Freewheeling

A short story by
PHILIP CHARTER

The sport of cycling attracts a particular type of sadist; one who revels in the punishment of screaming lungs and burning legs. Riding was the only time Luke Robson felt in control, really in control – it was him against the road. He had spent all week daydreaming about racking up the kilometers and now he was free, if only for a few hours.

            The city was still heating up in the late morning. North Africa was always hot, just another thing that Luke couldn’t control. He was supposed to be overseeing the installation of a new municipal water system, but things weren’t progressing much.

            “How’s work coming along?” asked Gabby.

            “Slowly, love, slowly. We’ve hit a roadblock with another community that wants to be ‘compensated.’”

            “God. People have always got their hand out here.”

            “Well it’s not that sim—”

            “I thought it was supposed to be wrapped up by now.” She always cut him off. And now she was even less patient.

“Still tinkering? I swear you pay more attention to that thing than you do to me.”

            Luke looked up from his brake calipers, like he’d been caught in bed with another woman. “Just getting ready to go out. I’m doing the whole loop today, can’t wait.”

            Gabby pursed her lips, “What time will you be back? Greg and Amanda are coming for dinner.”

            “I didn’t forget, I’ll be back to help I promise, just don’t expect me to go running off to the shops if you forget anything, not after six hours in the saddle.”

            She sighed a tired sigh, “I don’t know how much longer I can do this on my own Luke.”

            He paused “Do what on your own?”

            “This,” she waved an arm out of the window at the heat. “I’m pregnant if you haven’t noticed, I don’t want to bring a child up in this, this dustbowl. I want to have the baby back home.”

            “But we talked about this, Love, we agreed,” Luke laid his hand on Gabby’s shoulder. “We’ve got everything we need here, and besides it’s no good for a family to be apart.”

            “I just want what’s best for the baby.” She was raising her voice now.

            “And I want what’s best for this family. Look, let’s talk about this when I get back OK?”

            “Mmm, we’ll talk later.”

            She gave him a peck on the cheek, leaning from a distance because of the baby bump. She always kissed that side to avoid the scar on his right eye. Luke thought it looked like a faded viking battle wound, but Gabby encouraged him to wear his sunglasses for photos. The Bond villain scar had come from a fight with a burglar he had lost in his own Yorkshire home. Really, it was the crowbar that won the fight, the kid had scarpered in fear and was never caught. There was no damage to his eye, but people always stared, they wanted to know the story.

            Over the past few months, he had been working up to this ride, ratcheting up the distance. The route in question was a 140 km loop with a lot of cumulative elevation, it had been used as a stage on the World Tour a few years back. He wasn’t physically gifted, if anything he was skinny, but Luke was determined, and that goes a long way in cycling.

            Luke carried his bike down the compound stairs and asked the doorman to open the gate. Freedom.

            The wheels cut a path down the road, the air rushing past his ears. The rear cassette spun like a football clacker as he freewheeled around the bends. The roads weren’t as bad as they used to be, although the tarmac laid down before the big race was starting to crack. He looked out for potholes and stray rocks.

            Luke maintained a steady pressure, driving the gears, up to eighty revolutions a minute in his hill climbing gear. As he snaked up the incline, a pickup truck struggled up behind him. A gangly teenager sat in the back, staring.

            “Come on round,” he motioned for it to overtake.

            The vehicle drew level, engine screaming, its thick exhaust fumes engulfing Luke. It eventually got in front and disappeared over the brow of the hill. Luke clenched his teeth and chased it.

            At the top, the treeline broke and a vast, lunar mountain range appeared. The tiny buildings looked like they had been sprinkled from a great height. Some tiny white specks shifted in a dusty field. Luke looked up at the high sun and started down the slope.

            As Luke’s speed increased, so did his confidence. Up to almost 70 kilometres per hour, he didn’t want to lose momentum. He gripped the brake levers and ducked down to minimise air resistance. According to his cycle computer, he was about two thirds of the way round the course and making good time.

