Wheels Ahoy: Yet Another Short Story.

“What’s the weather forecast, lad?” the captain said in his gruff voice.

“I’ll just check, cap’n,” the first mate, a young man in his early twenties, replied. He crossed the captains’ spacious cabin, opened the wooden door, and peered up at the mast.

“What be the weather on the horizon, laddie?” the first mate bawled up at the cabin boy who was perched in the crows’ nest, buffeted by the strong winds.

“Looks like there be another storm comin’” came the faint response.

“Another storm comin’ by the look of it, cap’n,” the first mate said as he re-entered the captains’ quarters, receiving an exasperated sigh in response. As if in confirmation of the first mates words, the captain felt the swell of the sea increase beneath him.

“We’ll have to go to port soon, then, I doubt the Rolly Roger can take much more of this.”

“Aye, cap’n,” the first mate said, bending over the map spread over the desk, “the nearest be one days’ good sailin’ away sir.”

“That’d be sailin’ in good weather, lad,” the captain replied, then paused in thought, “I’ll take the helm ‘til the storm hits.”

“Aye aye cap’n.”

The captain moved away from his desk to reveal a specially crafted wooden chair, with two small cart-wheels where the legs would normally have been. It did not look especially comfortable and was even slightly askew, but the captain was accustomed to it and didn’t even seem to mind the frequent splinters all over his hands from contact with the wheels. He turned awkwardly to move around the desk, then headed to the door of the cabin which the first mate held open for him.

“Afternoon men,” the captain roared heartily as he emerged on deck.

“Aye aye cap’n,” came the chorus response.

The captain headed towards the ladder leading up to the helm, stopping in front of two large, impassive men stationed there. Not a word was needed. One man carefully lifted the captain from his wheelchair, and started to ascend the ladder in a balancing act that was uncomfortable to watch, and the other had the equally cumbersome task of carrying the wheelchair. At the top of the ladder the captain was gently set back in his wheelchair. This procedure, unusual as it was, did not attract much attention as the crew of the ship were accustomed to the captains’ condition, just as he was to his wheelchair.

The captain took his place by the wheel, which was set lower than was conventional so that the captain could reach it comfortably. The dark clouds on the horizon were creeping forward, consuming more and more of the clear, summer sky, and the wind was growing noticeably stronger. Overhead seagulls circled in the sky, screeching and occasionally dive-bombing the poor cabin boy who was still not relieved of duty in the crows’ nest.

The captain stretched out his arms so that the back of his hands were visible, his thumbs stretched out at right angles to his fingers. On the left hand a “P” had been tattooed indicating “port”, and on his right an “S” for starboard.

“To port!” he called to his men, who then had the unenviable task of coaxing the old, heavy ship to turn.

Once the ship was set to the right course a flurry of action ensued as the sails were folded away to prevent them from becoming damaged in the storm. Finally the cabin boy was allowed to scramble down the rigging, his bare feet slipping on the ropes. About half way down in the transfer between two adjacent sets of rigging, he slipped and fell, landing with a loud, wet thump on the deck besides the captain.

“Careful laddie,” the captain looked down at the bedraggled boy, “that’s how I ended up in this thing.”

“I’m good, cap’n,” the cabin boy croaked.

The first mate came scurrying up the ladder to the captains’ side.

“I suggest you go inside before the storm hits, cap’n,” he offered, “I’ll take the helm.”

“I can make my own decisions, lad,” the captain said before turning to the men stationed by the ladder, “First mate on the helm, we all know what happened the last time I got caught up here in a storm.” He eyed the messy patchwork of wooden shingles and nails that covered the hole his old wheelchair had made when it rolled off the deck in a storm. Then began the process of getting both the captain and his wheelchair safely down the ladder, which with the swell now picking up was particularly tricky. Once he was down on the main deck again the captain returned to his cabin, accompanied by the cabin boy to serve some much-needed rum.

The captain relished in the relative warmth of his cabin, a mug full of rum in his hand, watching the stormy sea slap the sides of the ship with increasing ferocity. Slowly the day darkened into night, and the ships’ cook brought a plateful of warm food up to the captain. Sometime after finishing his meal alone in his cabin the captain fell asleep, only to be awoken by his wheelchair sliding backwards until it hit the cabin wall with a substantial impact. As he wearily looked around the room the floor tilted the other way, and the captain rolled across the cabin to the other wall, which he had barely collided with before the motion reversed. Around his wheels, empty rum bottles clinked and clattered as they travelled with him back and forth.

With a tired sigh the captain turned his wheelchair perpendicular to the waves in an attempt to stop the distressing movement, but the force of the waves overturned his wheelchair completely, leaving him in a heap on the floor pummelled by empty rum bottles. Despite the obvious discomfort the captain was tired and drunk enough to return to sleep, and when he awoke once more the worst of the storm had passed.

***

“Land ahoy!” the shout from the crows’ nest was audible from within the cabin as the captain sat himself upright, leaning against his desk. His wheelchair had ended up in the far corner of the office, still overturned. He was about to start the laborious process of crawling over to it when the cabin doors burst open and the first mate thundered into the room.

“Did your parents not teach you to knock?” the captain tried to sound disgruntled, despite being secretly pleased that help had arrived.

“I didn’t have none, cap’n, I was brought up in an orphanage,” the first mate failed to realise the rhetorical nature of the question as he scurried over to the captain, “You alright?”

“Of course I’m fine, lad, I’ve ‘ad worse,” he paused dramatically, “Have I not told you of the time I-“

“Single-handedly fought off the kraken and saved a hundred pirates’ lives, including that of Blackbeard himself, all from a wheelchair? Yes, cap’n, you have, many times,” the first mate replied as he set the wheelchair upright, and pushed it to the captains’ side before gently helping him into it.

“We’ll be dockin’ this afternoon, cap’n,” the first mate said as he left the cabin again.

***

As the Rolly Roger drew into port, the captain was uncomfortably aware of the many staring men and women as he sat at the helm of the ship. The crews of other ships stopped their work briefly to gawp as he drifted past, trying to ignore a thousand eyes staring into what felt like his soul. Once the ship was still and the gangway down the captain was lifted onto the deck once more, and then had to make the precarious journey over, the narrow gangway from ship to shore. Once on the jetty the captain was approached by a man who looked as if the last time he had had any fun had been in a previous life, in which he had also been a slug.

“No wheeled contraptions on the jetty, it damages the wood,” the man pointed at the wheelchair, failing to address the captain appropriately.

“And what would one ‘ave me do?” the captain replied in a mockingly eloquent tone, “levitate?”

A few people tending to a ship on the other side of the jetty sniggered, which only served to annoy the man even more.

“We’re just here to pick up some stuff from the market and we’ll be gone again tomorrow,” the captain said icily, “I have no intention of staying for long.”

“Well someone else will have to do it. Now if you won’t be reasonable I’m sure your captain will. Where is he?” the man snarled back.

“You’re talking to ‘im, you mollycoddled, do-gooding landlubber,” the captain said fiercely.

“I’m not sure your captain would appreciate such humour,” the man replied.

From the deck of the ship the first mate had watched the exchange and finally decided to put the pompous fool in his place.

“Captain!” he called, “what should I do with this ‘ere plague-ridden, fleabag rat?”

“Just throw ‘im ashore,” the captain called back, trying not to look too smug.

“Oh goodness, captain I do apologise. You must understand, your case is so unusual-“

“Oh I know, lose a leg and everyone thinks you’re a legendary warrior, lose movement in your legs and everyone wonders where your brain got to. Now, are you going to let me pass or not?” the captain interrupted and his adversary stood meekly to one side.

In the village the captain wandered around the cobbled market place, occasionally getting stuck on the uneven ground, sending his men to collect the necessary supplies. At the very edge of the market was a stall that caught the captain’s attention. It was laden down with precious stones of every imaginable shape, size, and colour, some set into jewellery, and some on their own. The vendor behind the stall saw his potential customer and immediately set to work.

“Healing stones, get your healing stones here! Make blind men walk and lame men see – no, hang on, blind men see and lame men walk,” on the last point he looked directly at the captain.

“What do I do?” the captain asked, “Swallow one?”

“No, no, sir. They are charmed with the blessings of healing spirits-“

“Ah it’s a long time since I was on the receiving end of any blessings, I think I’ll pass,” the captain turned away and set off towards the harbour again, his crew following him with all that they had bought.

***

The captain was the last to traverse the gangway. As he started to make his way over the path barely wider than his wheelchair he noticed a beautiful woman dressed in the latest fashions walking along one of the walls overlooking the port, her luscious curls falling almost to her waist. Distracted, it did not take much for his wheelchair to go off course, and before he knew it the captain was plunged into the cold, scummy waters below. Seconds later he was joined by the first mate, who having seen the captains’ fall had dived into the murky waters without a second thought, and he heaved the captain to the surface. As air once again touched the captains’ face he took a great, gasping breath, and then proceeded to cough what little water had entered his lungs back into the ocean. Still coughing and gasping, two crewmen who had returned to the jetty to help the captain heaved him up, where he lay flat on his back soaking the wood beneath him. The first mate dived back into the waters, staying below the surface for almost a minute before resurfacing.

“The wheelchair’s gone,” he said as he pulled himself onto the jetty, “I’ll ‘ave to build a new’un. Take the cap’n aboard while I go in search of materials.”

The two crewmen carried the bedraggled captain onto the ship, leaving a trail of wet wood in his wake. They dragged him to his cabin and placed him on the bed and the cabin boy was instructed to give the captain clean, dry clothes.

By the time the first mate returned from town, having spent all the gold from their past three lootings altogether, the captain was warm and dry if a little shaken. The crew spent the entire afternoon crafting a new wheelchair for the captain, taking until sunset to complete the task. As darkness fell the first mate pushed the new wheelchair into the captains’ cabin.

“There you go, cap’n,” the first mate presented the chair proudly, “We’ve got t’wheels even this time so it won’t be slightly askew.”

