My stepfather’s Marin Larkspur is jammed under the bike holder and I’m sitting on the fold down seat by the carriage door as the train accelerates away from Dyce. Oil company crew changes and the beginning of Easter break ensure the train is over capacity; the vestibule is rammed, hot, and the country is spluttering. There are 5 men of varying builds concealing an assortment of booze and a young mother with a 4-year-old ginger boy.
“You want this seat? I can easily stand.” I offer her, half rising, sort of guarding the seat. Deep down I don’t want to surrender this hinged cushion to anyone and perhaps part of me is guarding it incase one of these oil workers lunges for it. They are not to be trusted.
“No, no I’m good just now thanks.”
“Aye, am getting off soon anyway I’ll stand.”
I don’t push the issue and sit back down glancing at the workers who are halfway through their tall cans, chatting about government spending cuts and scuba diving in Indonesia.
Glen is a gregarious, thrifty, high school biology teacher with a bold sense of adventure. He’s currently easing Pigsy (not a cyclist) into the trip with a 27-mile ride from Turriff to Huntly where they are to board this train, thus forming the trio for a three-day ride. I picture Pigsy sweating and cursing. “You telt me it wiz flat!” he’s yelling. I can hear Glen’s high frequency cackle. “Not far now Pig!” He says with an optimism that can be, at times, utterly infuriating.
I wonder what the men with the booze do for the oil producer. Instrument technician? Drilling supervisor? Crane operator?
By Huntly one of their beer cans has found its way, nearly empty, onto the top of my right pannier, around which they’re socializing. Warm beer dregs dribble along the trough formed by the bag and the carriage wall, I am unfazed, the panniers are beer proof. I stick my head out the open door and look along the platform, the old stone station house sparkles in the bright sun. There’s Glen’s tall, equally adventurous German fiancé Charlotte scanning left and right at the train doors. She bounds over, “John! You gotta get off the train now! The guys aren’t here yet.” I glance around the stifling vestibule, the oil men have conjured whiskey and coke, ‘progress’ I think. They’re joking and flirting and sweating with the off-duty policewoman with the white wine who now occupies the other flop down seat. “…fiver fae Morrison’s!” I hear her say.
“I feel lucky to have this seat. I’m gonna sit tight and meet them in Inverness.” I tell Charlotte.
“Okay. I’ll tell them.” She says nodding, pragmatic, smiling in the sun as the doors close. I resume my perch and look out at the scrolling northeast.
As the train creeps into Inverness I ready the Marin. It dawns on me that the bike rack is designed to slot into the front triangle; the bike should be suspended by its top tube. I glance around to see if anyone else has noticed my amateur mistake but the oil men disappeared at Nairn and now there’s just a teenage girl frowning at a text message. Relief.
But why should I care if some stranger recognizes me as a virgin bicycle rack user? Right now, outside of this cycle trip, I feel impotent in the face of currents so vast they can hardly be imagined. This bike trip is something to accomplish, something to prove that goals can be set and achieved, that life contains some order. The highly limited order we impose at least. In light of recent events I feel like all I do is project the illusion that I know what it is I’m doing, when really I’m playing this thing by ear. It’s an illusion that would be shattered by the utterance, in an unfamiliar voice, of an innocent, smart arse question. “First time is it?”
Sometimes it’s hard to admit that we control very little and that ultimately we don’t know what we’re in for, what the future holds besides the proverbial death and taxes. Death is certain and painful but death doesn’t hurt the dead, death only hurts those left behind feeling like all the flesh has been ripped from their bones. Logic suggests that pain in the past implies the distinct possibility of pain in the future. We have no choice. We have to overcome what may be. Failure is not an option.
I breath the station air, all hot grease and diesel and walk the Marin across the glass smooth terrazzo of the main concourse. Every time with station floors “looks fun to skate” floats through my head. The bike and I stroll up Inglis Street to High Street. We go boldly, like Captain Kirk and the enterprise, and grab a solo lunch at the little Italian place on Stephens Brae, Little Italy it’s called, they’re friendly. There’re some darkish clouds swirling but it’s still nice so I sit on the wee terrace they’ve built. Almost feels like Europe. I order coffee and some food, which they promptly bring out. I quietly chew and consider what to do until the others arrive. I feel calm.
A shadow whips across the metal table. There’s a whoosh and I look up right as a huge herring gull wheels by, inches from my face. Its wingspan seems to be 3 feet, at least. It circles once, lands on the stone balustrade, opens its sharp beak wide and emits a long high chilling shriek. It has seen my pannini and before long there will be others, each one of them ravenous, of that we can be certain. I settle the bill quickly and check my phone. The gull is watching and behind that pinhole eye there lies an ancient, limitless, incessant, hunger.
Glen and Pigsy, on account of it’s the first weekend of the Easter holidays and there aren’t enough carriages, on account of they have bikes with them, on account of the trains are all at capacity, couldn’t get on the next 2 Inverness bound services and will not be here until this evening.
I leave the gull, which has been joined by a companion, to scour for scraps of bread and dead chicken. I ride around town playing ‘Who’s a Junkie?’ and buy a nice Opinel folding knife from the hunting and fishing shop on Castle Street.
I ride south along the river for a while then realize I have no pump. This leads me back to Highland Bicycle Co. on Waterloo Place just over the Grant Street Bridge. The route I take leads through a grey industrial estate where I u-turn at a PC world on the strength of vague advice from a local teenager. After I get the pump I ride aimlessly, killing time.
I find myself circumnavigating the food court in the Falcoln Mall extension of the Eastgate Shopping Centre, looking for a toilet. I have reached a nadir. I’m muttering about industrial scale agriculture and the uniform blandness it provides. Cursing the fact that the world we’ve built can be no other way because it is the way it is. Submitting to fatalism. Not people but consumers, covering fat bodies with thin clothes sewn by emaciated slaves. 6 billion numb tongues squirming in mechanically recovered meat product, all around me stubby flesh probing mucosal sludge. We imagine we are better than cockroaches. “Forgive us Lord for we know not what we do.” I say. Silence. It’s useless to feel like this. I decide to evoke within a spirit of compassion for all of life. I forgive everyone and myself. I find the toilet and urinate in the appropriate place; my mood begins to lift.
For the last half hour I sit and wait at the station. Glen and Pigsy finally arrive and we race down the next platform to catch the last train to Beauly. We have left the city; the mission has begun, onward, westward.