Day 1 – Land’s End to Goonhavern, along A-roads and lanes
After green Cornish countryside, Land’s End is horrible, its brown cliffs scowling at the sea, its cliff-tops packed with vehicles, amusements, and dull families. Emma ignores the hi-vis staff and steers the motorhome slowly into the coach park.
He clambers down and pauses at the open door, eyes wide.
‘Sure you can do this, Emma? I mean, it’s not like we’re…’
Another offer? She appraises his shoulders; lean and strong, he’s been out training every day. She looks away.
‘Let’s stay friends, Simon, your head’s full of heaven knows what.’
It’s her motorhome, and he dares not upset an uneasy balance. He assembles his kit: isotonic drink, sandwiches, helmet, cycle shoes, tools, Garmin. He removes his bike from the rack, stares at the bright blue carbon frame, the white taped handlebars, the narrow rims. He’s a MAMIL: Middle-Aged Man In Lycra.
‘I am mad,’ he admits. ‘Insane.’
‘And?’ Emma cocks an eyebrow.
‘Show me the map again. So, somewhere north of Truro? Here, Goonhavern.’
‘You think you can do it?’
‘Easy. Been doing more than that most days. See you there.’ He scoot starts, waving a hand when she yells, has he got his phone, then he is out of the car park and out of sight before she can even wish him luck.
We are both mad, she thinks.
It was only a fortnight since she had noticed him in the supermarket, dressed in Gulf fatigues, one of a pair collecting for an armed forces’ charity. He had the athletic build of a young soldier, and the lined and weathered face of a veteran. He had once been handsome, just as she had once been glamorous. He winked at Emma as she threw a coin into his bucket.
‘Ain’t she a diamond!’ His eyes were huge and blue.
She gave him a thumbs-up.
‘You’re doing a good job,’ she said, with a little glow of generosity.
‘Thanks. Means a lot to me.’
She walked back to her motorhome at the far end of the car park, and put her few purchases away. Eggs, milk, bread, a pot noodle. It was easy to find she had forgotten something.
He recognised her at once.
‘Had to come back.’ She held up the packet of sugar.
‘Sweet enough, ain’t you?’
She wandered closer.
‘How’s it going?’
‘Pretty quiet,’ he said, ‘no-one’s got money these days.’
She lingered, asking more questions: where had he served?
His answers were brief. He had been in Bosnia and Iraq. It was a long story, he said, but a smile slowly creased his face and he gave the bucket a shake, and handed it to his mate, saying he was going for a break. To her he said, ‘Come for a coffee?’
Another lonely evening lay ahead of her. There was no harm in it, she thought, and so they went to the supermarket cafe and shared the cost of the cappuccinos.
‘Emma.’ She sipped at coffee froth and made a face. ‘My motorhome’s in the car park. I could have made us coffee and saved the money.’
‘No, I’m living in it, actually.’
‘You don’t look like trailer trash,’ he said, interested.
‘Divorced, sold up, couldn’t really afford to buy anywhere I liked. I’ve been camping in it for the last month working my notice period.’
Usually she could extract a life story faster than a pickpocket taking a wallet, while keeping herself concealed. But now he asked questions and she made an unaccustomed effort to describe herself.
‘I was a school secretary for twenty-five years. Adrian was Head of Maths. I tried, but I couldn’t go on working there afterwards. And I always wanted a motorhome.’
‘Only Jonathan. But he’s doing his own thing. I hoped he would go to university, but when Adrian and I split, it affected his grades. He’s working zero-hours contracts, I think he’s got about three of them, but none of them pays, really. He lives with his girlfriend and her parents. Anyway, I’ve done all I can and it’s time to move on.’
‘Where are you going?’
‘I don’t know. But I’m not staying in London. I’ll live on my savings for a while and travel around.’
His hands interlocked on the table, and he gazed at them, and up again at her with a creased smile and bright blue eyes.
