My round-the-world record attempt
was cut short when my custom built bicycle was destroyed by an American drone which had followed me from France and finally struck in Turkey. Fortunately I received no injuries other than powder burns from flying Turkish Delight at the bazaar where I was haggling over provisions. Gertrude was safe at home, having abandoned support duties over a misunderstanding involving a malformed baguette and a translator's error.
At a loose end after winding up some research I had conducted in the intervening years which it would be pointless to attempt to explain to the layman, I made a notation on the calendar to attend the so-called Hastings Hustle scheduled for the autumn of 2011. As its cancellation coincided with a flurry of legal activity thanks to the Orwellian decision of the local council to slap an ASBO on me for correcting mistakes in library books, I was not too much put out. Presently it came to my attention that the ride was once again on.
The occasion called for a suitable new mount. After much contemplation, I concluded that a tandem fit the bill, the long wheelbase providing comfort and stability.
The day of the Hustle started with a bad omen, if I put any stock in such superstitious nonsense; I broke a mirror whilst attempting to fix it back into its bracket on the ceiling, some screws having shaken loose during the night thanks to the frolics of my upstairs neighbours, a troupe of 'little people' as I believe they prefer to be called these days, who appear to be involved in a kind of group marriage involving a normally proportioned Great Dane. As I made my way to the meeting place after overhearing one of the little women loudly complaining about a certain lack of face-to-face intimacy of late, I could not help but reflect that the lady doth protest too much.
A few blocks from my destination another omen presented itself, or should I say, herself: I descryed my former wife manhandling what I believe is called a Boris bike. Specifically, she was attempting to disengage it from its rack; a simple enough procedure, surely.
It is distressing watching a woman attempt to do what a man can do with less difficulty, so I offered my services, expecting and in short order receiving a sharp if silent rebuke, if my translation of her body language remains sound after all these years. Nevertheless she stepped aside, her need for transportation apparently outweighing what she saw as my patronising assistance.
I grasped the rental bike and heaved. This did not effect a change in its situation. I repositioned myself and pulled from a slightly different angle, producing similar results. Nor was the third time a charm. Tiring of this — Gertrude had evidently chosen a defective specimen — I approached the next bicycle down the line and tried again. Then the next one. Clearly they were all imprisoned, a string of broken promises.
"I shall miss the event," she complained by way of payment for my exertions. Upon checking my watch I noted that I too would be late if I tarried any longer.
"What event is this?" I queried out of what in retrospect was foolish politeness, approaching my tandem for a quick getaway.
"It is a ride to Hastings, if you must know," she answered, looking with some surprise at my bicycle as if noticing it for the first time. "What on earth are you doing on a tandem by yourself? Did your partner get a better offer?"
I told her this was not her concern, pointedly checking the time again and almost upon my method of escape. Only then did the import of her words sink in, so distracted was I at the prospect of tardiness. "You're going where?
And unless I miss my guess, that is where you are headed, too," she said, observing from under arched eyebrow the '1066 Country' T-shirt I had donned that morning, a long-ago souvenir from a holiday in East Sussex now come back to haunt me.
"May I ask why you considered an urban convenience to be appropriate for such an endeavour?" I demanded, stalling for time I no longer had and now quite worried about the attention she was paying to the spare saddle.
"I sold my Brompton to a midget," she said, rather surprisingly for someone who worked for the Samaritans, I thought. "He said the wheels made him feel normal-sized."
It will not require a leap of the imagination to plot what happened next. Gertrude insisted upon requisitioning half of the tandem.
"That is impossible. You will compromise my stability," I told her.
"I believe that ship has sailed," she said tartly.
Reader, I am not made of stone. I will also admit to a weakness for arched eyebrows which has on at least one occasion led to matrimony, a state I no longer recommend except for tax purposes.
