My Bicycle, 116

The sun was shining through the pines when the car pulled up in the middle of the afternoon. The needles shattered the light like glass and then they fell and lay all over the floor; light and needles, needles and light. The car was parked in a worn rectangle of soil bordered on three sides by six logs of varying diameter, age, tone. Gaps in the trees through which the road ran permitted luminous shafts of white and vivid colour to penetrate the shaded undergrowth. A cloud of pale grey dust from the road, fluffed up by rolling tyres, was still settling as the passengers emerged and stretched their legs, reaching upwards and looking around. It was a Friday in mid-September and it was very hot, entering a weekend that had been, in all southeastern circles, anticipated for its summery weather; a final hurrah to the dying season. Down the road—although maybe road is too grandiose a word—others were entering their wooden cabins, which clung in loose organisation to the edges of the wide path, carrying suitcases, pushing bicycles, boxes of groceries, calling dogs away from neighbours as they barked aggressive greetings in long tongues and excited eyes at their new surroundings for a long weekend.
    Usually we visited during the winter*, when there was snow on the ground, an excursion in the depth of January to lift us a little—because it is such a miserable time of year—but in this case we were visiting at the tail end of summer; although I was not privy to the arrangements, I suspected it was a relief from the lockdown (the measures of which would be reinforced by the government at the end of our visit). One could not be sure that the pines were any more welcoming in the hot months than they were during winter; constantly domineering and ubiquitous.
    (I thought of her and felt my blood burn in my hands.)
    The odour inside the cabin was unique, if I may be so polite, but one soon got used to it. We set about unpacking and exploring the rooms. Out back there was a wooden veranda that branched off to a treehouse—where my parents were staying—a hot-tub—which we had on good advice, but ignored, was to be avoided—a large table—for smoking at—and a barbecue—which would only be uncovered by my brother on the Sunday. The veranda looked out to the woods, where there were scattered condom wrappers, hair scrunchies, apple cores, and an array of dens constructed clumsily in branches of inconsistent length, like some sort of organic Maginot Line. My brother was waiting for his daughter to finish school before driving up through two counties to join us. My nieces arrived in a gallop of noise and excitement; the eldest shouted ‘wow’ every two steps she took, and the youngest danced in each room as if she were a priest exorcising the premises. Seeing them happy made me forgetful, seeing them happy made me happy.
    That evening my mother hired a chef to cook for us. I answered the door—‘You must be Nigel.’ ‘I’m here to cook for you,’ he said. ‘Thank you,’ I said. And he came in. Nigel set down his crates of ingredients, got dressed into his chefwhites and started cooking. At first it was strange that this stranger was only a few feet from us, until my brother offered him a beer and then, because they all became quite drunk, it felt very natural that he should be there and they spent all evening talking and drinking. He was full of tales and experience, they all listened closely. I tuned in & out, fixating on him in the reflection of the windows that had steamed against night’s cold.
    ‘I can see Uncle R—s sleeping,’ my niece said, at some inhumane hour new parents are chewed awake at by their kids.
    ‘He sleeps with the curtains open,’ replied my brother.
    ‘That’s weird,’ said my niece.
    (I thought of her and felt my nerves burn down my spine.)
    The soft sound of my nieces playing, gurgling, laughing, screaming, awoke me. I looked out of the window at the scenery that burst through the full-height windows with daytime and a distinct perfume of pine. In bed, in solitude, I was subject to thinking things I did not wish to think, so I should go and be with them for distraction. Between me leaving my bed to go to the toilet and walking downstairs, they had all left. I made a large pot of thick coffee, and had a cigarette on the veranda. It was still. Everything was still. What I had seen through the window from my bed remained as silent and peaceful. Three cups of coffee and countless cigarettes in air that seemed as warm as one’s skin. ‘Do you want to rent a bike?’ ‘Definitely.’ We rented bikes, all of us.