‘What about Land’s End to John o’Groats?’
He was planning a charity bike ride.
‘Nearly a thousand miles. Three or four weeks or so. Thought of camping rough with a bivi bag, but a motorhome would be amazing.’ Eighty people had signed up to his fundraising webpage. ‘Been training for it. It’s that, or daytime TV.’
‘I thought that you were a serving soldier,’ she said, ‘in that uniform. Or a reserve, at least.’
He shook his head.
‘Left the Army after an injury. But I’ll raise money for the boys, do my bit as best as I can. So, what do you think? Could you help me?’
She’d think about it, she said, and took his phone number.
Over the following days her mind returned to him, just as she had returned for the bag of sugar. He was too disturbing, something was not right – best to stay clear. But, it was a good cause, and what a shame for him, sleeping in a bivi bag, when she had a spare bunk. Finally she went to see him, parking the motorhome down the street.
He whistled when he saw it. His flat was meagre in comparison: bike tools on the table, old pizza boxes on the floor, nothing in the fridge.
‘What happens to this place while you’re away?’
‘Landlord’s had my notice. Find somewhere when I get back. I can always sleep on Kev’s settee.’
He had left his wife and daughter. He had been in a spot of bother, he said, after a shoulder injury.
‘Couldn’t train, couldn’t do anything. My friend Malcolm. He copped a landmine in our APC, they flew him to Selly Oak with multi-organ failure. He lived, but he’s brain damaged.’ He closed his eyes. ‘I was driving. I felt… at fault. The doc tried to get me to rehab, but my shoulder was better. They couldn’t help me…Malc was there for a while. Hey, I’m getting through it. Training hard, living clean, fundraising. Land’s End to John o’Groats, here we come, eh?’
She considered the ‘we’.
‘It might suit me. I need to get out of London. The house is sold, the money’s in the bank, the decree is absolute, bye-bye Adrian. I could use the motorhome for a good cause while I’m deciding what to do next. What will you do with your stuff?’
‘What stuff? What I haven’t left at my ex’s is at my mum’s house, and neither of them’s speaking to me. I’ll leave some clothes at Kev’s, and you’ll take my bike bits, won’t you?’
She had sold most of her own possessions on eBay; keeping only the essentials.
‘It’s a decent sized motorhome, but please, keep it tidy, no cycle parts or dirty clothes on the floor, and stay at your end of the van. It’s a small space. We could be ripping each other apart within a day.’
‘OK,’ he said, his face darkening.
Day 5 – Taunton to Winscombe
Day 6 – Winscombe to Bristol, and across the Clifton Suspension Bridge to Thornbury
In the first few days out of Land’s End, they have learned to divide labour like a traditional married couple. In the mornings she makes him porridge and tea, and then waves him off. She showers, does the chores, sets off in the motorhome, gets the shopping, and prepares for the evening, sometimes on a campsite, other times just in a lay-by, texting him with directions. She said she wasn’t doing his laundry, but after a pile of muddy cycle gear accumulates on his bed, relents and takes it to a campsite laundromat. If she can access the internet she updates her social media and checks his fundraising webpage – donations are still arriving – and posts updates on progress. On campsites, she sits outside the motorhome on a camping chair and engages passing caravanners in conversation, coaxing elderly couples to donate when they ask where her husband is. The fundraising total rises gradually.
In the evenings he showers, grumbles about punctures, eats his pasta thanklessly, and says that some people ride a hundred miles a day and finish it in two weeks, but he isn’t as young as he was and he doesn’t know how he keeps going. They sleep at opposite ends of the motorhome, disturbed by each other’s movements, or listening to the rain clattering on the roof. She worries about his route: the ascents, the traffic, the way he stamps on the pedals as though facing battle. And here in the dark, where she can hide her eyes, her thoughts, and the hairs rising on her skin, she retraces the red seams where they dug the metal from his shoulder, the strong column of his back, and the sinews and muscle of his legs.
