Lack of sleep somewhat fogged my departure, particularly the packing, which never seems adequate at the best of times. This not being the best of times, to wit, wintertime, when the livin’ isn’t easy in Britain’s seasonal cold. But really, I was thinking of missing Jane. It was a very mixed bag, the trip preparations. The result being an air of confusion, subtle but pervasive.
The Vodafone card swam into my brain at Heathrow. Death Row, as my cousin Caroline calls it. I had seen the card, and last recalled Jane placing it safely in a plastic bag with other portable electronic gear. Thing is, I needed it now, conditions being what they were. And how were they? Fucked. And in a particularly British way.
In flying from California to London, eastbound is the worst. Day becomes evening, then becomes morning, then becomes Electra…then one doesn’t care anymore. I was certainly at that stage. First-class seemed like a good idea, having enough airline miles to pull this off with relative ease. But it soon became apparent that even with a seat that reclines fully into a bed, there is the bladder. Which would make its needs known too late. To get out of my airline bed, I would have to summon a flight attendant, then stumble through the darkened cabin to the toilet. Which would never work.
And in reality even the work-around didn’t work…bladder pinging having roused me from a half slumber in my reclined seat in not quite sufficient time. For the partial quadriplegic who urgently has to pee, walking while trying to cross one’s legs, as it were…well, this isn’t possible, nor is anything close achievable. All that happens is a lot of bladder clenching while trying to limp. Actually, while trying to balance in the dark while explaining to a flight attendant precisely how to hold one’s arm, gripping there, not there.
Still, things were looking bright as a small army from Virgin Atlantic heroically delivered the wheelchair of its first-class quadriplegic right to the door of the plane. Although, not the usual door. The meal-delivery door, the wheelchair being lifted on the hydraulic van that normally stocks the galley. I stood dazed watching the crew maneuver my chair between a rack of convection ovens, through the tight Virgin Atlantic bar, and out the other door…where it took four men to lift the ponderous thing from aircraft to jetway. I was more than dazed, actually teetering from lack of sleep and lack of balance. Swooning occasionally, grabbing on to the edge of the bar…the combined effects of fatigue and waning neurology.
But then I was back in the wheelchair, one of those supremely transitional moments. One has crossed the bar. No, not the Virgin first-class bar, but the worst sandbar of wheelchair travel, destruction of one’s vehicle in the baggage hold. For all systems were go, me blasting down the long Heathrow concourse, passport at the ready. Yes, there was a snag finding a porter. ‘Did you book assistance?’ asked the woman at the Virgin baggage desk. Of course, I didn’t, and there followed moments of self denunciation and recrimination. But not many. The Virgin woman went in search…her virginity called into question by a very evident pregnancy. And after waiting several moments, so did I…snagging a porter on my own, thank you very much.
Spurred by this blossoming sense of renewal, the wheelchair road warrior battling his demon, I took inventory. Three bags, one crutch, one porter…the latter a South Asian of some description, thirtyish, intelligent-looking guy…very likely finding what work an educated person could in this less than robust British economy. He pushed his cart, I pushed my joystick, both of us focused on the Heathrow Express. Running every fifteen minutes, covering the 22 miles of track in just that, a quarter of an hour. The ads throughout the airport saying it all: 15/15. The porter asks if I have a ticket. No is the answer, the real answer being that one can buy tickets on board. It doesn’t matter. Nothing can stop me now.
Except lack of cash, for this good porter deserves a healthy tip for pushing my bags hither and yon. We stop at a cash point, a.k.a., ATM. We are not taking the usual route to the train. Construction, he explains, urging me to put on my coat. Rain, he warns. I laugh this off. He doesn’t know who he’s dealing with, this guy. I know the vast outside courtyard between terminals has a glass cover. Which soon reveals itself to be remarkably useless, rain blowing precipitation at us sideways in a gusty wind. I can’t believe it, how soaked we get, my glasses dripping. His expression is inscrutable, but inside he is shaking his head, muttering the Pakistani equivalent of ‘goyim.’
Down the long underground passage that leads to the Heathrow Express…where staff wait at a door, probably to sell us tickets on the fly. No, the woman has an announcement. She says it once, notes my expression and says it again. No trains are running. Signal problems. Of which, we are having our own, she and I. For all this woman’s signals point one way. This is no big deal. The nation’s major link between its capital and famed global airport has been severed. As for questions, well, wouldn’t you rather have a cup of tea, dear? This is how things are. This is how we Britons are. And it has stood us in good stead. Trains go out. German bombers go in. We do what needs to be done.
