Pear Shaped

Pear Shaped

A Chapter by Mike
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Chapter One

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It didn’t take too long for things to go pear shaped. 

“Oi guys - stop!”

 Pendrich was yelling out to Maggie and I as we cycled further and further into the distance. We were a few kilometres out of Taunton by that point, cruising down a real nice stretch with picturesque green hills all around us.

 “Oi!” Pendrich screamed, as he eventually caught us. It took awhile to catch on to the fact that someone was trying to slow us down. All profanities directed at us by this point had just been from motorists.

He threw his girlfriend’s bike into the nettle that lined the highway.

 “It’s over man,” he exclaimed.

 In a matter of moments everything had changed. Our long ride from Bristol to Plymouth had stopped dead in its tracks.

“Alright alright, calm down,” I replied casually. “What’s up?”

 “My chain snapped in half all the way up in Taunton, just before the roundabout,” Pendrich said, panting. “I was just wheeling along minding my own business until suddenly I started hearing a rattle. I thought maybe my spokes were caught in something, but I kept on riding anyway, knowing something would happen - and then, all of a sudden... the chain just snapped! I was on the side of the highway and a bus was comin’ up fast, so I threw my bike over the barricade. Now the cogs are all bent too.”

I was completely oblivious to any of this. Maggie and I had already ridden five kilometres outside of Taunton by that point, and were too preoccupied with the beautiful countryside to even begin thinking that something could’ve happened. I just assumed that Pendrich and Lilly were behind us, until of course I realised that it made no sense for him to be hurtling towards us on Lilly’s bike with no saddle bags. The dream of hauling arse across country had quickly come to a fairly large and disappointing halt.

The five of us trudged over to the other side of the two-lane country highway and began our slow and arduous walk back into town. It felt like such an immediate defeat, especially considering that only the night before Maggie and I were regaling at having finally left the city. He was my partner in life and crime at that point - a 20-year-old Kiwi with unwashed, shaggy brown hair and a warm smile. We lay sprawled out in our two-man tent together, just happy to be on the road again. I began to remember how everything had been planned, how the initial idea was conceived and how quickly it had snowballed.

 Maggie and I had met for coffee one day in May in a south-side café of Bristol.

 “Yes man,” I said, “that’s it! The 1st of June.”

 “We’ll leave then,” replied Maggie elatedly. “Quit our jobs, the flats - take a break. Get away from this habit that I’ve got going,” he laughed.

 Maggie didn’t really have a habit; he just liked to romanticise things, and was most likely born about 30 years too late.

 “So down this trail here?” I asked, pointing to the map. 

Somehow, somebody had designed and built a cycle path that stretched from Norway to the south of Portugal. We planned on jumping on it at Roscoff, a small fishing port in the north of Brittany in France. It had frequent ferry connections with Plymouth in the UK, which meant that it was our closest entry point to the country from Bristol.

 “We’ll hit that up, cruise on down to Toulouse for the Tame Impala gig and then maybe check out that San Fruttuoso place you keep raving on about.”

Maggie was a big dreamer, but you wouldn’t know it to look at him. His wardrobe consisted of a mishmash of purchases from charity stores, and all he ever carried was a plastic bag with his drawing book and a barrel of tobacco. His minimalisms in this area of life were traded for a state of mind far beyond his years.

 The journey itself was conceived in seconds. We had no direction or plan, just a vague route and some tickets to a psychedelic rock concert that we were all dying to attend. Who knew if that’s how we unintentionally planned all of our trips, but it seemed to happen quite frequently. We’d start by fleshing out the vague plan and always intend on developing it later but never get around to it. We’d get to the week before and realise that we hadn’t planned a thing. We don’t even get to the point where we’ve planned what supplies we’ll need - that’s the plan before the real plan.

 Before the cycling idea was hatched, we only discussed what we wanted to do. We had the idea of orchestrating a mass reunion full of close friends down in Toulouse. It was summer, and the hometown of several French travelers we had met over two years of living in the city. We also wanted to plan a hike up to the north of the country and visit a commune that we had gotten word of. Neither of these ideas, however, were actually connected to the idea of riding. 

For some reason or another, people quickly became interested in doing these things by pedal power. Four of my best friends from Australia were traveling in Europe and were completely down for it. Pendrich and Lilly were a longstanding couple on their first trip overseas together. I’d met them back in Australia in my uni days, through Dean and a big shared house. 

