I’m close by Strand… it’s late afternoon, radio crackles: ‘Two-Two… Two-Two, come in. Rush coming down now.’
I’m all right with that… £3.75 will take me over £40 for the day, homing in on the big Five-O. I press the button on my radio, ‘Roger-rog’, and the silence crackles before breaking off. I look down at my pocket computer, it bleeps, I tap with the stylus. The job comes. I’m sitting Strand. The pickup is near London Bridge. The job is going to Victoria Street. I have to go all the way east and then all the way west… one side of the city to another. The radio crackles again, ‘Sorry, Two-Two… I know it’s a push, you’re nearest to it, you’ve got a bit more than fifteen minutes. Just do your best… nobody’s expecting you to make it.’
The radio snaps silent. The last sentence is what seals the deal, is what means I’m going to ride like Miguel Indurain and get that envelope… put it where it’s gotta go within the impossible deadline I’ve been given. If they’d been high and mighty about making it on time then I’d have slacked right off, almost out of principle. Being told that they don’t expect much from me, that they’re waiting on failure… another matter. From this point on there is only one outcome, the petty glory on offer is worth much more than £3.75… make this and I’ll be holding my head high for the first time since the world record.
Even as I’m explaining this, I’m already in the Blackfriars tunnel, riding the curve, riding black-white-black-white slices as I go in and out of the lights above… burst into daylight: full in the face so that the rods and the cones of my eyes trade places. Jump. And momentarily I can’t see a thing. It’s been raining, rained all afternoon long, rained solid until a half an hour ago but now the sun’s out so that the black asphalt is shining with the reflections of the passing sky above. I jump off my bike, we’re in the loading bay… I half throw it down against the wall, the thing pings on a metal rail, kicks out feedback and shakes, rattles to a standstill as I disappear down steps. I hold banisters on both sides… click-clack-click-clack… cleats skid over the ridges of the metal stairwell. A door opens, a desk with a clipboard to sign, there’s my quarry below it. I take the envelope, I scribble. I’m gone.
Four minutes have elapsed by the time I’m riding back: think I’m being flattered, flattered by a tailwind. I’m riding 25mph, only without a car’s windscreen and metal around you, on a bicycle it feels more like 80. I drive on, force the legs, mouth open like a basking shark, it all goes in: a crane fly hovers straight at me, disappears down the hatch, if you’re lucky its wing hits a tooth and gives you opportunity to spit the body back out, phff, phff… spit!… gone. Early plane tree pollen, the seed on its tiny parachute and into the gullet, a pigeon, heading towards your face… duck, you duck… pigeon pulls up and out of the way. Down below it starts happening, rumours start: I can feel the moment, it’s coming. Here comes that little burn… old friend… you and me we’re sworn adversaries, but deep down, deep down we quite like one another.
It comes in the thighs first, seeps in, lactic acid on its way to the muscles: burning, starting in the legs, legs say stop. I look down, down south, legs turning on but pleading for a let-up. I straighten, stern, this isn’t about £3.75… this is about honour. I brace, I snarl: out it comes, immortal words, words now known all through cycling. Jens Voigt growls with me: ‘Shut up, legs! Shut up and do what I tell you!’ I can feel it… it keeps coming. I can feel my face: my forehead turning pointed, jowls widen, broad corners of the jaw move outwards. My face turns triangular, I’m forcing aerodynamics into my head… mouth like a locomotive engine room, the boys shovelling in the oxygen, pulling it out of all the world in front. The legs, they go screaming for reason, pipe-up: ‘Either take it easy or we’ll…’ Not a chance.
We keep the hammer down, we keep the hurt on and I pull back on to the Thames and its tailwind flooding with the river. The pack of hounds are raging, they barrel after me. Eight minutes. A truck is up ahead, I’m in its dirty air. The truck punches through the atmosphere like a fist, creates a slipstream just behind it, but just behind the slipstream a burst of divergent gusts: air falling back into line from separate directions… a plumage, a chaos of airstreams that knock you this way and that. I heave on the pedals, I need that slipstream, I heave on the pedals… one-two-three-four… I lean forwards, burst into the slip. I’m in, made it… face still triangular but at least I’ve got a tow. We motor, me on the rear of the truck, the truck accelerating up to speed, an eighteen-wheeler keirin race and then flamme rouge: brake lights explode in my face, red everywhere, braking fast. I duck out, bag strap tickling the tail bar as I fly down the outside instead, roar down Embankment with legs breathing and lungs pedalling… everyone’s putting in a turn at the front… all hands are on deck, eyes gaping and nostrils peeled wide. Twelve minutes. On the dark road I see my unfeatured silhouette as it shimmers and rocks in the wet, trails of spray thrown out by my wheels. I jump an amber-turning-red, straight on to Parliament Square, that grand trough and Big Ben on my left. I clear the Square’s first flank, lean into the right-hand turn, banking right and then flipping back upright and slightly left, and I suspect then that I’m perhaps going to make the deadline that was supposed to have been impossible… I peel into Victoria Street.
At this time of the year, in this time of the late afternoon, the sun sits low in the sky, sits perfect at the far end of Victoria Street, with its offices high on each side of the road. And so it happens, the sun has set the wet road incandescent, and that sun has itself turned orange to mark the end of another day. It shines full down a blinding road: piling off of high office windows, redoubling the intensity of that light into a solid, glowing corridor that hits me square in the face as I speed into Victoria Street, ride this road of pure gold, steaming through a silver corridor of late afternoon, all high on adrenaline and petty triumph. Senses explode inside the light. It’s ecstasy… it’s as if God exists, and then a moment later… it’s as if he doesn’t even have to, for everything is beautiful enough already. I’m smiling… smiling big. I tell you, right now is a good moment to be a courier… you don’t get this kind of euphoria in many jobs so close to the arsehole of society.
Illustration by Andrew Thomson. The text is an edited excerpt from Julian Sayarer’s book Messengers, which sees Julian (who’s written for several issues of Boneshaker over the years) return to work as a London bike courier after six months cycling around the world. The official blurb pretty much nails it: “From saddle and kerbside, his stories of delivering flowers to politicians, and administration notices to banks toppled by the financial crisis, make for a social history of a less seen city, written from the perspective of someone stuck in one of London’s most insecure and poorly paid jobs. Underneath the deliveries, we meet the city’s bicycle messengers, a family drawn from jaded graduates, jailbirds and recovering drug addicts. The riders all share their brushes with the law, struggles on the breadline and compete together in alleycat races, forming an unlikely but tender community upon the streets.”