It’s a beautiful morning in Southern England. There is dew on the fields, and as the sun comes up and starts to burn it off, dew turns to mist. I am happy to close the door behind me. Our last morning together was weeks ago, but she has been there in my head ever since, I’ve felt poisoned. And I am glad to be closing the door on this place, stuck out just on the inside of the M25. If I could just get over that infernal motorway to the other side, the troubles would drop away, there would be an antidote to the poison. But I am terrified too, because it is the times alone where I am infected. And I am going to be alone, myself and my bike, for the next two months.
…it is the times alone where I am infected…
The towns slip by, I am well beyond it now, the train running its way through the string of small settlements running from London to the south east, to Dover, my escape route. My cycle wants to flip over backwards, I have so much weight laden on the rear wheels. I know I will have to be careful going over a kerb, or it will try to hit me in the face. Weight forward, over the front wheels, willing the thing to maintain both forward motion and a connection to the earth. This is a metaphor for myself also – forward momentum, eyes on the horizon, firmly tied to the earth. This is where I must stay, how I must maintain myself, or I will end up with a bloody nose and a broken forehead.
They look beautiful these small places, at a distance at least, at first impressions. There is nowhere else I could live in England I think, but London. Everything else looks the same, the towns with their facsimile high streets; even the wonderful, rolling fields, alternately yellow with wheat and green with bush. The same, across the lower third of the country, I have had enough of it, I want to be gone. I am nearly done, nearly gone. Even London now has only a small grip on me.
I constantly have to keep an eye on the bike, in order to move it out of the doorway if people are getting on or off the train. At first I’m shy and silent, but then realise this is a chance to have a small interaction with people, and that is what I must do on this trip if nothing else, I must make connections with people. The English reserve drops away quickly when you speak to people. A man in Dover holds my bike for me as I go into the toilet, I tell him he has an honest face which is why I entrusted him with all the possessions of my life.
Dover is pretty, a castle imposing over the famous cliff faces, majestic of course. Ferry terminals and airports require a ground zero level of clearance around them, so the approach to the ferry terminals is a long one, and the signage is intermittent. I take a wrong turn and am saved probably 20 minutes of rising panic and confusion as a young woman calls out ‘Sir! Sir! You just follow the red line for the bike path’ – and I do, rather I just follow them. These three Dutch girls, I know I’ll be seeing them again. They will be the ones that pop up in these first few days, I know it. They’ll probably be here soon. Later as we go to collect our bikes at the end of the ferry trip they lead us to the stern, rather than the bow where our bikes actually are. There still appears to be poison in my blood, because I am happy they got it wrong. Despite this, I follow them out of the Dunquerque ferry terminal because they exude a European confidence. I continue to follow them until I feel confident enough to ride on by them and wish them well on their journey.
While waiting in line for the call to embark on the ferry in Dover, I start speaking to a young Muslim man. There is a sadness about him, he seems lonely, but he is taking his car into Europe and driving where he sees fit, France and Spain his likely route, his car his likely accommodation. I feel he might have a similar purpose to me, running away but also freeing himself of the constraints that are preventing him from moving on. We meet again as the boat is slowing into Dunquerque, and I shake his hand as I go to leave. His handshake is surprisingly weak.
…His handshake is surprisingly weak…
The trip across is uneventful, as most things are. Strange, that our lives are made up of events that are mainly uneventful. The water calm, the sun reflected off it. The film Dunkirk has been released just these past couple of weeks, and I can’t help but think how different the scene must have been that day nearly 80 years ago. The reflection of the sun follows us across the ocean, I pay a cursory goodbye to the white cliffs as they disappear over my shoulder. Everything has an association with her. Today we could see Europe almost the moment we passed through the breakwater. That is where I want to be, she will be behind me.
I land. New ground. I follow the young Dutch women, out of the terminal, past that no man’s land that all places of transit seem to be, into France proper. I’m just following them, getting used to being on the other side of the road, they lead me through roundabouts, down cycle lanes. The confidence comes quickly to me, and I pull over to the side of the road to gear up properly, to get my cycle on. Lycra, cycle gloves, the works. It may not necessarily be flattering, but it is functional. Cycle enough, and it also becomes flattering. I catch up and pass the them. I’ll see them again.
The day is cycling now, aiming for Bruges, 79km away as the Google map flies. I see the Google street view car at some point on the way. Head down, over the handle bars. Forward momentum, linked to the earth. Eyes – firmly – on the horizon. Despite this I get lost, I meander off the path, and I think I will have added probably 15km to this leg. Another metaphor for life, and recovery. I stop in Veurne to look at the town centre, but it has been over taken by a ‘funfair’, and there is no way to exclude that from a view of the town.
I take a screenshot of the map when I am on the border of Belgium and France. I am just sitting on the corner of a non-descript little street, with an old shed to my right. I expect fanfare, ceremonials, bureaucracy and officialdom, but there is none.
The polder often stinks of rancid milk and cow shit.
A Belgian or Dutch family, with a little dog in a cage sitting on the handlebars of the wife/mother’s bike, ask me how to get to Oostende. I laugh and tell them that if they get a direction from me, they should go in the opposite direction. The woman says they live there, and I ask her how come they don’t know the way home. I think they are from Antwerp, and new to the area. I go on my way, wishing them the best in finding their way home. The daughter laughs at me. I realise a mile down the road that I really could have been more helpful.
The canal next to me is beautiful, the sun across it, black with mirror calm. I seem to be the only one on this path.
Of course that’s not true.