It is a sunny autumn day several years ago, and we are on our church trip to Walsingham. This is the first time we have done this as a church and I have brought along my two sons (aged 10 and 13) and a couple of their friends.
We disembark from the coach in the car park and prepare to walk through the town to the shrine. My younger son, who has cerebral palsy and cannot walk far because of the stiffness of his legs and the calluses on his feet, gets into his wheelchair. His brother starts to push him down the hill.
We are used to this. We are also used to people looking at us wherever we go. I can almost see the thought bubbles above their heads: “Poor little boy. I wonder what his problem is?” “Why are they letting that other child push that heavy wheelchair?” People look at us with a mixture of sympathy and pity, but I think they mean well…
Except that this time it is different.
Walsingham is the second stop on our church trip. Earlier in the day we went to Castle Acre Priory. My younger son got out of his wheelchair and ran around with the others, playing some kind of war game, chasing in and out the ruins. On the way back to the coach we go past a shop selling wooden weapons. As one boy, they stop, retrace their steps and go in. As one boy, they come out, armed to the teeth with wooden swords and daggers. Or in the case of Adam, my sons’ friend, an axe.
So, when we get out the coach in Walsingham, we no longer fit the stereotype of disabled child and family.
Instead my son sits in his wheelchair with his sword across his knees. In the less crowded parts of the town he picks it up and gives it a quick wave around. He is accompanied by his brother and friends, weapons at the ready.
We are not inconspicuous. People look, start to switch on their sympathy faces, and pause, baffled.
For how do you react to a child in a wheelchair who is waving a sword?
The vicar and I, several paces behind, are shaking with laughter. The boys, their minds on the possibilities that weaponry might add to their games, seem oblivious to the attention they are gathering. They would be noticeable anywhere but seem especially so here in Walsingham where people have come on pilgrimage, to reflect, pray and make meaning.
We watch as people register in succession the wheelchair, the child, his sword, the other boys and their weapons. Adam’s axe adds the final touch of incongruity to this procession through the town…
When we reach the shrine, our vicar gently suggests to the boys that they put their weapons away.
“Okay,” says Adam, obligingly stuffing his axe down the back of his anorak.
We go in…