Not your inspiration (a short science fiction story)

This is a short science fiction story. If the quantum universes running in parallel isn’t enough SF for you, then note the successful map app: it doesn’t yet exist, at least not here in Australia. When it’s developed, I WANT ONE. — Nalini Haynes

Light clouds soften the morning light. A light breeze plays through Melinda’s blonde hair, wafting notes of eucalyptus as she walks to the train station and waits on the platform.

The city-bound train screeches to a halt at the station.

Peak hour crowds rush the doors. High school students in blazers carrying heavy bags, business people wearing suits, tertiary students in jeans with backpacks jostle one another in the race to get on first. Melinda, a university student, steps forward, the breeze playing with the hem of her skirt, her pink cane tapping from side to side until it rattles across the TACs, the coloured bumps warning of the gap.

A suit kicks her cane aside, shoves her shoulder and enters first, taking the last disabled seat.

Melinda sighs. She pushes into the carriage and walks up to stand beside the disabled seats.

The carriage doors slide shut.

Melinda spends an uncomfortable journey balancing her bag, her cane and straining to reach a handle suspended from the ceiling just a bit too high for her 5 feet 6 inches. Strangers push and shove.

‘Move your backpack, it’s in the way.’

‘Get out of my way.’

‘Can you please move further down the aisle?’

~~~

Light clouds soften the morning light. A light breeze plays through Melinda’s blonde hair, wafting notes of eucalyptus and melodious birdsong.

The city-bound train screeches to a halt at the station.

Peak hour crowds rush the doors. High school students in blazers carrying heavy bags, business people wearing suits, tertiary students in jeans with backpacks jostle one another in the race to get on first. Melinda steps lightly, the breeze playing with the hem of her skirt, her pink cane tapping from side to side until it rattles across the TACs.

The carriage doors slide shut.

‘Excuse me,’ says a young Indian woman dressed in flowing scarves of green and brown. ‘Would you like my seat?’

‘Thank you,’ says Melinda, sinking into the vacant seat. After tucking her cane next to her legs so as not to trip other passengers, she switches to her reading glasses and pulls out her tablet to continue Me, Myself and I. Her eyes never leave the screen; she only pauses while she waits for the next page to load.

~~~

‘Due to delays this train will run direct from Richmond to Flinders Street Station. If you want the City Loop, get off at Richmond and catch the train from platform 6,’ says a female voice over the PA.

Crowds sweep Melinda along. She hopes she’s heading the right way. When a train pulls into the station, commuters pile on until the carriage is a sardine can. There’s no room. Melinda waits on the platform. Three trains come and go while she waits on the platform, pushed aside in the rush.

“Look at you, you’re such an inspiration,” says a white-haired woman leaning on a cane.

“Who, me?” asks Melinda.

“Managing all alone. You could get lost or knocked off the platform,” says the woman.

“So could you,” says Melinda. When the next train pulls in to the station and opens its doors, she wedges herself into a carriage, pressed against the door. “Patronising biddy,” she says through gritted teeth.

When the train pulls into Parliament Station, Melinda stands her ground. Passengers racing to get out buffet her from side to side, side to side. Melinda gasps. Falls.

Someone treads on her hand. The door closes. The train moves on.

Melinda looks up at a forest of legs with blurs she knows are anonymous faces staring down at her. Struggling to her knees, she sees the bright pink stripe of her cane. She reaches for it, misjudges the distance and knocks it further away. It stops rolling against someone’s foot. She grabs again then stands, staggering, as the train pulls into Melbourne Central Station.

The doors open. Melinda stands in the doorway. Crowds standing on the platform block her exit. Her shoulders slump.

Taking a deep breath and squaring her shoulders, she plants her cane firmly by her feet in the ‘Gandalf’ position: ‘You shall not pass!’ Regardless, people shove their way onto the train, forcing her backwards, further into the carriage. ‘Wait, no! I’M TRYING TO GET OFF!’

