What to do with so much time? If time was the new measure of wealth, I was the new Sultan of Brunei. Switzerland’s cycleways were so comprehensive and well-signposted that there was little need for navigation, and we often found ourselves separated for hours. There was little to do but ride, soak up the sun, and find new ways of entertaining myself, of which my favourite was to lip-sync the mooing of cattle as I rode past. Only occasionally, when one of us grew too eager and overshot an important junction, did separation cause any problems, and even then it didn’t seem worth getting annoyed about, because Switzerland seemed too perfect to spoil with disagreements, everything in sight either a sunlit green or the perfect brown of a wooden chalet, its window-boxes overflowing with colour.
I sat in the sun at the top of a pass, chatting with Mark as we waited for Andy, who’d taken a wrong turn and was having a lovely afternoon ride through the Swiss Alps on his own. He’d borrowed someone’s phone and sent a text message to Mark to say that he was on his way.
‘Do you think they’ve painted the pylons green to try and hide them?’ asked Mark, nodding across at the valley.
‘A view like that, and you’re talking about pylons?’
The long grass was bursting with long-stemmed buttercups and purple thistles, rocking in the gentlest of breezes. Across the road was a billboard advertising ‘Glacier 3000’, a giant cable-car ride that would take its passengers up to an altitude of ten thousand feet. Once there, they would have the opportunity to ignore the free scenery – or fork out more cash to ride the world’s highest alpine roller-coaster, and then buy a Polaroid picture of themselves, screaming.
‘Did he say how far away he was?’ I asked Mark.
‘I don’t know why he keeps doing this,’ I moaned. ‘He knows I’m supposed to be navigating – that’s why we set up these “group roles”, to avoid exactly this kind of situation.’
‘I think he’s just excited about the riding – that’s all. There’s no point being hard on him. He’s going to be here soon.’
‘Yeah . . . I guess so.’
We basked in the sun. I tried not to feel guilty about another extended break in the riding. After all, to lie in the long grass on a warm summer’s day, eyes closed, was about the simplest pleasure imaginable. But relaxing seemed to require practice.
‘The thing is,’ I continued, ‘we’re such good friends, and we know each other so well – it’s kind of inevitable that you take it out on the people closest to you. And we’re both unwilling to admit that we’re the ones at fault, so occasionally it keeps going a bit longer than it should. But at least it doesn’t end in violence any more.’
‘It used to end in violence?’
‘Yeah, it did.’
‘OK, cool, cool . . . good stuff.’
‘But that’s going back a long way,’ I clarified.
‘Right. Well, I’ve noticed it’s got a lot better in the last couple of weeks.’
In France we’d agreed that too much time was spent discussing the same old minutiae, so we’d decided to set up a weekly rota. This had resulted in identifying the two main chores of life on the road – meals and route-finding – and we’d assigned jobs via three rounds of paper-scissors-stone. Thus had I landed the first week-long assignment of ‘Routemaster’, and Andy the expedition’s first ‘Foodmaster’. Mark, in order that he not feel left out, had been branded with the flattering title of ‘General Bitch’, which was more fun than it sounded, as it encompassed directing the filming efforts, co-ordinating places to sleep, handing out Haribo, fishing when appropriate, and doing the washing up. It’d had the immediate effect of smoothing out our days, giving us more time to enjoy unexpected discoveries and meetings. It had also preventing Mark and Andy from ganging up on me the whole bloody time.
‘What’s that book you’ve got there?’ I asked. Mark always kept at least one book to hand in his handlebar bag, snatching a few minutes of reading whenever he could.
‘Oh, it’s Crime and Punishment. I think you should read it.’
I could smell steak being barbecued as I dumped my bike on the driveway at the address I’d scribbled in my notebook, and my knackered body interpreted this aroma as permission to shut down entirely, even before J.P. and Sally had answered their door. It was nine in the evening, the last dregs of light draining from a clear sky, the silhouette of Mont Blanc tipped red on the western horizon.
I’d met the couple the previous winter in the French Alps, where I’d found a seasonal job as a chalet girl (part of that pledge I’d made to explore my options). Although it had been the worst ski-season in living memory – the snow so bad that farmers had been hired to shovel snow out of the forests and onto the ski-runs – I had hit it off with the couple and their two teenage kids, who had driven over for the week from their home on the other side of Lake Geneva, and I’d told them of my emerging plans to pedal the globe. They had expressed huge support for the idea, as they would, having been born at just the right time to follow the original hippie trail from Europe to Kathmandu – which at the time, they said, was little more than a particularly aromatic Nepalese village.
A meat feast of hitherto-unseen proportions followed, then a night’s sleep of a depth to rival the dead. And the following morning, the three of us gathered around the computer screen in order to watch the first public rendition of our unfolding escapades – episode one of the Ride Earth video series. Excitedly I loaded up the video, turned up the speaker volume, and hit the play button.
What followed was fourteen minutes of hilarity and disbelief. The skill with which the producers had sliced up our shoddy material and tied it all together with their own professional footage was staggering. For the first time in my life, I watched Tom Allen emerge into life on the screen as a fully formed character; my very own alter ego of pixels and video clips, complete with quirks and mannerisms I never knew I had. I sat between my two friends, stunned by the helpless realisation that this was how our everyday behaviour and speech looked and sounded to the world at large. Having summarised our backgrounds and our high-minded mission with laudable precision, the video ended on a dramatic post-departure note – a shot of me, easing myself over the edge of a low wall in Cambridgeshire in order to cool off my feet in a stream, edited cliffhanger-style to look as if I was about to plummet to my death. The title music played, and the episode wound up with the production company logo. We all stared speechlessly at the screen.
‘Yes!’ I cried, regaining my tongue.
‘It’s like you’ve fallen down a ravine!’ said Andy.
‘More please!’ laughed Mark.
There was a long pause as we digested the fact that anyone with an Internet connection would shortly be able to watch what we had seen.
‘I sound like a gibbering idiot,’ said Andy, ‘but . . .’
‘What a massive relief!’ I interrupted. ‘It’s actually taken a huge weight off my shoulders, watching that.’
‘I’m slightly disappointed that they haven’t included much from the journey to Harwich.’ said Mark.
‘That’ll be in the next episode, won’t it?’
‘Yeah, that’ll be in the next film.’
‘I definitely sound like a dribbling maniac,’ put in Andy again. The filmmakers had pulled together all of Andy’s absurdities, stitching them together into a montage that summed him up – I thought – rather well. But I suspected he was having doubts about how it looked.
‘We all seem really different,’ said Mark. ‘I think that works. It’ll work to keep people interested.’
Mark had a storyteller’s eye, and he was right. The video had done a brilliant job of establishing the protagonists of the story, their quirks and the manner of their interplay. The eccentric, athletic artist (Andy); the impassioned, hard-headed perfectionist (me); and the well-read, warm-natured eco-warrior (Mark) would be thrown together under the most intense of circumstances: a life on the road; a kind of three-way marriage that would encompass every waking hour of their lives. Sparks, surely, would fly. And that was the kind of stuff that TV producers would sell their own body-parts for.
‘Crikey . . . it’s really happening.’