During a ride of about 5 miles or more I start to need to wiggle my feet a bit; during longer rides a certain numbness seeps into the soles of my feet, and the attempts at improving the circulation become more determined. The same goes for the other parts of my body that rest on the bike, it’s mainly a comfort thing, rather than a loss of feeling.
The last time I went to my G.P. before I was diagnosed with depression, back in 2001, I ‘auditioned’ her by showing her a problem I was having with the skin on my feet. She diagnosed it, and recommended a cream for it. The following week I was back there telling her I was a basket case – that I had all the symptoms of depression. And so the treatments began. And my feet? I did nothing about them, the skin irritation continued for years, until finally, feeling better, I did go to the chemist and buy the cream I had been recommended.
Depression takes its toll mentally, for sure. But it takes its toll physically, too. A few editions ago I wrote about the person I used to support who lost all his teeth due to his inability to look after his most basic physical hygiene. We become prone to infection, tire easily, headaches, nausea. And that’s without even starting on side effects of medication. I can remember hallucinating as I walked down a pedestrianized shopping street as a result of one batch of tablets – the name of which is long forgotten.
My feet are fine now, thank you very much; but life has felt like I have been ‘living’ – I use the term loosely – in a trench for a while now. Rats scuttle across my brain, disturbing thoughts ping off my helmet. Everywhere looks and feels like the fields of Passchendale circa 1917. And every day, slack and slow from lack of sleep, I go over the top and stumble on with a full pack on my back into the gentle rattle of the guns.
Sounds dramatic? So immersed am I in the history of the Western Front in the first world war, my family have sometimes joked that I am the reincarnation of a fallen soldier from the ranks of the Austro – Hungarian army. Be that as it may, why am I so connected with war, and the trauma it heaves around with it?
I wasn’t even there.
In the final volume of her World War 1 trilogy, ‘The Ghost Road'(winner of the Booker Prize 1995) Pat Barker puts it like this:
‘The other expression was the trench expression. It looks quite daunting if you don’t know what it is. Any one of my platoon could have posed for a propoganda poster of the Brutal Hun, but it wasn’t brutality or anything like that. It was a sort of morose disgust, and it came from living in trenches that had bits of human bone sticking out of the walls, infreezing weather corpses popped up on the firestep, flooded latrines.
Whatever happens to us it can’t be as bad as that.’
It’s the war within. The blast and smoke of my mind, as acrid and deafening as anything the Somme on 1 July 1916 had to offer. A bit much, that comparison? Men (and plenty of boys) died out there. Yes, and in the U.K. today suicide is the most common cause of death in men up to the age of 35. I’m 47, by the way. Do you detect a whiff of anger in the statistics I quote? That’s just a hint of the swirling red mist that obscures my view and burns, burns, burns in my veins most days.
And what (I hear you thinking) has any of this got to do with my life on a bike?
Quite a lot, actually. The way I pedal, the rhythm I generate, the speed, the sheer motion speaks of how I am feeling. I haven’t been out on my bike for a couple of days. For ‘out on my bike’ read ‘eaten or drunk anything’. Cycling is something I must do to keep me going – literally. So why aren’t I out and about, even to do a circuit round the park at the bottom of the hill?
Philip Larkin says a question like that ‘…brings the priest* and the doctor/In their long coats/Running over the fields.’ In my case, I am not involving the clergy or the medical profession right now.
* O.K., a Rabbi, in my case
Why do you lie with your legs ungainly huddled,
And one arm bent across your sullen, cold,
It hurts my heart to watch you,
Deep-shadowed from the candle’s guttering gold;
And you wonder why I shake you by the shoulder;
Drowsy, you mumble and sigh and turn your head…
You are too young to fall asleep for ever;
And when you sleep you remind me of the dead.
Siegfried Sassoon (1886 – 1967)