The Flying Dutchman

I had been riding for about three hours. The magnificence of the midsummer stars was fading as the sky ahead of me became grey. The solstice dawn was hurrying westwards to greet me and I still had five miles to travel. I opened the throttle gently until the needle of the speedometer touched eighty but there was no need. The world was still in shadow as I sped up the last rise to the summit of the headland.
I propped the bike on its stand, took off my helmet and breathed. The air felt cold and fresh. I could hear the sea sighing, deep, slow exhalations like a heavy sleeper. It was good to stretch after the journey, to stretch and allow the vibration of the road to ease out of my body.
Every second the light was changing, intensifying. Colour was creeping back. The grey of the eastern sky became pearl, and then peach. The springy seaside grass was just perceptibly green. No birds sang yet, no insects buzzed, but life was stirring all about me.
I watched the vapour draped like a robe across the horizon. Brighter and brighter. Suddenly there was a pinprick of intense gold in the heart of the mist. It grew and grew, a flood of fire pouring out across the water. The beat of the sea took on a louder and more urgent note, the cliff seemed to shudder under the impact of the waves and the breeze freshened, blowing hard against my face.
“In the morning, long before dawn, He got up and left the house and went off to a lonely place and prayed there”. The words rang in my head, as though burned there by the light, or swept there by the wind. How strange. It had been many years since I had been in a church. The faith in which I had been brought up had faded. Grief borne unsupported had gnawed at my trust in God. I had never rebelled or turned consciously away, but I had lost the habit of belief.
The full light of day shone around me.
I was hungry. There was a transport café a few miles away. I suddenly wanted a fried breakfast more than anything else in the world.
Lingering over the last of my coffee and bacon, I planned the rest of my journey. It was the longest day of the year but I had far to travel and much to see.
The first milestone had been to watch the sunrise on the Yorkshire coast. The next was to lunch at a pub in the Peak District that had been the place where I had first met my wife. After that I intended to visit the chapel in Rochdale where we had married, and finally make it to the Lancashire coast to watch the sunset. There was plenty of time before lunch; the rush would come later. Meanwhile, I could do some sightseeing.
Uplifted by the sunrise, I trod the stones of York Minster in the morning. A choir was rehearsing. Glorious music in glorious architecture. How strange that joy and regret can mingle and how strange the result of that mingling, creating now a poignant delight and now revulsion, distress and despair. I needed clean air. I needed reality, not the perfumed solace of high art.
The bike throbbed beneath me as I raced towards the Pennines. Eighty, ninety, one hundred miles an hour. I was buffeted, exhilarated and yet despondent, dragging mourning for my long-dead wife with me like a cross.
There was a lay-by that I knew, a place where I could park the bike and walk across the moor to a pub. It was a dappled day, and I strode through sun and shade across the heathery turf. The sounds of the wilderness formed themselves into music in my thoughts, violin, penny whistle and guitar. Her music. I trod lightly, a dancer, threading my way precisely through the mires and little brooks.
Lunch was good, beer, bread, cheese and pickle. As I walked back to the bike I sang, bass to the shrill soprano of the skylarks. Just before I reached the road I stopped, stretched out in the sunshine and peered into the blue void. Without meaning to, I slept.
The sky was cloudy when I woke up, and I was stiff and tired. I had ridden two hundred and sixty miles in the last fifteen hours and I could feel every one of them in my aching muscles. Like a pilgrim, I set my will to continue; there were still many miles to cover.
The next forty miles were frustrating. Cars were double parked on every High Street and I was running late. Unpractised drivers clogged the roads. No matter how often I overtook one, there was always another around the next bend. Two hours had passed before I finally parked the bike in the little yard of the chapel.
It was quiet. The chapel stood apart from other buildings. The shouts of children playing on the nearby council estate reached me only faintly. The building was dingy. There were grilles over the windows, and rust had trickled from them down the cement rendered walls. The doors were locked, indeed more than locked. A beam had been nailed across them. The place had plainly been disused for years.
I glanced at my watch. Twenty past seven. Perhaps the traffic would be lighter now? Briefly I debated whether I should just head for the nearest place on the coast, to be sure of catching the sunset.
No. It had to be the place where she and I had stayed eighteen years ago. The place where dawn had been a magical awakening, and dusk a time when the spell of human attraction, of affinity, of close companionship – oh, go on, think the word, think the forbidden – of l-o-v-e, had fused us into one being. It was a risk, to insist on going there. I might miss the sunset. But if I didn’t see it in that particular place I had failed anyway.
It was already evening when I arrived on the sea-front of a small Lancashire resort. As fast as I could manage, I trudged up the headland at the north end of the town. In the municipal gardens the flowers glowed with exaggerated colours, smeared with orange light. A youth was stacking deck chairs. I gave him a grin as I passed and he glowered back. ‘Who the fuck do you think you’re laughing at?’ he demanded.
When I reached the summit, the sun’s disc was already half submerged. I watched, silently. It would have been nice to share the moment. Nice to have someone whose hand I could hold, someone with whom I could relive the experience in the future, someone who would understand. The light slipped beneath the water, leaving a sky ablaze with violent pastel shades. It was enough; it was a sort of consummation. It was, at least, all I was going to get.
I rode home down the motorway, weaving in and out of the traffic. I rode fast; very fast. The lights of the vehicles were a video game as I blipped the throttle, touched the brakes, insinuated my way between them. I could feel my face set in a gamer’s rictus of concentration that I couldn’t relax.
Then I was off the motorway, off the main road and into suburbia. I turned into the street where I live, turned into my drive and parked. The house was dark, the milk delivered in the morning still standing on the step. I hunched on the saddle and wondered – suddenly – whether it was worth dismounting.

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