Thursday, November 23, 2006

Day 3 Jonos Grotto

Day 3 100 plus miles to Bristol

Tunnels are disconcertingly two dimensional from a distance. At its yawning mouth I thought about turning my light on, but when I did it was so useless I turned it straight off. The rest of my life could be like this, chasing around dark, trusting that the floor in front wont fall out, trusting the impenetrable dark wont stab me with unpleasant surprises. For all I know I have fortunately managed to stick to the one narrow beam of solid matter in an unending emptiness. Beneath that bridge we were exposed to all the other dimentions. Eternity spread out to my left and right, time at my back and between me and the fading light ahead uncertainty twisted itself into knots as the walls became ceiling, the floor the sky and the only constant was my movement. The multiplicity of possibilities swirled around my head, making the air thick to breathe. So thick with chance that the air sweated clammy cold onto my fingers, now off the brakes. What is there to stop for in the immensity of nothing? It doesn’t matter how good your breakpads are, you wont avoid what you cant see. Dark shadow-feathers brushed over my face as winged ideas flew free and invisible. I knew it all for a moment, but couldn't name it, couldn’t say it or see it, but it was definitely there, on that narrow trail from day to fading light. I realised the futility of fear, a purely hindering emotion, for fear would extend the journey, would twist the traill. Id hit the walls which out of the myriad of universal possibilities materialise when you stray. This was the land of cardboard entombed cats living in death.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Day 2 Jonos End to Lands Groat

Day 2 to Coleford 77

We wake up where we went to sleep though having walked through a few acres of campsite to find a nice hidden spot, we discover we have also set up by a discreet back entrance, which, fortunately, given the preponderance of cows, is a cow proof gate. Our payless escape would therefore be made much easier were it not for the rough equivalence in size between our fully laden bikes and a calf. Calves after all, being rebellious youth, are the most immediate targets for cow proof gates. We fret for a while, concerned that escaping via the awkward entrance will take us entirely off the map. In reality this train of thought is just our arm muscles taking hold and finding the prospect of reaching into our wallets for money to pay a less strenuous proposition than lifting bikes loaded with tents, wet clothes, mixed nuts, cans of tuna, gas canisters, renegade slugs and squashed bananas. They do make specialist banana cases for cyclists, but I was naively underprepared. They make them breathable as well, so the poor banana doesn’t have to suffer while in transportation, this would be in direct contravention of European Law.

The question of optimism versus pessimism finds itself in my head as I slowly drift down the hill after another uphill and before another uphill. Generally, I think of myself as having an optimistic mentality. That may just be an egoistic projection of what I'd like to be though. These hills are making me reconsider. When I take the optimistic approach and think to myself, and repeat, and mantricate that this hill is almost over, when the corner comes and reveals that the far edge of the road is still above my eyeline, I feel somewhat deflated. My pace slows, and thoughts like "well you’ve made it this far, you deserve a rest" begin to materialise, or rather idealise. However, when I adopt the pessimistic approach, and convince myself that I am in fact on a never ending hill, I am elated to suddenly find that my fears of eternal purgatory have been, at least temporarily, allayed. I conclude that contrary to the language that each of these mentalities is couched in, it is "I am on a never ending hill" which is actually the reflection of an optimistic outlook. "This hill is about to end" actually means that I don’t have belief in my ability to reach the top. "This is a never ending hill" by contrast signifies my commitment to continue pedalling and hence my self belief.

Day 1 Land's end to John O'groats

Day 1 Lands End- St. Colomb: 70 miles

We wake up to a grey day and begin what will become the ritual of morning porridge. We sneak out of the campsite and to our starting place. Land's end. It's not an impressive place. A tourist information centre with a cluster of shops seemingly arbitrarily plopped on a coastline that is the same for miles in any direction. There is a signpost for posing at, but as there is a professional photographer who charges per photograph, the sign is taken down during closing hours. We only see a white post.
The only people here are related to the same journey. A giant of a man taking our picture almost crushes our disposable cameras as he tells us that he's done the end to end five times in different modes of transport. He walked it once in five weeks. I imagine he stuck his jaw to the ground and ate the land in between until he got to the end of his UK sandwich. Other cyclists turn up in cars. Their bikes have very thin wheels and are pink.
Pink is an intimidating colour in a bike.

