The group gathered at the roundabout for the regular Saturday club ride. Pigeons perched on the lamp-posts and one dropped a load of shit on to Jimmy’s jersey.
‘You’ve got shit on your jersey,’ said Clancy.
‘Fuck,’ said Jimmy. Fuck, fuck, fuck-de-fuck.’
‘They hate you,’ said Clancy.
‘Where we going?’ said Clovis.
‘I tole you’, said Clancy. ‘It’s on the WhatsApp.’
‘I didn’t see it.’
‘Not my problem,’ said Clancy.
The group headed off; Clancy in the lead, then Clovis, Norton, Lachlan, Norman and Jimmy in the rear.
It was a cold, grey day, damp but not raining – yet. The roads were busy with Saturday morning shoppers, drivers heading out on their chores.
The dull expanse of South London suburbs – Bromley, Sundridge, Grove Park, Mottingham, Eltham – slipped by. Clancy led them off-road, into parkland and paths. The road wound through the houses and came to a dead end. Clancy squeezed through the railings and on to the cycle path. Leaves hugged the ground and made it slippery. Clovis’s wheel caught on the railings and he tumbled backwards and landed heavily on the path.
‘Ouch! Fuck. Fuck,’ he said
‘You ok?’ they all chorused.
‘Fuck,’ he said again. He checked his bike over, felt his helmet for cracks, remounted and they continued on.
The cycle path was little used, and the ground was coarse and rutted, over-grown with weeds and trailing tree branches. They came upon a disparate group of elderly ramblers; heavy shoes, fleeces, anoraks, waterproof trousers, beanie hats, maps in plastic cases round their necks, walking sticks, rambling along, oblivious to everyone else.
‘Excuse me,’ shouted Clancy. ‘Cyclists coming through.’
The ramblers were deaf, keeping watch for butterflies and ragwort, centipedes and birds of prey.
‘Excuse me,’ shouted Clancy again.
The ramblers huffed and sighed and moved to the side.
‘Get a bell,’ said one.
‘Why should I?’ said Clancy.
More suburbs – New Eltham, posh Blackheath, Greenwich, the edge of Charlton, up and over the hill by the Arsenal.
Woolwich was scarred and desolate. Wind whipped through the shopping precinct. Impatient drivers pushing through the traffic, tensing at roundabouts, creeping forward at zebra crossings, tut-tutting at the slightest delay.
They circled the roundabout, impatient truckers cursing at the ferry queue, slid down a slip road and sudden silence enveloped them as they hit the Thames Path. The path was smooth and well-made – apartment blocks to the right of them, railings, mud and the grey Thames to the left.
The mud goes on forever; dark, gloopy and flat, with light dancing birds skating on its brown surface, the smell of baking shit oozing through the clear air from the sewage works. Coarse iron railings, few people, here the riverside apartment blocks morph into blocks of flats, the neatly kept enclosed gardens now fly-tipped and grubby. Au pairs pushing prams give way to single mothers pushing buggies. Desperation at the river’s edge, out here where the river ceases to flow. A tug boat chugs upstream pushing loaded barges.
Abandoned wharfs, jetties jutting out into nothingness. A rowing boat beached above the water line. A broken motor-cycle shoved into the surf. A few people with thin, scarred arms, sitting in little huddles.
Concrete blocks were dumped at the water’s edge. Everything felt dumped. Nothing was here out of choice. The water was grey. There are few people. A cycle path to nowhere.
We’ve lost Jimmy. Every half hour their little wagon train halts, re-groups, forms a circle, waits for Jimmy.
‘I’m bleeding,’ said Clovis, looking at his bare leg – there was a smear of blood on his thigh. ‘It’s on my arm, look.’
Blood was seeping through the sleeve of his jacket.
‘Take your jacket off,’ said Lachlan.
‘No,’ said Clovis, ‘I don’t want to know. I’ll leave it ‘til I get home.’
‘It’ll stick,’ said Lachlan. ‘When it dries, then it’ll hurt.’
‘Thanks,’ said Clovis.
Clovis is hungry. He reaches into his back pocket to grab some food. The energy bar is crumbly and sweet, sticky with dried fruits. Clovis takes a bite and re-wraps it and stuffs it back in his pocket.
