‘What was it Mark said three and-a half years ago?’ I joked to Tenny. ‘Cycle on the left, cycle on the left, cycle on the left . . . or die!’ And with that we rolled off the ferry and onto the British mainland. There was no turning back now: we had escaped the Continent and set foot and rubber on the soil of England, five days short of my parents’ driveway in Middleton, Northamptonshire.
The late afternoon autumn air felt chilly and damp as we rode alongside the Victorian terraces of the Dover seafront. Looking for a grocer’s, we were befuddled by the town’s illogical one-way system and, with daylight failing, we cut our losses and rode up and out of the settlement towards the eastern cliff-tops, shrouded by low cloud. Leaping a stile, we set up camp in a misty paddock opposite an army barracks, and in the morning remembered why we’d needed supplies: there was nothing left to eat for breakfast.
‘Don’t worry,’ I said confidently to Tenny as she gathered up the wet fabric of the tent. ‘This is England. There are villages everywhere, and they all have these great little village shops.’
We set off into the freezing fog. Unlike any other type of fog, the English variety seemed able to penetrate every thread of clothing I possessed, and no matter how hard I pedalled, my fingers and toes still throbbed in the damp and insidious cold. South Kent seemed more hilly and remote than I had imagined. After two and a half hours of slogging on empty stomachs through lands devoid of all life, we passed a village churchyard and spotted a figure through the mist. The grey-haired woman was closing the gate behind her. She wore a long coat and dangled an empty watering can from one gloved hand.
‘‘Scuse me,’ I called, trying hard to make the question I’d asked a million times in a dozen languages sound casual. ‘You don’t happen to know if there’s a shop around here, do you?’
‘There’s a village store,’ replied the woman, ambling across the road to speak to us, ‘‘bout two ‘undred yards up the ‘ill there, on the left. Right next to the ‘all.’
‘Er, that’s great. Thanks!’ I said. How freakish people sounded – in Kent! But to hear a fellow Brit speak gave me a tug of deep-seated recognition, like hearing a snatch of a lullaby your mother once sang you, or getting a whiff of something that transports you instantly back to your grandparents’ kitchen on Boxing Day.
The woman looked me up and down, glanced with a grin at my panniers packed for two.
‘‘Ere, you’re good, in’t yer? Luggin’ that lot up an’ down all these ‘ills?!’
I smiled weakly, my body screaming out for sugar. ‘Er . . . well. I’ve had worse.’
It had taken us two months to reach the south coast of England. There’d been a long-winded series of bus journeys and an overnight ferry before Tenny and I had set out on another two-wheeled adventure, the most appropriate we could think up. It was not a journey through the soaring ranges of Central Asia and Tibet. India, too, would have to wait. For instead of Far East, we had travelled Far West, to the place that Tenny had dreamed of going for as long as she’d been capable of dreaming: Europe.
When I’d arrived in Tehran at the end of my journey through the Middle East and Africa – knocking on the door of the Adamian family home, Tenny answering the door, a look of bemusement across her beautiful face, then leaping in shock, warm tears rolling down her cheeks, her head pressed hard against my chest – I knew that this life of journey-making could no longer be all about me. Alone, I had gone as far as I needed to go. Europe was the most exotic-sounding place that Tenny could imagine, a place where everything would be captivating and new, and I would be a poor selfish fool not to give her the opportunity that only I – with my trusty British passport – had the power to grant. And so our adventures would now be led by her. A couple of months’ riding through Europe would bring us within striking distance of England. Spending the festive season with my family seemed a natural thing to do. And after the New Year . . . well, I had a few ideas.
The sunny olive groves and espressos of southern Italy were a dwindling memory as we lay in our tent behind what I now realised must be the University of Canterbury’s nightclub, listening to the patter of rain on the flysheet and the squeals of drunk students. But a breathtaking sunrise revealed a chilly but pleasant October’s day, and soon we were passing county markers of increasing familiarity. Only a couple more days on the road now separated me from the place I had left a lifetime ago. If I was still numbering the days in my diary, I would have known that it was 1,222 days previously that I’d first transferred my weight onto the right-hand pedal, gripped the handlebars, and stepped away from the ground and into motion. But I’d stopped counting long ago.
Pressing north from London, we’d been invited to stay the night with one of the veteran cyclists on whom I’d long ago sought to model myself, whose stories had inspired something I’d once called Ride Earth. Tenny and I rode down a narrow lane to a farmhouse deep in the countryside and leaned our bikes up by the double garage. She welcomed us indoors, introduced us to her husband and their two young daughters, and took great pleasure in force-feeding us an entire roast chicken.
