read it yet, the lead character has a moment I think we’ve seen on movies and TV’s many times where she has a, essentially a shrug of the shoulders moment. It came across as, not inhuman, but it’s just almost a matter of fact wasn’t it and it was a lovely way to finish the story in that it culminated the current opinion that a lot of people have, just in that moment. ‘Well, you know what it’s not my problem, I’m not going to worry about it, what’s for dinner’.

What led you that write that conclusion or what kind of process did you go through as you wrote that final line? Did you have extra lines and deleted it to just that? What was your thinking behind that final sentence?

 

AC:  I think that was definitely the angle I was going for, so I think the main character is called Sam and I think Sam has the attitude of so many people that I’ve come across. So many people who are not impaired or are in a wheelchair, the attitude that they have about people with disabilities I think is actually summed up in the final attitude of Sam. In that she’s kind of interested, she’s always fascinated even because of, you know, the difference but actually she just really wants to just stick with what she knows and with what she’s comfortable with and I’ve seen that happen quite a lot actually.  Just the other week on the way to the shop, and it made me think about the story that I’d written when I experienced this, I saw a man in a wheelchair who was trying to get up a kerb and he was looking around for someone to ask, if someone could help him, and I was about to get to him when a man who he’d kind of got his attention turned around and said to the man in the wheelchair, “sorry I don’t have any money” and it really felt because I thought the perception that this man has and that the only reason that, you know, this disabled person would be asking for help is because they want some money or because they’re begging. I found it really shocking that this man just walked on by and kept himself to himself, kind of shrugged his shoulders and said “No, sorry I don’t have any money” and it shocked me that people don’t necessarily want to break out of that comfort zone to acknowledge the struggles and the issues that people who are, not as fortunate as them in terms of being able bodied and able to navigate the world easily kind of have. That’s what I wanted to sum up with the final attitude with the character and I don’t think any of the story is particularly dramatic, it doesn’t take us on a huge narrative plot but I think it was quite a fitting ending I think. In terms of Sam and her attitude and just being almost nonchalant by the end that she’s just kind of going to get on with her own life and her own day. I think that’s what a lot of people do when it comes to kind of acknowledging other peoples issues.

 

Perito:(13m.00s) She did kind of fancy the male character though didn’t she? There was kind of a light romantic thing going on. What would have happened there if she’d continued, would she have gone back and seen him at work again and said, “oh hi”?

 

AC: I think she possibly would have. I think that’s what I kind of wanted to leave open because is it this unprofessional fascination actually? Is this a little problematic in that she’s getting a bit obsessed with him because he’s different and, you know she wants to stare at him and she wants to know how does that feel to be able to use legs, or is it that she fancies him a bit and then she’s almost troubled by that because he’s so different?  I left that open on purpose but it’s interesting you took that from it.

 

Perito: (13m.40s) It was a good story and the fact that it’s about everyday existence was a really strong feature for it. A lot of the submissions we had for the prize were high quality, extremely good writing, very intense, very emotional pieces that drew out emotions in the judges.  This was kind of the opposite, essentially that everyday experience and the thought processes that people have. It was a good decision to write about that. Well done and thank you for submitting it.

 

AC: Thank you very much.

 

Perito: (14m.16s) Do you have any recommendations or tips for people entering next year?

 

AC: I think one of the main things I did with this story which I’ve always been really reluctant to do, is to really seek some feedback from friends and family. Some of the feedback that I got from my friends and family really directed how I ended up writing it and writing the ending of it in particular.

I’d definitely reach out for feedback even if you’re not that comfortable doing that, find someone that you trust, and someone that will give you a bit of constructive feedback and perhaps suggest some edits because that was definitely really useful for me. Also some of the tips that I got from the writing course that I did, which was a really basic kind of introduction to creative writing.