    The last time I rode a bike was in Eindhoven with R—a. We sped down the streets back to hers after a night out as I acclimated myself with the personality of the brakes and the weight of this alien transport. As a kid, I lived on a bike; since then, my confidence and balance has taken a walk. Last summer, I was seeing a French woman who was enthusiastic about everything, most notably cycling through the city, and—for better or worse—I refused outright to cycle with her, too nervous to confront the narrow-street traffic and my own uncertain clumsiness. But now I had a bicycle again. I clambered upon it most anxiously, my whole body shaking until I found the rhythm. Within me was a huge childlike joy that I could not wait to get up and go out on it through the expanse of forest around us. After lunch, we all set out. It was a perfect hot September Saturday and we were a caravan of leisure and unsteadiness. My father led us, a folded map clasped against the handlebars, and my brothers nipping his heels, eager to go faster; my mother, complaining that her ‘bits’ hurt, trailed us all. I sat somewhere in the middle with my sister-in-law who insisted on chatting whenever she could catch her breath. I looked at the trees and the sunsetting-afternoon. While sharing my attention between divots in the trail and a quiet forest,
    (I thought of her and felt my lungs burn underneath my ribs;)
    I was sad. With my hands on the bars, flexing my fingers, feeling the vibrations up through my bum then lifting my whole body into the air over my pedals, I found a certain relief. She and he were in the saplings and the logs, were in the roots that erupted through the soil, were in the feathers of a downed wood pigeon that had been stolen away by some hunter, were in the puddles of sand that had formed in the middle of the Forestry Commission’s roads. They peeked out from everywhere. I stared at them. I thought of history and history is a beast that stretches on forever, not just a moment in time; truly a nightmare from which I am trying to awake, with the curtains open and the wood beyond. My sister-in-law carried on talking as we kept the same pace. I could not focus on what she was saying. With a final half-arsed response, I arose and picked up my pace to rush out in front. There was such a delight in the speed. It was unfamiliar to me. Very quickly I was accustomed to this vehicle that was rented out by the day and recalled very clearly my childhood fondness for cycling. We all stopped at a shaded opening to the wood where, speckled in jade, hung a tattered rope-swing. They took turns in having a go. They climbed the trees and swung; I took photographs. As they rested, I strode off into the woods and noted the patches upon which the trees had allowed the sun to shine. When I heard them gathering, I returned; it was so silent that one could hear everything except the heat that caused us all to drip with perspiration. Everything was so beautiful. Everything was shrouded in green, beating against the wind, was scenting the triumphant death-rattles of summer. Long grass sprayed up over the edges of the muddy trails and one had to pay very close attention to every stone, root or dip in the track. The final stretch was a deceptively long straight road back to the cabin.
The next day I went for a long walk with my mother. She was keen to stretch her legs, flattered my sense of direction—‘By myself I’ll get lost in no time’—and we took off on what was supposedly the last hot day of the year, in the shade, mostly, until the trees parted and an immense radiant heat beamed down. (I thought of her and felt my mind burn within my skull.) Very quickly we got lost from the map—‘These signposts are wank’—and I had to navigate blind, which I took great enjoyment in, finally, through many identical paths, recognising a quarter-mile down the way, the clearing with the rope-swing from the day before. The monotony of the regimental trees was quite disorientating. To be lost and then find your way brought a good feeling to me. I was very eager to go out on the bike again after lunch. My brothers all agreed to join me. Admittedly, the three of us going together made me smile; we never did such a thing, not that I could remember; it marked the Sunday afternoon pastime with a huge sense of occasion that did not escape me. Unlike the day before, my brothers, unhindered, would set the tempo, fiercely competitive with each other—and they did, setting off like fireworks in the baked late afternoon. I lagged, keeping them in my sights, correcting them when they headed in the wrong direction, laughing aloud to myself whenever I took flight, spinning the pedals and dodging roots and nettles. We came to a pitch-black entry into the woods, woods unlike the rest of it—‘Let’s go through here,’ my middle-brother said, and we did. The routes between the trees were almost imperceptible. The three of us cycled at top speed, skidding our wheels, trying to be fearless—one false move would send us into the thorns or, worse, the trunk of a tree—and panting with pleasure. It seemed to stretch on for miles and many times I would lose sight of my younger brothers through the wood, causing me a faint panic, as I could hear neither over the sound of my panting and rushing air. We came out on the other side, regrouped, catching our breath in a new place, catching our bearings, and I sought to get us home, pointing them in the right direction and they again led the way. We made it back, all of us dripping, and arrived upon my mother, sister-in-law and nieces walking along a log in the dwindling light. The little girls told us they had seen deer, salamanders and snakes. They pointed out the deer, muntjac who slowly trotted in the undergrowth, peering back with large eyes, pausing with delicate legs. My two-year-old niece had walked over and started stroking a dead snake. There was another baby snake nearby, apparently crushed under a passing car; she went to pick that up too and was called back by her mother. Everyone studied the shiny snakes, their tiny bones destroyed underneath green pristine scales. My brothers went back to the cabin; the girls carried on with their walk; I was loathed to get off the bike, so cycled around the area again, my shirt sticking to me. Everything was still. Between the pines I could see the low sun setting, deep orange and pale enough to stare at, I stared until my eyes watered and became stained with its ghostly shape. I thought of her and felt my heart burn within my chest. I turned my bicycle at the top of the road and sped back, as though fleeing something unseen, returning to the cabin with everybody chatting and drinking wine.

* I say usually but we had only visited twice before, the last being two-and-a-half years ago; these photographs are from that visit. The roll of photographs I took during this visit have been ruined completely—in a manner that leaves me questioning the camera (unlikely), the developing (likely) and the scanning (most likely). To say I am pissed off and upset may be an understatement.