Day 7 – Thornbury to Upton-on-Severn
By Upton, hundreds of people have signed up to his fundraising webpage. But in the night, he cries out, yelping like a dog. She stirs, and turns, thinking at first it is pain, hoping he will quiet down, but when she can stand his keening no longer, goes to him.
He is shaking in his sleep, and she kneels and puts an arm around him and repeats his name until he wakes.
‘Simon, it’s Emma.’
He lifts a hand and strokes her hair, easing her head down to rest on his shoulder.
‘A diamond. You’re beautiful. Thank you.’
‘Yeah. I have terrible dreams – I’m afraid to sleep.’
‘They’re dreams, not real,’ she murmurs, as though to a child.
A catch in his breath.
‘Ages since I held a woman.’ His fingertips brush her skin.
‘Goodnight, Simon.’ She retreats to her own bed. They both lie awake.
The next morning, he grumbles about his sleeplessness and his aching joints, and refuses to rest. She explores deeper, staring across the table as his blue eyes appear above the white rim of his coffee mug.
‘Tell me your worst memory?’
He takes another mouthful of coffee and slowly puts down the cup.
‘I was a teenager when I joined the Army. I had to get a doctors’ letter. When I was a schoolkid I used to fake epileptic fits if I hadn’t done my History homework. I’d fall on the floor and dribble. The teacher would go mental, the other kids would get detention for laughing, and I’d get taken to hospital by ambulance. I had tests. The doctors couldn’t find anything. Then that teacher left and I got better. Two years later I had to own up to it and get my doctor to write a letter; the Army won’t take people with epilepsy. She wrote it, but really, I wasn’t ready. Getting out of History lessons – well, I joined the Army and I couldn’t get out of anything.’
‘The worst memory?’ She prompts again.
‘Bosnia. A barn. A barn of bodies. Civilians. All we could do was bury them. We could see how they’d been killed, how helpless they’d been.’
Sweat breaks on his creased forehead.
‘And the stench, God, the stench. I can still smell it on my clothes. I’ll never be free of it.’ His eyes close and tighten, his hands come up over them. ‘You’re right, Emma, my head’s full of shit. You’re best to keep well away.’
But she reaches across and puts her hands on his, drawing them down and holding them.
‘You’ll be OK, Simon. Look, it wasn’t your fault. You did all you could.’
He hangs his head.
‘I was in prison.’
‘Don’t ask. It was after my injury, I was in a bad place. I had a dishonourable discharge. It was my own doing, no-one else’s fault. I was in for six months. When I got out I found my wife had been with another bloke.’
He falls silent.
‘What’s your wife’s name?’
‘Geraldine. Gerry.’ Pain distorts his face; this is his worst memory. ‘She said she’d finished with him; we tried to get back together. But I couldn’t trust her. I couldn’t trust myself not to hurt her. They’re better off without me, her and Amy.’
‘If you can cycle a thousand miles for other people, then you can take control of yourself.’ She tries a smile. ‘Go back and see her, when this is over. See your daughter. Have faith. They need you more than you think.’
‘I don’t know if I can,’ he says, his face still crumpled. ‘Perhaps I should rest today.’
‘Get your backside on to that saddle.’
Day 8 – Upton to Wombourne
Day 9 – Wombourne to Nantwich, along the Shropshire Union Canal. Towpath surface unsuitable, he has multiple punctures, she cannot get the motorhome close enough to help him. Not happy.
Day 10 – Nantwich, Northwich, Warrington, Newton-le-Willows. She wanted to go across the Peak District where it’s prettier and there were more campsites. He said this was a fundraiser, not a holiday. The route is faster with lesser gradients.
Day 11 – Newton-le-Willows to Garstang. The Forest of Bowland. Rain.
Day 12 – Garstang to Kendal
Day 13 – Kendal – battling up Shap summit on the A6, then downhill to Penrith and Carlisle.
