Knitting for teenage boys, 1988
It’s Jed here, on Earth.
I’m calling my home planet…
I’m calling because I, Jed Gibbs, want out.
This has gone on for too long and they’ve found us out. They’ve noticed we’re different; they know we’re not like them. I don’t think I can sustain their questioning – I will own up and then the shit hits the fan, to use an expression that I have just learnt. I like it. It’s American, but then again, this world’s culture and media are driven by the United States.
It started this morning, on the school bus. I sat in my usual place, by the window on the front, at the left. It’s the best position from which to exit the vehicle, if there is to be an accident. And, on these narrow lanes from the village, with twenty raucous school-children packed on board, that is highly likely, in my opinion. Plus, I am seated seven rows away from the toxic-smelling armpits of Duke Griffiths. I’ve never bothered learning the names of his associates. All are in the lower stream, and I can avoid these boys throughout my timetabling. But on the bus, I’m easy pickings.
I took up a hobby, as you suggested.
I chose one that would occupy my hands and my mind, giving me some mental stimulation for the duration of these journeys. So, I reached into my impractical and yet bang-on-trend rucksack, and take out my knitting. I have decoded the instructions and memorised them. I am making a jumper with a union jack symbolising the country of my residence. The yarn itself is shot through with strands of glittery metallic thread; I bought it with my pocket money in a small shop in town. I had not planned purchasing the sparkly stuff – my vision was simply distracted by it and I couldn’t resist.
Anyway, I take out my knitting, carefully extract the plastic coated needles and start a new row.
“’Ere – pansy boy. Whatcher doing wi’that?”
I do not answer. I can engage well in a two way conversation with others of my supposed species. However, I have learnt that Duke is unable to share ideas and thoughts with me. He is lacking in education and experience.
He reaches out a grubby hand and pulls at the wool, pinching it between finger and thumb. The manual dexterity of the human race astounds me. It’s almost what sets them apart from other mammals on this planet. Well, that and their supposedly large brains.
“Look a’ this boys. We got oursel’s a granny. A pansy and a granny. Lessee what ‘ee’s making?” He pulls, and my first four rows slip out of the bag, like a startled rabbit bolting from oncoming headlights.
“It’s a jumper, Duke.” I’ve read the self-help books. I know that I need to use his name to fully engage with him on an emotional level. To bring forth his – empathy. I don’t have empathy, though I’m good at faking it. But this creature – Duke – he has it – and he’s still cruel.
“Wow. Look at ‘is talent. I could wear this on a Sat’day night, I could.” He stretches my knitting over his chest and shimmies around. The bus swerves around a corner and he lurches. I wish he would fall, but he doesn’t. He grabs the hanging black plastic knob that sways from the ceiling. Now, I am fully exposed to a brutal mixture of Lynx Africa and his unwashed pits, seeping through his white nylon mix school-shirt.
I look down at my digital watch. I have five more minutes of this journey. I keep my face blank and expressionless, as always. The girl opposite me smiles at first, then she sticks up for me.
“Get a grip, Duke. Give it back to the poor guy.”
Charmaine – I recognise her by her hooped silver earrings and her unsavoury habit of chewing Wrigley’s gum –leans forward. She takes the knitting from Duke, taking it in her pastel pink nails, and passes it to me.
“Thank you kindly.” My voice comes out higher and louder than I have planned. This is an undesirable feature of human adolescence. I cough, and it returns to its previous husky low sound. She gives me a sidelong glance, eyes framed in blue eyeshadow. I catch a whiff of spearmint and my heart beats loud in my chest.
The bus screeches to a halt with a whine of airbrakes and a smell of burnt transmission fluid, at the school gates. Duke attempts to joust with another boy, using my knitting needles, as he bounces and bounds up to the heavy door.
Where was I?
Ah yes, making an SOS call to my home planet.
So – I am achieving well academically. I am taking up hobbies to enable me to blend in with my peer group, although this hasn’t yet worked out as planned. I listen attentively to my teachers, sit through incredibly dull un-stretching lessons, which have been written for lower life forms, and attempt to survive break-times with the minimum of injuries. I invariably wear the school uniform, including the regulation black leather shoes, which I polish before the start of the school day.
They’ve found me, though.
I had my first session with the Educational Psychologist today. Due to funding cuts, this may be my only session. Still, it is worth reporting. He wore a suit and a bow tie, which is not standard apparel for teachers at secondary school. So, whilst he sat at the back of my classroom, I observed him even as he was observing me.
Have there been others, who have been spotted?