The most helpful one that I got was about free writing. It’s about setting a timer and just putting your pen to paper or getting your notebook out and just writing, it doesn’t need to be good; it doesn’t need to be even about, you know, the topic that you want to write about. Just get words down on paper because then it’s much easier to edit what you’ve got, and to start to have a think about whether this makes sense? Is this something that I am actually enjoying writing rather than sitting, you know, with an empty notebook and desperately trying to think of ideas?  I found it quite useful just to start the process, but yeah asking for feedback is something I find a bit excruciating personally but it definitely got the story to a standard where I felt like I could submit it for a competition and it’s the first competition that I’ve won so I’m really pleased.

 

Perito: (15m.36s) I think the feedback concept is a difficult one because you need to find someone who wants to do it as well.  It can be very demoralising if you’ve got someone who you are asking for feedback and you’re open to share your creativity and what you do but you’re suddenly realising that actually that they’re not feeding back any useful constructive criticisms.

 

AC: Yes, yeah.

 

Perito: (15m.58s) It’s just, oh no it looks fine, or nothing at all which is worse than saying that it’s absolute rubbish.

 

AC: I would recommend asking specific questions.  I tried to stay away from just, what did you think about this, or do you think this is any good? Perhaps ask for a specific bit of feedback on a particular paragraph for example – does this make sense? If I were to change the main character from male to female do you think that would be better? Really ask some specific feedback if you can and then they haven’t got an closed question just to tell you that it’s either good or not good.

 

Perito: (16m.28s) It’s been excellent finding out more about you and your winning story Abi but now it’s time to sign off until next time.  Thanks again to our special guest, prize-winning writer Abby Crawford, thanks Abby.

 

AC: Thank you very much, cheers.

 

Perito: It’s been a pleasure. You’ve been tuning into the Perito Podcast, Our World without Boundaries, thanks for listening, everyone, everywhere.

Categories
Perito Prize Winners

Perito Prize 2019 – Winner: ‘Leg User’ By Abby Crawford

LEG USER

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.”

“Oh.”

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.

“Yep”

“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.

Categories
Perito Prize Winners

Perito Prize 2019 – Runner Up: ‘The Spirit Can’t Be Confined’ By Margarita Meklina

The Spirit Can’t Be Confined

By Margarita Meklina

 

For eight years, with magical regularity, e-mails from a far away, mysterious world appeared in my mailbox. Pressing F9 and refreshing my Outlook folder, I was peering into the land of yurts and nomads. Taiga and flatlands. Kazakhstan: the vast territory once ruled by the Russian Empire. Later – a Central Asian Republic lying in the political ruins of the former USSR. When I received my last letter, it was still a country dominated by a totalitarian ruler, who stepped down only after thirty years in power.

I was a penniless writer, a Russian-born immigrant lifting packages for UPS in California, and I needed all support I could get. From Russia, from Kazakhstan, from anywhere! It suddenly came from this petite woman in glasses, with fragile bones but with a spirit of steel. Devoid of allegiance to clichés, she published my writings: an essay about Vladimir Nabokov’s son and butterflies, a novella about a young queer woman looking for love in San Francisco, a short story about the frequent abusive relationships in immigrant families. Printing my texts in her magazine in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s cultural capital, this physically distant yet warm and caring correspondent offered her critical eye. Her mental, inner vision was sharp; her eye vision was blurred. She was even prohibited by doctors to write on a computer, but she continued to give me her vital feedback.

Raising a baby and trying to keep my writing aspirations alive, I was inspired by the quest of my virtual friend. Her vision was vaster than Kazakhstan steppes. As it turned out, this woman of small stature in a wheelchair created what the entire Ministry of Culture in Kazakhstan couldn’t achieve: a new wave of writing. Her name was Olga Borisovna Marcova and she was an editor, an educator, an activist, a guru, a researcher, a mentor, a friend.

Not having access herself to regular doctors or libraries, she underlined the importance of the accessibility of information. Placed into a confining jacket of censorship together with other Kazakhstan citizens, she dreamed that young writers would find the freedom within. “I am a mixture of terrible pessimism and unending idealism,” one of her letters proclaimed. “These weeks, I have been depressed, but I have to keep up my appearance for the people in our office. I’d better tell you about the new round table I organized. It’s called ‘Literary magazines as an instrument of cultural politics.’ Representatives from Central Asian Republics and Russia will all be there!”

