Cold Christmas Lane
Cold Christmas Lane
Published by Edgar Million at Smashwords[
Copyright 2016 Edgar Million]
The dipping sun streaked through the heavy tree cover which gave shelter to the winding, twisting country road. The light danced across the silver grey bonnet of Roger’s Ford Kuga, painting patterns across a window which he now noticed needed a good clean. Saturday tomorrow, he thought, contemplating a warm afternoon out on the drive, washing away a week’s grime, then drying and polishing with wax. Simple pleasures.
Too much time spent working, he thought, he often thought, to find enough space to enjoy the small joys, such as the reflective gleam of this machine after he’d finished. No time for all that. Rush here, rush there.
His big brother Joe told him it was his age.
‘Men in their forties are a discontented group. If you make it to fifty without killing yourself, you’ll be home clear, but it will be touch and go for a bit.’
It was true, lately Roger lurched between mild discontent and outright rage and despair. Still, should be a nice weekend, he reflected, a thin smile cracking a face which he only looked at these days when shaving or whilst drunk; his father’s face now pressing out his own once youthful features, replacing them with a scowl which Roger thought buried forever.
But his father’s face remained far from his thoughts now as he rode a pleasant two pint beer buzz into the weekend. Surely not enough to get him banned, but probably not the most sensible action before navigating his way along the Lane.
Never mind, he thought, many worse in the world, an unwarranted image of his sharp faced child of a line manager stepping in and then out again from his mind’s eye, forcing Roger tried not to think of the deadline he was almost certainly guaranteed not to meet on Monday.
Many worse in the world.
‘Like him,’ he announced aloud to the empty car, nodding at a black and white lycra clad cyclist who’d appeared some way ahead, making his way along the winding country lane, riding squarely at the centre of the road, ‘there’s much worse in the world than me having a couple of pints, on a Friday night.’
Roger closed the gap on the cyclist almost immediately, then hissed in irritation at the delay. Was it too much to want to get home on a Friday night? He tooted his horn, a short, hopefully polite request to pass, but this selfish middle-of-the-lane cyclist continued to hold the lane; refused to let him pass, so he sat close behind him revving his engine.
The cyclists lycra uniform strained and stretched under the pressure of the flabby body it contained and Roger wondered how any man could present himself to the world like that, his fat thinning the material to such an extent the man may as well be naked. The man had no shame.
He liked to ride a bike himself sometimes, or at least, he liked the idea he liked to ride a bike sometimes, but lately the occasions upon which he roused himself to re-inflate the flat tyres on his old Halfords mountain bike and soak the rusty chain in WD40 became less and less frequent.
Still, he thought, his occasional rides may be rare, but they were considerate to the needs of other and it wouldn’t have occurred to him to do this, to hog the road on a Friday evening during rush hour.
He pressed again on the car’s horn. If only the rider would move over a little he could nip past, there was just about enough space, but this guy seemed to think he owned the road. Roger’s intestines twisted and contracted as he tried maintain his temper.
So aggravating and so smug these people.
The evening remained humid, but the air con was running on low and kept the hot air outside at bay.
The slight beer buzz had began to slip from his grasp; tensions of work and life resurfacing, prodding him, his boss asking him questions about the Cambridge account, and again he chased away the boss and the deadline from his thoughts.
Roger again tooted the horn, this time expressing his growing temper a little longer, then made a half hearted effort to pull round the bloated cyclist, but there just wasn’t space, without him risking God knows what shooting round the corner, but, oh this was too much.
‘Oh sod it,’ he announced pushing up a gear and darting round him, bike rocking from side to side, cracking his window down a touch then calling to him, ‘pull over you wanker, you’re too far out,’ with a degree of satisfaction; a slight release of tension, as Roger contemplated at last the pleasant weekend ahead.
The cyclist hadn’t reacted to his shout, which was a shame, he thought; without the cyclists angry return, it made him doubt himself a moment, wonder if his aggression was unwarranted. But he knew watching a cyclist gesticulating in the background would have provided a small shot of pleasure.