 While the rest of us were partying and spending most of our contact hours on the couch, Pendrich was holding down a solid job as an electrician and working weekdays. He was the sensible one of the group, and would’ve worn the shirt and tie unquestionably if banking was his bag. Instead, he was a problem solver who liked crawling into tight roof spaces. Between him and Lilly (who fell into the couch degree category) there was call enough for a change of pace - especially after I moved back to Europe and Dean was dying to get back there with his new German girlfriend Anna. 

Dean was my longstanding partner of the road, and together we’d worked our way into some interesting scenarios. He was the Moriarty to my Paradise, and stood tall and handsome, with a powerful kind of nomadic spirit and energy that sees you leave home in a two-door Honda Prelude and never look back.

 June was the end of the line for them, until of course this plan came to our attention. They had exhausted all the couches they could sleep on and all the people they could visit. I was at the end of the road for them (hopefully only because of continental Europe seeming far more appealing than the false promise of an English summer at that moment in time.)

A few weeks before our departure date we all met up in person to discuss the trip at hand and whether it could actually happen.

“So I guess we’re all getting bikes then,” Pendrich said with a smirk.

 “Maggie and I bought ours at a shop up near Colston Hall. They weren’t much - mine was £160 and his was £240 - but we don’t know s**t about cycling anyway. All we know is that we can ride them.”

 “Man!” chimed Dean, “we just need something that gooo-es! A bike’s a bike. We don’t wanna be those dudes on the road with high visibility vests and s**t like that!”

 It was clear that Dean didn’t want to pay much for his bike. In his eyes there was nothing really to know - you just bought one. He was dismissive about things he didn’t know and would always try to deny their importance.

  decided to walk him down to a yard behind my work. I’d never been there before but had heard stories about a guy called Steve who sold stolen bikes for essentially nothing. I had no problem with any of this, but looming in the back of my mind was the thought that these bikes needed to be taken across France. I knew mine and Maggie’s were good for it, but I doubted the rest.


HEY STEVE,

WE HEARD THAT YOU SELL SWEET BIKES AND THAT YOU’RE HERE ON WEDNESDAYS FROM 12-4. YOUR MATE SONIC GAVE US YOUR NUMBER AND WE TRIED CALLING BUT COULDN’T GET THROUGH. WILL TRY AGAIN LATER. 

DEAN


Dean didn’t even know the guy but wanted a bike as cheap as possible. This was probably the best option, with junk yards and shady second-hand dealers following close behind. As it turned out though, Steve was never around on Wednesdays, so we tied this note to the mesh of his wire fence and walked away.

 As the days rolled by, four bikes were eventually sourced. Dean and his girlfriend Anna bought theirs for just £30 each from a guy called Al. He was a little more credible than the guy from the yard and worked at a bike/motor shop. His basement was full of parts and various chains and cogs, so for £30 each he rigged up some pretty sturdy set-ups. I was surprised, and besides a few bits of rust here and there I was actually beginning to question whether I’d perhaps spent too much.

 Pendrich and Lilly paid a bit more, but only Pendrich got stooged. The tyres were near bald on his bike and the chain was completely rusted. It was called the ‘Resonator’ and looked like a 90s-style teenager’s bike, with all the light blue and red streaks screaming retro.

 Lilly’s bike was essentially a motor-cross bike. It was only £90 but everything was brand new - disk brakes, seat, gears, chain. If she hadn’t have bought it that day some trail biker definitely would’ve. Pendrich couldn’t help but feel immense jealousy at this fact, and used it as the butt of many jokes further down the line.

Eventually the date of departure dawned closer. The flats and the jobs were quit, and Maggie and I could tick ‘practice’ off our checklist with a measly 30-mile cycle to Bath under our belts.

 endrich, Lilly, Maggie and I all set out together in the late afternoon of May 30, aiming to get to Dean and Anna’s in just two days. They had both left for Plymouth about a week earlier, cycling the odd 200 kilometres to visit Dean’s relatives who lived just outside of the city. I didn’t hear from him until five or so days after they’d left, and with their little to no cycling experience I was curious to know whether they’d made the distance.

“We ran into some troubles man,” Dean said over the phone. “Getting out of Bristol is a b***h and all the roads south are hard to navigate. Anna was always falling behind and I’d be gunning around the roundabouts n’ havin’ to wait for her for a good half hour.”

 Anna’s previous cycling experience fell into the same category as Lilly’s - zero. Neither of them had ridden a bike in over 13 years, but somehow none of that was mentioned until the bikes were actually purchased and I saw Lilly go for a test run around the shop. This comes as no discredit to them both, but we probably should’ve been briefed before deciding to take on a 2,000-kilometre journey.

