Riding and mourning

My grand dad passed away. It was mid-April when I learned the news. It didn’t come as a shock. For the last few years, his health had been worsening with every passing month. So when I learned he had pneumonia, I had little hope of seeing him again. I was right. This didn’t make it feel any better. So I did what I knew best to clear my mind. I packed my panniers and went cycling for a couple of days.

I locked the front door of the house and pedalled away on my local Sustrans route. I began to cry as I exited the city, thankful for how few people were wandering the path in a mid-week morning. By the time I was out of Bristol, my tears had stopped and I was feeling a bit better. The route was going up and down and required no navigation. I knew this stretch like the back of my hand. There was a farm on the right, and then to the left a view would emerge through the leaves of the trees but I wouldn’t get to see it for long. The downhill was too much fun. A few more stroke of the pedals and I had to navigate the always muddy stretch of road. A down, an up, another down and I was at Chew Valley Lake. The sky was grey and I knew it was going to rain. It didn’t matter.

I stopped by the lake, sat on a bench, and munched on a cereal bar before cycling away. There was nothing to keep me around the water that day. Lost in thoughts, I took a wrong turn but soon realised it and turned around. I pedalled on, the rain beginning to fall. I didn’t bother with waterproofs. There was a couple of big hills coming. They would keep me warm.

Panting my way up the last hills into the Mendips, I began to feel numb. I wanted to turn around and go home. I wanted to wrap myself into my partner’s arms and cry my heart out. It was stupid to be here, struggling up a hill in the rain. Why was I always assuming that a bike ride and sleep outdoors would make things right? I pushed the thought away and absorbed myself in the looming fog. Soon, all views disappeared. The landscape that I had filmed almost a year before was now gone. I stopped to put on lights around the bike. I couldn’t see much further than my front wheel. It was like the landscape was engulfing me in its own embrace. There was nothing to be distracted by. I let go of all thoughts, pushing away my desire to go home, and focused on the turning of the pedals.

The time was soon approaching twelve and I was feeling hungry again. I ignored my stomach for a while knowing a picnic area with a view of the Somerset Levels was coming. I had no illusion about the view but at least I would have a table and bench. The rain had stopped and the sun was slowly chasing the fog as I arrived at the view point. There still wasn’t much to see but I carried with me last years Summer expanse of green and blue in my mind. I ate a quick lunch before freewheeling my way down the Mendips. From there on, it was going to be flat.

I passed through Wells, stopping at a sweet shop for some on the road fuel, before settling on a bench on the outskirts of town. I got my eReader out and began a new book, Maigret chez le ministre by George Siménon. It had been my grand father who had introduced me to the detective. I can’t claim that I knew my grand father well. All of our conversations combined wouldn’t even fill a week. And yet, he was not unknown. He had often shared his love of woodwork and Maigret in his own way. I remember going in search of wood in the Jura mountains for his workshop. I remember being shown into his workshop, allowed to sit at the side while he operated his machines. I remember the dark blue covered books lining his holiday house in the Jura. All Maigret stories I was allowed to read when he wasn’t. I remember him bemoaning Bruno Cremer’s interpretation of the detective and praising Jean Gabin performance. It had been one of the rare time I’d seen him so passionate. I felt like crying again. I shut off the eReader and went on.

The land around me was wet, damp, and still resolutely winter brown. The weather had been incomprehensible this year. I wandered what my grand father would have made of it. A farmer for most of his life, his livelihood had depended on the whims of the weather. I used to climb in the tractors with him sometimes, but being a girl I was never initiated in the secret of the land. That was knowledge of the men.

I arrived in Glastonbury and stopped for a moment to decide which way to go. Home was no longer an option. I’d gone too far and I didn’t want to climb the Mendips Hills again. I settled on a loop around the Somerset levels. I pedalled away from the city, passed sodden fields and noisy agricultural machines. Wealth was gone from my surroundings. Houses began to look sad and abandoned. Few cars passed me by and I wondered if life was as bad as it looked here or if the long winter was making it look that way.

The route took me along a river and I was surprised to see it still sitting in its bed, just. Houses were brighter here and garden bigger and well maintained. But the land was still desolate of people. I don’t know much about agriculture but I know there was nothing to be done yet. The frenzy of spring had not began and wouldn’t until winter decided to loosen its grip.

