Last Thursday I had a near miss with a car. I have near misses all the time, of course, but this was a very near miss – the kind that leaves you terrified, hyperventilating, and shaking uncontrollably. I was bombing along Southwark Street, heading east, when the car shot across from Bear Lane to Hopton Street, having patently failed to see me (or probably even to look), and then pulled the classic pedestrian manoeuvre of spotting me at the last minute and slamming on the brakes, stopping right slap bang across the middle of the road.
(In my imagination) I braked, realized I was never going to stop in time, threw myself into a mad leftward swerve, trying to make it round the front of the car, missed, rammed against the side of the bonnet, felt myself separate from the bike as it smashed against the headlight and clattered onto the road, (wondered briefly whether the forks or the frame or the front wheel would be buckled, and how much it’d cost to repair), tumbled right across the car bonnet, thudded onto the horrible, hard, unyielding tarmac on the other side, and lay there, all the breath knocked out of me, not dazed but horribly horribly aware, feeling that terrible raw tender ache of brand new scrapes and bruises, wondering if I’d broken any bones, and knowing that the real pain was just round the corner.
(In real life) I braked, realized I was never going to stop in time, threw myself into a mad leftward swerve, trying to make it round the front of the car, almost got there, managed to bring myself to a halt and put a foot down in front of the bonnet I hadn’t tumbled over, and stood staring incredulously through the windscreen. It was an expensive-looking car (don’t ask me what sort; I know nothing about cars), driven by a well groomed woman, perhaps about my age, with pearl earrings and big black sunglasses. Once she saw I’d managed to stop, she – get this – laughed and waved at me. She laughed and waved. The encounter clearly looked very different from her end to how it looked from mine. I was still struggling to fill my lungs after the shock, and managed to gasp through her window
“For god’s sake – look where you’re going!”
She responded with another friendly laugh and another wave, as if to say “tee hee, silly old us, nearly bumping into each other”. And then she drove off, still smiling at me. And I stayed standing there, still astride my bike, still gasping for breath, and utterly incredulous at how she could react so flippantly, when she could have been only a few inches from killing me.
And then I carried on – I had a job to pick up, and I’ve found that the aftermath of a crash or near miss (the shivering, the breathlessness, the terrible fear) is usually just as well treated by getting back on the bike and riding off as it is by a sit-down with a cup of hot sweet tea. Though that’s what I really wanted. Tea and sympathy. To tell someone what had just happened, and for them to take some of it away by listening, and then giving me a hug. I thought briefly about calling in on the radio, and saying I’d be held up by a few minutes because of a crash – even though I wouldn’t – just so that someone would express a bit of concern, and ask if I was alright. But I didn’t. Perhaps because I’d rather be the kind of courier who just gets on with it, instead of complaining every time she has a bit of a scare. Perhaps because I thought they probably wouldn’t care. Perhaps just because I didn’t want to clutter up the airwaves.
I carried on down Southwark Street – much more slowly now – trying to get my breathing under control, and thought about dropping into Fullcity next time I got the chance, and letting off steam there, among people who know what it’s like to be scared out of your skin, and who’d be suitably outraged by the stupidity of the driver. But I already knew I wouldn’t. Because by then I’d have calmed down, and it would just turn into another one of those repetitive and fairly pointless ‘stupid driver’ stories (“I was coming along ____ Street, right, heading south, and this car just turned straight across me into ____ Lane, and I…”), where everyone listens respectfully, and tries to picture the junction and the road positioning and everything, and then weighs in with sympathetic outrage, and general condemnation of drivers, but is really just looking for a opportunity to launch into one of their own narrow squeaks. And once it’s over and done with, there’s nothing to differentiate one near miss from another, and if you survived …well then, you survived, so what’s the big deal? Forget it.
It was pointless chasing after the driver (she was long gone, and even if I found her, what would I say?), and no one really wanted to hear that I nearly got hit by a car (“what – like every other day?”), so I told no one. And it crossed my mind that, if anyone knew that this had happened, and I’d just swallowed it and told no one, they’d think I was incredibly tough.
And perhaps I am. I certainly didn’t feel it though – I rarely feel so tender and vulnerable and pathetic as when I’ve just had a crash, or a narrow escape. But then, I thought, perhaps this is what toughness is all about. After all, look at the skin on my heels – that’s bloody tough, but it only got that way because of all the blisters, that then burst, so that I was riding around with stiff shoes scraping against raw flesh, sometimes until they were soaked in blood, wincing with every turn of the pedals, wearing down my resolve and my resilience as much as my skin, so that by the end of the day the smallest setback could bring me to the verge of tears.
As far as I know, no one’s ever gone home over such a trifling matter as blistered heels. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, of course, just that no one’s admitted to it. And if you do give up and go home – well, that’s less money in the bank then. And if you complain, you’ll appear weak and whingy – and eventually you’ll bore even yourself. There’s always something to complain about, and constant complaining is just tedious. Far better just to get on with it. So you do. I also realized, a few days ago, during a brief, self-indulgent whinge about the state of my knees, which my drinking companion then reciprocated with an identical sob story, that my pain and suffering is nothing special. Most couriers are nursing some kind of injury or trauma or long-term chronic pain. Lots of them would probably be told to take a few weeks off the bike if they saw a doctor. Some of them are certainly far worse off than me. So, again, you shut yourself up and you get on with it. No one wants to hear about your problems. You can go home and lick your wounds, or you can stay out and make some more money.
And perhaps that’s toughness. Picking yourself up, carrying on, and not even bothering to tell anyone what happened, because they probably won’t care, and you won’t care yourself once you’re a couple of miles down the road, and there are more important things to get on with. Having had this happen enough times to know this will be the case, no matter how scared and shivery and tearful and in-need-of-a-hug you feel right this moment. Living in the hope that one day your mind and heart and lungs and nerve endings will be as hardened and calloused and ugly as my heels are now. Learning to take a few deep breaths and then let go of whatever it is that happened, because you’ll need all your resources for whatever might be around the next corner. And knowing that there really is no such thing as actual toughness – it’s more just that there’s no excuse for softness.