Dressed in the same black and white lycra adorned by the first. Part of a club?
This rider appeared in somewhat better shape than the other, but still another lane hogging, inconsiderate sod of a cyclist with nothing better to do on a Friday evening than get in the way of hard working commuters trying to get home, so once again be found himself stuck in a two person traffic jam in the middle of nowhere.
‘I just want to be home,’ he groaned at the back of the cyclist’s head.
This guy seemed a little faster than the last, but Bradley Wiggins couldn’t go fast enough for him right now. He tried to edge out and round him, but the figure prone across his machine also veered outwards, causing Roger to curse again and settle in behind him.
What was it Margaret Thatcher said? Any man over the age of thirty riding a bike was a failure? Something like that.
Probably not true these days though, given the pile of Bromptons in the work kitchen belonging to the well paid management consultants now running, now ruining, his office.
Not failures then? Not workwise anyway, but there was something broken about this lot surely? Just move over. Get in close to the curb and let other road users, tax paying road-users by the way, get past.
There were no red lights out here on these lanes, but no doubt if there were the road hogs would be running them. Although, Roger had to admit, he’d run red lights too if he could do so with the impunity of a cyclist.
In frustration Roger pressed hard on the accelerator and forced himself violently around the cyclist, whose lycra Roger now realised was adorned with a skeletal rib-cage design, crisp and white against the ivory black fabric, buffeting the rider, just making it past without clipping him, then pressing his right foot down even harder as he pulled away from what he considered to be the riders mid-life crisis, heading back into his own, waiting for him in the fridge and in his internet history.
Tacky and graceless, but certainly more appealing than squeezing his chunky, middle aged torso into stretchy sports wear. He laughed to himself, acknowledging that his idea of good wholesome fun might not be appreciated by all, certainly not the missus, but he was glad to be past them, home free…
Roger moaned aloud.
Clearly part of the same cycling club, the skeletal design decorating this one too. Another one to shake off.
Yet try as he might to swing past, there seemed to be no passing him, the rider drifting right out into the road each time he tried to overtake him on a path overloaded with sharp, forbidding corners.
He hated getting stuck behind cyclists on this endless stretch of road, the tight lane and winding corners twisted and turned sharply and made it a bugger to overtake, except, yes, foot down, up a gear and he was narrowly round the selfish sod as well but, “oh shit,” he groaned, what was it with this lot?
No escape; another two appearing as he turned the next corner. Still, he knew the winding road was about to straighten out slightly for a small stretch so he dropped in behind them, ready to leave them all behind as he hit the short straight.
Needed to be now, he thought, or he was back into more winding country lane and he’d be stuck behind this lot forever.
In his rear view he now noticed one of the cyclists he’d overtaken loom into view, catching him up now, then another one immediately behind, riding their slipstream.
He groaned, then noticed his air conditioning appeared to be working overtime, he emitted a small shiver with a shrug of his shoulders as he turned it down a notch, then, as this didn’t seem to make a difference, off entirely.
Part of moving out to the sticks was meant to be freedom from this sort of thing, traffic jams and the like, yet here he was being hunted down by bloody cyclists.
Again he tried to find a way round the two riding parallel at the front of this passive aggressive peloton but the cyclists again drifted out to block him at each attempt, seemingly following intuition, refusing to allow him transit and he slammed hard on his horn, blaring out frustration in gloom now settling to such an extent he’d began to rely upon his headlights for visibility.
As he rounded into the straight section, the beams of his headlights brought more cyclists into view, all in the same gear, and the two became four, seven including those riding the slipstream behind his car, leaning so far forwards they could have almost touched his rear window.
He tried to drift round the pack but again they blocked him, again he sounded his horn and screamed at them in frustration, as they left the straight and were back into the tight, twisting road.
I don’t need this, he thought, realising he could hear his heart pounding in his chest, blood screaming in his ears. His breath came out in an icy fog and thinking for a moment the air con must be malfunctioning, he fiddled with the controls before remembering he’d turned it off.