“Ah now that’s a welcome relief, thank you,” the captain smiled to the first mate as he was lifted into his new chair, “By the way, as reward for ya work today our next task will be t’seize another ship.”

There was a pause.

“A new ship, cap’n?” the first mate queried.

“Aye I’m promoting you to captain of your own ship, lad,” the captain grinned, showing off a full set of rotten teeth, “The crews’ big enough to divide between two ships.”

It took a minute for the news to sink in, but when it did, a warm grin spread across the first mates’ face. The captain took on a serious tone again.

“We leave at dawn.”

Rob the Roller: Yet Another Short Story.

The sound of van doors slamming signified Rob’s arrival. The builders leant casually against the fence, taking great swigs of tea as Rob glided across the muddy yard towards them.

“Morning Rob,” Tyler, one of the builders who was forever receiving comments about how apt his name was for his profession, said as he handed Rob a steaming cup of tea as supplied by the owners of the plot of land they were working on.

“Morning lads,” Rob accepted his tea with a nod as he addressed the team; “What’s the situation today?”

“We ought to get the concrete foundation laid while it’s still dry,” Jess, the only woman in the group, answered.

“And someone needs to check the deliveries,” Seb piped up.

“Right, well, I’ll get that delivery sorted while you prepare to lay the concrete,” Rob looked around the group who all nodded. Draining the last of his drink, Rob got to work.

Checking the delivery and recording all the items in the inventory and finance records was a long, arduous, and particularly boring task, but laying concrete from a wheelchair was even worse. Rob sat in the shelter of a tarpaulin sheet stretched over the corner of the yard they were working in, feeling drops of water fall from the edge of the sheet onto his head and trickle down his back. Occasionally a member of the team would bring him another drink, for which he was grateful as the hours dragged slowly by.

He had almost completed the whole process when his pencil snapped, and to his dismay Rob found all of his pockets devoid of any pencils. Rob sighed loudly, turned around, and started to roll back across the yard.

“Rob!” hearing someone shout his name, Rob looked up suddenly.

“The concrete, it’s still wet,” Jess yelled.

“You’ve laid it already?” Rob said, surprised. He felt his wheels sink slowly into something, the resistance against them increasing as he tried to propel himself forward, “Great.”

Seb and Tyler came running towards Rob, and started to pull him backwards onto dry land. After a few minutes of heaving, straining, sweating, and swearing they managed to pull him to safety. Rob looked down at his wheels covered in grey slime, which he ineffectively tried to brush off.

“It’ll be easier to get off when it’s dry,” Jess came towards the men with a tray of fresh drinks.

“Thanks Jess,” Rob said dejectedly, inspecting the damage done by his carelessness. Four tire tracks cut harshly in the otherwise perfectly smooth concrete, two narrow and close together from his front wheels, and two larger and wider apart at the back. Lining each track was a small pile of wet concrete that had been pushed aside, and even the patterns from the tires had been imprinted into the concrete. Alongside the tracks were two large sets of footsteps, in many cases elongated as the men slipped and slid in their efforts to rescue Rob.

“Don’t worry, we can fix this,” Seb put his hand on Robs’ shoulder, seeing the miserable expression on his face.

“Any of you lot got a pencil I can borrow?” Rob asked after a short while.

“Sure,” Tyler passed a pencil to Rob, who returned to complete the inventory, leaving the others smooth over the damaged concrete to the best of their abilities and fill in the holes. By the end of the day the inventory was complete, the materials had been sorted carefully depending on what materials would be needed first, and the holes in the concrete were barely perceptible. They all left the building site a little earlier than their usual time, leaving the concrete undisturbed to set overnight.

***

Rob was the first of the team on site the next morning, and the site that met his eyes made him curse violently and vehemently.

“Damn that stupid bird,” he yelled, in between other, less repeatable statements. In the concrete the tracks of a single bird hopping across the yard could be seen, going all the way from one corner to the other.

Next to arrive was Jess, then Seb, and then Tyler.

“What’s on the cards today?” Rob said as he swigged his usual cup of tea.

“Fill in those holes,” Tyler pointed out the obvious, looking at the concrete.

“And then it’s time for bricks and mortar,” Seb said.

Half an hour later the birds footsteps had been filled in, and together they were building the walls of the garage. The four of them carefully laid the bricks by hand, smoothing down the mortar that held them together. The banter between them was light and friendly, with Jess supplying music via an old, beat-up radio with an extension cable leading into the landowners house. Slowly the wall grew to one foot high, then two feet, and by the end of the day it was three feet high.

The next day Rob could no longer reach the top of the wall to add more bricks, so spent his time as a human wheelbarrow, fetching a load of bricks across on his knees and handing them up to the rest of the team. His thighs soon bore the bruises of this task.

The following day, Jess, Seb, and Tyler all needed to use stepladders to continue their work, until finally the wall was a staggering 7 feet tall.

Next came the flat, plywood panels that were the ceiling of the garage, punched into place with a nail gun and hiding the ugly steel rafters that would support the garage roof. This was covered in tarpaulin while some scaffolding was set up around the garage. At one end of the scaffolding was a strange system of pulleys, one end splitting into four chains each bearing their own hook, and the other end with a sack of bricks wedged into a tractor tyre tied to it. The family who lived in the house were perplexed, but were too British to inquire about this. They were to get their answer the following morning.

As always the morning discussion of the tasks to do that day took place over the cups of tea, and then they set to work. The family watched from behind semi-closed curtains as Rob approached the pulley system, and Tyler helped him hook the chains securely to various anchor points on his wheelchair. Seb and Jess clambered up the scaffolding to the top, stopping by the brick-filled tyre which they hauled onto its side.

“Ready?” Jess called down.

“Ready,” came the reply from below.

“1… 2… 3,” Jess counted slowly as Seb and herself rolled the wheel towards the edge of the scaffolding simultaneously. The wheel reached the edge of the wooden platform, teetered for a second, and then plunged towards the ground. The rope uncoiled, stretching out until taut, and then sent Rob soaring upwards towards Seb and Jess, who caught his wheelchair and pulled it safely onto the platform before unhooking his wheelchair from the pulley. Inside the house the family watched in amazement.

Tyler untied the tyre from the pulley system as the team formed a human factory line. Tyler put heavy roof tiles in a sturdy bucket which was hauled up the scaffolding by Jess and Rob using the pulley system. They unloaded the bucket onto the platform, and Seb began to lay each tile along the roof, one by one. The empty bucket was returned to Tyler and refilled, repeating the process until all the tiles were safely by the roof.

Tyler hopped up the scaffolding to join the team as they all set to laying the tiles. Once they had gone too high for Rob to reach, he took to carrying the tiles to the rest of the team while they built the roof. Working together in a swift manner as they had done so many times before, they completed the roof in a surprisingly quick time. It was at this point that it started to rain.

The rain was torrential, beating down on the team with extraordinary force. Rob’s lap was soaked within minutes, and Jess’s hair clung to her face and neck. Tyler scrambled down the scaffolding, slipping once or twice, but reached the bottom unharmed. He removed the bricks from the centre of the tyre, re-attached the tyre to the end of the rope, and waited for the others’ signal. On the scaffolding above Seb and Jess were fumbling with the hooks on Rob’s wheelchair, barely able to see as the water streamed down their faces. After a few minutes their faces appeared over the edge of the platform, Seb giving a thumbs up to Tyler below.

Rob was pushed gently over the edge, Tyler gripping the wet tyre to the best of his abilities. Slowly and carefully the team started to lower Rob to the ground, Tyler gripping the tyre with all his might as he clambered back up the scaffolding slowly. However, keeping his grip on the tyre in the downpour was akin to fighting a losing battle, and almost inevitably the tyre slipped through his fingers. Rob felt the ground disappear from beneath him, his stomach turning with the sudden motion as he fell. He braced for impact, scrunching his eyes shut.

His wheelchair halted mere inches above the ground, swinging slowly back and forth on the end of the pulley. Rob slowly relaxed his tense muscles and opened his eyes. He looked up.

“It’s jammed!” Seb called down, “the pulley’s jammed!”

The family from the house came rushing out into the storm, concerned about Rob.

“Are you OK?” the mother asked, her hair already soaked.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” Rob tried to sound as dignified as someone could in his situation.

“Do you need some oil?” the father called up to the rest of the team who were trying to release the pulley.

“I think there’s some in the van,” Jess climbed down, keys in hand.

“I’ll get it,” one of the children, a boy of about 10 or 11 piped up, running over to the van which Jess opened for him. A minute later he was back with a large can of oil.

“Thanks kid,” Jess handed the oil up to Seb.

“Best step back,” Tyler said as he descended. He and Jess stood either side of the wheelchair, holding two of the chains that secured Robs’ wheelchair each. Seb oiled the pulley system, making a mess due to the low visibility in the rain. Tyler and Jess braced themselves to suddenly take the weight of the wheelchair. They felt the pulley give, but were able to gently lower Rob to the ground without a severe impact.

Rob uttered a quiet thanks, embarrassed that the family had seen the whole affair.

“Right, folks,” Seb said as he hopped down from the scaffolding, “We’ll be back next week to add the final touches, and then we’ll be done.”

“Good to hear,” the mother said politely, “let’s hope this rain stops.”

***

The following Monday was dry but over-cast as Rob rolled into work. Leant against the fences surrounding the house was a large garage door, complete with tracks that would need attaching to the ceiling. As he inspected them, Jess came out of the house carrying the inevitable cup of tea.

“Morning Rob, how you feeling?” she asked cheerfully. Rob had always marvelled at her ability to cope with mornings.

“Okay, thanks, bit bruised,” he replied.

“Naturally,” she said.

An hour later the team were busy fitting the tracks for the garage door. They were very fiddly and Seb had already cut his finger once, the plaster barely sticking to the wound. With much stretching and swearing the tracks were eventually in place. Rob went to get the garage door, which he dragged along behind him making a loud, grating sound. The door was a lot easier to get into place than the tracks had been, and within the hour it was ready to be tested.

