6. The Cycle
by key stakeholder
The majority of the climbing was past now. He’d started out just-that-little-bit-too-late (a spur to stay fast; to stay ‘on it’) and his time was good, but there was no scope to slack off – it wasn’t as if he could phone ahead and say he’d be late. The time when the light would fail was not open to argument or negotiation; the clockwork whirling of the earth, the surface of which he sped across, and its ellipsoid orbit around the sun was all set in stone – rather, that’s to say – set in motion at the coalescing of the solar system from the primordial dust and gas which made it. That faraway (but so influential, if currently quiescent – and all the more paradoxically influential for that) sun would set when it set. The music of the spheres is in time to to the unyeilding metronomic ticking of the clock. No room for error, no margin of forgiveness, no flexibility. No time to spare – that sun was on its way down.
The day had started cobalt blue and white feather streaky curved in the sky above. A notion of a tenuously fluid wan structure on an immeasurable scale at tremendous altitude. Overwhelming but barely there, impossible to encompass in one eyeful. Wispy. And, there below, curled-up swirly on the ground, the powdery flash-frozen rime-frost-encrusted grey-green grass looked like corkscrew-contorted metallic swarf shavings. Fractal underfoot, ramifying forever at smaller and smaller ever tighter spiraling scales. Crispy.
It wasn’t a matter of opinion, it was a matter of fact, he thought, as he panted out a huge puff of vapour into the freezing air and bright yellow low angled sunlight. Oh, OK then, a matter of taste. A contrary taste at that. Contrary, certainly, to that of his wife.
“But I just can’t do it,” she turned round, cardigan-back to him, best to dry the rest of her newly washed, cleanly fragrant, but sopping wet hair in front of the sighing sizzling logs, radiating their crackling heat from the hearth. Separating the curls, gesticulating and finger-knitting their chestnut cable-twist into existence. The drying and forming coils getting the benefit of the deft attention of her skillful fingers – teasing and separating and twirling.
“Ah, but it’s so beautiful in the forest and out the other end, it’s precious, it’s special,” he protested “and if you feel the cold, you’re just not pushing hard enough. Go up a gear and push harder; work harder and you’ll not be cold.”
“Hmm…” she looked aside and down, distractedly playing with a particularly perfect cherry-chestnut curl – boing boing boing, “but it’s cold.” He knew he couldn’t convince her.
So, an acquired taste, then. As the sizzling speed of his whirling knobblies bit into the fine aggregate of the path – partly damp where the sun had glanced it, partly still frosted in the persistent shade – he thought about this voluntary masochism, this acquired taste. Was he really taking pleasure in this? This exercising outside in this freezing air? Weirdo! But yes, he was sure these were the best conditions. In the summer it was easy to overheat and easy to get sunburnt. Easy to lose form and end up huffing and puffing, sweating and uncomfortable, slowing down. But now, in the cold and frost and white and blue, you had full control. If you got cold, you just weren’t working hard enough.
The hardest thing was keeping hydrated. When there’s no water vapour in the atmosphere, the dry air you inhale makes contact with the mucus membrane in your lungs and, when you breath out, it takes a portion of that precious moisture with it. When you see your breath on a cold day, that’s your vital bodily water you’re watching leaving your body. Your body then works to replace the moisture in the lungs, taking fluid from wherever else in your body it can find some. If you’re exercising hard, it’s best to make sure you’ve made arrangements to replace what you lose. You see, if the air temperature gets below zero degrees, all the water vapour in the air freezes into microscopic crispy hexagon nanoflakes and, incorporeal made solid (if unsubstantial), falls fluttering invisibly to the ground. That geometrical sintering stickiness binds and mechanically interlocks those six-fold symmetrical nanosheets together in their gravity trap, lightwaves interfering to diffusely reflect all wavelengths whitely back to the eye. Hoar frost is simply earthbound and earth-manufactured snowflakes; incorporated on impact; made on the ground. Imagine that: a portion of the atmosphere rendered solid and fallen and visible – a layer of atmosphere literally grounded. Stretched over the earth beaded and jeweled, a precious stranded sparkling spiderweb. Scraped unthinkingly and unknowingly, grudgingly and hurriedly from the windscreens of 20 million of his compatriot’s cars that morning.
Up from the valley he’d pedaled, seven miles along and six hundred feet up from the formerly-industrial heart of the city. Well, they called it a city, it was just a medium-sized town, really, on the global scheme of things – but, he supposed, in a small country it’s all relative. So, ‘city’ it was, though he found it somehow faintly embarrassing to say it was so and used the word ‘town’ whenever he could. Town centre. Town council. Town town town.