I arrived at a crossroads and was about to check my map when I saw Burrow Mump. A low hill I had climbed a year before on my way to Exmoor National Park. I had wanted to sleep on top of that bump in the earth ever since. It was early still but I didn’t care. I would sleep in the ruins of the abandoned church standing on top. There was a pub not far from it. I parked the bike and order a pint of ale. I almost ordered a cider in memory of my grand father but didn’t. He used to make his own. Every year the taste differed but it was always very homemade. I couldn’t remember him drinking any other cider.

‘Where have you come from,’ a man asked seeing my helmet and the bike.
‘Bristol.’
‘On that?’ He pointed at the bicycle.
‘Yes.’
‘But there’s no motor on it.’
‘I’m refuelling the motor now,’ I said pointing at the beer and smiled.
He laughed and we began chatting about his life as a farmer in the Somerset levels. I wondered how his parents lives would have compared to my grand dad. They probably had had a similar story. The man eventually left. The clock ticked on and I judge it was time to haul my bike and camping gear up the mump to settle for dinner and sleep.

My tent put up and dinner on the go, I observed the scenery in front of me. As far as I could see the land was flat and full of fields. This would have been a place my grand dad would have understood and I was glad to be here.
‘You would know this land,’ I said aloud. ‘What it all means and how to live of it. You would have soon argued with tonton (uncle) on how to best manage the fields.’ With those words, I realised that he had passed away on the eve of Spring. His body would be carried into the earth as everything was about to be reborn. I’m not a religious person but that thought comforted me. I smiled a true smile for the first time that day and felt a weight lifted of my shoulders. I went back to my stove for diner, and spent the rest of that evening nestled in my sleeping bag reading Maigret chez le ministre. I fell asleep with the book by my side.

—*—

The sky was still overcast when I awoke but at least it wasn’t raining. I ate a cereal bar, and boiled water for tea as I packed my belongings. Once everything was in the bags, I sat on the broken wall of the church and watched the morning scenery with my cup of tea. I felt rested and calmer. I wasn’t happy but I was good.

Tea finished, I carried the bicycle down the mump and began cycling. The road I needed was flooded over 100 metres. I sighed at the idea of getting my shoes wet so early in the day but there was nothing for it. Carefully, I pushed on, my feet dragging into the water and pushing me forward. What had been a desolate landscape the day before began to take on some colours. There were subtle buds of green and quaint villages. One even had a fancy village shop and café. I stopped in need of some fruit. I didn’t plan to stay long but the café was too alluring and I ordered a second breakfast of cream tea. I settled on an outdoor table with my book. It was a little too cold for that but I didn’t care. I wanted to be alone with my thoughts.

I savoured the scone and tea, slowly sipping at it. My grand father never told me what he thoughts of my journeys. I wondered if he approved. A part of me wanted to think that he did, but another suspected he didn’t. I had never asked and never would be able to now. Second breakfast finished, I hopped back on the bicycle and followed the road as it wound its way upwards. I struggled up the hills, getting down to push the bike at regular interval, the efforts obliterating all thoughts from my mind.

On top, I sat at the edge of the road and looked down. The sky had cleared and everything was springlike now. The trees were still bare, but the grass was resolutely green and higher up, the land was saturated with water. I closed my eyes, tilted my head back, and enjoyed the shy warmth of the sun. On a day like this, my grand dad would have headed to his garden to tend to his vegetables. He was so proud of his tomatoes, the one crop he was able to grow in his last years. Memories of my childhood flooded me. I smiled at them, my eyes shining with happy times of spring and summer at my grand parents house. There had been barbecues, homemade alcohol of all sorts, an endless freedom to roam, and my grand father always there overlooking the family quietly while everybody babbled away happily.

‘I love you,’ I whispered.

I looked up at the sky, as if this link between England and France could carry my words all the way to his village. He wouldn’t be able to hear but I wanted the words to brush his ears anyway.

I left the side of the roads and went back on the saddle. The road continued rolling up and down along gentrified villages and national trust properties until I emerged on the edge of Yeovil, crossed a park, found the train station, and booked a ticket back home. The landscape I had cycled the day before rolled at speed by the window and I felt content. I now knew this land better than I had the day before. I could name memories and places that people around me couldn’t. And I could trace the shedding of my tears and sadness along the roads, a last goodbye to a quiet man I’ll never see again but who had left a strong legacy in me.

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