It's Wednesday morning, still early and I'm wheeling out the bike in readiness for today's twenty miles. I'm feeling sort of pleased with myself because it's early, and here I am on the third day of the week and very much up for the distance ahead. Since adopting this regime five weeks ago, I somehow still haven't managed a full working week of twenty miles cycled each day. Something always gets in the way and it's usually me. One of the cats breaks down the bedroom door during the night, interrupting my sleep leaving me knackered and sluggish the next morning; or something on facebook pisses me off the evening before, necessitating that I have just a quick look first thing, and then I notice how I'm still sat there in my robe scrolling through pictures of kittens and it's almost noon.
This week will be different. I'm feeling so positive that I decide to make a minor adjustment to my gear thingy. My bike has twenty-one gears, the uppermost of which has been slipping for the past couple of weeks so it'll be nice to set that right, providing I can remember which screw I'm supposed to twizzle to make the adjustment. I twizzle and twizzle, and find myself doing a circle in the road at the front of the house in the highest gear, at last utilising the smallest cog of the assembly on my rear axle. Unfortunately my six lower gears now seem to be slipping - all of them, which is a bit weird. I twizzle again but I'm apparently now stuck with the highest gear. I make a closer inspection and notice how the cogs on the gear assembly of my rear axle now move independently of one another. I'm, pretty sure that isn't supposed to happen.
I have a quick look on the internet and encounter immediate frustration of the kind which can only be alleviated by extended swearing on facebook:
This morning, attempting to solve the mystery of my being unable to get into seventh gear on my bicycle for the last few weeks (or twenty-first gear, I suppose - technically speaking) I was bemused to find that the problem has escalated to the point that all of the cogs on the rear wheel (the thing is called a cassette apparently) now move independent of both each other and the wheel, meaning I can't use the bike at all. This in itself was annoying, but what has really pushed me over the edge has been my attempting to deduce what has happened by looking it up online, and it then taking twenty minutes before I could even get to the first clue due to the incomprehensible wall of jargon, videos in which mumbling tosspots explain if it needs a er um major adjustment then er um you er um turn it right around er um, however if erm the adjustment seems er the adjustment you require isn't er um so much then er um er you should only turn it a er um a little way, instructions informing me that the locking ring should be on the edge of the axle (not the end, like we would say in English) and that I need to adjust the splines, and there is no such fucking word. Splines were the aliens in one of those Stephen Baxter books, not something you find on a @#$%$#^&#$ bike. I came fairly close to shooting someone with my gun* due to the intense levels of frustration. Argh etc. etc.
Writing this out makes me feel better, and by this point I accept that I will have to pay a visit to Performance Bike. I can't even tell what's wrong or what has happened, so the likelihood of my being able to fix it myself seems minimal.
Bess arrives home. We sling the bike on the rack and drive out to the store. It turns out that I have a gear missing, just like in A Scanner Darkly. I have only six cogs in the set on my rear wheel.
Read that again if you need to.
The bicycle repairman shows me the wheel, and I count. I have just six cogs, suggesting improbable scenarios in which the seventh cog has been stolen by an avant-garde burglar, or removed by aliens for reasons only they will ever understand, or has simply ceased to exist due to the structure of reality having been founded upon our continued belief in the same, and in my case, in the seventh cog.
'I'll see if we can order a replacement,' bicycle repairman tells me, ' but it might take a couple of days.'
'Sure,' I say, still dazed. 'That would be great.'
Later, as Bess and I return home, I begin to recover a vague memory of there having been some kind of crappy plastic collar on the rear axle between the wheel and the gears, something I had only really noticed when part of it snapped, requiring me to yank the rest of it away so as to prevent what was left catching on the frame as the wheel turned. The problem is that the memory is so inconsequential and vague that I can't be absolutely sure of it having happened. On the other hand, I have historically understood my bicycle to have seven gears on the rear wheel due entirely to the switchy thing mounted on the handle bars, the gizmo which lists gears one through to seven, the gizmo for which there is no actual name because it doesn't need one; and I've never actually counted the number of cogs on the rear axle, because why would I?; and suppose the vague crappy plastic collar incident actually happened - it would have left a gap in which the six remaining cogs could become loose. So according to the maths there is a possibility that all this time I've been riding an eighteen rather than twenty-one speed bicycle, as though my world has become a particularly unambitious episode of The Twilight Zone.
All that I know for sure is that once again I will fail to keep up my intended twenty miles a day for the duration of the week.
I spend most of Thursday sat on my arse.