There was something about them, something dangerous, which made him desperate to escape. Crazy, just men riding bikes, but for a moment he saw what he was a beast cornered by the mob. He could crush them, he was the beast, his car looked like a fist, whilst they were flimsy; breakable, but there is danger in numbers.
Again he tried to pass, but as he did, two of the front drivers dropped back to sit either side of him, surrounded his car like a presidential guard around a limousine.
To move either way would be to kill them.
And why not Roger thought, shivering from the cold, bloody messing about like this, bloody cyclists, thinking they own the road, it would serve them right if I just punched through them. Yet he knew he wouldn’t dare.
Instead, he tried to edge this way, then that, tentative chess moves, Knights pawn; he tried bully them into submission, but they seemed fearless and banged gloved fists on his roof at each attempted manoeuvre.
The cyclists began to rotate in orbit about him, taking turns to mock him with the sharp raps on his car, calling unheard words, refusing to allow him space to escape as the road weaved and wound sharply downhill, riders now racing in absolute darkness. Roger thinks he can hear them through the glass and steel, laughing at him, mocking him through the frame of his car.
Roger presses his face against his door window, cursing incoherently at the rider on his right, whilst spraying spit across the frosty glass, screaming at a man who turns to stare at him out of eyes which seem strangely empty, even monstrous.
Those eyes were black pits of darkness, his stomach lurched as he looked into them, because who knows what hides in the darkness.
He told his youngest son Kieran, don’t be afraid of the dark son, there’s nothing there, but part of him wondered sometimes if the boy wasn’t right to be afraid. Monsters lurk in the darkness, cruelty waits for you in the darkness; his father’s eyes used to loom out of there darkness, angry and disappointed.
The cyclist looks through the glass and taps with a rap, taps and peers more closely, before his lips break open into a bloody, broken toothed grin, a blackened tongue licking a speck of blood from his top lip.
Roger tried again to escape, to find that gap.
These riders had no fear of death, dipping in and out of visibility into the night.
Gazing at the rider his blood slowed, ice cold, and he placed a hand over the air conditioning vents, wondering if the system had broken somehow, but no air leaked out.
He looked frantically back at the road, aware of the man’s cold eyes boring into him, desperately seeking a gap which didn’t appear – but then…
Then it was there, his chance; an opening, to the front right, on a sharp hairpin.
Forcing his foot down on the accelerator he barely cared if he hit a cyclist, it was time to break free of their malicious game; firing his vehicle in through the space, hurtling around the bend, but, no…
For one moment he found himself through, clear, but then turning the corner he is greeted by the blare of oncoming headlights, a big Green, mud splattered Land Rover and a strangers horn raging at him to give way,but there is no time, no space.
A swerve, then he’s battling with the steering wheel, fighting a skid, as his SUV spins uncontrollably into bushes, the rolls into the forest, the world tumbling and coming apart; a world now turning.
Then an explosion of bright orange pain lighting Roger up, as the world turned red then black, the last thing he would think of: black eyes and a broken smile.
It never used to be like this James mused as he glanced back at the car leaving the road, listening to the explosion of flame behind. He missed the pleasure these rides used to give him, give all of them, so long ago before cycling became an endless, relentless journey.
Sometimes it feels like they never stop riding now and he strains to picture a time when they weren’t here like like this, hurtling along this twisting, winding path. There was a time, warm days, hurtling downhill, climbing up, there was a time when he enjoyed this.
The way they used to ride was so different, not like now. These days their group has become a more stretched partnership, a fisherman’s net stretched out along the road then gathered in when errant motorists couldn’t resist the trap.
He lived for this now, but doubted this was any way to live, then he wondered about that, trying to capture a thought which appeared only in the periphery, indistinct, which then fled as his mind returned to the hunt, to the prey.
Tonight’s prey was a grey man with red cheeks and tiny angry eyes, hair greased and receding, screaming at them. This was everything now, daring them to pass on dangerous corners, then drawing close about them like a noose round a killer’s neck.