Its early on in the day, in the journey and we already seem to have ticked a whole lot of the boxes from the list whose completion is a surefire formula for a memorable cycle ride. Getting lost? Check. Fording a river as a consequence of getting lost? Check. Barking dogs? Check. Short cuts? Check. Rain? Check. Speed records check. Then sun, then rain and sun again then taking off and putting on and taking off and putting on waterproofs? Check. Indecision? Check with someone else.

At one of our imagined traffic light pauses, I, fairly cluelessly and only following the lead of Dave who I assumed knew about these things, adjusted the height of my seat. In retightening the bolt I broke the thread and rendered the clamp useless. Luckily, this stop happened outside a bike shop. Unluckily, the bike shop had every other size, but the one I needed. Luckily there was a harware shop next door. Dave, being an architect, a builder and pretty damned practical dude, managed to engineer a temporary solution.

Hardware shops, seem like places where fragments of an industrial age mind, ancient memories, and suppressed laughs might hide in corners, or in the myriad of little drawers behind the counter. But while I am equipped to encounter and engage with the mazes of more festive minds, the hardware shop is strictly beyond me. As I walk in, the grey man in a checkered shirt with rolled up sleeves and glasses with chewed ends, barely notices me. Dave walks in, holding the broken piece of equipment and asks for an 40 mil M5 and a nylock nut. The glasses get set down on the table, the wrinkles aoround his neck disappear, the flaps overhanging his eyes lift and seem to begin to fly, the milky clouds that were sneaking into his blue sky eyes are burned away by an inner sun . Despite his obvious excitement he casually remarks that what Dave has in his hand is not a 40 mil M5 but a diamond cut imperial measured bolt, but that it is indeed very similar. Dave and the man begin to talk in tongues. I don’t feel the need to nod nor to appear to know what they talking about, they know I am entirely irrelevant to this conversation. I scratch my arm and look around. I see another poor soul scrambling around blind through the world of dusty shelf racks looking for something she doesn't know the name of and can't describe. I grin, I have a guide. Dave's should come standard with life, just for these moments. I've just learned the difference between a screw and a bolt. I must be about five evolutions beyond that mole. Indeed as we leave she tentatively approaches the re-grayed man. "I need a screw", without looking up, he asks "wood or concrete", she is flummoxed. I know what she wanted was a bolt. He does too.

Not another hill!

Our map shows the end is in sight. Just need to get through this little town of St. Colomb. There seemed to be a lot of people on the streets suddenly. Church? On a Saturday night? The density increases until cycling is no longer the fastest means of transport. Our route has been hijacked by the local carnival. We slot in just behind the carnival queen, a little girl in a white lace outfit and tiara, perching in the open boot of a red 1980's hatchback waving her gloved hand tentatively at the cooing throngs. As a megaphone announces the need to donate via throwing coins through the air, and into the back of a pick up truck, we march on, our high visibility jackets flaring up at every flash photograph. Our plan is to find a quiet pub for dinner somewhere in the quaint quiet towns of Cornwall. There is no room in the pub parking lots. We pass two utterly unsuitable pubs. One doesn't serve food, the other requires a snow plow and water cannon to enter. If we claimed to have the plague, we might be believed, but no body would get out of our way, compared with loosing ones place, the plague is the lesser of two evils, so we decide not to spoil our fluorescent image. The crowds get thicker and the carnival queens driver decides enough is enough. Clearly used to such circumstances, this is her fifth carnival queening this week, she does a three point turn and whips out back in the direction we came from, all in the time it takes me to get past the first person on the pavement on my way to inspect the third pub. It does food, and has room.

