Spaced Out: A Short Story.

“Well, you are more than qualified to take the job Mr Benson, but as I’m sure you are aware your case is a little…,” the interviewer paused to find the right word, “…unusual. We have a few questions about how this might affect your ability to undertake the role that under other circumstances would be deemed insensitive perhaps, but we mean no harm in asking these questions, I assure you.” The middle-aged, balding man in the overly tight grey suit was sat bolt upright, his interlinked hands resting on the desk before him.

“I had expected as much,” Tom said in reply. He had been wondering for the entirety of the interview when the elephant in the room would become a topic of discussion.

“Then you will forgive me for asking why exactly you use a wheelchair?”

“I was involved in a land mine accident while serving as an electrical engineer in the army, and the damage to the spine has resulted in paralysis from the waist downwards,” Tom did not to like to brood on the accident, which still gave him horrific and very realistic nightmares almost five years on.

“Your upper body is in no way affected?”

“Bar some rather nasty scarring, no. I believe myself to be rather lucky is this regard.”

“And your intellect?”

“Pardon?” Tom was shocked and a little incredulous. He had anticipated questions about his physical abilities, but to query his mental capacities was simply insulting.

“Your intellect. Your ability to think rapidly in stressful situations and to solve complex problems. Were they in any way impaired by the accident?”

“Of course not, my brain is in my head, not my legs,” as soon as the words had slipped out of his mouth Tom regretted them, fearing they made him sound arrogant and insolent.

“I apologise profusely if I have caused any offense,” the interviewer did not look in the least bit sorry.

“My impairment is physical only,” Tom replied more calmly.

“Indeed. So, how would you move around the space station?”

“Propelling myself with my arms, just like I do every day on Earth. That will not be a problem.”

“OK. And can you give me a reason why we should risk sending someone disabled into space instead of someone able-bodied please?”

Tom smirked, “You won’t have to worry about the effects of microgravity on my leg muscles, which have atrophied anyway.” He was pleased to observe the flicker of a smile flit across the interviewers’ face.

“Well, thank you for coming My Benson. We’ll be in touch,” the interviewer stood up and leant over the desk to shake Toms’ hand, before crossing the room to hold open the door for him.

“Thank you,” Tom said as he wheeled out of the room.

***

Nine months later Tom followed his crewmates, Helena and Ulrik, as they crossed the gangway to the relatively small rocket, with the crowd staring up at them from a distance. Only detectable by the flashes of light emitting from their cameras Tom knew that the focus of the photographers would be on him, the first disabled astronaut ever. Helena and Ulrik clambered into the shuttle before him, and then helped Tom shuffle inelegantly from his wheelchair onto his seat, which currently faced the sky. This feeling was not entirely alien to Tom, who had on several occasions over-turned his wheelchair in an encounter with a small step, usually while inebriated.

The doors were closed and as he strapped himself in, Tom watched as a technician rolled his wheelchair back along the gangway; it was strange to think that he would not see it for three months. He almost missed it.

The intercom crackled into life and ground control confirmed that all was ready for take-off. As the countdown began the engines rumbled into life, the vibrations causing Toms’ legs to bounce gently against the seat in a comical manner. Finally the Earth moved away, and as the smoke cleared they got one last look at the ground control centre beneath them before the Earth started to shrink at an alarming rate.

“Strange to think that outer space will be more accessible than my local pub,” Tom said.

It was several hours before the rocket got into orbit, and the sudden loss of gravity as this happened caused Tom’s legs to start flailing uncontrollably while his upper body was still strapped in. Tom unfastened his seat belt faster than Helena and Ulrik, perhaps because they were merely fancier versions of his wheelchair belt. He drifted away from his seat, and almost immediately managed to kick a button on one of the many control panels around him by accident. Thankfully it was just the stereo, and the sounds of David Bowie filled the room.

“Alright, very funny, who put Space Oddity in the CD player?” Tom asked, turning round to face Helena and Ulrik, who were now floating in the tin can, far above the world. Ulrik had a grin spreading from ear to ear plastered across his face, while Helena was managing to propel herself around the cabin by laughter alone.

A few hours later the rocket docked with the International Space Station, a complicated process requiring extensive communication between those already on the station, ground control, and Tom, Helena, and Ulrik themselves. Eventually, after dealing with an uncooperative airlock that had to be switched off and on again, they entered the ISS. As they moved through the doorway Tom got his ankle caught on the hatch and Ulrik had to rescue him, but Tom could be independent in everything else he did. For the first time since the accident he was no different from anyone else.

***

Two months into his time at the ISS, Tom was woken with a start by loud alarms and flashing red lights. Helena and Ulrik were already at the central control panel trying to assess what had gone wrong, and he joined them as soon as he had disentangled himself from the sleeping bag strapped to the wall. Dave, another member of the crew, was already trying to hold a discussion with ground control, who’s panicked voices could only just be heard over the alarm.

“We hit some unexpected debris out of nowhere and it’s damaged the cooling system, the station needs immediate attention!” Dave yelled, “Ulrik, Tom, get into your spacesuits, you’re going to have to do a space-walk!”

“Really, a space-walk?” Tom raised one eyebrow.

“This isn’t the time for jokes,” Dave said sharply, as Helena managed to silence the alarm, “Helena will help operate the air locks. I will stay on communications. Tom, you’re in charge of the electronics. Move!”

Tom didn’t need to be told twice. Getting into his suit was rather difficult given that not only were the trousers floating around aimlessly, but so were his legs. With a little help from Ulrik he managed to get dressed, and then made his way over to the airlock where Helena was waiting. Safety lines and hooks were put into place and the tools needed for the repair job were fastened to them by another safety line. Then they were in the airlock as it depressurised, and finally moved out onto the side of the station.

