Sally Cycling : A short story

Wheat fields? No. Barley. Barley just before harvest when the ears are full and fluffy. When the slightest breeze sends a ripple across hillsides until the whole landscape is rolling gently.

"Where’s it been? Hanging in the shed?" The young man’s voice interrupted her thoughts. She straightened and found she had to look up to speak to him directly.

"Why, I use it everyday. It’s just old." Like me she thought, when she could move aside the image of his knees. Did I ever have knees like that - luscious joints, fit to tempt Leonardo to an anatomical sketch. Knees to go with the job.

"Do you cycle much yourself?" She asked the golden boy. He flicked the new tyre back on the rim.

"At the weekends," his voice had a soft Somerset accent "with the kids." This youth had kids!

"Haven’t seen a hub gear for some time". He was feeding a small chain back into the hub as he spun the front wheel. It made a satisfying whizzing sound. How fast would that be? She listened. 10 - 15 miles an hour?

"Don’t want to get into the wrong gear, do you?"

‘The wrong gear. Life sometimes feels like I’ve selected the wrong gear.’ She thought. Her friend was now engaged in spirited chat about bikes and gears and mechanics. It was Nell’s idea.

"The Bristol to Bath cycle way was the first to be built." Curious how some places take the lead. Is it the gravitational pull of London drawing every route into its hub. Why not Bath to Bristol. Shedding land for the sea. Looking out. Imagining oceans.

"We should do it. It’s only seven miles."

"No, not seven. about nine I think."

"Nine," you’re joking, "it’s at least fifteen." Her husband had thrown in. "I’ll come and fetch you ." Nell had stiffened. "It’s no distance and it’s mostly flat. They used an old railway line. It will be easy."

The boy was lifting the bicycle down.

"Hey, pass that oil can ‘ere." He shouted at a scrappy young man in the darker recess of the workshop. They stood for a moment considering the old bike. A Coventry Eagle. She was proud of that. Was it made in Coventry? The city that all but lost its heart under the bombs of World War Two. Then truly lost it’s centre to ring roads and the car. A Coventry bicycle. Black, simple, a classic no nonsense bicycle. But now it creaked and squeaked. She hadn’t cared for it, TLC - tender loving care. There were points of rust. The brakes didn’t work very well.

"Can you oil the seat springs", she asked. "They are embarrassingly noisy". Laughter. Nell began telling them about an Asian bike. "It is strong. A perfect design. Made in India. Over here they’d retail at around 200." Two hundred pounds. It sounded like a fortune. Could that be cheap?

"That’ll be fourteen pounds. Sorry the tyres don’t match." She looked at the bike. The back tyre was tan and black, the front plain black. A sunbeam caught the contrast. Sunglasses. There, on a revolving stand. Fifty, eighty, a hundred pounds.

"Do you have any cheap sunglasses?" He pulled out a sporting wrap-around pair in a plastic bubble. "Seven-fifty." Great. She tried them on and shared a giggle with Nell. "Are you serious?" Nell was. Her bicycle had a water bottle, empty, panniers for extra bags, (no hanging plastic carriers on the handlebars), brakes that worked, thirty five gears. Nell swung out of the forecourt.

"Where’s the river?" A man on a town bike with tiny kiddie-size wheels shouted, "follow me. Are you two looking for the cycle way?"

And so it really began. Cycling along the pavements. Isn’t that illegal? The bike was pitching over uneven paving slabs. It was buffeted by the slipstream of a high sided van. She felt assaulted by noise, fumes and anxiety. Was she going to manage? What would happen if she failed? They turned down a pathway to the riverside. Her brakes squealed. Only the front brake worked. Mustn’t pull it too hard. Perspiration was beginning to prick. She ran her tongue over her front teeth. Home from school. A section of unadopted road. Shouts. Looking back. Braking. Then ... How to remember the fraction of time. The front wheel striking a pot-hole. Jerking the brakes. Falling. Hurting. Blood and more blood pouring down her white uniform blouse. A car stopping. Helping hands. Arriving home and seeing her mother’s appalled look. Her own face numb. The upper lip, nose and cheek already grotesquely swollen. Both front teeth broken. Palms sweated at the memory. They were leaving the city.

