2. The Nocturne

by key stakeholder

Time after time we two, astride our mounts – with purpose in our cadence, ride out into the town in the night. Again and again we clip into the pedals and ride into the night for the peace and the space, for the fresh cool brush of our self-righteously self-generated breeze. We ride into the night for the chance to listen at a distance – no traffic foom, swish and roar to overrule our long-range listening. Through the quiet and muffle can we detect the soul of the town? Is it there at all in its repose after the frantic day? We make that choice to ride out at night because we have no choice; we’re forced to make our expeditions – our explorations – in these few hours of darkness and within this constraint we find the freedom, for only under the muffle-blanket quiet of night can we uncover the dormant truth in our town of false consciousness on overdrive. 

Long ago a double-river delta fishing settlement on the littoral of a northern sea. And a market town of that same fish but beef and lamb too and wool and tanner’s reek. Then, steam power engineering and a stone-quarry royal burgh and woolen-mill village – stonemason’s grey abrasive dusty drill and saw; whistling crane and puffing loco. Woollen-mill factory stacks mingling with woods and fields, quarry tips and worker tenements, merchants’ mansions, managers’ terraces. The drop-hammer forge and kirk-spire bell clang and chime out around the hills of our basin-bound estuary town. Even then a town of edges, a town of contrasts, opposites colliding. The world demand for our hard stone built for us a stone-built pier and the stone exported itself – imperial – to high-Victorian puppet-captials and other pith-behelmed viceroy strutting stages. And what of that soft woven woollen cloth (we said it was said to be world’s best)? Well it overcoated the shoulders of captains of capitalism and socialist politbureau elite alike. These things are gone now, washed away by the besmirching boom of mid-century oil discovery. The resource curse, now succumbing to the Hubbert curve.

So we grip the handlebars and ride out into the night to re-stitch the town to our consciousness, to weave the fabric of the city anew. We ride the night the soft black velvet muffled fabric of the town in the night; our bikes scissor the pattern and our pumping pedal cadence embroiders the silence – the silence we have sought and waited for the length of the fraught daylight noisy overdriven busy day.

To recapture past glories the cargo cult mentality of “if you build it they will come” pervades our town. A new motorway! New radial routes ushering the high speed traffic flow of all important motorized shoppers to underground town-centre retail and leisure delivery destinations for Eloi and Morlock alike. Down the sink-sector hole of luxe consumption goes two centuries of value creation and into the howling void of the destination-free upgrade cycle and subscription model shopaholic therapy consumption we all tumble.

In the deep night silently slick our rock hard tyres make no sound as we pair-bonded pair weave pair-braided paths to try to tie the town down. We snicket-stitch and engrave our glyph-routes across the ashlar of urban geography – scoring whimsical notional points – for an anti-clockwise route (widdershins!), a mews lane newly found and traversed, a two-mile wide spiral in or out – the farther the better in our cycling psychogeography. It’s our game, our delight, our rules. Our rules of the night. The night we rule.

But through the day cargo cultists in their cars and vans, now busy busying about looking busy going fast aping the activity of busy bustling business. Every day less value left to be extracted from the offshore hydrocarbon reservoirs. Every day, the motorists make up for it by bustling about that bit more. That bit faster. That bit noisier, that bit more unpleasant for anyone not in a car, anyone who is not them. Their particulate airbourne chokes the pavement pedestrian. Their impatience and aggression deters the cyclist and equestrian. At the start of this century, our county-town, geographically isolated in the north: an oil town wildly distorted by the extractive industry resource boom which turned its back on the elder industries of previous centuries and several centuries good standing without even a wave or a goodbye. We pay the social price for that high commodity price; the fast-dwindling reserve – sucked ever faster from beneath our slate-grey northern seas as the market price dictates the pace of the getting. None new left to find. Our town wildly distorted – huge affluence for a tiny handful – the dregs and drippings and crumbs from their table for the rest. And now, industrial activity declining along with the depletion curve, our town doesn’t know what to do with itself. So many left behind.

