I spent 1991 crawling to and from my service industry job feeling as if I had died, but no one had buried me. A year on, I got a diagnosis. It wasn't terminal, but my specialist recommended I wind up my business, invest in a good mattress, and move to a bungalow by the sea.
I was twenty-eight.
For a fortnight, I lay in bed with a pile of library books and a second-hand budgie for company.
As soon as I could sit up again, I went shopping. It had to be window shopping because my previous employer had pocketed my National Insurance contributions, and I had no income.
At the mall, I quizzed the Shopmobility man about the pros and cons of the electric chair. He explained the correct term was “power chair” and wheeled out something that resembled a racing car seat grafted into a dodgem. It had a gamer’s joystick on the armrest, and it came in arch-villain black.
In the power chair, I cruised the mall, careful to ration the battery so I didn’t find myself stranded outside the post office, chatting to the Big Issue seller, while Mr Shopmobility trekked forth with fresh power.
During my maiden voyage I kept to the ground floor of the department store. I repaid the thoughtfulness of their provision of lovely wide aisles by shoplifting a thong. It must have happened when I was gliding past the lingerie department. Its plastic hanger had hooked itself onto the back of my chair. Sadly, Soho-red wasn’t my colour.
The following week, when I’d gained more confidence, I headed for the health food store.
A few metres in, I slowed to a halt. I wasn’t out of juice. A pair of wire-baskets, tall and triangular, sat in the middle of the aisle. Their purpose, no doubt, to persuade passing trade that sesame snaps and sunflower seeds would make a tasty snack.
Like a Ferrari driver stalled in front of cows, I stared at the baskets. It was the mid-nineties, before accessibility legislation, but surely I wasn’t the first wheelchair user to attempt to shop in a health food store. No assistant was in sight. I ratcheted into reverse and, craning my neck backwards to check my retreat was clear of customers. I zigzagged all the way back to the cash desk by the door.
The spiky haired assistant stood on a plinth behind the counter. At my approach, her leathery features converged into a look of disdain.
'Excuse me,' I called, throwing my voice due to the distance between us. 'I can’t get past the baskets in the aisle.' I looked as if I'd just wheeled out of an episode of Dr Who, but this did not impress Lizard-face. I tried again. 'I was wondering if you could help me by moving the baskets?'
Judging by her expression, anyone would have thought I’d suggested she gift me a kidney.
Moira!’ Lizard-face yelled.
A woman in a shiny blouse approached from the back of the shop and prowled towards me. Nose lifted as if scenting the air, she ascended the plinth alongside Lizard-face. Clearly, the clientele of this health food shop were trouble and it was safer on higher ground.
I repeated my request for the baskets to be moved.
'Sorry,' Moira said with a tight shake of her head.
'But...but… this is a health food shop, right?' I quavered.
They both nodded.
'For people who want to improve their health?' I said.
Again, they agreed.
'How am I supposed to buy a healthy lunch if I can't access the products?'
'We can't move the baskets.' Moira knotted her arms across her shiny chest. Her face went through a range of emotions, but none of them appeared to be regret.
My heart, already fatigued, started to falter. 'Can I ask,' I said. 'Why not?'
‘Head Office,’ Moira said.
'Head Office,’ Lizard-face echoed.
Moira pursed her mouth into a cat's bum of annoyance. ‘Head Office say the baskets have to go in the aisles, if you want ‘em moved,’ she thumped a fist to her waist, ‘you'll have to ask Head Office.'
I checked my watch. 'It's 11:45. I don't think they'll get back to me in time for lunch.'
Moira, whom I took to be the manager, shrugged bony shoulders before padding back to her lair. Lizard-face monitored me with pale unblinking eyes.
'Thanks for your help,' I called, manoeuvring towards the exit.
In the doorway, I stared at the baskets - the metal ones.
What had Mr Shopmobility called my chair? A “power” chair.
This had to go right first time. If I got lanced by a basket leg, I couldn’t count on Moira and Lizard-face to staunch the bleeding without getting authorisation from Head Office.
Like a gamer for whom World of Warcraft just got real, I thrust my joystick into drive and braced for impact.
Baskets clattered, sesame snaps snapped, and sunflower seeds were sown. Thanks to my dodgem bumpers, I didn’t feel a thing.
There was no turning back - literally. I pressed on through the next pair of baskets, and the next. Three pairs of wire baskets later, I was back at the cash desk with Lizard-face, who was doing a puzzled face.
I waved at her as I left, thankful that number plates are not fitted to the backs of wheelchairs.
Some weeks later, when I had regained the strength and courage to wheel past the health food store and peer in, I saw no baskets. This was not just true for my local branch, but nationwide. Every time I visited a new high street, I checked inside the health food store for baskets. It became something of a hobby.