This is the prospective first chapter of Richard's fictionalised travalogue. Whether it remains the first chapter reasons to be seen. But it's included here to give you an example of some excellent storytelling and fine descriptive writing. LM Dec 202
Tuesday 28th March, 2015
I lay on the motel bed, propped up uncomfortably against the wall. At that moment, I was staring at the mobile phone beside me, recalling last week’s ‘conversation’ with Matty: I would come to grief, she had said. It was all going to be a disaster. Why would a man of my age ‘with issues’ go gallivanting off to foreign parts? On a motorcycle? Why did I ride that... that... thing? Matty’s little theatre of horrors barnstormed though into the third act. I was a captive audience. Before the final curtain fell, I would be murdered by robbers, blown up by terrorists, beheaded by foreign regimes.
“They don't cut people's heads off in Turkey,” I’d said firmly and then frowned. “At least, I don't think so.”
It is very had to think of things to say when you are under pressure. “C’mon, Matt,” I tried, “look on the bright side. If ISIS cut my head off, you’ll see me on the six o'clock news.”
Oh god! Did I really say that?
I’d plagiarised this crack. Les had made it over a pint during my bike club send off. Bikers, however, are people who get excited watching videos of motorcycle crashes. This was Matty. I braced myself for the onslaught and prepared to apologise. What I got instead was silence, deathly, wounded silence. And a glare so fierce it could have been plugged directly into the mains. Waves of indignation rolled in my direction.
There was a long pause.
“It’s too late to change my plans now,” I said, as softly and solemnly as I could. “I’ve bought my visas and I’m ready to leave.”
Yay! One more day to go!
Matty knew me far too well to be anything other than a good friend or an implacable enemy. She knew all my weaknesses, my highs and lows. She knew where to attack and what to avoid, but there was one thing she would never understand, and that was my commitment to this journey. She was a home body. There was no point in trying. The truth was she was genuinely afraid - for me, certainly, and perhaps for herself also. So when she talked out her fears of fatal diseases, crashes and beheadings, I listened patiently, almost impersonally – most of the time. I’d acted partly out of concern for her, but partly also out of a need to protect myself. If you share a table with Matty, you end up dining out on her anxieties. She can be exhausting work.
The motel room was a soulless arrangement of planes and rectangles, an echo chamber for soulless thoughts. And that was pretty much all I had right then. I was wrung out. Evening had fallen, and I lay in the feeble light of a bedside lamp, listening to the rain’s scattergun rattle against the window pane. I picked up the phone and checked the clock. It was time. I’d promised to ring Matty this evening. The jumble of clothes and pillows behind me had disarranged themselves and I tried to sort them, but the pain ripped through my lower back and made me cry out. I was stiffening up. I looked at the phone. No one did ‘told you so’s’ quite like Matty. I took several deep breaths and dialled her up.
The morning began cheerfully enough. I’d pulled into a service station on my way south from Edinburgh, headed over to the hot food counter and ordered the ‘roast chicken’. Motorway chicken goes down like the end-of-day sweepings in a carpentry shop, but it’s low risk, and it plumps up the insides for a long ride. Behind the counter, a tiny waitress spooned out a sepulchral-looking mound of vegetables, and then struggled to load the giant carcass onto the plate beside it. D’ye want the gravy? she’d asked. I glanced at the singe marks on the carcass, and nodded. A ladleful of brown liquid slopped onto the bird’s crown where it perched an instant before crawling cautiously down its flanks. I took the plate and held it up, watching the gravy’s slow progress, fascinated. The queue for the till wasn’t going anywhere quickly, so I bet myself a fiver that the gravy would come in to land before I got to my seat. When I looked like losing, I dawdled over the condiment and cutlery counter to give it a fighting chance, but it was a losing battle. By the time I sat down at my window seat it was clinging motionless to the bird’s sides. And there it died, turning opaque and taking on the colour and surface texture of toffee, the kind I had tried to make on the cooker, back home in the 1950s when mum was out shopping.
