A love affair with tarmacadam ends in battered souls.
I’m not on my bike today. I’ve drawn the curtains and wander moodily from room to room – Charles Aznevor plays on the stereo and every now and then I find I’m singing along with tears on my cheeks. It’s the end of a long love affair and the sun shining outside is too strong for this raw soul to bear.
“Music I heard with you was more than music,
And bread I broke with you was more than bread;
Now that I am without you, all is desolate;
All that was once so beautiful is dead.”
He always said I kept something back from him; that I held some vital part of me secret from him and for 10 years I’ve denied it before storming out.
I always said he was jealous of everything I enjoyed. For years he pushed me to quit despatching: “You are turning into a burnt-out speed-freak adrenaline-junkie! You can’t even see how this job is killing you!” And of course, I defended my right to Despatch or do whatever I wanted to do as long as it made me happy. Oh God, the ‘discussions’ that took the whole night to come back to the same dead end and left us clinging to each other from exhaustion, not love.
Every morning I’d rush around getting ready to call-on and every morning he’d wonder why, after 9 years on the road, I still didn’t understand that a few minutes here or there doesn’t make any difference. I think I was waiting anxiously for the day he tried to stop me going.
I think he regretted me getting my license: Becoming an obsessive wasn’t part of the plan when I started learning how to ride a motorbike. It all started quite innocently. His best mate got a licence and an old CX500. He got his licence and an old BMW R80. I’d never been on a bike before he took my for my first pillion ride. He thought I was going to hate it since I don’t like being scared. It took most of 30 seconds before my life was changed. He wasn’t convinced though: “Biking uses a part of your brain that you don’t like using; the boring analytical bit. I don’t think you are going to enjoy it. You can’t afford to start day-dreaming on a motorbike, you know…”
But the bike brought me back to a long forgotten love of mine. When I was little I used to walk. Then I got a bicycle. Then I hitched. There was a long period of stationariness – which other people call ‘growing up’ – and then, finally, the bike and the road under my wheels. Destinations were arbitrary – the real point was travel, motion, the peculiar freedom between one place and another when no one could exactly pinpoint my place in space. And he wondered why I loved despatching…
“I wanted to say a lot of things:
I wanted to say how often lately
Your bright image has wandered through
The dark rooms of my mind”
After one row, a row that pushed us both to levels of violence we could never have imagined possible in ourselves, let alone the other, I got on the bike and just rode away. I called him to tell him I was OK, but I was just going to ride around for a while. It seemed cruel to torment him with images of me smashed up by the side of the road. I ended up in Bognor Regis at about 2 in the morning, saw a B&B with a light still on downstairs and rang the bell.
The woman who answered the door expressed no surprise at the late hour, the girl or the bike. Jean and I sat up for the rest of the night sipping JD and she told me stories of the men she’d known. I barely said a word. I’d explained my presence with ‘lovers tiff: needed a breath of air’ – but I imagine the truth was writ stark in my eyes.
At 7 in the morning, she made me a pot of strong coffee to wash down a vast breakfast and when I was done, she said:
“You are brave enough to ride a motorbike away into the night and knock on a strange door in the middle of nowhere. You are brave enough for this guy.”
All the way home I mentally argued the case for substituting the word ‘stupid’ for ‘brave’.
For years I went to work and thanked God that my job left no spare room for contemplation. During working hours at least I was free of the internal dilemma of a floundering relationship. There was nothing but the pure simplicity of getting through traffic. I hated ‘standing-by’ – I’d take anything just to get moving again. Come half seven on a cold November evening my controller would wonder hopefully if I was up for the last run to Leatherhead and I always was. “You are a diamond, 1-4.” No I’m not, I’d mutter aloud, but my marriage is a mess. It was just easier to keep riding around.
At home, too tired to run away, we ‘talked about it’.
He always wanted something more from me and eventually I worked out that the bit of me he wanted was the bit I found on the bike. Why couldn’t I go to him for peace and sanctum, he wanted to know. Why did I need somewhere else to go? Where was I escaping to and why did I need to escape in the first place?
I couldn’t answer these questions for him, no matter how hard I tried. Every now and then the world would go grey and I couldn’t see its beauty anywhere. I’d get restless and anxious and spend more and more time wandering around looking for it. It wasn’t his fault – it’s the way life comes and goes for me and all I have to do is up sticks and go looking for a moment on the highway when the sun hits the tarmac in such a way that it reignites the world and I look around again and it’s all beautiful and lovely once more. Then I’m good for months.