Rob turned the key in the lock to check it worked, then took hold of the handle and heaved the door upwards. It swung outwards, moving along the tracks. As the door approached a 45° angle, the mechanism that would pull the door the rest of the way activated. Caught by surprise at the strength and speed of this mechanism, Rob didn’t let go in time, and ended up hanging mid-air holding on to the door which was now parallel to the floor.

“Err…guys?” Rob said, his arms already beginning to ache, “I’d say the auto-help mechanism works.”

In response he heard barely muffled laughter behind him, until Jess flung her head back and let out a huge roar of laughter. This set off Seb and Tyler, and even Rob himself began to chuckle as he clung on in desperation. His arms were burning with lactic acid now, and he could feel his fingers slipping slowly.

“Guys, seriously, this is funny but I need a hand here,” Rob said.

Still laughing, Tyler and Seb grabbed hold of either side of the wheelchair, while Jess placed her hands on his back to stop him over-turning.

“3… 2… 1… okay, let go Rob,” Seb instructed. Slowly Rob uncurled his fingers, until his entire weight was balanced precariously on his colleagues. Between them they managed to set the wheelchair on the ground gently, before bursting with laughter once more. Rob couldn’t help but join them as once again the concerned family came hurrying out of the house.

“Minor height issue,” Rob said in response to their puzzled expressions.

“We’re done, just need to clear up the tools,” Seb said as he struggled to control his laughter.

“Cool, well, you’ll have the payment within the week,” the father extended his hand for a hand-shake.

Slowly the tools were packed away and the yard swept. Finally, with everything loaded into their respective vans, Rob rolled down his window.

“Alright folks, you know our number should you have any problems,” he called to the family. They stood on the steps and waved as the team drove off, until they turned a corner and were no longer visible.

“Let’s call it a day, folks,” Rob said into his hands-free mobile set that he mainly used to talk to the team while driving, “Early start tomorrow. That Victorian villa won’t renovate itself…”

Born Survivor: Yet Another Short Story.

I was at home when I encountered my first victim of the sickness. My mum had come back from work early saying that she didn’t feel very well and was going to go to bed for a little while. A couple of hours later she shuffled out of her bedroom and came into the living room, where I was watching the news.

“Have you seen this?” I asked without looking at her, turning the volume up, “There’s some kind of disease going round; it looks really bad.”

When my mum made no effort to respond I turned to look at her. Her skin had taken on a pale, jaundiced hue, and her eyes were vacant between puffed up eyelids. She was drooling slightly from the corner of her mouth and her hair was falling over her face.

“OK mum, very funny,” I laughed. There was a short pause.

“Mum?”

I glanced back towards the TV where they were showing pictures of those who were already sick, and advising people to distance themselves from any victims. My mum wasn’t faking it.

I hauled myself shakily from the sofa to my wheelchair and left the room as fast as I could, slamming the door behind me. While I scrambled for my coat and shoes I could hear her rattling the door handle. I grabbed my bag and quickly checked that my wallet, phone, and keys were inside before bolting out of the door to our flat and locking it behind me.

I looked down the corridor towards the lifts, and saw the old lady from the flat next to ours shambling away from me. She had dementia and no one ever visited her bar the nurses, so I decided to guide her back to her flat where she could remain safe until the sickness could be quarantined.

“Mrs Owen?” I called. There was no answer. I approached her and tapped her gently on the hand.

“Best stay indoors right now, Mrs Owen, there’s trouble outside,” I said calmly.

She turned around slowly. She was drooling from both corners of the mouth and her eyes appeared to be oozing some strange, pus-filled tears. I dropped her hand immediately and made towards the lifts as fast as I could, hammering the button repeatedly as I waited for its arrival, all the while watching Mrs Owen head towards me. The lift arrived just in time; the doors closed as Mrs Owen made to step into the lift, crushing the toes on her right foot with a sickening sound. Somehow I managed to stop myself from being sick, and I pulled my phone out of my bag.

“Steph?” I said, relieved when my friend answered my call, “My mum’s sick, I need somewhere to go.”

“My entire family bar me is down with whatever the hell this is, I was just about to head over to your place,” she replied.

“We’re gonna need somewhere to hide out for a while. Somewhere secure,” I was pressing the phone to my ear with my shoulder in order to give me two hands to push my wheelchair.

“What about the gym?” I asked after thinking, gazing down the empty street. I had never seen it so quiet; if tumbleweed had at that moment drifted past I wouldn’t have been surprised.

“Food, water, showers, and decent security. Sounds like a good place to start,” Steph replied.

“And accessible,” I added.

“See you there,” she replied, and then hung up.

I turned left towards the main road where there was a deficit of traffic. I didn’t have to wait for the traffic lights to be able to cross safely, and I couldn’t help wondering where everybody was. It was hard to believe that everyone had been affected.

As I approached the gym it started to rain lightly, and I regretted not bringing a blanket to keep me dry. I could see Steph already making her way across the gym car-park and I called out to her. That was my first mistake. As soon as the first syllable had left my mouth a group of sick adults came rushing out of the nearby houses, attracted by my shout. They were moving faster than either my mum or Mrs Owen had been able to.

I pushed myself as rapidly as I could, and when I got to the car-park I glanced back over my shoulder. That was my second mistake. I should have kept moving; I felt a sharp jolt as one of the sick ones sank his teeth into my wheel. There was a sharp popping sound and then a gentle hiss as the tire began to slowly deflate. I looked up to see Steph hurtling towards me, and I reached out. She grabbed my hands and pulled me forwards out of the throng of sick adults, and then pushed me as fast as possible all the way into the gym. We slammed the doors shut behind us, sliding the security bolts into place.

“Any more of you?”

We jumped, and turned around. Leaning against the reception desk was a young woman in skinny jeans and a leather jacket, her short hair scraped back into a ponytail.

“No,” Steph answered first.

“OK, let’s go and meet the others and discuss what to do. You were sensible enough to come to the gym so I’m sure you’ll be able to pull your weight,” she stared straight at me as she spoke.

“This bothering you?” I pointed downwards.

“Right now it’s survival of the fittest, and you don’t look the fittest to me,” she replied casually.

“She’s an expert archer,” Steph blurted out angrily, “She’ll be a valuable part of whatever team you’re building.”

The woman raised an eyebrow slightly before turning away, and led us into the café overlooking the swimming pool.

“I’m Ruby,” the woman said, “and this is Vicky and Zelia.” She indicated to two more women of about her age sat by one of the vending machines. Both of them looked up, and their respective gazes settled on my wheelchair.

“I’m Jo,” I said, “and this is my friend, Steph.” We all gathered around the one table.

“Right,” Ruby said, “we’re gonna need to be organised if we wanna get outta this. You’re friend said something about being good at archery.”

“Err, yeah, I guess so,” I said as they all looked at me, “I spend a lot of time on the archery range, it’s one of the few sports disability doesn’t affect that much.”

“Cool. And what about you?” Ruby turned to Steph, “Any special talents?”

“I’m an apprentice electrical engineer,” Steph said.

“Wow, full of surprises,” Ruby replied, “There’s an old radio in the basement; do you reckon that you get that working for us? And modify the vending machines to get food out without spending any money?”

“Sure, it’s certainly worth a shot,” Steph said.

“OK. Well, Vicky and me do kickboxing, so we’re good for on-the-ground defence, and Zelia is our resident genius,” one of the women, small, with a dark pixie cut framing her face, blushed, “so she can do rations and medical stuff, and modify equipment.”

“So here’s the plan,” Ruby continued, “Zelia and Steph will put barricades in place on all the doors bar the back entrance and sort out the radio and stuff. Vicky and me will fashion some melee weapons out of gym equipment and patrol the car-park, keeping it clear of the zombie-things. Jo, you’re gonna select a bow and get all the arrows you can, and get to the roof where you can see what’s going on. We’ll reconvene here in an hour. Understood?”

We all nodded and set off for our various tasks. I took the lift, which was fortunately still working, down to the archery range. I selected my favourite bow; a lightweight, long range piece, with enough tension to fire arrows at tremendous speed. I went around all the store cupboards collecting every arrow I could, amounting to about 100 in total. My only problem was that the arrows weren’t designed to be used as weapons, and probably wouldn’t do that much damage if I tried to shoot someone. I looked around the room for ideas, a fruitless search that sent me into the rest of the basement where I bumped into Zelia.

“You OK?” she whispered shyly.

“Yeah,” I replied, “it’s just that these arrows aren’t going to do much good as weapons.”

Zelia looked around the corridor and reached out to touch one of the roughly whitewashed walls.

“You could probably sharpen some against this wall, but it might take a while,” she said thoughtfully. There was a short pause.

“Hang on,” she added, “there’s some bandages and alcoholic hygiene solution in the medical kits. If you soak the bandages in the alcohol and then wrap them around the arrow-heads, you could make fire arrows. Ruby has a lighter.”

“Good idea,” I nodded, “where can I find a medical kit?”

“There’s one in the café we were in,” Zelia replied.

I headed back towards the lift and pressed the button. As I did all the lights in the corridor dimmed, flickered, and went out.

“Powers’ down,” I heard Steph say from somewhere to my right. A couple of seconds later, a phone torch cast a white light down the corridor. I pressed the lift button again but nothing happened.

“There’s a hand crank for the lift upstairs behind a panel in the café, for emergencies. But we’re gonna need to lever open the doors,” Zelia impressed me with her quick thinking.

“Yo, I made a crowbar of sorts out of one of the cross-trainers. Best use for ‘em,” Ruby’s voice came from somewhere behind Steph. She sauntered towards me as if she hadn’t a care in the world, swinging a metal bar casually by her side. I moved to one side and let her crank open the doors, albeit slowly with a lot of heaving and sweating.

“I’ll go do all the other floors,” Ruby swaggered off the way she had come.

“I’ll go sort out the crank,” Zelia said reassuringly, “don’t worry, we’ll get you sorted out in no time.”

I thanked them and 10 minutes later I was sat in the café wrapping bandages around arrow-heads, and dipping them in alcohol solution.

