Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Riding Like Hell - Short Story

Most of the stories I produced set in East London were actually written when I had moved to Milton Keynes and got to writing again. There was nothing of inspiration in Milton Keynes, it is a terribly insipid place. However, I worked shorter hours and so had more time for writing. Having lived in East London where only one-in-three families had a car and there was nowhere really to park on safely, I ended up in Milton Keynes with only a bicycle. The city is 16Km from corner-to-corner as is very American in style and thus is designed really just for car use. The bus routes are still laid out as they were in the 1950s not really taking consideration of the numerous housing estates across the city, rather connecting the far older towns of Bletchley, Stony Stratford and Newport Pagnell than serving the city. Anyway, so a lot of my life in Milton Keynes was spent cycling places. In sharp contrast to the roads which are laid out on a grid pattern, the cycle paths look like they were drawn by a toddler, they twist and turn, go up and down all over the place. They are wonderful if you want a leisurely ride through green areas, but a nightmare if you are in a hurry to get anywhere; in the city centre the roads cut through the hills but the cycle paths go up and down them. Anyway, this is the only story that I ever wrote set in Milton Keynes. It owes a lot to the movie 'Groundhog Day' (1993) a scenario I had often thought about even before seeing it. The bleak nature of this story reflects the soulessness that I found living in Milton Keynes right from the first day I moved there until the day I left.

Riding like Hell

It is time. I jump up as if I have just awoken. I am late, like I was the first time, like I will always be. I again think through the routine, to optimise the little time I have. I do not bother to stop the video or turn off the television. There is no point trying the phone either, neither of us take them when we go cycling. As for the car, I tried that the second time, when I still thought it a blessing, and was barely out of the garage before it was too late. I have to stick to the original plan: today we were going cycling. I rush to the bedroom and snatch at my slip-on shoes, no time to waste doing up laces. I do not bother with the search for my bike clips because I know it will be fruitless. I jam my trousers into my socks and bound down the stairs. I take the jacket from the top of the pile, not considering any others and ignoring them as they fall on to the floor in a bundle. I am out of the door fumbling to get the key into the lock. I turn it and hurry away. In moments I am in the shed and hauling my bicycle out. I carelessly slam the door closed not bothering to lock it.

I am out on the road, my legs pumping as fast as I can make them, dodging over the pavement, oblivious to the complaints from the old woman, who at one time I would have spoken with. Now, I know such delay is fatal. I am out on to the road, aware that I can get across before that speeding BMW comes close. He hoots but I do not hear. You might ask why, in all my panic I do not phone for a taxi, cajole a neighbour into giving me a lift? I have tried those options and suffered the consequences. No firm can get a taxi to me in the twenty minutes that I need it. No neighbour can be made to understand my urgency. Maybe a time will come when I resort to threatening them with a knife or a club, but I have come to be sure that the successful outcome depends on me, me making it, under my own effort.

Sweat is already rising on my brow, and my skin is glowing as I reach the roundabout. I take a tight line, careful not to fall as I did three or four times back. I skirt the indignant cars, not worrying if there is a pile-up. That is their concern, I have something more serious to resolve. You’re there saying ‘why doesn’t he take the cycle paths, surely they are safer, no traffic, no roundabouts to circumnavigate?’ Well, the first five, six, seven times I probably would have agreed with you, but have you seen them? Have you actually had to ride hard along them? With everything so precious depending on speed? No? Well, try it and you know why these last few times it has been the roads. The roads may be busier, but they are flat, they do not curve back and forth across the landscape, they do not go down and then up again at each other road they cross. Hauling my body out of so many underpasses these last few times has convinced me: stick to the roads.

I take the turn, not bothering to waste the energy to signal. There are two roads North I can take. I tried the more easterly one last time, only to find myself sprawled over the bonnet of some small Vauxhall. There are routes through the estate, but they are probably worse than the cycle paths, bound to waste this chance as I struggle to make sense of the dead ends and the crescents. I power up the westerly road, knowing it is safer. I do not fritter away time looking at my watch. I will soon know when the time allotted me has expired. I mark it out with the stomping of my heart. Sweat trails down my face threatening to dislodge my glasses. That has happened once, when I jumped on my brakes to avoid the white van, and they fell to the floor.