‘I’m trying to get on, you stupid bitch.’

‘Bloody retards, shouldn’t be allowed out in public.’

Melinda pushes forward, escaping the train. Facing a wall of people waiting to get on the train, she forces her way through, gasping for relief like a drowning woman. Someone shuffles a half-step to the left, leaving a tiny opening towards which Melinda aims. As she reaches and pushes into the crowd, people shuffle out of her way then they flow towards the carriage door.

~~~

Although engrossed in her novel, Melinda glances up when the carriage windows go dark. She tucks her tablet in her backpack, switches to distance glasses and prepares to get off at Melbourne Central Station.

Crowds of people leave the carriage at Parliament Station, the blue station. Now only two-thirds full, the aisle is easier to navigate. On the platform eager passengers block her path, oblivious to people trying to get off. Melinda stands tall and waits for a pathway.

After a few seconds, light dawns. The Red Sea parts. Melinda smiles and says ‘Thanks’ as she heads down the platform.

~~~

A crowd waits around the elevator doors. A woman in a wheelchair is in tears. ‘But I’ve been waiting for fifteen minutes! Please let me in!’

‘You’ll have to catch the next one,’ says a masculine suit, shoving past. The click-click of the buttons is audible as he pounds a button inside the cage.

Melinda breathes a sigh of relief that she doesn’t need the elevator as she heads towards the centre of the platform.

People surge around obstacles and up escalators. Melinda stumbles when she realises people are coming down the left escalator and going up the right: directions have been changed again. Strangers shove her, preventing her rejoining the flow of traffic heading upwards. She grits her teeth and wishes the stairs were close instead of on the other end of the platform, past frantic crowds.

Finally, Melinda pushes her cane forward to create a tiny gap then inserts herself into that gap, re-entering the torrent that, like a raging flood in reverse, surges towards the escalator.

At the bottom of the escalator, Melinda places the tip of her cane on the bottom step, feeling the edge of the step slide under her cane.

‘Move. Get out of the way,’ says a voice from behind before a khaki-jacket-clad body shoves past.

Regaining her balance, Melinda feels the step-edge again then steps onto the escalator. Once moving upwards, she looks to the right to shift lanes in the hope of walking upwards but the stream of people rushing past is too dense. She stands instead, her cane resting on the step above her feet.

Her cane-handle lowers, indicating the top is close.

The cane jerks. She nearly drops it.

A sharp sound rends the air.

The escalator shudders to a halt.

‘Oh my god, what happened?’ Melinda’s cane waves and wobbles, dangling from her hand. She lifts it to look. Internal elastic dangles from the top quarter of the cane. The remainder of the cane has vanished.

‘Here, let me help.’ Two young women bend over, picking up the pieces of the cane. ‘Here are the, um, parts. The other bit is stuck in there.’ After the women gather the parts, the three move to one side of the escalators in the entry hall, out of the flow of traffic.

‘Oh. Thank you. Thank you so much. It was an accident, really.’ Melinda takes the pieces.

The three of them look at the remnants, trying to put the cane back together. The tip of the cane is missing — ‘That bit is still stuck in the escalator’ — and the remaining piece of the fourth section is bent and torn at the end.

‘Where do you have to go? Can we help? We can take you there.’ The women nod at each other.

‘Oh, it’s ok, I have a spare cane. I carry a smaller cane for emergencies. But thank you so much.’

‘Oh, ok, if you’re sure?’ It sounds like a query. These total strangers are genuinely prepared to go out of their way to help.

‘Yes, thank you. Thank you so much.’

Melinda bundles the pieces of broken cane into her backpack to recycle the accessories then pulls out a boring-white, light-weight telescopic cane from the depths of her backpack.

~~~

As she passes the elevator, Melinda sees the rear end of a wheelchair in the cage as the doors close. She follows the TACs down the platform to the stairs. Only elderly or frail people take the escalators or elevators; everyone else surges up the new staircase.

Melinda prefers the stairs but, while walking upwards, she still muses over the recent cultural shift away from escalators. People are fitter, slimmer and stronger now. Meanwhile, the energy saved worldwide by using stairs instead of escalators or elevators is astronomical, delaying sea level rises by years. Physical strength and ecological virtue: a great combo for starting the day.