Our bikes would have added to the congestion, but luckily a tiny covered sidestreet leads to the pub garden. I stuck the front wheel in but quickly retreated as a trombone slide glided past my face. A marching brass band with representatives of all ages chose this time to appear on the streets. I stood back, and let the shiny brass instruments, red outfits and black hats through. The spit valves whistled and spluttered in preparation. It would be a shame to miss the big moment trumpets added to the din because your throat was engorged with saliva and slide grease. One by one the tubas, trombones, flugelhorns and their beat providers, the bass drums snares and cymbals popped out of the tunnel, like rabbits from a hat connected via underground mirrored passages to a petting zoo which had forgotten to keep males and females separate. Eventually I wondered whether the band had simply done a loop of the block and was coming back around. As we waited two women, naked but for the plastic bikinis shaped to look like their breasts and pubic hair gunned down three oompa -loompas with bubbles. The town crier, complete with admiring acolyte hoping to kick out the walking stick and take over the bell, announced that the band would now make their entrance. Apparently the previous few had only been the mascots. The sweat retained in my cotton water-aid t-shirt was cold, and beginning to cling. I had let myself believe, too early, that warmth and food were within reach. A brief pause in the flow of brass and I dared nose back into the tunnel. Some late comers, old equivalents of schoolgirls, late for no reason other than their mild rebellion, managed to huddle and march at the same time, swirling around eachother, ensuring that any consequences for their tardiness would be scattered amongst all of them, unable to stick to such a fast spinning vortex. As their instruments hit the old stone of the walls, sparks flew, illuminating an empty passage behind. I fell through. Once inside the warmth, the maelstrom outside seemed an adventure into a subconscious far more exiting than I ever imagined existed. I was sure that if I searched hard enough I'd find remains of mind bouncing on the spring and leather seat of the oldest tractor in town letting off a gas horn and swallowing flying coppers.

Day 0 Lands end to John O'groats

Day 0

We arrive at Penzance at dusk. The starting line is still 20 miles away and we have to find a place to camp. Getting on our bikes after a 8 hour train ride, we whoop and shout out joyfully. Freedom of the open road, the direction of a map, the single simple goal of achievement. On our way to Lands End, the size of the task ahead hits me. We haven’t even arrived at the starting line yet, but the first hill has us huffing and puffing. Dave's new gear set makes ominous uncomfortable noises. The chain and teeth are not yet friends, and as they fight to get along they groan. My chain and teeth have been lazy friends too long. On the easy flats of London, untried and untested, their relationship held up well. The strain of this steep uphill sees them parting company forcefully. They are not showing the dedication to each other I had hoped. How will our trio hold up? My bike skips a few gears and I welcome the excuse to come off my bike. I had, of course, raced up the first five meters of the mile long hill in a frenzy of excitement, and so the others were still behind me, waiting to go past. Too busy to laugh at my disaster, they chugged on up the hill. Damn that stinking tank engine who set the bar so high. I can’t even see the top of this slope in the dark.

By the time I'm up, night has descended fully. The last lampposts are behind us, the tree tunnels twist and dive ahead. We have two working lights and one working bike between the three of us. My attitude approaching this task was one of severe naivety. My bike riding technique, honed around the stop and start of city riding from traffic light to busy road, was unaccustomed to long spells of non-stop pedalling. The ego boosts from scowling at pink tassel hung bikes can't be relied on here to kick start the adrenaline. There is no granny carting a kilo of fair trade loofas down the pavement on a penny farthing for me to pace myself against.

Friday, September 29, 2006


The music was soft and tinny in the distance. Gregis listened anyway. It was evidence that someone somewhere still had the resources necessary to produce sound. Even if it was the enemy rolling out marches designed to intimidate. The enemy, an alien faceless force. Down here there were just people, stragglers, survivors, wounded and dying. Their tattered uniforms and swords stamped with different ensignias.

Gregis crouched so he could just make out the sky through the hole in the roof five barren bombed out floors above. Shards of dancehall floor lay charred and splintered around his feet an inch deep in the toxic ash eating away at the frayed hem of his samurai dress.

His real uniform was in mint condition. Its brown still dull, its red still bright and its solitary star still polished. It was pressed underneath a stack of film cans, tilting the pile so the top few cans slid slightly and formed a small staircase into thick, underground air.

He could stand still in two and a half minute bursts before the acid the enemy had dropped from the skies began to bubble away at his boots. The rubber of his boots started to fizzle, and he hopped up and down, shaking the ash from his soles. As he moved the faint music became inaudible, the drift of ash and the hem of his skirt swishing a chorus of lots of tiny things touching.