I know that we have infiltrated the employment market at the highest possible levels. Our kind devised the space rockets in the seventies, our kind have been responsible for driving forwards medical advances, we could also be thanked for advanced weaponry and power stations the Earth over. So we’re out there, working hard.
As a youngling, I realise I am vulnerable. I sit in this quiet room with the psychologist, trying to answer his questions in a reasonable manner.
“Jed, isn’t it?”
I nod. “Jed Edward William Gibbs, fourteen Novia Scotia Place, Mawnan Smith, TR11 4HQ.” I breathe out, pleased with myself for remembering the new postcode. A clever system, that. I’m sure we put that in place.
He doesn’t introduce himself. All social convention would deem that he do so. I look at his chest, reading his badge. He scribbles on a pad of paper: ‘Lack of eye contact’.
“How’re you getting on at school?”
I’m not sure what he wants me to answer. I nod again, a little less sure of myself.
“Okay, what about subjects – which are your favourite?”
Adults always think children have a liking or disliking for these. It depends on the lesson, depends on the teacher. I answer him, in full sentences. I copy his intonation patterns, matching and mirroring his voice; using his exact inflections and phrases.
I can’t see where his questions are headed. So I ask, straight out. I look into his blue watery eyes and lean forwards, close enough to smell his off-breath and his cologne. He scribbles, biro scratching on cheap paper: ‘Inappropriate proximity’.
“Why am I here, please?”
“Ah.” He adjusts his bowtie, places his clipboard on the desk.
“Ah. You’re here because, Jed, your teachers, and your parents actually, are wondering whether you have something called, autism.”
And that’s when I know. That’s when I know they’ve got me. I catch the bus to my house, yarn trailing from my bag like a multi-coloured sparkly trail saying come get me! Come get me, police and servicemen, because Jed Gibbs has been spotted! They’ve spotted me, and now I will get taken away. Watched closely for a while, then taken away.
Before I called you tonight, I looked it up. Autism, I mean. It took a few hours. I re-booted the family PC and checked out the research. I surfed the internet – it’s early days but it’s going to be big, I know it – and read the precis’ of the evidence-based pieces. The early stuff from the seventies – well, I guess we weren’t as quick at covering ourselves as we are now. The test subjects were non-verbal, hadn’t bonded with their parent-hosts. They stood out and hence, were studied by scientists.
Now, we’ve got better. The more recent research looked at language assessments, psychological profiles. All specimens were children. Kids are still learning, for chrissakes! I mean, if kids like Duke haven’t grasped the basic social niceties – well, cut us some slack, please. An alien species like myself – despite superior intelligence – will take longer to master complex interactional behaviours.
The really recent stuff is the most interesting. These new brain-scanners they’ve got – well, even if I don’t feel fear in the conventional way, I’m alarmed by the accuracy of their results.
This is why I’m calling.
Our brains show up as different, on these scans.
They’ve found us.
There’s no response from the mothership. Honestly. This civilisation, if I can call it that, is light-years away from reliable interstellar communications. So I guess I will simply have to go back to school tomorrow and figure it out, to use another highly popular expression within my age-ranged peers.
I look down from the screen, hooking a finger into my school bag. Wool snags soft under my fingertips and I slide out the unfinished sweater, noticing that the glittery threads are scratchy on my palm. I work the stitches smooth and straight again. Reach up onto my shelf for a fresh pair of smooth, long needles to slot into the next row.
While mankind figures out how to accept us, we will be here to stay. I get knitting, and imagine myself resilient, wearing my finished sweater with pride. Tomorrow, I will sit in my place on the bus and tolerate the child-man called Duke. Let those in charge of my school label me, should they wish to do so.
I will remain calm and carry on being, as they call me, autistic.
For the complete experience please see the story notes at the end of the page.
Annie felt her route along the walls with her nine-year-old fingers, as they guided her safely to her bed. She slid onto it carefully and snuggled up against Grandpa John, who she instinctively knew was already lying there. She turned her face up to him and he outlined her cheek, neatened her hair and kissed her forehead. He tucked the soft fleecy blanket around her tiny body and they nestled together.
“So?” he said, “what will it be this evening?”
“Tell me the one about the All-Inclusive Club!” she giggled.
Grandpa John gave a groaning smile and Annie chuckled mischievously.
“Again?” he teased, “I thought you’d be getting fed up of it by now!”
“Oh, go on…purrrlleeeeeeeeease,” Annie begged.