“No, no… There’s no way.. Oh no, you can’t cycle in this town!” the taxi driver had blurted incredulously, three years earlier.
Back then, on his way to pick up his first bicycle in twenty years, he was inclined to agree. “Yeah, but I’ll not be using the road, I’ll just be cycling on the railway path – you know, just for keeping fit.”
“Oh, that’s all right then.” Threat over, the taxi-man relaxed once again, luxuriating against his beaded seat cover, adjusting the seat-belt strap, which was biting into his paunch.
In common with the taxi driver, what he didn’t know at the time was that the town was, actually, a fantastic place to cycle. Earlier efforts to cut off motor-commuter rat-runs had left the town with a network of roads which were effectively no-go areas – dead ends – for motorised through-traffic, but were perfectly permeable on foot or by bike. As the motor-traffic was forced and herded to stick to the main light-controlled trunks, the branches linked and intertwined and interconnected for those who had the time and inclination to look for alternative routes. Everyone knew about the former railway branch-line which Doctor Beeching had gifted to the town – ‘the railway path’. But what was invisible to most, and, indeed, unknowable to those who chose to live their lives behind closed doors – the closed doors of their homes, their offices and their cars – was the extent of the rest of the traffic-free network, a network which reached from the metastasizing exurbs right to the very heart of the town. Some of these traffic-free roads were ancient by-ways; narrow lanes long-since bypassed by roads more suitable for modern traffic, but left untouched and forgotten, ready for those with an inquiring mind and an Ordnance Survey map to stitch together into usable routes. The traffic-free network could never appear on a satnav itinerary, because it was made up of routes which either were not permitted to motor-traffic, or were not through-roads for motors. So, the satnav being the never-disobeyed oracle of the modern age; even in the heart of the town the traffic-free network was quiet. It was as if there was a town overlaid which existed in a different dimension, at right angles to, over, under and through, the rest of the town – the town most folk thought they knew.
That’s the town which was mostly behind him now. It was back over his left shoulder as he reached the newly laid section of route; the ancient path bisecting the edge-of-town municipal golf course giving way to a field characterised by wild(ish) benign neglect. Just a year earlier, this section of the route had been completely impassible. He’d tried once and once only, beaten back by springtime-strong gorse. Needles like carpentry nails had raked and rasped his thighs and arms, pointedly penetrating his knuckles which he’d tried to use, gripping tightly to the handlebars, to muscle his way through the springy bushes. The blood flowed bright and scarlet from his hands dripping down onto his pistoning knees. He’d spent that evening in the bath with a pair of tweezers plucking the hair-fine fibre tips of the needles from the centres of the tiny red dots which the encounter had left all over his body – like the childhood measles which just about everyone in his generation had suffered.
The path had been cleared of that gorse and re-laid earlier in the year, finalising his route more-than-less off-road from his house in the centre of town. The route that started westward through the Victorian-boom mannered serried terraces, using their largely-abandoned mews lanes, today too slender for two-way car traffic, overgrown and variously vegitated. Climbing up past the infrastructure-stuff that was on the outskirts of that 19th century boom-town. A waterworks to the right, a defunct branch-line railway station to the left. There a stately manor-house (today a retirement home). Ahead, a former lunatic asylum (today a four-star business hotel). Single-track paths, unsurfaced access drives, no-through roads. Back lanes and public parks. Forgotten farms marooned amid 1970’s maisonette cul-de-sacs snicket-stitched into a coherent as-the-crow-flies desire-line. There was more, much much more of this peculiarly overlooked and recently-forgotten network to find. He knew there was, he would find it all.
Before the clearing of the gorse from this final missing link of trail, it had been necessary to cycle for about a half a mile on a piece of road which was used as a kind of un-official bypass by local and trans-local traffic. Quite unpleasant for the vulnerable road-users like him and the many horse-riders and hikers who used that same road to get out of town; the cars roared past – impatient, noisy, intimidating. The new route was so much better and he fairly sizzled along it, slightly downhill and almost-blind directly into the dipping sun.