~~~

The replacement cane feels strange, too flimsy and light as she taps from side to side, its heft unfamiliar. Melinda approaches the shiny bulwarks that channel cattle into the exit barriers. When she’s next in line, someone pushes in front, kicking her cane to the side, trapping it between his leg and the barrier. Startled, Melinda tugs on her cane. The figure in front steps through the barrier, releasing her cane. Melinda taps her Myki on the barrier and shuffles through.

The food court is always tricky: tables and chairs in the centre square create an obstacle course so she walks around the outside where people queue for train tickets or food. Melinda bumps into people who are mere blurs of colour and shadow with lights above and behind them.

‘Watch out!’

‘I’m sorry.’

Up the stairs — this time stairs are an option next to the escalators — then across a foyer and up some circular stairs and outside. Melinda breathes a sigh of relief and nearly chokes on exhaust fumes. The streets are clogged with traffic and lined with parked cars. Someone cycles past on the footpath, brushing against her. He says, ‘Get out of my way.’

Groups of pedestrians coming toward her take up the whole footpath. ‘Get out of the way,’ says a woman whose heels click on the pavement, a staccato theme complementing her suit.

‘Where to? Into the wall?’ says Melinda, goaded into a response.

Someone kicks her cane, jarring Melinda’s wrist.

‘Ow! Would you kick my hand? Then don’t kick my cane!’

Navigating the Dodge’ems on the footpath, Melinda wishes for a little car with bumpers. Feeling harried, she almost didn’t register someone calling.

‘Mel! Melinda!’

She stops, tucking her cane into her feet so it’s vertical and not a trip hazard. Turning, she sees a brunette wearing a green top and denim jeans rushing towards her. When she’s arms-length away, Melinda recognises Jenni, another student. ‘Hi, Jenni.’

‘Hi. How’s it going?’ Jenni is a little out of breath. They walk up the street together until the rich aroma of coffee entices Melinda to turn off the footpath into the dark yet spacious cafe.

‘Good,’ says Melinda in a flat tone.

‘Good, great. Listen, how are you going on that desktop publishing assignment?’ asks Jenni while they stand in the queue.

‘I’ve started it. The actual desktop publishing isn’t the problem, that’s easy enough, but writing all the stuff is taking some time,’ says Melinda.

‘I was wondering—’ begins Jenni in a high-pitched tone.

‘What will you have?’ asks a bored male voice from over the counter.

‘A long black, please,’ says Melinda, handing over a note.

‘Here’s your change.’

‘Wait a minute! She gave you a fifty and you’re giving her change for $5. Where’s the rest?’ says Jenni.

‘Oh, um, I forgot. Hang on,’ says the barista, before handing over the correct change.

Melinda’s voice shakes. ‘Thanks, Jenni. Oh my god, I can’t afford to make that kind of mistake. Imagine, losing $45!’

They stand to one side while waiting for Melinda’s caffeine fix, standing out of the path of shuffling zombies queuing.

‘You’re such an inspiration, you know,’ says Jenni.

‘What? Why?’

‘Coming to school all alone, dealing with people like that…’

‘You mean, doing all the things you take for granted?’

‘I never thought of it like that…’ Jenni pauses then clears her throat. ‘As I was saying before,’ says Jenni, her voice pitched deeper. ‘I was wondering if you’d like to team up for the assignment? We’re allowed to work in groups. You can do the desktop publishing and I’ll take on some of the writing.’

‘Oh, okay,’ says Melinda.

