As soon as I arrived home I rang my mum, who I knew would be waiting my call. She answered almost immediately.
“Hi mum,” I said.
“Hey sweetie, how did it go?” mum never did like small talk.
“Not well,” I replied, “They turned down the appeal; I’ll only get the lower rate of mobility payments and nothing at all for care costs. According to the doctor in charge of my case I could choose to use crutches to move around and a manual wheelchair on bad days.”
“That’s ridiculous,” mum exclaimed, “You did explain that you can’t walk very far on crutches and that you can’t push yourself any distance in a wheelchair, yes?”
“Of course, mum. They just said I would have to have someone to push a wheelchair on bad days.”
“But they haven’t given you any money for care,” mum sounded as exasperated as I felt.
“Apparently it should be such a rare event that I can simply rely on friends and family.”
“How utterly ridiculous. If they had to live with a disability-“
“I know, mum, I know,” I interrupted her before a long rant ensued.
“So now what?” she asked.
“Well I can no longer afford payments on my powered wheelchair, so they’ll be coming to collect that in less than a month.”
“Can you try and push for a pay rise?”
“Mum, without a wheelchair how am I even supposed to get to work, let alone get a pay rise? There’s no chance of me being physically able to walk around the office on crutches all day and my colleagues have work of their own to do; they can’t be my carers.”
“Oh Susie, I wish your father and I could help you out, I really do, but he’s still hunting for a job and his redundancy pay has run out.”
“That’s OK,” I said. There was a short pause, before I asked, “Any ideas as to what I should do?”
“Short of robbing a bank, Susie, I don’t know.”
Dave was driving an adapted mini-van hired especially for the occasion with Sam sat beside him. I was sat in my wheelchair in the back, with the wheelchair steadied on the floor by series of straps more convoluted than the Lord of the Rings trilogy. We pulled up outside the bank and Dave craned his neck round to face me.
“You don’t need to do this, you know,” he said, “I’ll do it.”
“Are you saying that because I have boobs or wheels?” I retaliated.
“Fine, fine, it’s your money. Got your mask?” he asked.
“I’m in a wheelchair,” I said levelly, “that’s a pretty damn obvious clue towards my identity.”
Dave looked horrified but Sam was grinning from ear-to-ear, his balaclava pushed back to look like a normal hat.
“Everyone knows that wheelchair users are invisible,” he pitched in.
“Yep,” I agreed.
Dave rolled his eyes and climbed out of the drivers’ seat. He opened the back door, put out the ramp, and released my wheelchair. I reversed down the ramp with ease, a practiced manoeuvre I was very used to.
“I’ll be here when you get back,” Dave leant casually against the open boot of the car and crossed his arms, clearly not happy about my lack of a mask.
Sam and I moved towards the platform lift provided for wheelchair users to traverse the flight of steps into the bank. A piece of paper with the words “Out of Order” was pinned to it, waving in the breeze. Clearly the lift had been out of order for some time as the paper was dirty, crumpled, and damp.
“Right,” I said to Sam, “the actual disabled entrance is round the side.”
“Sure,” Sam replied.
I traversed up the narrow ramp which had a tight hair-pin bend half-way up, and hit the button for the automatic door to open. As usual the mechanism wasn’t switched on.
“I’ll get it,” Sam heaved the door open which, due to the rather pointless automation, was incredibly heavy and cumbersome.
Once inside the bank we joined the back of the queue and slowly we moved towards the cashiers’ desk. Aside from getting caught in the tightly weaving line set out by flimsy barriers, this was uneventful and even boring. After what seemed like an eternity we reached the head of the queue.
“Next,” a bored assistant said in a monotonous voice, “How can I help?”
“This is a stick-up,” I said to the marble panels lining the front of a desk so high I would have needed a periscope to see over it.
“Pardon me but I can’t hear you,” the assistant said.
“This is a stick-up,” I said loudly. Everyone stopped what they were doing and turned towards me, a stunned silence sweeping the room. I was used to being a spectacle so this did not perturb me. Sam turned to face the crowd, his balaclava obscuring his face and pulled the most realistic-looking toy gun we could find out of his back pocket.
“I need £6,000 in cash in this bag now,” I said, “and nobody gets run over.” I gave the bag to Sam who put it on the counter for me.
“Very funny,” the assistant didn’t laugh, “now what are you really here for.”
“Gimme the money!” I shouted in my most gangster voice.
It dawned on the assistant that we weren’t actually joking and she must have hit the emergency button underneath the desk. Red lights started flashing as the alarm screamed and the doors locked themselves. Everyone started running around like madmen, trying to cram themselves into the offices lining the walls of the bank for safety.
“The money, in the bag, now!” Sam yelled, turning to face the assistant and pointing the toy gun at her.
“That is not real,” she said.
“Wanna risk a bet?” Sam levelled it at her head.
“Yeah I would be since the armed response team will have real guns to shoot you with on the off-chance that yours is real,” she retorted, “so I suggest you put it down and take a comfy seat until the police arrive.”
“C’mon Sam, let’s just go,” I was disappointed but I knew when I was beaten.
I put my wheelchair on the highest speed setting and rushed towards the disabled exit. Since the automatic mechanism wasn’t switched on the door hadn’t locked. I hurled myself through the door and down the ramp and headed towards the car, only to find another car parked over the space where the pavement levelled with the road. I could see that Dave was already arguing with him.
“I’ll only be here a minute, what’s the rush?” the driver was saying, dangling his cigarette out of the window and dropping ash onto the road.