Grandpa John cleared his throat, as one would do when about to tell a great story. Annie prepared to visualise his every word, bringing it life and colour in her imagination. Grandpa John started the story in his grandest voice.
“Once upon a time, a long time ago, there was a man called John. He was 50 then. He had a swathe of grey hair like a mop, eyes that crinkled at the sides and a friendly face full of curiosity and joy. He was very intelligent, with the most brilliant mind. But, in his family’s eyes, he had his shortcomings. For example, he only wore blue trousers and the same green fleece coat which was a very old and threadbare friend. The flamboyant scarf he modelled was, in their view, just silly and there was no point in novelty socks. But despite there being all these features to see in John, to the outside world, he was a wheelchair.
One day, he slowly rolled himself down his chocolate bar of a street, avoiding some drains and potholes but stumbling over others, towards the bus stop. He almost made it to the bus, but not quite. It slowly drove away just after he had made eye contact with the driver and the bus was gone. And John felt punched in the stomach and sad. He looked through the bus shelter to a nearby tree and he told it, ‘I am John. I am not disabled, I am able.’ And the wind blew through the tree and the autumn leaves spoke as they rumbled past and John caught the agreement in their breath and he felt better.”
Annie heard the crisp leaves crinkling as they passed and she saw John at the bus stop. Grandpa paused until he could see that she was ready and the tale went on.
“The next day, despite some trouble using his bathroom as the handrail had fallen down, John managed to leave for the bus 10 minutes earlier. He was waiting in the queue when it approached. The driver lowered the ramp for John to board and John ascended until he sat eye to eye with the driver. Then he said more loudly than yesterday,
‘I am John. I am not disabled. I am able.’
And the driver replied, ‘whatever you say mate, now where you goin?’
And John paid his fare and turned towards the eyes in the bus that stared at his chair before hurriedly turning to study the steamy windows. Then one person called, ‘I am Jo. I am not disabled. I am able. I am with you.’ And John noticed that she could not see him because her eyes did not work, but she had heard him better than anyone else. And from that day on, they were together. “
Annie sighed. This was the beginning of the club. She knew it. Grandpa John waited until she had smelt the damp floor of the bus and squeakily written her name on the steamy window and then continued.
“The next day, John rolled down his street and he called into the wind, ‘I am not disabled. I am able. Are you with me?’ and the dozing tramp turned over from his slumber on the bench and croaked, ‘I am with you’. Then, the lady with asthma walking her tiny dog puffed, ‘me too!’ and from that day on they were together.”
“So that’s four people, the trees and the wind, the leaves and a dog together, isn’t it?” said Annie, “but what about the bus driver and everyone on the bus?”
And Grandpa John patiently explained that the tale was symbolic and it showed how support for something built up slowly and needed hard work. It showed that not everyone would be with you, but that you would always be able to find people like you if you looked hard enough. Seeing that she was satisfied, Grandpa John carried on.
“The next day, after work, John went to the park. He couldn’t go the way he wanted because a tree had fallen onto the path and so he watched people climb over it and he turned and went a different way. He felt at one with the trees; he felt at one with the wind. Then, it started to rain. John had no coat. He was going to get wet. The cold water soaked into his clothes and they stuck to his arms and thighs. He felt like he was sitting in an icy lake. His sleeves and trouser legs twisted around him like an anaconda, squeezing him. A complete chill shook his frustrated body and he inhaled a desperate breath right down to his toes, then he shouted over the storm, ‘I am John. I am not disabled. I am able. Are you with me?’
And the rain spat back at him and the thunder shrieked so that he could not hear anything else at first. But then, there was someone there. And another. And another. And one man had brought his daughter who could not hear a word that anyone was saying but she could feel the rain and the stroking of somebody’s hand onto hers. She knew cold and she knew warmth. ‘We are with you,’ said the man.
And the rain stopped. And from that day, they were together. “
“So now, the storm is in the club, right?” said Annie and Grandpa John patiently explained that this part of the story meant that people with disabilities had to battle sometimes against a step they couldn’t climb, a person who couldn’t help or a society that didn’t value them, but that determination and teamwork would bring understanding and change in the end.
And Annie asked why such a land existed because it didn’t sound very nice for John. Grandpa told her that things were better now because people had learned from the hard times and he asked her if she had noticed that the club was growing. And Annie smiled because that world in the story was going to get better, but she was always scared that it would come back. And she had stinging tears in her eyes because she knew what was coming next. She took a deep breath to prepare herself. Grandpa did the same.