In the second letter Olga reported, “Our writers were just sent to Russia’s capital for a special gathering! There they’ll get access to publications in Moscow!” Then she added mischievously, “And yesterday, for the commemoration of Pushkin, one of our writers had to eat his prize, a huge Pushkin chocolate sculpture.” Suddenly, in small font, she mentioned her aging parents, “They are nearing their eighties and I hope that I will die before they pass away.”

The next month, she proudly described an event, “With the British consulate, we organized a literary seminar with a writer who writes for teenagers. Have you heard of him before? I’m researching him and he is a gem.” When I was about to send a congratulatory response, I noticed a post scriptum, “There are very few buildings in Almaty suitable for wheelchairs. My eye sight is bad, there is a problem with retina but because the ophthalmology equipment is on the third floor, I can’t go for my checkup.”

She asked me about the difficulties of raising a new baby, almost never mentioning her own problems. Suffering and setbacks were hidden among the reports of success, “I’m training a new editor. I wrote an essay about book publishing in Kazakhstan. We’re organizing a contest for the best writing by a woman writer who writes in Kazakh. We also conducted master classes for writers from far away regions, those who due to their geographical location can’t get access to cultural places.”

And in the next sentence, “The majority of public buildings, offices, medical centers and supermarkets are inaccessible for people like me. Our society doesn’t think of it as a problem. My father took me out for a walk near our house in my wheelchair, but the wheel got stuck in a crack and the wheelchair overturned, together with my father and me!”

And then she again wrote to me about her everyday life, “We had an evening of poetry organized together with the American embassy… How important was it for you to participate in elections? When I see the news from the West, I think that such activity in my country wouldn’t be possible. By court order, they just closed the office of Democratic party. Also they shut several media outlets. And now the access to LiveJournal and other social media sites is blocked completely…”

Olga had been confined to a wheelchair since birth. Yet, in my then-precarious situation as a main breadwinner raising a baby, it seemed like she was the one who was more stable. Traversing the Web on her virtual wheels. Reaching out to every corner of the globe with the literary masterworks of her pupils. “She turned a wheelchair into a throne, she was an empress,” as another friend of hers said.

Transplanted from Russia to the U.S., I was trying on different languages like new clothes and, not always fitting into the new attire, was consoled by encouraging letters from far away. A young mother struggling to secure the first professional job and to write in two languages, I heard from Olga, “Please kiss your daughter from me and let your husband take care of you. The baby surely will be like her mother, an avid traveler and a storyteller. Wasn’t she conceived in Kazakhstan when you visited us?”

Olga’s public triumph was at the front of her letters, “Literary magazines here limit the number of acceptable topics. The government demands loyalty. There is no other organization besides ours that supports writers who steer away from the government ideology. We make sure that our authors reach an internal freedom that will allow them to say what they want.”

Her personal problems were hidden behind, “There was a literary seminar on the four floor, organized by our sponsor from the Netherlands. I couldn’t get there. Once they moved it to the first floor, I was able to participate… Recently, when I called a tour agency, they were so surprised that a person in a wheelchair wanted to travel by air. They even reprimanded me for assuming something like this! But I want to see Paris!”

Now, eleven years after our e-mail exchange ceased to exist, I pluck the saddest parts of her letters:

“You can’t imagine how I look, just like a scaled dragon… at home, one of my aging parents lost their balance and overturned a pot with boiling water on me.”

“A terrible thing happened today. A woman hit me in the eye with her large bag inadvertently when my father took me out in a wheelchair. Now I have to go to eye doctors again, but all the diagnostics equipment is on the third floor and there isn’t a lift.”

“My father is eighty-one and he fractured his hip. For two months he has been confined to his bed. My mom is my only helper for now.”