‘Where’s Jimmy?’ said Clancy.
‘Dunno. He was here a minute ago.’
Jimmy hoves into view, eventually. Lost, still lost. Jimmy’s always lost.
‘Hurry up,’ said Clancy.
‘Don’t tell me what to do,’ said Jimmy. ‘Stop telling me what to do.’
Clancy looked at him, sighed, shook his head, said nothing.
Silence hung in the air, threatening like a mugger.
The group carried on. A mile further on and Jimmy is off the back again.
‘The fuck’s he gone now?’ said Clancy.
Lachlan said, ‘he was here a minute ago.’
‘I’m fed up with this,’ said Clancy. ‘Come on, leave him, let’s go. Let the fucker find his own way home.’
‘That’s not nice,’ said Lachlan. ‘It’s not his fault.’
‘Yeah? Whose fuckin’ fault is it then?’
Jimmy appeared, sees everyone looking at him, questioningly.
‘What?’ he said. ‘What?’
‘Nothing,’ said Clancy. ‘Let’s go.’
The path is finished and they hit the road. Heavy traffic, filter lanes, families rushing to the supermarket, squeezing through gaps, hanging on Clancy’s wheel, desperate not to lose the slip-stream. Racing to beat the red lights.
‘Some of us feel we ought to wait at red lights,’ says Clovis.
Traffic lights. Dartford. Cars waiting. There’s a little car, maybe a Volkswagen or a Vauxhall, grey, cheap and nasty. Two lads, young, clean-shaven, seem pleasant enough, more in the back seat probably, maybe girls.
‘Where’ve you come from?’ said a lad in the front seat.
‘West Wickham,’ said Norton.
‘I can pedal. Look.’ The lad sticks his feet out of the side window and waves them in the air.
He sniggers. The lights stay red for a long time.
‘What’s it like?’ the lad says.
‘Cold,’ said Norton. ‘Where you going?’
‘Get some drugs.’
‘Why d’you say that? We’re just having a conversation and you come out with that crap. Where you off to? Somewhere nice?’
‘Get some drugs.’
‘Forget it,’ said Norton
‘Crack. Heroin. Wantsum?’
‘That’s just crap. You’re talking crap now.’
‘Nice helmet. Mine’s bigger.’
‘You in the Tour de France?’
Silence. The lights change.
‘Cunt,’ shouted the lad, as the car sped off around the corner.
The narrow road weaves through the fields, dipping in and out of the woodland, dappled light drifting through the leaves. The road rises and falls, and Clancy pushes the pace higher; riders are gasping for breath, out of the saddle, straining on the climbs. They miss the junction and have to turn around and retrace their pedals. They meet Jimmy just by the junction; caught up at last.
‘Let’s go,’ said Clancy.
The BMW burst out of the gloom, the driver with his elbow on the window-sill, two fingers resting on the steering wheel. The car is black with opaque windows, a drug dealer’s car.
‘Oi,’ shouts Norton. ‘Slow down.’
Jimmy is riding near the middle of the road, occasionally drifting over to the wrong side of the white lines. Oncoming cars have to swerve to miss him.
He shouts after one, waves his fist, makes a gesture.
‘You’re too far to the right,’ said Lachlan. ‘Don’t ride so near the middle of the road.’
‘Don’t tell me what to do,’ said Jimmy, belligerent.
The road was long and the pace was high but they finally reached the Gates of Eden farm-shop and café.
Across the muddy car-park and around the corner to the bleak shed of the café. A group of mountain bikers were just mounting up. Baggy shorts, muddy legs, dirt encrusted bikes with big tyres.
‘Uh oh,’ said one, ‘the professionals have arrived.’
They all trooped inside. It was near the end of lunch service and the serving ladies were having a snack. One rose to her feet as the group entered and slipped behind the counter.
‘What’ll it be, gents?’ she said.
Jimmy dumped his helmet, gloves and phone on the table and headed to the counter.
‘Club rules,’ said Norton. ‘Keep helmets off the tables.’
Jimmy looked fierce. ‘Don’t tell me what to do,’ he said.
