Getting Somewhere



The worst I ever had of it was two broken ribs and a laceration of my right hand. 


I came to, in the middle of the road with five Parisians hunched over me and several more abusing the owner of the 4x4 who had opened his door into me with such timing that I had no idea where I was or what had happened. The concern on their faces told me it was ugly, my bike was gnarled and twisted out of shape and drops of thick dark blood were dripping from my knuckle onto the tarmac. I think I started crying.







Three weeks later on the way to Charles de Gaulle airport, delayed trauma from the impact made all the muscles in my chest contract and I went sheet white and passed out. With the help of other passengers my brother took me off the train and sat me down on the platform to wait for the Pompiers. I'd seen you like that at festivals too many times to be that concerned, he said later.


I've been doored three times but none worse than that. Cars have gone into the front and back of me, pedestrians have stepped out into me. I've been spat at, kicked, pot-holed, turned left-into, and run off the road and chased by a white van man, because I was wearing a pink beanie. I've gone over my handle-bars more times than I can remember, shedding skin and spilling blood on roadsides and pavements around the city. I once cycled into the Regent's Canal.


I should probably be less alive than I am.


*


For two and a half years in my early twenties I cycled around London for eight hours a day with a radio strapped to my chest and a bag over my shoulder full of documents needing dropping off with a life-threatening urgency. Of all the things I experienced in that time, none were greater than London itself. The city would smack me in the face every day, an enormous beast of brick and fumes and ghosts and noise, baring itself in all its guises, battering me with indifference as it attended to the business of being London.






Yet at some incidental time of day when I least expected, some afternoon along a towpath or catching my breath on a stoop in the late morning, the din would recede for a moment and in that pause the city would let me in, as if it was winking at me, reminding me I was part of its plans and I belonged.


I grew to know its geography in a way that seared itself into my brain. I learnt how different parts of the city connected to other parts, mapping out the connective tissue where artery met tendon and capillary. I learnt the city's contours, the hills, the churches and cemeteries, the circuses, the old City gates, the order of the bridges, where the river curled and where it straightened, the one way systems and the shortcuts, even the timings of the traffic lights.


I could remember the changing of the lights along Clerkenwell and Theobalds Rd so exactly that if I timed it right I could do the junctions blind. When I told a mate of mine he asked me who the hell I thought I was, Sean Connery in the fucking Rock.






Doing the circuit, it was called. 


You were on call from 8 til around 6, beginning mostly in the City picking up and delivering documents to the big banks. You'd get to know the bowels of important buildings, the dirty underbelly, the despatch area, where men in shirts and Hi-Vis coats would peer boredly over spectacles or bark at you, where you'd cross path with other riders doing runs to other banks and chew the cud of the mid-morning.


I learnt a new way of riding. One that weaved and cleaved and hopped up and skittered across and was always morphing. Traffic lights ceased to mean much, I learnt how to ride across the city without stopping once and without running one light. There were spaces in between things I learnt, that if you knew where to look for were everywhere, waiting for you to slip through them. I learnt how messengers would face down vehicles most capable of killing them, running fingers along the sides of buses to show they weren't afraid. Above all I learnt that getting somewhere could be more fun than being somewhere.






I never got to know the real courier family. I knew those who worked for my company and recognised many as I passed them in the street. When they invited me to hang at messenger spots or drink with them at day's end by the Foundry on Old Street, I was too shy. I'd summon the courage and right at the last minute I'd cycle by.


When I left my first company I bought the office a box of Quality Street and they laughed at me. It wasn't a very courier thing to do. Most bike messengers stepped to the beat of their own drum, respecting few but their own. There was a lawless irreverence to their spirit, a life of squats and beer and alleycats and identity that I didn't come close to touching.






But I sensed a slightly lost side to the existence too. 


Of being surrounded at all times and still alone. Winding through traffic, catching the lights just right, flying past the madness, pushing and weaving and skidding, at its best it was a dance of joy. But the embers of the fire revealed something sadder. As if you were seeking something that couldn't be had because the relentless engulfing city had you first, it was a clipped sort of flight, a Truman Show type of freedom. It made me wonder who in a city was ever free. All these years later I still see some of the same riders I once shared the road with, gliding along, ears tuned to the intermittent static from their radios.


But I was quite happy. 


For those two and a half years the love affair was between me and my city. I hardly spoke to anyone all day. Sign here. Sign here please. Just here on the line. In three years I took the tube less than five times. When I did I would feel mole-like, burrowing along underground to stick my head above the surface. But on a bike I was a hawk, surveying the city from a great height, moving through it like a sea, it was the journey I loved the most.