Rain ran in curtains down the panel of glass beside my table. Daylight, darting through the raindrops, still held the silvery brilliance of a stormy spring morning, but not for much longer. The skies were thickening up, and turning grey. I looked at the chicken with its pall of gravy and wondered if I was turning into one of those people who find significance in the patterns made by coffee grounds or burnt toast. For eight years after my wife died I had clung on to a bullshit job in a local government office that was as meaningful to me as the inside of a cardboard box. The regime was governed by a political ideology that stunned me with its hypocrisy. Worse still, it was invasive. Not even the polythene wrapped clove of garlic I kept in my desk draw was able to protect me from its all sinister influence. By the time I left, the things I found myself ‘believing’ between the hours of 9:00 and 5:00 were radically different to those I believed when I rode my motorcycle home at 5.05. And then, on a dark November night in late 2013 life sent me an ultimatum, not hidden in the patterns of burnt toast or morbid gravy but a lost memory. It floated back into consciousness like a message in a bottle, and changed my life. Now here I was in 2015, on my way to Dover, with months of riding ahead of me. Happiness trickled through my limbs and torso. I took a mouthful of the gravy- chicken combo, and then blinked and sat up.
The gloop didn’t taste at all like toffee, or like gravy. In fact, it didn’t taste like anything recognisable at all.
I couldn’t accuse the chicken of being undercooked, so I blamed what happened next on the gravy and my own stupidity. An hour after leaving the services, I was hunkered down in the long grass at the side of the A74(M), trying not to chuck up all over my new motorcycle boots. A steady drizzle trickled down my cheeks and over my chin. Between heaves I tried to escape the narrow circle of my own misery by anchoring my eyes on the hill opposite. When I did, it yawed to the left – evidently inside my head. And then again and again, each time dragging my stomach with it. I closed my eyes: this never got any easier. An unknown number of miserable, grass soaked, and vertiginous minutes later I scrambled back up the embankment, and over the Armco fence onto the hard shoulder, and then walked the few yards back to where Felix stood patiently waiting.
Felix was my new, solid-as-a-rock Suzuki DR650SE motorcycle, a single-cylinder, dual-sport bike with an easygoing personality and a sturdy heart. For the next nine months, Felix would be my travelling companion, and, as was being borne in on me, my sole point of security. I shifted aside some bungeed luggage at the back of the bike and dug into my panniers for the packet of Peter’s magic black powder. Peter called himself a herbalist, but I fancied his skills were something more exotic. I’d met him years ago in London at an exhibition while doing a demo for my shiatsu school. Over the years, he had kept me healthy when others couldn’t. I poured some of the powder into my old tin mug and added water. After a little work, it formed into a thin black sludge, with a few seeds and bits of vegetation floating in it. I glanced at Felix: “Cheers,” I said, and tipped the mixture back. As it slid down my throat, it aroused complicated feelings, but it gave instant and very welcome relief. In ten minutes, it would work its full voodoo and I’d be on my way. I propped open the lid of the pannier to repack, but those ‘ten minutes’ began a little worm of anxiety burrowing its way into my brain.
...a patrol car pulls up in front of Felix. Its doors open … Two fatly padded officers step out ... black and yellow … they do that stiff little walk thing … Good morning, sir ... Was I aware it was an offence to stop on the hard shoulder without good reason? … Had I been drinking? … Was I fit to be in charge of a motorcycle? … Could they see my licence? … Where was I going? ... Where? Let’s cut the clever remarks, shall we, sir?
“Hey, mate!” The voice came from behind me. I jumped and nearly spilled black powder down my jacket.
When I turned, a motorcyclist was sitting directly behind me astride a mean, green sportsbike.
I tapped the side of my lid to indicate I was wearing earplugs.
“You OK, mate? Need any help,” he shouted? His visor was raised, and a pair of young eyes peered at me through the rain. He wore slick black and green racing leathers with a speed hump, and an expensive lid.
“Not unless you have a cure for the weather.” I shouted back.
“Hah!” He nodded and looked grim.
“I’m OK,” I said. Bad stomach!” I pointed down the embankment. “Been chucking up.”
“Bit early for that, innit? You OK to ride?”
“Yeah, thanks” I said. “A few minutes, and I’ll be fine.”
He tilted his head to one side and checked out Felix but said nothing. Felix was an American import, not often seen in the UK. He often aroused interest here among dirt-bike riders. But, guys on sportsbikes: they were a different tribe.
“Going far,” I yelled?
“Not bloody likely. See those clouds? It’s gonna piss down.”
I looked up. He was right. The skies ahead were a spreading mycelium of ugly, grey cloud.