A line of fishermen blocked the path with black carbon fibre rods. Each man hunched on a little stool. Some had bait boxes heaving with worms or maggots. Others were cutting up squares of spam. They all had the gear - matching green umbrellas, cases for the rods, parkas with purple flashes, strong boots. She willed them to move their rods. Her hand tightening on the brake. Damn she didn’t have a bell. Behind her Nell struck a commanding tring tring. Without a sound the first of the black rods swung up and fell back after them. The last man smiled. "Morning". "Nice day", she called back. That felt good. Better to smile than to pass without recognition. In most countries it would be the height of rudeness or a sure sign of madness; the more remote the path the friendlier the greeting.

Bye Bye Bath. It seemed fitting to be cycling along the river bank. Bath Spa, a watery place with a weir, a famous bridge and the famous mineral water which modern visitors spat out with a grimace. Bath had an air of decadence. A city trapped in empire line costumes and the mincing language of Jane Austen. There were no elegant terraces on this route. The superstore (built in Bath stone as required by law) was topped in ghastly orange brown. An industrial estate - all honey coloured stone - was almost submerged in painted metals and signs. Signs that spoke of competition, shrieking for attention, bellowing place, contact numbers and product. Signs that tell you where you are and where you may go. ‘Stop’. ‘Give way’. ‘Look right’. ‘Look left’. They passed through a quiet estate waiting for teatime protected by ‘no entry’ and ‘restricted access’. The sign they were looking for was small, blue and discreet ‘The Bristol Cycle way’. Two bicycles and a walker. Stick people. No mileage.

The cycle way began where railway land had been bought up for industry. A lych gate and a path, broad enough for two cyclists to pass, or for a family group to walk abreast. A path the colour of Bath stone fringed by dense bush. It was eleven o’clock. She looked at the stretch ahead disappointed by the lack of views. Would they be in Bristol by twelve thirty?

"Isn’t this great". Nell came alongside just a gap in the hedge allowed a glimpse of fields and well wooded hills. Yes it was good. A harvester had left cylinders of straw in regimental ranks.

"Did you see the photo in the Indie? A farmer had stacked square bails in the shape of Stonehenge. The camera had caught just the right angle. Stonehenge appeared in the background." Talking had made her puff. Rolling stones to Stonehenge. Cycling was rolling. Except it involved this relentless movement of the legs up, down, up, down, knees and ankles like pistons. ‘Oh! God! the handlebars are too low. I’m getting a back ache,’ She began to mutter to herself. ‘Quick glance at the watch. Wobble. Only twenty minutes in. How did they get the stones to Stonehenge?’

Nell was cycling evenly, effortlessly it seemed. Her thirty five gears changing smoothly. Why did it feel like a constant uphill to Sally. She had three gears. Try third, heavy. Try second, the knees had to bear too many turns. OK, so this was it. Legs, knees, back. A series of tortured muscles. Sit up, letting go of the handlebars with one hand. The clouds thinned. Bright light struck a wide valley. They came to a bridge.

"Shall we stop?" Nell was looking over the parapet. "I wish we’d brought some tea." Sally stepped down. She instantly regretted it. A surge of aches (couldn’t really be called pain) rushed through her legs.

"Do you think we’ll make it?" "Oh, yes." answered Nell with the confidence of someone who had cast aside their car three years ago and now relied almost entirely on two wheels. "We must be more than half way." "Are we?" They looked around. There were no signs. The railway had been erased from maps as it dropped out of use.

"By the sun I’d say we’re travelling north. Bristol is west of Bath. We can’t be going very direct." Sally loved navigating. Bother, if only she’d found an ordnance survey map they could have plotted the route. Too late for that now. She felt a little foolish remembering how scornful they used to be of walkers who set out without a raincoat, water and chocolate. Her father always insisted on chocolate. Emergency rations. He’d remind her in his brisk military style.