Slowly they revealed themselves to me. Strange unknown parts of the sprawl existing as they always had. Harlesden, Rotherhithe, North Finchley, West Norwood, I'd cycle anywhere. I liked the longer journeys so my controllers would send me further and further away. That's how you become a top rider, my boss would tell me, knowing he'd have to spend triple the money on a van. Different parts of town would recall different friends and memories, each one of them had a story. At the end of the week I'd get an envelope with six fifty pound notes in it.


I'd head to the New Era shop in Soho and pick up a fresh cap.






And it was sad too. Like life. 


And tiring and repetitive and surprising and monotonous and ecstatic like life. But I wouldn't have the deep understanding of the city I do without the time I spent trailing lines of coloured ribbon along its lanes and alleyways. If one talent of mine could be worth matrixing into another person's brain, I thought, it would be my London. Sitting in the back of taxis I'd argue with cabbies over routes, especially when I was drunk, until they'd point out how the fuck they were gonna get their cab the wrong way down a bike lane and through a park, so I'd shut up.






People talk about their lives sometimes in terms of chapters. First day at school. The day I saw my father cry. First love. The birth of my first child. Certainly one of the chapters in my life will be cycling the streets of London at top-speed with headphones in, whooping at the top of my lungs, transported to some other place entirely. If this sounds a little dangerous then I could tell you the by-product of cycling a city every day for fifteen years is an understanding of the road, and what not to do.


A few years ago I drew together the most important lessons I'd learnt from my time cycling around town, and came up with the Six Cycling Commandments.












*


My legs are tiring now, I'm getting older.


The fury and relentless energy of my messenger days have taken the left-hand turn to memory. I still cycle a lot, but I have an oyster card now. If I have to cross London and can smell a hair-breadth of an excuse, before I know it I'll find myself sat on the Overground. I like it because I get to stare at people. I never got the chance to do that before. The bike was too fast and ceaseless and impatient. You'd get the wind in your hair and a warmth in your loins, and you'd be off. But you couldn't just sit and stare at somebody for half an hour. It's taking some getting used to.



Taking a pause. Stopping to stare. 



The way you might stare at a somebody you love when they're not looking.



Somebody, or something. 






The Next Best Thing



Canessa and Nando had been walking blind for four days through the snow of the high Andes, skin ulcerated, bone poking bone, their food and their hope running out, knowing their imminent death would mean death for the fourteen back in the fuselage. Nando had buried his sister and mother in the snow and seeing his father's face again was the sole thing keeping him alive. To climb out of this valley of death back to the living. But they were lost, their own bodies were eating them alive, and Canessa sat down in the snow to die.






Many years later he said of the experience:


There will come a moment when you think you can't go any further, when you're done for. When you want to give up. All you have to do is take one more step. And you will see that doors will appear in walls you didn't know existed. And you can walk through them.


*


I had a teacher at art school who was very into magic, sometimes at the beginning or the end of a lesson he would show us something. He told us there are five different reactions to a magic trick. The first is a plain lack of interest. The second looks on reluctantly. The third wants to work out the mechanics of the trick. The fourth is smiling in admiration of the magician, the fifth is wide-eyed in amazement in the presence of magic.


I remember thinking how cool it would be to make the first feel like the fifth. To be a magician, I thought, you have to believe in magic. In its power. I wondered if a lifelong study of magic would impart a different way of seeing the world, a mystical one, or if it would do the opposite. As if it would remove the magic from things. I asked myself which one I was, I hoped I was the fifth.






Two years ago I read this thing which said take a step back from yourself and look at the things that make you feel happy, and the things that make you unhappy, and try to do more of the good stuff, and less of the other stuff. It was a time when I felt like dark forces were governing me but I lacked the perspicacity to give them any shape or form, and the line resonated inside me like a sounding gong. Nothing I had seen had hammered home an idea so simply and so searingly, I felt flooded by something clear and good.


As the demons of my bad habits leered at me I resolved to mark the moment, and tattooed the date onto my arm, backwards, so I could see it when I looked in the mirror. When I went running in the early morning I would stop by water and kiss my arm and a strange feeling would wash over me. I remembered saying to a friend once that everyone carried a large degree of self-loathing inside them. Looking concerned as if what he was about to tell me would be hard for me to hear, he replied: I don't think that's true mate. But kissing my right arm in the light of the early morning by the water, I felt like what was washing into me we its opposite, something like self-love.


Now in early December I go and celebrate my new birthday. Me and myself go out for a drink and have a think about things and raise a toast to one another. Fuck it, I thought, I can even call it my rebirth day. I'm two years old now. I resolved not to tell anyone.