“I will make you brooches and toys for your delight
Of bird-song at morning and star-shine at night.
I will make a palace fit for you and me,
Of green days in forests, and blue days at sea.”
R L Stevenson
We could have rowed for England. There was never anything ‘healthy’ about our rows – they were desperate and bitter and eventually, vicious. We were both howling out the pain of discovering that profound and passionate love didn’t necessarily, magically, make everything alright.
Every time I went into a doctor’s surgery, for any reason at all, bad back or tetanus jab, they offered me anti-depressants. And there I was kidding myself I was keeping a brave face on things…
I didn’t want Prozac to make things better. It didn’t seem the right path to take. Instead, sorting your head out on a bike leaves you ready to make the decisions that have to be taken. The bike lent strength and clarity when everyday life was messing with my head – the bike’s universe is simple and pure, governed by the elements of power and traction. There is space in this universe for silence, contemplation and realisation. Meditation gets easier at illegal speeds.
It was after a long ride that I came home and we sat down at last, stopped talking about it and decided for the good of both of us that it was over.
We had really and truly believed we were forever, heart and soul; that we were a revolutionary love that would prove all the fairytales true. But revolution gets harder to maintain as you get older and the utopian new order consistently fails to become established.
Mankind has always been a paradox. There is a general idea that we started off as nomads and hunters and then as we got more civilised we settled down and became farmers which led to cities and telephones and the M25. This isn’t the way it happened though.
What really happened was this: Even before they invented farming, some people would prefer to stay put, and some preferred to move. It’s just the way we are. The stay-putters probably thought up farming as very good excuse to stop tramping about the wilderness. However, throughout history, the farmer-types have complained bitterly about the nomad-types wandering freely around the place. Through the channels of religion, commerce, education and finally the law, they made wandering around freely more trouble than it was worth.
We were not one then the other. We are either or, it seems. For some reason the notion of a ‘free spirit’ without ties or an address offends everything the farmer stands for and in the age old ego-struggle (humans have never been very good at accepting that maybe we are all different) those with least, lost. Least what? I have always asked. Least possessions? Less stress. Least commitments? See above. Least impact on the world around them? Least to lose?
Or maybe most of what counts. Autonomy – the enemy of the state. Freedom – if that floats your boat. Time and space to hear the universe’s song. I wanted to share my freedom but perhaps that really is the impossible dream. One woman’s freedom is another mans misery. And, of course, vice versa.
The songs are always right. If you love someone, set them free. Perhaps love is freedom – I’ve always thought it should be – but he and I were obviously not among the few rare humans really able to carry it through. Our human weaknesses, small and petty, brought a beautiful dream to its knees.
“For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you.
Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.”
The therapists say that it takes half as long as the relationship itself, to ‘get over it’. Maybe they’re right, but surely it’s not just the amount of time you take – its what you do with that time as well.
When our dreams are mugged and left for dead at the side of the road, there is a moment when some of our most important choices are made. You can walk away, leave them behind like road-kill and build a new life empty of their pain. Or you can lift them gently out of the gutter, bear their dead-weight and carry them with you as you limp away. A few years down the road, on a bright spring day, those once-broken dreams find themselves healed at last. They can push free of their brittle cocoon of bitter experience and let their new rainbow coloured wings dry in the sun. When they take flight again, lightening your heart immeasurably, and letting the fresh breezes of hope and love flow through your soul again, you’ll know you’ve made it.
The bike has helped me learn that love, the greatest of all human dreams, isn’t a secret kept between two people. It’s what the Greeks called the ‘ether’ – perhaps it’s what the quantum physicists call ‘dark matter’ – it’s certainly what every religion under the sun has called ‘God’. We have intuited its vitality since the beginning of time and spent much of that time trying to pin it down. Love, however, isn’t like money and can’t be squirreled away in a joint bank account. It exists between things – all things; try to cut it away from these things to keep it for yourself and it is lost. Religion is a one-way street; Love is the open-road. The tarmac under your wheels might be mankind’s greatest achievement in expressing this. Poets, artists, musicians have spent their lives trying to capture what the road-builders make real with every inch of tarmac laid.
Romance is merely the light that love casts on the world, but it is a lovely light nonetheless.
When this light goes out the loneliness is absolute but now I believe that the light only goes out when we close our eyes.
These days, eyes wide open, back on the bike, the wild horses under my tank show me the way between things once again. Another song starts to play…
This article first appeared in issue 140 of The Rider’s Digest in June 2009