Though the workshop at Royal Geographical Society was now a vague memory, I still felt a strange pang of disappointment to find that the heroes I’d seen up there on the stage didn’t really exist. This woman, for all her impressive-sounding adventures, was a human being too. As I considered this over a bottle of Black Sheep ale, I came to realise that it was actually a relief; a welcome reminder that the adventurous life was open to everyone, and that facts and figures were always beside the point. And I knew that my own journey, when I told of it, would be misinterpreted too. It was inevitable. Listeners would reconstruct the meaning of my story to please themselves, whether seeing it as an accomplishment beyond their reach, using the statistics of the journey as a benchmark for their own, or belittling my exploits as tales of weakness. But that was also the reason that I had to tell the story. Because only by making sense of what had happened for a listener would I make sense of it for myself. And none of this would stop me from continuing to live a life – with Tenny at my side – as close to or distant from the definition of ‘normal’ as we chose. That could mean living with two children in a cottage in Berkshire. But I suspected that it would turn out to be something a little different.
After dinner, I asked if I might hang our tent up to dry. Of course, came the reply. Just through that door into the back of the garage. You’ll find somewhere to put it, I’m sure.
I retrieved the sodden bundle of fabric from my bike, gave the stuck door a gentle kick. It creaked open. The room was dark except for a line of sunlight that edged beneath the big garage door that occupied the far wall. I ventured in, looking for a hook or a horizontal pole or a line on which to hang the flysheet. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw that the garage was strewn with belongings. Backpacks and boots littered the floor. Beneath a workbench along the side wall was a row of open boxes. One was stuffed brimful with cooking pots, stoves and parts. Another contained a patchwork of waterproof bags. On the workbench itself was a neat row of packed-up tents in different sizes, ready to grab and go. And in the far corner I could see – illuminated by the strip of light – the familiar-looking shape of a touring bicycle, tyres firm, chain oiled, resting against the wall, pointed in the direction of the garage door. I could have mounted it there and then, pedalling away into the sunset for another lifetime of adventure.
But the bicycle would still be there to ride tomorrow.
On the final day of our ride through England, something unexpected occurred.
I was the first to clamber free of the tent that morning, emerging into a world encrusted with white. My breath condensed in front of my face; my eyelashes soon sticky with ice crystals. About thirty miles of cycling remained between the frosted field where we’d set up camp and the family home in which I’d once lived, and I expected that we would arrive in the middle of the afternoon while my parents were still at work. There would be no camera crew to record our arrival; no gathering of friends and family to celebrate what they would want to call my ‘homecoming’; no banner of balloons hoisted aloft above the main street of the village. In fact, nobody but my parents really knew that we were due in England at all.
‘Oh my god!’ exclaimed Tenny as she emerged into the pinkish light of dawn. There wasn’t a sound to be heard. ‘It’s f-f-freezing!’
‘I know – it’s unbelievable!’ I said. ‘Why don’t you do some star jumps while I take the tent down?’
I fumbled with the tent pegs. My hands were numb with cold, and I couldn’t grasp hold of anything. I clumsily pulled on my gloves, but this only reduced my dexterity further. So I gritted my teeth and tried to pack up the ice-rimed tent away as quickly as possible with my raw and stinging hands. Neatness didn’t matter now; especially as I wouldn’t be using the tent again. Not for a couple of months, at least.
Tenny put on every scrap of clothing she could and we set off along the narrow lane. After a few miles of riding, we rounded a bend, and as I saw a junction appear up ahead, I suddenly knew exactly where I was. And I realised that it was the first time in three and a half years that I’d known exactly where I was, and exactly where I was going.
We arrived at the junction, and I automatically turned right.
I soon warmed up as I pedalled, as I was carrying not only my own luggage but Tenny’s as well. I’d realised before we’d left Armenia that doing this would balance the pace, me being a head taller than Tenny and quite a bit stronger after a few thousand miles of African dirt road. She would carry her essentials in a handlebar bag, and I would take the strain, like a chivalrous male of old, and our jaunt through Europe would be smoother and more enjoyable. But now, spinning unencumbered beside me, Tenny was finding it hard to get warm. So in the small town of Raunds we decided to stop for a second breakfast in a cafe on the high street and wait for the sun to climb a little higher.
We took two seats at a table by the window, and the bell rang as the door was pushed open again.
‘Morning, Paul!’ said the proprietress of the cafe. ‘Usual, is it?’
‘Yes, please,’ said Paul, removing a woolly hat and a pair of work gloves. He wore a grubby fluorescent yellow vest over a thick winter jacket. ‘Brittle out there!’ he said, to nobody in particular.