Melinda collects her coffee then they walk to class together.

~~~

With a buoyant step, Melinda traverses the bowels of the building to emerge on the street. Where once cars lined the streets, now bikes whizz past. The air is cleaner, clearer, than it used to be. Melinda breathes deeply. Tall grey walls loom over leafy trees that brush her hat as she walks through the laneway, towards her favourite coffee shop.

The peak hour shuffle flows smoothly with pedestrians obeying road rules on the footpath: slow people walk on the left, faster people on the inside left, while oncoming foot traffic flows likewise.

A glass-and-metal overhang and the rich aroma of coffee announce Melinda’s turn off the footpath into the dark yet spacious cafe.

‘Hello, my dear. Your usual?’ asks Whiskers, Melinda’s nickname for the charming barista with a Renaissance-Spaniard style mustachios and a pointy beard who always has a pleasant word, gives correct change and remembers how she likes her coffee.

‘Yes, please.’ Melinda stands to one side while waiting for her fix, standing out of the path of shuffling zombies queuing. Everyone needs a coffee before class.

Half an hour early, Melinda saunters into class, taking her usual seat at a table at the front with her back to the window. The tutor isn’t here but she’s already brought up the wheeled desk/trolley with the desktop magnifier. Melinda pushes it into position at her right before plugging it in.

Joan, the tutor, returns bearing a pile of photocopied editing exercises. Her bob-cut grey hair and sensible shoes contrast with layers of light skirts trailing in her wake. ‘Ah, Melinda, is the magnifier working? Good, excellent. Here’s today’s handout.’ Joan leaves a stack of photocopies near the door before sitting at the computer at the front of the class and busying herself online.

Later Joan says, ‘Melinda, I’ve emailed you the PowerPoint with today’s answers. Please don’t look at it until we’ve finished the exercises and we’re discussing the answers.’

‘Mm, okay.’ Melinda checks her inbox. ‘Yep, got it, thanks.’

The classroom fills. Red-haired Ben and Sudanese Tony arrive together as usual, joined at the hip; Mel smiles and wonders if calling the couple ‘cherry ripe’ would offend. Ouch. ‘Cherry’ innuendos. She dismisses the idea. The couple crash land on Melinda’s table, followed more sedately by Mei and Jasmine.

‘Are you coming tonight? The oldies are going to be there, I think they’re planning to embarrass Ben,’ says Tony.

‘Parental embarrassment at twenty-first birthday parties is a long-standing Australian tradition,’ says Jasmine.

Joan calls the class to order. Referring to the Australian Style Manual, she explains spelling and punctuation alongside editing shorthand.

Melinda places her photocopy on the desktop magnifier’s tray and, reading on the screen above, she completes the exercises. When Joan explains the answers, she tells Melinda which page of the PowerPoint they’re on and explains the discussion clearly, both for Melinda and for anyone listening to the recording. At the end of class, Melinda feels confident she will be able to complete her homework.

~~~

Melinda and Jenni arrive five minutes late to class.

Joan says through clenched teeth, ‘Melinda. Glad you could join us.’

Hunching over, Melinda looks at her usual spot in the front row. The entire front row is taken. Thanks, guys. Really considerate. She takes the next front-most available seat, halfway to the back of the classroom.

‘Melinda. You sit up here,’ says Joan in a deep voice. Joan’s bobbed hair bounces back and forth as she pulls an individual desk over to the side, segregating Melinda from the rest of the class whom she consistently tells to only sit at the group tables. ‘Jenni, are you right to take that seat?’ she asks.

Melinda looks at the floor while she moves to the segregated desk then she keeps her head down and her eyes on her hands.

Joan distributes photocopied exercises. When she reaches Melinda she says, ‘Did you get my email?’

‘No.’

‘You’re supposed to check your emails before class. I sent you an email this morning reminding you that I will not give you large print photocopies unless the Disability Liaison Unit approves. Have they approved large print photocopies yet?’