“The site of impact is behind the nearest solar panel on your left,” Dave’s voice sounded tinny over the earpieces in the space-suits.

Hand-over-hand, always having a least one line tethered to the station for safety, Ulrik and Tom made their painfully slow progress towards the damaged area. The sensation of his legs weightlessly drifting outwards made Tom a little uncomfortable, but it wasn’t until his leg got caught on the solar panel that he had any real issues. Unable to move his leg to wriggle free, he had to call Ulrik over to help, but this time it was not as simple as when he got his leg stuck when entering the space station. This time they had less than half an hour before the sun re-appeared, when they would want to be back inside the station unable to do any more repairs until the sun disappeared again. In the rush Toms’ safety line became entangled with Ulriks’, which took a further minute to sort out.

Eventually they made it to the impact site, which essentially looked like a bowl containing a salad of shards of metal and plastic. Wires poked through broken casing, some even releasing the odd spark. Both men began to tinker, trying to make sense of the mess before them while listening to Dave’s instructions. It hardly seemed like a couple of minutes since they had begun this task than Helena was calling them back into the airlock as the sunrise approached.

Once they were back inside the station Tom took his helmet off to have a better discussion with Dave.

“How the hell are we going to fix that?” he asked.

“The stations’ sensors are providing ground control with some data, so we’ll get better intel from them shortly. It looks stable for the time being, but it’s going to get really hot in here after a while in the sun. If I were you, I’d get ready to leave the airlock the second the sun disappears again.”

“Yes, sir,” Tom said without thinking, feeling almost as if he was back in the army.

At sunset Tom and Ulrik once again headed for the damaged area, a little quicker this time now that they knew exactly where it was. Dave fed them information piece by piece as he talked with ground control, while Tom worked on the wiring and Ulrik tried to repair the exterior of the ship. The gloves they wore were incredibly cumbersome, and Tom found himself growing increasingly frustrated that his hands felt as disabled as the rest of him.

As he fumbled with the delicate electronics he managed to reconnect the damaged circuits, and he heard Dave’s voice in his ear; “The cooling system is functioning again. I’m sending out some spare casing via the airlock; I don’t think you’ll be able to repair the damaged casing. Collect it for Ulrik.”

Awkwardly Tom made his way back towards the airlock, continually trapping his legs between himself and the space station until he looked like a human pretzel. He cursed under his breath, unable to fathom why exactly Dave thought he would be happy to fetch and carry items on command when his legs would quite literally have been more useful had they not been present. Helena had already placed the casing in the airlock ready for him to reach as soon as the door opened, which was a relief, and then he had to crawl over the ship back to where Ulrik was still at work.

“It’s flat-pack but there’s no Allen key,” Tom said as he handed it over, a futile attempt at lightening the atmosphere despite the fact that there wasn’t one.

Eventually the replacement panel had been screwed into place and the only sign of an impact with space debris was a collection of scratches surrounding the repaired section. Ground control confirmed that the sensors were now producing perfectly normal readings, and Tom and Ulrik made their way back to the airlock. In less of a rush, Tom was able to keep his legs from becoming as cumbersome as they had been before, and even managed to avoid getting caught on any protruding elements of the station. A few minutes after re-entering the ISS, the sun re-appeared from behind the Earth, and a soft orange light flooded the room.

***

The return trip to Earth was mostly uneventful. Tom was now used to the lack of gravity and was less prone to knocking things over accidentally; in fact, he made the most of his last few hours of not needing a wheelchair. Just before they were due to feel the full force of gravity once more, he made his way to his seat and strapped himself in as ordered. Ground control had warned all the astronauts on the dangers of not being seated when gravity kicked in, including blacking out due the sudden draining of blood from the brain, or injuries from colliding with the floor. The story of how one unfortunate astronaut had broken his leg had been repeated often enough, but Tom remained adamant that stepping on a land-mine was still far more risky.

The fall to Earth was broken by the deployment of parachutes, but the capsule containing Tom and his colleagues still landed in the sea with enough force to plunge it underwater before bobbing back up to the surface. All of them, Tom included, were feeling the effects of gravity now. Tom could feel his heart beating harder to push blood up to the brain against gravity, something it hadn’t had to deal with for three months, and he felt dazed and tired as his brain tried to deal with the slower provision of oxygen.

It did not take long for the rescue team to arrive, hauling them onto a boat and taking them to shore. As they approached the harbour they could see a crowd gathering on the harbour wall, and when they were closer still, they could hear them cheering and clapping. Once the boat had docked, Helena Ulrik, and Tom were all placed in wheelchairs since standing upright with gravity sickness could result in fainting, and made their way to the jetty where members of ground control awaited them. Tom had no issue controlling his chair, reuniting with it as if it were an old friend, but both Helena and Ulrik required some help manoeuvring their wheelchairs along the gangway, with Ulrik getting stuck on the railings at least twice.

“Is this what it’s like for you all the time?” Helena called after Tom.

“Pretty much,” he responded, “you wait until we get among the crowd and have a child’s point of view.”

As they moved forward, pushing through the crowd that engulfed them, Ulrik and Helena ran over several people and eventually resorted to following Tom in single file through the crowd, akin to a mother duck and her offspring. It amused Tom that in this scenario his disability was actually to his benefit, something that before had only ever been true of discounted concert tickets when people felt sorry for him.

They headed towards a coach that awaited them and in doing so passed a newspaper stand in the midst of the crowd with a teenage boy trying to sell papers to the passers-by, probably earning less than a single paper cost. Tom picked one up and as he made his awkward way onto the coach via a very slow and noisy lift, he began to read. He had a lot to catch up on.

51. IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT’S CHRIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIISTMAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAASSS!!!!!!!!!!!