***

The radio crackled and fuzzed as Steph delicately fiddled with the settings. Out of the unintelligible white noise came the occasional fragment of what sounded like a man’s voice, but we couldn’t make out any words. Suddenly, a clear string of words seemingly erupted from the speakers.

“…can hear this…military operation…rescue all citizens trapped by the plague who are not sick…signal us using this bandwidth…tell us…location…will aid…” the crackling noise overwhelmed the last of the words.

“I think it’s a repeating message,” Steph said, still tinkering among the mass of wires in the radio, “if I can just…there.” She sat back proudly as the message came pouring out of the speakers loud and clear.

“To anyone who can hear this, a military operation to rescue all citizens trapped by the plague who are not sick is in place. Signal using this bandwidth,” a small string of numbers followed, “and tell us your location. We will aid you as soon as we can… To anyone who-“

“Can you send them that signal?” I turned to Steph.

“Yes,” she returned, “but I may need a little time.”

“Take whatever you need,” Vicky spoke for the first time.

“In the meantime, here is my daily ration plan,” Zelia pushed forward a piece of paper covered in pencil scribblings, “the food here could last us for two weeks, after which point we would need to go out and look for more. The most important thing for now is to stop anyone sick from getting in.”

“Well, sounds like we have a job to do,” Ruby looked across at Vicky and myself. We both nodded, and I set off for the lifts.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” I said, stopping just before I entered the lift, “I need your lighter, Ruby. These are fire arrows.”

“Sure,” she tossed it over to me.

“Cheers,” I said as I positioned myself in the lift, and Zelia started turning the crank.

The trip to the roof was slow and dark and when I finally opened the door to the rooftop terrace, the sun was beginning to set. I moved to the edge of the terrace overlooking the carpark and put on my brakes. Below I could see Ruby and Vicky doing a circuit of the grounds, warding off the few sick people that still lingered there. A small group had gathered in one corner and as the two women set to work, they failed to see another small group walking towards them from the opposite corner.

I plucked an arrow from the sports bag slung over the back of my wheelchair and pulled Ruby’s lighter from my pocket. Once I had set the arrow alight, I didn’t have much time to aim before firing it, for risk of setting my bow or even myself on fire. I pulled back the bow and exhaled, then released the arrow. Had it been a video game, I’d have probably unlocked an achievement for hitting three people with one arrow. This being an unfortunate reality I had to make-do with watching the other sick people reel back in fear, before turning and shuffling off in the other direction. Ruby and Vicky dealt with the rest.

It was getting too dark to see properly so I called down to Vicky and Ruby to let me down in the lift when they got back inside. As I waited in the lift I pulled my phone out of my pocket but the battery had run out, leaving me staring at the blank screen.

***

It was three days before we managed to signal the military and tell them our location. There were so many people trying to reach them that the bandwidth was flooded with messages and they couldn’t possibly receive them all at once.

Each morning started with a cereal bar and bottle of orange juice for breakfast, and then I would go up to the roof armed with my bow and arrows, and with lunch rations by my side. I stayed on the roof until sunset, firing arrows at any troublesome groups. I burned through arrows, no pun intended, at an alarming rate as the group of sick people grew larger and larger each day, getting closer and closer to the gym. Occasionally Vicky or Ruby would wander around the car-park, clearing away any waifs and strays, but for most of the day they rested as they guarded the gym overnight.

Steph maintained any barricades and melee weapons that happened to get damaged, retrieving what arrows she could as well, and Zelia assigned rations and treated any injuries. It was actually quite dull compared to all the books, movies, and TV series dedicated to Earth-destroying diseases, and all of us felt particularly trapped.

It was approximately midday on the fourth day when I heard the sound of whirring helicopter blades in the distance. A minute or so later a helicopter appeared on the horizon, and within 10 minutes it was hovering over the gym. The others having heard the commotion came hurrying up to the roof as a soldier was hoisted down to us.

“We’ll hoist you up one by one,” he shouted to us as he landed on the roof. Ruby practically leapt into the man’s arms.

It was then that I noticed my wheelchair was slowly being blown backwards by the helicopter, creeping towards the edge of the roof. Safe in the knowledge that my brakes and the low wall around the rooftop should keep me safe I started to laugh, the first time I had laughed since the outbreak. Steph started to laugh with me, as did Vicky and Zelia, and I think I saw a small smile flash across the face of the soldier too as he ascended towards the helicopter with Ruby. None of us noticed that one of my brakes wasn’t on until it was too late.

I was gaining speed as I was blown towards the edge and when I hit the wall, I was going just fast enough to tip the wheelchair backwards. Suddenly I found myself precariously balanced over a three-story drop onto the tarmac below, where a group of sick adults had gathered to watch the spectacle. I screamed as I felt the wheelchair tipping further and further.

Steph grabbed my hand and Zelia the other, pulling me back onto the roof, but as soon as they had set me down I was rolling towards the edge of the roof again.

“Undo your seatbelt,” the soldier, who had returned to the roof for the next of us, shouted.

“But without my wheelchair-“

“We can get you another at the base,” he yelled. I hesitated.

Zelia dived towards me and yanked loose the seatbelt that was across my lap, pulling me onto the roof at the same time. I looked up to see my wheelchair go flying off the roof, clattering to the ground below. Needless to say I was the next to be hoisted into the helicopter.

***

When we arrived at the military base a new wheelchair was waiting for me. We were examined by a medical team in a quarantined area before being allowed to mingle with the other survivors, of whom there were surprisingly many. We were based there for a month while a nation-wide military operation administered treatment to all those affected by the disease. Finally, after a weeks’ quarantine period to ensure that the disease would not make a reappearance, we were allowed to return home.

It would take a long time before the country was running normally again; many people remained missing, presumed dead, for months or even years. Even 60 years on some people were never found, my mother among them.

Steph went on to complete her apprenticeship and set up her own business, despite being a single mother of two. Ruby pursued a career in the police force, which had always surprised and amused me, and Vicky joined the army. Zelia returned to her job as a junior doctor and worked in various hospitals throughout her career.

As for myself, I moved in with Steph’s family for a few months until I could support myself, and then I continued to spend a great deal of time on the archery range. After all, being a gold medallist at three Paralympics in a row is no mean feat.

Away in a Wheelchair: A Christmas Story.

Mary sat in the waiting room scrolling through social media, trying to avoid the news as it was nearly always miserable. An old man was coughing loudly in the corner, and on the other side of the room a mother comforted a snivelling child. The receptionist could be heard tapping away at her computer, interrupted only by the phone ringing.

There was a beeping noise and Mary’s name appeared on the large screen mounted on the wall above reception. She clicked off her brakes and manoeuvred her way towards the doctor’s office, knocking on the door in the vain hope that they would open it, but simply hearing a woman’s voice brusquely say “come in” from the other side instead. Mary pushed the door open with her feet while propelling her wheelchair into the room, and positioned herself opposite the doctor.

“What can I do for you today?” the doctor sounded bored.

“Well, it’s just these new pills you’ve put me on,” Mary began, “they’re very effective but they also have side effects.”

“And what would those side effects be?” the doctor pressed.

“Very vivid hallucinations,” Mary tried to sound as self-assured as she could while at the same feeling highly embarrassed.

“How strange, that’s never happened before,” the doctor said as she scanned the prescription on her computer for the list of side effects.

“Yeah, it was…weird,” Mary offered.

“So what did you hallucinate?” the doctor looked back at Mary.

“Well…err…and I promise you it all seemed very real at the time…err…I…um…I met an angel.”

“What?” the doctor said, flummoxed.

“I met an angel,” Mary repeated self-consciously, “and the angel told me that I would soon become pregnant with the child of…oh, this is ridiculous,…of God.”

The doctor barely contained her amusement, a small snicker escaping before she continued.

“Ridiculous indeed, to have children you’d need to be able to have sex,” the doctor quipped.

“Really?” Mary raised an eyebrow, “how did you pass medical school if you don’t think disabled people can have sex?”

The doctor opened her mouth but Mary interrupted, “Don’t even ask how, OK? I lie down. Sheesh.”

The doctor closed her mouth again looking thoughtful.

“There is one way we could settle this matter if it would put your mind at ease,” the doctor recovered her professional demeanour, “You could take a pregnancy test. I have some in my desk, and the disabled toilet is just around the corner.”

“Fine,” Mary took the pregnancy test from the doctor and left the room, returning 5 minutes later.

“May I have another please, I think I did this one wrong?” Mary looked somewhat sheepish.

“Sure,” the doctor handed her another and spent the next 5 minutes filing paperwork while she waited.

Mary returned looking even more sheepish than before, carrying both pregnancy tests on her lap.

“Well?” the doctor inquired.

There was a short pause before Mary replied, “I’m pregnant.”

***

Lounging back on the sofa Mary rested her mug of tea on her swollen belly, trying not to fall asleep. When she heard Joe’s keys turning in the lock she slowly sat herself upright, and waited for the rustling of hats, scarves, and coats being removed before the door into the lounge opened.

“Evening,” Mary said, noticing Joe looked somewhat distressed, “Are you alright?”

“Have you seen the news?” he said.

“You know I never watch the news,” Mary replied.

Joe sighed, “A huge hurricane has been spotted crossing the Atlantic and it’s heading straight for us. It’s due to hit in 24 hours; they’re evacuating the city tonight.”

“Is this what you call a joke?”

“No, Mary, I’m serious. We need to pack our bags and go. Now.”

“But the baby-“

“I know the baby’s due any day now but we’ve got no choice. It’s not safe,” Joe swiftly left the room, and Mary could hearing him dragging the suitcases out of the wardrobe. Awkwardly she shifted from the sofa to the wheelchair, the seatbelt of which had long since given up hope of keeping her safe, and rolled through to the bedroom. Someone would need to direct the packing or they’d end up with enough underpants to sink a ship but no nappies for the baby.

***

The train station was the busiest it had ever been, with all the ticket barriers left open as people streamed in droves towards the trains. As they approached the platform of the nearest train an official walked over to them.

“Have you booked a ramp?” he asked Joe.

“No,” Mary responded coldly.