He gave me a nod, then snapped shut his visor, checked his mirror and accelerated out into the road. I stood watching his tail lights dissolving into the mist further up the valley. When they disappeared, I continued watching and for a little while moment felt chilled and alone.
There were no police cars lurking as far as I could see, so I sat myself astride Felix, closed my eyes and breathed quietly. The road rolled on up through the valley, then out into the world of my imagination. My big ride: it was actually happening. After all these years. It was a journey with many beginnings, many false starts, many plannings and re-plannings, many moments of despair. I’d forgotten most of them. But, I remember now, exactly the moment when the idea first detonated inside my head. It was in 1974. My life was on hold, stuck in a no man’s land between university and something else I’d not yet got a handle on. I was briefly back living with my folks in the Hertfordshire village where I’d grown up. Bored stupid with rural life, I’d cycled down to the nearby town to see whatever was showing at the local flea pit. The film turned out to be The Dove, an adventure-biopic of Robin Lee Graham, the youngest person to sail solo round the world at that time. Watching the film again on DVD in 2014, it seemed charming and a little insipid. Back in 1974, it exploded my word. I exited the cinema that evening with my heart pounding. As I unchained my bicycle from the racks, I knew for sure I was going to lead no ordinary existence. Mine was going to be a life filled with excitement and adventure. I was such a kid back then, such a dreamer. But for an anxious, immature 23 year old, socially phobic, with not a clue about how to survive in the adult world, it packed a hell of a punch. That evening, I’d ridden back home with my nervous system lit up like a Maharaja’s palace, and my feet pumping pedals with the kind of euphoric strength I never knew I possessed.
A convoy of lorries hauled themselves up the gradient, fouling the upland air with diesel fumes making me gasp and wrenching me back into the present moment. Then the air cleared, and the world grew large again. When I opened my eyes the rain was gusting in sheets over the hilltops, and I didn’t care. I’d always loved the Southern Uplands. Here the land was open and generous, a place where the winds ran wild and there was space to breathe. Spaces had been opening up inside me too in recent days, some new and exciting, others nudging back into my expectations after years of being crushed by life’s routine tragedies and by the need to lease myself out for a wage. I lay my hand on Felix’s tank. This was my dream fleshed out in metal and plastic and petrol fumes. One thing that living for the imagination or slumming it out down among the humans had taught me: when you embody a dream, it will be nothing like you ever imagined.
I levered the DR upright and felt its weight, its mass, its solidity, its potential power and speed. I rocked it a little from side to side between my legs. To have control of this thing, to master its instability, to share its mass; it’s what makes a motorcycle a portal to another world. It changes everything about how you see things. Ignition, on - side stand, down - choke, out –clutch, in –starter thumbed- thunder - torque. It’s a seamless ritual that never loses its iconic power - except perhaps on occasions like this. I pressed the starter and was met by silence. The starter button under my thumb had been no more than a piece of plastic on a spring. I checked the controls. Nothing seemed amiss. The electrics were working. But oh, please, not the side stand cut-out switch. Had to be. It had given Gabe trouble when he had modified the DR at the back end of last year. But the side stand switch was buried inside the clutch casing, way out of reach. I turned off the ignition, then sat back in Felix’s saddle and stared. Rain rattled on my lid. Wind danced past me and on up the valley. My mobile had discharged the day before and failed to recharge at the campsite. I’d forgotten to plug it in at the services. That had been my second mistake today. My jaw clamped tight and my mind spooled through the scene where ten minutes ago I’d said, ‘I’m fine’ and Kawasaki guy had disappeared up the road.
What the fuck, Felix! Uhhh!
I gave the side stand a vicious kick with my heel. And this was my third mistake. At the moment of contact a gristly crunch in my lower back was accompanied by an explosion of pain. A vice-like cramp seized my groin and testicles and my eyes grew very big indeed. Then came the spasms, and with them, rage - blinding, incomprehensible rage, like a tsunami. I yelled obscenities at the road and at the armco, at a passing motorist, and then... Oh, god! I was tearing at the catch on my lid in an effort to flip up the front before... My stomach heaved.