Standing water, shaded in the ditches and pooling in puddles, had frozen in discrete concentric stages. It looked like the rings of ice had formed stage by stage, the result resembling the weather forecast pressure chart representation of the high pressure system which had dominated the North Atlantic for some time now. A ‘blocking event’ they said, forcing the jet-stream up and over the island country in a shape which looked like like the Greek ‘omega’ letter. Usually, the jet-stream brought in weather system after weather system – low pressure and high pressure, cold fronts and warm fronts, occlusions and ridges, rain and wind, one after the other – and was responsible for the people’s major source of small talk. But now, in lifts and bus-queues up and down the country, the small talk, like the weather, was stuck stopped. No cloud cover, little wind, cold, bright – that was it, and had been for ages. A peculiar circumstance for this country, more usually known for its capriciously changeable weather, the conditions hadn’t changed for weeks. No TV weatherman could say when they would change again. The deep solar minimum, they said. Sunspot cycles – eleven years end-to-end, they said. This winter was coinciding with a more-or-less complete absence of sunspots; a once in a century solar un-happening in the metacycle of eleven-year epicycles. And a correlation had been found between the jet-stream blocking events – the vast omegas in the sky – and the sunspot cycle; fewer sunspots, more blocking events. A guy called W. Stanley Jevons in 1875 had developed an economic theory which noted a correlation between sunspots and economic activity. But nobody was suggesting that the first economic collapse of the twenty-first century – unfolding at the time – had anything to do with the complete absence of sunspots. No, everyone in the town was using the opportunity that the cold weather – right there right then – afforded them to conveniently forget about climate change, conveniently forget about the drought that they’d suffered in the summer and the floods which the autumn had brought. Parts of Australia hadn’t seen rain in 10 years. Entire inland seas were disappearing from central Asia and Africa; migration patterns changing, some species found themselves in the wrong continent in the wrong season, ill-nurtured, failing to breed. Warmer seas did what they chemically could to dissolve the overabundant carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, effectively turning into salty sodawater in places, sterile but for putrid monoculture algal blooms. But it was really cold in Scotland right now, so global warming had to be rubbish, nonsense, scaremongering, a conspiracy – didn’t it? Didn’t it?
Now he was deep in the horse belt. Once valued inhabitants of those Victorian mews lanes, their functions now rendered redundant by the car and the van, the motorbike and the bus, the horses found themselves as the predominant inhabitants of the green belt. The quilted pattern of fields all for them, to stand alone or in their twos and threes. To run along, canter and gallop, for no other reason than the love of it. Free – apart from a couple of weekend hours in tack and bondage plodding along a bridle path; not too big a price to pay for the rest of their lovely free lives. So he liked the horses, and was careful not to scare them. Sometimes, and he felt really bad if it did happen, when a horse in a field didn’t see him coming along the track, it might notice him too late and take fright, whinnying and turning and running away from him, spooked. He hated spooking the horses, so he flicked “ting” his silly little bell, and the horses would glance up or round, then they knew he was there, knew he was coming, knew what to expect. The bell was bloody useless in traffic or areas where there were pedestrians, and it had always perplexed him why it had been made a legal requirement that bikes had to be equipped with bells when sold – but now he knew why – it was for the horses! It was to keep the horses sweet.
There were so many horses, spread out in a huge ring around the town in the not-yet-urban but not-quite-still-agricultural zone of replacement, it always gave him pause for thought. Steadings, stables and riding centres surrounded the town; staffed and patronised by an army of teenage girls and young women. Their dads and husbands electing to “just stay in the car.” Something made him think that the girls and women had got it right, that they were making sure to preserve something, something we might need; the human/horse symbiosis. With their disposition at strategic positions around the periphery of the town – it was as if they were poised to return to the town streets. At a moment’s notice, back pulling carts and carriages, carrying men and women, police and couriers. Waiting out there on the outskirts, waiting for us to call on them when we need them. The wise women and teenage girls will teach us what to do.