“The next day, John went to the supermarket. He always shopped on a Friday. He knew Dave would help him to attach his shopping trolley to the front of the wheelchair. Dave knew what time John was coming and had the trolley ready every week so that John wouldn’t have to touch any of the trolleys that Dave had lined up. Dave liked John because John knew that he shouldn’t touch the trolleys. John also knew that he had to take the tin from the front left corner of any shelf that Dave had stacked, otherwise Dave would get very upset. John didn’t even have to ask Dave to join the club. He had always known that Dave was with him.
The next day, John was ill. He stayed at home. The phone didn’t ring. The letter box didn’t chatter. He fell out of his wheelchair when he was trying to use the bathroom and he lay on the floor with his thoughts and his pain and wondered how long he would have to wait. “
Annie sniffed. Grandpa held her closer and stroked her silky blonde hair which he always told her was yellow and smooth like the petals on his sunflowers.
“It’s ok,” he whispered to her softly like a lavender breeze, “it’s going to be ok.” Annie nodded. Grandpa breathed in carefully and continued speaking gently.
“John was startled to hear love unbolting the locks on the doorway. Caring voices were calling to him, ‘We are with you,’ and he heard beautiful music as they came to him and lifted him. “
Grandpa looked at Annie. She was smiling. She was listening to the music. He was too. They enjoyed it for some time whilst embracing the feeling of positivity from that moment and from what was to come. Annie nodded at Grandpa when she was ready for him to carry on.
“The next day in his hospital bed, John waited for his operation. And John was pleased. He was comfortable and he was not alone. He watched people talk to him with their hands through the ward window and he knew that they were with him. So many people passed by, giving their support, needing inclusivity. John realised on this day that the All-Inclusive Club was growing and that every member was different.
Their ages were different.
Their genders were different.
The way that they felt different was different.
Some people had something missing from their body.
Some people had something missing from their mind.
Some people had something that they didn’t want.
Others had lost something.
But they had one very important thing in common.
They all had needs and were all committed to work to accommodate each other and their differences.
And John did not know that whilst he was in hospital quite how many more people were saying, ‘We are with you.’
When he left hospital, John suggested that those that were with him all met in the park.
‘We can make things better,’ he said.
‘If each one of us is a brick, we can come together and build a ramp for accessibility.
If each one of us is a droplet of water, we can make a wave to cleanse old attitudes of discrimination and exclusivity.
If each one of us is a different colour we can make a far-reaching rainbow.
If we are each a seed, we can bear different flowers and fruit to share.
If we are the wind, we are with those who have gone before us and those who are to come after us.
If we all hold hands, we know that we are truly together.
We are inclusivity, we are accessibility, we are unity. We are the All-Inclusive Club.
But there’s just one thing,’ pondered John as he looked down the long chain of people, ‘and that is where we can come together as we are such a big group now. Everyone is invited and so the park just may not be big enough. ‘
And a small child stopped coughing long enough to put his hand up and say, ‘isn’t the world big enough? Why don’t we use that?!’ and he started coughing again, but everyone still heard the collective soft sigh of a widely held dream already sown in the hearts of every person there.
‘We want inclusivity and accessibility to cover the whole world,’ smiled John, ‘I like that.’”
Grandpa John looked down at Annie. She had her eyes closed and was breathing peacefully. He knew that she was dreaming of the future and would be instrumental in making it even better for everyone.
“You’re in the All-Inclusive Club too, Annie,” he whispered, kissing her eyelids tenderly.
“Like every child, you have the power to make the world an even better place – where everyone can reach for the stars and work together to carry each other over any obstacles.”
Although Annie’s eyes were closed, she could see that clearly.
I’d love it if this story was read aloud but also that it could stimulate other senses so that any or all of these following things are available for listeners to experience either during or after the story:-
- the scents referred to in the story could be available for people to smell ie a damp smell from the bus, a lavender breeze,
- the textures like the mop for john’s hair, a soft blanket, wet clothes and sunflowers could be there to touch and people could feel their way along a wall like Annie does at the start.
- It would be lovely to have props to touch to represent what john says about everyone coming together at the end of the story – a brick, water, a rainbow shape, seeds, flowers and fruits
- Is it possible to have uplifting orchestral music played at that part of the story to represent John’s friends coming to help him (when he fell at home and they came to lift him), also the sound of rustling leaves and the squeak of writing a name on the bus window could be featured.
- And finally, it may feel very powerful if people could hold hands for a moment at the end of the story (with whomever they are comfortable with) to have a sense of togetherness and unity.
The Parable of The Glass Horizon
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will suffocate trying to make you proud.”