*


A new year is upon us now. It's the middle of January and we're renewing friendships and joining gyms and full of fire because the new year brings change. Look at us shedding all our dead wood, closing the door on the previous year and opening the door to a new one. Taking a look at ourselves from a distance. What makes us happy. What makes us sad. Doing more of the good stuff.


I didn't make any resolutions this year. I thought I'd concern myself with more of the same, the daily struggle not to fuck up. Wake up on time, be a good person, be involved in the world, buy fairy liquid, try to write something important, exercise, read good things. Try not to dwell on how strange things are or how lost. Walk through doors.


That's the other thing my teacher said that I've always remembered. Walk through doors, he said. He didn't elaborate, he just said those three words and smiled. I thought about it a lot. What sort of doors. Which ones. And I realised doors are everywhere around me. Invisible doors in walls I didn't know existed, waiting for me to walk through them.






I didn't know at the time that the date on my arm would become a daily reminder to do the things I know make me happy, a contract written in ink with myself to stop doing the things that don't. And to keep the struggle close, to think about the day itself and not much more.


Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself, each day has enough trouble of its own.


I wonder what today will bring.


*


Forsaking resolutions for the new year for a resolution for a new day. When my day threatens to go south I'll look for a door. Somewhere close by there is a door, the other side of which is the next best thing. Playing the snakes and ladders of each day, two steps forward, three steps back, winning some and losing some, feeling out with hands for invisible walls, reaching out for doors.



My Cup Runneth Over



The dawn's early sun cracks through the old school room and washes the grey walls cantaloupe. I make somnolent tracks to the Rancilio Silvia and flick the on switch with the instinct of an assassin in the shadows flicking off the safety. I grind the robusta beans to a fine gunpowder, disarm the portafilter with the snap of a supple wrist, tamp down the coffee and toy with the temperature gage. In a flash to the untrained eye I lock the filter back in, empty the pre-warmed cup and nudge the hot water pump to orange. A crema-heavy waterfall of ambrosia ristretto lulls itself seductively into my espresso cup.


Morning has broken.






The sinuous streams of coffee beans that have wound their ways along the edges of my days are palm lines that spell out the story of my fate. Like all things that have made themselves my master, the dark elixir of the morning fixed its eyes on me well before it swooped down and took me in its talons.


A coffee liqueur hastily bitten into in December, an affogato on a Tuscan hill, the first encounters of my youth stir too faintly among the unreliable echoes of memory. I remember milk swiped from canteens left to cool on window sills I would splash over Kenco Millicano to guide me through unending essay nights in new-build student halls. An inauspicious beginning to my rapture. But in all beginnings our endings are entwined.



For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.


Prufrock, T S Eliot


My first girlfriend's mother kept a double shot stove-top in a cupboard for me, the most self-serving of all coffee devices. And a little mug, and a pan for milk which I would burn without fail. Oh you've done it again! she would laugh, with the knowing confidence of time past that we were eighteen and never going to last.


I upped my game at university and picked up my first machine. A lovely single-group Krups number with a two year warranty from John Lewis. As my social life took a nose-dive my coffee game grew wings. The pulling I did in those days was of the espresso shot kind, espressos resembling half-pints of soily water, americanos with no dignity and I knew no better. This was pre-google when youtube was for cats and young bloods went on instinct.


Looking back I lived that vibe like a pro.






On the corner where Via Garibaldi swings off from Porta Settimiana stands a Caffè, where one morning of late spring I saw something that changed the course of my destiny. At a table across from me a silver fox with sun-glazed skin the colour of wisdom dripping the cool of the continent in three piece khaki linen, sockless, Oxfords immaculately laced, gazed through dark glasses at something in the Roman sky. Beside an unopened copy of La Repubblica a glass of acqua legeremente frizzante bubbled in the light breeze. In his right hand between thumb and forefinger he tickled the handle of a single espresso.


What the Italians refer to simply as un caffè.


I had seen a vision of the life ahead of me. I returned to London in 02 with the target firmly in my crosshairs. With my aluminium steed and East London, my new flame, beckoning me I was a king in a foreign land. The fickle mist of winter mornings would lick the rooftops of Whitecross Street as strangers blew water vapour wishes into the air, at the market you could pick up a single espresso for 60p. Sixty pence. That kind of money these days can get you a police caution. But those were the days of a dawning hope, of freedom and possibility. I remember it like it was yesterday.






On another daybreak of unforgiving frost south of the river I watched a girl sat outside Monmouth one morning rolling a cigarette, as the steam from her untouched coffee cup rose up to meet the biting air. In spite of the cold she was slow and measured in her movement and allowed herself not one sip until the cigarette was rolled. Finally removing the lighter from a pocket she lit the smoke, inhaled deeply and paused, looking upwards - once more - at the February sky. Only then did she drink, and exhaled the spirit of a morning immemorial.


