Fixing a Wheelchair on Christmas Eve

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[Me and my mum, off to a Royal Garden Party in about 1999]

It’s Christmas Eve and I’m spending it in Casole d’Elsa, a small town not too from Florence and remembering a December thirty years ago when I brought my mum to Florence for Christmas as she’d always wanted to visit but her limited mobility – she needed a wheelchair for all but the shortest trip – had made it harder for her to get around.

It occurs to me only now that she was the age I am now – 57 – but in my memories of the time she is older and more infirm. Her choices in life had been so severely limited that it is perhaps unsurprising I see her that way – by her late fifties she had few opportunities open to her.

So we went to Florence for a week on a package holiday, staying in a small hotel near Santa Maria Novella and enjoying the city, the culture and the people. We managed to get up the stairs to the Uffizi, and I wheeled her along the Arno and across the Ponte Vecchio.

It was delightful – until the afternoon of Christmas Eve when the front wheel of her chair broke – the axle went, and with it our chances of climbing the hill outside the city to have a picnic Christmas lunch looking over the Duomo and the surrounding city.

We limped back to the hotel and I explained my problem to the friendly staff at the desk. Here I was, in Florence with my mother, and stuck. One of them made a phone call, and then told me to wait in reception, with the wheelchair, for a taxi to arrive – something would be done.

I waited, and after about thirty minutes the promised taxi emerged from the fog – it’s foggy in my memory, anyway. I put the wheelchair in the back and got in. We set off, heading away from the city centre, through the outskirts and off into an industrial estate.

The journey took about thirty minutes and as time passed I grew more concerned about what was going to happen to me. I’d just blithely got into a strange car in a strange city at the behest of strange man who promised to help me, leaving my infirm mother in a hotel room with no idea where I was going. I had no idea where we were, either, and this was before mobile phones or online maps. I was entirely in the hands of others.

We stopped outside a shuttered workshop, in the dark of Christmas Eve, miles from the city centre. It was about 6pm. My driver got out and knocked, and the shutters were rolled up to reveal a bike workshop, with a couple of people inside. I got out, took the wheelchair from the boot and showed them the problem.

Within ten minutes they had made a repair – not permanent, but enough to get us around for the rest of the holiday and home safely. They refused any payment, because helping out a son who cared enough for his mother to bring her to Florence for Christmas was not something you need to be paid for.

I put the chair back in the taxi and we retraced our route, making it back the hotel in time for supper.

And it was a solid repair: we made it up the hill for our Christmas lunch – and down again very, very carefully. We wandered the streets and soaked up the atmosphere. We sat in bars and cafes and restaurants and it was lovely to be together.

It was, as they say, a long time ago, but I remember it well and hope that I’ve been able to offer help and support to those in need, as it was offered to me that evening. I don’t know who they were, or where I was, but I’m always grateful.

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