Was there a time when it was like this, James wondered, and then answered himself as he remembered there was something before this, before, the incident.
Before the incident, before everything changed, they used to ride together as a tight compact group. Interchangeable members of a team as they took to the hills, the strong dragging the weak uphill at a pace, then swapping positions in the pack if you too began to struggle on a climb, your razor sharp front wheel often the merest centimetre from your mate.
They shared a fierce union and friendship, which James recalled warmly; trust and concentration essential to avoid careering at thirty miles an hour into another cyclist.
Back then, they rode solely as a tight compact group, seldom separating, but since they began riding in the darkness, they needed be so close, couldn’t be, as they plunged forwards into to the black night. After what happened, they rode solely for revenge, which required them to be a looser group.
What did happen, James grimaced as he tried to remember, the thought slipping away as he swung away from the side of the fragile monster, as the grey man tried to take control which was never his.
Not all drivers took the bait, most didn’t in fact, but they waited on the ones who couldn’t resist the temptation, they waited on the one who started all this, who left them for dead.
They sought them out.
Then there is was again, memories flooding in, and he remembered it all.
Everything they had lost, all these rides used to be about.
James hurtled along the road, each imperfection in the tarmac pressing and testing his gloved hands, straining arms and shoulders equal to it all.
James missed the days when they used to ride for pleasure, but not nearly as much as he missed his wife, his kids; his life. He longed for that life, longed to remember more of it, but he struggled to recall much of anything lately except that moment, which constantly recurs, which lives at the front of his mind, the moment the driver crashed into them. Smashed into them.
His old life is just a dream, a flavour, a scent on the wind. The crash is the main course. Ever present.
The day replayed in his mind: a group of twelve men, aged between twenty and sixty-five, but mostly wearing the middle-aged tag with little grace, refusing to bow to the inevitable, forcing themselves up steep hills, then picking up even more speed as they headed down, the countryside a green blur.
They rode in a precise union, guiding each other around potholes and hazards, were on that day nearly halfway through a sixty miler, heading for a halfway lunch at a small café near Hatfield, with laughter and cake, and a bubbly waitress who always flirted with young Terence, the youngest of their group, still young enough in fact, to not notice the flirting.
The food was always sweet and unhealthy, the laughter almost drunken in pitch, a pile of expensive bikes stacked against a nearby dry-stone wall.
It was a Saturday morning, dry but overcast; perfect cycling weather, and they sped along, the thought of cream buns and black coffee overcoming the strain in the legs, swapping places from time to time to give the front riders some rest.
You always had to concentrate on these rides, but it was worth it. The team ride was something akin to a football match, closer even, and the camaraderie of the group came as a welcome relief to the collective day jobs, a retreat from bickering office politics or the duties of home and fatherhood.
“Not far to go”, James called from the front, the message then passed back through the group, and the group eased up a touch, beginning to cool down ahead of their break, thinking of scones with jam and fresh whipped cream, not knowing how close they were to the end of their journey.
James often rode at the head of the peloton. Not quite as fast as Terence, he possessed a stamina which should see him through another thirty years or more of these rides. Or until the knees went. Because the knees had to go eventually.
James remembered the moment.
It was there, it was always there, on that same hairpin turn.
They were always there now it seemed to James, riding towards the corner, or riding away.
But that afternoon as they approached, they heard the sound before they saw it, the low angry, growl of a car refusing to wait. The riders at the rear anxiously checking behind them in a chin to shoulder motion, as the growl became a roar, the driver veered round them on the corner, only to find a black Mercedes coming the other way, then smashing into them to avoid the collision, crushing them.
He recalled standing there by the side of the road, a shadow bike standing beside him. His bike and body both lay twisted and broken at his feet, a pool of bloody spreading out and running into the dusty earth at the side of the road. He watched the driver race away, escaping the harm he’d caused, screaming at him, vowing revenge.
James assumed some of the peloton must have survived that day, as their group was now reduced from twelve to seven. He hoped the others survived, although there was only one who still cycled on Cold Christmas Lane.