A month earlier, Melinda walked into a meeting room to be greeted by three staff members seated around a table. The program manager, Marjorie, rose to her feet and shook her hand, short hair bobbing in greeting, as did the admin assistant Wayne, wearing a colourful shirt and trousers. The third party, a bespectacled man seated in a wheelchair, was on the opposite side of the table. He was introduced as Joseph Landers, the manager of the Disability Liaison Unit.

Hope lit up Melinda’s entire being. Surely, surely, Joseph would understand that large print photocopies are essential for a vision-impaired student and a small thing to ask.

Marjorie called the meeting to order and handed over to Joseph.

‘Now, before we discuss your wants, we need to discuss your behaviour. It’s not acceptable for you to keep harassing staff, demanding help with the library and large-print photocopies.’

Melinda opened her mouth to speak.

‘No. You will not speak. I have the chair.’

Melinda looked at him in his chair and bit back a snarky response.

‘The library is not a disability access issue.’

‘But if I could access the databases that every other student has available, then I can read the text for research—’

‘No. The library is not a disability access issue and we will not discuss it here. Nor will you keep sending emails asking for large print in the classroom. We’ve given you large print for tests and exams, we won’t give you large print in the classroom as well. You’re too demanding.’

Melinda started to speak but was cut off.

‘No! I will prevent disability access because you’ve asked too many times. I will prevent disability access to teach you a lesson. And, furthermore, the university will send you a letter addressing your misconduct. You will cease and desist in making these demands.’

‘I knew I should have come here with an advocate. I’m getting a lawyer,’ said Melinda, rising.

‘No. Your behaviour is not satisfactory. You must comply with the student code of conduct and, until then, I will prevent disability access. Now I am closing this meeting because of your unsatisfactory conduct.’

Melinda walked out of that meeting feeling shattered; it’d lasted less than ten minutes but it felt like she’d been in a wringer for hours.

‘They approved large print photocopies for tests and now I’m waiting for the appeal hearing…’ says Melinda to Joan, her voice trailing away.

‘Large print photocopies haven’t been approved for class activities so I can’t do anything about it,’ says Joan, shuffling papers then tapping the pile on the tabletop to straighten it once more.

Referring to the Australian Style Manual, Joan explains spelling and punctuation alongside editing shorthand. Other students arrive. ‘Hello Luke, Jessica. We’re looking at editing shorthand in preparation for the mid-semester test next week…’ Jane recaps the class so far, pointing to ‘this’ and ‘that’ on the whiteboard so quickly that Melinda can’t follow even with her binoculars.

Melinda watches everyone else complete the photocopied editing exercises, trying not to fidget, sitting with her head bent and hands folded over her notepaper.

When Joan discusses the correct answers, Melinda listens but, without legible exercises, it makes as much sense as listening to one side of a phone conversation.

Later, Joan sets everyone a group discussion task then, remaining seated metres away, she turns to Melinda and asks in a penetrating voice, ‘Melinda, have you organised your test?’

‘I— I thought I’d sit it with everyone else.’

‘No, you have to organise a separate testing time.’

‘But why? It’s the same test.’

‘I don’t have time to deal with you. Now, what disability access have you organised for the test?’

‘The Disability Liaison Unit already agreed to disability access for tests.’

‘But what have you organised for disability access?’

‘My disability access plan allows large print photocopies for tests and electronic access to the style manual and a dictionary.’

‘No, I can’t allow that. It’s too difficult. You’ll have to have a paper copy of the style manual and dictionary.’

‘But I can’t read a paper copy. I have an electronic copy of the style manual and a dictionary on my tablet for use in class and for the test. And everyone else has already marked and tagged their paper copies. I’ll be at a disadvantage.’

‘It’s too much work for me, I don’t have time to organise these privileges for you.’

‘But I already have electronic copies and, without them, I won’t be able to do the test, I’ll fail.’

‘Well, that’s your problem, isn’t it?’

Speechless, Melinda blinks to hold back the tears.