Finally, when the cramping passed and the spasms died away, when my stomach slid back into its proper place, I was left sitting alone on the bike, hollowed out and supernaturally calm, my eyes locked onto to a weak glow in the sky, where the sun was diffusing light through a thick mass of cloud. The rest of the world was dropping javelins. I turned my head and for several minutes became fascinated by a solitary red tractor churning through mud, chunking and twisting up the hillside as though it were competing in the Paris-Dakar. Eventually I shifted my back. It throbbed and was stiff, but not apparently locked. I could probably still ride like this... No, no, I couldn’t. Engine – remember? My thoughts circled round and forming and forms stagnant pools.
Straight lines, Rich!
It occurred to some part of me that I needed to flag down a passing motorist and get some help, but as easily as the thought came into my mind, it flowed away again, like water. I felt as insubstantial as a negative space hollowed out by the rain. I’d always loved the rain. If there was one thing in life that was universally true and real, it was the rain. What is an adventure without rain. Adventures were not meant to go to plan. They were meant to be played out on a grand scale, out of doors in a landscape like this in the pouring rain. Some smaller part of me realised I was in shock and that the larger half had gone temporarily insane
Straight lines! Think! One step at a time. Get off the bike.
I shifted my weight to kick down the side stand, but the moment I twisted to one side pain ripped through the muscles of my lower back. I stopped Coherent action was beyond me. I understood that I was here, immobilised, on a broken bike, by the side of the road, in the pouring rain. The absurdity of it was beautiful. All I had to do was to sit here quietly, not moving, and everything was fine. After a minute or so, I leaned forward onto the bars. Water trickled down my neck. I turned on the ignition, pulled in the clutch and, for no particular reason, gave the starter button a gentle prod. The thrum of Felix’s engine ran instantly through frame. I listened as it sang a cheerful duet with the hammering rain.
It took another ten minutes and several litres of water from my camelback bladder before my wits returned to something like normal and I got a grip on practical action. But what had happened...? An image of Gabe at Zen Motorcycles came into my mind. He was down on his workroom floor in Wells, making modifications to Felix, replacing the bars, building the bash plate and the panniers, Welding a foot onto the side stand... Of course! It made sense. To prevent the larger foot interfering with the chain, he’d welded a blob of metal onto the stand to prevent its complete retraction – enough perhaps, on occasion, to prevent it tripping the cut out switch.
Press starter – silence.
Kick side stand – press starter – engine fires.
Felix had a quirk.
It was a theory, and it would be easy to test. If I cut the engine... But straight thinking, Rich! Good man! Maybe I should leave that for another time.
Rain like this does funny things to time on a motorcycle, as does shock, so how long I rode for after that I can’t exactly tell. Five minutes, ten, twenty? I rode slow and steady through the hammering rain. So long as I didn’t make any sudden moves the pain was manageable. At the Annandale Services, I manoeuvred Felix into a space under the motel canopy. Rain was now falling in an almost solid mass. After five minutes of exquisite self-torture, I dismounted, and shuffled slowly into reception, trailing water behind me like a younger sibling of Victoria Falls.
My new suit had kept me remarkably dry. My boots however had turned into well buckets, and my leather gloves had acquired the texture of those soggy pieces of take-away chicken that dogs snaffle up off wet pavements. But I was now secure in my motel room, and all I had to deal with was the pain. I set my mobile and laptop on charge then washed, changed, and did some Alexander Technique for my back. Then I propped myself up on the bed with clothes and pillows and fell asleep.
“Oh, it’s you. Don’t call me Matt.”
“You drink too much, Matty”.
“Fuck off. Where are you?”
“What the fuck are you doing in Scotland? Why aren’t you rotting in some foreign shithole?”
I sighed. Matty was not only my friend, but also my burden and my most perceptive critic, a distant cousin on my dad’s side according to family lore, though I’d never bottomed out our exact connection. Over the decades she had grown increasingly curmudgeonly. Once you got past that grumpy exterior, however, she was soft as boiled beetroot. But yes, she was right, Scotland was not obviously en route from the Home Counties to The Caspian, not even according to the most psychotic of GPSs.
“Change of plan,” I said. “I’ve been up to Orkney to see the eclipse”
I sighed, audibly into the phone. “’Cos I’ve never seen a full eclipse.”
“C’mon, Matty, give me a break.”
There was no reply.
“OK. Matt. Forget it. What’s up?”
She burst into tears.