Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Swan (Part 9): Polio


IX. Polio

I have never been able to understand the nervous reaction of my fellow females to mice. Those wild screams and mad scrambles for chairs and tables. Those agonised commands of "Kill it!" Those pale faces, staring eyes, trembling hands, the ultimate abandoning of all reason, all dignity. I am a tolerant person. I just smile, I make soothing noises, both to the trembling human creatures high up as well as the little furry grey creatures low down. I admit they must be high-strung, I recommend plenty of milk and a few early nights. In any case, I feel terribly superior.

          Now take spiders, for instance. That is an entirely different case. Spiders rattle when they walk, they are thoroughly irresponsible and look like small editions of men from outer space. They always seem to make straight for me. I feel I am fully justified in feeling nervous about them.

          As a matter of fact, the sight of a spider makes me lose all reason and all dignity. I scream and try to climb straight up the nearest wall. Failing that I jump on a chair or table. If I happen to find a spider in the bath it is a matter of screaming for help to remove it or, no bath, and never mind Nanny's voice over some odd 40 years which seems to call out, "Oh, you dirty girl!" I have been known to spend some awful 20 minutes on a balcony with shrapnel falling round me during an air raid, trembling like a leaf because there was a large spider on my bed.

          It took a spider to bring home to me what it really means to have "a slight paralysis of the legs." All was peace. I had just finished reading the evening paper and when I put it aside I saw a spider approaching me rapidly. I gave a scream, but when it came to flight I found that my most intense desire to put lots of space between myself and the fiendish animal did not result in speed. I dragged my legs slowly as I had been dragging them for weeks and I almost collided with the spider. I suddenly began to think. 

          So far I had only been out in an ambulance or a car and now it dawned on me what it would mean not to be able to run. How would I ever cross a street? How would I get on a bus? How would I go to work? I quite forgot the spider and looked at my future for the next few years and did not like it. However, it turned out to be not quite so bad as I as I expected, but certainly odd.

          For once thing, it is not at all easy to convince one's surroundings that a person who walks slowly with a stick is not a perfectly normal human being. On the other hand, it is jolly hard work to remain so. I deeply resent it when people make a fuss of me, when chairs are pushed under me, when they step aside to whisper, "Poor thing." I equally resent it when nobody takes any notice of me, when I am pushed off my balance, when I am not immediately offered a seat on the bus, when I am left waiting.  With other words, I want to have my cake and eat it.

          There are compensations. Time seems to stretch quite pleasantly. If I miss one bus, I think I may get on the one after the next. As I stroll slowly along, I have ample time to see things I have never seen before. I have given up being discreet and I look into all lighted windows as long as I can. 

          I have seen a children's party in progress which I would have missed had I run. I have seen people dancing where I never expected them. I have seen a man playing the piano and six people in the room behind him yawning simultaneously with six mouths wide open. I have seen a rather large woman trying on a rather small jumper and the jumper lost. I have seen a little girl having a piano lesson and she looked very happy. I have seen a very pink man who only wore trousers ironing a very flimsy nightdress—probably a surprise. His tongue was stuck out several inches and his forehead was creased in concentration. I have also seen an owl flying along a street where there are normally no owls about. I have discovered the shape of buildings I never knew were there and I have found trees which I had passed for years without noticing them.

          I also have time to take in smells. I know the Indian boarding house by its nice spicy smell from the basement kitchen. I know who is having kippers and who is having bacon for breakfast. I know without looking that the patch of lilies of the valley is out in the park and that the ice cream factory has its vanilla day and that our factory has switched to rubber for a change.
Lottie in Russell Square, 1966
          I have overcome my fear of crossing streets. I just wait until the traffic thins a bit. It always does eventually; one has to be patient. I wait for a driver to signal me across. I felt terribly self-conscious and guilty in the beginning, holding up the traffic. I imagined all drivers cursed me for making them wait. I now think they have better things to do and probably only dimly see me as an unavoidable obstacle that will eventually remove itself. I still love bus drivers and heavy lorry drivers who wave me across and smile. Ours is a nice country to be lame in. People are friendly and patient. Abroad they are nothing of the sort. They are, on the whole, quite horrid. I have been hooted at and mudguards have brushed me and words have been called which I could fortunately not understand.

          Yes, I have been abroad. I suppose one could quite well travel round the world with a rubber-tipped stick in one's hand and dragging legs. I have not been that far, only across the Channel, but I got there and back again. My great worry was how to get on board a Channel steamer. Nothing could have been easier. A porter almost carried me on board, with my suitcase.

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