I must (deride me not) be somewhere where I can, without disaster, bicycle.
Henry James, 4 February 1896
For your internal ears and eyes I give you Celia itemised – in her surfaces as she would wish to be, complete, with her two hands and her ten toes. She is slender, small-stepping. She strolls, you might say, from the hips while her head, motionless, schoons along on the pole of her neck. Unknown to Celia, her feet have the slightest of tendencies to indicate out; and this makes her endearing. She is brunette and wears her hair either down to her eyebrows or brushed back. But the hygiene of her head is more problematical: every fifth day her hair is washed with cream; on the other days, however, she brushes it with a dry shampoo – by this same principle do hens take dust-baths. As a result her hair is fine but faded, a dry umbrella-black. Her skirts and dresses she mostly buys in brooch-like shops in suburbs and small towns. As for her physical measurements, Celia would not mind my telling that she is five foot four on her naked soles. Her sectional dimensions, though, I shall not divulge. Suffice it, that her pectoral inches are exactly those of her pelvic ones and that her waist is a centimetre less than my right thigh at rest. Is it any wonder, then, that Celia as she walks is a causer of minor collisions at traffic lights?
It was during one of these accidents that Celia first encountered me. First, I have to say that I am a part-time first-category professional massed-start racing cyclist. You will find me, if ever you take the trouble, of a Sunday after lunch in season, amazing the townspeople of Stevenage, Welwyn and such with my 40-mile-an-hour finishes up their roped-off High Streets at the back of a police car’s siren. My confrères and I bring a dash of colour – our several team jerseys being a medley of unamalgamated reds and yellows, park-greens and budgerigar-blues – to the inhabitants of various English Sundays. However, we competitors are unillusioned about the lip-service of the walls of leaning bodies and megaphone hands that we sprint between. We would lack their support were it a soccer time of year. This is why so many of us coureurs cyclistes, participants in one of this country’s minority sports, are so cynical, not to say paranoiac. And this is why I reacted in such a boomerang manner on that Sunday in March when Celia, idling over Great Russell Street as if she were Nefertiti among her double-parked slaves, caused me to swerve and crash, still in my scarab position, head down and arms semi-extended, into the spear-like railings of the British Museum (which exhibits, I learned later, not even a penny-farthing) with the sort of impact I’d have had if I’d pedalled down the side of a pyramid and hit the Sphinx.
I confronted her.
‘Are you vending something?’ she frowned at the W H KRISPS sign that I wear across the chest of my jersey in return for being sponsored by that as yet little known manufacturer of foodstuffs.
She informed me when she knew me better: ‘In your what d’you call them? black training tights you looked like a cross between Rudolf Nureyev and Max Wall. Most unusual.’
What charmed me was her contrition. She watched me take my wheels off and push my frame into the rear of her hatchback that was round the corner on a yellow line. Before driving me back to Hertfordshire she took me to her flat where I had a shower and placed Savlon on all the protuberances of my body’s left side – cheekbone and shoulder, elbow and hip, knee and ankle; all these having hit the pavement one by one in ascending order. As I did this I heard her playing an upright piano in the living-room which was lined, as if for warmth, with books. Most of these books were weighty ones, and a lot of them were about ancient civilisations. There were even two shelves of books about Egypt in the lavatory. There was an unusual quietness about the lavatorial gulp; and as I came out the cistern discreetly chuckled. Celia gave me tea and then drove me home. The next day she telephoned to inquire how I was enduring my bruises, and inside the week I was deploying her legs into the semblance of a speedway cycle’s upright handlebars and then into the shape of drops.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.