Martin Chambers

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Rumble strip

I remember Mary was telling some story and I was getting irritated. You know, stories are supposed to have a beginning and a middle and an end, in that order, but when Mary tells a story it has a beginning and then a whole load of middles but no end. She loses the thread and then waffles, or if there is some sort of finish it usually has nothing to do with the beginning. 

Thing is, I know she’s like that and I still love her. We all do. We laugh about it, even while she is there. We’ll be saying, ‘Mary what are you talking about, get to the point.’ And she laughs too. 

‘Stories go all over the place,’ she says. ‘Just like we do. Past, present and future is a dull way of telling a story. We all live in many worlds. Not just daydreaming. Don’t you ever feel your previous lives? Past lives, or maybe alternate lives at the same time as this one. Sometimes you meet the other you from a parallel world. Just before it happens there is a pause in the world, then a hic-up. Like a footpath is smooth, then it has those rough bits.’

We all sat quietly for a while. I often couldn’t follow what the fuck she was talking about and this day was no different. We were outside around their big table, not a BBQ or anything, just casual. People brought whatever they had. A platter of fried chicken looked delicious, with crispy skin and fat and I just wanted some. I can’t have that anymore. Even if I could it wouldn’t be fair. Y’know. Because it comes out so smelly. Someone’s got to deal with that. 

Mary was rabbiting on again and I said get on with it and Ramon said let her speak if she’s got something to say. Cathy had brought a tray of sandwiches, soft white bread with the crusts cut off, turned around so you see all the insides striped with white edges and I was looking at these wondering why not wholemeal or multi grain or healthy or anything. They looked delicious. There were muffins too, and biscuits, and a plate of cut-up fruit and I remembered some course we did that always had those sandwiches and cut-up fruit.  

It was years ago, in a previous life, a course about dealing with conflict and how sometimes it was good to stretch people and their ideas and this course was about how to do that. ‘Stand in the space,’ the man said. He meant that you didn’t run away, or back down, when you had ideas or things to say. Even if you later turned out to be wrong, it was important to stand up for what you were thinking then and there because if you didn’t, no-one would ever get stretched outside of their comfort zone. But that was all shit. I know that now. It is only when you can’t ever turn and leave in a huff that you realise just how powerful such an action is. Stand in the space. Comfort zone. I wish. I decided I had to leave.

The thing about being in a wheelchair is when you go to leave everyone has to get out of your way, stand up and scrape chairs in and hold the door for you and at Mary and Tina’s place they have to lift me down the front steps. So I did leave. In a huff. But no-one realised. At least I got Mary to shut up about her fuckin’ non story.  

It was Sunday so there was not much traffic. I was enjoying the sunshine, rolling along thinking about nothing, when I saw her. It was the same girl. I’m sure of it. She had on the same fluffy yellow jumper, a sort of fake cashmere, y’know, almost furry and looking incredible soft. The sort of look that just makes you want to touch, to feel it and hold it to you, and it was perfect for this girl because she also looked soft, beautiful, friendly. She was standing on the other side waiting for the lights to change and that was exactly where I saw her the first time. How long ago was that? It was like no time, a dreamy instant between now and then. 

She looked right at me and I wondered if she remembered, and despite what happened the memory was not at all horrid. It was dreamy, peaceful and warm, a perfect place and I could have stayed there forever.  

I remember so much detail. I was standing at the yellow pole pressing the button and watching her in her fluffy yellow jumper. The sun was warm. She smiled. There was no wind. Everything was quite. A perfect day. 

It is remarkable when people look at you because they never do. They look up, to the side, or at their feet, but never at you. Sometimes they look across you, like, in the chair I am only so tall and so they look where my eyes might have been if I were standing up. Like they are looking at the me from my former life. Looking at me where I used to be. She didn’t. She looked at me and smiled. 

Luckily I haven’t lost my intelligence. Although sometimes I think there is something I am missing, like there is something I used to know, or used to be able to work out, like I think I remember a time when I could have, say, remembered a phone number, or could hold in my head a whole bunch of ideas, related things, like a three dimensional matrix of ideas and relationships in a way that you could never write down and understand them, and from there work out some concept, some plan.  That was my job, urban design and town planning, and I could sort of see three dimensional images of what I was working on. Not just the physical things, like roads and buildings and garden beds, but time, and people too, how over time people moved and related, to the physical world but also to each other in that physical world that I designed. How they might pass each other in the street and smile. All in my head. But I don’t do that now. 