Being the over-grown child in an over-sized pram that I am, it should come as no surprise that I particularly enjoy Christmas. I always have done so and I’m not going to let disability stop me now.

When I was a small child one of my favourite things to do in December was to go and see the Christmas lights displayed around Bradford city centre. The colours and patterns caught my attention, especially the series depicting the “12 days of Christmas” down the steep hill between all the shops. This is no different in Leeds, where the city centre is on my door step (figuratively speaking). I rather enjoy bundling up against the cold and drifting slowly around the streets looking at the lights, and then returning home to a warm drink and a hot water bottle.

Once I had begun to use my wheelchair on a regular basis I decked it in tinsel of varying colours each year, and still do. Wherever I go it seems to make people smile, especially children, so the small hassle of sticking the tinsel on the chair is worth it. Combined with my Santa hat, Christmas-themed earrings, and Rudolph-scrunchie in my hair, I look faintly ridiculous, but no one is going to start bullying some disabled in public so I get away with it.

The majority of my Christmas shopping is done on the German Christmas Market which takes over Millenium Square in the city centre for the entirety of advent every single year. Most of the stalls are accessible, with only one or two having small steps up to them, and the wide open spaces between stalls is relatively easy to navigate. The aura of festivity in the lights, sounds, and smells is infectious, particularly in a light snow shower. One of my favourite photographs was taken at the German market in 2016, complete with my beloved polar bear hat perched on my head. I had to borrow my mum’s scooter because my wheelchair had a flat tire.

Image description: I'm sat on my mum's scooter as my wheelchair was broken at the time. I have my skull and crossbones blanket, my leather jacket, & am holding a cup of hot honey mead in my gloved hands. I'm wearing my beloved polar bear hat and smiling at the camera. It's one of my favourite photos of myself.

Some of the stalls sell traditional German food, including some of the best Frankfurters I have ever tasted, washed down with a warm cup of mulled wine or mead. I have been told that the beer tent is rather nice, but as I’m not a fan of beer I tend to ignore that one. Several stalls are purely dedicated to various forms of confectionary, my favourite being the one with fruit skewers dipped in chocolate. The strawberries coated in dark chocolate are something akin to heaven on a stick. There is even one stall entirely dedicated to fudge in a range of flavours so wide it would bankrupt me to try them all.

Aside from the food there is still plenty to see. Some stalls sell trinkets, candles, and ornaments. Some sell jewellery, bags, hats, and scarves. Others sell hand-made traditional Christmas decorations. There are also two stalls of toys, one with teddy bears in every animal imaginable including a bat, and the other selling wooden toys like jigsaws and building blocks. It’s exceptionally easy to find a Christmas present for everyone on a market so diverse.

As for Christmas day itself, I would usually spend the day in my parents’ house on holiday from school and university. Church is often too much hassle due to accessibility issues so we tend to stay indoors opening presents, listening to music, watching TV, and sharing good food and drink. This year will be different; I will be hosting Christmas in the flat I share with my fiancé. This also means I will be cooking Christmas dinner for the first time, so let’s just say it will be experimental. All the same, it will be great for my parents not to have to cook, and they can still be home in time to watch the Christmas edition of Call the Midwife.

I truly hope you all have a wonderful Christmas.

Truly Grand.

The telephone in my grandparents’ house started to ring at 7 am on the Sunday of a bank holiday weekend in 1996, and grandad had the responsibility of the answering the call. Once he’d established that it was his son-in-law on the other end of the line, he said;

“You had a baby girl last night, and called her Emma Jane, right?”

Apparently he’d had a dream overnight in which I was dragged into the world from my comfortable abode, and almost immediately mum had given me a name, which is apparently pretty much what happened. I still don’t think that dad has forgiven my mum for that one; he didn’t get so much as a look-in.

Almost 17 years later grandad was taken into hospital, where it was established that he had a rare and particularly brutal form of cancer, which had remained undetected for many years. Because of this the cancer had already reached the final stage of its development, spreading throughout the body. No medicine could help to reverse the growth of the tumours, instead merely slowing the growth of the cancer and reducing the symptoms. It was a death sentence.

A couple of years passed and grandad remained in relatively good health considering the severity of the cancer. I visited him and grandma with my parents whenever I could, and we spent many happy hours sat watching TV game shows, shouting out the answers, and laughing at each other when we got them wrong. We would eat tea together, listen to music, and one particularly memorable time we dug out lots of old photographs of my mum and my aunt as children, complete with questionable 80’s fashion choices.

Eventually the cancer began to take a visible toll on him. He ended up in a hospice for a couple of months one winter, and after another few months at home where he was visibly weaker, he was taken into hospital. Eventually he was moved into a care home where he had 24 hour access to nurses and carers as he was almost completely bed-bound, and needed help with most basic daily tasks.

The care home was not as detached and miserable as many people might assume; the decor was warm and homely, and the staff were very friendly. There were plenty of activities for him to participate in should he so desire, including a beautiful German shepherd trained as a pets as therapy dog that he absolutely adored. From his room he could even see the wind turbines that stand on top of the Pennines in the distance.

The illness clearly caused issues for him; he was in almost constant pain and struggled to eat and drink. Regardless, whenever I went to see him he would always ask how I was doing. He was proud of my achievements in education and encouraged me to continue with my work in spite of my own illness. He somehow kept a friendly and positive attitude, and managed to genuinely care about others in a situation where many people simply retreat into themselves and lose interest in those around them. It may sound clichéd, but his attitude to life in the face of adversity has helped me to shape my own actions.

The last time I saw him he was so weak that he could barely hold his eyes open, and his speech was a quiet, almost incomprehensible murmur. I could see he was tired as he had already had a lot of visitors that day, but he still made the effort to inquire about my life. Before I left I squeezed his hand, which had been hanging limply off the side of the bed.