            The road was starting to flatten out, and Luke snaked left past a small group of mud brick houses. The bend was tighter than it first appeared and the bike drifted out, toying with a shallow ditch. Luke fought to keep the bike on tarmac, but the front wheel entered the jaws of the trap at too high a speed. It dug into the dirt and Luke felt the rim crack under the pressure of the impact. He knew he had no chance of controlling the fall. As he tried to unclip his shoes from the pedals, a thought flashed into consciousness. Instead of thinking of his wife, his family or his unborn child, the face of his teenage assailant with the crowbar came into focus. He flew through the air, finally separated from his charge; reaching to protect his face rather than relaxing for impact to avoid broken bones. He shut his eyes.

            A splash of cool water brought him back to earth. His neck and arm and chest hurt, must be the collarbone. Luke got to his feet and checked his appendages with a shaking hand, they all seemed all there. He was shivering, wet through, his cycling top was torn at the arm and sticking to his chest – a large puddle had cushioned his fall and reduced the damage, he had been lucky. He hobbled towards the buildings on the corner, his plastic cycling shoes clip-clopping on the tarmac.

***

The old man raised the teapot up high, pouring the steaming liquid with pinpoint accuracy. By now, the process was ritual, each step performed with perfect form. Luke picked up the glass with his good hand, and blew on the tea. His other arm was cradled in a sling, held in place by two large safety pins.

            “A salaam alaikum, you’re very kind.” Luke leaned back in the armchair.

            The old man grinned back at him through grey stubble. There were four more glasses to fill. He squatted down with the legs of a much younger man. Yazir and Fatima, the couple, sat together on the sofa in long plain robes, hands on knees. Their child with its big tuft of black hair, sat next to them. He couldn’t have been more than five, but he already had his own little cup, the tea cooling next to the others. He stared in silence, his gaze fixed on Luke’s scar.

            “D’où êtes-vous, l’Espagne?” asked Yazir

            “England. Angleterre. Sorry. Je ne pas Francais.”

            “Ahh Englan’ . . . very good. Musique.”

            “Yes, yes. Do you have a telephone?” said Luke making a mobile shape with his hand.

            “Le Queen – Le Champions, good.” Yazir was still thinking other British rock songs he knew.

            Past the mud brick doorway lay two bedrooms and a kitchen just big enough to hold the range and some pots. A breeze blew through the open window and Luke could hear goats clattering around in the pen outside. 

            After a few back and forth gestures, it turned out that they didn’t have a phone, but there was a neighbour who might be able to help. Luke was old enough that he remembered the time before phones, without distraction and without interference. The few hours each week that Luke left his phone at home he felt at ease.

            Gabby asked him to take it when he went out. “What if you get lost, or need help. What then?”

            She even put it in his back pocket once, but he took it out before leaving. He was going to get the full ‘I told you so’ now. Even with the cycle computer, the carbon fibre bike, the electrolyte drink and breathable fabric, Luke was now at the mercy of a goat herder’s neighbour . . . who was seemingly out. This might be the end of the unaccompanied rides into the wilderness.

            He settled back into the chair and tried to rest. There wouldn’t be much traffic passing on a Sunday night, he would have to wait and see. Yazir got up to look at the broken wheel, tea in hand. He tutted and shook his head. 

            The sun was setting, bathing the hills in purples and yellows. The family insisted on giving Luke the full tour. It was a spectacular location, nestled between mountain ridges. As well as introducing Luke to the goats, Yazir showed off his pride and joy – the vegetable garden. Luke had had to fight for space in his own pokey kitchen in order to install a tiny herb garden, now he stood before this veritable oasis.

            The garden was planned to perfection, every available space used. A pump handle well fed irrigation channels running between the plants. Luke tried to test out the pumping mechanism, but his neck and shoulder still hurt from the fall. The sunflowers, beans, and squashes peered out from between thick leaves.

            Inside Luke showed his cycle computer to Yazir and his little son. “It’s only 42 kilometers back to the city,” he said.

             The boy was more interested in trying to get into one of the energy gel sachets. Yazir snatched the packet from his mouth.

            After dinner, the neighbour arrived. Thankfully he spoke a smattering of English. He held his woollen waistcoat trying to catch his breath under his thick beard.

            “Hello, my friend, I Hamid. What your name?”