They said I could keep working, but it was an old building and there was no lift or ramp to get to the first floor, so they gave me an office near the foyer but I just know they were all talking about me up there, discussing me and my ideas, having meetings without me and plotting things. Sometimes I think they were deliberately trying to get rid of me. I was just a pain for them and they had to keep me on, equal opportunity and all that. Other times I know it is just paranoia. But often they just forgot about me. 

For lectures the university put in a ramp so I could come in the bottom door but in a chair everything takes so much longer so eventually I stopped lecturing in all but a couple of town planning units. They wanted me to teach a unit on building codes and talk about access equality. I guess it wasn’t really tokenism but that was what I accused them of. Anyway, I don’t do that anymore. That was another life.  

Where our street meets Collins they have fixed the footpath and it is smooth cement all along Collins, and they’ve painted little pictures of bicycles on it, and pictures of people walking, and along it are signs that say keep left, or cyclists ring bell when passing, or dogs on leash. No pictures of wheelchairs. Even in the disabled parking bays they have wheelchairs that are small and elegant, not great big motorised three hundred kilogram monsters. It’s the little things. 

There is a rumble strip just as the smooth concrete path meets the road. Orange with a raised pattern. It’s almost art. Except that what with all the padding on the chair and the heaviness of it and the soft wheels and the fact that the footpath up the other way, the way I had just come, this was all rough and pitted and so the rumble strip passes unnoticed under my wheels and the girl is still smiling at me so I didn’t notice the lights hadn’t changed, and my wheels roll right over the little bobbles and I stop, it is only a tiny movement of my hand to make the chair stop right in front of a car that has screeched to a halt and the man yells and people are looking but the girl is gone. Was she ever there? I try to move my head to look.

Of course she was. She is there again, and it is just exactly like the first time, there she is and I am crossing the street and I suck my stomach in. Like you do, walk taller and look, well, ready, try to think of something to say, some reason to talk to her. And then the screech of brakes, yelling, people, the dreamy world and beautiful warmth and it could have been her but in any case it is wonderful and I could just sleep like this, so comfortable right here and now. I could stay like this forever in this warm comfortable place where she is there too.  

But the battery acid has spilled and people are dragging me away and there is the screech of car brakes and I didn’t notice the rumble strip and the car hit me and my chair has capsized and there is yelling and sirens and still I do not care because I am warm and comfortable and she smiled at me. 

She takes my hand. She smiles, concerned. 

‘Are you OK?’

‘What happened?’ I mumble. I shouldn’t mumble. ‘Where is my chair?’

‘What chair?’

There is no chair. I don’t speak for fear of mumbling or saying something stupid like ‘Where is my chair?’

‘I think you fainted.’

I didn’t know what to say. She was so warm and all I wanted to do was sleep in that soft place where I had been. But whatever it was, wherever I had been, was gone. I was lying awkwardly on the edge of the road, my arm pressed against the rumble strip and as I sat up and she helped me to lean against the yellow pole and we saw there were little round hexagons on my skin. I laughed. She laughed back, and then she touched me, rubbed my imprinted skin.  

‘Do you want something to drink?’ Mary was rubbing my arm. She had come to sit next to me when everyone else had gone inside to watch the footy. ‘Champagne?’ 

‘No thanks. I think I’ve had enough.’

Mary looked inside through the sliding doors, then at me. She knew I wasn’t much into footy. ‘You wanna go for a walk?’

We left via the side gate and as we walked she slid her arm around me and her touch was electric. I had the sudden thought that I should be kinder to her scatterbrained storytelling because although you never really knew where it was going or what bits of it were true, who would have thought at the start of today I would, by afternoon, be walking arm in arm with Mary and it feeling like we had always been together? Perhaps what she said was true, that our past and present and future only came in that order because we expected it, and there might be past selves or parallel ones and all sorts of connections between them.  

It was Sunday. Everything was quiet, no traffic, and the world was peaceful. The day was beautiful, sunny and calm, and I had the overwhelming sensation that something was about to happen.