Over 20 years after that initial phone call, on the 20th December 2016, I had a dream that grandad had gone in the night. When the phone rang mere minutes after I woke up, much like grandad so many years before, I didn’t need to be told the news.

Image description: my grandfather on his golden wedding anniversary, sat on the sofa in his living room. He's holding a plate of food from the buffet and smiling at the camera.

Agent 48: A Short Story.

The woman looked completely out of place as she entered the pub. She had tried her best to dress inconspicuously but her crease-less blouse and plain jeans tucked into knee-high leather boots made her stand out like a sore thumb among the crowd. She kept her head down as she hurried across the room, relying on her hair to obscure her features. As promised to her by her advisor there was a wooden door hidden in a dark recess at the back of the pub which she gently knocked on. She turned and looked over her shoulder, but everyone seemed to have lost interest in her and were focusing on their drinks instead.

A panel in the door at eye-level opened and the woman found herself looking at a pair of bright blue eyes before the panel was slammed shut again. She heard the sound of locks and bolts being us  and then the door opened. She stepped through wordlessly into a plain, simple room containing a desk and two chairs, before the door was shut firmly behind her by the man who had opened it.

“Take a seat, ma’am,” the man said, “he will be here soon.”

“Thank you,” the lady said politely before perching on the edge of a chair, clearly agitated.

To the right of the desk was another wooden door, which promptly opened.

“Ah, Lady Mansfield-Hope, I was wondering when you would arrive,” a man in a smart tuxedo seated in a wheelchair tried to glide elegantly through the doorway but caught one wheel on the narrow door-frame, and had to reverse to free himself. He positioned himself opposite her and apologised for his ungainly entrance.

“You’ve been expecting me?” Lady Mansfield-Hope asked, clearly perturbed by his statement, having accepted his apology.

“A woman of your intelligence and beauty would not marry a man like Lord Mansfield unless there was something to be gained by the marriage, or more specifically, his death. I am only surprised that you did not come sooner” the man replied.

“I thought it would be suspicious should he die too soon after the wedding,” the woman had regained her composure. “I would prefer to discuss this matter further with Agent 48 himself, if you please.”

“Madam, I am Agent 48,” came the reply.

“But-“ she uncomfortably gestured towards the wheelchair.

“I charge extra for ableism,” Agent 48 retaliated. “Speaking of which, let us first discuss prices.”

“Money is no object here, I will pay what you ask.”

“In that case then I will ask about the job at hand,” the man leant back in his chair, calm and composed as if planning a murder was nothing to him.

Half an hour later Lady Mansfield-Hope exited the pub, and went to find the chauffeur in a nearby café.

***

Agent 48 waited on the platform for his train, getting soaked by the incessant rain while he waited for the ramp he had booked the week before to be brought to him. It was on his third visit to the coffee machine that he asked a member of staff about the ramp, who proceeded to inform him in a patronising manner the process of booking a ramp for future occasions. Agent 48 informed the staff that he knew the procedure well enough having used it many times before, and that he was concerned with how to access the ramp he had already booked, not how to book one. It was bad enough that he had to book a ramp in advance, which prevented spontaneous travel altogether, but to yet again face the lack of a ramp at the train station made Agent 48 snap.

“It may surprise you that wheelchairs aren’t made with the ability to levitate, but I’m afraid to inform you that this is the case. So if you could find someone with a functioning body to put out a ramp, allowing my dysfunctional body to ascend the insane foot-long gap between the platform and the train, I’d be grateful. What exactly is the point of going to the trouble of booking a ramp, which by the way is more complicated than a power outage at an electricians’ convention, if a ramp never appears?”

Eventually, after much more detailed and heated discussion, a porter with a ramp showed up mere minutes before the train was due to leave.

“Sorry,” he shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly, clearly not concerned about his lack of punctuality, “I was on a fag break and saw an old friend.”

Once Agent 48 had been reprimanded for making a fuss about nothing, he boarded the train and manoeuvred through the tight doorway and into the carriage, only to find a pram in the one wheelchair space in the carriage. The porter left him to deal with the angry mother alone, who refused to move her pram despite notices saying that in the case of wheelchair users she was obliged to do so. Agent 48 decided to sit outside the dingy bathroom in the space between carriages, having people clamber over his feet as they went past. He noticed that it was always him who received the tuts and looks of disapproval for blocking the way, particularly when the snack trolley was brought through, but being used to this it didn’t bother him too much. He was merely glad that when the train pulled into his station, a porter was ready with a ramp on the platform for him, a rare occurrence.

After this, Agent 48 had to wait for an accessible taxi, watching people climb in and out of inaccessible cars while he waited. Eventually a wheelchair taxi pulled up and, once he had managed to convince the able-bodied people trying to climb in that he needed the adapted car, he was strapped into the vehicle. As inevitable as it was to ask the taxi driver what time his shift finished, the taxi driver asked why he used a wheelchair.

“I kicked the last person who questioned my disability,” Agent 48 said in a deadpan voice. The rest of the journey was spent in silence bar the exchange of money at the end of the trip.

Once Agent 48 had found the ramp, he entered the hotel and checked in at an overly tall desk before being told that his room was on the top floor. He went to the lifts and waited with his luggage in a heavy sports bag balanced precariously across his knees. He was glad that he had allowed extra time for all the hold-ups, as was his standard protocol.

Eventually the old lift reached the ground floor, and a wave of pompous businessmen in expensive suits pushed passed him without so much as a glance. Once again Agent 48 thanked his lucky stars for the benefit of anonymity that came with a wheelchair.