Once upon a time, in a distant ocean far into the future, a bird will be born to two fish parents. Now, this bird won’t be like any of the other birds you might be familiar with – they won’t have a beak, or talons, and their wings won’t be that typical pair of feathered collages, but rather a series of flattened out pyramids along their spine, like a mountain-range seen in profile. In other words, this bird born of fish heritage will look exactly like a fish, at least on the outside, but they will know from the very moment that they are born that despite how appearances may deceive, they are, in fact, a bird. At first, they will think that everyone feels like this: when they fall asleep at night, or when their attention wonders off as they drift lazily in the currents, they will dream not of the glacial, murky, depths, nor of the salty expenses that stretch from coast to coast, but of open air, of the wind and sun against their skin, of a bright, clear world beyond these waves and tides. They will feel that there is something deeply, unutterably wrong with this life spent flitting around in half-darkness, like their parents and their grandparents and their ancestors before them, and perhaps most tellingly, but also most painfully, they will constantly experience an inescapable sensation of burning, as if they were always on the very edge of drowning. And they will assume, because they will of course have no other experience to judge by, that all of this is universal, and that they are no different from anyone else. That we are all born into lives we never truly feel belong to us, that we all feel like imposters in the only world we have ever known, that we are all given bodies that are awkward, uncomfortable, as if a few sizes too small or the wrong style of cut or … something, that something is ever so imperceptibly off about all of us, and can never be righted.
Because although they will be a bird, they won’t really know what a bird is. Fish, you see, spend their lives dashing from side to side and they have eyes on the sides of their head, so even though they may be plucked out of the ocean by a seabird if they stray too close to the surface, no fish ever lives to tell the tale; and the rest of fish society just try not to think too hard about these unaccountable disappearances. They concern themselves only with what they understand, what their traditions and norms teach them to be unquestionably true. And there will be one idea in fish society especially relevant to our bird. Fish aren’t completely stupid, of course, and although they will discourage each other from talking of the other world, and convince themselves that to even speak of the surface is to risk bringing its atavistic danger upon yourself, they will of course wonder whether if only the threat could be braved, that there might be something more out there to be discovered. But whenever a fish began to get this idea in their head – for it will be, if nothing else, hauntingly compelling, they need only remember the undeniable truth instilled in them from birth – they are meant for the ocean and only for the ocean, and all you have to do to know this is look at them. For they have dark scales on top, and lighter ones underneath, and it this design that keeps them safe by camouflaging them from predators – if looked at from above, they blend in with the darker water stretching down to the ocean floor, while from below they seem to melt into the brighter water that filters down from the light of the surface. Now, if they were truly meant for anything other than life in the ocean: why would it be so secure?
Our bird, like all members of fish society, will have heard these ideas growing up, but unlike the others they will not be so easily assured. The beliefs they will be brought up to have will not make them happy, they will not give them an optimistic or cheerful perspective on life, but they will find it impossible to fully reject them because they cannot conceive of what exactly the truth might instead be. And as this bird grows up, and starts to contemplate themselves more and have deeper conversations with their friends, they will start to realise exactly how unique they are, and how lonely that uniqueness is. A school of fish, you see, move as one unified body. They quicken and slow when others are too far or too close, they sense the pressure others make and perfectly adjust to balance out the whole, they twist and turn in unison as if wheeling around a magnetic core that ripples out pulses through all of them. They do not learn to do this, per se. Of course, they get better with practice, but there is an initial aptitude for it they are born with so that even the most entry level participation would be unreachable to someone born without. And our bird, of course, looking exactly like a fish but not being one, will be born without. And so they will be left to themselves.
Their parents will of course notice this, and be worried, but no matter how much they love them – and of course, they will love them – the advice that they will give them could never have been helpful to them because they simply will not have what it takes to make a success of this mislaid existence.. No matter how many hours they spend learning to oil their scales or clean their fins with coral, – tasks that fish know how to complete instinctually – no matter how their parents try to build up their confidence with schooling by practicing as just the three of them, they will simply never have the capacity to learn. These tasks will remain as impossible and unknowable to them as shapeshifting or turning invisible. And all the while, that feeling that they are just about to drown, that from the very instant of their birth they had begun an excruciatingly slow asphyxiation, will never entirely leave them for so much as a second.