“You need to book a ramp 24 hours in advance if you want to board the train,” the official continued speaking to Joe.

“Oh I’m sorry,” a tired, grumpy, and very pregnant Mary said, “I’ll just call the Met Office and ask them to delay the hurricane so we can give you a warning in advance that I can’t levitate. This is an emergency evacuation, surely your ableist policies don’t apply now.” Joe placed his hand on Mary’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. She fixed him with a glare colder than Medusa’s own.

“I’m sorry, but we need the notice so that we can ensure that a member of staff with the right insurance is available,” the official wouldn’t budge.

“We’ll find another option,” Joe looked down at Mary before turning and directing her out of the station.

“Now what?” Mary said once outside, the wind already picking up.

Across the road a bus pulled up.

“Bus then, I guess,” Mary started to move towards it.

As she approached the driver opened the doors, and shouted to her, “No room for a wheelchair, love, we’ve got a pram.”

“Then tell the mother to move, it’s a wheelchair space, not a pram space,” Mary stuck her foot in the doorway to prevent the automatic doors from closing.

“Not my job,” the bus driver muttered, even though it legally was.

“I’ll move,” the mother shouted down the bus, clearly more aware of the law than the driver was.

After much fussing with luggage and prams and the uncooperative bus driver, Mary could finally settle in the wheelchair space as they made their way out of the city.

“Where we headed?” she asked Joe.

“Heathrow airport,” a stranger interjected.

“They gonna try and fly in this?” Mary replied incredulously.

“Nah, but they can shelter enough of us in the airport itself, there’s hotels and all that. It’s still gonna get battered by this storm, but the worst of it is meant to be up in Scotland so we’ll cope.”

“Thanks,” Mary said, turning to Joe, “Can you ring round the hotels and make sure they have an accessible room ready for us? I really ought to get a hotel room in this state.”

“Sure,” Joe nodded, looking at the empty bars on his phone, “but there’s no signal. I’ll go to the top deck.” With that Joe shuffled away through the crowd in the vain hope of getting a signal. Mary was suddenly overcome by a wave of exhaustion, and within minutes was fast asleep.

Several hours had passed when Mary woke up suddenly, feeling a small but intense cramp across her abdomen and back. It disappeared almost as soon as it had arrived and Mary thought nothing of it until, as she was drifting back to sleep, it returned.

“Joe,” Mary hissed, “Joseph.” She shook him gently, as having given up on obtaining a phone signal, he had settled on the seat beside her and fallen asleep.

“Hmmm what?” a very drowsy Joe opened his eyes.

“I think I’m in labour,” Mary whispered.

“Huh?”

“I’m giving birth,” Mary hissed.

“Oh, OK,” there was a pause as Joe came to his senses, then, “What? Now? You’re in labour right now?”

“Yes I’m in labour right now,” Mary returned sharply, much louder than she intended.

“We’re only a couple of hours from Heathrow, love,” the bus driver shouted back, “it’d be sooner but this damn traffic is holding us up.”

“I’ll try and hold it then,” she quipped back.

The next two hours were the longest of Mary’s life. The light of dawn illuminated a grey and gloomy sky hanging above a seemingly endless convoy of cars, trucks, and buses. Each pain became a little more intense and were already becoming more frequent. Mary tried not to wake the other passengers up, but wasn’t succeeding. Eventually Heathrow could be seen in the distance, and another half an hour later the bus arrived at its destination.

The driver ensured that Mary was the first off the bus, followed closely by Joe who carried all their luggage while his wife clutched her belly. They pushed through the crowd, quite literally treading on toes and disrupting queues, but no one seemed to mind thanks to the magic of a wheelchair.

“Which hotel did you book?” Mary asked.

“Signals down, I couldn’t get a hold of any of them,” he replied.

“Wonderful,” Mary said.

“Look, I’m sure they’ll be understanding of our situation,” Joe answered, heading towards the nearest one. They pushed past the queue at the reception desk, Joe interrupting another customer mid-speech.

“My wife needs an accessible room and she needs one now, she’s in labour,” the words fell out in a rush.

“All our accessible rooms are already full sir, but we do have some other rooms available,” the receptionist replied calmly.

“Will it fit a wheelchair?” he asked.

“No, I said all our accessible rooms are already full, sir-“

“Then you’re no help to us,” Joe hastily turned on his heel and headed to the next hotel, followed by Mary.

He repeated the process only to get the same response, and went from hotel to hotel to hotel, all of them informing him that accessible rooms were apparently rarer than an endangered species. Even seeing Mary’s increasing distress as labour progressed didn’t help. Utterly exhausted, afraid, and in pain, Mary broke down in tears in the midst of the airport.

“I don’t want to have my baby with everyone looking at me,” she stuttered between tears. Joe also began to cry, frustrated by the unwillingness to help others in need displayed by everyone they had come across.

“I know, I know, but I don’t know how to fix this,” he replied.

A woman wearing an air hostess uniform approached them, her heels audibly clicking on the tiles despite the noise in the airport.

“There is somewhere private you can go,” she said, “if you need it.”

“Yes, yes, please, anything,” Mary wiped the tears mingled with sweat from her face.

“This way, and I will fetch a doctor once you’re settled,” the air hostess guided them through what seemed like miles of crowded airport, stopping every few minutes as a contraction took hold of Mary. Finally, the air hostess opened the door of the room she had in mind. It was a disabled toilet, although in fairness there was an adult-sized changing table attached to one wall, which the air hostess was already pulling down.

“I know it’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing,” she said.

“What’s your name?” Joe asked, receiving a steely glare from Mary.

“Star,” she replied, before dashing off to find a doctor.

Slowly and carefully, Joe helped Mary climb on the table, putting a bag beneath her head as a pillow. A few minutes later there was a tap on the door and a doctor appeared, followed by a nurse, both in bloodied scrubs having clearly been put to work at least once already. Mary couldn’t have cared less, simply being relieved to have a private place to give birth, albeit a humble bathroom. Another contraction detonated through her body, causing Mary to grit her teeth in an effort not to scream.

***

Two hours later an exhausted and sweat-covered Mary was handed her little boy, who’s first cry could be heard from outside of the room. Mary’s head flopped back onto her pillow as she held her little boy, tears of relief now adorning her cheeks as Joe kissed her forehead gently. Time passed at an unknown pace until a knock was heard on the door. Mary cast Joe a puzzled glance as he crossed the room. He answered to find three boys stood outside, one holding a pile of clean, fluffy towels, one holding some bottles of water, and the other holding a tiny baby-gro.

“We thought these might help,” the boy holding the towels offered, “these are spares in the staff laundry room.”

“And these were from the pharmacy,” the boy with the water added.

“And this was my first baby-gro which my mum kept as a memento, but she said you can have it now,” the third added.

“Wow, boys, this is wonderful. Your mothers must be very proud of you,” Joe accepted each of the gifts and added them to the pile of luggage in the corner of the room, except for the baby-gro. Instead he gently lifted the baby from Mary’s arms where the nurse had left him after his first bath. He stirred slightly in his sleep as Joe gently unravelled the many towels from the baby, before dressing him even more carefully in the baby-gro, which fit perfectly.

“Can we see the baby?” One of the boys said expectantly, as they were waiting by the door.

“Of course,” Joe said.

Mary watched, smiling, as Joe carefully set the baby down in her wheelchair before going back to open the door properly. The boys stumbled in excitedly and rushed to the side of the wheelchair, where they spoke only in loud whispers.

“What’s his name?” one of the boys asked.

From the changing table where she still lay, tired but content to watch the world go by, Mary replied.

“Joshua,” she said.

THE END.

I hope you enjoyed this year’s Christmas special which was inspired by some ideas put forward by fans of Diary of a Disabled Person. I certainly enjoyed writing it.

I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas, and I will be back next week with the New Year special.

Until then, Merry Christmas!

Assassin’s Wheels: Another Short Story.

Agent 48 was accustomed to dealing with nervous clients who glanced over their shoulder at the door behind them every few seconds, but the woman sat opposite him now was perfectly calm and hadn’t once looked over her shoulder. She sat up straight with her hands clasped in front of her on the table, her matching skirt and jacket as smooth and faultless as the dark hair wrapped into a neat bun above her neck. Her make-up was minimal and her jewellery plain; she could have passed for a generic business woman from the financial district were it not for the thin, white scar that twisted her mouth into a permanently sarcastic smile.

“My name is Dinah,” she introduced herself in a clipped English accent, “and your impressive work for Lady Mansfield-Hope has been brought to my attention.”

“How do you know-?” Agent 48 interrupted.

“The details are not important,” Dinah raised her hand to silence Agent 48, “but I can tell you that I am the head of a secret organisation that coordinates elitists in your line of work across the globe. Clients come to us and we pass the contract to a suitable agent, keeping you and your clients anonymous to prevent the leakage of information. We take a cut of the money and the rest is given to you when the contract has been fulfilled. Our only restriction is that you do not take on private cases.”

There was a pause as Agent 48 digested this.

“I, we, would like to offer you a position as one of our agents. You can even keep the name; it suits us perfectly,” Dinah waited for a response.

“You’re not bothered about this?” Agent 48 asked incredulously, pointing downwards at his wheelchair.

“Not at all. My understanding is that you can use it to your advantage,” Dinah replied.

“Then it sounds like a good opportunity.”

“Good,” Dinah reached into the smart handbag resting at her feet, and pulled out a small folder which she slid across the desk towards the agent, “This is your first job.”

With this Dinah rose and picked up her bag, turned on her heels, and walked across the office.

“One more thing,” Dinah said suddenly, turning round.

“Yes?” Agent 48 looked up from the folder, still closed, on his desk.

“Your doorman will have to find another job,” she turned to the doorman, “I am sorry, sir.”

“Not a problem,” he replied, “work as a bouncer is easy enough to come by these days.”

