A Wheelchair

They kept their car-doors shut and windows closed,
Nor left their house but stayed inside, disposed
To hide if D were waiting wheelchair-bound
Outside. Attendant crew, no siren sound,

The ambulance would call and she would stay
Away all day in hospital and they
Would never know the reason she was there:
They wouldn’t know: of course they wouldn’t care.

They couldn’t know or tell that this appointment
Would go so well or spell flat disappointment,
Might aid research. A triallist she was,
She wanted to save other lives because

Despite these ventures into the unknown,
She couldn’t ever hope to save her own.
Her neighbours on both sides of her were kind:
They proffered all their help and hoped they’d find

A cure, a remedy for MND.
It’s just what we would really like to see.
Across the road, though, opposite to me
An attitude far simpler to foresee.

For they would think themselves quite neighbourly
In living scarcely forty feet from me,
And “keeping themselves to themselves”, you see,
While living here in such propinquity.

How is this neighbourly? How do we sleep
At night? How righteous it is to keep
Ourselves so utterly, completely to
Ourselves and make a virtue of it too?

A hazard on the pavements they might say?
At any rate they shunned her till the day
She died. I wonder was that wheelchair why
They stayed away and never said goodbye?

And when the ramp was taken up outside
Our house they surely wondered had she died,
And still I wonder why, it’s such a shame,
They never knew she died, they never came.

Once ably used, now purposeless instead,
That handy wheelchair in the garden shed
She drove it once with skill, full steam ahead,
Round corridors in hospitals she sped.

That empty wheelchair in the garden shed
She drove it like a sled and fast she sped,
So animated once it used to be,
So poignant now it looks and dead as she.

And she was safe. Outdoors she seemed to flow
Round corners; indoors she was wont to show
Facility, manoeuvrability
And all despite her disability.

Too soon alas her illness passed the stage
Where she could drive that wheelchair to assuage
The loss of her ability to drive
A car, one tiny reason to survive

Until she lost the strength to stay alive.
No tiny movement left to her, all gone
Down to her fingertips, could no more strive
To stay alive, could no more carry on.

And though her illness drained mobility:
She never lost her sensitivity
And took it sadly when, in her wheelchair,
She’d be ignored as though she were not there.

And opposite, our neighbours would lie low,
Would not emerge to speak to her, to show
How she could die these several months ago
So close to them and yet they didn’t know.

That wheelchair looked so doleful to my sight
Detached it was, as she, from humankind.
And wheelchair-bound, they shunned her morn till night.
I hope it served to bring them peace of mind.

A precious life is gone, too late to care,
To treat her as an entity, resigned
As she to being part of that wheelchair:
Not neighbourly enough to have a mind

To come and speak to us. the less they knew
The better. Never poke or pry in case
Afflicted neighbours ask for help from you,
When all you want to do is give them space.

Afflicted neighbours, friends in need, are friends
That we can do without. Our need transcends
All things: on this our happiness depends
And dealing with our own reaps dividends.

That’s why they wouldn’t speak to us and why
They never cared to come and say goodbye.



Peter Hartley is a retired painting restorer. He was born in Liverpool and lives in Manchester, UK.

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18 Responses

  1. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Peter, I always admire the way you manage to convey the deepest and most passionate emotions around the difficult subject of loss. Your poem flows along flawlessly with enjambment used to excellent effect, and internal and end rhymes that are masterly; “Facility, manoeuvrability/And all despite her disability.” being a personal favourite… yet, none of this detracts from the message of the poem. D’s selflessness and strength of character and your love for her shine throughout the poem.

    The behaviour of the silent neighbours has upset me greatly, but for personal reasons. I see myself in them. I used to live opposite a lady who had MS. She was wheelchair bound and I often saw an ambulance in the driveway. Her husband used to lift her into the car from her wheelchair, and I often saw him struggle. Not once did I ask him if he needed help… I felt my offer might humiliate him or her. I was stifled by an inner voice that told me to go over and offer would undermine the man’s abilities and shame him in front of his wife. I didn’t ask how they were because those words might seem trite in the face of such a dreadful predicament. I wanted to help but didn’t know how. I was young, naïve, and hadn’t faced the horrors of disability or death.

    If only I’d read your poem. If only I could go back now and say sorry. I’m sure your poem will reach people on many levels, Peter. It’s had a powerful effect on me.

