The brakes on my car fail dramatically one Sunday as I am on my way to collect a friend. No harm done – I’ve only just left home, and haven’t yet reached more than 10mph. We take a train instead.
Complications coordinating my diary with the recovery company and the garage mean it’s six whole days until the car is fixed and ready for collection.
On the first day, to get to work, I walk to the train station. It’s about 30 minutes downhill, and I breathe in deeply, enjoying the feel of the bracing air against my skin as I watch the sunrise. On the way home that evening, it’s dark and drizzling. I stand at the bottom of the hill and sigh as I start walking.
On the second day, it’s raining, so I take the bus to the station. It’s full of school children, and we stand, packed together, water condensing on the inside of the windows and on our jackets, making everything feel soggy. That evening I wait, shivering, for a bus which seems destined never to arrive.
On the evening of the second day, I open the door to the cupboard in my hallway and look at the almost-new bike which leans, gathering dust, against the back wall. Just a look. For 30 seconds. Before I close the door again.
On the third day, I walk to the station, then take a cab back up the hill in the evening. With the buses and the cab, it’s cost me £16 so far this week just to get to and from the station, and this is getting silly.
On the evening of the third day, I open the door to the exercise cupboard again, take a deep breath and say, ‘okay, then.’ My insecurities – along with the bike – expand out of the cupboard, and into my awareness again.
The bike comes out in one piece. Tyres, a little flat, but quickly inflated. I’m not a bike expert, but the chains are on, the handlebars are pointing the right way and the gears still make a satisfying ‘clunk’ as they shift. I assume it’s working, anyway.
The next morning I leave early. It’s a crisp, bright winter morning, and my legs take on a life of their own as we hurtle down the hill. The feeling of flying is intoxicating. It’s a beautiful day – as I have time, I cycle to a station a little further away. It’ll be good to stretch myself on the ride home.
Something happens to the weather during the day. I notice it at first at work, when a sign outside starts banging the glass of my office window, and leaves start flying through the air three stories up. I notice it again when I step outside, and the wind whips around my neck, almost throttling me.
By the time my train pulls in, a gale is brewing outside. The wind is powerful – trees are swaying desperately from side to side as if they’re possessed – and water is falling from the sky. I hesitate, deliberate, walk backwards and forwards inside the station concourse, stall for time. I think of my poor bike, exposed to the elements in the bike park outside. I think of being in my warm, cosy house and check the taxi rank outside. Think about my bike again, and feel oddly guilty about leaving it in the rain. Check the taxi rank again. Empty.
‘I’ll give it three minutes,’ I think. Three…two…one. Nothing. Looks like everyone else has had the same idea this evening.
For the second time in two days, I sigh and say to myself, ‘okay, then.’ Helmet on, coat zipped up, and I head out into the rain.
My hands are frozen before I’ve wrestled the lock off. My jeans are soaked before I leave the car park. My coat, water-repellent rather than water-proof, quickly starts to take in water – before I’ve even reached the road, it’s hanging off me like a giant wet bear. The torrential, freezing rain slices horizontally. I start to trudge slowly up the steepest part of the hill, pushing my bike, pushing myself, and wishing I’d waited five more minutes for a taxi.
My mind, seeking refuge from the storm, curls up inside itself. It comes to rest in a cosy spot next to some memories, and finds some feelings there which have yet to be surfaced. As I struggle on, soaked and freezing and with the wind against me the entire way, it starts to sift through what it’s found. Excavating my long-buried insecurities and throwing them out to me to catch – because, of course, I need more exercise just now.
I remember being a child, and the visceral fear of having my stabilisers removed. I loved the feeling of cycling fast, and hated the idea of falling off. Of being hit by a car. Of hitting another kid.
I remember being a little older, cycling with my step-dad, never being able to keep up, and him laughing at my efforts – always just slightly out of reach.
Later, at uni, staying quiet as the sophisticated kids talked about aero designs, attacks, cadences, cassettes, chamois, chasers. In my world, bikes were bikes, and sometimes they were BMXs and sometimes they weren’t and that was it. I didn’t understand anything that they were talking about.
I remember falling over trying to keep up – usually in the mud, and usually because I had the wrong types of tyres for the terrain. Always being last, always being the one who fell or whose chain came off, the one others waited for at the top – in sympathy or frustration, depending on the company.
Then, finally, living out here with someone who encouraged me to cycle, and made it feel safe and achievable at last. Halcyon days of happiness and excitement – new paths and trails to discover, new adventures to be had. Then – he was gone. The safety net ripped away, and the feeling of vulnerability, of being out here, alone, and solely responsible.
The bike consigned to the cupboard, languishing, like my confidence.
Through all of this, my job – my only job – is to keep going. And the hour it takes me to get home is a tale of triumph over adversity. Sometimes I cycle, slowly, in the lowest possible gear. Sometimes I walk. Sometimes I pause for breath, at bus shelters, under trees, anywhere offering some respite from the driving rain. Then I keep going again. One stretch of tarmac at a time, one foot in front of the other. With every step, another barrier, another voice in my head telling me to give up. I can’t do this. I’m not good enough. I’ve already failed at so many things. I can’t survive out here on my own.
Every step I take is a tiny, powerful act of rebellion.
Finally, the hill levels out. Another corner, and the lights of my development twinkle on the horizon. My porchlight. Keys in the door, and I drag myself and my bike over the threshold, into the warmth and the light of my cosy, beautiful home. And I am soaked and freezing and also triumphant. An epic battle has been fought – and the victory is mine, and mine alone.