 “The racks on the bikes kept coming loose as well man,” Dean continued. “We ended up having to ride into these s**t-box little towns and take bolts from fences and road signs - but it actually worked out sweet and we’re here now. The bikes are sweet and we’re just waiting for you guys now…”


-


We trudged the five kilometres back to Taunton, feeling defeated already but trying to conjure up a plan that would somehow involve us still getting to Plymouth on time. Pendrich was invaluable when it came to fixing or repairing things. He had a compartment in his mind dedicated to problem solving that none of us had. Back in Australia he used to wire entire houses in just a day, driving all over the state to fix problems that the older sparkies couldn’t wrap their heads around. But on the road you had to work with what you had, and our problem stretched further than a simple solution of just ripping a couple of bolts from a fence. We had four people, three functioning bikes, a snapped chain and no bike shop in sight. We were only 50-odd kilometres outside of Bristol, with a long, long road ahead of us and an already dwindling spirit.

We returned to the centre of Taunton and to the scene of the accident. Lilly was sitting on the median strip listening to music; all hope had ended for her way back in Bridgewater, where for 30 k’s we had to ride through nothing but long stretches of hilly terrain and bustling country highways. I couldn’t say that we were doing ourselves any favours though. Besides having virtually no experience, not one of us had even thought to buy any bike gear to lessen the pain. We deemed jean shorts to be essential riding attire, and Lilly was set on wearing her skirt and ballet shoes at all costs.

 “Hey Lil,” I said, “I have a plan. I reackon the best thing to do is to hit up the station and buy some train tickets. We’ve gotta be in Plymouth by tomorrow, and we’re not even close to Exeter which is still at least another 50 Ks from where we need to be. Pendrich’s chain is fucked, and why buy another one here in Taunton? Everything’s closed now anyway. My suggestion is we train it out tomorrow morning and camp out here tonight, that way we’ll be in Plymouth by the afternoon, get everything fixed and sail onto the ferry that evening.”

And the plan carried itself out - us, dragging ourselves around town, to the train station and back out to a suitable camping location. We probably could’ve saved ourselves a trip and just bought tickets the next day, but I think we were scared of getting shafted in quick succession. The snapped chain set the precedent pretty damn fast that we were in way over our head here. 

 We walked miles past where Pendrich had stopped Maggie and I, and into the looming sunset. Finding a clearing to camp was near impossible. The night before was a walk in the park; all we had to do was ride off the main road and down a path. It was almost too easy. It may have been down an old driveway, and the camping area was in view of a nearby hotel, but it worked. It was in a field and we were secluded.

 All we were looking for this time was a patch of flat grass, but everything was completely blocked by hedges. Bloody England and its hedges. They separated us from an endless sea of green hills that looked enticing to say the least. They were like unattainable pleasures: all perfectly camp-able but completely closed off from public view. 

We watched as other more proficient riders passed us, and I guessed they were probably wondering what the hell we were doing - four travelers dressed in city clothes desperately wheeling their bikes along the side of the highway. But even I didn’t know. We were all as far removed from the world of long-distance cycling as anyone could realistically be. But for us, that wasn’t important. The bikes were just a mode of transport - an inexpensive one that enabled you to see landscapes differently and live on the other side of a landlocked urban environment. It was all about the adventure, but unfortunately if the bikes collapsed we all paid the price.

 After several more miles of walking we eventually found a clearing. It led us into the back corner of a farm that was harvesting yellow flowers. We could see the owner’s house in clear view from where we were, but accepted that it was our fate. It was practically dark by this point anyway and easily outweighed the only other option, which was to camp out the back of a depressing Telecom station.

 We set up the two tents in minutes and all quickly huddled into mine and Maggie’s to eat. A soft sun hung on the skyline and then quickly brought in the cold night.

 “Maybe this dude’s gonna come out here with a shotgun if he sees us,” Maggie chuckled, “waving his fists around like some kind of maniac.”

 “What d’you reckon he’ll do?” I asked.

 “I don’t wanna find out man!”

We were running on complete impulse by this point. Nothing was yet to stand in our way of illegally camping our way across half of Europe, and we were wearing it hard. We drank cheap Chilean wine and smoked into the evening, the four of us chatting excitedly. We spread out all the food we had purchased and laid it out communally - baguettes, cheese, chorizo, avocado. We weren’t even in France and already we’d converted to the patented bread and cheese diet we would come to know so well. We feasted, smoked, drank, talked without restraint, and revelled in what seemed like a dire situation.