The lift moved slowly up the building, occasionally scraping in a very disconcerting manner as it travelled up the lift shaft. It stopped at almost every floor, sometimes for people who didn’t want to walk up one flight of stairs, and sometimes opening the doors to find no one there, as whoever had called the lift had clearly got bored and decided to walk anyway.

Finally Agent 48 reached the top floor of the hotel, and he laboured across the thick, woollen carpet to reach his room. He struggled to reach over his bag to insert the key-card into the scanner, which was placed so far up the wall an orangutan would have struggled to reach it. After stretching and straining Agent 48 finally entered the room. His wheelchair only just fit between the bed and the wall, leaving muddy streaks down the crisp, white bedding. With no room to turn around he had to reverse to shut the door behind him, and then he heaved his bag onto the bed.

After sorting out the contents of his bag he went to the window with his sniper rifle, and watched many important political figures being questioned by journalists as they entered an environmental policy conference across the road. The clasp to open the window was at the top of the frame, so Agent 48 had to use his rifle to undo the clasp before forcing the window open the fraction it could without allowing people to throw themselves, or someone else, out. Finally, Agent 48 set up the rifle so that he was ready to take the shot before covering it with a curtain, giving the appearance that the curtain had been pushed back by a careless guest.

Inevitably the several cups of coffee drunk in the train station while waiting for a ramp to make an appearance had their effect, and Agent 48 had to use the bathroom. He reversed, leaving more muddy marks on the bedding, and stopped by the bathroom door. This he opened with relative ease, although the door now blocked his route to the window, and with some mishaps he negotiated his way into the bathroom. Once inside he stretched up to reach the light switch, and then began the struggle of trying not to fall over his own wheelchair while he manoeuvred himself around the room. After about ten minutes Agent 48 made it back to the window, just in time to see Lord Mansfield’s car approaching slowly down the crowded street. He positioned himself carefully, took hold of the rifle, and exhaled. As Lord Mansfield climbed the steps, hindered by over-zealous photographers, Agent 48’s finger hovered over the trigger. He took the shot and Mansfield fell forwards onto the stairs while the crowd ran panicking in all directions. Another shot sealed Mansfield’s fate and then Agent 48 fired some more shots to hide the fact that this was a targeted attack, giving non-lethal injuries to two more politicians and one journalist.

Quickly Agent 48 wiped the rifle to remove any fingerprints, and grabbed a pair of balled-up socks from his open, semi-unpacked bag. He shoved them in his mouth and then in one swift, well-practised movement, over-turned his wheelchair. He lay sprawled on the floor and only had to wait a matter of minutes before policemen were hammering at the hotel door, having figured out where the shots were fired from. When the door was not answered it was kicked down, and three policemen practically fell into the room, where they were horrified to discover that a poor disabled man had been attacked by the sniper before he escaped.

Agent 48 was helped back into his wheelchair before being taken to the police station to submit a witness statement, describing how the sniper had followed him to his room and attacked him, gagged him, and had fired the rifle several times before fleeing. He recounted that the sniper had been wearing a mask to disguise his identity, and hadn’t spoken a word. While he gave a statement his luggage was collected from the hotel on his behalf. The following morning he left the police station having given all the evidence he could to aid the capture of this fiendish villain, and made his way to the train station which was only round the corner. He was predictably hampered by a few journalists who wanted to hear his version of events directly from him, rather than the edited witness statement released by the police. As requested Agent 48 remained silent, only breaking his silence to ask a photographer to step aside as she blocked the road crossing.

At the train station Agent 48 had once again to wait for a ramp, and so he decided to visit the newsagents as a newspaper would be helpful for him to remain discrete from the public’s eager eyes. He expected the headlines to scream of Lord Mansfield’s terrible assassination but was surprised to find that actually, the majority of the headlines were far more concerned with the attack on the heroic disabled man than the cold-blooded murder of an important political figure. He bought one of the papers and settled down to read the article on the assassination while he waited for a ramp. The article gave a brief discussion of the previous days’ events, including the fact that no suspects had as yet been apprehended, and a small mention of what all this would mean for Lady Mansfield-Hope was made. However, far longer than Agent 48 deemed necessary was spent focusing on the diabolical nature of a man who would physically attack someone deemed weak and defenseless.

As he finished reading the article a porter arrived with a ramp tucked under his arm, and finally Agent 48 could board the train. It did not surprise him that once again a pram had been placed in the wheelchair space, but this time the mortified mother was more than welcome to accommodate him. Smiling and relaxed Agent 48 buried himself in the pages of the newspaper, reading the latest about global politics and new scientific discoveries. He had never known such a pleasant commute as this.

To See, or Not to See?

In the past few trips we’ve made into town Jarred and I have noted a shift in behaviour that contradicts my “invisibility cloak” experiences; people are now able to see me. This is a massive breakthrough in the way disability is perceived by society, a bonus that cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, their actions towards me have not changed, and I still experience doors being shut in my face, and people stepping over the front of my wheelchair on a daily basis, even when I’m visible.

At first it confused me why people would do this but then I had an epiphany, albeit the most boring epiphany ever described in all of history. People are impatient.

I’ll be the first to admit that when patience was given out I was at the back of the queue, impatiently tapping my foot on the floor. Given that at the time I wasn’t disabled, I couldn’t even pull my usual trick of skipping an entire queue purely because I’m a wheelchair user. This means that when somebody is walking ridiculously slowly down the middle of the pavement, often weaving from side to side like a driver in the British Touring Car Championship, I have to ignore the urge to use my chair as a plough, and act like I have nowhere to be or nothing important to do.