Round and round he pushed the balls of his feet as hard but as smooth as he could, being sure to keep his soles flat to the ground and shifting his saddle position for comfort as the final swooping line of upward gradient faced him, slapping him in the face, punching him in the chest – no rest yet! Aware of his lungs, he pulled in a fullest breath of air which felt like (was!) a cold breeze blowing through his entire body. He remembered how it felt when he’d stopped smoking – how it had immediately improved his performance – that had been a surprise. Gaining the extra ability felt like gaining the pedaling benefit of a couple of downward gear changes without giving up the speed across the ground. Like getting an assist. A fair wind behind. A dreamlike super-ability, intoxicating, invigorating. Addictive
Golden yellow pale light squirted obliquely from the wan-weary sun which, late in the year, would not raise itself far above the horizon today. The light, while more than bright enough to mandate sunglasses, seeming tired of the year and not capable of putting in a full day. Needing a holiday. He turned the bars at the crest, banking over – right foot up, and plunged to the right and down into the dark shade of a forested section of the track. A slippery but dry dun carpet now softened the ride and muffled to a mumble the droning-bomber-rumble of his tyres. As his eyes adjusted from the extreme bright to the green-brown shade and as his ears were buffeted by the suddenly-silent muted acoustic of the softly-furnished moss and leaf-litter blanketed forest, the genesis of the path carpet – the dead pine needles falling so gently so softly – came sharply came into focus. A shaft of low-angled coppergold light here briefly blinding him through the slatted vertical louvres of the pines, there illuminating the airborne dry falling of the needles, like a parched snow, silent lazy swirling. Dustily drifting, falling quietly dead. A mulch to sustain the soil next year.
Not far now … he crested the final lung-scorching steep section standing on his pedals for the final push – mustn’t lose speed – then he sat back down and flicked the gear-change paddle with his knuckle, up a gear as the gradient went negative and he picked up more speed and more yet. Up another gear, and another. Streaking along and down and round, sidewinding left and right with the forestry track. Late low sunlight strobing through the forest uprights faster and faster to the rhythm of his increasing downhill pedal cadence. Pay attention now; not really what they called a technical descent, but a fast one – expand the cognition; fingers covering the brake levers eyes scanning for other folk on the path in the middle distance, and focused – concentrating on the surface near to his front wheel. Nearly there … he anticipated the end of his route, and looked forward to the stove-top hot moka brew he’d prepared earlier for his bidon flask. Coffee – the cyclist’s friend! Suddenly, the trees ran out, behind him now, and gave way to farmland where the Forestry Commission path ended and he could make out the wooden bench where he would soon stop. Picking his spot and leaving the track, his suspension forks plushly absorbed the uneven bumps of the boulder-studded stone surface and he was there: still traveling with his leg swinging over rear wheel dismount, machine propped on pine-tree trunk. Panting not from physical exertion, but from adrenaline excitement.
Someone had shown great sensitivity siting the bench. At the edge of the forest and on the edge of the hill, the panorama it offered was the prize it awarded to those who took the time and made the effort to walk or cycle all that way to find it. Sitting at last relaxed, enjoying the exercise buzz, sipping hot coffee from his flask, he marveled at the view. No water vapour in the air meant outstanding clarity and visibility – he could see for miles and miles and miles in exquisite detail. Like an hallucination or a computer simulation of a hyperreal vista the valley spread out below him and up and away sixty miles to the west, the farther mountains smoothed and clear and reflective in their snowy coats. The quality of the clear light and the reflectivity of the snowy ground showed a depth and relief to the far-off moors and ridges which their more usually dark silhouettes didn’t allow. The sun, just above the farthest tops, appeared to take on a smeared, dynamic appearance, as if rendered by an action painter. And five miles high in the sky, drifting hexagon nanocrystal plates of ice fluttered and fell gently downwards, prisming the wan sunlight through twenty-two degrees. The more he looked – sunglasses on, averting his eyes from the sun itself, holding up his hand to shade it away – the more he could see an arc around the sun; a sun halo! At the leftmost and rightmost edges of the halo, smears of rainbow colour spread in a brightening splash; red on the inside through white to a blue-white brilliant sideways-spearing smudge. He was delighted to realise he was being treated to his first ever sight of parhelia; sundogs! The arc in the sky and the smearing dots of rainbow iridescence framed a phantasmagoria over the western massif.
As he observed the phenomenon first brighten and then fade over about five minutes, he considered what he was seeing, he thought about how the interaction of scales from the unimaginably vast to the unobservably miniscule created this display, seemingly just for him. He wondered just how many other pairs of eyes in the town were seeing that same halo, those same sundogs.
He thought of the cosmic whorls of primordial material which aggregated into the rocks and water and gas that founded and maintain life on earth and the sun above which sustains all activity, however grandiose or trivial. Important or inconsequential all items and intentions come from the same ancient stardust source. The momenta and trajectories of the motions of the people and the events and everything that ever went on or goes on or will – all were encoded first in that condensing cloud of primordial dust and gas. No – further back – even; encoded first in those uncountable previous star cycles; that dust and gas itself in turn the remnants of previous cycles of starbirth and death; the surface detail, the bloating darkness, the imperfections on the face of the big bang itself.