Tuesday 15 August 2023

Balls to standing up

Confessions of an Ms-Er

There’s a beautiful Eels song called ‘It’s a Motherfucker’ about being without the person you need to be with. The title could so easily be applied to the story of a life with MS. Which brings me neatly to the tale of an Eels gig I went to in the early 2000s. Now that more than twenty years have passed, I feel able to confess the small sin I committed in attending this concert.

I don’t believe in such wishy-washy, unscientific notions as karma, but this episode could certainly be described as ironic. Prior to me ever giving a second thought to multiple sclerosis, me and my girlfriend (and wife to be) had tickets to see Eels at Leeds Uni. We were both only in our early 30s, yet neither of us fancied standing up for two hours, pressed amongst a load of sweaty strangers, listening to the songs of our favourite American indie-rockers.

We knew there were a few seats on the balcony in the venue, but how did you secure a place up there? It seemed you either had to be on the guest list, or disabled.

A plan was hatched. We didn’t know of any way we could get on the guest list, but… what if we said one of us couldn’t stand for that amount of time? Faking disability to gain advantage would obviously be wrong, but what if a temporary injury was introduced to proceedings that necessitated the procuring of a seat for this rock ‘n’ roll gig? Yes, I know, it doesn’t cast the most favourable light our way, but we were young and thought it would be a laugh. Just to see if we could pull it off seemed like it would be an adventure. And what harm would it really be doing? The only reward for our deception would be a seat and a better view.

It was ‘Kate’ who really wanted to sit down, but it was me who took the decision to fake the injury. I had a pair of crutches in the attic from when I’d twisted my knee. These could now be the basis of my sprained ankle story. I called the venue and explained my problem. Would there be any possibility that a seat could be found for us on the balcony? Yes, no problem, came the reply. Just report to the ticket office and someone will sort you out.

The evening arrived. The tickets were in my pocket and the crutches were in the boot — everything the music fan with insufficient respect for themselves requires for an evening at a concert. We parked up a few hundred metres from the venue in the university car park. I’d bravely done the driving with my sprained ankle, but made sure as I exited the car that I was fully in character. Just in case anyone going to the gig was taking any notice of me, I leant on the car to get to the boot to retrieve the crutches. I then faced the first challenge — trekking to the venue entrance with me hopping on my crutches, my right leg bent to raise my poorly ankle from the ground.

I’d forgotten that using crutches was not that easy. The pressure it puts on your hands and the pain it delivers to your arms was making me instantly regret entering into this little ruse. This whole thing was to avoid the trouble of standing for two hours. Making progress pretending to be someone temporarily disabled was proving to be just as much effort. But in for a penny. Half the reason behind this decision was simply to see if we could get away with it.

So, I was now climbing the steps at the front of the building and we were heading for the ticket office. By this point, I was feeling worse for wear, which helped me maintain my persona. Staff were called and we were collected to be taken to the gallery. This was challenge number two. We were led down steps, up steps, down corridors, round corners, the lot. Where the hell was this lift that would take us to the first floor? We were getting a full tour of the building. Fortunately, no one was questioning me much about my apparent misfortune. The staff weren’t interested. I’d got some injury. That was all they needed to know. I mean, it’s not like anyone would fake such a thing just to get a seat on the balcony. That would be the behaviour of a madman.

Finally, we were in the lift and within seconds, we were in amongst the VIPS. I had no reason to suppose they were really VIPs — they may all have been feigning injuries themselves, for all I knew — but my internal dialogue was bigging us up. We were VIPs and now were sitting on a bench, high above the hoi polloi. My performance as an invalid had been Oscar-worthy. We had done it and I could relax and enjoy the show.

Watching from up there, it felt worth it at last, particularly as we had the glow of having got away with something. As the band played, I looked down every now and then at the crowd, squashed together, imagining the heat and their discomfort. None of that up here. I may have briefly pictured what life would be like if I suffered more than just a sprained ankle, living with a permanent disability. Hell, who am I kidding? Of course, I didn’t give a second thought to that. I was too busy enjoying having a seat and listening to one of my favourite bands.

Disability was something that happened to other people, anyway. I was young and fit. I looked after myself reasonably well. I had a girlfriend who was altering the path of my life in so many positive ways and was still prepared to indulge my daft schemes. Life was looking good. A continual upward trajectory till old age was my undoubted destiny.

The concert ended, once the charade of all those ‘unexpected’ encores was over*. We headed back to the lift, my ankle once again raised from the ground as I dutifully employed my crutches. The rest of those leaving gave me some space, as I projected myself along the corridors towards the exit doors — another clear advantage of my fictitious accident. We were outside; I’d done it. I levered myself down the stairs and began the long journey back to the car. 

It seemed a long distance, anyway, for someone who couldn’t walk normally. The goal had been achieved and I was struggling to summon the effort required to continue this pretence. But there were a lot of people leaving with us. I couldn’t just tuck the crutches under my arm and continue on my merry way. Could I?

Once we had reached close to the car, I thought fuck it. My ankle miraculously healed itself and I was able to walk unaided again for the last stretch. I didn’t look back, but I like to think I left a few jaws gaping. It was like a sketch straight from Trigger Happy TV and provided an entertaining finish when the story was later told in the pub. The crutches were thrown in the boot and I prepared to drive home, a perfectly able-bodied man once more.


Thing is, I think it was that very same year, or maybe it was the year after, that I first experienced the mild, intermittent symptoms of MS. Pins and needles in my leg, the same leg I had lifted from the ground to fake an injury. Only this was real and the start of something rather worse than a sprained ankle.

Like I said earlier, I don’t believe in wishy washy nonsense like karma, but some would say there’s a certain poetic justice in this turn of events. Those people, though, are idiots. A silly prank pulled for nothing more than the chance to add a little interest to an ordinary life and to get a seat at a concert bears no relation to the destruction brought on a life by multiple sclerosis.

MS means I have to think about the effort involved in walking every time I go anywhere, no matter how short the distance. MS means I have to have a seat at a concert now, no arguments. MS means I always have a walking aid in my hand whenever I am heading somewhere under my own steam, dragging my feet, tripping over anything as high as a tree root. And MS means never miraculously recovering, even for a moment. It’s with me for life and that Eels concert all those years ago, in my able-bodied days, is an evermore distant memory.

So poetic justice, no. Just a good story from another time. And the story today is one framed every day by MS.

It’s a motherfucker, that’s for sure.

*Actually, Eels at the time were a band who could surprise you with an encore. We know that almost all bands will depart the stage and return within seconds, whether the crowd is demanding it or not. Often, they may even come back for a second encore. But Eels might do this three or four times, and sometimes that fourth one would be a good ten minutes after they last left the stage and all the house lights had come on. I saw them at Hammersmith Apollo once and half the audience were already out on the street by the time they came back on to play their biggest song of the time, ‘Mr E’s Beautiful Blues’.

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