Although I do earnestly try to be patient, I cannot deny that I find being stuck behind someone driving their wheelchair slowly down the centre of the pavement frustrating too. I know that some people aren’t able to travel quickly, particularly in manual wheelchairs, and I know that I should be far more patient and understanding than I am, but it gives me the pedestrian equivalent of road rage. I refuse to believe that I am the only one to feel this way, especially as I understand the trials and tribulations of using a wheelchair and still manage to get annoyed. This means that, instead of risking being stuck behind a wheelchair user who might be moving slowly, people push in front of the wheelchair to be on their way. Unfortunately for those of us who are able to move their wheelchairs at a faster pace, this results in a few difficulties.

Recently I was in a local shopping centre, and there was a choir performing Beatles songs to entertain the crowd of Saturday shoppers. Not being a huge fan of The Beatles myself, let alone choral versions of their songs, I drove my wheelchair as close to the shop-fronts as possible, moving behind the crowd that had gathered to watch. At the back of this crowd were three women, two of whom upon seeing me approach stepped forward from their position blocking a shop door (where people trying to exit the shop were getting annoyed) into the path of my wheelchair (which made me annoyed), and I swear there was a Starsky and Hutch style screech as my tyres slipped on the smooth floor although it could just as easily have been the choir. The third woman gestured to allow me past, looking particularly smug that she had been considerate enough to do so, and I bit my lip before I said something I knew I’d regret.

I wasn’t invisible, and the acknowledgement of my existence on any level shows that society is progressing towards a more tolerant and inclusive way of life. However it is clear to me that there is still progress to be made, including progress on my account to be more patient with those less able than myself. People like me have to lead by example, so my example needs to change, and that is what I aim to do.

The Writing Days.

After completing my degree at the end of May, I’ve had more time on my hands than someone wearing 15 watches at once. Instead of being the supposedly stereotypical Millennial who doesn’t lift a finger for three whole months, I’ve put a lot of my time into watching movies, which requires lifting a finger to press buttons on the remote. I’ve also been doing some writing on the side.

Contrary to popular opinion, writers are not always lazy slobs. To prove this I decided to write about what writing for a blog, an international magazine, and also working on other (top secret) projects is actually like on a day-to-day basis.

Given that I have no set time when I am required to start work it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I choose to wake up naturally, which usually occurs between 9 and 10 am depending on my alcohol consumption the evening before. Jarred usually wakes up far earlier than this and by the time I wander sleepily through from the bedroom to the lounge, he’s often been playing either Skyrim or Fallout 4 for over an hour. The kettle goes on, and while I wait for it to boil I’ll take my medicine and grab some cereal. I’m nice, so I make Jarred a coffee as well as myself.

While I eat breakfast, we’ll switch to my profile on the games console, and Jarred will control my character while I boss him around. Once we’ve completed whatever mission we were doing, I get washed and changed into something comfy, and then drift back through to the lounge and allow Facebook to bombard me with notifications. At this point, I also like to browse through the latest articles on my favourite magazines, which I prefer to call “research” rather than “procrastination”.

Lunch is usually a sandwich and some fruit, along with sparkling water and some unladylike belching. Immediately after lunch I’ll pack my laptop bag, hop into my wheelchair, and take the 5 minute journey to my favourite coffee shop that I can actually get my wheelchair into. I roll up to the counter where they see the top of my head only, and the barista greets me by name.  They then ask if I want a regular Americano with milk bringing to my table. Perhaps I ought to take this as a hint that I spend too much time in this particular café, but I’m a creature of habit.

Fuelled by the sudden caffeine rush I begin to type. Half the time I don’t think I’m even aware of the words appearing on the screen in front of me; they just materialise. An hour or so later I’ll come out of my trance, and return to the counter for re-caffeinating purposes. Then it’s back to work.

As 5 o’clock approaches I bring my writing to a close, bring my laptop to a close, and head home. I start to prepare dinner, which is usually something simple like a stir fry. Then I leave the dish washer (a.k.a. Jarred) to do my literal dirty work while I browse YouTube.

Once all the pots are clean and away, the evening relaxation after a hard afternoons’ work begins. This might entail a hot bath including bath salts and a rubber duck, watching films, or playing board games. While I nearly always lose chess and Risk, being a writer gives me a distinct advantage at Scrabble. By 10 o’clock I’m usually capable of 4-letter words only and my Scrabble prowess begins to decline. Then it’s a case of taking medicines, scrubbing my teeth, and crawling back into bed for another 11 hours. Repeat.

Captain Wheels: A Short Story.

The pub door swung open and a tall, muscular woman entered and looked around the room. Finally her eyes settled on the man she wished to speak to, perched precariously on a bar stool with his wheelchair directly to his right. She marched across the room to him and tapped him lightly on the shoulder causing him to swivel round.

“Captain Wheels?” she asked.

“Yes,” he replied, “want to take a selfie?”

“No. Actually I’d like to speak with you in relative privacy, perhaps in one of those booths?” she pointed to the opposite wall which was lined with tall, secluded booths.

“Oh OK, sure. Give me a minute.” Captain Wheels shifted into his wheelchair, stretched up for the half-drunk pint still on the bar and followed the woman across the room to the booth in the far corner. He manoeuvred himself from his wheelchair, which couldn’t fit in the booth, onto one of the high-backed, cushioned seats.

“My name is Nicola Rage and I’m recruiting people with special abilities to form a team,” Nicola began, “In searching the newspapers for reports of such people I came across several articles discussing your activities, and I decided that you might be exactly what I’m searching for.”

Captain Wheels raised one eyebrow slightly, “And what exactly is this team for?”

“Government intelligence services have found evidence of a criminal organisation that is in ownership of multiple significant threats that have the potential to destroy entire cities. What these threats are is as yet unknown but when those threats present themselves, as appears to be inevitable, we need someone to protect us.”

“And that’s me?”