And so the bird will find themselves spending rather a lot of time alone, and passing the hours just drifting aimlessly on the currents. But after a while, they will start to notice something strange – they, unlike all the other fish who stay pretty much in place, drift only upwards, and so climb slowly but steadily the more time they spend drifting. And one day, they will fall asleep and find themselves on the surface by the time they wake up – not only on the surface, but turned on their side, a completely new way of looking at the world. One half of them will still be in the water but the other half will be on the other side of the veil through which no member of society had ever seen, into the world that exists beyond. And in that other great ocean of air and sun that runs parallel to their native ocean of water, they will see one of their own kind for the first time, and they will begin to realise who they really are.
And suddenly, with half their mouth open to the air, that burning sensation that has haunted them for their whole life will disappear, because as it will turn out, the things on either side of their head that looked exactly like gills to everyone else were always, in fact, a pair of lungs, and it was this surface world that they were truly destined for. And so, a plan will start to form inside their head – a plan to make the greatest of all escapes.
Because upon seeing another bird for the first time, and observing how it cuts through the sky, almost as if swimming, they will start to see no reason that they could not do the same, if they could only find a way to swim vertically – not adjacent to the horizon, as they had always seen it done, but straight up and through the surface. Vertical aquatic manoeuvres are a complicated art, especially when there is more than just gravity to be struggled against, but they can be mastered in time; and our bird, left out of most every activity, will of course have nothing but an ocean of time.
So they will train, with so much more dedication than they had ever mustered when going through with their parents’ attempts to help make them become a normal fish, because with this they can see that it is not a fruitless endeavour, as that was, but rather the purpose they were born for.
And once they have it perfected, they will go. They will escape the world that had always condemned them and find the one where they belong, and they will sail through the sky in a glorious celebration of this fact. And they will realise in that moment that if you look up at them from below, their light underbelly would blend in against the pale canvas of the afternoon sky; while looked at from above their dark upper half would seem to merge with the murky backdrop of the boundless sea – in short, the camouflage that everyone else had always taken as gospel proof of the fact that those born with the pattern of an inverted horizon are not meant to leave the ocean worked just as well in the sky. It all depended on where you looked at them from, and if any nearby fish will look up at that moment, they would know this to be true. But of course, our intrepid bird will be the only member of fish society to have ever looked up, so no one except them will realise.
And in the moment after that, right as they reach the full zenith of their arched trek across the heavens, they will feel the talons of the very same bird that once inspired their escape close around their body and pluck them out of the air. And the bird lived happily ever after.
Katie was surrounded by Blinkers.
Several lingered nearby; an agitated middle-aged woman shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot, an unremarkable man with white earphones sitting on a nearby bench, two teenagers holding tightly onto their mobile phones, taking turns to feign interest in the other’s screens. Opposite Katie on platform three, a ragged looking teenage boy in a black, skull-laden hoodie bounced ominously on his toes.
They don’t know how lucky they are, thought Katie from her place beside the newsagent.
It was Tuesday, which of course meant her weekly catch-up with Sarah, her favourite cousin. It was a coffee-and-cake fuelled hour of gossip and memories that Katie looked forward to more than most things in her life. She would take the train and meet Sarah outside the Marinello Café on the seafront with its mismatched dark wood furniture and deep red walls. She did not, however, look forward to the journey.
To most, travelling between these two places was an unremarkable journey. Most, however, could use platform three. Most were not reliant upon the temperamentality of its lift.
Using platform two meant changing trains halfway, which in turn meant doubling the number of staff involved in her journey. Ramps would have to be found and fitted, people would be put out. Connections would be missed and Katie would be reminded again of how uncommon she was and how invisible she had become.
Several more Blinkers passed by. They had been named by a younger version of herself, when her anger could still be seen by those who cared to look. The world then had seemed full of people acting like blinkered racehorses as her opacity waned. Society had made it clear to an incendiary Katie that that which differentiated her was hers to deal with, not others. They would carry on with their lives as though her condition had never existed. Why should they contaminate their lives with such inefficiency?
The arrivals board showed two minutes until the well-intentioned commotion would begin. She looked in vain for signs of a transport worker with her ramp. What if they had forgotten about her? It had happened once before, on an outdoor platform one icy February evening. She had waited a full hour for the next train and when she finally made it aboard she had purple fingers and an uncomfortable feeling about the success or otherwise of her disembarkation at the other end.
‘The train now arriving at platform two’ came a muffled voice through the station’s ancient speakers, ‘is the nine twenty-six service to Billington. Change at Corley for services to Edge Park.’
Katie wheeled herself forwards hopefully, craning her neck as she looked for a member of staff. A young girl approached and sat on the bench beside her.