I begin Friday with an attempt to mow a bit of lawn because it needs to be done and it's exercise, but the result resembles the sort of inexpert haircut that plagued so many kids at my school. It only pisses me off further and is simply knackering rather than exercisey. It's like I'm hacking away at the lawn rather than mowing it.
Okay, I decide, I've got things done but I really need to get some exercise today, and Bess suggested I might use her bike instead. It's a decent bike, but not the sort of thing on which you would want to cycle twenty miles. She has the seat far too low, and the highest gear is seven. I'm also motivated by a feeling of guilt that my wife's bike is somewhat neglected and might be suffering from depression. It was new when she bought it, and it's been ridden from time to time, but not as a regular arrangement. I pump the tyres up to a bewilderingly modest 40psi, as suggested on the rims, then I fill a bucket with soapy water and clean off the accumulated grime until it looks bright and new once more, but for a faint suggestion of rust in the usual places; and then I take it out on the road. I get around the corner so far as Ginger Lane and turn back.
How the hell does she ride this thing? I come close to smacking myself in the face with a kneecap each time I pedal.
I fetch the wrench from my art supplies box, the one I use to open tubes of paint because Windsor & Newton acrylic paint is now sealed with hexagonal caps which can only be opened by robot artists. I use the wrench to raise the seat on my wife's bicycle by about two feet.
Cycling becomes much easier, although it's still no substitute for my own bike. I struggle up the hill of Byrnes Drive, then turn right at North Vandiver into the eastern reach of Alamo Heights. It's entirely suburban, just a criss-cross of quiet roads and no hills to speak of. I have a vague plan of just cycling around until I consider myself exercised. Ordinarily I would head off in the other direction and follow the Tobin Trail along Salado Creek towards McAllister Park, but it seems a little rugged for this bike. Once I'm exercised, I'll pass by HEB, the local supermarket, and pick up whatever I'm going to be cooking tonight for our dinner.
I enter Alamo Heights, a neighbourhood much like my own but for cleaner houses with lawns cut by better mowers. The streets here are named Greenwich and Kenilworth, amongst other things, which has always struck me as peculiar, given that I've lived in close proximity to both English places from which their names are taken. It occurs to me that if I keep on going in the same direction, I can shop at the North New Braunfels branch of HEB, which was sort of my first HEB. A change is as good as a rest.
I buy potatoes, tins of cat food, instant coffee, sugar, milk, tonic water, broccoli, pork chops, and some stuff with which to clean rust from my wife's bike. I also notice kumquats on sale, significant only because Bess and I were talking about kumquats the other evening. Frasier, our next door neighbour, has a tree full of the things, but those are the kumquats which resemble tiny peaches. Bess has told me there is another kind with skin more like that of an orange. This is the kind they have here in HEB, about the size of large grapes as they tend to be, and to my eyes they look like oranges for action figures.
I buy all my shit and just about get it stuffed into my backpack without too much grunting, and then I head back into Alamo Heights in the general direction of home.
When I first came to Texas, Bess was living in a flat on Emporia Boulevard, just one block from Greenwich. We only lived there for a couple of weeks before we moved to our present location, but the time seems much longer because I was in a different country, and everything seemed vivid and strange. My first experience of buying mundane crap such as scouring pads and margarine was in the HEB from which I've just come, and it felt different to buying such things whilst on holiday in a foreign country, although it's hard to say why. This square mile of suburban sprawl, of neatly tailored lawns, mesquite trees, and lone star flags, was my first experience of America as a place in which I was living rather than simply visiting. Now as then, it has a certain sparkle or promise by virtue of bearing no resemblance to any place I knew whilst growing up. Everything is alien and yet suggests familiarity, if not specifically to me. The sky is as blue as in the Peter and Jane books I read at infants school, and the houses are just as ordered and tidy even if the architecture is different.
Five years later, it still strikes me as peculiar that I should have come to live here, a sensation strongly reinforcing the idea that all this time I have been watching a film of my own life; although in case it isn't obvious, I very much like where it has gone. Alamo Heights reminds me of the strange blend of excitement and discomfort I experienced when I first came here. Contrary to the predictions of some, not once did it occur to me that I had made a decision I would regret, but I ached for the awful novelty to be experienced, processed and done with. I longed for the place to become familiar so that I would no longer have to think about it, and would be able to start living; which is thankfully what happened.
There are a million stories in the big city, and I suppose this was one of them, give or take some small change.
*: This is an allegorical statement and should not be taken as indicative of potentially violent or criminal behaviour, particularly seeing as the only guns to which I have access are Junior's collection of water pistols.