Once upon a time I would meet a friend in the morning every week for c&c. It was a ceremonial event, a hide from where to shoot the breeze, to watch the world coming to life, the two c's stood for coffee and cuddles. We'd sit there and talk about nothing new and everything and laugh our asses off. The well of friendship has dried and c&c's no longer are. But they are a safekeep of a time, a union brought together by the warmth we slurped sporadically between guffaws, footsteps that still echo in the memory while life has taken on new forms.


I've shared the sweet dark coffee with the fishermen on the Bosphorus during the morning call to prayer, found a vending machine dispensing iced coffee cans in the middle of a Japanese forest, I learnt the technique of the turka in Petersburg to warm me through the Russian winter. Coffee and milk powder was our breakfast of kings in the foothills of the Rwenzori, and the ritual of a dawn hitter just about saved my arse at 4,000 metres on the Andean Puna.






Coffee really did save my when I was crippled by depression two years ago. In a state of blanket inertia that had become so bad even getting out of bed was terrifying, as the days became weeks good old coffee came to the rescue. It was the mere act of making an espresso in my favourite Supreme coffee cup, that for weeks I had been unable to fathom any point in, that was a sign of me fighting my way back up towards the light, of returning to the land of the wanting to be alive.






But to be fair my depressed-self had a point. 


What the hell is the point of drinking coffee. Why not go eat a bunch of caramels. I just worked out my expenditure on coffee in the last fifteen years is over twenty five grand. I've whiled away much of my life in coffee shops. Gloriously, sadly, despondently, ticking down the hours until the Reaper pokes his skull around the door and is like bro we should get those Mocha Frappuccinos to go.


But the black elixir of the morning has made me who I am. After all humans just want something to do. With their time, with the ghastly business of being alive. I love the ritual, I love the shared moment, the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning, the somnolent shuffle to the Rancilio Silva as the walls of the old school room are once more awash with cantaloupe.


Some man told me the other night how radically his life had been improved since he'd begun cutting out caffeine after 2.15pm. My lip curled like a crescent wave on a Tahitian shore, I took one look at him and shelled him with as many decaffeinato intenso nespresso pods as I could manage. Whatever the man was trying to get at.


It wasn't it.


When the ache of having lost some infinite thing is felt, we need to plug the dam. That's what it comes down to. The light through the leaves, the pause before the applause, the finite seconds of gold that remove us from the maelstrom. Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. We have all we need but we need a little more. Picture a cave man sat on a dead wood trunk watching the pulsing boughs of a fir tree dance in the wind.


He's not going to say no to a double ristretto. 



Believe Me When I Say



The first conversation I ever had with my girlfriend began with a lie.


It was the most electric conversation I'd had all year. I was stood in the bathroom of a strange flat one night of late December with my phone nuzzling my right ear as a brief pause allowed in the muffled chatter from the main room. Thirty two, I said. Is that too old? No, she replied. What about you? Twenty two, came the voice down the phone. Is that too young? she asked. No, I said.


Much later, when I told my friends the story of how we met, and how at the end of our fourth date I came clean and she almost called the whole thing off, they showed no mercy. Why would you lie by two years! one of them cried. At least go big, said another. It had been a stupid little lie. But now I think of it my life has been devoured by stupid little lies. I've spent the last week wondering why. And my answer always comes back to the same thing.


I never lie because I don't fear anyone. You only lie when you're afraid.

John Gotti


Like everyone else I was about three when I told my first lie. I don't remember what it was, I wonder if it was any good. I've always been quite bad at lying, my shame would cry louder than my subterfuge and my technique started badly and stayed put. I imagine most lies children tell are a means to get out of trouble, more than likely this was the case with me.






Growing up, my father had the patience of a fart in a gale. He was old-school and bad-tempered and uninterested in the idiosyncrasies of young children. Anything that bothered him, which was everything, was us shouted out of the room and out of sight. The sound of his feet on the stairs is an enduring memory of my childhood, as if his presence meant my wrongdoing.


I tell him now and he laughs and calls me a snowflake. But the more I think about it the more I put my habit of bending the truth down to my father's anger. His moodiness instilled in me a fear of wrongdoing, a terror of always being in trouble. He was the furnace to my snowflake, each time he scolded us it would scare the very sweat out of my skin and send me tumbling into a mire of shame.