Then, “Mama broke her arm, I’m drowning in everyday problems. Papa still didn’t recover after his stroke. I’ll die without their assistance.”

The letters stopped arriving eleven years ago. My daughter had just turned fourteen and, as Olga predicted, she is a steady writer and a stoic traveler. Did I just tell you that Olga’s last letter came in 2008? That I didn’t hear from her since that time? That because of Kazakhstan’s poor healthcare and Olga’s weak immune system she died of flu at forty-four? Did I mention that she was able to visit Paris with parents her and that she managed to write a number of books?

You just read excerpts from her letters, which means that something of her is still alive. In some geographic locations, these pleas for help are still urgent. In many countries, in many regions, there is still no accessibility. Can’t life extend after death? Out there, there are writers she raised. Some of them became quite well-known. There are ideas she planted. There is her spirit that still traverses the roads of information; her wheelchair crosses the borders. Last month I was riding my bike and suddenly a woman at the bus stop raised her arm to waive the approaching bus and hit my shoulder quite badly. I shook. Was this a reminder from another realm, telling me that as a fully-able adult and a fully-fledged writer, I have to do more?

More than anyone else, Olga understood that “accessibility” means the right to be free, both in physical movements and in movements of thought. As much as a people with limited capability need physical freedom, spiritual and political freedom is also a must.

My daughter, the one for whom Olga always blew virtual kisses, recently went on a trip with her school, visiting a wheelchair facility. They made teenagers ride in wheelchairs, so that they knew what a person in a wheelchair experienced. Wouldn’t Olga find it amusing? She was quick to adapt new ideas. She’d say, “I would like the health officials in our country to ride in wheelchairs, to understand what it means to have accessibility.” Now I’m reaching for my archive to let out her spirit, which has been confined to our private e-mails, and her spirit is reaching out to you.

Categories
Perito Prize Winners

Perito Prize 2019 – Third Place: ‘The Fallen Knight’ By Heather Matthews

The Fallen Knight

By Heather Matthews

 

A neon glow of purple glares through the open window of Marnie’s empty apartment, lighting the stone floor at her feet. She sat in her chair, wrapped in a blanket, staring out at the giant billboard before her, seeping light through her window. A billboard made up of glass tubes glowing violet, surrounding a white and blue hologram of a girl without arms. Marnie watched the digital tears drip down her face, and simply stared as a smooth practiced female voice slid out into the night sky.

“Never feel alone again with DreamWire, where all your dreams come true.”

The hologram changed to the girl wearing a headset, two arms digitally materializing by her sides. The hologram appeared to be testing her fingers and hands in wonder. She then threw her arms up in the air, a genuine smile on her face. The warmth from it made Marnie’s gut twist.

“With DreamWire you can do the job you long for and go anywhere you want to go without ever leaving your home.”

The hologram changed again, flickering to the girl playing guitar, painting, running. Waving to friends and family, holding a baby. Walking down the aisle, holding a bouquet. Marnie’s fingers tightened around her cup. Her coffee had gone cold hours ago.

“Make money, socialise, and explore the world. With DreamWire anything Is possible. With DreamWire, you can be…”

The girl turned to Marnie, and smiled

“Complete.”

The hologram disappeared.

Marnie swung her arm back and hurled her cup at the billboard with a yell, her cup sailing out into the night air, liquid flying out as it span, twisting and turning, until it slipped down into the street. Marnie could hear the shattering of porcelain, the sound of rain beginning to fall. The billboard still glittering before her.

“Screw you.” She hissed, her hair wild, curls twisting and turning over one half of her face. Her electric blue eyes wide and erratic, one of her pupils tiny, whilst the other was so wide you could fall right into it.

She wheels herself over to the window with a sneer on her face and tugs on the rope, slamming it shut with an echoing bang. The glass in the frame shook but did not splinter. Marnie heard footsteps upstairs.