“Potentially as part of a team of like-minded individuals,” Nicola said calmly, “but first I need to talk to you to discuss what exactly these abilities are without the exaggeration of excitable journalists.” She flipped open a notepad on which were scrawled a handful of questions and before Captain Wheels had the chance to say anything else, she began questioning him.

“How did you obtain your powers?”

“Well personally I don’t especially like recounting that experience-“ Captain Wheels began but was interrupted by Nicola.

“Captain, I realise that asking someone how they obtained their special abilities is a sensitive question but I am not asking this to satisfy my own personal curiosity. I need to hear it from you.”

“7 years ago doctors found a tumour in my brain. A cancerous one. The operation to remove it went wrong, severely limiting my mobility and putting me in a wheelchair, but while I lost control of my own body I gained the ability to control other physical objects. I can move things with my mind, get things to levitate very briefly, and can even influence the actions of those around me to some extent.”

“So you’re telekinetic?” Nicola asked in a matter-of-fact voice, almost sounding bored.

“Yeah, I guess so,” came Captain Wheels’ reply.

“And how do you use these powers?”

“Probably my most frequent job is to move extremely heavy objects if someone is trapped say in a building fire or a collapsed building following an earthquake. I’ve also been able to prevent car accidents and the like and I can move objects to block and trap criminals. allowing them to be caught by the police before they cause any more harm,” Captain Wheels said.

“So you could perhaps trap terrorists allowing them to be apprehended, or move a bomb to a safe distance away from inhabited buildings and businesses. And you could help anyone stuck within the wreckage if we weren’t fast enough,” Nicola proceeded.

“Yes.”

“Could you get them to change their minds about their intentions?”

“It’s possible but not certain, I’m afraid. I may be able to slow them down by making them question their actions, but once an idea is imprinted firmly in someone’s mind I can do very little to change it,” Captain Wheels explained.

Nicola Rage sat back against her seat in thought before continuing.

“Would you be willing to be a member of an elite team, all of whom have their own special abilities, to help reduce the threat to our society on an international scale?” she asked.

“If my powers are useful to you then yes, absolutely,” Captain Wheels said with sincerity.

“Then welcome to the Protection Squad.”

***

Captain Wheels slowly seated himself in his new wheelchair. Instead of the cold, grey lump of metal he was used to this was warm and comfortable, more like an armchair on wheels. Like his old wheelchair it was powered but here the similarities stopped. The batteries had an extra-long life and could be charged using solar power as well as the charger. The control panel was cluttered with a myriad of buttons which Nicola guided him through.

“The top one is for stealth mode. It silences the motors and dims the lights on the control panel, activates the chameleon panels which help you blend into the background just like the ones on your uniform, and switches off the horn so you have no chance of alerting someone to your presence accidentally.

“That one is for the jet pack which will help you levitate your own wheelchair at great heights for longer so you can focus your powers elsewhere. This one here is for the parachute should something go wrong.

“This one is for the gun incorporated into your left arm rest, and will reload automatically from the magazine of bullets under the seat. We’ve added special receptors that can enhance the effects of your telekinesis, allowing you to aim the gun hands-free.

“Obviously all of these things take some power from the battery so should be used carefully, but with these batteries I can’t imagine you’ll have to worry about it too much.”

“Wow,” Captain Wheels said slowly, “just wow.”

Nicola smiled, “I had an inkling that you might like it. Are you ready to meet the other team members?”

Captain Wheels nodded and followed her into the next room. In the centre of the room was an oval-shaped mahogany table with three men and two women in the same uniform already seated around it, as if they were attending the worlds’ most unusual board meeting. Captain Wheels manoeuvred into the space left for him at the table while Nicola took her seat at the end of the table.

“Welcome, all of you,” she said, “you were hand-picked because of your special abilities and together you are the Protection Squad. I advise that you get to know each other quickly; the latest government intelligence suggests that the first threat is imminent and we will need you to defend us. Now if you will excuse me I have a strategy meeting with my superiors to attend, after which you may well be called upon.” She stood up and left.

There was a short, awkward pause before the darker-haired woman introduced herself as Dominique, her power being the ability to shape-shift. The second woman, known only as the Blood Assassin, briefly described the genetic and surgical enhancements she had been subjected to against her will that had turned her into a super-warrior. Doctor Raven described himself as a super-intelligent telepath and Jerry Lightning introduced his ability to run faster than the speed of sound. Finally there was Thoron, affectionately nicknamed for his strength and odd resemblance to the Nordic God of thunder. The last person to introduce himself was Captain Wheels.

“I’m Dave Heyton, otherwise known as Captain Wheels,” he said as all eyes turned to face him, “and I’m telekinetic. My wheelchair also has special stealth settings and a jet pack.”

“So what are you without the wheelchair?” Thoron scoffed.

“A telekinetic, cancer-surviving badass,” Captain Wheels kept a straight face as he said this, while Dominique struggled to supress her smile. Before anything else could be said the door opened and Nicola Rage entered.

“We have a situation,” she said.

***

Tactics were discussed in the helicopter while they headed to their destination, an allegedly disused block of offices in the financial district of London. It had been reported that a gas-emitting bomb was to be hidden there by the criminal organisation shortly before rush hour when it would be set off, releasing poisonous gases that would result in horrific widespread disease, essentially turning people into mindless zombies.

“This weapon is designed to cause mass panic on a national scale as much as it is to harm people,” Nicola Rage said, “if it goes off not only will we have a horrific disease to manage, but the country will be in uproar. The mistrust of governmental departments is bad enough as it is; something like this would push the country into disrepair and self-destruction. And that means that someone new can barge in and take control, because in that situation the public simply want a leader to follow and they won’t give a damn who that will be.