    • Peter Hartley

      Susan – Many many thanks for your comment and for the courage displayed in your admission. I do think an awful lot of inappropriate behaviour and gauche responses can be excused in callow adolescence that would be reprehensible in an adult. Unlike you the couple in question were middle-aged and, I think, should have known better. Of course
      that is the whole point: they DID know better but chose the policy of non-intervention happy in the knowledge that they just “Didn’t want to be nosy”, at the same time allowing themselves to bask in a glow of self-righteousness. It is the hypocrisy of it that is worse than the initial offence. And it is an unwelcome concomitant of the way that society has “developed”, or should I say “regressed“ over the past seventy years or so. For an immediate neighbour to die in a house less than forty feet away completely unknown to them (and they still don’t know) would have been almost unthinkable as late as the fifties.

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Peter, thank you for your kind reply. I do believe maturity and wisdom make for far better communication, and I know the woman I am today would never have ignored her neighbours. The clear picture you provide in your comment has me despairing at such sad and insensitive behaviour.

        You make a valid point about the society we live in today. I grew up with caring neighbours. In fact my parent’s and grandparent’s entire streets knew each other and helped each other out on many occasions… and now, people don’t even lift their heads in acknowledgement of others’ existence. I think modern technology has a lot to do with it. I think we are regressing from walking straight and upright to head-hanging, back-stooping slaves to tech with cell-phone shaped hands grazing the pavement.

        Peter, after reading your poem, I am going to make an extra effort to connect. Thank you!

    • Peter Hartley

      Susan – A poet can surely receive no worthier recommendation than to be told his words have initiated a change for the better. Thank you for that. Regarding the changes that will be slowly affecting our anatomies I have often remarked that Homo sapiens (that should be in italic) will soon develop thick bull necks capable of supporting the weight of horizontally angled heads and tiny fingers tapering to a fine point for handling the keyboards of their portable phones. I say “portable” advisedly: a “mobile” would be able to get up and walk off.

  2. Theresa Rodriguez

    A beautifully written and touching poem, Peter. Thank you for sharing it.

  3. Julian D. Woodruff

    In speaking of your loss, Mr. Harley, you speak of society’s loss (including D’s). The social distancing that we’re experiencing right now has been around for a long time, without the recently invented term. Thank you for making the point so eloquently.
    By the way, tomorrow marks the centennial of Wayne Thiebaud (still among us), whose work has long been concerned with distance, very powerfully so where it involves people.

    • Peter Hartley

      No, you made the point, Julian, and many thanks for that. It had not hitherto occurred to me to draw the parallel with the social distancing we try to maintain today with the COVID 19 pandemic but of course as you say social distancing in a different form has been going on for decades and we have all let it happen

    • Peter Hartley

      Julian – I’m afraid I have to admit I’ve never heard of Thiebaud and I don’t know whether his name doesn’t cross the Atlantic very well or is it just me? But then I don’t think I’ve EVER worked on an American painting. I don’t suppose he received a telegram from the the queen OR the president to mark his centennial?

      • Julian D. Woodruff

        I doubt he’ll receive any acknowledgement from her majesty, or from Trump, or Biden ( the former too busy trying to stay in office, and both east coasters–although WT’s name is of at least national significance). But congratulations will certainly be pouring in from all over the art world.

  4. Jeff Eardley

    Peter, you are so right about the 50’s. I was brought up in industrial Stoke on Trent when folk certainly kept an eye out for each other. I feel so sad that you had neighbours like this. A great poet can speak out for all of us and this is a great poem. Thank you for sharing.

    • Peter Hartley

      Jeff – Many thanks indeed for your extremely generous accolade. I imagine so many people born after the fifties will have had the same experience I had and just for the sake of balance I should add, a little belatedly, that for months after D’s death my next-door neighbour on one side of me was plying me with chocolate bars every week while from the other side I was receiving an equally constant supply of bacon toasties, each one of which must have contained at least half a pig.

      • Jeff Eardley

        Peter, you have restored my faith in mankind. If you were next door to us you would be receiving daily doses of bacon butties garnished with HP brown sauce. D was obviously a very special lady and thank you for sharing your memories of her with us. Best wishes.

  5. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Peter & Jeff, bacon butties, HP sauce… mmm… please don’t mention crumpets, sausage rolls, Yorkshire puds, or cod and chips… Im pining for a taste of England.

    • Jeff Eardley

      Susan, you forgot to mention Jellied Eels, Tripe and Onions and by ‘eck, Black Pudding, served up by Victoria Wood’s brother, Willie Eckerslike. By the way, her most enjoyable bio is called “Let’s do it” as indeed was your recent poem.

    • Peter Hartley

      See all, hear all, say nowt
      “Eat all, sup all, pay nowt
      And if tha’ does owt for nowt
      Do it for thissen.”
      This is Yorkshire’s official motto and it accords well with the tenor of the poem above and the current zeitgeist. My motto as a juvenile delinquent was “Don’t steal anything you can’t lift (so that would exclude most of the jumbo sausages you get round here).”


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