They ordered bacon sandwiches, cake and mugs of tea. Lachlan ordered extra food and hot chocolate with cream and marshmallows on top – he worked shifts, lived far away and was always hungry – never had time or inclination to eat before the meeting point. They clustered round the table, with its plastic tablecloth, steam rising from their sweaty clothes.
When they’d finished eating and been to the toilet, they trooped outside. Outside, a pretty woman was sitting at a bench cradling a cigarette. She watched as Clovis checked his bike over.
‘Where’ve you been?’ she said to Clovis.
‘Woolwich,’ said Clovis, ‘Thames path, Dartford, Erith.’
‘How many miles?’ said the pretty woman. She was dark-haired, slim, nice nose, brown eyes, friendly, chatty, in a good mood.
’50 miles prolly,’ said Clovis.
’50 miles,’ she repeated, admiringly. ‘Aren’t you cold? You’ve got bare legs, they’re very brown.’
‘Thanks,’ said Clovis. ‘Just got back from holiday.’
‘Where d’you go?’
‘Tenerife,’ said Clovis.
‘What’s that on your arm?’ she asked.
‘Blood,’ said Clovis, proudly. ‘I fell off. Don’t want to take my jacket off.’
‘Ouch. It must hurt.’
‘Nah,’ said Clovis.
‘He’s been very brave,’ said Clancy. ‘He doesn’t keep going on about it.’
Another woman came out of the café with two cups of coffee and gave one to her friend.
‘They’ve gone 50 miles,’ said the pretty woman. ‘He’s hurt his arm but he’s being brave.’
‘Yeah?’ said the coffee cup woman.
‘Everyone ready?’ said Clancy.
‘Gotta go,’ said Clovis to the woman.
They pushed off. The pretty woman smiled at Clovis.
They rode out of the yard and onto the road with its slippery leaves. Clovis winced as his jersey rubbed on his arm. There was a dark patch on his elbow which spread down to his wrist.
‘You’re in there,’ said Norton.
‘Imagine if I’d commented on her legs,’ said Clovis. ‘I’d be in right trouble.’
‘You’re in there,’ said Norton again.
They pushed on down the hill to the traffic lights.
‘Which way we going?’ said Jimmy.
‘Shagrabbit hill, said Clancy. ‘Usual way.’
‘See you at the top,’ said Jimmy.
The hill was not hard but as it came near the end of the ride and everyone was tired, and they all wanted to race and be the first up, they pushed on, panting. Andrew reached the top first, then Clancy and Clovis. They pulled into a driveway and waited for the others and Jimmy.
Norton arrived, long strings of pale spittle hanging from his chin. He crossed his arms on the handlebars and rested his head on his hands. He was panting, and his tongue was lolling from side to side.
‘Where’s Jimmy?’ said Clancy.
‘He was back about a hundred yards,’ said Norton, bringing the words out gradually.
‘Did he make the junction?’ said Clancy.
‘Yeah, I’m sure,’ said Norton.
They waited. It was cold.
‘Got any plans?’ said Clancy, to no-one in particular.
‘Watch the rugby,’ said Norton. ‘Have a bath. Glass of wine.’
‘Get in the shower,’ said Clovis. ‘Sort my arm out.’
‘What arm?’ said Clancy. ‘What happened?’
‘Very funny,’ said Clovis. ‘Fuck off.’
Norton’s phone buzzed.
‘Is it Jimmy?’ said Clancy. ‘Where is he?’
‘It’s not Jimmy,’ said Norton. ‘It’s my wife.’
‘Tell her I’ll be round later,’ said Clovis.
Norton stuck his tongue out. ‘Fuck off,’ he said.
‘I’m going,’ said Clancy. ‘I’ve had enough, it’s getting cold.’
‘What do we do about Jimmy?’ said Norton.
‘Who cares?’ said Clancy. ‘He can find his own way home. We can’t wait forever.’
‘Maybe he’s lost,’ said Norton.
‘Maybe,’ said Clancy. ‘He could phone us if he was lost. People should know where they are; it’s a club rule.’
He got on his bike, headed off into the traffic, stuck his arm up and waved behind him.
‘See you next week,’ he shouted but it was lost in the wind.