Seven Months Later, or Odd Numbers

We had gone for a bicycle ride after lunch, then returned to the cabin. A slice of thirtieth-birthday cake with lemon & elderflower frosting, picked apart by fork, then the crumbs and smudges of cream between the prongs and pulled by tongue. Languishing in front of the television, I set my plate down and sighed. My nieces cross-legged on the floor no more than eighteen inches from a film about trolls. It was hypnotic, all the colours, but the sound ground on me. I asked—‘Who wants to go for another ride?’ No one responded; gave it five minutes, then again—‘Anyone fancy another bike ride?’ There was a declining grunt from somewhere I could not determine, in amongst the pile of bodies on the sofa.

My bicycle was chained up at the end of the row, kind of twisted into its neighbour. I had so wanted to get out on it again. I was nervous to go on my own, or perhaps not nervous but concerned and thoughtful. Already I could feel a tenderness in the base of my bum from the earlier excursion. I was going to bruise there. Coming out onto the gravel road, I fell behind a family of four returning from their own cycle. I kept my distance and watched them – mother, father, son, son – pass through the glorious shafts of steaming sunlight that fell between the pines. They peeled off and I put my back into the pedals, sped off, taking a route around the back, near the private properties of warning signs, holes in the road, cars with their engines stripped, and stacked pallets.

Around the side of an iron gate and into the woods.

I cycled as fast as I could, felt the rush of the wind, smiled, beamed, then let it slow of its own accord as my brakes were not working. Shafts of spring’s light caught white blossom that overhung the worn path. We had gone away as a family to celebrate my youngest brother’s birthday. He had brought his girlfriend, so I had been relegated to the box room, with two single beds crammed in. Every other room had a double and lovers – even my nieces had pushed theirs together, where they slept holding hands, tufts of blonde hair poked out the duvet – but I took my lot of small mattress, where I overhung and struggled to become comfortable. I lie there, shifting, trying to remember the last time I slept in a single. I could only recall the smaller double bed from last February, the edges pushing Her and I together, completely entwined, legs and limb, nudity and pubic hair catching like Velcro, sleeping so sound and happy. The last time we visited, at the end of summer (see My Bicycle, 116), I was only coping. There was a double bed for me back then, not so much the sadness and how everything hurt to think about. Only the single bed and dashing along, looking out into the forest on one side, a marsh on the other. Up through the wheels and the frame, I could feel the dirt shifting beneath the speed; it excited me greatly. Putting my tyres into the rough until I came to a stop, looking around, not a soul but the sound of the wind, the chords of wooden swaying, birdsong. O, and my panting. I lit a cigarette and took off again, imagining, with fear, that some spark might carry into tinder and start a fire; the wind dried it to my lips, where it hung and I cycled until my legs burned.

Looking around there was no one to be seen. The Forestry Commission’s regimental rows permitted one to see for some distance, the trunks shifting in strange patterns amongst the darkness, straight then blending then straight, and so on. I came to a clearing where the earth was the colour of English mustard, and paused. Catching my breath. Wiping the sweat of my palms onto my jeans. In the faraway were a couple walking a dog toward me. I stayed for a while, watching them approach. The dog had broad shoulders and a long pink tongue. They held hands and walked their dog along the English mustard-coloured dirt road.
Married (38 years), married (4 years), partners (7 months), sisters (3 years). There was an intense obsession with the numbers, how I had made what was even odd. That the eldest son should be occupying the single room – and so lonesome – was something I found both embarrassing and sad in equal measure. Being out of the cabin, away from them all, I imagined I might feel a little better, but the forest only amplified my sorrow and, churning my bicycle through sand, I began to cough on my own emotion. It was such a beautiful day, and why should I be so sad? Although the wind was strong, so too was the sun, and I had become so hot as to remove my coat, stuff it in my backpack. I was not at all dressed suitably for such exercise. As I dried my eyes on the salty back of my hands, I tried to think of things to distract myself; I thought of the trees that the Romans planted along the side of roads to shade their marching troops; I thought of that for some distance. Those trees always looked beautiful. I arrived upon a rope-swing that my family had stopped at last September. Riding in circles, I stared at it. The leaves were falling then, they were blooming now. Then I began to imagine what I would do if I saw a mountain lion creep out of the bush and chase me. Maybe I would turn, spread my arms out, yell at the top of my lungs, walk towards it. Maybe I could cycle away from it; I was pretty fast. Maybe I would just soil myself in a vain attempt to put the beast off its dinner; my final dying thoughts addressed to my underwear—‘I only bought you two weeks ago. I’m sorry. I hardly knew ye.’

Of course, sullen thoughts returned. It is easy to ask oneself—‘What the hell am I doing with my life?’ but not so easy to write about. Very tiresome! Tedious, also. To distract myself once more, I picked up speed along the narrow path, remarking internally that if I did not pay attention, then I would catch a protruding root or drastic divot at the wrong angle and go over my handlebars, so I had better give the steering my full mind. Not only that, but the trees reached out to claw my face, the blossom to bash my eyes, I ducked and dodged, swerved, panting, I pedalled faster and faster.

A lady appeared before me with three dogs, and I slowed. She was a local, and I could tell from her eyes that she considered me a fool—‘Why are you cycling in black jeans and a shirt and converse and such a tatty backpack? Take your headphones off, you tit!’ I smiled and thanked her, and she whistled, and her three dogs darted off. I could never outrun those dogs, I thought. They can run faster than I can cycle, and I can cycle like the wind blows!

Heat beat off the road. I cycled across it and into another wood. It was the long route back, but I would be able to ride up the hill and then down it in one long straightness, and the wind would be glorious! Squirrels, blackbirds, deers, doves, rabbits in the forest ducked out of my way when they saw me coming. I laughed as my brakes were so useless and I was close to crashing. At the bottom of the hill, I bared my teeth, and pushed pushed pushed my way upwards. Every muscle in my legs pounding, and my skull low against the handlebars. I cursed myself and I thought about my life, then cursed some more. I reached the top of the hill, did a one-eighty, and carefully and measuredly turned the pedal over, leaning me into the descent. I did not have to move a muscle, but my own miserable mass pushing me downwards. The little sound of a mechanism spinning. What started slow soon built until I was flying along. The road was flat and hot and I had no need to stare at it but to leisurely look out at the woods that rushed me by. The burn in my thighs was being inched through my body by blood. The wind cooled my wet neck. I let go of the handles and raised my hands. I smiled like Roald Dahl.

My legs were as jelly. It made me laugh. Almost falling over, I stood outside of the cabin and regained my balance, then I put the bicycle back where I found it, tangled among the others. I opened the front door, stiff, must be shoved, and heard the tin of the telly. I turned, and decided I would walk off to find coffee, closing the door again, chuckling at my unsteadiness and how silly I must have looked walking along the gravel road in search of caffeine.