Having worked out that punishment was waiting in ambush for me, I did some maths. If whatever I was doing was wrong, a different version of events might not be. And after all my priority wasn't honesty, it was not being shouted at. So I began to lie out of fear, I suppose. Figuring out the roots of my malaise now is easy if I work backwards. Because I haven't changed very much. I still lie, and I am still afraid.



A cat bitten once by a snake dreads even rope.

Arab proverb


The extent of my fear is comical. 


I won't pick up a call from a private number because it means I'm in trouble. A missed call from anyone means I'm in trouble. If I have a bunch of new emails, one of them will land me in trouble. A knock on the front door means trouble. A tap on the shoulder, trouble. I'm almost forty and I feel about three heartbeats away from a bollocking all the time. I don't know why I ever leave the house.


This feeling of being on trial is what compels me to lie. I lie about the stupidest things. I'll lie about what I ate for lunch. I'll lie about what means of transport I took. I'll lie about what time I woke up. I'll lie about what I watched on tv. I'm not trying to deceive. I can say hand on heart I lie because nested deeply in my gut is the fear that if I tell the truth, I'm going to be told off.



Related image


Sitting outside a cafe in Recoleta, Buenos Aires, with my father one afternoon some years ago he spoke to me of the anger he felt towards his own father. The subject meandered onto us, and at one point I said to him, but couldn't you see whenever you screamed at me as a child my heart was breaking. Perhaps I hoped he would deny it, that he would tell me my recollection of events was skewed. But he didn't. Instead he stared sadly into the middle distance and told me he was sorry. You know what I'm like, he said. You were small, I wouldn't have noticed.



I'm the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It's awful. If I'm on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I'm going, I'm liable to say I'm going to the Opera. It's terrible.


J. D. Salinger, The Catcher In The Rye



You'd think if you were going to lie you might make your life sound glamorous. Like I used to be a spy, or the Queen is a personal friend of mine. But making people think I'm better than I am isn't it really. Holden Caulfield wanted you to think he was into Opera. I think buying a magazine is going to make you lose your shit.


I think it comes down to not being or feeling enough. 


That's why I told my girlfriend I was thirty two. It was some fear that she wouldn't accept me as I was, a thirty four year old, because there was something wrong with that. Nothing specific, just something wrong with it. I always found it difficult to believe people could love me, I spent most of my adult life disappearing, before they had time to realise I was me. When the tisane of life is infused with wrongdoing, the fear of being found out, being alone is the safest place around.


Speak the truth, and leave immediately after.

Slovenian Proverb


But I didn't just sit down to write about what a tremendous liar I am.



I did it because I'm sort of trying to do something about it.






I've realised something.


The bread and butter lies that have devoured me whole are the most dangerous of all. The tiny silly little ones. Not buying a Ferrari or sleeping with a supermodel. The forgettable half-truths, so evanescent that two seconds later you've forgotten all about them. The thing is they don't forget you. They slither around in the shadows waiting for you to believe them. And before you a door to a dark foreboding room creaks open, a place where truth ceases to mean anything.


I became seriously worried as I wrote this of a slowly creeping possibility: I had spent so long distorting the truth that I could no longer tell the difference between the real world and my constructed world. My life was a matrix of lies, a wall of 1s and 0s spelling out a made up reality different from the one beyond the walls of my perception. 


I'm not upset that you've lied to me. I'm upset that from now on I can't believe you.

Frederich Nietzsche


Lying is a double bogey. 


The duff approach shot is the lack of trust I breed in the people around me, in a girlfriend who loves me and just wants to believe me, to whom any lie however small upsets the apple cart. If I'm lying about brushing my teeth what the hell else am I lying about, the opposite of truth has a thousand faces and stares back with as many eyes.


Then the wayward putt is me. Because each time I lie I remain the scared child. The little boy with fear in his eyes, always thinking he needs to invent or distort to save himself from punishment. Every lie chops away at the little bit of ground beneath his feet, tearing at his sense of self until there is no self left, and there he is floundering, with no choice but to react to his fantasy of other people's judgement, a fantasy grounded all those years ago in the memory of an impatient parent who loved him but was hard and uncompromising and clumsy.


So where is the redemption.


It begins with writing this I suppose. I can't be all that bad if I'm writing this, I tell myself. In a way that's true. All the stuff, the lying about what I had for lunch, or what I watched on tv, the terror of a knock at the door or a tap on the shoulder, the never feeling enough, the disappearing act, it's a million times better than it used to be. The fear is still there, the instinct is always the same. But I fight that bitch.


I said before I don't remember the first lie I ever told. But I remember the last one. It was yesterday morning. I left my girlfriend a video message of me about to go running with a podcast about ancient civilisations. But this wasn't true. The podcast was actually about lying itself. And just before I sent it I caught myself red-handed. I stopped, frowned, shook my head, deleted the video and sent a new one.







