I look at this clean-shaven man with dark eyes and a sharp jaw. He’s Australian and talks about my dating profile. I score well on matching my photo apparently. No surprises. And I can say the same for him, though it strikes me that he is much more serious than expected but I won’t hold it against him.
Islington, London on a sunny day, late August 2012. The place is buzzing with the vibe redolent of the borough’s young. Even as history rises through the dusty streets, from Clerkenwell to Holloway, a place of rebels and agitators, home of the Spa Fields Riots of 1816 and Mary Wollstonecraft’s school for girls at Newington Green opened 1784. Not forgetting The Angel pub where Lenin and Trotsky plotted to overthrow the Tsar. Against such history, it’s no wonder I feel I belong. Even the act of casual dating is an act of rebellion for me.
Yet around us, the models and actors, authors and artists are absorbed in the moment and the rush of the day. There are appointments to make with agents, restaurants to book for guests and dates in the evening. Maybe somewhere like Diva, the new Italian or Ottolenghi in Upper Street where queues form for the salad.
We’re in a crappy Lloyds bar, owned by the Wetherspoons chain. I chose this venue only because there are toilets and step-free access. Let me introduce the elephant in this particular room. My wheelchair which dictates all as society erects barriers. Not a romantic topic for a date but he’s cool about it. I tell him the irony that the luscious Ottolenghi has an accessible toilet but the queues are not conducive to a hookup.
Nathan wears a suit and I like that. It’s dark grey and relaxed, not stuffy. I try and imagine myself in bed with him and I can’t, not yet. But I like those eyes, his smile when he allows me to see it. And the suit fills me with warm fantasies of him wrenching it off, that carapace of the old City of London, the Square Mile, not so far away.
We’re chatting, making delicate manoeuvres, towards FWB. Friends With Benefits, a convenient shorthand. We know that, and it’s understood. I’m at a point of testing myself, playing sexually and consciously. Glad to be a certain age and at the happiest I’ve been in my own unique skin.
I sip a Bacardi and coke because it tastes nice and a little burn of alcohol takes the edge of nerves. Not that I get many these days because it will work or it won’t. There might be a one-nighter, maybe a few more, which I prefer.
Despite the size of the elephant, it can’t enter a chat room if I don’t want it to. The internet, a long-time accomplice, a revelation and liberation from my teenage fantasies of dating. Where I hugged my angst around me, fighting myself as much as an opinion and hard reality rebuked me, from out there. I was not desirable and nowhere was accessible. Early on I realised words were a way out for me, to charm and intrigue, to hide my shyness. With the dawning of the internet age - and now a divorce behind me - I am in a pleasurable space of almost equal play.
The inevitable elephant with many of these men is ‘the wife’. I wish – guiltily – not to know. His shit, not mine. No difference to me if: she doesn’t like sex as much, we have an open relationship, she doesn’t really know who I am. And so on.
Ignoring elephants, Nathan pleases me by saying simply, ‘A long term relationship is not negotiable’. And that’s great because I do not want a standard dreary relationship. My feminism equals freedom, a hard-won prize away from a ponderous marriage.
We have a light lunch – the better options at these places – as I am scared of sloppy food ending up down my cleavage. Sometimes that doesn’t matter, we might laugh and it breaks the tension. But not today. So I munch delicately on a dry panini and order some tea.
Chat is light and easy but the point is, what do we do next? I try and fish for clues if he’s a ‘Devotee’ – someone who has a cold fetish for the cripple – because that changes the dynamic. I don’t always care, but those connections are often about the ephemera of my impaired person. My scars, my unusual curves, the meat and bone of my form in isolation to who I am.
Nathan may be a notch-on-a-bedpost man but I don’t care about that. What am I doing? Grown-up playing? If I’m his first disabled woman, so what? If he’s good, I won’t complain.
When he puts his hand on my thigh under the table, there’s a surge of electricity. I want to be touched, the scenario gives him permission. It’s a play and I map out the roles ad hoc because certain consents cannot be taken for granted. Ask the elephant...
I sit in my fine purple dress with the plunging neckline, in my wheelchair, navigating the great weight of assumed history that will be telling him lies about me. Some I’ve cleared up through online chats, where I am a mistress of all I command, where the word always holds sway. When you click with a like-minded person.
We laugh when he talks about shopping, how he hates Oxford Street, that Islington is more convivial. I agree, although he may just be bothered by the sheer number of people there, whereas I am further challenged by its damaged pavements, the lack of dropped curbs and, of course, steps. The street’s home is in Westminster, which has the worst curb record while simultaneously being one of the richest boroughs in the country.
Nathan offers to pour my tea and I accept graciously, enjoying the moment to study his fingers. Long with clean nails but not skinny. As I watch, I draw a little breath.
I’m relishing his company but with his next sentence, the elephant returns to the room and trumpets loudly. He asks me if I’ll go to his place in the country at the weekend. Says we can get to know each other in a private and intimate space.
I don’t answer straight away but look at my tea which needs milk. I wonder if I can reply with words arranged in new sentences, with fresh energy when all I must say is no, I can’t and I’m sorry, and there’s the rub. Eventually, I suggest it’s too soon but I feel guilty to say it, defensive even, as the elephant in the room starts to take up too much space, and I think it’s too much effort, the burden of explanation.
He’s smiling at me and making encouraging statements. He can help me, carry me upstairs into the bathroom and, naturally, the bedroom.
I’m not ready to give up or ruin the moment with too much necessary resistance, which is purely Jumbo making his racket in the corner. With my best smile, I tell him, next month, perhaps?
His eyes look down, the jaw ripples. I hear his elephant approaching. It seems a villa is booked in Tuscany, with ‘the wife’ and others, arrangements made long ago. Suddenly I feel it's all laughable and suddenly distasteful. As I grab the metal milk jug nerves bristle, intent on moving forward and past any number of elephants. The jug twitches in my hand and the milk spills on the table, a gradual expanse of white that drips onto his trousers. And with that, the elephants push Nathan out of the room entirely.
Penny Pepper is an acclaimed wheelchair-using author, poet, performer & disabled activist. A genre-defying and versatile writer, her work focuses on the examination of difference, inequality and identity. She tells stories we haven’t heard, making others see life differently, always with humour and wisdom. Her champions include Jake Arnott, Margaret Drabble and Danuta Keene.
Penny published her groundbreaking memoir, First in The World Somewhere with Unbound and a poetry collection, Come Home Alive, with Burning Eye Books. She has written articles for The Guardian amongst other prominent publications. Penny is now signed to The Good Literary Agency where she is represented by Abi Fellows, who is pitching her novel to publishers right now.