            “I am Luke, nice to meet you.” He smiled sheepishly, pointing to his collarbone, not able to offer his hand.

            “Where you come by, the city?”

            “Yes, I need to get back to my wife in the city,” he made the rounded sign of a pregnant belly.

            Hamid looked at the family, raising an eyebrow.

            “You have telephon’ number your wife?”

            Luke scrolled through his memory, but his wife’s number wasn’t in the rolodex. “Err, you can call the office”. He asked for a pen and paper and wrote the following note:

            Luke Robson had a cycling accident and is unable to come into work. He will return to the office when transport is available.”

            “Can you read it OK?”

            “Yes yes, my friend, I call wife OK?”

            “No no, it’s my office, the office. My company, you understand?”

            Hamid looked blank.

            Luke wrote down the team secretary’s name, and the number. He prayed the message would get through.

 

***

 

            The smell of fresh bread filled the lounge. Luke’s shoulder still hurt but he felt rested after a night on the sofa. The old man was scurrying back and forth with the tea set, whilst Fatima toasted some type of pancakes on a griddle.

 

            Hamid burst in through the wooden door, ducking as he entered.

            “My friend, your wife call many time.” His eyes were lit up. “She say no working today.”

            “Tell her I will get home when I can.” Luke looked out of the door at the road. It wasn’t worth going all the way to the neighbour’s farm to speak with her, the trucks would start passing soon.

            The old man offered tea to Hamid. He drank it standing up, shifting from foot to foot, babbling about important neighborhood business.

            Yazir and the boy were dressed and ready for the day ahead.

            “Good morning,” Luke greeted them as they came in. “Thank you again for your hospitality,” he clasped his hands together. He wanted to give the family something to thank them, but had nothing with him. “Can I help with your goats today?” he suddenly found himself offering.

            They would welcome an extra pair of hands, and there it would be easy enough to get back to the city. Besides, he didn’t feel able to struggle through meetings – handshakes and smiles. Apart from the grazes and sore collarbone, Luke was enjoying his freedom. Herding goats had to be easier than his usual Monday business.

            Hamid translated the offer of help to Yazir. The old man looked at his son and they laughed. Yazir slapped Luke on the back and pointed out toward the field.

            After breakfast the men headed out to drive the goats towards greenery. It was no easy task. The hills were barren. The air was still. It was early, before the heat of the day.

            “Yalla yalla.” Yazir directed the goats, giving the stragglers and occasional tap with his stick. Luke held the right flank, vigilant, Yazir was on the left and the boy in the middle, marching along. The boy watched Luke’s awkward shuffling steps in his borrowed sandals.

After nearly an hour of stopping and starting, they reached a small hill covered with scrubby plants and patches of brown grass. Breakfast had arrived for the goats, who consumed whatever they could. They stripped the leaves from low lying bushes and plants like they were pulling the meat off a kebab stick. This was all so simple – no protracted negotiations, no forms to sign in triplicate, and no need to think about the digital requirements and social media implications. The goats just ate.

            “What’s that?” Luke pointed out a small wooden sign.

            Yazir smiled. “For sale. Hamid sale.”

            It hadn’t even crossed his mind that people bought and sold land here. The quiet life must be pretty cheap, a few thousand for a decent plot. Luke suddenly found himself marshalling his own herd, calling the names one by one. Maybe staying here had been a mistake. The more time he spent here, the more he dreaded the return to the compound.

            An idea started to form in Luke’s mind. He had always wanted his own project. He wanted to provide the best life for his little family, and this was beautiful. Simple. It was as if the bright sunshine had scorched an imprint of the three of them there, pulling up vegetables, not locking the doors and windows like back in Yorkshire. Gabby would take some convincing, but Luke never backed down from a challenge.

            The rocks were too hot to sit on, so they watched the animals in silence and shuffled about to try and keep from overheating.

Luke rummaged around in his top pocket and extracted an energy packet. He pressed it into the hand of the boy, who looked at him wide-eyed. He ruffled his black hair. He reached into his pocket again to get his phone for a picture, but remembered it wasn’t there.

