Cripple in Cambridge – Week 6
With exams finishing, ABBI BROWN is ready to club. On wheels.
It’s a typical Wednesday night at the VK-fuelled bacchic frenzy that is Cindies.
As our trusty playlist clicks over into the unfortunately unforgettable first ‘nants ingonyama’ of the Lion King remix, I bid a hasty retreat to the shadowlands of the smoking area – and there he is. Tall, sandy haired, swaying gently in the doorway like a lanky, inebriated Pumba, he stares at me, blinks his bleary eyes, and stares again.
I know what’s coming, but all attempts at escape are foiled by a wild herd of apparently hysterical Disney fans. He opens his mouth; I brace myself.
“You’re really fucking short.”
I’m going to let you into a little secret. I’ve been short for ages.
Seriously. I was short at school. I was short when I first bopped over to Cambridge, and although I did grow a miraculous half-inch in my first year, I’ve pretty much stuck with the whole short thing since then.
As far as I’m aware, I usually depart for a night out exactly the same height as I am when I arrive at the intended venue. In my days of boogying on two legs, I was therefore continually baffled as to why, on almost every night out, an average of three people would find it necessary to point out my own short stature.
‘You’ve tucked your dress into your knickers’ or ‘there’s chewing gum in your hair’ are both valid, helpful notes to make concerning a fellow club-goer’s appearance. Surprisingly enough, proportionate dwarfism can’t be fixed on a quick trip to the loos.
One of the most irritating aspects of this oft-repeated scenario is the monotonous lack of originality. ‘While you’re down there, love’, or ‘don’t look now but one of them midget strippers is behind you’: offensive, yes, but at least there’s some attempt at humorous variation. Picking me up, carrying me around and then leaving me stranded on a table: dangerous, but at least mildly entertaining, probably, for someone.
But ‘you’re short’? You really couldn’t do any better than that?
So, when my legs gave up the goat, I was understandably nervous about going out in a wheelchair – so nervous, in fact, that until third year I tended to eschew such formal mobility aids, depending instead upon a small but loyal army of piggybackers.
Eventually, however, I came to the somewhat belated realisation that enforced piggybacks are kind of cruel, and that even a careful combination of piggybacks and crutches was not enough to prevent my legs from crumbling underneath me. The wheelchair made its debut on the Cambridge club scene. And if my legs weren’t so crumbly, I’d be kicking myself that it took me so long to come round.
Logistically, going clubbing in a wheelchair is a tricky business. The majority of Cambridge clubs do have lifts, but the majority of said lifts seem to be permanently out of order, and bouncers sometimes need a little persuasion that my being carried up or down stairs is an acceptable substitute. Vodka Revolution once actually took away my wheelchair on the grounds of health and safety (?!). Sticky floors make for sticky hand-rims. Crowded venues are both daunting and dangerous; in January, my worst fears were realised when, whilst queuing at a bar, my wheelchair was tipped over sideways and a good six feet of sweaty drunk man fell squarely on top of me.
But one ambulance ride, two fracture clinic appointments and four weeks in a sling later, my wheels were back on the dance-floor, and since then the two of us have enjoyed all the dubious delights that Cambridge nightlife has to offer relatively unscathed.
Despite this, clubbing in a wheelchair is much more enjoyable than it used to be on two legs. Why? Because, when it comes to wheelchairs, people – even drunk ones – are almost universally nice. I cannot count the number of times kind strangers have helped me to enjoy a night out. At four foot eight inches tall, I tend to get a bit trodden on when standing in a crowd, but complete strangers will often go out of their way to ensure I have enough space around my wheelchair. Not once have I received an inappropriate or in any way offensive comment about my chair.
These days, when the drunk man swaying in the Cindies doorway open his mouth to speak, I don’t need to brace myself; he’s only going to ask if I need a hand getting outside. Ta, Mr Drinky McDrinkerson. Much appreciated.