Independent Travel / 29 August 2013
The twelve hour flight has become familiar to my body, but the details vary each time. Processing me at Heathrow in my own powered chair confused almost everybody. I revelled in the freedom and independence, whilst the assisted-travel assistants consulted the rules and regulations. I successfully negotiated myself to the door of the aircraft on my own wheels and then watched as the powerless skeleton (without batteries and without the contoured cushions that make sitting for more than fifteen minutes a reality), was rolled away to the hold.
I fantasised about having Con.Text conversations on the plane, it probably as a fifty-fifty mix of people who speak a European language and people who speak Japanese, but I put in my pressure equalising earplugs and resigned myself to twelve hours of engine noise. Conversation is restricted to the expected and communication is via slow words and pantomime hand waving.
This was my first attempt at bringing the skinny-wheeled Japanese wheelchair back into the country, and once the aircraft had been cleared and I had been transported to its doors via the aisle chair, I eagerly awaited our reunion. The involuntary squeal of horror that escaped my lips and the agonised: 'That's not my wheelchair' was gracefully ignored by the man attached to the handlebars of a battered manual wheelchair. The dreaded 'health and safety' mantra darted unexpectedly from the lips of the cabin crew who took pity on me and sought to avoid the spectacle of my noisy refusal to transfer into the thief of independence that awaited me.
It is apparently hazardous to push the empty powerchair (which rolls most easily and smoothly without power), but quite, quite safe to push an empty manual chair. So health and safety dictate that I am first reunited with my independence at the baggage carousel, a process that ensures that I am supported safely through customs and immigration by my silent porter.
My support cushions seamlessly meld
into aircraft seat that awaits me.
For take off, toes dangle above floor
until we reach altitude and my life
is returned to my lap.
Hand luggage becomes
my footrest. Fred and George,
the sticks, live alongside my legs,
elbow grips in said lap,
my handbag dances a tangle
between sticks and lap, juggles
for space alongside food, and drink
I must hold in my hand there is
nowhere left that is safe, that is
my space for the next twelve hours.
I slide back the tilt of my chair
and prepare for oblivion.
From Narita airport into Tokyo by Skyliner, I wonder at the amount of new-build packed unceremoniously among the already densely packed townscapes. The colour of created geography changes subtly as the glossy turquoise-blue glaze of old roof-tiles gives way to sudden patches of modern creamy-brown. We speed past towns that flow into each other with barely room for a brief glimpse of cultivated countryside; past equally unsegregated skyscrapers, junk yards, luxury homes, abandoned tin huts, schools, tangles of power cables and shambolic dwellings all decorated and punctuated with greenery. I'm glad to be back.