Maggie himself had already been in a similar situation less than a year before. Since I met him he had always carried this romantic vision to travel nomadically. It was what brought us together two years before in a backpackers in Bristol: his desire to leave New Zealand after high school and my newfound soul-searching mission halfway across the globe bound us eternally. 

 When we got to talking about ‘the mainland’ his dreamworld was mostly set on the north Italian coast, with him drinking a chilled red and eating a Spanish-style bocadillo all at once in some decadent frenzy. His love of European food and drink culture emanated from him constantly.

 A year earlier he’d attempted a Portuguese cycling journey with his girlfriend, but their bicycles completely collapsed by the second day. They sourced them in Porto with the plan to get them down the coast to Lisbon. It was mid-August and from what he said, they had about six hours riding time a day - 7am until 10am and 5pm until 8pm. Outside of those hours was torture. I couldn’t help but imagine cracked red dirt below them as they scurried to find water. As fate would have it, their problems coincided with ours, only we still had frames and wheels that didn’t look like a bag of bones on the floor.

Since then, Maggie still seemed quite at peace with the world. Usually, he’d just be sitting there contently, brewing coffee while the others prepared their tents and food. He never had any sense of urgency because he was always living in the moment.

“Who wants a piece of this action then?” he’d say, with a cigarette in one hand and an espresso glass in the other.

  knew he wasn’t upset to be in such dire straits so early because he’d already realised there was a way out.


-


We rose early the next morning. The sun wasn’t even high in the sky and already the early morning heat pierced our skin. It was unusually hot for England in general, and the nine-month winter we’d just endured stamped on any hope we had for sunshine. But there it was, blazing at the end of May as we packed up our tents and lives posthaste and headed for the train station.

We walked the 45 minutes back to Taunton and made our way to the station. We rolled down the hills when they appeared, but otherwise just lugged the bikes uphill with everything else we owned. 

 We walked through the derelict streets of Taunton, pushing our way through crowds of old, washed up couples and ratty teenagers. A convertible blasting loud house music raced past us as four middle-aged ex-convict looking guys glared us down. The older males sported faded tattoos with ripped polo shirts, and the young did the same, only replacing the cane for a cigarette. Even their tattoos were faded.

I felt the uncomfortable and unsettling feeling I receive when I know that I don’t belong somewhere - call it snobbery if you like, but I seriously felt out of the mix. It was added to my list of blown out, unsalvageable English towns - the ones that seemed to solely house welfare bludgers and hard, chauvinist trade workers. Towns that were perhaps permissible for dying or being born in, but nowhere in between.

 There is nothing in these places to stimulate the mind and generate curiosity for a good cause, so the people who reside there invent their own amusement. Cutting laps of the town square is a popular one, but racism and fighting on the street could just as easily be. It’s hard to know where the line meets and really just boils down to one, giant, mixed bag of recalcitrant youths who were born on the wrong side of town.

We had to board separate trains that morning just so we could all leave that hell hole at the same time. I felt a slight sense of defeat knowing that we didn’t even accomplish the first cycling leg. How difficult was it going to be to travel through France?

I later found out that Anna and Dean had boarded a train in almost the exact same location. This made me feel a whole lot better, even if this ‘small’ ride was undertaken for no other reason than practice. We set ourselves two days to ride the 200-odd kilometres, but with our little-to-no cycling training it was an empty and irrational goal. It reminded me that the plans in our minds are just as inconsistent and unpredictable as the hills we trudged over or the ones we coasted down effortlessly. When the going is good the world shines its bright light on you and tells you to keep going. But in equal time you can easily be hit hard in the face, knocked down and out, finding it impossible to move or react. When there’s an open window, we wouldn’t doubt things for a second; when it’s closed and the wind is hurling you around, I’d tell you all is dead.

As we hit the southwest coast, Maggie and I gazed out of the window with our jaws practically touching the ground. The train passed through all the steep cliffs along the shoreline and out at sea we could see a horde of boats. The ocean was so expansive and thought-provoking that we both barely said a word, just gazing and admiring a world no longer landlocked. Your city can quite easily become your entire world. Every new friendship, smile or conversation solidifies your want to stay longer - to dig through another layer and discover more. Or at least that’s how I viewed it.