“Move or I scratch your precious car,” I said from the pavement. The driver saw Sam behind me, toy gun in hand, and looked as if he had had an accident that didn’t involve cars.
“OK, alright man, chill,” the driver reversed his car the two feet necessary and I hurried towards our mini-van.
The ramp was already down so I could drive straight into the vehicle but then began the complicated business of strapping the chair to the floor. It was a full minute before this was complete and as Dave pushed the ramp in behind me, three police cars screeched around the corner. Almost before they had stopped moving the officers were out of their cars and running towards us and were quickly joined by a van-load of officers with viciously barking dogs.
“Stop right there!” an officer yelled.
“The armed response team is only minutes away so I suggest you cooperate,” he continued, “Now let the hostage go and nobody gets hurt.”
It took me a second to realise that by “hostage” they meant me. As this sunk in Sam threw his head back and laughed loudly, sending the dogs into a burst of loud barking and growling. The officer who had spoken looked stunned.
“She ain’t no hostage,” our cashier hurried down the steps towards us, almost stumbling in her ridiculous heels as she did so, “She’s one of the robbers.”
The officer opened his mouth to speak but she told him that it was her who had sounded the alarm before he could ask how she was involved.
“I have no doubt that they were using this poor woman as some kind of protection, almost like a human shield,” the officer raised one eyebrow and glanced over at me.
“She was one of the robbers alright,” customers were now filing slowly out of the bank, and among them was the middle-aged man who spoke. A few officers were occupying themselves by stopping them from leaving the scene as they were all valuable witnesses.
“Are you?” the officer gaped at me. I figured there wasn’t much point lying as every witness would testify otherwise, so I told the truth.
“Arrest them all,” he ordered his subordinates. Quickly Dave and Sam were cuffed and placed in the back of separate police cars while being given the usual spiel about having the right to remain silent. However, I presented a problem; none of their own vehicles were accessible. Even when the armed response team came screeching around the corner a minute later, there were no facilities capable of transporting me in my wheelchair. Thinking on his feet the officer ordered that I was cuffed, and that a couple of officers drove our van to the police station.
The ride back to the police station took no longer than five minutes as we followed the cars containing Sam and Dave, but upon arriving at our destination my case presented yet more problems. It took ten minutes for the police officers to figure out how to release my wheelchair from all the safety measures, and then they realised that while cuffed driving my wheelchair would be rather difficult. They tried to push my wheelchair, but it wasn’t designed to be pushed by others and it was extremely heavy. Eventually they had to settle for my slow and shaky driving as they escorted me into the police station.
The reception desk in the police station was as high as the one in the bank and yet again I found myself taking to a wall, wishing I had a periscope. After signing in I was escorted to a holding cell down a corridor so narrow it was virtually impossible to fit the wheelchair through. What the people already in a cell must have thought when they heard an electronic whine combined with the scraping of metal on whitewashed walls I do not know. The door of the cell was too small to allow the wheelchair through, and so I had to hobble over to the bench on the far side of the cell bracing the walls, and my wheelchair was taken somewhere where I was told it would be safe. Once the door had been slammed shut, I was amused to hear the sounds of the policemen struggling to drive my wheelchair to said safe place.
That evening mum and dad came to see me just as I was swallowing the last of something that barely qualified as food. Dad looked bemused and a little concerned but mum had a face like thunder.
“They’re releasing you on bail until the trial comes round since you didn’t actually hurt anyone or steal any money,” dad said calmly, “but only if you live with us until then with a curfew, and if you go out alone you’ll be arrested again. Count yourself lucky that this is some kind of wheelchair perk.”
“Oh and surprisingly enough, you’ve been fired. So now you really are out of money,” mum snapped.
I heard the barrage of whining and scraping that signified the re-appearance of my wheelchair and an hour later I was lying on a flimsy camp-bed in my parents’ cluttered lounge, trying to get to sleep while being licked by their dog Ringo.
The day before the trial I sat on the kitchen floor and scrubbed my wheelchair clean; they do say that appearance is everything in court. I picked out a matching dress and jacket combination, and made sure that my leather boots had been polished. Outside a group of photographers and journalists lounged on my parents’ garden fence which was scuffed and dented thanks to all their attention over the past months, much to my mothers’ dismay. I was actually grateful for their media coverage as my motives soon came to light and public pressure had forced the reinstatement of my disability benefits, allowing me to keep my wheelchair. It seemed that even after my little escapade, most people felt sorry for me because of my wheels.
For most of the introductory speeches at the start of the trial I remained lost in my own thoughts rather than listening to what was being said, all the while trying to maintain the appearance of being riveted for the benefit of the jury. The state-provided defense lawyer had advised all three of us to plead guilty to charges of attempted robbery, since there was an overwhelming amount of evidence in the form of witnesses and security camera footage against us.
Once Sam and Dave had been called, pleaded guilty, and been sentenced to a short stint in jail followed by many hours of community service I went to take my place opposite the witness stand. There was, however, one minor inconvenience. Despite the excessive media attention having taken great pains to emphasise my disability, turning me into the victim of the piece, between me and the microphone where I would confess my guilt there was a step. When the press saw my plight, uproar ensued as photographers leant dangerously far over banisters to take pictures of the court stupid enough not to provide accessible facilities.
The following day while lounging in my prison cell I was given a newspaper by a guard who had finished reading it. On the front page was a birds-eye view photograph of me seated in my wheelchair looking at the step in the court room. The focus of the article was not the fact that I had attempted to rob a bank but the fact that blatant discrimination still existed in a court of law. The scathing headline summed it up perfectly; “COURT NEEDS TO STEP-UP THEIR GAME.”