‘Hello!’ she said cheerily. ‘Mummy says I have to wait here until she’s back from the newsagent. She says if I go in there I’ll want to get another toy and she can’t afford her little sticks and something for me too. Is it OK if I talk to you while I’m waiting for Mummy? You look like a nice person. My name is Paige, but not like the ones you get in a book.’
‘Sure’ said Katie flatly.
‘Mummy says I can look after myself, so she doesn’t need to watch over me twenty-four-seven. I don’t know what twenty-four-seven is but it must be important because Mummy says it a lot. Do you know what twenty-four-seven means? I think you must know because you look clever. My Mummy doesn’t look as clever as other Mummies, but she says I shouldn’t ever say that again because it’s rude and my Uncle will come over again if I do. What’s that?’
Katie’s mind stumbled a little at the girl’s energy. ‘It’s a wheelchair’ she said at last.
‘No, that’ said Paige, pointing.
‘Oh. That’s my handbag.’
‘It’s very pretty. I don’t have any pretty things, except Flossie of course.’ She pulled a cloth dog from her coat pocket. ‘She’s my special teddy. I think she’s pretty, but Abigail Gallagher said she’s as disgusting as a bag of mouldy broccoli.’
‘Well, don’t let Abigail Gallagher tell you what’s pretty and what’s not’ said Katie, wheeling her chair around to face Paige. ‘If we all went around taking everyone else’s thoughts as facts we wouldn’t be very happy now, would we?’
‘Are you happy?’ asked Paige.
Katie lowered her eyes. ‘I used to be, when I was your age.’
‘You were five too?’ exclaimed Paige. ‘I like being five. It’s nicer than when I was four. Why aren’t you happy now?’
‘Don’t worry about that. Tell me where you’re going today. Somewhere exciting?’
‘Not really. Mummy said she has to go and see Nan.’ A look of concentration came over her. ‘To make sure she has everything she needs’ she said, nodding proudly to herself.
‘It sounds like your Mummy is very kind’ said Katie. ‘Not like that boy there.’
He banged his fists against the train doors as they closed in front of him, shouting an instinctive obscenity before spinning round to the steps that led to platform two and hurtling up them. Several people side-stepped quickly as he careered upwards. Had he been asked, he would not have remembered anyone being there. He was furious and focused. He landed on platform two, looking for something, anything, on which to take out his frustration; glaring at some and abusing others as he unsettled them with his fractured Brownian motion.
‘The train now arriving at platform two is the nine twenty-six service to Billington. Change at Corley for services to Edge Park.’
He didn’t notice Katie, only the open train doors. He flew through them and strutted malevolently to his seat.
‘He’s like my brother’ said Paige. ‘He’s always running around bumping into things too. Mummy says he can’t help it. It’s just the way he is, she says.’
‘Well, it sounds like your Mummy has her hands full. Do you have any other brothers or sisters?’
‘I have three big brothers.’
‘Do you like being the only girl?’
‘I’m not the only one’ said Paige defensively. ‘You forgot about Flossie.’
‘Oh yes, of course. How could I forget about Flossie?’
‘It’s her birthday today’ announced Paige.
‘Is that so? Well, I hope you have something nice planned for her.’
Paige held her hands gently over Flossie’s ears, leaned towards Katie and whispered. ‘I don’t have any money to get her anything, so I’m going to draw her a picture of our dream home. There’s a bedroom just for us and a big trampoline at the back of the garden.’
‘That sounds lovely.’
‘If I was as rich as that fancy man there’ said Paige, pointing ‘I’d buy the world’s biggest doll’s house so Flossie could have the whole place to herself.
‘Money isn’t everything’ said Katie. ‘He probably works all day without seeing his family.’
He had almost made it.
Resetting his newspaper under his arm, he strode quickly along platform two, skipping occasionally in that delicate balance between speed and poise so characteristic of senior office workers of a certain disposition.
He wanted any lonely seat he could find on the train, of course. He winced at the sound of a volatile youth pinballing unpredictably around the station. He skipped a little, then widened his gait.
As he approached the train he noticed a lady sitting just a few paces away. Even at a glance he could see she needed help. A familiar guilty feeling was smothered. He hopped briskly onto the train as if he hadn’t a care in the world. To his relief there was a pair of empty seats in front of a wheelchair bay. He took the one beside the window, placed his briefcase on the seat beside him, and sagged.
‘He mustn’t be very happy’ said Paige.
‘He was in a rush. I don’t like being in a rush. Mummy always shouts at me then. And he’s on his own too.’
‘Maybe he likes being on his own’ offered Katie, glancing anxiously along the platform. ‘I sometimes like being alone.’
