SYMPATHY

Who is that man on the bicycle? He sits there on the saddle, stationary, his fist propping up his head. He stares off into the distance, a horizon forming in his mind from behind his deep oak eyes. Stoic yet beset by cares, I watch as the cogs turn, exciting and troubling his being. My glance falls down to his hands and feet.

He turns his head and looks me in the eye, aware of himself. Standing, he takes his bicycle with him as he walks away.

Ashamed of myself for making another human feel so, I look down at my own hands, calloused and strange. I remember the young man I had met the night before with tattoos covering his arms, right down to his thumbs. Such a gentle man with a mind like a barn of precious jewels. Brailled with ink for everyone to see, he made an impression on me. A walking catalogue of visual thoughts, for what is a mark on a person’s skin? Before anything else, it’s a feeling.

What do I feel about the deformities that are laced through my fingers and thumbs, giving them a distinct appearance? For most of the time, I think nothing of them. They simply are.

They are my fingers and thumbs, special to me, and they are the only digits I know. And what of my twisted toes, hidden uncomfortably in shoes until the summer when strangers and friends stare, and then pretend they haven’t.

How do I find my deformities normal and aesthetic while describing them as “deformities”? I don’t know. The only answer I can give is they are mine.

I looked up to the man I had seen pondering walk away across the square. About what had he been pondering?

He was an average sort – like me – with a regular hair cut, old jeans, a baggy T-shirt and red flip flops. I could tell nothing about his mind’s inner workings by simply looking at him.

A young woman walked across my eye line, disrupting my musings. She was Oriental, dressed in a tartan skirt, a black jacket with plenty of zigzagging zips and black heavy boots that reached up to her tiny knees. I could not count her as a rebel, especially as rebellious people follow the crowd of populist dissidents, easily recognised by their red tartan and black, disciples of a figure seen on a public pedestal.

We judge books by their cover, yet we know nothing of their content. We’d like to pretend we do. We like to pretend that we know everything there is to know about a person, simply by looking at them. Maybe if we think we might like them because of their clothes, their hair and their skin, we let them speak several sentences before we decide if they are admirable or a waste of our time. I wonder what people think of me. And does that opinion change when I take my hands out of my pockets? Have summertime encounters walked away from me on glimpsing my feet?

I looked back to the man pushing his bicycle on the other side of the square, suddenly aware of how staring at a stranger had plunged me into deep thoughts about my fellow humans.

What was so special about this man? Focussing on his bicycle with narrowed eyes I could see why he was not riding his bicycle. Like mine, his bicycle had gained a puncture, and now he was forced to walk the distance home. Across the square, he was a moving punctuation mark. I watched him turn down a small street and disappear from my view.

The lack of a focus, I snapped back to myself, to my reality. Instinctively, I wanted to see if anyone was alerted to my ponderings, as we all find ourselves at the centre of our own universe. Turning to my left, two eyes stared straight back at me. I saw them flick down to my fingers and thumbs.

Jarred by the realisations acted out in front of me, I got up and began to push my bicycle towards my home, following the path of the man who had brought so much to mind.

I wrote this short story at a writers’ group today, having gained the inspiration from a photograph in Intelligent Life magazine. As a disabled person with deformities, I have looked down at myself and pondered on how normal and good my differences look to me but I am aware of how different they look to other people. A paradox of truth.

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About catherinehume

Catherine Hume: Writer, social care worker and a liver of a life less ordinary.
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