So in the night we pedal past bookies replacing bakeries, thrift shops replacing bookshops in the town centre. Cycling out into the dark centre of a town torn by the world’s addiction to oil, we share the night with the ghosts of different addictions and afflictions. The casino-ejected drunk, the mumbling stumbling raving madman, the burgler, the OCD jogger, the tart and her taxi-driver, and the junkie and the dealer’s runner all share the night with us. The shadows of their routes cross ours, their faces are rarely seen, the darkness has its uses for us all. Layer upon layer the town has laid upon it – as the good folk sleep the other folk go about. We cycle at maximum speed, our paraphernalia comprises needle-sharp lights to flash or not to flash, blue white intense forward and numbingly blood red backward.

We cross the path of one of those ghosts. A flash past black hoodie up transparant faced ghost on a moody mountain bike – no lights fettled to be fixing powered by powder. But tonight this ghost is at work and tonight urgent work at that – critical path is couriering and collecting. Distributing and staying on the edge of useful using. A little white speeds him on his way, a little brown in a little while will calm him right down. Coshed to the cold now warm floor on one cushion – the comfiest chair in the world for sleep/not sleep; something else. Then a ping and a ting on today’s phone and up from the floorboards and on the iron horse again, the coca monkey on his back, the opiate promise of the commission of his errand. Wrong way down a bus lane. Through a snicket suspension forks plushly smooth and dampen the slickly wet flight of steps, a skid – a recovery then away frictionless. The bike and the user are one thing; light and lithe and supple and quick. This chimera seems not to interact with anything, at right angles to, over under and through the town in a different dimension of distorted escaped consciousness; this white to brown to white line desire line needles main-lines the life of the town in the hours after the good people are asleep in their matching duvet sets slumbering and dreaming of the commute. 

Grumble, twitch, turn. Snore. They are the good people, and the good people are asleep tonight and every night; today, tomorrow and every day always sleeping. And we are not asleep, we are different. Like the junkie and the tart – like the thief and the madman in the night – transgressors all are we of the norms of our town. We reject the things that the good people have been spoon-fed taught to believe that they love. The things they think are important we just can’t understand. We are different. But tonight, safe from us are they – the good people behind curtain and blind – the good folk under pressure fret their mortgages and office politics, succumbing to the the soporific repetitious sussuration of soap opera or blustery Clarkson barking chest-beating blare in surround from 3D cinema display to displace life behind their walls while the city of the outside world and its cool clean air is ours. Tonight and every night the city is ours because they don’t know us, they don’t know what we think, they can barely even see us. We cannot impinge upon their consciousness because their consciousness is not theirs to be impinged upon – it was chosen for them, designed for them, delivered to them and installed as part of the planned upgrade cycle. All watched over, their consciousness was selected for them, then high in the sky beamed to them by satellite from the 36000km Clarke orbit geostationary ecliptic. All watched over, there’s no niche for us misfits to fit into in that just-so world of producer-consumption. Sometimes we pity them. Sometimes we bare our teeth and sneer, snarling our contempt. 

Traffic lights blink uselessly for no-one in the night, their futile sequence robot-repeated endlessly over and over: red, red-amber, green, amber, red; and again. Go. Stop! Go again. Taking turns to take the lead – to break the wind – we increase the pedal-cadence and snick up a gear, flashing fast past broad boulevards of dead-straight merchant-class mannered mansion-block apartments, now town centre dissipated bedsitland, give way to stately avenues, green-filtered sodium-yellow arc light parallaxes through the golden elm canopies and our pace slows; a characteristic northern summer smirr suspended in the cool dark air refreshes as we click down gears to climb up the town’s steepest hills. Up out of the twin-estuarine basin, the gradient slows us, we are stately through the boulevards and avenues.