A moment of celebration that evening as they open the map; the next day will take them across the Scottish border to Gretna Green.
‘We could get married at the blacksmith’s forge,’ she grins. But it’s strictly a joke.
‘I feel like I’m married to that bloody bike.’
They both know it’s a fundraiser, not a honeymoon.
Day 14 – Carlisle – Gretna Green -Lockerbie – Johnstone Bridge – Moffat.
In Scotland, Emma’s heart lifts as she studies the map, lingering on the vast wild expanses, the trackless mountain ranges and deep inlets of the West Highlands. What are the Outer Hebrides like? Better than the Inner Hebrides? There is, she decides, only one way to find out.
Day 15 – long climb from Moffat to Carstairs
Day 16 – Carstairs across Kincardine Bridge to Culross.
Day 17 – Culross to Perth – midges start biting in the Ochil Hills.
Day 18 – Perth to Blair Atholl along the A9. Day 19 – Blair Atholl to Aviemore. Some of it from Dalwhinnie is along the B road alongside the A9. Progress is slowed by whisky hangover. The air gets colder and cleaner and a route of incredible beauty through the mountains is obscured and then revealed by curtains of grey rain.
Day 20 – Aviemore to Inverness via Findhorn Viaduct, still on the A9. Summit is at Slochd and then downhill to Inverness, past Loch Moy.
Day 21: From Inverness across Black Isle and the Cromarty Firth past the hills of Easter Ross and the Glenmorangie Distillery to Dornoch Bridge
At Dornoch, on his webpage, Emma sees what she had most hoped for:
‘Go, Dad! Love from Amy XXX.’
Tears stand in his eyes. He’s nearly there.
Day 22 – From Dornoch Bridge along the coast to Helmsdale
Day 23 – Helmsdale to Ulbster along the coast.
Day 24 – Ulbster to John o’Groats.
After days of the same coastline the A99 curves to meet the sea once more, its patched tarmac running past low houses and scraggy grassland towards a grey horizon. Most structures here seem temporary – caravans, chalets, wooden sheds, a container on a patch of hardstanding – all fragile in the blustering squall that makes pedestrians hunch up in their waterproofs. There are motorhome spaces in front of the Tourist Information Office. Behind it Emma can see the white gables of the John o’Groats Hotel and the grey curve of the coastline. Across the car park, beyond the recycling containers is a low stone wall and she waits for him to appear, racing along the road on the other side.
Both hands are off the handlebars and high in the air.
He’s made it.
She locks the motorhome and walks down to the little harbour. Opposite the ‘First and Last’ he’s found a portakabin with some picnic benches and is preparing to celebrate with a can of cola and a burger.
‘You’ve raised five thousand pounds,’ she tells him.
‘You’re a diamond.’ He hugs her with delight.
And he feels so good in her arms, his body welcoming, his hands moving to her waist; at a word, he could be hers. But no, the Western Isles have filled her heart. And he has someone else – two.
‘Gerry,’ she says. ‘Amy.’
She feels him drawing away, his muscles retreating from his skin.
It’s harder than cycling 969 miles. Harder than kicking open the door of a barn full of dead people.
‘Go back,’ she says. ‘Try, or you’ll always regret it.’
In the motorhome they study the map for the last time, and the next day they part at the station in Thurso, with a lovers’ kiss: his mouth ferocious, his body tense and eager, his embrace as hard as steel. She savours it for a few seconds, and then breaks away.
He shoulders his backpack and wheels his bike along the platform.
She journeys along the northern coast to Ullapool and catches the ferry to Stornoway, rejoicing in her freedom and her island hopping ticket.
Although, there have been the text messages:
missin u 😦
For a while she pretended she hadn’t seen it. After two days she replied:
yeah, me too x
His reply came at once:
unfinished business 😉
She’s definitely ignoring that one. The Calmac ferry chugs on into the mist, porpoises curving through its bow waves.