Truth is such a rare thing, it is delightful to tell it.

Emily Dickinson



What would life be like without lies. A place where what you said and what you did were the same thing, where the truth was a mate you had no reason to fear, who you could walk up to smiling and let it take you by the hand. Every time I stood up for my truth, I realised, I claimed back a piece of territory that was mine. And the scared six year old had one less reason to be afraid.


What a big old waste of time it is. To be afraid all the time. If I have nothing to lie about then just don't do it. And if I've done something wrong, tell it like it is and take the slap. Because anything else will come back and bite me on the arse. Mark Twain famously said the greatest thing about telling the truth is that you don't have to remember what you said.


But it's more than that too. I read somewhere that the truth is an adventure, maybe the defining adventure of all our lives. And remarkable things happen when we start telling it. So what now, I ask myself. Now, there is this me walking around with a mind bent on trying not to tell even the smallest lie. Which is probably asking too much right now. But there must be a beginning. In any event, I thought to myself if I was going to write something about lying I should begin with the truth. And be sure I wasn't lying to myself about it.


So here at least, is that.



One Foot In Front Of The Other



Nothing more important has ever happened to me than the first lick of beer I drank one afternoon at the end of September in the garden of a pub on the shores of Loch Lomond. As the cool liquid washed down into me I remember thinking I was living the defining moment of my life.


A twenty one mile walk can do that to a man. 






Descending into the village of Balmaha as the Loch stretched out before us, we limped our way to the bar and raised our bounties to one another. We toasted the great outdoors and the pain in our calves and a day so well lived it felt like four, and asides from the cold gold flooding our souls and the beating drums of our happiness nothing existed.


Having a mate addicted to walking long distances in strange corners of the world means you're never far from something remarkable. When Jules suggested a five day trek through the Highlands he had spent weeks researching weather systems and trains and hostels for, all I had to do was tell him to calm down and say I was in.


The West Highland Way runs 96 miles from the outskirts of Glasgow to the foot of Ben Nevis, and Jules' idea was to walk it before the weather turned. In years past when summer left the building sometimes my mood would follow suit, so this felt like the right time of year for an adventure. Five days in the sticks with a friend shooting the breeze, breathing the air of the hillsides and the creaking pines, can fill up that part of a soul that longs for something it has forgotten where to look for.






With backpacks, walking trousers, hiking boots, maps and a stash of slow release energy bars, we set about the trail. Twenty miles a day broke down to something like seven hours of good walking pace. We were headed north, away from civilisation into the bowels of the Highlands. On our first morning as distant peaks loomed up darkly on the horizon we looked at each other uneasily, knowing that was where our route was winding.


You tap into something primal when you walk long distances, one foot in front of the other, in front of the other, endlessly. You are in a process you can't imagine any end to because the landscapes are simply too big, but there is a softly beating satisfaction in moving through them, inching your way ever so slowly along the trail. Your legs pump and arms swing and your engine hums, there is sweat and mild aching and pumping blood and purpose.



Even the clouds look excited to see you.






I don't know if Liv loves the walking, or if she just loves coming with me when I do these things, says Jules. Nobody could love the walking as much as you, I think. He is a like a child exploring an unknown part of a garden, he whoops out across the valley, laughing to himself. In the new year Jules will become a father for the first time, and then it won't be long before the three of them go explore the hills.






Each morning we would rise, eat a good breakfast, sling our packs over our shoulders and hit the trail once more, the night would reveal a new ache in a new body part, the dawn would bring with it some new thought, the familiar crunch of gravel under foot, while ahead of us stretched another twenty miles and space to breathe and talk and think of anything whatsoever.


In 1699 Joseph Addison, returning from a Grand Tour of Europe, wrote 'the Alps fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror'. It was the beginning of the idea of the sublime, an appreciation of a fear-instilling nature that dwarfed men with a greatness beyond calculation or measure. As we moved farther and deeper into the belly of the Highlands, an agreeable kind of horror began to rise up inside me.









In this unending land of bogs and whisperings one is small and insignificant and the weather changes in the blinking of an uneasy eye. There are valleys off into the distance, and valleys leading off those valleys, and you wonder what goes on there. This is a land of secrets. The wind blows hot and cold, the heather and the highland grass are beautiful and harsh. And everything is wet. This is a realm that lets you in for a brief moment and tells you to hurry along and mind your back, a glance to the side or behind and you can feel its eyes on you, watching.