The merchants’ and managers’ houses of the early 20th century, now occupied by lawyers’ and accountants’ offices, the butler’s pantry now the consultant’s atelier. Radial boulevards breach concentric barriers of time and style as they fan out from the middle of the town. Like ripples in a pond, like impact craters. Like pulsing generations of bacteria cultured on a petri dish the concentric rings of development are mapped one and the same in this and every town of the industrial west. Ebb and flow, come and go, boom and bust. Start. Stop! Start again. 

Tonight we’ll ride in stealth up to the heights of the deepest enclave of affluence, where those who’ve gathered the most do the most to keep it to themselves. Up the hill we’ll go to the summit of influence where those most isolated look down upon those they believe they control. Up the scarp we’ll pedal to the den of capital, where those with the most to lose cannot see that they’ve already lost everything.

The good folk are set for the night, they have set their alarms. Their security measures measure their insecurity; the blinking light of burglar alarm box winks it’s strobey message at us; a cat on the pressure pad in this cat’s pressured pad? Sandman or Runner? With closed circuit, and private security patrol van, all to secure the insecurity of the pressured salaryman from the pressure his bubble’s under as his property bubble investments bubble under, flounder aground amid the scub. We blow the froth from the top. A rush and a push and this land could be ours. With a shove and a turn of the pedals the city is ours. After dark, the city is ours tonight and every night because they don’t know the routes we take, they don’t know where our thoughts can lead us. 

It’s a long way, a slow steady haul, it takes its time and it extracts its toll in our sweat to attain the summit. But we’re proud of this strong ascent made on bone and aluminium, rubber and tendon, steel and sinew. Glucose fuelled. Steady feet flat parallel to pedal, pedal parallel to ground, form solid, breath strong and steady – in through nose, out through mouth. Panting past the big, then bigger, now biggest of the moneymansions in the movieset affluenza ghetto to the summit of the ridge overlooking the entirety of the town. As we pass each mini-castle, their mercury-arc motion-sensor security lights come on one by one as we cycle past, just to show how special we are. Just to show how special they are. We’re there. We’ve arrived.

Stop. Turn. Dismount. Listen…

Wait, think!

The mansion security lights blink out one by one in sequence up the hill, and we are left in the dark and quiet. The dark and quiet we sought. I can feel – hear! – my own heartbeat. Now calming, sitting on a paint-blistered lichen colonised bench by the side of the road, sipping bidon water, attention expanding, feeling the fabric of the night and its stillness.

Small insects bebuzzle around the dazzle of the streetlights. The falling dew, soft but granular, can it be heard? Attention stolen by a nightingale and another trilling and whistling a crescendo dual of territorial superiority in neighbouring trees. A whisper of a strengthening breeze in the canopy above, the tree appears to ruffle its hair. A far-off motorbike breaking the speed limit on the ring-road, gearbox cresting and growling.

Time passes. Thoughts pass. Comments pass.

Visible to our high vantage: a peachy-glow far to the north-east over the charcoal grey town centre, above the once mudflat flood-plain now dunny-green golfcourse and steel-edgy harbour, above the khaki strand and indigo-blue dark sea beyond and rosy-fingered rising above the horizon the dawn breaks so early this far north. The fabric of the town seems to creak awake around us, then so many sudden birds singing – a riot. But still the good folk sleep on – another three or so hours until rush-hour.

And it is enough. The night is broken. The endless timeless moment has passed and the day is here. The town sheds its velvet cloak and displays its mica-sparkling stone hard face chin-out defiance to the day once more.

Time for us to go home. Re-mounting, re-clipping and pedaling as full daylight extends its arms around our far-northern town we’re rolling shooting down consciousness expanding grin widening fingers on brake levers warming legs pumping maintaining momentum through the green lights – left and right glancing gaze. Laughing; knuckle-flick flick click snicked into the highest gear – like flying smooth or dream-running with a ten-metre stride. Still in our motionless motion down the long long hill back two miles down to the town’s centre. Now sitting up freewheeling on stealth hub we are a sliding silently pool of dark light in the spreading day of coolness like thin cold liquid fast faster, an attenuated touch on the brakes to keep the heart rate down.

Staying on this side of the thrill.

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