The music stopped, a rubber bubble popped. He straightened up slowly. This little aside to the furnaces of post-war war time life was coming to an end, and he wanted to hold on. One more blow of the trumpet, one more machine gun snare snap, one more moment of knowing that something else existed. Something other than the abyss inside. The abyss he ruled. The abyss he was.

Across the muted greylight slightly tinging the ash strewn floor directly beneath the bomb hole in the once ornate ceiling a shadow matched his movements. Sluggish re-entry of a consciousness into a body with duties and needs.

The last sigh he'd allow himself made the handmade neoprene mask across his mouth bulge. His eyelashes, lightly moistened, slid rather than scraped across the left lens of the bent wraparound sunglasses protecting his eyes from potential blizzards of ash. Artificial thermal inversions blamed on the other side but a reality of life for both could summon whipping, blistering winds.

He never acknowledged the dark presence. Their routine followed the same path everytime. Like two violent predators at the only puddle of muddy water left on a desert scar of earth, they circled, wary, working on the agreement not to attack. Neither would win.

He slipped his hand inside the left of his (samurai dress) and felt the handle of his cutlass. After the gunpowder ran out, and the factories were craters, after flints and locks and loading mechanisms and springs and oil ran out, the museums were ransacked again. Not for food this time, but for weapons. And clothes.

The other one was gone.

Gregis swished down steps, between cracks in walls three feet thick. Finally he lifted aside some corrugated metal and stepped into a room. He took off his glasses and the mask and hung them up without looking at the hook.

The door shook, the screws holding the deadbolt into the wall pulled out a quarter of a thread turn, as a microscopic avalanche sent pulverise wall drifting to the floor.

"Go away!" thought Gregis, staring at his boots.

The door rattled again. Gregis looked up and without moving pulled back the deadbolt.

A slowly strobing light punctured the darkness. A thin pale being collapsed against the doorframe.

"They’ve taken another one. It's the fourth in three days."
"Let them," replied Gregis, still groggy, still somewhere else.
"You been er, asleep again sir?"
The messenger rustled around under a rough cloak and pulled out a torch. Pointing it straight at gregis's eyes he flashed it for a split second, not wanting to waste the battery, but needing a job done.
"itll be weeks before I can see perfectly in the dark again"
"well at least your thinking straight."
"who'd they take?"
"One of the couple who limped in yesterday."
"the boy or the girl"
"the boy"
"he was gone already. They just took him to his place"
"that’s not the point. Am I going to have to flash you again?"
"no. youre right. They are breaking the agreement. Thank's for telling me"

Gregis closed the door.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Hafeek the ladder vendor

Hafeek helps people get closer to the sky. He sells the bamboo rods scaffolding is made of. He makes ladders from thick bamboo rods so that people can reach the top of the scaffolding they have built. Then they need to buy more bamboo poles so they can build higher scaffolding. Then they need a taller ladder. Every customer comes back. Business is good at the moment, but his best customers are not the builders. They are the local thieves.

After the bombs flattened the land people who had flooded back into the country though they had nowhere to live, took shelter in container boxes from exotic places around the world. They had writing on them that nobody understood, though in those jobless days, as the men circled the temporary shelters to the rhythm of the cycling sun, everybody pretended to be an expert. The red one where Jamshid's family lived had carried stockings which women in the west wore underneath their skirts. At least that's what Noorullah said, he spoke the loudest and during the Taliban had been the first person in the community to see Titanic. The Taliban smeared his face in oil and wrapped the magnetic tape around him, tying his hands behind his back and hanging the casing from his neck. Then they put him on a wheel barrow where as they paraded him around the district they beat his back forcing him to shout "My name is Noorullah, he who watches film or TV, he will be punished like me". He'd been unfazed. Three days later he was thrown in a container for 72 hours for having a Leonardo DiCaprio haircut. It had prepared him for living in a container in the days after the bombs flattened the land.

