It is 1980, East Anglia, and American bases – with their acres and acres of Cruise missiles all pointing East – surround the boootiful medieval city of Norwich. We all know about the 4-minute-warning. So I buy my first new bicycle. It is a Falcon tourer, but I call it a racer, much to the disgust of my pal Ian who is a serious time-trialler but teaches me patiently how to change the very tricky derailleur gears. I am the inordinately proud owner of a red racer with 18 gears, my first ever drop handlebars, and narrow-profile tyres. And, being a science student, I work out how many square centimetres of tyre are in contact with the tarmac when I am going at full pelt. The answer is 4.72 – in other words, it feels like flying.
My turquoise Puch-Picnic folding bike, with tyres as wide as feet, is immediately sold to my housemate who loves the massively heavy thing with its seat broad enough for two. And I am almost at Yarmouth – out on my first ‘flight’ – by the time she finds that the folding mechanism has a mind of its own, and tends to open on right-hand corners because, during her first-of-many preening sessions with it, she unwound the unsightly wire that I had wrapped round to keep the damn thing shut.
It is the following week. In just 7 days I have cycled almost 500 miles of Norfolk. My sitting bones certainly know about it, my hair is permanently stiff with rape pollen, and my cheek muscles ache from so much grinning. I am cycling back into the city from UEA, straight down Earlham Road, my fingers sticky with dead fruit flies and I am wondering if being a scientist is really going to be as exciting as I’d hoped. About 400metres ahead, I spot a male student creaking along, very upright, on a bashed-up bike. He is rabbit to greyhound, and I’m off, cranking up the gears, hunkering down low over my drops. And I decide to pass him so close he can feel the wind of my passing. I love that phrase “the wind of my passing” and I am turning it over in my head as I eat the distance between us until, just as I get to him, it makes me think of farts, and I very slightly wobble.
The outside edge of my left pedal clips the outside edge of his right pedal and, because the object that is me and my wonderful bike has a velocity far greater than him and his rusting hulk, the inevitable occurs and the faster-moving object is launched into a violent accelerating trajectory across the road, while the slow-moving object barely wobbles and continues its careful way. I am a classic example of The Slingshot Method used to accelerate space-probes.
My violent trajectory coincides with the 26 bus chugging its way up the Earlham Road towards UEA. I am, literally, flying towards it. Number of square centimetres of tyre in contact with the tarmac = 0. And then number of square centimetres of my right leg, my right arm, the right side of my unhelmeted head in contact with the tarmac = A Great Deal. And I’ve still not stopped. And I am looking up into the terrified face of the driver who is hauling back with all his might on the steering wheel as if it was a joystick and he could pull the number 26 into a steep ascent into the wide Norfolk skies. And the bus wheels are jammed and squealing but still sliding at considerable speed towards me as I slide towards them. And then my bike disappears under those wheels and I see the hand-made narrow-profile rear wheel crunching under the bus’s massive tyre and the next thing it will crunch over is my left leg and I feel the hot rubber of the wheel grind into my shin… and then everything manages to stop. Except my heart. And all the blood pumping from the scours all over my right side. And this appalling pain in my right arm that is at all sorts of ridiculous, and frankly impossible, angles.
And then the bus driver jumps down and lands in a heap in the middle of the road because his legs have gone to jelly; and the guy I tried to overtake with the wind of my passing is there taking off his tatty cardigan and folding it to cushion my head and speaking very calmly; and Roisin who was on my corridor in residencies last year has come rushing out of the bus with her matching polka dot handbag and her matching polka dot hat with a tiny veil and her matching polka dot frock and, as ever, looking like she lives in the 1950s, and, after only the briefest of pauses, she presses her beautifully-ironed matching polka dot handkerchief to my face, which appears to be crying and bleeding, and informs me eagerly – and almost continuously: “God told me to come out of the house early today. God told me. God told me to come out of the house early today. He didn’t say why, but God told me.”