It was a beautiful morning, a Saturday in October, and I was having tea with my next-door neighbour. We began talking – for this was almost 20 years ago – about the road the government was intending to build around the town of Newbury, some 30 miles away. When the machinery moved in, we planned to join the protests. People were already starting to build platforms in the trees. “Let’s go down and take a look.”
A train was due to leave in half an hour. We threw sleeping bags and warm clothes into our pannier bags, jumped on our bikes and sprinted to the station. We arrived just as the train was leaving. “Why don’t we just cycle there?”.
We had missed our breakfast and had no food or water, but there were bound to be shops or pubs along the way. We would keep off the roads as much as possible, following bridleways and footpaths.
At first we sailed along, feeling buoyant and free. It was one of those autumn days in which the sky seemed cleaner and brighter than at any time during the summer. Then the paths started cutting across fields which had recently been ploughed, and our urban bikes became snarled up with mud. A pregnant grey cloud blotted out the sun and hail began pelting down. This was the point at which my friend discovered that his raincoat, which had been clipped to the top of his bike rack, had fallen off. He went back to look for it. I decided to wait in the field.
The hail soon turned to rain. I was still steamed up, so it felt refreshing as it soaked into my t-shirt. After a while I began to feel a little cold. But – and this is the nail of idiocy on which the story hangs – I thought of Exmoor ponies and the way they stand with their backs to the rain until it passes. If they could do it, so could I.
By the time my friend returned I was shivering. But I was reluctant to change my clothes, as I knew we would soon get hot again crossing the fields. The rain had ceased, but now our bikes slithered across the wet path. By the time we hit firmer ground I was very hungry. I was surprised to find that I was still shivering.
We rode over the downs to a village in which, we were sure, there would be a shop. There wasn’t. The pub was shut. No matter: we would eat in Newbury. By the time we reached a long slope leading up to the Ridgeway – the Neolithic path that traverses southern England – I had ceased to feel either cold or hungry. Mind over matter, I told myself: I had triumphed over discomfort.
But there was something wrong with my bicycle. The wheels wouldn’t go round. I turned the bike over and found to my surprise that they spun freely. I started pushing it up the hill, but again it seemed to be snagged. My friend gallantly offered to swap. But there was something wrong with his bicycle too. It felt absurdly heavy, and the wheels also seemed to be jammed.
We remounted when we reached the Ridgeway. Even on the level track I could scarcely force the pedals round. We reached the metalled road, and I sat like a pudding as we freewheeled down a shallow slope. Then I slowly toppled off the bike. I stumbled backwards into the hedge beside the road, where I lay spreadeagled.
“Are you all right?”.
“I’ve never felt better. But I can’t actually move.” I felt as if I were lying in a warm bath. I could move my mouth and eyes but little else. I had never experienced such deep peace.
“Um, I think we should get some help,” my friend ventured. “No really, I’m fine.” “I think we ought to get help.” My friend, who is not renowned for his assertiveness, stood by the road, half raising a hand to the passing traffic: “Um, excuse me … Would you mind …”. I watched with amusement as the cars whizzed past. Then a big black thing stopped and a blond giant stepped out. He was dressed in black, he had a crewcut and muscles everywhere. He brushed past my friend and seized me by the shoulders.
“What’s your name?” “George.” What’s your name?!” “I just told you – George.” “What’s your name?!!” Who was this rude man, I wondered, and why couldn’t he just leave me alone? He turned to my friend. “What have you got in your bags?” “Um, sleeping bags, coats -”. “You’re carrying sleeping bags and he’s – fuck, I’ve seen it all now.”
He pulled out a sleeping bag, lifted me up as if I were a cat and dropped me into it. “What’s your name?”. “I just told you -”. “Shut up! What’s your name?”. He walked into the road, his great hands raised to the traffic. The first car stopped. “Chocolate, sweets, whatever you’ve got.” Terrified, the woman in the car scrabbled in her bag, then handed him a bar of chocolate.
He returned to me. “This is very kind of you, but I’m quite all right really -” “Shut up! What’s your name?” He started feeding me the chocolate. It was plainly safer to obey than to resist this madman, so I ate it. He called the ambulance. “Really, there’s no need -” He stopped more cars, forcing them to disgorge a pile of sweets and chocolates. “I don’t have much of a sweet tooth to be honest -” “Shut up! What’s your name?”
The ambulance arrived. They wrapped me in a space blanket and took my temperature. They seemed to be making a terrible fuss about nothing. The black car drove away. They put the sirens on and kept using the thermometer: my temperature had fallen, I was later told, to half a degree above the point at which they would have lost me.
In hospital the nurse told me I would need “the full treatment”. “No. What?” “Hot chocolate and toast and honey.” Half an hour after I arrived I sat up and swung my legs off the bed: suddenly fit and well and buzzing with sugar. It took me a few hours to realise that the blond giant (we guessed he was an army paramedic) had saved my life.
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