INDEX 2

ONCE WERE COURIERS
On the coast south of London there's a home for retired bicycle couriers. Its exact location is kept a secret for reasons which shall soon become obvious, but I have my sources, and recently I dropped in unannounced. An old man answered the door.

"Go away," he told me.

"You were a pusher, weren't you," I said quickly.

"Says who?" he barked.

"You were the best," I teased. "The one they called 'El Ninõ'."

He peeked over my shoulder to make certain I was alone, then whisked me inside.

"What do you want?" he asked.

"War stories," I answered.

His eyes lit up. "Let's go to the day room."

There were a dozen residents camped around the TV set, aimlessly scrolling through large print teletext. A dusty pile of despatch bags littered one corner. Somewhere in the background a radio crackled unintelligibly.

"Poor buggers," he murmured. "Shell-shock. Tell me something. How old do you think I am?"

"You've got to be in your 70s," I guessed.

He smiled, a grimace. "Actually, last Wednesday was my birthday. I turned 34."

The room suddenly seemed very quiet.

"Close your mouth before something flies in," wheezed El Ninõ. "Happens I'm our resident Methuselah. Captain Jack over there on the sofa is 29. And Bronco Billy," he tipped his head towards a white-haired ghost of a man, "is 25. Granted, he's seen better days."

"I don't understand," I stuttered. "This is impossible."

"The road," he said simply, "ages you."

Everyone nodded. A few nodded off.

"Oh, what a terrible host I am," he observed brightly, darting off to get me a cup of tea. I was feeling mildly uncomfortable, having gained entrance under false pretenses...

The radio momentarily shed its static, and a disembodied voice offered, "Pickup at Canary Wharf. Who wants it?"

"I've got it!" shouted Captain Jack, springing up and stumbling towards the despatch bags. He tripped and thudded harmlessly into the pile. Everyone made it a point to look elsewhere. El Ninõ returned with my tea.

"Now then. Let me tell you about the time--"

"I didn't really come here for war stories," I interrupted. "I'm a journalist."

He glared at me. "One of those. You people sicken me."

"As long as I'm here, will you answer some questions?" I challenged.

Fury fought a brief battle with pride, and pride won. "I'm not ashamed of the things we did," he finally said.

"Like going through red lights?" I prompted, pencil poised.

"I had to blow those lights. I had deliveries."

This admission set Bronco Billy off on a giggling fit. "Blow those lights, blow those lights," he whispered, hugging himself and rocking ferociously.

I pulled a copy of the Highway Code out of my satchel, rifled through its pages dramatically. "Funny. It doesn't say here that you must stop except when you've got a package on board."

He sneered. "We were professionals. The elite. We made our own rules."

Now it was my turn to pull a face. "To live outside the law you must be honest," I quoted the bard, Dylan. "Tell me the truth. You rode as you did out of pure selfishness and disregard for other road users."

"Do you mean MOTORISTS?!" roared Captain Jack, who was no longer comatose on the nest of bags.

"And fellow cyclists," I amended. "Did you ever stop to think how your wreckless antics made the rest of us look? To Joe Public, you came to represent all cyclists."

"That wasn't in our job description!" shot El Ninõ sarcastically. "We were hired because we had the killer instinct, the X factor. Something you'll never understand."

Ignoring the jibe, I moved on to other territory. "Consider how your compatriots turned pavements and zebra crossings into a kind of no-man's land, where pedestrians feared to tread. They were just innocent civilians, you know."

This pronouncement did not please Captain Jack. "There are no civilians in a war," he said simply. "If you're not with us you're against us."

"Those people had no wheels," I countered. "At the very least you could have slowed down; perhaps walked your bike, if it was crowded. As a concession."

Everyone in the room stared at me as if I were quite mad. "Walk our bikes?" One of them murmured incredulously.

My interview obviously near its end, I waxed philosophic. "You may have been part of the solution, but you were also part of the problem. You played your own, small role in helping to make the cities unbearable."

"Oi," whispered Bronco Billy.

"Oi," said Captain Jack softly, as if answering him. He said it again. Soon others picked up the chant: "Oi. Oi. Oi. Oi." Then it was a chorus.

They were proud veterans, and this monosyllabic song would be their epitaph. Perhaps I'd ended up with a war story after all.

I let myself out.

Cycling Plus, May 2000