Saturday, 24 January 2015

The highway to Hell

I started a new job at the end of last year, and bought a new motorbike at about the same time. The upshot was that I was riding an unfamiliar bike down roads I don't know that well, in the dark since I started in November. The situation led em to some strange thoughts, which eventually coalesced into this story.

I call it the Highway to Hell:

Do you ever have intrusive thoughts?

That’s what psychologists call those little ideas that suddenly sneak into your head. The crazy, stupid, utterly infeasible thoughts that come from God knows where.

Walking down the street, “I wonder how far I could kick that baby?”; or when you’re walking along a high bridge, “I could totally jump off this. I wonder how much it would hurt”.

You never actually want to act on them. Hell, a lot of the ones I get aren't even about me doing things. I’ll walk through a tunnel and the image will creep into my head of what would happen if it collapsed on me. Would I be crushed to death, suffocate, or survive long enough to starve?

I don’t get them often, and they’re normally gone as soon as they arrive. This one was different though. It seemed somehow more real, even though it was obviously just a flight of fancy. What if I’d crashed on that corner? The image of my bike sliding away and a tree coming up far too fast was impossible to shake.

I ride a motorbike to work. I couldn't afford to run the bike and a car, so I had to decide between comfort in the winter and mild boredom; or a much more fun commute, especially in the summer, coupled with icicle hands and a steamed up visor. It was no contest really, especially since it was early Autumn, bright and sunny, when I bought the Kawasaki Ninja. I'm suffering now, but it will be worth it in the Summer. I keep telling myself that as the grit lorries go past the other way.

The discomfort isn't that bad, honestly. The worst part about riding home is that it’s so dark, and I know as the Winter goes on the chance of black ice on the road gets worse, and I’ll have to take corners really carefully. That’s what triggered the thought of crashing earlier really. I went into a corner at a speed that the bike was perfectly capable of, but that scared me a bit. If there had been a bit of ice, or even just a wet manhole cover, I would have been on the floor before I knew what had happened.

Rolling along the ground, watching my beautiful bike get scratched and bent in front of me. The tree rushing up fast enough to destroy my helmet. I can almost feel the awful pain.

No, focus. I’m still upright and going fine. That was hours ago, I got through and I haven’t had any more hairy moments since.

Hours ago? That can’t be right. The trip home is only 45 minutes, an hour tops. My sense of time is going, riding between the high trees on a nearly deserted road. Some evenings you might see one or two cars go the other way, but mostly I ride alone with my thoughts.

Like the thought of seeing the tarmac just the other side of my visor, scraping along at 60 miles an hour. The verge coming up fast…

No! Forget about it. It didn't happen. The headache I'm starting to feel is just a coincidence.

The corners merge into one in my mind until I start to wonder if I've missed a turning somewhere, but I could do this ride in my sleep by now. I know I’ll see a landmark I recognise soon.

How long is it since I saw the last part I definitely recognised? How long have I been on this empty road.

Were the trees by the side of the road always so big? They look like ancient woodland, untouched for centuries.

It’s kind of fun to scare yourself like that. The rational part of my mind knows that most of driving or riding is done on autopilot. Everyone’s had that moment when they look around on a well known route and don’t remember the stretch of road they’re on.

I see a single light behind me. Must be another biker. My headache is starting to become distracting.

Not as distracting as that crash I didn't have would have been.

It’s catching up to me fast. Sounds like a Harley. they have an engine sound like no other bike. If I was being uncharitable I’d say it sounds like it’s running on three cylinders and about to stall. He comes up alongside me. In the darkness I can’t make out much apart from a white helmet.

We've been playing cat and mouse for hours now. One pulls ahead a bit, then the other closes and moves in front. It helps break the monotony of the unending journey.

What am I talking about? Obviously it hasn’t been hours. No more than a few minutes, surely. I try to think back, to work out how long ago I first spotted my mysterious riding buddy, but it’s all a confused, timeless jumble in my brain.

My headache is getting worse. It feels like the beginnings of a migraine. Not to worry, I’ll be home before it gets too bad.

