'The Wheelchair Guy' and the naughty French bulldog: Paw-fect friendship inspires book

Arni is a cheeky French bulldog who lives in Redcliffs, Christchurch.

Michael Franklin calls himself ‘the Wheelchair Guy.’ He also visits Redcliffs, exercising along the smooth Coastal Pathway.

In 2019, Arni sprung into Franklin’s life, leading to a special friendship that inspired Franklin to write a children’s book, Arni and the Wheelchair Guy.

The story captures the two friends’ adventures and is Franklin’s way of teaching children about people with disabilities.

Intensive radiation to rid Franklin of a brain tumour in 2001 meant in August 2019, he had to use a wheelchair.

Michael Franklin and his friend Arni. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Michael Franklin and his friend Arni. Photo: Geoff Sloan
He wanted to find a good place to practice and found the Coastal Pathway by Redcliffs School best suited his needs.

“When you’re practising and getting used to using your wheelchair, you need something that is really smooth, otherwise if you are going on the rough stuff, you can’t handle it, you tire your arms out,” said Franklin.

“It’s lovely down there. I can do up to 3km on the pathway by going there and back. It’s good to build up my strength.”

Wheeling along one day, he saw Arni and his owners, Duncan Currie and Natalia Orlova, coming up behind him.

A van of disabled children pulled up to the path and as the children got out, someone produced a big bag of bread and started throwing bread to the seagulls.

“The seagulls came, and so did Arni,” said Franklin.

“Arni roared over and started gobbling up the crusts and Duncan was yelling at him: ‘Arni, come back!’ But then Arni started chasing the seagulls and it was chaos.”

They managed to haul Arni back by calling out his formal name, Arnold. Arni knows he is in trouble when his family bring out the full name.

This was Franklin’s first introduction to the black French bulldog.

From there, Franklin and Arni’s friendship only grew, as did their adventures.

Franklin goes down to the Coastal Pathway at least twice a week when the sun is shining and meets up with Arni, Currie, Orlova and their son.

Just prior to the nationwide lockdown last year, Franklin approached Currie and said: “How would you feel if I wrote a book about Arni’s adventures?”

Franklin, an avid reader, could already see the story in his head and at night he would lie awake thinking about it.

In the morning, he would write down his thoughts, and then run it past Arni and his own family at The Spur Cafe in Redcliffs.

“They’d say: ‘Oh, that’s no good, chuck that’ or ‘that’s good, work on that’,” said Franklin.

A little more than a year later, the book was published. Franklin said it was a team effort.

Michael Franklin was inspired to write the children's book based on his friendship with Arni....
Michael Franklin was inspired to write the children's book based on his friendship with Arni. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Orlova’s best friend, Albina Koldasova, a Sumner artist, illustrated the book.

“Albina’s artwork makes the book. If she hadn’t done such great artwork, it wouldn’t be half the book it is. All kudos to her,” said Franklin.

Koldasova said when she heard the “lovely story” she had to say yes.

She had never done illustrations before, her usual practice being oil on canvas.

“I loved the process, it was different,” she said.

Franklin’s wife, Sarah Dawson, also contributed to the book, editing and helping with the technical side of putting a book together and self-publishing it.

“She’s been wonderful, I couldn’t have made it without her,” he said.

Arni and the Wheelchair Guy is available at Scorpio Books, Piccadilly Bookshop, Paper Tree,...
Arni and the Wheelchair Guy is available at Scorpio Books, Piccadilly Bookshop, Paper Tree, Athena Books, Take Note Ferrymead, and through Wheelers Books. Image: Supplied
Franklin’s friend Wendy Wethey, who helped with the initial editing, read the book to her four-year-old grandson, the “tester of the book.” He loved it.

Currie said the book is fantastic.

“I’m really pleased Michael could pull together such an uplifting and positive story about Covid-19 and friendships,” he said.

“It shows new connections can be made even during a lockdown.”

Some of Arni’s adventures include meeting with the construction workers during the rebuild of Redcliffs School, making a new friend with a man on a hand-bike who also visits the pathway, and living through a lockdown.

As Arni dreamed of making Zoom calls with his dog friends, Franklin spent lockdown wheeling backwards and forwards across the deck at his home. He wheeled 50km.

Franklin’s favourite Arni adventure was when the French bulldog stole a fish caught by a fisherman along the pathway and gobbled it down, in spite of his owner’s desperate calls to him to drop the fish.

“He is such a naughty dog and this is one of the naughtiest things he has ever done,” said Franklin.

Arni’s friendship with Franklin brought Franklin out of himself, providing him with joy and something to look forward to as he adjusted to life in a wheelchair.

His brain tumour could not be removed surgically, so to stop it from spreading he had to undergo large quantities of radiation.

Franklin has recovered from cancer, yet the doctors warned he would have trouble in the future from the effects of the radiation.

The doctors were right and in 2016, Franklin began to limp.

It became extremely hard to walk; Franklin was tripping and falling, his legs becoming covered in scars.

A wheelchair became the only option.

“It was not so much a shock but took quite a lot of adjusting. Not so much physically but mentally,” he said.

“I’m just lucky to be here really.”

Franklin had been a keen mountaineer, runner and cyclist, and giving up his legs for wheels was a “frustrating change” and “a steep learning curve.”

In 1973, Franklin and his friends climbed Aoraki/Mt Cook. He also spent many years completing first ascents and technical ice climbing in the Arrowsmith Range.

In 1975, Franklin went on an expedition with the Canterbury Mountaineering Club to Patagonia in Chile and Argentina to celebrate the club’s 50th jubilee.

“I’ve always loved climbing,” he said.

“When you’re young and bold, you just seem to ignore the risks.”

Franklin has had a colourful life, working in soil conservation as a science and biology teacher, as a stay-at-home dad to his two children, and as an instructor with Cycle Safe.

As Franklin’s need for a wheelchair was caused by a medical event rather than as an accident, it is not covered by ACC.

He only received wheelchair training in December last year, in spite of three years of self-teaching.

Arni himself, unfortunately, had an accident three weeks ago and was temporarily paralysed. He had to undergo surgery and is recovering well now.

“They can really understand each other that much better, they have an even stronger bond now,” said Currie.

Seeing Arni barrelling down the pathway towards him in 2019 changed Franklin’s life.

He hopes when children read his book, they will understand people in wheelchairs are just normal people living out their lives.

“It’s difficult when you are in a wheelchair because you say hello to people and sometimes they just look right through you. Sometimes they act as if you are invisible,” said Franklin.

“I want children to understand that people in wheelchairs are just a perfectly normal part of life and that we are normal people too.”

  • Arni and the Wheelchair Guy is available at Scorpio Books, Piccadilly Bookshop, Paper Tree, Athena Books, Take Note Ferrymead, and through Wheelers Books. All proceeds will be donated to various animal charities. 

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