On the ferry on the way back across the channel in early October, five hours into the crossing, three to go, four sizeable snacks down, having slept, read, and stared out across the sea until it blurred into a wash of water-colour grey, I bought a ticket to the on-ferry cinema and sat in front of A Quiet Place Part II, a film in which psychopathic aliens maraud around taking out the human population one by one.
I was the only one in there.
As must befit most people watching A Quiet Place Part II, my mind began to wander. Back to the week that was, where I’d put my bike on a plane to Toulouse, cycled from south-west France up to the Bréton coast over 8 days, and spent a tearful evening staring out to sea.
As the heroine tiptoed around trying to avert the attention of the ‘Death Angels’ who, it turns out, were blind, but hunted sound, hence the name, A Quiet Place, I was on my bike, cycling along unnamed lanes, past hedgerows whose leaves were beginning to turn, into the outskirts of a village, an aggregate of the countless villages I passed through, and holding these images in mind I tried to work out what I had done, what its worth was.
Just to do it, for now, seemed to be the point.
Go to the Czech Republic, says Alfie, birds are insane. France is my shit bro. France would be phat if it didn’t have so many French people in it. He isn’t wrong. They are no Italians. But among the slippery Gascons and the moody Ligériens the people of the countryside, of the Dordogne and Anjou and Vienne, moulded by their soil and fed by their earth, are more often than not up for a chat when some smelly-looking dude arrives out of breath and red in the cheek, carrying a house on a bicycle.
Tout-seul? Mais vous êtes courageux!
They all concur.
I don’t feel brave. Up in the Andes or lost in the Wyoming desert, a gnawing terror in me might masquerade as bravery, but you can have no delusions of survival when you’re 250m away from a croissant beurre at all times. A pigeon-chested self-reliance is what I feel, a self-sufficiency, an adrenaline that comes with not knowing where the hell the next fifteen minutes is going to deposit me. Most of all I feel free, tied to nothing.
I pedal on.
The country moves gradually from in front of me, past my periphery and into my rear view, breezily or painfully slowly, through pouring rain and thin October sun, through muted mornings and the orange bonfire of late afternoon, a conveyor belt of information, fields and farmyards and the smell of manure, empty village squares, pine forests and vineyards, leering factories, markets, old stone bridges over rivers, train lines, iron crosses in the middle of fields, dogs hurling themselves at fences at me, stooped old men turning with their whole bodies to watch as I pass. Outside, sucking all that good oxygen in, ten eleven twelve hours a day, alive.
High up on a hill at Hautefort I see the château Louis XIII built for his mistress. I cycle through Montignac where the 17,000yr old paintings at Lascaux of the aurochs and bison are. The Romanesque abbeys at Moissac, and at Clauné overlooking the Loire, the beating of small wings echo across the vaulted ceiling. I light two candles for loved ones and pray. I see old shuttered-up houses floating on lawns of purple flowers. On the old converted train line I pass by crumbling station platforms and imagine the men and women with their trunks sitting on some idle afternoon in wait.
I fly down descents whooping like a fool, tiptoe through enormous empty churches, small-talk with French men the age of old oaks outside boulangeries, sit on stoops dicing up saussicon with my fold-up knife like I’m Rambo, two glasses of wine down at dinner I stare goggle-eyed into space, glowing, scrawling in my notebook the account of the day passed.
Some days are hard, cold and wet and I feel old, but campsite-showered, endorphin-dazed, feet up, munching my way methodically through the below, like a discreet fart my worries evanesce into the wind.
Baguette a l’ancienne
Saucisson au vin rouge
Mackeraux à la méxicaine
Taboulé à l’orientale
Coca Cola (ice cold can of)
Yaourt au noix de coco
Pear (mushed in pannier, more like a smoothie)
Suchard le rocher lait praline
In my tent the nights are long and I sleep 4 hours at most and freeze my arse off just before dawn, but I am happiest of all in there. So close to the ground, feeling the world sigh and stretch under me. The raw pleasure in the simplicity.