“Marnie? Are you staring at that billboard again? We’ve gotta get ready for the protest!” The voice echoed from upstairs and drew closer until in walked the woman named Gypsy. Her hair was dreaded with loud colours of wires and tubing, a thin stripe tattoo ran halfway across her face, and a pair of black light goggles rested over her eyes. She threw a pair of the goggles over to Marnie who grinned and caught them easily.

“Just giving myself some motivation Gypsy.” Sliding the black goggles on she tapped the frame. The black glistened to a soft neon glow, lighting half of her face in a sheen of blue. “These got full power, right?” Marnie asked, moving across the open empty room to her partner, that was filled with nothing but three tall windows, a table in the centre, a typewriter and a desk light. “We don’t want to get scanned by the Sensors.”

Gypsy slipped off her goggles and rolled her eyes, leaning lazily against the exposed brick wall. “Okay that was one time and you have to stop bringing that up, it hasn’t happened since, right?”

“Yeah and the day I stop reminding you will be the day the power runs out on these things.”

“Fair point.” Gypsy smiled, her eyes softening, the flecks of gold Marnie loved, glittering against the purple light. “Never stop reminding me.”

Marnie smiled and reached out, taking Gypsy’s hand and raising it to her lips. “Never planned on it.” She placed a soft gentle kiss on the back of Gypsy’s hand and closed her eyes. Gypsy wiggled her fingers in Marnie’s gentle grasp and squeezed her hand. “Yeah, I love you too. Now, c’mon. Protest remember? We can’t start without you.” Leaning down, she kissed Marnie’s forehead, the kiss half landing on her hair. Outside, the rain began to roar.

 

In Downtown Azura, despite the pouring rain, cheers echoed over the crowds. Marnie appeared on stage before them, her image projected onto the building behind her, her face covered in a sheen of blue. With the raising of her hand, the crowd fell silent. Her voice echoing into the street.

“You have stripped us of our freedom in the real world, and instead created for us a digital prison you call a substitute for life. DreamWire has not given us the world. DreamWire has given us a cage. DreamWire’s software is a reminder to us, that we are only enough when we appear COMPLETE. That we do not deserve the world outside. We deserve the world outside!”

The crowd roared back at her, electric fireworks and holographic signs flickered into the air. Marnie paused and took a deep breath, staring out into the seemingly endless crowd of people and holograms alike. Not everyone had found the means to make it to the protest, but still they came. Blind, crutches, wheelchairs, hearing aids, autism, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy and others. All here to show support. All here for freedom, waiting with bated breath.

“Whilst they demand completion, all we demand is connection to the world. Our World. We demand to be in the world they separate us from. We are better than complete, we are connected.”

Gypsy smiled at Marnie from the side of the stage, holding her hand over her heart, gripping the jacket she wore tightly.

“Constantly we have been told, like children, about the dangers that the outside world has for people like us. That they have given us everything to keep us safe. Wrong. You give us everything to keep us away.

“Tonight, we march into the City, and we will show you that we will not be hidden away. That you cannot silence us with toys and trinkets. We are not a burden. We are not incomplete. We are human, and you will treat us as such.”

Her projection flickered off of the building; the crowd roared, and the protest began.

 

The rain thundered over the city as the group marched towards the square. Above them, they projected their holographic signs, all alight in different colours.

“Freedom!”

“Full life not half-life!”

“We are human”

Marnie led the protestors towards the square, feeling a burning in her arms as she pushed herself forwards, cold droplets of rain drenching her completely. The night before Marnie had insisted that no one was allowed to push her at the protest, that she would go the whole way herself. This had caused Gypsy to roll her eyes and mutter something about ‘idiotic bravado’, which had then caused an argument between them that had lasted nearly the full night.

Despite the freezing rain, Marnie felt warmth in her chest as she remembered. It had ended with each of them offering a hot chocolate to the other, holding each other’s hands, curling against each other, as they watched the city lights flicker from their bedroom. Marnie wished she had Gypsy at her side, to hold her hand.

Men in electric blue riot gear appeared before the protesters. Blocking the path into the town centre.