‘I don’t. Except when Uncle comes over.’
‘I suppose we all have ways of dealing with things’ mused Katie, half to herself.
‘Mummy says everyone has their burden. I know what that means because she told me once. She said me and my brothers were a burden so it must mean that everyone has kids. Do you have kids?’
‘No, it’s just me.’
‘So, you’re just like that fancy man then? Me and Flossie will be your friends if you like? I think Flossie would like that.’
‘That’s very kind of you, but I need to go. This is my train now.’
‘How do you get up the steps?’ asked Paige with innocent curiosity.
‘There’s usually a ramp, but it looks like they’ve forgotten about me.’
One of the teenagers looked up from his phone and tapped his friend on the arm. ‘Harry, give us a hand here.’
‘Oh! There’s really no need…’ began Katie.
‘Of course!’ said Harry cheerily, leaning over towards Katie. ‘Do you mind if we carry you on?’
‘Do I mind?’ said Katie, unsure how to deal with such a simple display of consideration.
‘Great, let’s do it.’
The two teenagers brought Katie to the train door, counted to three, and hefted her up into the train.
Katie inched forward into a broader space, turned towards the carriage, and positioned herself in the familiar bay. ‘Morning’ she said to thenewly monikeredfancy man, who pursed his lips and nodded politely.
She shuffled comfortably into her seat and looked through the window, gazing curiously at the scene on platform two. Paige’s Mummy had returned, giving her a stunted slap, presumably for talking to strangers. The teenagers had returned to their seat and recoupled themselves to their phones. Only the unremarkable man seemed impervious to the whole thing. Then she caught sight of another man approaching, greeting him warmly before leaning slowly towards him. The unremarkable man pushed him away gently before looking furtively around the platform.
Inside the carriage, the volatile teenager had settled down in an aisle seat. Katie watched as he tapped on his phone, put on a set of oversized headphones, and slumped a little lower into his seat. A moment later a middle-aged woman entered, scanning for an available seat.
The fancy man stared intractably at the platform outside.
Please don’t ask the teenager, thought Katie.
The woman stepped up to the boy and nodded to the empty window seat beside him. Katie braced for the reaction.
The teenager looked up from his phone and raised one eyebrow.
‘Sorry’ said the woman. ‘I can see you’re comfortable, and I wouldn’t usually ask, but there aren’t any other seats.’
The teenager stood and took a step backwards down the aisle. ‘Please’ he said, putting out an arm in invitation.
The normality of his reaction sliced through Katie’s perspective. She distilled life through a lens of conspicuousness. Yet, the fancy man navigating his fear of socialisation, the teenager wearing his behavioural challenges on his sleeve, the men on the bench, and Paige’s Mummy must all endure theirs without casting a perpetual signal to society.
Perhaps this made things harder, or perhaps easier, she wasn’t sure
‘You know’ said the fancy man, surprising Katie and himself. ‘You’re lucky.’
‘Lucky?’ she parroted.
‘Yes, lucky. From a certain point of view. I wish people would help me sometimes, but that’s easier said than done, of course. Sorry to disturb you, I shouldn’t have said anything.’
He refocused his gaze to indicate the conversation was over.
His philosophy, however, was not. It left an instantaneous scar on Katie, one that would echo through the rest of her life. Perhaps she was not as invisible as she thought, and perhaps that was not such a bad thing after all.
As part of our celebrations for the 2022 Huluku Competition we are showcasing the institutions, schools and universities that participate as a class or as an entity.
Huluku has, once again, been blessed by not only having epic artists and designers enter but also by having education champions like Mick and Jennifer from TAFE Sydney and Flordeliza from Mapúa University, in Manila.
Find out more about Flor’s work at the School Of Chemical. Biological and Materials Engineering And Sciences faculty and Mapua University itself. Here’s the marvelous Flor C. De Vera’s page if you’d like to find out more about her too. http://che-chm.mapua.edu.ph/content/flordeliza-c-de-vera
Q5: Who is your creative inspiration or mentor?
Q8: How would you describe your approach to teaching scientific subjects in creative ways?
Q9: Tell us a little about MAPUA and the classes you teach?
Q11: The class was successful with their entries. How did you find embedding the concept and the competition itself (timeline, entry requirements, platform access etc) into your class?
Q13: Were the themes of inclusion, diversity and authentic representation something you were familiar working with prior to the competition?
Q14: Have you any plans to continue building these concepts into your teaching and projects? (Maybe next year’s comp!)