Having importuned my consent, Gertrude then had the chutzpah
to suggest herself as Captain [not for the first time
in our long association; but I do not wish to digress]. When I informed her that that position was already filled, she suggested that a coin decide the matter, as if that were the fairest thing in the world. I quickly surmised that a logical discussion was, as usual, not something her sex was equipped to handle, and so warily consented; my argument that I had every right to pilot a vehicle which I in fact owned was not sufficiently compelling to her. Fortunately I won the toss.
And so it came to pass that we arrived a full ten minutes late at Trafalgar Square, the start. No other cyclists were in attendance, or at least none that seemed on the verge of embarking on a journey more ambitious than to the next themed pub. Evidently we had been left behind. Gertrude squandered precious seconds encouraging a busker by gifting him with a pound extracted from my pocket. Percussion being one of the low arts, I did not approve of this extravagance, though a primitive beat has its uses when combating Malthusian decline.
"If we hurry we can catch up," Gertrude said, her sudden jerk of impatience nearly causing us to tumble unceremoniously at the foot of a gaggle of tourists busy photographing the latest fourth plinth monstrosity. My suggestion of a tableau vivant
employing hopeful parolees of Holloway in the posture of being flogged by upstanding members of the public awaits approval by the arbiters of taste.
Unfurling my map (the GPS system is fatally compromised by interference from the Van Allen belts; few people know this, which is why so many end up driving into rivers and over cliffs), I pointed the tandem in the direction of the first objective, the Crystal Palace Park dinosaurs.
Much of our momentum was hard won due to Gertrude's peculiar pedalling style. She is as steady and plodding as a metronome, whereas I adopt the much more productive habit of interval cranking, which takes advantage of the body's natural biorhythms. The result of this uneven input was a not very aerodynamic temper tantrum whose gesticulations introduced wobbles into the formula. In my defense, I was continually subjected to the most frivolous and frankly unkind suggestions to my back. Gertrude further handicapped us by her frustrated desire to steer. Suffice it to say my skills as Captain were tested to the utmost.
Despite these impediments, I had some hope of meeting with the main group at the dinosaur display. Indeed, upon our arrival at the park, I took note of a small congregation of cyclists ostensibly examining the Megalosaurus
. Upon closer inspection they proved to be models for a Rapha shoot, the authenticity of the Hawkins sculptures serving as an ironic backdrop.
Gertrude insisted on a perambulation through the gardens while I ground my teeth, earning the disapprobation of a community support officer rather overstepping his bounds. Before he could call for backup we were on our way, Gertrude's impatience once again in bloom now that the attraction had been appreciated to her standard.
The next leg of the ride took us through the precincts of south London, a largely benighted territory which one supposes the organiser was unable to avoid.
As we were crossing the M25 there was a commotion below. It transpired that a cow was seeking unwise asylum in the passing lane. Naturally this ellicited the sympathies of Gertrude, never one to allow a lost cause to go without representation. Abandoning the tandem she commenced to waving her arms at oncoming traffic. Given her position atop the bridge, this was the extent of her animal husbandry. It was short-lived.
The driver of a lorry bearing Tesco livery noticed Gertrude and waved back. In doing so he took his eyes from the road just long enough to make hamburger of the cow. Thus was the law of unintended consequences once again ratified.
Up until this point Gertrude had provided a steady stream of banter, invective, and curious perceptions ("The back of your head reminds me of Wales"), her forte, while I concentrated on navigation, mine. The spectacular demise of the cow, and her part in it, provided food for thought sufficient to choke her to silence for a spell.
Desirous of catching up with the main group, if only to dilute the presence of Gertrude, whose grief I was certain was in the process of being transmuted to a fresh new outrage to be projected onto me, I suggested a rolling stop at Chartwell sufficient to register its favoured setting over the Weald of Kent. However, she insisted on viewing Churchill's paintings for the opportunity to roll her eyes. This is one of her favourite forms of exercise. In any event a German tourist accused me of goose-stepping through the gift shop and we were escorted from the grounds by a National Trust officer.