In the boredom of the stifling heat and dust, people liked to sleep on the roof of the containers where a breeze could touch them and the dust kicked up by cars and buses chuntering along the road was less likely to reach them. People helped eachother up, stepping on eachothers shoulders until they could pull themselves over. Noorullah was always the first up, Hafeek was short and stout and was often the last left on the floor. He had to rely on being lifted. Once he had managed to grab an outstretched hand, but his weight had been too much to bear and both he and his would-be helper fell back onto the ground. In apology, Hafeek offered his back as a step again. Hands were not often outstretched to him after that.

That was when he started experimenting with how to raise people to the skies. At first he stacked barrels or anything he could find to clamber up, but these were not always steady and always belonged to somebody. One day, watching thieves run away from a fruit vendor he noticed that they scaled a barbed wire fence, placing their feet carefull on each wire. In the process they lifted off the floor. That night, with a borrowed saw, he cut down two fence posts quickly and then spent the rest of the night until dawn bending and unbending the wires until they snapped.

The next night, as the others clambered up cilimbing over eachother, he casually rested the posts and wire against the container. He put his foot carefully on the first wire and reached his hand to the fourth. Then came the magical moment when neither of his feet was touching the ground. It lasted a second. The tiny staples holding the wire gave way and he slipped off, his hands torn by the barbs and his chin cut diagonally to the bone.

That was just the beginning. Hafeek used the basic design and through trial and error, rise and fall, learned how to make ladders.

One day, a truck carrying thick long beams of bamboo overturned as it breaked to avoid goats crossing the road. It's cargo spilt across the road, killing all the goats. Other people scavenged the goat meat, Hafeek ran back and forth between his container with one bamboo pole under each arm. He roused his children and between five of them they would carry one. By the morning the container was almost full and there was only enough space for a body lying down on top of the pile.

Things changed slowly. Containers were sold for scrap metal. People started using the rubble to build more permanent homes. They could build walls as high as they could reach, but laying down a roof required some help. Hafeek built short ladders in those days and cut the bamboo into roof beams.

With the money he hired people to build him a house, but he built it with two stories instead of just one, using the tallest ladder anyone had ever seen. After that, when other people found money, they also wanted a two story house, and to build it they had to buy a ladder.

Many people wanted to use houses, and on a horizon that had become flattened, scaffolding and ladders could now be seen. On a clear night you could make out 5 or six construction sites.

Where there is action and money, there are thieves. The sight of all those bamboo poles and ladders sticking out the top of Hafeeks roofless enclosure was too much to bear but
Hafeek's children had grown big and strong on the back of the ladder trade so thieves would never risk going in through the front entrance. Instead they decided to get in at night. To get into a roofless building, the easiest and quietest way is not through the door, but over the walls.

Khan, who had always called himself a friend of Hafeeks despite being the first to refuse him a helping hand onto the container, went to the ladder shop during the day. He feigned interest in the short ladders. Hafeek congratulated him on beginning construction of a new house, said he hadn't been aware of his friends good fortune. Khan squinted as he looked up at the long poles lightly varnished ochre their last five rungs poking over the top of the rubble built walls. Hafeek was surprised, but he sold the tall ladder at a discount.

As soon as Khan left, Hafeek ordered his sons to seek more rubble to erect a scaffolding and to raise the surrounding wall. At the same time, Hafeek started building a taller ladder. By night time, both jobs were done.

That night, Hafeek slept soundly and Khan reached the top of his ladder as two others held the legs. Khan stretched and stretched, but he couldn't reach the ledge. The top rungs of the ladder hung above, taunting him.
And this goes on day afte day night after night. Thieves tempted by the thought of selling ladders to the builders visit Hafeek during the day to buy his tallest ladder. He builds a taller fence and the next day they return. He greets them every day, invites them to tea, offers biscuits and sweets asks about their family and wishes them well. They are his most regular customers.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Speen Ghar Hotel

The mesh door groaned behind G as the rusty spring strained to return to its dormant position. The insect-hollowed frame cushioned the doors arrival to a dull thud and wood dust puffed softly out.

G's every footstep across the vast foyer crinkled as he stepped on a plastic sheet splattered in paint.