Of Rannoch Moor, T S Eliot wrote:


Here the crow starves, here the patient stag
Breeds for the rifle. Between the soft moor
And the soft sky, scarcely room 
To leap or soar. Substance crumbles, in the thin air
Moon cold or moon hot.



Sometimes the going was hard and nasty. There were times when a mile felt like five and an hour lasted all morning. The aches would spread and multiply and begin to wear you down, or unkind thoughts would worm their way inside your brain and not leave. Sometimes the majesty of the surroundings wouldn't speak at all and I would stare down at my boots. And the whole thing would feel pointless and I would ask myself what the fuck I was doing out there in the middle of this barren nowhere.


But the walking would still uneasy voices. Always the same, one foot in front of the other, in front of the other, endlessly. Somehow the continuous motion would walk you through an invisible door into a different place and the clouds would clear and things would become easier. All you had to do really, was keep moving.






Just before Kirkton, where the Herive Burn winds its way down towards the river Fillan, the West Highland Way passes through a forest of otherworldly beauty. It is a fairytale thing, existing firmly in the realm of fantasy. In the cool air of the morning as the forest dripped wet and the sun reached through the trees lighting the edges of all it touched, I felt supremely happy. And creeping softly through the air came voices. It was our third day, where we met Dustin and Fraser.


Fraser was a Scot from Kilmaurs, he had been planning this walk for weeks from a desk he couldn't wait to get away from. Dustin was over from the US, sinuous black lines tattooed on his body showed trails he had walked around the world, bringing with him always the ashes of beloved family he would scatter on the hillside. How do you know each other, Jules asked. We don't, they replied.


We walked the next two and a half days with them, and became four. We shared jokes, told long-winded stories, drank triumphant beers together, all sharing in the grand adventure. You forge strong bonds with people you walk fifty miles alongside. Maybe walking these things takes a certain type of person that recognises themself in the other. It was a strange process of half chance that brought us together, and strange too how emotional a goodbye can be with people that two days before you had no idea existed. 






As the train teetered along the track out of Fort William and back to the land of the living, I looked across the moors and thought it would be cathartic to catch a last glimpse of the land we'd spent five days traversing. But what would I know. I could hardly see straight. The exhilaration of the finish had been too much for us, Jules and I had got absolutely totalled in Fort William, we had strangled the night and died with the dawn, and were blurry-eyed ghosts of men.


*


A month has passed now, and we are back in our respective places. 


London is darkening in the mid-afternoon. Autumn is coating the pavements and the street sweepers are working overtime. Fraser is back up north planning a long overdue wedding. Dustin is back across the ocean half-interestedly going on dates. Jules is keeping Liv company while her tummy grows, and I am writing this. Right this second, out by the Loch we passed on our second day, the wind is tugging at the branches of the little tree by the water's edge, as tiny little waves lap over the pebbles below.


It's funny to think this is happening right now.


As if it is always there, waiting.






Cities can be gnarled and crooked unkind places, full of the sadness of life and the hardship written on the faces of people walking by. But there are places that exist that make your soul soar. That are terrifying in scale and have a majesty you feel privileged just to be in the midst of. You mean nothing out there, but you don't need to, you just move through it open-mouthed. 


The older I get the more I realise that shittiness is a matter of time. We don't know when the things we take for granted will get taken from us. So maybe any time not spent in pain or anxiety or emotional turmoil is a heaven on earth.


Somewhere in the cracks of the everyday are the spaces where the earth exists in all its force and magnificence. It changes everything. Strange corners of the world that simply take your breath away. That are only a good idea and a train ride away.


And are always there, waiting.






The End Of The Affair



A bald man. 


This is all I am now, I thought to myself.


One of them. The men with no hair.


I gazed into the mirror and applied a grey paste carefully to the top of my head with a spatula. The paste stuck to the remaining hairs, matting them together, as questions of a new identity loomed on the horizon like the light of a new day.







The treatment would be more effective if you had come two years ago, the woman with the eastern European accent had said to me three days earlier. There is, she grimaced, not much chance now to stimulate regrowth. I nodded, and thought of the months it had taken to summon the courage to get myself to that cold dead room.


I listened to her advice about moving the spatula most effectively across the surface of my scalp, absorbed some statistics about follicle regeneration, paid too much money for a brace of medications and descended the stairs. The two of us returned home through the muted light of the morning, my secret and I.



And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair -
(They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!")
My morning coat, my collar mounted firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin.


The visit to the hair loss clinic was six years ago. My journey through hair loss began two years before that, a journey that has been slow and confusing and happened one hair at a time. But it should have come as no surprise.