Barry Wilson, a retired policeman who used to like to make jokes with puns in them which made them all groan, but still made them laugh as well.
He was the only they saw, the only one they knew for certain had escaped, poor old Barry, who’d spent the last twenty years of his career as a desk sergeant, checking in low level Tottenham criminals and Friday night drunk.
Barry, who had always struggled at the tail of the Pack, but who they dragged along on their slipstream nonetheless. Urged to stay with them.
Part of the gang.
Barry the lone rider, these days. James hoped the others avoided this road because of the bad memories it stirred in them, rather than because of wheel chairs or missing limbs.
On Barrys straining leg a long white-grey scar now streaked up into purple lycra. They saw their old friend, crawling up hills alone, face straining with the effort, so whenever they saw him they dropped into place in front and pulled him along in their slipstream, towing him up the hill.
Whenever he reached that corner, he always said hello to them, where it happened, so they wondered if maybe he really did sense them, even if he couldn’t see them.
“Alright lads,” he call out, breathing heavily, “I’m still here boys, riding for you – see you next week.”
Lately, James had begun to long for the ride to stop, wondering whether they would ever catch him, the man in the silver grey Mercedes who escaped the scene of devastation he’d caused without mercy, blazing away and over the hill.
He longed to escape this life.
Then he dropped down a gear, beginning a steep climb and he wondered if the ghosts of riders and drivers now lined up along the lane like tombstones would ever be enough to allow them to reach the end of their journey.
Note on the story.
Declaration of interest here.
I’m a cyclist. A fairly keen cyclist. Not, I hope, one of those shouty militant cyclists, although like any road user, I have my moments. I’m not one of those car driving cyclists who wear t-shirts informing you of their positive road tax status (because I’ve never driven a car in my life ;0)). I’m not a club rider, zooming up and down the hills in a peloton, in a pack like James and his friends, although when I see them zooming past I do understand the appeal.
I’m just a bloke on a bike in black and orange lycra, an orange so bright it might damage your retinas, but if you do crash into me, not seeing me cannot be your excuse.
Generally , I find equal irritation with a small number of cyclists and car drivers alike.
Both tribes have their morons, but thankfully the numbers of idiots are relatively low in each camp (although I’ll admit us cyclists are winning on YouTube in the smug git stakes – although without the smug gits we’d have missed out on that video of the fat bloke chasing the cyclist and falling over).
So, although I write this story with a very slight bias towards the cyclist, I’m generally of the opinion we should all make more of an effort to be considerate to each other on the road (drivers: don’t overtake if there isn’t room; cyclists try to move over when safe to let the cars backing up behind you pass and for Christ’s sake learn to look behind you before you pull out), then maybe we could all get home safely.
For the use of the image: [+ https://www.flickr.com/photos/soozed/9733390653/in/photolist-fQ7aWe-irQmUM-pwkmrX-rDyzH-7ys6F7-sdPEc-sWD8-77xbrc-6wr46-93BoL2-5geXsj-7WQPgx-4nHQFp-5xKNzN-dhCQ1A-8bspVr-AnAyuP-9frNmC-77×7Da-77ASDu-coSymm-cpPfWd-pwngr7-coRF8d-9maz2y-pL8uvz-yHK4V1-69Ehx2-x8TQr5-5Y5f2Y-6nEFg8-cLhd-jT5QGf-cpPino-8CtHtv-dauf5b-cuxqv9-Hivus-bqC5iA-4SsyaJ-nzb5z-ofvGf-coQK7A-coSWk1-coSStG-coSDPN-coSdMU-6yB6ZF-apbXSz-bRViyR+]
Roger just wants to get home. Friday night, beer in the fridge. Trying to escape the week. But first he has to get past these damned cyclists. They seem to be everywhere. He’s desperate to get past, but they block him on every turn. It seems they have something in mind for him. Can he escape them. James used to love cycling. But drivers like Roger ruined it all. James, like Roger, just wants to go home.