Agent 48 nodded, and with that they both left the room, leaving him alone to examine the file. He opened it. His next target was to be the CEO of a large corporation based in central London, and he mused that this was probably at the request of another board member now lined up perfectly to take on the role should some terrible accident befall the current CEO. It was a case he had seen a thousand times before, but Agent 48 was pleased to find that the file was full of useful information that private clients rarely provided him with, such as medical issues, the layout of the building, and what security measures were in place. As he read the information a plan began to form in his head.

***

Agent 48 manoeuvred down the narrow ramp from the train onto the platform, which was easier said than done as the other passengers hurried by the ramp not looking where they were going, with his luggage slumped on his lap. He thanked the porter for bringing the ramp, given that on more than one occasion he had been left stranded on trains, and then set off along the platform. A few passengers were dragging suitcases along behind them, seemingly unaware that they now had a larger turning circle, making the train station something of an obstacle course. Agent 48 was simply glad that he knew Kings Cross so well, given that in the midst of the throng of people moving to and fro he couldn’t see the signs.

He joined the back of the queue for tube tickets in the adjoining St Pancras station, struggling with the narrow, weaving path laid out by the barriers that left little room for error. Despite getting stuck a few times he was grateful to find that the people behind him in the queue were patient with his struggle.

At last he reached the ticket machines and was disappointed to find that the only one lowered for wheelchair users was out of order. He moved to one of the normal machines and was barely able to see what was on the screen, let alone press the buttons. He managed to attract the attention of a nearby staff member, who apologised profusely for the inconvenience and helped him purchase a day ticket.

Ticket tucked into the top pocket of his bag, he set off for the gates allowing access to the tube. Only one was wide enough for a wheelchair to pass through, and rather annoyingly it was being blocked while someone with an excessively large suitcase argued with a member of staff over some minor irritation. Agent 48 had to ask several times before he was heard, only to receive a hideous glare from the owner of the suitcase for daring to interrupt. The member of staff looked as if he wanted the ground to open up and swallow him whole.

The next challenge was the lift down to the tube which was crammed full of people with enormous bags, and a few who simply found an escalator too tiresome. On the third attempt Agent 48 managed to snare a space in the lift, which stopped on every single level before he finally reached the line he wanted to take. He moved along the platform through the crowd of waiting people, searching for the raised section of platform that gave him level access to the tube. Seconds after finding it a rush of air blew through the tunnel, followed by the train screeching to a halt. The doors hissed open and Agent 48 waited patiently for people to get off before attempting to enter the carriage. However, a throng of passengers were entering the carriage via the disabled door, despite others being available, and before Agent 48 could board it the doors had closed.

Agent 48 cursed and waited for the next train, fortunately only a couple of minutes away, and managed to snag a place on the carriage. The wheelchair space was occupied by someone’s shopping bags and the owner didn’t appear to be interested in moving them, so Agent 48 simply put on his brakes in the centre of the carriage and clung to the pole. With each start and stop of the tube his wheelchair moved back and forth, even with the brakes firmly in place.

Next came the debacle of changing lines, which required fighting through the crowd to get off one train, into the lift, and then onto the raised platform for the next tube. The inch-wide gap between the platform and the carriage was disconcerting but do-able with a little extra effort. When the robotic voice announced that the next stop would be Canary Wharfe, Agent 48 was quite relieved.

The fresh air was a welcome relief to Agent 48 after the stale, warm atmosphere of the tube. He had no time to enjoy this though, as he needed to make his way to the right office block in time for the board meeting.

***

Getting into the building was easy enough with the flow of personnel through the main doors, but getting up to the board room would prove much more difficult. If he was to pass security safely he would need a disguise.

He glided across the smooth, open floor to the reception desk, which he could just see over to talk to the receptionist.

“Good morning, sir, how can I help you?” she chirped in a falsely cheerful voice.

“Good morning. Could I please speak to the janitor? There is an issue concerning disabled facilities that I wish to discuss with them,” Agent 48 said.

“Of course, sir, I’m sorry for any inconveniences you may have faced. His office is at the end of the left-hand corridor,” the receptionist looked genuinely concerned, which made quite the impact compared to the usual indifferent responses he heard.

“Thank you,” Agent 48 smiled and turned left. The corridor was spotlessly clean, so much so that Agent 48 felt a little guilty at the trails left by his wheels on the floor. When he finally reached the end of the corridor his wheels squeaked as he came to a halt, and then he tapped lightly on the door.

“Come in,” said a gruff, Northern voice.

Agent 48 pushed with all his might against the heavy door, which clearly had not been designed with wheelchair users in mind given the height of the handle. He managed to heave open the door about a foot before the janitor turned round from his desk, and seeing that his visitor was a wheelchair user, pulled the door open for him. Once Agent 48 was in the room, he let the door swing shut behind him.

“So, ‘ow can I ‘elp you?” the janitor asked.

In response, Agent 48 pulled a baseball bat from his bag.

***

Agent 48 opened the door a crack and looked around, but could see no one in the corridor. He pulled on the janitors’ polo shirt and took his keys and I.D card, leaving the unconscious janitor seated with his back to the door. Duct tape covered his mouth, and his shoe laces were tied to the chair legs. His hands were tightly entwined in the straps of Agent 48’s luggage, which was on his knee. Agent 48 scrawled “Do Not Disturb” on one piece of paper and grabbed a mop and bucket from the corner before exiting the room. He pinned the sign on the door, which he also locked behind him, and picked up mop and bucket.

He made his way from the janitors’ office through the main reception area and towards the lift. Two security guards were stationed by the lifts but once Agent 48 showed them the I.D. card, explaining that he had lost weight since the photo was taken, they allowed him to enter the lift. He went all the way to the top floor and set to work mopping the already sparkling floor.

Image description: a black and white pencil sketch of Agent 48, disguised as a janitor, mopping the floor. He's sat next to a wet floor sign, and the falling stick man on the sign happens to be in a wheelchair.

“Alright Bob?” a voice called out as Agent 48 worked. He ignored it.

“Hey, Bob, you deaf or sommat?” Agent 48 realised that he was being spoken to and looked up to see someone in the same polo shirt approaching him.

“Aye, I’m good, you?” Agent 48 did an impeccable Yorkshire accent, developed as a party trick to amuse the middle-classes.

“Aye, not so bad, I s’pose. Me ‘emorrhoids are still giving me trouble though. Hurt like ‘ell when the doctor shoved-“

“Well, I’m sure the doctor knows what they’re doing,” Agent 48 felt queasy.

“Ah well, must be off. The Mrs’ reckons she’s most fertile tonight, so I gotta do my duty and get ‘er pregnant again,” the man walked off, whistling, and Agent 48 went back to mopping. Suddenly the man stopped.

“Bob, there’s sommat different ‘bout you today. Can’t put me finger on it. You done sommat with your hair?”

“Oh, er, yeah, changed conditioner,” Agent 48 looked up.

“Ah, the Mrs managed to get you onto that eco stuff then?”

“Er, yeah, yeah, she did.”

“Nice. Well, I’ll be off,” and with that the man walked away.

It wasn’t long before someone else came along wanting to speak to Bob, this time wondering whether he’d lost weight and on another occasion complimenting his new shoes. Agent 48 began to wonder just how popular Bob really was.

Eventually the board room emptied as all the businessmen headed out to lunch, the CEO included, almost all of them greeting Bob as they left. Only one seemed to notice that Agent 48 was not Bob but he said nothing about it. Agent 48 reckoned that must be the one set to benefit from the assassination.

Agent 48 entered the board room where two women were cleaning the floor.

“It’s alright ladies, I’m doing this today,” Agent 48 said.

“Ooh, how kind of you Bob,” the two women barely glanced in his direction as they left.

Agent 48 slipped on a pair of latex gloves and went to the CEO’s chair, slowly unscrewing the back of it with a screw-driver in his pocket. Then he carefully put three narrow hypodermic needles into the cushioned back, ensuring that the needles were exposed on the other side by a few millimetres, and screwed the back of the chair on again. Each syringe was filled wasp venom, which the CEO just so happened to be allergic too. Agent 48 then removed the adrenalin shots the CEO had tucked under his end of the desk and replaced them with replicas containing even more wasp venom.

Agent 48 then left the room and stayed outside, mopping the sparkling floor, waiting for the businessmen to return. The CEO was one of the last to return, and as he passed by Agent 48 deftly took the adrenalin shot from his blazer pocket, switching it with a wasp venom shot. Much as he would have enjoyed staying to watch the show, Agent 48 took the opportunity to leave before chaos broke out. The CEO would only feel a small scratch as he sat down, but within minutes he would be dead.

Agent 48 made his way down in the lift and back towards the janitors’ office just in time to see a swarm of security officers charging towards the stairwell, presumably to aid the CEO. Agent 48 did not have much time.

Quickly he unlocked the janitors’ office, returned the keys, I.D card, polo shirt, and cleaning equipment, and wiped the screwdriver he had used clean.  He pressed the screwdriver into the slowly awakening janitors hand and untied him, grabbed his own bag, and left the office with the sign still on the door.

The receptionist looked far more stressed than she had earlier, but still tried to remain cheerful sounding even as ambulances screeched to a halt outside the building.

“Did you manage to get the problem sorted, sir?” she asked.

“Yes, I did, thank you very much. I had to wait a while to see the janitor, he said he was doing something for the board meeting, but I was in no rush,” Agent 48 replied.

The receptionist went pale.

“Bob. In the board room?” she murmured, “That’s the third person who has told me that Bob was up there a bit ago. My God.”

“Are you alright?” Agent 48 asked incredulously.

“Yes, yes, I’m fine. There’s been an incident, a police matter. Don’t worry, it won’t concern you. Have a safe trip,” she said.

Agent 48 thanked her once again and left the building, heading immediately for the tube station, glad that this time he wouldn’t need to queue up for a ticket.

***

Dinah was waiting for Agent 48 in his office when he arrived.

“How did you get in?” he asked, surprised.

“Your doorman gave me his key when he left,” she said levelly.

“Oh,” Agent 48 replied, “Well, what can I help you with?”

“Here’s your wage,“ she pushed a full envelope across the table alongside another file, “and there’s your next job.”