The protestors moved forward, trying to continue their march despite the riot shields. However, the guards pulled back and revealed a group of guards armed with guns.

Everyone stopped. Nobody breathed, nobody dared. People began to move back. The guns glinted in the neon glow. Flashing with colour. Marnie stared at the guns and whispered to herself, leading the crowd of her followers. “Why do they need guns for us?” Her heart clenched tightly in her chest, and Marnie felt like she couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t get enough air into her lungs. No matter how much she breathed in it wasn’t enough. She gripped the arms of her wheelchair.

And Marnie, screamed.

“WHY DO YOU NEED GUNS FOR US?!”

Her voice echoed over the crowd, and it grew silent, the sound of rain heavy on the concrete.

“Why…Why the hell do you need guns for us? Is what we’re trying to do really so goddamned wrong?! All we want is real world access into the city, instead of through a virtual reality that gives us phantom limbs and mind dampeners! Do you know what that’s like?! Moving a part of your body that isn’t there!? Having your brain messed with?!”

Marnie wheeled her way forward, angrily.

“Cause it sucks! I want to be able to go into the city and get myself a goddamned fresh bagel every once in a while, but I can’t because you bastards don’t have wheel-chair access anywhere! Oh, and don’t even get me started on a payment plan for bionic replacements, because the only jobs on DreamWire you can get are ridiculously low paid ones, so how in the hell are we supposed to pay for them without putting ourselves in debt our whole goddamned lives?”

She wheeled up to the guard with a gun and stopped directly in front of him.

Marnie looked up into the guard’s mask.

“Living in a virtual world isn’t living at all. We’re human too. We are not broken; we are not incomplete. We are people with hopes and dreams, and we wish for a better future.”

She reached out her hand.

“So please, let us b-”

A single shot rang out over the silence.

The sound of a body thudding to the floor.

An electronic voice echoing over the crowd from the riot vans. “Everyone switch off and return to your homes at once. I repeat return to your homes at once. If you do not comply, we have permission to open fire.”

Marnie could hear ringing in her ears.

The sound of rain.

 

The City Police didn’t actually expect them all to show up. They had thought that Marnie was a hologram, until her body fell from her wheelchair.

“MARNIE! MARNIE!”

They’d used electric pulse guns that were designed to create a concentrated bullet of electricity, which would not only short circuit the holograms system, but also shut down the system it was being projected from. However, when used on a person… It was akin to being shocked with several taser guns at once.

The guards stopped. They didn’t know what to do. They were told they weren’t really there. They’d never seen them before. For them, it was like looking into a mirror.

Gypsy pushed her way to the front and tightly held Marnie against her body, her arm wrapped around Marnie’s stomach, squeezing her tightly. Blood began to trickle gently from Marnie’s mouth. “SOMEONE HELP!” Gypsy screamed, Marnie placed her hand over Gypsy’s arm, gripping it weakly.

“Gypsy…” Marnie started softly; her eyes half lidded.

Gypsy glared at her. “Don’t you dare Marnie.” She turned back to the crowd, “MEDIC, ANYBODY PLEASE?”

“I broke my favourite cup.”

“Wh-what?”

Marnie coughed and rasped, “My cup.” Gypsy wiped the blood from her mouth with her thumb, smearing it by mistake.

Marnie breathed slowly, “I threw it at the billboard before. It fell into the street. I’m sorry.”

Tears sprung in Gypsy’s eyes; she couldn’t help it. But she still smiled, as she held the woman she loved. Her arm tight around Marnie’s waist, her hand against her fading heartbeat.

“We’ll get you another one Marn.”

Marnie looked up at Gypsy, her goggles sliding off. Her blue eyes full of tears, an ocean against ocean.  Fighting for her last breath, a smile on the edge of her lips, she reached to stroke the side of Gypsy’s face.

“You… Completed… Me.”

Marnie passed away in her arms that day.

Gypsy held her for hours. The protesters did not leave. The guards did not move.

And the rain continued to pour.