Nell had stopped again and was examining wild flowers, small yellow orchids with light purple fringed lips. Sally cycled on, reluctant to slow or stop however pretty the flower patch. There were two people ahead, walkers. The first they’d seen. She waved as she passed. A ‘Good morning’ hung in the air, barely caught. High up a hill was a great house. Whose family built that? Someone who could command a view, demand it, subjugate the landscape and its tenants. And now? Time eats into stonework, cutting furrows, leaving dark stains on reputation and family history. Eighteenth century houses overtaken by twentieth century taxes, turned into asylums or sanatorium or houses for the very old or supplanted by ‘corporate entertainers who re-dress the stately rooms in harsh modern dyes, gilts and reproductions for the sake of tight, cocaine driven executives. She pumped the pedals in exasperation propelling herself forward, faster, faster. This was better. She pulled the dark glasses up to protect her eyes. What was that?

"Hey! Look!" She yelled at Nell who was several hundred yards back. It looked as if it was waving. She jumped off and wheeled the bike closer. It was a piece of sculpture. A trunk of wood, carved to a figure with crocodiles or lizards. Here in mid-Somerset on an old railway track was a rainforest totem pole. No description. It’s provenance had to be guessed. They were both delighted by it and walked round and round fingering curves and cuts. Over the next mile there were several more figures, shapes and curiosities. A group of young picnickers sat around one of them, chattering, only semi-conscious of the work had drawn them there.

They came to a level-crossing, or rather what had once been a level crossing. Granite blocks had been set into a post gate to slow the cyclist down and remind pedestrians of the dangers ahead. A road. A real road, tarmaced, with cars and a motor bike. Small houses. A shop. Wheel the bikes across and back onto the path. No longer soft pale stone, now flinty, grey.

A high hum and an intense lycra clad figure in a bullet shaped crash hat whizzed past sounding a shrill bell. Nell swerved to make way, her figure neat with indignation.

"Oh! Gawd! I can’t stand that sort of cyclist". Nell shouted confident that he was already too far ahead to be heard. "It’s all power play. Gives cycling a bad name. Pedestrians find them frightening. They’re yobbos. Create aggro. Soon we’ll be hearing of cycle rage".

"It’s already with us. There was an incident reported in the local press between a cyclist and a fisherman - fisticuffs on the towpath." Sally giggled.

"I wish lycra had never been invented. It’s so unattractive. Encases bodies like a carapace. It’s the same with shell suits. Give me natural fibres every time". Nell patted her knickerbockers. She was in a cycling get-up of dark blue stockings, knee length trews and a close fitting sweater. The elbows had darns. Nell had a passion for saving things, nothing could be thrown away without examining it for potential re-use. The only concession to frivolity was a bright green straw cap "From Oxfam".

A beautiful young couple were cycling towards them. They had back packs and panniers heavy with books. Students? He had long dark hair. They cycled confidently, rhythmically. Were their bags full of philosophy? Did they read poetry and think of Darwin? Was there any limit to their horizon?

"We must be getting near Bristol. There are the first tower blocks." She pointed out some matchbox size buildings. "But they must be miles away." For heaven’s sake how long was this cycle ride? They came to another gate leading through a seemingly deserted railway yard. A blue sign told them "Bath fifteen kilometres". What? Too bad if it was true. She’d committed herself. Not much chance of rescue from the cycle path but this could be a pic-up. Forget it. No way. It can’t be long. She was distracted by the lumbering bulk of an old steam engine.

The railway yard captivated Sally. She knew little about trains. Reading the Reverend Awdry’s fanciful tales of Thomas, Henry and Sir Stanley to the grandchildren was about as close as she got to being a railway buff. This was different. It allowed for romantic imaginings. In the great age of steam posters advertised the seaside, mountains or the Orient Express. These trains had great axles and high wheels. A man surprised her as he jumped down from a cab. Old films flickered in her head. Steam squashed by bridges or streaming over the backs of carriages carrying secret agents. Sleepers. What a wonderful term for tough timbers supporting rusting rails. Buffers forged in mythic proportions. She’d filmed the hammer dropping, crashing form out of softened steel in a black hell of noise and brilliant flakes of burning metal. And there was a long coach in cream and brown livery. An elderly uncle had once explained why a train is energy efficient. All the energy is used in the starting up. Once running along they use hardly any. An image of a train in China. They had counted eighty or ninety trucks crossing an endless yellow landscape behind one huge engine.

Time to stop romancing. Hadn’t the trains ruined lives and habitats? Hadn’t they caste their cinder tracks across lungs and sensibilities. Men died building the railways. Sacred sites had been spoiled by the careless rape of progress.