The Argentines on my father's side were born with diminishing hairlines and large appendages. My English family are abundant on top and less-so below. As fate would have it my brother got a wonderful crop and a hearty lunchbox, and then there was me, lurking at the shallow end of the gene pool.


Even with a suspicion my hair type was never going to stick around for long, I clung to hope. To look hard I'd shaved my head since I was eighteen, and since I couldn't see much hair on me anyway I didn't notice its soundless departure. What could be more unobtrusive than a hair soundlessly departing. One night aged 28, I caught my reflection in a pub mirror at a funny angle and stopped breathing.



Fuck me.


I'm going fucking bald.



As the penny dropped a new feeling surged up inside me, one of deep fear. Perhaps it was the first sign of an irreversible decline, the beginning of the end, the Reaper emerging from the shadows for a brief moment to clear his throat. I'd prided myself on not being scared of death and here it was staring me in the face, in the form of a ceiling light bouncing off the surface of my head and lighting up the wall on the other side of the room.



That night I went to bed in a beanie, woke up and didn't take a cycling cap off for three months. 







On top of feeling old, was the creeping feeling something in me wasn't quite as it should be. Very sick people lose their hair, I thought. Samson's fate had made me assign strength and virility to hair, surely women would do the same. Every morning the mirror spoke to me of frailty, proof my halcyon days were fast dissolving in the rearview. Never again would I step out of the shower and rub a towel seductively through my locks. Applying moisturiser to my forehead became confusing. At which point did I stop?



I kept my hair very short, so the areas where it thinned would be less obvious. But people would get curious. So are you losing it, they'd ask. Or do you just like having it shaved. My reddening cheeks would answer back. Those who hadn't seen me for a year or two would greet me with raised eyebrows. My brother bought me a Bald Eagle for Christmas. 







After two years of denial and baseball caps, I dragged myself to the hair clinic. Returning home with the treatment as I described, I began to apply a grey cream to the top of my head each morning with a spatula. Is this all I am now? I would ask myself. A bald man. I had joined a club with a lifetime membership, a club all members of which share the same identity, an identity they wear without choice, not on their sleeves, by dint of the little beam of light reflecting off the tops of their shiny heads. 


As the morning broke on the third day of my new ritual and the paste I was applying began to congeal, matting the hairs together in a sticky clump, I looked searingly into my soul and heard myself say... 



This is fucking ridiculous



Then and there in front of that mirror, I stopped giving a fuck.



*


With much joy I disposed of the silly cream in the bin, and since that day I haven't cared very much about my hair. It doesn't really affect me anymore. That's not to say I wouldn't prefer to have loads. It just means I'd rather not care than waste time consumed by something I have no control over. Once I'd come to the realisation it was a battle I couldn't win, it became pointless to try. 


My insecurities about my hair were wedded to the delusion that the people in my life might be judging me on any grounds other than who I was, what was inside me. When it came to the dating scene, I told myself that if a woman didn't fancy me on account of my shiny dome, I probably wouldn't fancy her either. If this didn't always hold true, I could always reference the scientific literature surrounding bald men and their prowess in the bedchamber. 



And when all else failed, I could resort to denial.






Having not much hair is great. 


The maintenance of it is negative-nothing, in terms of the amount of thought it requires. Fearing a bad day out at the barber is no longer a factor in my life, the dread of a shit haircut was something I had to process six years ago, before realising it wasn't even a shit haircut. I've grown to like my hair.


Somerset Maugham once wrote that in each shave lies a philosophy. No matter how mundane something might appear, by repeating it in a quasi-religious manner it can become a contemplative and even meditative act. The weekly ritual of shaving my own melon comes pretty close.






Every single person has something going on in their life that they hate themselves for and berate themselves for without end, that nobody but themselves even know exists. Not because they don't care, but they just don't have time to. Because they in turn are busy worrying about their thing. And if they did know they wouldn't care anyway. Not out of apathy but because they would know it doesn't matter. People matter, the stuff on the inside, the sticky emotional treacle we are made of that makes us nobody but ourselves.


I mean I'm also full of shit. 


I still see photos of myself from time to time and wince. I still take a pill in the morning designed to curtail the outright exodus of anything on my head still growing. But I used to think before I didn't want to be just the bald man. But now I don't care. The cool thing about life and getting older is that you learn what not to give a shit about.


The softening of time and drying up of follicles has led me to think people might actually like me not in spite of my baldness, but because of it too. After all it is a part of me. A glass neither half empty nor half full but a glass twice the size it needs to be. Almost like a calling card. No longer just Domingo the guy with no hair. But... Domingo, the guy with no hair.



Not a source of weakness and of shame.



A source of love perhaps too.