As prim and proper as before she left again, closing the door behind her.

Roll and Rock: Another Short Story.

“You’re here for the auditions?” I was greeted with the standard perplexed expression I was so familiar with.

“What bothers you?” I said sharply, impatient with yet another judgemental face, “The wheels or the tits?” I pushed through the double doors on my own, drum stick bag balanced on my knees, and headed towards the small crowd gathered in front of a stage where they were being addressed by the bands’ lead singer, Josh.

“Welcome to the auditions to become the new drummer for The Avalanche. We’re looking for someone to come on our UK tour with us after Sam quit the band last month, and perhaps to record future music with if all goes well.

“The auditions will work like this; you will be called onto the stage in alphabetical order, where you will be asked to perform snippets of three of our songs, randomly selected by us. If we think you have potential, you will be asked to stay. Those who have potential will perform again after everyone else has left; you will be asked to do a randomly selected song in full.

“Good luck,” Josh stepped off the stage to sit with Danny and Adrienne, the other members of the band.

My surname meant that I would be one of the last to audition, so I sat back and tried to relax as I watched a stream of white men climb onto the stage and drum clumsily along to the backing tracks provided. Only a few were requested to stay behind and I could see the band growing impatient and bored. It was only when my name was called that I realised that I was the only woman to be auditioning, let alone the only wheelchair user.

As expected the stage had steps to ascend. I rolled up to them and looked over at the band, who were mortified. Adrienne stood up.

“Oh my god, I’m so sorry!” she exclaimed, “There’s a wheelchair ramp in the store room at the back. We didn’t think to bring it through. I’ll go get it now, and we’re so sorry!” She dashed out of the room and a few minutes later returned with a metal ramp. Josh and Danny fitted it securely to the stage with some difficulty, requiring a little direction from me as the only one with experience using them. They were all apologising profusely, although I could feel the hostile glares I was receiving from the other drummers in the hall. I repeatedly assured them that it was OK and that what mattered to me was that they dealt with the problem.

I rolled up the ramp, moved the drum stool out of my way, and pulled my drum sticks from their bag. Flustered from the flurry of activity I forgot to put my brakes on and the second I started to play the requested song, my wheelchair rolled backwards and off the stage. Now it was my turn to look mortified as I heard footsteps running to my side. Adrienne helped me upright and checked I was alright, and then I returned to the drum kit. This time I made sure the brakes were securely on, trying not to blush as the other drummers sniggered at me.

Certain that I had screwed up the audition so badly as to destroy any chance of being chosen, my nerves disappeared, and I could fully focus on the music. I hit every beat cleanly and crisply and even added my own technical flourishes where I felt they were needed. By the time I had completed my three song excerpts I was almost disappointed that it was over, especially as the band had been gracious enough not to “randomly select” the three easiest songs for me to perform out of misguided sympathy. When Josh requested me to stay behind I was so surprised that I almost fell off the stage a second time.

A little less than an hour later the band had come to their decision and were addressing me and the other four drummers who had been asked to perform a second time.

“You all did extremely well,” Josh said as he took to the stage once more. I had the feeling that he was simply trying to be nice to the unsuccessful drummers, particularly me.

“However, the decision was unanimous. We all agreed that our new drummer should be Lily Thorpe.”

There was a moment of silence while all of us sat there, stunned. There must have been some mistake. However, before I had the chance to express my disbelief, the four men around me started shouting loudly.

“Rigged!”

“This is ridiculous. You just feel sorry for her!”

“You’re only doing it to improve your social status by being all liberal and inclusive!”

“She couldn’t even get on the stage without your help; how the hell do you think she’ll manage on tour?”

Secretly, I think I agreed with them.

Josh raised his hand and their complaints died down to a murmur.

“Actually, she was the most technically proficient, she was able to insert her own distinctive flair into the music, and she clearly knows our music well. She was also the nicest, which given the amount of time we will spend together over the next few months counts for more than you could imagine,” Adrienne chipped in.

“Precisely,” Josh said, “and even if that wasn’t the case, you’ve all just proved that you’re not the type of people we want to spend time with.”

“You may take your leave,” Danny added firmly.

The others filed out of the room, chuntering unhappily among themselves. As the doors swung shut behind them, a quiet settled over the room.

“Congratulations!” Adrienne said, a big grin lighting up her face.

“Are you sure?” I practically whispered, “You don’t have to do this out of sympathy, you know.”

“We are sure, and this isn’t sympathy,” Josh said, “I’m sorry the others were like that.”

The man who had greeted me at the door now wandered into the room. His eyes settled on me and he frowned slightly.

“No luck then, I take it?” he said. To my great surprise Adrienne marched across the room and punched him on the nose.

“I’ve been waiting all day for the perfect excuse to do that,” she muttered between clenched teeth, then turned to me “I don’t know how you cope.”

“By drumming,” I replied, a small smile spreading across my face, “So, when do I start?”

***

We had filled a minivan with our instruments, wires, and amps, with Josh and Adrienne crushed together in the front while Danny took the wheel. I had bought a ramp for the van, allowing me to park in the back of it surrounded by our equipment. Every time we went over a speed bump the ramp clashed one of the cymbals right next to my head, leaving me with an intense ringing sound in my ear before we had even started.

After a two hour drive we reached our first venue, a community centre that had been converted into a bar and club the year before. We parked up using my disabled parking badge to obtain a nice, wide space. Josh and Danny, now experts at handling the ramp, had me out of the van within a minute and we began unloading our equipment. I carried wires, accessories, and small amps on my knees, relying on the others to carry the larger pieces.

The community centre had been a relatively old building, and although the conversion into a club had made it accessible, the makeshift ramps that had been bought wobbled worryingly every time I traversed them. The doorways were very narrow and I bumped my elbows and knuckles countless times as I propelled myself forwards, an act which had my arms stuck out at odd angles. The backstage corridors were narrow and maze-like and the stage where we were performing had no ramp at all, with the owners of the club having to provide an old sheet of thin plywood at a very steep angle as a poor substitute. With nothing to hold it in place at either end, I had to rely on my bandmates to hold it still while one of them helped push me up the ramp. The disabled toilet was also being used to store cleaning materials, and I had to slalom around mops and brushes.

We had finished setting up, including our sound check, about 15 minutes before the doors were due to open. Now, with nothing to take my mind off the task, I started to grow nervous. This was the first live gig I had had with any band and I knew that as the newest member of The Avalanche I would be subjected to great scrutiny. I had already been the hot topic for discussion on our social media, with everyone wondering whether I had simply been selected out of sympathy. These comments seemed to irritate Adrienne more than me, who had dealt with many sexist comments when she joined The Avalanche as it was. I didn’t mind. I had decided to prove those who doubted my abilities wrong by proving my own capability.

Once the doors had opened one of the first spectators who entered was a wheelchair-bound girl, perhaps 10 or 11 years old, proudly sporting one of our new band t-shirts. She smiled at me broadly, as did the woman with her who I assumed was her mother, and I returned the compliment. Adrienne turned round to speak to me.

“Well, you have one fan already,” she smiled.

The room slowly filled up, and the buzz of anticipation grew with the crowd. Lots of people wanted to get a good look at new drummer, and I blushed slightly. Half an hour after the doors had opened Josh leapt up to his microphone, gave a warm welcome to our spectators, and played the opening chords of our first song on his battered electric guitar. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and let myself become immersed in the music. As I opened with my first drum break a round of applause swept through the crowd, some of whom were beginning to accept that I was no sympathy vote.

Image description: a black and white pencil sketch of Lily behind the drum kit.

We played for over an hour before taking a break while a stand-up comedian took to the stage for his half-time show. As I reached the disabled bathroom the young girl I had spotted before the show opened the door and rolled outwards. When she saw me I thought she was going to leap straight out of her wheelchair.

“Oh my god, mum, it’s Lily!” she looked up at her mum who was stood behind her.

“Hi,” I smiled, “What’s your name?”

“I’m Lily too,” she grinned enthusiastically, “and I want to play the drums like you!”

“Nice name and nice choice,” I laughed, “Do you want to be the first person to receive my autograph?”

Her mum rummaged around in her handbag for a notepad and pen, and then I wrote my message.

To Lily,

You are the first person to receive my autograph!

A piece of advice; don’t let those who doubt you stop you from doing what you want to do,

Lily Thorpe.

She grinned and bellowed an enthusiastic thank you before heading back into the club with her mum, chatting excitedly the whole time.

I was grateful for a drink and a rest with Josh, Adrienne, and Danny in the green room before returning to the stage half an hour later for an even longer set. We got an excellent reception from the crowd and by the end of the gig I was too exhilarated to be tired. Slowly the crowd dispersed, a few stopping to speak to us and get our autographs or a selfie. I lost count of the people who told me I was a great drummer, very deserving of my place in the band, but the best encounter of the night remained the young girl that I had inspired. It felt good to set a good example for people like her to follow.

The van was loaded up again, myself included, and then we headed off to our motel around the corner. The van was locked securely in the garage and we all filed into reception looking sweaty and dishevelled. The receptionist did not appear to be phased and provided us with the keys to our rooms. I was sharing with Adrienne, who was able to hold open doors for me as I used all my strength to push myself along the thick carpet.

I was tired beyond belief and in desperate need of a shower, and my ears were still ringing loudly, but despite all this and a hard, lumpy mattress I managed to sleep the whole night through. The next morning I got up, washed and dressed, and by 10 am we were ready to set off and do it all over again.

Wheels of Steel: Another Short Story.

Opposite 10 Downing Street a crowd of photographers and news reporters had gathered, all hoping to get the best images of the new Prime Minister entering the house for the first time. As the police escort appeared around the corner the crowd erupted and the cameras started flashing. In place of the sleek, black car the previous Prime Minister had, she arrived in a small van which drew somewhat less gracefully to a halt outside number 10.