There were two tracks, side by side, leading out from the yard. A modest sign welcomed visitors on Sundays and Bank holidays to take a two mile ride on the Kingswood Railway - run by volunteers. The old station stood ready. The ticket office was a modest brick structure with a tiled roof and cross timbers. The old shutters were closed. Hand written notices advertised home made cakes and ice-cream. A witty artist had installed tin figures to wait on the platform. A man. A dog. A woman reading a newspaper. What would they look like in a fog or at night? Ghostly reminders of past-times? Monuments to the death of the line resurrected on Sundays.

The cycle path crossed several minor roads. Each one an obstacle, stepping down, ouch, weaving the bicycle round the gate, waiting for a gap in the traffic. Each time she began to sweat. Her face was glowing. Her knees felt squashy, pumped up blobs of pain. It was bearable unlike the sharp jab of arthritis which sometimes made her wince. The X-ray had shown bones like a lamb knuckle, the knee-cap distorted with a build up of calcium. Cycling was recommended. It strengthens the thigh muscles.

’Push, push, get the wheels rolling. Thank God this bit is downhill - enough of an incline to free-wheel. Create a draught to cool me down.’ Sally was beginning to enjoy herself again. At times the path was the only thing in focus, it took but a slight tilt of the head to see further. There were the tower blocks, bigger now, definable as one of Bristol’s big estates.

"They must be about three miles away."

"I’ve been there. Its south of the centre. Watched one of the blocks being blown up. Never seen so many pit-bulls. One old lady was sad to see it go."

"Where are we now?"

"Don’t know. We just have to trust the pathway". People have been following pathways forever, wherever. Sally had trusted herself to sheep tracks, footprints in muddy puddles, broken twigs in jungley places. Even an animal track had to be going somewhere. Paths encouraged pilgrimages. Maybe this was what this ride was all about, a secular pilgrimage celebrating an environmental ideal. There was a certainty. They would end up in Bristol. She looked at her watch. Twelve-thirty.

"Can’t be more than half-an-hour max. Do you think she will wait?" They had arranged to meet a friend for lunch.

"I expect so. Not much we can do really. I did bring the mobie in case but she’ll have left her office by now." Bringing the phone had felt like a cheat. She told herself it was for security. More likely it would get stolen. Suppose one of them had an irreparable puncture. They could ring for help. That was only sensible. ‘Be prepared and it will never happen.’ One of those irritating saws that sticks in the mind. There was no way she would give up now. Pain barriers had been overcome. The old bottom was getting a saddle-sore but that was to be expected. The bikes were working well though hers emitted spiralling squeaks of protest. And there were more people to pass, cyclists, walkers, a group of blackberry pickers, two women collecting elderberries. Nell had slowed right down, she pointed ahead. There was a tunnel.

"I don’t like the look of that."

"You can see the light at the end of it." Sally couldn’t resist a smile. Each time they went canal boating she had trouble with the tunnels. Once she had walked two miles to avoid one. Another time - hysterical giggles began to bubble at the thought of it - she had been lying on the roof of the boat when she saw that they were about to enter a tunnel. At her angle the roof of the boat and the roof of the tunnel formed a perfect symmetry. Surely there was no room for her rotund body. She panicked. She got up to run forward. Then tried running back. But the boat was travelling at her speed. It was silent movie time. It was as if she was running on the spot. She lay down covering her eyes with her hands. The horror of it. As they burst out of the tunnel into the Stratford basin they met brilliant sunshine and a Bank Holiday crowd enjoying a parade of boating mishaps.

Curiously the tunnel ahead presented no such fears to Sally but it was uncharacteristic for Nell to be apprehensive. Within a few yards of entering they began to feel the chill, a damp, hollow cold carrying echoes of tombs and decay. The silhouettes of figures flitted across the line of light, their forms half-seen. Was this what Man Ray saw when he thought of solarising his negatives. He created images of such power that experts had sat number-crunching for days to get the same effect digitally. Video-effects achieved with the press a button have been added to our visual language.