Two plates arrived: fat-oozing sausages with crusty blackened bits of skin, slices of salty smoky bacon, fried eggs with turgid yolks just waiting to burst forth, mushrooms and beans and tomatoes, and inch-thick slabs of granary toast, slathered with molten butter, sliced from a fresh tin loaf with a dark round top – something impossible to find anywhere else in the world but upon this curious little island in the north Atlantic. And then I looked across at my left hand, and saw that my wedding ring was no longer there.
I blinked. Looked again.
Only a circlet of shiny skin remained.
I felt cold.
Tenny looked at my hand, gave a sharp intake of breath, and clasped her hands to her mouth. Her own ring, of course, a smaller version of my own, was still present on the ring finger of her left hand. I’d put it there myself, standing in a tiny octagonal chapel in Yerevan, surrounded on all sides by a press of friends and family, my tearful mum and my proud-looking dad, my younger brother Ben, Tenny’s parents and brother and sister and aunts and uncles, all craning for a glimpse of us, while Andy, my best mate and my best man, held a heavy crucifix above our heads in yet another impressive display of endurance. I started looking on the floor for that comforting flash of metal, moving my legs, craning my neck, looking over and over again at the same patch of floor in that stupid way you do when you can’t yet face the fact that what you’re searching for is simply not there.
I looked back up at my wife.
‘I don’t believe it.’
‘When did you last see it?!’
‘Erm . . . well, I’d have noticed last night if it was missing then. It’s got to have been this morning!’
‘Have you checked your pockets?’
I checked. They were, as usual, empty of anything useful. While I dug through the bits of accumulated fluff in the seams in search of a white gold ring, I made a mental trip back out of the cafe, retracing the last hour of riding, noting every spot at which I’d stopped and removed my gloves: the thick grassy verge where I’d taken a pee; the lay-by in which I’d set up the video camera to get a shot of the two of us cycling past; and of course the site of our previous night’s wild camp itself, which I had trudged about in for about twenty minutes before we’d set off. But really it could be anywhere along a ten-mile stretch of road – a tiny sliver of precious metal amongst the miles of frozen grass. What chance did we have of finding such a thing?
‘Sorry to interrupt,’ interrupted Paul from across the room, halfway through a bacon bap, ‘but did you say you’d lost a ring?’
‘Er . . . yes, it looks like we have,’ I said, half-laughing, and looking down again at the floor by my feet.
‘Just asking, ‘cos I’m picking litter up and down here all morning,’ he continued, ‘so if you’ve dropped it anywhere along this road, I’ll probably find it. D’you want to give me your mobile number, just in case?’
‘Oh . . . yes, that would be great,’ I said. ‘Very good of you to offer!’
‘Well, I’ll do what I can,’ he said. ‘If I’m able to help someone out – then why not? That’s how I see it!’
‘Well, it’s definitely worth a shot – thank you.’
I looked at Tenny again, who was smiling. I knew that Paul would not find the ring in Raunds, but his altruism was heart-warming. England wasn’t really such a bad place. I’d once convinced myself that it was, of course, in order to justify leaving. But England now looked quite different.
Tenny sat across the table from me, putting on her fleece gloves and her helmet.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘we can come back and look for the ring – if it’s there, in that field, it’ll still be there in a few days’ time. But right now I’d like to go home.’
We thanked the waitress and Paul and stepped out into the bright sunlight. The frost was melting now, tiny streams of water trickling down the fringes of the road. Tenny pulled her bike away from the wall outside the cafe, I followed, and together we rode on through the quiet back-roads of Northamptonshire. I looked at Tenny, pedalling alongside me. She would continue to be my wife, of course, with or without the ring. The commitment that I had made to her that day was in my heart, not on my finger.
And so, although it was a pleasant shock to find the ring, three days later, nestled between tufts of long grass in precisely the spot where I’d pulled out a tent peg that frosty morning with my raw and stinging hands – it really wouldn’t have mattered if we hadn’t.
We cycled on.
Later that afternoon we came to the outskirts of village called Middleton, and we zipped down the hill together towards the bend that would lead out onto the main road. As I passed the drinking fountain set in the hillside, from which I’d filled cycling water bottles for as long as I could remember, I flicked through some of the options for what I might say into the lens when I arrived on the far side of the bend. Rolling off the tarmac and up the gravel drive, I came to a halt, uttered a few choice words before the camera’s battery ran out, dismounted, and wheeled my bike to the steps that led up to the entrance of the house.
There was nobody at home. But the key had been left under the mat for us. So I unlocked the door, ushered Tenny into the warmth, and went into the kitchen to put the kettle on.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this free serialisation of Janapar: Love on a Bike. The comments section is now open for your questions and responses. If you enjoyed the book, and are feeling particularly generous, the best thing you could do to support my work is leave a short and honest review of the book on Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.
Thank you so much for reading!