The white van, it was my original nemesis and it remains my fear. I am now past the first of the three roundabouts I have to go over to reach the park. I will encounter it in under a minute as it rushes up to the middle roundabout and continues across, not seeing a cyclist, just in a hurry to get to the pub. I strain my ears to hear its motor. Since the first time when it ended it all, it has clipped me four further times, but now I know its pattern. I come up to the roundabout, there is a break in the traffic so that I can speed through. This is why it is not an impossible task. If someone had really wanted me to fail forever then I would be locked here up in Saturday afternoon traffic, letting the seconds fall away.

There it is: the white van. I know the writing on the side by heart and I do not even bother checking it this time. I keep my head down and turn towards the traffic island. I bump up and then down the other side as the van rushes by. He is past me and onto the roundabout. I scrape behind his rear door but I am safe this time and am already pedalling with a fury. For an instant I feel that jolt, that shock of re-writing my history, avoiding the collision that brought this whole deal down upon me.

My legs ache, but it is no concern. Blood flows from my lips where my teeth have sunk in, my tension not betraying, that this time, like every other time, I am sure I can make it and break this cycle, sorry, this pattern, in case you think I mean my bike. I am over the last roundabout. I know that this is not the time to become complacent, to throw it all away until this time next year, twelve months in limbo, a fragment of eternity. This time I do not turn off the road and join the cycle path. From experience I know the climb up to the bridge which takes me across the road and on to the park is too slow. Now I need brave, desperate actions. I keep on the road, swinging out across it as it begins cutting through the city centre park, keeping level as the cycle path rises to the height beside it.

I risk a glance behind me, but the nearest car is safely far back, despite the speed it is moving at. Its horn sounds as it speeds by, but I am in the middle of the road, and need only a couple of quick thrusts to the pedals before I mount the far kerb. I am on to the grass. Though it is dry, I let my bicycle fall, I would be throwing away time to try to ride up the bank. I leave it behind, not caring if someone steals it. If this experience has shown me nothing else, it is that possessions, objects, items, are nothing compared to people.

I sprint up the grass bank and on to the path leading into the park. My heart runs, not only from the effort but also from the sense that I may be close, this might be the time I achieve it. I know she, Karen, is sitting around the next corner, obscured from me by the bush, but almost in reach, just the other side of the pond. I start shouting her name, hoping she will hear and come towards me, away from them. If we come together I am sure this will be resolved and we can both leave here together and in peace. I push away the doubt that I can do nothing that I will become entangled in her end too. If I truly believed that I would be back in the living room enjoying my short minutes of release.

I think for a moment about crashing through the bush, but with a stitch running up my side, I keep to the path and turn it. I stop. This is the first time in all my attempts I have actually got in sight of where she should be. I always assumed that I would see her there. Then I think again, they must already have her, already taking her away for three days of torture in a filthy Birmingham basement. Her life bled out of her. I see her bicycle and automatically run towards it, then stop myself. My steps slow and I feel foolish. I know I have failed again, despite all my efforts, it is too late. In the moments I feel I have remaining, I look quickly around me: at the bench, the bicycle, the lanky teenagers staring at me. Just in the corner of my vision I see hurried movement. I see Karen and my throat gulps. She is struggling between the strong hands of the ugly men. I again begin running, screaming her name, taking care to note every feature of her face, even in its terror. It is the first time I have seen her in two decades of trying. I keep running, but she is shoved into the back of a blue van. The men lock the door and run around to the front. In moments they have started it and are driving away as my feet just come on to the tarmac of the car park.

The pain surges through me. It has never been this bad. To feel the loss, to feel the frustration of not getting here in time were discomforts enough, but to see her after all this time, and see her last moments in the normal world before her slow painful death, hits me like those bastards would. I fall to the tarmac, knowing there are probably only seconds more left for this attempt. I quickly try to assimilate all the new knowledge I have gained. Next time, head not to the park bench, but to the car park, come armed to fight off the abductors. The summer light becomes brilliant and then white, bleaching all the features around me. I return to nothing, to await the next chance, the same times, places, people, opportunities. In life I was a pessimist but now I know, I know that I will be with her again and my success will be hers too.

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