They could see the children now. Two girls and three boys. Ten years old probably. Up to no good. They were trying to light a fire cracker in a tin can. Nell and Sally were well past before the first explosion. The sound ricocheting down the tunnel delighted the children. Was it true that public-school boys lit their farts in the dorm? Or was that a Spike Milligan joke about National Servicemen? She was interested to see girls involved in such a prank. She could hear them chattering as they planned the next detonation.

They were riding side by side, crossing puddles and dodging obstacles, coke cans, burger boxes, a heap of clothes. Had some homeless person been forced to take refuge here? She’d heard that Bristol had one of the highest populations of homeless. Bristol, a port built for barques and traders, out of dirty slaver money, for cargoes of tobacco, tea and rum to satisfy the insatiable thirsts of middle-England. Now aerospace and computer chips built tower blocks and leafy suburbs.

Out of the tunnel at last. Allotments to the left, woods to the right. The allotments presented a patchwork of care and disarray. Some patches had regimented rows of cabbages and beans. They looked like Mr.Magregors garden. Could Peter Rabbit be far away? Others had straggling fruit bushes, overblown flowers and throttling weeds.

"Do you still have your allotment Nell?"

"Yes, but I’m in trouble. I took on Alie’s as well and now I see some of the regulars looking askance at the weeds. People feel threatened by weeds - plants out of control. You just have to keep at it but I’ve been away so much this summer." Nell had been travelling around France on her bicycle.

"It’s one o’clock. How much longer." They were passing through a park with manicured lawns and patterned flower beds. The cycle path was shared with pedestrians, wheelchairs and prams. It ended suddenly at a gate a pretentious copy of an entrance to a Japanese temple. On the other side was a light industrial estate.

Sally hooked the A to Z of Bristol out of her basket.

"We need to turn right and follow the signs to the docks. The gallery is down on the waters edge. It’s in a converted warehouse. We should be able to spot the blue signs. I’m sure it will be marked." They joined a busy road which led to the old heart of Bristol with its Victorian architecture, living proof of municipal pride, glass fronted office blocks and boring commercial buildings. There was no water. There were no useful signs. At a major junction, motorway-style, all concrete overpasses and underpasses she stopped to ask a passerby for directions. She’d already begun when Nell nudged her. The blind woman’s dog sloped between them. For the briefest moment Sally thought to stop but she carried on hoping the woman hadn’t noticed the hesitation. Of course she would know the way. She was out walking, going somewhere. They took the directions. Ten past one. Forty minutes late for lunch. But they were close. A cobbled street, waterways, yachts and schooners, restaurants and bars with tiny tables and girls in short skirts and spiky shoes, Men with jackets over their shoulder, it was a shirt-sleeve day. A grey warehouse with a flittering banner - ‘The Arnolfini’.

Stepping off the bike gave her as much pleasure as a passenger stepping off a gangplank after weeks at sea. Her trousers and shirt were stained with sweat. Her face bright red. Walking was a hazard as she misjudged the height of a step. How stupid of them not to have taken water. The man at the bar had five studs in his ear and an armful of tattoos.

"There you are love." He handed over a pint glass of tap-water. She wanted to tell him, "I’ve just cycled from Bath." But she didn’t. She slipped onto the bench next to Nell and Steph. They were talking about distance learning. ‘Distance is a concept not a reality’, she thought. ‘I may have travelled further from the dock to the bar than I travelled from Bath to Bristol. Step inside the gallery and distance will once again disappear.’

It was a Louise Bourgeois exhibition. In the first room was a giant spider, room size. It was possible to walk between it’s legs. It had a pouch with eggs. A surreal imaged pumped full of feminine bravura. Upstairs there was a grotesque pink plastic pod with tits. She forgot her aching legs and perspiring body. This artist was new to her. She wanted to know more. What visions. What stories.

The ride back to Bath was uneventful. It took two and a half hours. It was fifteen miles. Later, when she lay in a hot bath she looked at her knees. You made it, she told them. Hummocky, white aching joints. Lumpy porridge. Do you make porridge out of barley? Maybe it is made from oats. The Scotsman in his kilt had strong and dependable knees. ‘Knees up Mother Brown.’ Sing a song of knees. Marvellous joints. ‘Well done brave knees’.

4,200 words C. S.A.C-J 18/10/96