Joan calls everyone together to share the findings of their group discussions then she sets everyone up for a practice test. She hands out the sheets to everyone sitting at group tables.

‘Melinda, I have large print for you for the practice test. You can sit up here.’ Jane pulls an individual desk up to the front of the classroom just in front of the whiteboard.

‘No, thank you,’ says Melinda.

‘Melinda, you will sit up here.’

‘No, I won’t.’

‘Don’t be insubordinate.’

‘Do you think I like being a fucking freak?’ Melinda bursts into tears and flees to the toilets to cry.

Some time later, she dries her tears before emerging from the toilets. She wanders into the cafe, buys a coffee and a pie, then sits alone at a large table. While she sips her coffee, a group trickles in to sit at the table behind her. Familiar voices talk and laugh. Melinda sits up and looks behind her, confirming that her classmates walked in after her and sat at the next table. Snubbed. Again.

She slumps over her coffee cup but, after a few moments, she sits up straight, pulls out her reader and continues her novel.

‘Hey, Melinda,’ says Ben as he moves to Melinda’s table with his other half, Tony. ‘How’s it going?’

Melinda swallows and blinks her eyes to clear them of more unshed tears. ‘Good, how about you?’ Putting her reader in her backpack, she talks with Ben and Tony, warmth rising in her heart for this couple flouting class dynamics to join the class pariah.

~~~

At the end of class, Melinda gathers up her belongings and unplugs the desktop magnifier, ready for Joan to return it to storage.

‘Hey, Mel, you joining us for lunch?’ asks Ben.

‘Sounds good.’

Melinda walks to the cafe, surrounded by chatting students discussing everything from Ben’s twenty-first to the upcoming test.

While waiting in line at the cafe, a woman walks up to Melinda and touches her on the arm. ‘Hello. I just wanted to tell you what an inspiration you are.’

‘What? Do I know you?’

‘No, we’ve never met before, but here you are, at school… You’re such an inspiration.’

‘Do you go to school?’

‘Yes…’ The woman’s voice trails off.

‘So you’re telling me that I inspire you because I’m doing something that you’re doing.’

‘Yes, but you have to overcome your tragedy, your disability.’

‘My blindness is as much a tragedy as your judgementalism. I’m doing something totally normal and you’re saying that I’m an inspiration? I’m living my life, just the same as you and all these other people.’

‘Inside voice, Mel,’ says Mei, laughing.

~~~

Professor Dunkirk stands on the platform at the front of the tiered lecture hall, watching as students file in. Melinda walks in alone and sits in the front row.

Dunkirk walks up to Melinda, looming over her and talking in a low voice. ‘Melinda, did you get my email? You understand that I own copyright on PowerPoints I’ve created in my own time so I’m not going to give you copies? You’ll just have to listen to the lecture.’

Melinda looks up at Dunkirk in his baggy pants and untucked shirt. His manner of dress consciously intends to send the message ‘I’m a cool lecturer, I’m hip’. He’s usually quite congenial to other students but this is the third time that he’s refused disability access to his PowerPoint presentations.

‘But there’s information in the PowerPoints that you don’t discuss or read out so I’m missing out.’

‘It doesn’t matter. You don’t need to read it.’ Dunkirk steps back on to the platform towards the microphone and raises his voice. ‘What is your disability anyway?’

Melinda forces a smile to her face as she says, ‘I’m an albino, that’s why I’m vision impaired.’

‘You don’t look like an albino to me. And I know albinos,’ he says as if addressing the back row of the lecture hall.

‘Is that your professional opinion as a doctor? Of philosophy?’ asks Melinda.