At Saint-Savin in Vienne, I meet Alice and Kaas from Amsterdam, a middle-aged couple on a campervan European tour. Earlier I’d seen them walking round the village, we get talking. Kaas is shaking his head. I think I know what you’re about to say. How sad it is? He nods. It is… how do you say… bankrupt? All around France we see the same, he continues. Beautiful villages, all empty, the life has moved on, there are no people anymore.
As the sun was falling I’d walked the same empty lanes lined by fine facades, shuttered up, shop windows with no stock, the long square next to the abbey, a closed hotel, the planes dropping their leaves. Why it had taken me so long to notice. There wasn’t a soul anywhere. I tried to imagine the village in its pomp, the voices, the clamouring, disputes and gossip. And now only the rustle of the wind pushing the leaves through the square, the distant figure of an old lady with a plastic bag rounding a corner, out of sight.
Just south of Fougères in Normandy, I fly downhill past a little hamlet and glance two figures, old men, standing outside a house, watching the road. I whirr past them in a blur, I am moving, in an instant they are gone. 40 yards down the road, without looking back, I raise my hand and wave. Turning my head to look, I see them both, arms aloft, following my path as I disappear round a bend.
In an old abandoned farmhouse off the side of the road, I wandered through its empty rooms hearing my bike shoes clank against the old stone floor, and I thought of something. This is the story of us, we move in, we stay a while, we leave. If you zoom out far enough all of time is a tide moving in and out, in and out. Forest becoming sea, mountain to desert, aeon.
So I move through a country leaving little pieces of me strewn here and there. A tiny mark, a smile, a wave, I see it scatter. On we move, onto the next, but something minuscule has been altered. On and on, into the unformed future. An audio recording of a distant morning, voices lost in time, an old photo of lives since past, the beating of a butterfly’s wing.
One day on the road I feel a presence behind me.
T’es chargé comme un mule! comes a voice.
This is Ginot from La Réunion. 53 yrs old, twice-divorced, ‘on a tous besoin de la liberté’ he laughs. We cycle side by side for 15km. Nine days alone, sans internet?! he shouts through the wind. Ca me fait du bien! When I get tired I stop, s’il pleut un hôtel, sinon un camping, I figure something out, I like not knowing! We reach the top of a hill, around us stretch the windswept fields of the Loire, a cold afternoon light. Tu m’as donné des idées! he says. I smile and we spud. He holds my shoulder and looks at me. N’oublies pas, les meilleurs jours de ta vie sont encore à venir. The wind picks up, I shake my head. J’ai pas compris! He moves off a little, and turns.
your best days are yet to come.
When I went away, I wrote in my journal the thing I wanted most from my journey was gratitude. For the myriad things in my life, for the upcoming adventure, the hit of freedom only the bike can give, before autumn and the battening down of hatches.
I got a big whiff of gratitude. But as the week went on, out on the road day after day, another feeling came over me. That nobody would ever come close to finding out what I had seen, smelt, heard, or most of all felt, at that particular time of year, as the sun shallow on the Meridian threw its light on those winding innumerable roads. I felt like the guardian of a secret nobody cared to discover. Which was exciting, but also made my insides ache from some sadness. But sadness was somehow not the right response. Was it the need to share it with somebody, I wondered. Or the need to just understand it. If I could unlock its kernel, its meaning, it wouldn’t be sad, it would be a treasure of my own making, locked in the vault of memory, mine to keep.
On the last night, looking out to sea in the dark by the grey stone of Saint-Malo, I cry in fits, same thing that’s been happening for months. Not sad, just overwhelmed by it all. There will come a time when a church will be a church, an avenue of oaks dripping wet just that, the waves washing against the beach of Brittany as they have since time immemorial, a time when these things don’t bubble this raw emotion up in me and make me sob like someone died. When that happens I think I will have lost something.
Be more like a machine and less like a flower, she said to me once.
More like a machine. Less like a flower.
Back in Hackney, in the Boots queue, holding a packet of electric toothbrush heads, my mask feels the force of a sigh. After all that, here we are again. 9 days I was away. The first two in London aren’t good. It makes sense I suppose, I’m not back at all. My physical self might be, shuffling along in this queue for the pharmacist, but I am far away, out on a country lane lined by hedgerows with their turning leaves, in the middle of a nameless field.