Sunday, 2 March 2014

The Price You Pay

People I Have Met On The Road - 1

Homeless Cyclist
Most of my encounters with other cyclists are happy ones but a meeting with a cyclist last week left me with very mixed feelings.
Due to a break in the wet and stormy weather of the past three months, my cycle ride from my home in Canterbury (UK) the other day was the first since November.

It was great to be back on the bike, breathing country air, instead of driving around in a tin box and peering through a (wet) glass screen. The sun shone on me all the way to the coast at Whitstable and astounded me by shining the rest of the day. It cheered me up no end. I remarked upon this uplift in my mood when I saw another cyclist coming out of the bakers shop in the High Street. I had already noticed his bike parked outside and seen by the luggage that it was the mount of a long-distance cyclist. I could also see from plastic bags encasing his luggage that the rider had been struggling with the incessant rain.

"It hasn't been great weather for cycling, mate," I said as he arrived, pasty in hand. "Where have you ridden from?"

"Oh, just Dover today," he replied, shyly.

He sounded American but having embarrassed myself too many times before with this, I overcompensated.

"You a Canadian then?" I said.

"What? Oh no I'm from Montana – North America." His accent was now garbled – skewed by a mouth-full of pasty.

"So where were you before Dover?" I asked.

"Oh, Europe. Holland; Belgium before that; Germany before that; France; Switzerland; Italy." He thought carefully. "Slovakia before that I think; Hungary and Bulgaria; Turkey; Armenia." He laughed. China; I've been all over."

"Where are you heading now?" I asked.

"Oh, just somewhere to sit and eat my pie."

I decided not to point out that this was a pasty, not a pie. I think the English already have a reputation with Americans for being pedantic. I told him there was a bench just along by the library. I was going that way so I walked with him. Once we arrived I sat on the bench to finish our conversation. He had asked if I was a cyclist. I told him I was and had covered some of his route when cycling with my son to Japan in 2008. He asked me a lot about this and about the father - son dynamic. I asked if he had kids. He was silent for a moment. I assumed this was due to a mouthful of pasty, but his face looked pained – I mean more pained than it already did. He had a weathered and unkempt appearance and the aroma of damp dirty clothes overpowered that of the pasty.

"I did have kids," he said quietly.

 He had stopped eating. I felt I shouldn't have asked. I waited for him to say more but it was a while before he did.

"I had two kids – a boy and a girl. We were in a car accident. I survived but they didn't."

My stomach felt like it was screwing itself into a tighter and tighter knot. What should I say? I didn't want anything I said to be cliched. I thought hard as my skin continued to tingle.

"Was your wife – I mean the kids' mother in the car?"

"We're divorced now. She works – has a pretty high powered job. I was unemployed. I had problems. Alcohol dependency." He coughed as he said the last bit and spoke the words like he was hoarse. "She called me late morning and said her mother was sick and couldn't get to school in the afternoon to collect the kids. You see, I wanted to do something good for a change. Prove I could be reliable, so I said no problem... I would be there. I was nervous though – about other parents we knew seeing me there. Looking such a state and all. So I shaved and bathed and dressed right, then at the appointed time I drove over to the school. I was so fixated on doing it right, I got there an hour early."

He sighed deeply. His hands were clasping his knees tight. I could guess what was coming, though I hoped I might be wrong.

"So, near the school there's... there's a bar. I'd never been there, but I knew it was there. I thought I'd have a coffee but for some reason when I got to the counter I found myself ordering bourbon." He ran his hands through his long greasy hair and hesitated again. "I was late getting the kids. A teacher was waiting with them. I apologised and she looked at me funny. I suppose she smelled the drink. Well I know she did, because that's what she told the police. I don't understand how I could walk away from the accident and not them. They..." There was another long pause before he spoke again. "I never saw my wife again. She made sure she didn't even see me at the court. My family was devastated of course, same as hers. They all disowned me. The divorce was a paper exercise. That was nine years ago and I've been travelling ever since. I took my bike, my passport, some clothes and the little money I had and I just went. Nine years I've been on the road. All over the world and I don't know how to stop. I only know how to keep going – keep pedalling. I don't know what's at the end – but I can guess."

"You should get some help," I said. "I mean you didn't want your kids to die. It was an accident. Alcoholism does that. Didn't they offer you any therapy after the accident?"

"I felt like a criminal," he said. "I did very nearly go to prison... They thought I'd suffered enough. I suppose I felt I didn't deserve help – still don't. The price you pay – that's what I think, the price you pay. Best for me to drink myself to death, that's what I thought afterwards. I tried, I really did, but it wouldn't happen. I don't drink now. Just stopped one day. Maybe I'll get hit by a truck?"

"You should see a doctor," I said. "Tell them what has happened to you. They'll get you some help – I could come with you to arrange for you to see a doctor?"

"Thanks," he said, "I have an old friend in London. He wrote a couple of times. Someone sent on the letters to my solicitor. That's where I'm headed – the friend. Despite what happened he still wants to see me. The only one who does. A Christian, you see. Trying to earn his ticket into heaven I suppose." He laughed for the first time. "Works with unemployed kids I think. Anyway he'll help me out. I feel more ready to be helped now."

"Maybe you should take the train to London?" I suggested. He looked in quite a bad state. "I could pay for your ticket."

"You're too kind," he said. "No I like to ride. I find it healing. It calms me. Somehow when I'm cycling everything seems kind of... pre-destined. Thanks, it's been a real help talking to someone about it. I usually keep it to myself but... I don't know why but I just felt I could tell you. Is that okay?"

"Of course it's okay," I said. "It was a privilege to hear your story. It's very sad, but perhaps it was just... I don't know, meant to happen."

I shook his hand as he got up to go.

"I'll keep a look out for you on the road," I said.
He wouldn't be hard to spot - his bike was a mobile dustbin.

Then he rode away. He had a limp. I noticed that as he walked to his bike. He even rode a bit lop-sided. I waved. I didn't even get his name, I realised.

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.


  1. Oh, this is just wrenchingly sad, and yet, there's an element of hope for this poor lost soul. I can't help but send a prayer heavenward for his redemption.

  2. A very sad story indeed. But an interesting one. Thank you for taking the time to share. We will be interested to read more in the future.

  3. What a sad and interesting story. I agree with Jennifer that there is definitely hope here though. I hope that this broken down, sad, mystery man can find peace and live the rest of his days doing good in the world with peace and love in his heart. And may his children rest in peace.

  4. Thanks for your comments. I wish I could tell him people are wishing him well. I must say that although he still seemed numb from what had happened, he had a positive aura about him. Call me an optimist, but I feel he will be OK.

  5. That was a very gripping tale indeed, Well written. Thank you for the read :)