Dunkirk looks at his watch then says, ‘That’s enough, Melinda. It’s time to start…’

~~~

After the lecture finishes, Melinda farewells her friends, packs up and heads outside. Thumbing open Maps, she programs ‘Australian Geographic Shop’. A feminine voice instructs her every step of the way down Swanston Street, through the labyrinth that is Melbourne Central, up to the correct level then ‘You have reached your destination.’

She spends some time choosing Ben a compass as a twenty-first present then looking at and through the kaleidoscopes. The pretty colours like ever-changing stained-glass windows folding in on themselves are a form of meditation. One day, she promises herself, she’ll buy herself a beautiful kaleidoscope.

Reluctantly, Melinda puts back the satin-finished wooden kaleidoscope then rushes off to gym before showering, grabbing a sandwich and shifting ass to get back in time for Ben’s party.

~~~

Hunching her shoulders with her head down, Melinda realises she probably looks like a vulture although she feels like the carcass upon which they’re feeding. She decides to visit the Australian Geographic shop before going home so she programs the destination into her phone.

Fifteen minutes later, her phone says, ‘You have reached your destination.’

Melinda looks at Melbourne Central’s external wall on Lonsdale Street. Whenever she’s visited the Geographic shop, it’s been with other people. She’s sure it’s up there, somewhere; the second or third floor, perhaps. Just in case it’s moved, she wanders up and down the street, looking at the few entrances. She sees the main entrance to the shopping centre but, feeling too fragile to wander the maze of shops alone, she turns towards the train station.

When she gets home, she slams the front door.

‘Hello, honey,’ says Mum, still dressed for the office in all black. ‘How was your day?’

‘You don’t want to know.’

‘That bad, huh? How about you tell me all about it then we can treat ourselves to rocky road pancakes and some movies?’

