Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Largest Country In The World

It was approaching Christmas, twelve years ago.

The usual time: sending cards, buying presents, planning, getting all worked up about nothing. Who’s who on your Christmas list? Should you send a card to so-and-so? Will she remember you? What if you send a card to her and she doesn’t send you one?... Well you know the sort of thing. It all seemed so important at the time.

And then something happened that changed K’s life.

It was like being marooned in a foreign country, unable to find her way home. One day she was well. In good spirits or bad spirits, it made no difference. She was well. And then - suddenly, unexpectedly - she wasn’t well any more.

It started with a cough, growing increasingly persistent, a general discomfort and fatigue. She was sent home from work one day and never went back. It ending up with her in a wheelchair, stranded, alone.

There’s some dispute within the medical community as to whether M.E. is real or not. Some would say that it is mainly psychological. It’s an academic argument of course, played out by professionals with their own sets of agendas. It makes little difference. If there are psychological elements to the illness – who can say? - it still keeps the sufferer bound. House bound. Wheelchair bound. Unable to move around.

In a foreign country, all the rules are different. Things you thought you understood no longer make sense. Steps are barriers. Stairs are mountains. Doors block your entrance. People loom over you or hover at a distance. People look at you strangely. People are embarrassed, or too kind, or condescending, or too careful, or too wary. They avoid eye contact, they avoid talking. Sometimes they see you and, rather than meet with you, turn around and walk the other way.

In the end, of course, you grow accustomed to your new land. Twelve years: it’s a long time. You learn the language. You learn to fight to survive. You meet other foreigners like yourself, people with disabilities. You draw comfort from them. Maybe you even get complaisant. You bitch a little between yourselves, scorning the natives. And then, suddenly, you begin to see that there are more foreigners stranded here than you could ever have imagined.

That’s what happened the other day. K was shopping, wasting money again, on people who already had as much as they needed.

There was a woman on the street, begging.

She invited the woman for a cup of tea. The woman accepted. She said, ‘I’m going to get a flat on Monday.’

‘That’s good. How have you managed that?’

‘I just have,’ the woman said, suddenly defensive. ‘It’s best not to say.’

‘I understand,’ K said. But she didn’t understand because she hadn’t lost her home.

But the woman was nervous. She didn’t want to stay for the tea and instead asked for a takeaway. She fumbled with the teabag in the plastic cup, not knowing where to put it, apologising profusely. It was as if she was apologising for her life. There was a look in her eye, like shock, like abandonment, as if the world had deserted her and all her kind. She stumbled back on to the street where she felt more at home.

That was when it all became clear. Being homeless is being disabled too. And then K understood the nature of the country she’d been so mysteriously taken from all those years ago, and the nature of the country she now found herself in.

Her new country is the country of dispossessed and disabled humanity, the largest country in the world, shared by millions. The country she came from - and which she no longer misses - is the country of easy certainty and quiet complaisance, where nothing matters as long as it’s mine.

“And if you ask me now, who is the disabled person, I will tell you,” says K. “The truly disabled are the one’s who’ve forgotten that they are also human beings.”


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