It’s one of those unseasonable summerlike days that can creep in unawares in April, giving a taste of what’s to come. One year I was as tanned by the end of April from endless days outside with the girls as I was after nearly a month in Singapore. The sky today is a darker blue than the usual springtime hue and I find it jarring. The tarmac of Herne Hill velodrome glints, the swathes of green grass and stark colours of sponsors’ flags a study in modern art against the vulgar sky.
I sweat setting out bikes, the trikes and recumbents and go-karts and side-by-sides and tandems and lo-riders all adapted for riders whose bodies don’t work the same way as mine does. And the Velo Plusses, industrial-looking things with huge trays on the front on which we painstakingly load wheelchairs.
Yesterday I rode a hilly 200k and went to bed content.Today I’m mad with the ongoing too-slow process of divorce and the catastrophic pain of my internal deconstruction which feels more self-defeating than anything else, most of the time. I’m angry too at the torturous slowness of the anxiety-racked, heart-in-mouth process of trying to buy a house I now know I can’t live without, and I’m angry at myself for even wanting it.
I’m angry for wanting anything at all. Broken glass I can’t help but step on. I’m angry with the weight of my body, my thoughts, my emotions and the clear cloudless blue sky that should promise hope and solutions, but only brings sweat on concrete, unbearable weight from above meets unyielding surface below.
I don’t want to talk today. Usually I like the conversations, as absurd as they can be. Sometimes the carers cut through to the core of me with their kindness and empathy, with the dignity they allow their charges, and sometimes the people who ride these bikes also cut me to the quick with their observations on the world as they see it. But today I want to busy myself on the peripherals so I sort bikes, and make tea, and make myself useful as best I can.
A group approaches and I see a wheelchair. I go and get on the least unpleasant of the Velos and ride over, ready to load up my charge. He’s a young man, barely more than a boy, and he’s nonverbal and appears to have no motor control either. I load him up onto the bike, secure the chair and mutter instructions to his carer. Brake here, parking brake here, gears here. Off you go.
The carer lasts two laps. Two laps while the sun beats down on her slowly treadmilling legs, two laps while my insides boil.
She returns apologetic. ‘It’s hard work,’ she exclaims to her colleague.
The boy says nothing. What can he say?
I say I’ll take him for a couple of laps. It will keep me occupied, it will keep the endless time passing. I get on the bike and take my powerless passenger out onto the track. Round and round a concrete track, underneath a merciless sun. It’s not just me who will break a sweat.
I talk to him as we head out, the usual patronising chit-chat. ‘It’s a lovely sunny day!’ It’s a crappy shitty day. ‘Don’t worry, we won’t go too fast!’ Why would he worry? What could he do about it if I did go too fast? What can he do about anything, anything at all?
Sometimes on days like this the air above the tarmac wobbles, heat rising in wavy lines, non-existent moisture being dragged relentlessly from a dead surface that can’t quite block out the richness below. Below the foundations, damp earth, dark matter.
I have learned from coming here that I fill empty spaces with pointless words, stuff that hateful openness with anxiety and awkward, shameful awareness of my privilege. What I really want to do and I increasingly sense my wordless companions want me to do, is to stop talking for both of us, stop pretending it’s them who need me to fill what only I see as lack. I fall quiet sooner every time I come here.
I have learned how afraid I am of the deafening absence of my own voice.
My legs turn and the heat sinks down into the tarmac and rises up into the abominable sky. The air in between is light and soft, a breeze lifts my hair. I’m not wearing a helmet. Neither is the boy. ‘Not much point in a helmet,’ I say to nobody. I breathe in, and breathe out.
The boy breathes in, and breathes out.
His face is turned slightly to the side and the sun is reflecting off his warm sienna skin, lifting highlights from black hair. He says nothing. What does he need to say? All we need is here without words. We breathe in, breathe out. My eyes soften inside their tight, strained sockets. The bike moves us both forwards.
Nothing changes but everything. The boy hasn’t moved, or made a sound. He is still and peaceful and I know as surely as I know the legs that are turning and the hair that’s being lifted in the breeze, that he is content. It rises from him, invisible wavy lines like heat from tarmac, and it is irresistible. It draws answering soothing waves from me, my own invisible lines intermingling with his. He is content. Joyful with all of it. The soft breeze. The forward motion. Me.
Everything softens, the urban landscape melts upwards into the gently waiting sky. Harsh angles and jarring lines blur and fade. Sweat flows and breath draws, I am here, he is here, we are here. I have made the boy happy with my service, he has made me happy with his unquestioning acceptance of it. We are moving forwards together with nowhere to go, and we are drowsy with contentment. We are at peace.
When I reluctantly return the boy his carer exclaims with pleasure. ‘He looks so relaxed!’ I say I thought he was, but I didn’t know. She smiles at me.
She knows this magic.
Later I write to a friend, a sensory therapist who trained and worked with nonverbal children. I tell her I worry I’m crazy, or looking for things that aren’t there. I tell her I’m afraid I’m projecting my own need to be seen onto a nonverbal child. I loathe my own ignorance as I tell her I could never even see the point of bringing a wheelchair user all the way to the velodrome just to get pushed around in circles on an adaptive bike.
She says I’m not crazy and that she too knows how it feels to talk without words. She talks to me about the experience from the boy’s perspective, the sensory elements I understand and appreciate without thinking, the breeze of motion, the angle of the sun, the surroundings, the sense of purpose that comes when you circle a velodrome by bike on a sunny April day. She shows me that for the boy it was something of a peak experience, just as other things that I have done on bikes have been for me. She shows me that what we share is everything, to and for both of us. Me and the boy.
And then she says ‘but before all of that, Cathy, for him to even have that experience let alone want to share it with you, first of all, there is trust.’
Before there is anything, before there is hope or faith or love, there is trust.