The chauffeur climbed out of the driving seat, ignoring the crowd completely, and opened up the back of the van. He pulled out a metal ramp, which he made sure was secure before the Prime Minister wheeled herself backwards onto the road. She made sure to wave to everyone opposite before making her way a few metres down the street to where a temporary plastic ramp had been put in place to get her onto the pavement. Once aligned perfectly she pushed herself up the ramp, and stopped to push a loose strand of hair back from her face before making her way towards her new home.

By the time she arrived at the door of the house the chauffer had cleared up the ramp and driven off, so the photographers got a clear view of her as the infamous black door slowly opened. Another plastic ramp in a garish orange that clashed with the otherwise refined scene was placed down, and the Prime Minister went indoors. When the door was closed firmly behind her she was relieved to finally be away from the prying eyes of the news corporations.

“Welcome, Prime Minister,” the head of staff nodded her head politely.

“Please, call me Sarah,” the Prime Minister returned equally politely, “I’m aware that it is not conventional, but then I doubt that I am going to be a conventional Prime Minister.”

“Indeed, Prime Minister,” the head of staff retorted somewhat more stiffly.

Sarah made her way down the wide hallway, her wheels sinking into the thick, woollen carpet leaving conspicuous tracks behind her. She was introduced to all of the senior members of staff that she would be working with, but the meeting she enjoyed the most was that of Simon the ginger cat. Being a friendly cat used to being around an ever-changing staff, Simon was more than happy to leap straight onto Sarah’s lap and to be driven around the house at his leisure.

Image description: Sarah sat at her desk with Simon on her lap.

As Sarah entered her office, eyeing the large stack of paperwork already on her desk, she asked to speak to the caretaker of the house. A few minutes of fussing Simon later, Sarah heard a rough knock on the heavy door.

“Come in,” she said.

“You asked to see me, Prime Minister?” the caretaker replied.

“Sarah, please. There are going to have to be a few modifications made to the house, I’m afraid,” Sarah said, “If I am to live and work here in comfort, then I need full wheelchair access to all that I will use.” Simon gave an affirmative meow.

“Yes, of course. There are builders booked for this afternoon to install cement ramps at the front door and also on the pavement outside,” he informed her.

“Fantastic. Now, what about the stairs?” Sarah asked.

“I have a team of engineers coming out tomorrow who will be fitting special stair lifts than can take both you and your wheelchair upstairs.”

“How considerate of you,” Sarah said, impressed.

“A shorter lectern is being built so that you may address the reporters outside as all other Prime Ministers have done, and I was wondering if you would need some mats fitting that would make it easier for you to get over that carpet?”

“That would be ideal, yes. It seems you have everything covered,” Sarah said, “Do you have experience at handling a wheelchair user?”

“My daughter uses a wheelchair, so I know the sort of thing that causes problems. She’s a big fan, by the way. I’m only sorry that I’ve not been able to address any of these issues any sooner.”

“That’s perfectly understandable,” Sarah said, “Now if you’ll excuse me, it appears I have a lot of work to attend to.”

“Yes, Pri- Sarah,” the caretaker nodded and left the room.

Sarah smiled. At least she had one member of staff on her side.

***

Sarah’s first day in the Houses of Parliament as Prime Minister was an interesting one. Although she knew her way around the Palace of Westminster very well, she was used to sitting at one of the back benches on the very top row. All of the other seats had a flight of steps down to them. She knew that over the weekend a lift had been installed that would enable her to take her proper place in parliament, but she still worried that somehow the access would go wrong.

Two guards nodded to her before opening the double doors to the House of Commons, where she was greeted with a round of applause. She was happy to see most members of her political party give a standing ovation, however ironic that may have been. Sarah moved onto the flimsy-looking platform lift that had been installed, and then began the longest and loudest descent into the House of Commons that had ever taken place. Finally she reached the bottom, and took her place opposite her counterpart in the opposition, who fixed her with a long stare.

The House was called to order and the days’ debates began.

“Forgive me, Prime Minister, but I am not going to take things easy on you because of your condition,” the leader of the opposition opened proceedings. Sarah would have appreciated the sentiment had it not been said in such a condescending manner.

“In fact,” he continued, “I expect as much of you as I did your predecessor, although that’s not a great standard to reach, I know.”

Before Sarah had thought about it, she opened her mouth.

“Let me stop you there, sir,” she said curtly, before leaning into the microphone to address the whole house.

“No one should expect any less of me because of my wheelchair, or because I am a woman. Do not judge me by the standards of those who came before me because I am not those people. In fact you should expect more from me than any recent Prime Minister, because instead of participating in such farcical pettiness as to continually insult each other, I intend to debate and resolve real issues. Now if you have nothing constructive to add I suggest that we start to do what we are paid to do,” Sarah expected to be met with a stony silence, particularly from the opposition, but was astounded when every single politician in the room bar herself and her rival began to applaud loudly. Many even got to their feet and it was several minutes before the house was returned to order.

After what Sarah judged to be a particularly productive day in parliament, when several pressing matters had been debated in detail, she was extremely happy to find that her small speech had made headline news. Her particular favourite of all the headlines was the one that called her “Wheels of Steel”.

***

“What’s on the agenda for today?” Sarah asked her personal assistant, a stern looking woman old enough to be her mother, and a close friend of the head of staff. Her assistant looked down her nose through her spindly glasses at the papers before her.

“Your first formal meeting with the Queen since your election, Prime Minister, at Buckingham Palace,” she informed the Prime Minister in a cold, clipped tone.

“Ah yes, I knew it was something significant. How silly of me to forget,” Sarah flashed a smile at her assistant, which instantly died on her face on recipient of a disapproving look.

Sarah was not surprised to find a large gathering of reporters clambering up the railings surrounding Buckingham Palace as her van drove onto the grounds. Sarah, not usually one to be overly concerned with her appearance, had been patting her hair into shape and checking her teeth for lipstick stains throughout the whole journey. She was relieved that their assigned parking spot was well out of sight of the reporters.

Sarah was escorted by the palace guards to an impressive room with a ceiling that Sarah imagined must look tall even from standing height. The furniture around her was beautifully ornate and fit perfectly with the rooms’ decoration. Next to it all, she imagined that her own chair looked rather shabby.

The doors opened precisely on time, and Sarah couldn’t help but resist the urge to stand up even though she physically couldn’t. The Queen walked slowly into the room in a delicate, baby-blue outfit, followed by a parade of lumbering corgis with tongues lolling from their mouths. The dogs were very keen to explore the new Prime Minister, particularly her chair, and Sarah decided that she definitely preferred Simons’ affection.

The Queen seated herself opposite Sarah and seconds later a butler appeared with a pot of tea and some biscuits.

“There’s some Yorkshire tea brewing in the pot, ma’am,” he said to the Queen.

“Ah, thank you, much better than that Lancashire tea Philip bought the other week.”

Sarah smiled awkwardly, her hands clasped in her lap to prevent them from being licked away by a corgi.

“Well, I must say,” the Queen began, “that ever since they put all the new ramps into this section of the palace for our meetings, I’ve had trouble keeping Philip from skateboarding indoors. I’ve told him countless times that the skateboard is for the garden only but he can be ever so childish. He’ll ruin the carpet.”

Sarah suppressed a smile, but couldn’t help but laugh when there was a well-timed thump from outside the room, followed by the crash of something valuable-sounding breaking. The Queen rolled her eyes.

“Still, it’s been much easier for my darling corgis to move around, the stairs do trouble them so,” she continued.

“I can only imagine the difficulties they have,” Sarah returned politely.

“Now, to business-“

***

The following day, Sarah was booked to open a new school just a few miles from Downing Street. She couldn’t help but feel that in comparison to her usual duties, this would be a breeze. As the van pulled up outside the new building, a generic cube of bricks and glass, Sarah was greeted by the usual crowds. By this point the chauffer had moving the wheelchair in and out of the van down to a fine art, and Sarah had a few minutes to pose for photographs and answer a few questions before heading to the crowd gathered on the playground, all huddled beneath umbrellas against the summer rain.

A small stage had been built on the playground by a plaque on the wall of the school, which was still covered by little velvet curtains. A rickety ramp lead onto the stage and as Sarah took her place on the stage, she said a private prayer for her own safety.

The head teacher introduced the Prime Minister to rows of bored and cold children, most of whom seemed more interested in the news reporters by the school fence than the event itself.

“Now,” the head teacher said,” before we open the school, the Prime Minister has very kindly agreed to answer three questions. Raise your hands if you want the chance to ask her something and be polite. You represent our school!”

A flurry of small hands immediately appeared over the children’s heads and a girl in the middle of the group was chosen.

“Why are you in a wheelchair?” she asked innocently. Sarah had counted on this being one of the questions asked and was certainly not offended by it, but the teachers looked heartily embarrassed.

“I suffered a really horrible illness as a child that left permanent injuries and they mean I can’t walk,” Sarah answered calmly, hoping to reassure the embarrassed teachers. The girl who had asked seemed to be satisfied with this answer.

A second child, a boy this time, was chosen.

“How can you be Prime Minister from a wheelchair? My dad says its political correctness gone mad, but I don’t know what he means by that,” he queried. This time the teachers looked as if they wanted the ground to open up and swallow them whole where they stood.

“The job involves lots of things like sitting at a desk or table, doing paperwork, or talking to people. You’d sit in a chair to do them so the wheelchair poses no difficulty there. What your dad means is that he thinks I’ve been elected purely because I’m in a wheelchair and not because of other things like experience or knowledge, although I assure you that is not true.”

The teachers dared not brave another question after this; ten minutes later the school building had been opened and Sarah was mingling with teachers and parents in the schools’ dining hall. Sarah actually found the questions posed to her by children to be far easier to deal with than some of the adults, who ignored the wheelchair to such an extent that it became clear that the wheelchair was all they could see. She was relieved when, after half an hour or so, her staff came to escort her home to deal with some more pressing matters.

As soon as Sarah had returned to her office she switched on the small television in the corner of the room, where it was pre-programmed to a news channel. Immediately she was confronted with images of herself answering the children’s’ questions as the news reporters discussed the issue of political correctness in politics. Sarah rolled her eyes; she was surprised that it had taken this long for people to start such a discussion.