“You will be dropped off here,” Nicola pointed to a location on the map, “and will make your way through this series of back alleys to the office block in question. Raven; we want you on the top floor of the building providing us with information as to the whereabouts of the criminals in the office. Dominique; follow the gang through the building by blending into the environment, providing us with further intel by thinking it for Doctor Raven, and joining in the fighting when we apprehend the gang. Assassin and Thoron; using the intel provided we will guide you through the building until the right moment when you will start your attack. Lightning and Wheels; you will use your speed and levitation powers in combination to quickly transport the bomb to our bomb-disposal team in their secret base in the most remote part of the Scottish highlands. Understood?”

Everyone nodded and soon the helipad where they were to land came into view. Instead of waiting for the lift to arrive to carry him down to ground level, which was taking far too long, Captain Wheels decided to use the jet-pack and go down the stairs, which proved trickier to control than he had anticipated. Quite how the scorch-marks left behind him would be explained to the cleaning staff he didn’t know.

Once they were on the street they moved swiftly through the back alleys until they arrived at the office block. As expected there was no evidence of activity yet, so they slipped into the building unnoticed. Doctor Raven checked with his telepathic powers that the building was indeed empty and then set off for the top floor. Dominique disguised herself as a small spider spinning a web in the corner, ready to follow the criminals when they arrived. The rest tucked themselves in the dark underneath the stairs, activated their chameleon suits, and waited for further instructions to be fed to them through their ear pieces.

A short later their earpieces crackled into life and Nicola Rage’s disembodied voice confirmed sighting of the gang headed towards the office disguised as delivery men, driving an unmarked white van. About two minutes after this Doctor Raven said he could detect ten people, all men, approaching in a white van. While nine of the men were highly anxious that some sort of suspicious activity was going on, only one seemed to actually know what was being delivered. Doctor Raven tracked the men as they entered the building; two stayed on the ground floor, two outside the first floor, and two more stayed outside the door into the second floor while the remaining four entered the offices. Dominique was completely unnoticed as she scuttled into the office underneath the closed door.

At this point Blood Assassin crept out from beneath the stairs and stealthily made her way towards the two men in the reception area. Silently, she knocked them both unconscious simultaneously and gently placed their bodies on the floor. When she returned she clambered onto Lightnings’ back and in a flash she was up the stairs, having knocked out both sets of guards. Captain Wheels and Thoron could now make their way up to the second floor, where they grouped together.

Doctor Raven said that the package containing the bomb had been put down, and that the three men who didn’t know what was in it were making their way back towards the stair well. Everyone pressed themselves back against the wall on each side of the door, something Captain Wheels found particularly difficult, blending into the dull grey walls almost perfectly. The three men left the second floor in silence, and once the door had closed behind them Blood Assassin knocked them all unconscious, propping them up against the wall.

As they were about to enter the office to apprehend the one remaining man, Nicola Rage reported that a helicopter was progressing towards them. Once Doctor Raven found the relevant vehicle he said that there were four men in the helicopter, all in the know. They were planning to kill all the other men involved in the operation, acting as security until the bomb went off, when they would succumb to the disease just like the man already in the building. Thinking quickly Nicola ordered them to enter the room and apprehend the one man there, telling Lightning and Captain Wheels to remove the bomb while only one man was present, leaving the rest to fight the approaching criminals.

Captain Wheels deactivated stealth mode and violently kicked the door open, which promptly swung back and slammed his legs. Thoron leant across him and pushed the door so hard the hinges snapped. Dominque transformed into her human form, blocking the doors on the other side of the room. The criminal screamed that he was under attack into his own walkie-talkie before firing his gun at his attackers. Only two bullets had been fired before Blood Assassin had disarmed him, both of which missed their target, at which point Captain Wheels levitated the bomb towards himself. Thoron kept the enemy in place while the two women headed up the building to deal with the helicopter that had just landed, and Captain Wheels was propelled out of the building at super speed by Lightning.

Once outside Captain Wheels activated his jet pack, flying close to the buildings so that Lightning could run along them, continuing to push the wheelchair at speed. Within seconds they were out of the city, running along buildings and hilltops, flying in between, and in only a couple of minutes they were approaching the bomb disposal unit. Travelling at such a speed through the cold, wet Scottish highlands was not the most enjoyable experience nor was it good for slick hair styles, but both men were far more concerned with the bomb than they were about their own discomfort. It was only as they landed, soaked to the skin, that they even noticed just how cold they were. The bomb disposal team took the bomb from them as soon as they had landed and almost immediately Captain Wheels and Lightning embarked on the return trip.

As they arrived at the office block they were informed by Doctor Raven that the fighting was already over. Dominque and Blood Assassin had rapidly disarmed the men from the helicopter and he himself had hacked into the still-working security system to lock the doors of the room they were in once the women had escaped. A police squad were on their way to pick up all the men, and in the meantime the Protection Squad were to wait on the roof of the building for further orders, bar Thoron who was still occupied detaining the apparent mastermind behind the scheme.

From the roof the Protection Squad had a reasonable view of the police arriving in vans and dragging out the unconscious men, before finally putting the rest of the men into high-security vans with the aid of Thoron. As this progressed a crowd gathered and soon extra police had to be called in for crowd control. Soon enough the police were escorting their prisoners to the nearest station and the Protection Squad worked their way down the building to meet the enthusiastic people outside, who were particularly interested in Captain Wheels’ chair. Camera’s flashed and journalist yelled questions at the top of their lungs, all trying to find out what exactly had happened. Nicola Rage reminded them not to say a word as she sent a van to pick them up.

The following morning all of the newspapers headlines were as predictable as a B-movie science fiction film; all of them were desperate to know just who the Protection Squad were. Captain Wheels smiled at the photograph plastered across every front page; only the very top of his head could be seen as he sat beside his standing compatriots. He didn’t have long to relax however, before Nicola Rage called upon him again.