The trees seem even bigger than they did earlier. There are things hanging off the lower boughs. If I wanted to scare myself I’d say they almost look like corpses hanging off a gallows. Hundreds of them.

Nah, must be a climbing plant or something. I focus on the dark Rider instead. He’s in front of me right now, but as I catch up to him he draws level instead of letting me pass. I glance over and he looks back at me. Piercing blue lights look like swirling galaxies in the eye sockets of his skull.

Skull? What am I talking about? It’s a white helmet, obviously. I must have seen some other light reflected in his visor. Either that or my migraine is getting to the point where I start to see flashing lights. Luckily I don’t tend to get sick from them, but if I don’t get to where I’m going soon the pain could make it dangerous to ride. There’s a red glow on the horizon, that must be the lights of the city. Not far now.

Honestly, this is the longest trip home ever. It almost feels like it’s been weeks, but I know it’s less than an hour. My companion, and the constant memories of that crash, are making the whole experience surreal.

Memories? Where did that come from? It’s just an intrusive thought. I got round the corner fine.I’d know if I’d rolled and scraped along the floor before that tree brought an abrupt halt to my tumble. I’d remember something like that…

The red glow is getting stronger. Is it flickering or is that just migraine artifacts? It looks like whatever’s beyond the next rise is on fire.

I look at my two wheeled comrade. His helmet does look like a skull. It’s too small to be a full helmet, surely. Maybe it’s black with white closer to the centre, making it look smaller. Yes, that must be it. Clever though, especially how it maintains the illusion even when he turns his head to catch me with those hypnotic blue glows again.

It’s the migraine. The pain is almost unbearable now. I should be able to make it back, from the intensity of that red glow, the city must be just over this next hill. I can make it.

I suddenly remember, I live in a small village, not a city with enough lighting to set the sky ablaze. In a moment of panic, I think of the unnatural glow, my skeletal partner, the gallows trees, and that unshakable image of that damn corner. I need to stop and get some air, my head feels like it’s been split in two, but I really don’t want that other rider to stop with me. I think that would be the absolute worst thing that could happen. I let him take the lead again, then just before cresting the hill I slam on my brakes. He must have seen my headlight receding, because he quickly starts to slow his own machine, but I have a sports bike with good brakes, and he’s already ahead of me. He’ll have to turn around or walk back to me.

I come to a stop just as I crest the hill. Looking down, I know I made the right choice. That’s no city, it’s a sight of unimaginable horror. The light shows me that my fancies were true, the shapes gently swinging from the immense, ancient trees are hanged bodies, and my travelling companion is definitely not wearing a helmet. As I put the sidestand down and step off the bike, he comes to a halt a couple of hundred metres in front of me and starts stalking in my direction. His robes are as dark as a black hole, like light can’t escape their irresistible draw.

I'm struggling with the catch on my helmet as the Grim Reaper gets closer. If he’s going to take me to Hell, I’ll damn well have some air flowing on my face. I'm not going to spend eternity with this helmet making my headache even worse. Just as he’s about to reach me, I get a grip under the helmet, lift it off and… I hear a voice…

“I think he’s awake! Can you hear me, John?”

My eyes open, and I'm in a hospital bed. My girlfriend is beside me, looking like she hasn't slept in a week. My head feels even worse than before, if that’s possible. I raise a hand and feel the bandages. This calls for a truly original comeback.

“Where am I?” I manage to mumble.

It turns out that recurring, intrusive thought was real. I did hit a patch of ice on the road. My bike was totalled, and if I hadn't have been slowed down so much by the scraping along the tarmac the head first collision with the tree would have killed me instantly. I was supremely lucky, both that I didn't die and that someone was two minutes behind me on that infrequently travelled road, and able to call an ambulance. I was out cold for 5 days, and the doctors weren't sure if I’d regain consciousness.

I knew the ride seemed longer than normal.

I know if I told anyone this story they’d think it was some kind of coma dream, but I'm not so sure. Even though it seemed dreamlike, in some sense the experience was more real than anything I've experienced in my life. I think, on that endless night, I really did ride with Death at my side to the very gates of Hell. And I know that one day, he’ll find me and finish the journey.

One thing’s for sure. When I can walk again, I'm buying a car.

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