What needs to be done at my end is simple enough. Get a cab to Paddington Station, normal endpoint for the Heathrow Express…starting point for the train to Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire. Action, time for quadriplegic action. Which is, after all, one of the lessons of travel, certainly one of the challenges, when one has a disability. Clearing hurdles like an Olympic runner, I turn around and head right back to the Heathrow Express woman. We converse, and I leave with a plan, a brilliant plan, it seems to me. Take the Air/Rail Link, a bus service that has been in place for 50 years, from the airport to the important rail junction at Reading. Better, I have researched this matter, as recently as last summer. The Air/Rail Link takes wheelchairs. The website says so.
Unfortunately, a woman at the National Coach counter disputes this. Are you sure, I persist? She is certain.
‘Mind the gap,’ warn signs throughout the London Underground, referring to the perilous space between trains and platforms. Equally perilous, is the gap between official information about disabled access and the truth. There is no nefarious plot here. Though this looks suspiciously like a global conspiracy. The fact is that from Vladivostok to Guadalajara, reliable information about disabled transport…well, forget it. There isn’t any. As for the Air/Rail Link, despite not having slept in 24 hours, I somehow remember their website advice to reserve wheelchair spaces aboard airport-to-Reading coaches. So technically I am in no position to press my point. Practically, I am also in no position.
I am in a hurry. I have reserved a wheelchair space on the 13:21 train from Paddington station in London to my cousin’s station at Moreton-in-Marsh…which should stop in Reading at, oh, about 13:50. At which point, being in high gear in terms of disabled travel/survival, I remember the Vodafone card. I need to activate my British phone…even though I can’t find a Vodafone outlet at the airport. Never mind. WH Smith will do. They sell me a £30 bundle of minutes. Good, because I am a bundle of nerves, travel plans changing moment by moment.
The thing about cab drivers in London…they are entrepreneurs. The cabbie I stop in front of Terminal 1 offers to knock £30 off the trip to Reading. Only £100…being one of those egregious things disabled travelers encounter. Never mind, for we are off and rolling. Reading. Where is it? Funny thing is that I have been there many times. You can’t take a train anywhere in Britain without eventually making a stop in Reading. We barrel up a motorway, then stop in Reading. In fact, we stop about 40 times, stop and go, in fact. Reading is drowning in the most unbelievable traffic I have ever seen outside of London. What is happening here? The cabbie can’t say. They call the wind Maria.
Not that the cabbie isn’t trying. He doesn’t know the town, is trying to find the station via his navigation system. Being a cabbie, he drives aggressively, lurching here, braking there. Meanwhile, I am trying to take care of business. Somehow, despite the taxi jerking around, I manage to plug in my Vodafone minutes. Next, I try to ring the wheelchair assistance people at Paddington. I finally get someone on the line who is clueless. I give up. Still, in the course of extracting travel documents from my briefcase, I do manage to knock £200 worth of tickets to the Royal Shakespeare Company to the floor of the taxi.
Worse, I have left the wheelchair on, for its on/off switch is wearing out. So in reaching for the theater tickets, I hit the chair’s joystick just enough to slam my arm against the back seat of the taxi. The latter jerking and accelerating through traffic…while the cab driver rolls down his window to argue with a motorist. Things aren’t going well. Or are they?
At Reading station, the driver can’t find the entrance, but never mind. He has a cab, after all, so he whips his taxi around 180°, traffic be damned, depositing me at a convenient curb. This last bit is not unimportant. Boarding his cab at the airport, I had to drive in reverse up the fold-down ramp, first wedging myself against the door of the taxi, which forced me to drive forwards, at which point my wheelchair began to tilt dangerously toward the sidewalk. The porter…remember him?…grabbed the chair, saving me an additional spinal cord injury. At Reading, the cab driver sprints inside the station and returns with the helper for disabled passengers. The train for Moreton-in-Marsh will arrive in about 90 seconds, the man tells me. Problem is, I have to go to a vending machine, type in my confirmation number, and get the actual ticket. Not to worry, he says, just board. He will have a word with the train guard.
I am actually asleep when we pull into Moreton-in-Marsh, the train guard shaking my shoulder. I see my cousins on the platform. I see them only briefly. At 4 PM, this winter’s day is growing dark. It is still dark the next morning at 8 AM, when I turn on BBC Radio 4. The national news is full of the signal fire that disrupted rail lines on one of the busiest travel days of the year. Whatever.