I’m having a heavy existential internal dialogue at the moment as I prepare for my big cycle ride next April. I know that it’s not really about the cycling, I’ll muddle through that (I hope); it’s to do with people.
Having just finished the brilliant One Man and His Bike by Mike Carter – as I try to read through better writer’s words for what my trip may be like – it just reinforces what I hope, in parts, will challenge me, with his honest and funny account of cycling around the edge of the British Isles.
There were actually a couple of deep takeaways. One via Stevie Smith, a ferryman he meets and chats to (who also had his own adventure) with the delicious passage:
“You can’t rely on the attainment of goals or journeys, no matter how big or small, for your happiness because the attainment of that goal will be a temporary gratification. If you want to be happy, then you must enjoy it all, at whatever point you are at, from the beginning to the end. Because ultimately happiness is the acceptance of the journey as it is now, not the promise of another shore.”
Um. That’s life in a paragraph right there.
Secondly, he talks about seeing a sign at a presentation in Wales which simply read,
The idea being to approach every encounter with the thought that it will be positive. It’s not what I do at the moment, but it’s what I know I should be doing.
I watch my girlfriend do it with the abandon of a young child. Some of the conversations I have borne witness to her having are pretty interesting. It’s how memories are made. The world opens up that little bit more, and you realise that your concept about how half the population are cunts, might just be factually wrong.
I try, I really try. But it doesn’t come naturally. Perhaps it’s just me. Maybe I’m genetically designed to attract situations which do not enable that level of openness or friendliness and just enforce my 50/50 rule.
This morning, for instance, I bounded off to my office in town as I had to pop in and collect some glasses from the opticians. Smile, Craig. Be friendly. Assume Goodwill.
A lovely and fast encounter in Specsavers. The shop was pretty much empty, but I’ll count that as a win.
Then to Costa Coffee, skip in my step, where it all went wrong. I had to shimmy left, then right, then stop as the two girls in front of me fannied around at the food cabinet, blocking the way while they chatted, checking their mobile phones every two, maybe three seconds. Finally, after ordering my drink, I leaned against the wall and waited. I took a look over at the machine pouring the coffee to notice that one of the two spouts was pouring the rich espresso straight down the side of the cup. I pity the unlucky bastard who gets that weak one so early in the morning, I thought.
She poured that cup into a take-out cup and called, “Skinny Latté”. Yep, mine. I took a mouthful there and then. It tasted like watered-down milk. Assume Goodwill went straight out of the window. I just put the cup back down, then acting more like James Bolan than James Dean, I caught the eye of the ‘barista’ and walked straight out, shaking my head slowly from left to right.
£3.75 that strop cost me.
Fuck it, I thought, I’ll just have a coffee in the office. It was more than fine. I tried to refocus on goodwill.
By late morning, I was starting to get a bit peckish and suddenly had a hankering for a Chicken Mayo Baguette. Having done a big cycle ride the day before, I figured I’d earned it. I’ll get a crusty French stick and some cooked chicken on the way home in a short while and work there this afternoon. Mmmmm.
“It’s a shame you can’t get a good baguette in town anymore.”, I wistfully commented to no one in particular.
“How about that Granary Bakehouse in Festival Place?”, floated back a few seconds later.
My mind wandered away from the two minutes it would take for me to make the sandwich at home, and I threw caution to the wind, something nagging in the back of my head that this was a mistake.
I walked to the shop, entered and looked for the sandwiches and rolls. Nothing. The very helpful member of staff asked me what I was looking for, and I asked her if she sold baguettes. “Yes, of course, sir, what would. you like in it?”
When I told her quite confidently what I wanted, I may as well have been asking for some exotic dish from a far-off land. I imagined an afternoon staff room chat later in the day, “Yeh, and then some poncy guy walked in asking for a baguette… Yeah, I know… With chicken AND mayonnaise.”
“I’ll just check with the chef if we can do that, sir.”
She smiled as she walked away towards a teenager looking at his phone further down the counter. After a little discussion, she came back to tell me they would work something up but only have turkey. Now, that should have smacked me around the head, saying, “Craig, it won’t be boot-i-ful” in a rich Norfolk accent, but I rolled with it. Assume Goodwill, Craig. You got this!
I even added on some crisps, and the morning’s coffee episode started to fade from memory. A mere blip in my conquest to be more people-positive.
“Nine pounds fifty, please.”
“What? Nearly ten pounds for a fucking sandwich!”, I screamed. (In my head.)
Play it cool Trigger, play it cool, was all I could think.
I often find myself way out of whack with what things cost these days. My lack of paying attention over the last 25 years has left me with a price guide from 1998. “Hotel rooms should cost around £55, right? A can of coke, 50p. How much!!!”
So, I played it cool. Even though it felt like I’d just paid for it to be made by Paul Hollywood. “It’s gonna be good, it’s gonna be good”, I told myself. Besides, the staff, all very friendly, seemed genuinely excited that they had fulfilled my special request, with the chef pulling out all the culinary stops in the book.
Why is he pouring balsamic on my sandwich? I thought from afar a few minutes later. All wanted was a chicken mayo baguette. Man, this is gonna be a little different. I stayed cool.
After another few minutes, the young woman walked around the counter and proudly handed me my sandwich. I smiled, said thank you and walked away.
It had come in a box with a fork. A fork. Why do I need a fork? Perhaps he’s put so much turkey and mayo in there that it’s for the extra filling bulging out of the top of the light, crusty bread. But the box was unusually light and I expect my chicken mayo baguettes to be so dense that if I dropped one, it would leave a dent on a tiled floor.
As I walked away, I opened the box. I felt disappointment starting to creep up on me, like dense mist flowing over a shady hilltop. Next to some rocket salad, complete with a drizzle of balsamic, was a handful of crisps and a small seeded torpedo roll cut in half.
I lifted the top off of one half of the roll, my hope deflating faster than a football fan whose team has just scored an own goal with a minute on the clock. Sliced turkey ham with a little bit of mayo.
I was a sigh away from throwing it in the bin. It was only the thought of £9.50 that wouldn’t quite let me do it.
As trying as it remains, I’ll keep trying. Trying to assume goodwill. It’s a very big challenge, mind, much bigger than cycling 1700km.