            When the herders returned, the family said their goodbyes and Yazir stayed with Luke to help flag down a passing car or truck. Luke stood in his bright cycling gear, much taller than the shepherd whose cotton robe reached his sandals. There was no sign of the crash from yesterday, no skid-marks, and no water on the road, evaporated. Luke’s bike lay next to him waiting patiently. A brown lorry approached the bend and Yazir squinted into the sun and waved his arms high.

 

***

 

            Luke straightened his back and rested on the pickaxe handle. Summer was coming to an end and he wanted to get planting in the hope he would have something to pull up by the end of the year.

            Even after softening the ground, digging was tough. He had put the well in a week ago, using a contact at work to get an easy-to-install kit. The fun part would come in a few months, but the tranquil farm life that he had craved felt a lot like hard work now, just a breeze and the occasional passing bird for company.

            Gabby had sent a few messages, but they still hadn’t spoken. She used to be his biggest supporter, cheering him on during his cycling races back in England. Not anymore. She had someone more important to think about, someone he hadn’t even met yet. The baby couldn’t grow up in some underdeveloped backwater. Too hot. Too dry.

            “It needs a bit of work, but it’s a wonderful place, great for a family,” he had said. “Not too far from the city, you have to see it at least.”

            “You’re mad if you think I’m going out all that way to look at a big piece of dirt. What will happen to the house back home? What about your parents, and mine? You’re just not thinking straight.”

            “That’s it. I am, it’s you who isn’t getting it. We came here to get away, to make a new start. We don’t need all of that bullshit to be happy. The garden, the mountains, and such nice people. It’s pure, Gabby.”

            “I can’t talk to you when you’re being this pig headed. If you do this, then you can count me out.” She folded her arms on top of her swollen stomach.

            “You can’t make threats like that” Luke’s voice was cracking. “I’ve already committed to it. It’s no money, and I’ll still be working. I’ll cycle in every day.”

            “There’s not even any mobile service out there, I had to call up that bloody madman four times to get a message to you.”

            “Well you never miss these things when you don’t—”

            “Arrgghh. It’s not up for discussion. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

            “So you’re just going to run home. I am doing this for us. You know I can’t come back with you.” He shut his eyes.

 

            Gabby was true to her word and had gone back to Yorkshire. She had cut him out of their lives. Nevertheless, Luke had spent his evenings and weekends preparing the house and the garden, getting ready for the arrival of his family. He still had eight months left on his work contract and was already thinking about whether to keep on gambling, or just fold. He still hoped.

            He got the occasional progress report from the grandparents. Mother and baby doing fine, she’ll come around. He had seen the photos, but Luke felt like Gabby had conjured his son out of nowhere and stolen him away before he could even lay eyes on him. At least he felt at peace on the farm; they would be impressed at how far it had come, he sent regular updates.

            He rubbed his eyes and thought about finishing up for the day. Why didn’t he just call it quits? Going back to basics didn’t seem selfish to him, but his family and friends had already rallied around Gabby and the baby. His back and shoulders hurt from digging. Just another few meters would do, then he could pop over and see the neighbours. It had been a while since he delivered a bike for the little boy, a thank you for everything they had done.

 

            The sun was beginning to cast its shadow over the hills. Luke needed to rest before the ride into work tomorrow. He lifted the pickaxe and started to head back towards the house. He saw a familiar figure making his way across the field in his robe and sandals. Hamid held his kufi in place as he skipped towards him. 

            “Luke, Luke! Incredible.”

            “What is it?”

            “Mrs. Luke call me.”

            “What? Are you sure? When? What did she say,” his heart was pounding.

            “She say you call her.”

            “She wants to speak?” Luke felt a surge of energy. “Oh Hamid, I could hug you . . . you.”

            He gripped his neighbour in a tight embrace. Hamid smiled, revealing a missing tooth.

            “En y va.” He turned and headed towards the road that led to his property, signalling for Luke to follow. SLQ

 

Philip Charter is a British writer who currently lives in Pamplona, Spain. Between writing fiction, songs and poems, he runs a blog about teaching and travel. His work has been featured in Flash Fiction, Storgy and Carillon magazines.