He caught sight of himself in one of the six square mirrored columns. In the silence, he took time to really look. Slowly his face changed from the image he expected and projected to an accurate portrayal of his current appearance. There was fine desert dust in his hair and his beard bringing them both to a light sandy colour. His skin, an angry red glowing through an earthy brown, was dry and when he changed expression it pulled taught leaving lines for fortune tellers to read.

In the reflection he saw the reception for the hotel over his shoulder and though there was no-one there, he turned towards it. Behind the desk, birds had nested in the recesses where keys were kept. All the keys were in. A grey bird with a bright orange beak squawked as it rearranged itself in its nest, rattling the keys to room 15. The sound echoed down the two corridors leading down the east and west wing, making dust jump, plaster crumble and window panes shake in their loose fittings. A few minutes later the squawk returned down the central corridor, though because the hall in the east wing was cluttered with mattresses and the bird call had lingered for a rest, the squawk that started life in the throat of a bird as one, came to die in the foyer as two.

Then another sound came swishing down the central corridor. It was a whispering sound G had originally thought was wind, but now heard to be rhythmic. He turned to look at the bird, it was disinterested. "Go look if you want, I'm not stopping you."

The central corridor was dark, instead of light switches, cables wrapped overzealously in black electrical tape twisted their way out of the wall. Even in the darkness G could make out patches of paint, some fresher than others. There was only consistency of hue in about a two meter radius, after that it was either faded and dusty or newer and slightly truer to white.

Unused to being stepped on, the fibres of Persian rugs along the corridor moved apart to let his battered leather boots touch the humid cement floor directly and then crawled back into place as he slowly lifted his foot for the next step.

Someone had written the room numbers in chalk on the wall by bare wooden doors. The draft his head stirred by turning pushed open doors on disintegrating hinges.

At the corner he could see a vague outline of a pile reaching the ceiling. Reaching it he noticed it was a pile of furniture and cushions stacked as if they had collided coming round a blind turn. The mountain forced him to shuffle along the wall mindful of the legs of upturned stools and regal chairs.

Once safely on the other side he stared down another long dusty hall, but here he noticed that the three doors closest to him had brass numbers.

Something fell on his head, sending tingles down his hairs before his scalp recognised it as a cold liquid. His hand returned from an exploratory journey with white gooey substance smelling somewhere between pine and gasoline. He looked up and felt the liquid seeping towards his neck. He gasped, and sent sonic waves racing each other to the foyer. High above him on a bamboo ladder resting on one wall with its feet at the base of the other, was what at the distance looked like a young boy stretching his arm as far as he could with a paintbrush. Another drop fell and the boy followed it down onto G's nose. The boy was shocked, the ladder rocked and as he fell he seemed to grow and age. By the time he landed in a puff of cobweb dust on the cushions of a discarded sofa G saw he was an old man. The old man jumped up with glee,
"Hello, peace be with you. How are you? Fine? Is your family well? Your mother, your wife your children? Is your business prosperous? What is your name? It’s a pleasure to meet you. I am Amadullah. You are fifty five years late for Osama. When he came, I took his bags. As you see we are redecorating. This is the third time I paint that spot. How are you?"

Two sandals landed on the floor and Amadullah stepped into them.
"Room?" Amadullah arched his eyebrows inquisitively and ducked his head.

Amadullah held G's wrist and led him to the first door with brass letters on it.
"We only have one at the moment."
Inside Amadullah ran over to one end of the bed, held the frame and gestured with his head at the other end.
G picked up his end and followed Amadullah out of the room to the empty one across the hall. They set it down and Amadullah said "you wait" and scuttled off.

G took a deep breath and disturbed the balance of the room. The hat stand balanced on a box of matches fell over. A column of ants marching up the wall scattered in all directions. A series of squawks chased each other through the halls.

Amadullah returned and set a lock down on the floor with a clunk. He then proceeded to drill a hole in the door. Termites set about the wood shavings and they disappeared as quickly as they fell. Once the lock was fitted, Amadullah searched around his deep pockets. He pulled out a number 2, then leant out the doorframe, then threw the number back. He took out a five and a one and nailed them to the door. Finally, he handed G the key, smiled, put his hand on his heart, and rushed off, the termites following him.