Melinda bursts into tears and hugs her mum.

~~~

That night at the pub, an odd assortment of young and old take over the dark upper room at the John Curtin Hotel. An indie band on a small stage performs an eclectic set of covers and original music while people yell to be heard.

An older woman with greying hair upswept and a pink shirt matching the tones of her makeup stands at the top of the stairs greeting people as they enter. ‘Hello, I’m Mrs Marsh, Tristan’s mother.’

‘Uh, hello,’ says Melinda, struggling not to gape like a fish while juggling her beer and cane. She frees one hand for Mrs Marsh to shake. ‘Nice to meet you. Again.’

‘Now let me help you find a seat, dear.’ Mrs Marsh seizes Melinda’s upper arm and drags her forward. ‘Watch out for Tom. Careful of the table. Here’s a seat. Turn around, step back. That’s it. What are you drinking?’ She sniffs.

‘A beer.’ Melinda raises it as if to make a toast before taking a large gulp.

‘Now, dear, don’t you think you should be more careful? I mean, in your condition you need to be careful.’

‘I’m vision-impaired not pregnant.’

‘Yes, dear, but you’re young and vulnerable.’

‘So are all my friends.’ Melinda stands up and shuffles around tables and chairs in an effort to escape Mrs Marsh.

‘I’m only trying to be helpful and look after your best interests.’ Mrs Marsh sniffs as Melinda walks away.

Melinda isn’t sure if the sound is teary or disapproving.

‘I’m so sorry about Mum,’ says Ben, appearing beside Melinda from the gloom and flickering shadows.

Mei and Tony, standing nearby, burst out laughing. ‘Man, she’ll never change,’ says Sam.

‘So. My gift,’ says Melinda, pulling a package out of her backpack and passing it to Ben.

‘Noooo. Should I open it with the olds here? It’s not, it’s not like last year’s present is it?’ Ben sounds nervous.

‘Should you have brought the olds?’ Melinda mock-glares, her eyes dancing and mouth twitching.

‘I had no choice.’ Ben shrugs.

‘There’s always a choice,’ says Melinda in her best imitation of a disapproving teacher.

He tears the gift-wrapping off the box to discover a compass.

‘So you’ll never get lost again,’ says Melinda, grinning.

Ben, Tony, Sam and several others close by wet themselves laughing. ‘Ben, not get lost? Ben could lose his backpack while wearing it!’ howls Tony.

A few minutes later Mrs Marsh appears from the gloom. ‘What’s so funny, dears?’

‘Melinda gave Ben a compass so he won’t get lost!’ says Tony. Everyone starts laughing again.

Leaning close to Sam, Melinda asks, ‘Exactly how long have you guys been here? And how much have you had to drink?’

‘We had dinner here.’

‘A liquid dinner, apparently! I knew I should have skipped gym!’ Melinda pulls a face.

‘Melinda, dear,’ says Mrs Marsh. She lurches forward, throwing her arms around Melinda, slopping Melinda’s beer over the edge of the glass. ‘Oh, Dear, you’re such an inspiration!’

Melinda pushes Mrs Marsh away and sucks up as much of the beer on her hand and the side of the glass as she can. She inhales the rest of the glass before placing it on the table and pulling some cloths out of her backpack to wipe away the sticky residue.

Meanwhile, Mrs Marsh is babbling away in between sobs. ‘…You’re so brave, so positive all the time, in spite of your terrible handicap. Your tragedy…’

Melinda grinds her teeth.

‘…Your poor mother, raising you all alone…’

Melinda’s head snaps up at mention of her mother. She takes a deep breath. She opens her mouth.

Ben is standing nearby, apparently talking to others but suddenly turns to Melinda. ‘Mum, come and—’

‘…You have such a good outlook on life, so positive and inspirational—’

‘Mrs Marsh. I am NOT your inspiration. My family loves me as I am and not in spite of my blindness. I have fantastic friends like your son and Tony. I do well in school and now I’m studying journalism, my career of choice. I’m getting excellent grades. I’m living the life I want. I’m not a disabled second-class citizen. I’m a human being with just as many opportunities and just as much potential as your son. I’m not like, for example, Eric, who couldn’t come tonight because you chose an upstairs venue and there’s no elevator and his wheelchair doesn’t hover like a fucking dalek. No one is disabled unless society makes them disabled by failing to provide access or by actively discriminating against them. AND I AM NO ONE’S INSPIRATION.’

Melinda stands tall and proud with her cane upright in one hand. Too late Melinda realises the band has finished their set so she’d ranted into relative quiet. Most of the room is silent, faces turned towards her.

Mei rises from the floor to flow across the now-silent room, her long black hair flowing around her shoulders, a feminine contrast to her studded leather jacket, jeans and Docs. Holds her at arms length with a hand on either upper arm, Mei gives Melinda a tiny shake. ‘But, sweetie, you’re my inspiration. Not because you’re blind, but because you’re a mouthy bitch.’

The tension breaks, people laugh, Mei hugs Melinda. Recorded music kicks in to fill the room and the crowd resumes their conversations.

~ THE END ~

Notes on disability and representation

If the worst disability discrimination was being inspiration-porn for non-disabled people, life wouldn’t be as difficult for people with disabilities (PWDs). However, being inspiration-porn for non-disableds is patronising and demeaning, which becomes the root cause of more discrimination.

This story resulted in me leaving a writing critique group because this story isn’t inspirational.

Two out of three people who critiqued the second-last version of this story didn’t like the story because of the focus on social issues, real-world disability discrimination.

One person said it needs to be funny and even suggested that the protagonist become a standup comedian.

The president of the writing group suggested that I discard most of the story and have the 3 women embark on a quest after the escalator breaks, changing the focus of the story entirely. The president said the story isn’t science fiction enough, suggesting that I write a memoir instead and join a different writing group, one that does not focus on science fiction.

When I withdrew from that writing group, to her credit the president offered a conflict resolution process. However, the conflict isn’t over parking spaces or pushing in line. The conflict is over my desire for representation in science fiction, including exploration of real-world disability discrimination that occurs on a daily basis for students today, versus others’ dislike of disability discrimination featuring in speculative fiction. No conflict resolution process can change fundamental aspects of who we are that are essential to our story writing and critiquing processes.

~ Unity in Diversity ~