 Our realities were somewhat similar. We had both left our respective countries on pure whim. Maggie took the blind plunge to England when he was only 19, leaving New Zealand behind in a flash. When we met, both directionless and friendless in a new city, I told him of the hitchhiking I’d done around Europe and the adventures that I’d had around Australia with Dean. Eventually it was agreed that we would take a trip together some time, but we had no idea when or even where we’d be going. That feeling of riding that train south to the coast was what we had both been expecting. My heart raced with the idea of heading further south, over the channel and into France’s barren west side, where another chapter lay.

 We soon arrived in Plymouth and suddenly the first leg of the journey was complete. We used the front of the city’s Halfords store to fix all of our respective bike problems. Lilly’s rack couldn’t handle all her luggage, my screws were just flying off my bike whenever they felt like it, and Pendrich’s bike needed a full treatment. 

We abused the shop by running up and down to the workshop to borrow parts and tools, and I’m completely sure every employee felt sorry for us. Slowly, we were coming to terms with the fact that our story and journey could be used to gain sympathy, and we had no problem playing that card further down the line.

 We cycled the ten kilometres out to the country town of Brixton where Anna and Dean were staying. Dean’s relatives lived in a quaint stone cottage lined with blooming rose bushes. The four of us arrived in a sweaty heap, ringing the doorbell in the hope that we’d actually found the right house.

An old Devon man called Derek answered the door and looked at us from head to toe. The contrast couldn’t have been clearer: us, the muddy-faced quartet dressed in rags, and Derek, the long-retired electrician standing in the doorway of his pristine country home. But he let us in without question, dropping only a few sarcastic remarks about our estranged connection to his long-haired great nephew that he’d never met until he too arrived on his doorstep.

He let us pitch our tents in the backyard for the night and then we wound up drinking G&Ts all afternoon. Suddenly, the idea of getting the Saturday ferry was of no importance. Derek’s wife was bringing out fruit platters and clotted cream while he aided us in gearing up our bikes for the journey ahead.

“Oh, give it here son,” he would say, snatching the ratchet off of Dean. He came across as stern and maybe even harsh, but you could tell that he was just waiting for one of us to ask for help.

 “You gonna do it the right way?” Dean joked.

 “Well, somebody has to!”

Dean would wind Derek up and Sue would chuckle. They were the perfect retired couple living in their own small slice of English paradise.

 Brixton is home to the Foxhound Pub and small alleyways (one was simply named ‘Old Road’). One street in, one street out. Houses ordered according to a name rather than a number. You couldn’t get much older than towns that were planned and named at the birth of civilization. Roads could actually be named ‘Old Road’ because it was likely that the name hadn’t been taken yet. Traditional English telephone boxes lined the streets and were still in use by all of the elderly that couldn’t figure out how to operate a touch screen.

 Maggie, Pendrich, Lilly and I cycled the streets in awe of all the canopied trees and endless green hues that stretched in every direction. Lilly had a huge grin on her face, completely happy when things were just working out. Even with a short tether, she was wise enough to know the equation of giving to gain. Maggie, on the other hand, was always ecstatic and would answer any question with: “Yeah man, I’m happy.” Every contradictory thought that could potentially pull you out of happiness was dead to him at that point.


-


The six of us all set out the next evening, bikes strapped and equipped with everything that we needed. At its core we had the bare essentials - clothes, toiletries, money, passports, phones, music devices. We ended up buying more specific items when their importance was highlighted - like a shovel for digging forest toilets. We settled with the idea of three bags becoming all that we possessed. Our lives boiled down to a ratio of 1/3 survival, 1/3 cash, and 1/3 enjoyment. That went for possessions as much as it went for the decisions we made.

 Our night ferry from Plymouth to Roscoff left at 11pm, and we spent our last hours hanging by the canons at the waterfront, smoking and thinking large. We were all running on pure adrenaline, cycling down the hill to the ferry dock as a band of comrades in arms. It was a strange sight and an even stranger feeling. This was the first time that any of us had really ridden anywhere substantial - and to think, we were about to do it in unison through rural France.   

 We boarded through the vehicle check-in as the sun was setting, ending a string of bluebird days and beginning a restless night of anticipation. Our heads hit the dock of the ferry hard, our eyes soon to be opened by the screaming fishing docks of Roscoff and the sweet melody of a new country to trudge our way through.



© 2019 Mike


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Added on August 5, 2013
Last Updated on November 17, 2019
Tags: Cycling, Travel, England, Camping, Problems


Author

Mike
Mike

Melbourne, Australia



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