When you surf, or skate on ice, you cut the surface. The friction heightens the feeling of speed. On roller skates or riding a bike the wheels tumble under in surrender to the running road. This is a fluid interaction, more particularly on a bike because you are rolling on air and rubber: the inflatable tyre invented by the Scotsman Dunlop. The faster you go on ice, water or bitumen the less friction is felt because your weight is borne more and more fleetingly at each point instant. You seem to rise and that point dissolves into the next and next in one line of speed. Until you are virtually flying. You can already feel that in your body when you walk with your bike, holding it by the back of the seat. A minimal sense of balance is required. If it is a light bike with narrow tyres (less friction on the road) it can feel like a falcon on your wrist, ready to fly. When you push off, gliding for a metre or two, high speed is already latent. Your legs are strong. You feel that strength transferred to the pedals, the chain, the drive wheel, the chosen gear sprocket. How quickly momentum mounts, how rapidly strength becomes speed. Cleats on the pedals of modern bikes translate strength to speed through 360 degrees. The toe clips or straps we used in ancient times when we rode together with future road race champion Graham Nelson. We were the five and he was one of us but led at least two other lives. We were scarcely less efficient because grooved metal plates on our leather bike shoes locked us in well and truly. Graham and I, that is. The others had ordinary pedals through which only the downstroke transferred power. Yet they could make good time. We might think of nostalgia as an illness, as they did in the Crimean war. Home sickness. Sick longing for the past. For me when I begin to roll it is an augmentation of the gigantic present. How blue the sky, how white the cumulus and the whips of cirrus. All stress, all worries lift.
It would become a sickness I suppose if I no longer had adventures, but the other day, just as a mighty flu seemed to lift and I had thought the rain had finally stopped I rode out West to Enmore, past the Lakemba mosque. As I turned back homeward it suddenly began to pour. I was lashed and stabbed by heavy freezing shafts. My polarised glasses were almost immediately so deeply pebbled with great drops that I could hardly see. I took the glasses off and shoved them into a pocket and my eyes were blasted directly. Nevertheless I rode very fast. It seemed that I could see better in peripheral vision than I could straight ahead. Sometimes the cars around me were scarcely more than shadows. My brakes did not work due to lack of friction on the wet rims. My yellow, supposedly waterproof jacket (like a lighter version of a road worker’s) seemed to be saturated. At least I felt the lances of freezing rain through it. Some of the time I was not sure if I was making the right turns or even going in the right direction. But, lo, I finally reached the point where Johnston Street, Annandale, crosses Parramatta Road. Standing there at the red light with the bike between my legs, the rain now fell straight down, hammering me.
I realised that I still had to cross the park at Glebe Point way down at the bottom of the hill, then sprint up to Glebe Point Road, then negotiate two hills – up then down, up then down, with no brakes, and I realised that this was the kind of thing that might happen to us when we were the five, or sometimes just Graham and I or sometimes just me, as now. And the desire for a hot shower and warm dry clothes became unspeakably intense. On the downhills I put my foot on the road, scraping the cleats, and turned a little and slid sideways, and amazingly I am home.
I am here. It is pouring outside. I am due to meet a woman I know for a coffee down the road in Glebe. We often meet. She was a model for Athol Shmith (silent ‘aitch) the photographer, and the even more famous Helmut Newton in Melbourne, where I had also worked as a layout artist in the Myer Emporium advertising department. We did not meet because, I think, I had gone back to Sydney before she started work. yes, she is very attractive and we cuddle a bit, but this is purely friendship (furthermore a younger woman has to make her intentions very plain before I make any advances at my age). Although I spend a lot of time on my own I have quite intense friendships that go back a long way. I don’t think that I could feel romantic love again. I hope not. Friendship is when I ride in the fabled company who, though still alive I’m sure, live I know not where. My friends of the 1940s and 1950s before we went to Melbourne, where I met more friends I will never forget. In fact I ride alone now, likewise surf and dive. My late son is often with me in my mind. My daughter Rebecca is coming down from Brisbane soon with his ashes, which she will spill into the ocean from some ledge where Mathew and I used to enter the water. And I will follow them below as far as I can see them. Joseph Tawadros, the oud virtuoso, will dedicate his next concert soon to Mathew.
The back sunroom room of the Hudson’ place sits very high due to the land falling steeply below toward the beach two or three hundred metres away. One grey day after an adventure we sat at the table and ate fresh warm bread, alternating Vegemite and honey. Sometimes our excursions were educational. A tram ride into the city, for instance, where we went to the Australian Museum in College Street or the old Technological Museum in Ultimo. Sometimes our excursions were hair raising, and very rarely they had a vandalistic component. We had adventures in the surf when the beach was closed, on the cliffs, in the two major swamps. A couple of times we climbed the steel steps on a diagonal girder up to the roadway of the Harbour Bridge, which vibrated mightily. We were scholars and we were knights and explorers. We were Jason and the Argonauts. The bread came by horse and cart. The cries of the rabbitoh and the clothes prop man were heard in the street. It was like Porgie and Bess. Les Hudson once told me that the king tides ceased when I went to Melbourne. They all mused on this apparently. Once or twice we pondered the existence of God for a few minutes, then shrugged our shoulders. We truly did not need Him. As far as we could see. Ah, but what about the deep, aching spiritual void. We truly did not have it.