Recently I was in a collision with a car. I was cycling down a main road when I saw a car in a side road, edging too far forward to join the flow of traffic, advance into my path, into the path of the oncoming traffic.There was nothing I could do – I was at most 3 metres away. I tried to brake, but nothing could avert the thud of dread and relief as my front wheel hit the driver’s door. I leant forward, my legs astride my bike, my let arm against the driver’s window staring at her in disbelief, anger and relief in my yellow cycling jacket. After half an hour, or maybe a few seconds, the opening and closing of her lips and the darting movement of her terrified pupils pierced the window and I heard her say ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t see you.’
I took my hand away from her window and she moved off across the traffic. I put my feet back on the pedals and moved forwards. A few metres further on and the traffic came to a halt as the lights turned to red, and a traffic warden on the pavement beside me asked if I was alright.
In truth I had been lucky. My bike was undamaged (the last time I had had a slow motion altercation with a car – several years ago – my bike was written off). I was shaken but otherwise intact. I cycled on to the shops, ran my errands, returned home, and told my family what had happened. Naturally they were concerned, sympathetic and relieved that it had not been more serious.
I kept cycling about town as usual, cycling down the same road where it had happened.
Life went on. Everything had changed.
I hadn’t been hurt, my bike was in good working order. My confidence hadn’t been dented. I wasn’t sure why, but I kept thinking about my leaning against the car with my left hand in it’s fingerless cycling glove splayed against the window. I saw her silent mouth moving, her pupils fidgeting, uncertain, with nowhere to go.
She was the one who was more shaken than me. She had been in the wrong, not me.
As the days went by, and I continued to cycle confidently around town, or in the countryside, I thought about the incident, and about the driver in particular. The traffic warden had shown concern for me, had been on my side. But she she had described the driver as a ‘girl’ – I forget the rest of the sentence. ‘The driver was a woman!’ I shot back before continuing down the road. I felt affronted by the infantilising description the (female) traffic warden had used. As I played this part of the episode over and over again in my mind during the coming days, it dawned on me that I felt empathy with what I imagined she must have felt, and perhaps, still felt. My confidence had not been damaged by the incident, but I thought of who I had seen through the window, her silent lips moving, trying to communicate through the window, the panic in her eyes as she finally moved away across the road. Had she been able to continue driving, apparently unperturbed, as I had done? How had she felt the next time she sat behind the wheel, or saw a cyclist on the road?
Of course things could have been a lot worse.The road might have been clear in front of me – I could have been going at double the speed. What then? I could well have careered into the car and put my head, my face, through the window. I’m relieved that that didn’t happen.But what if it had, and my face would have been badly cut, scarred in fact, from the impact? Who would have suffered more then?
This episode has made me think. It has reinded me that there are people sicker than me. I don’t mean terminally ill, on dyalisis, cerebral palsy or spina bifida. Well, actually I do – when it comes to spina bifida. I was born with a condition called hydrocephalus. You can read about it in an earlier edition here: puncturerepairkit.wordpress.com/2010/10/31/i-robot/ My point is – even with a serious medical condition as this is – most people born with it also have spina bifida. I don’t; and what’s more my hydrocephalus, though it rquired several operations during my childhood, is no longer a medical factor. ‘Cured’ is not quite the word, but it is no longer of any concern. So that’s a good thing.
And mentally, too, I have got off lightly. In my working life, in the field of mental health, I regularly encounter people who are, or have been, a lot sicker than me. I have never had a psychotic episode, been sectioned (for overseas readers unfamiliar with this term it means being detained in hospital against one’s will) or spent a single night on a psychiatric ward. No scars on my wrists.
I am very fortunate. But all this, the ‘bike bump’ – ‘crash’ seems too dramatic – no spina bifida, no psychiatric hospitalisation, makes it all feel insignificant. And so I persist. You don’t really think I am suffering? Well let me show you! I suffer a relapse (real enough, I assure you) and I am signed off sick, I have to increase my dose of mood stabilising medication. That’s one thing I can be proud of – I take no less than 5 tablets a day in an attempt to keep me on an even keel. I was signed off work for 3 years (2002 – 5). Now do you believe me?!
Now do I believe me?
In his novel set in Bucharest in 1989, at the point of the collapse of communist dictatorship there, ‘The Last Hundred Days’, Patrick McGuiness writes: ‘But all I have learned from past mistakes was how to commit new ones more knowingly. Self knowledge for me was always clarified inertia.’
Do I need to fall under the wheels of a lorry before I start to realise I am not a professional racing cyclist?
A state you must not enter
with hopes of staying,
quicksand in the marshes, and all
the roads leading to a castle
that doesn’t exsist.
But there it is, as promised,
with its perfect bridge above
and its doors forever open.
Stephen Dunn (1939 – )