When your legs finally give in, and you glide to a halt in a town not a million miles from Boulogne, you fall onto your hotel bed like snow. Mental waves take over from the physical, and the voices of ghosts sound in your ears. They have the quality of presence of a dream, though you are too exhausted even to close your eyes. Quietly, happily they call you back, with a kind and loving laugh. Too tired to be conscious, too mentally taut and hungry to fall unconscious, you are held in a wakeful limbo. Familiar voices burst in your ear. Your wrecked body is far from sure that it can cope with the additional burden of emotional hangover, but it appears to have no choice.
After being countenanced with raised eyebrows and sideways glances at the friterie, you walk out of the little town to a river and a bridge, to watch the sun drop. Its disappearance signals that you are here, and no longer at home.
You will not be beaten by a second day of physical exhaustion nor by the rain that scalds your sunburnt face. Lunchtime, you dig into a sandy track off the main road through the forest to eat the meal that is to become your travelling staple: half a baguette, a segment of camembert, a tomato, some peanuts, bottled source water, fruit, perhaps a swig of yoghurt drink – there is always one ingredient or another missing from the set menu. In this unseen place, grim determination loses by a fall and two submissions to a freedom as absolute as you are ever likely to experience. The bargain struck, a year of work for six months without it.
You are warmer than the rain from cycling more heavily burdened than a squaddie with a thirty pound backpack and five miles more to jog. You plough on, and it is some kind of finishing line that you cross at Rue, when you can put away your blanket map of France and use in its stead a 1cm:2km map of the Somme and Seine-Maritime. Racing clouds of greys and whites chase you round the bay of the Somme. You zip car-like past the marshy wash, headed southeastward with the wind and the weight of your bike behind you. Gradually the road loops round to the west and into the wind and you slow to snail speed, your house on your back, the bad weather moving as if it is tracking you. Grim determination having gained the upper hand, it is now under threat from a misery the more complete for your inability to see the point of your actions, from the bending of your knees to the reasoning behind where these joint and muscle movements are taking you. You have no-one to blame but yourself. You wonder where it was that history happened, thinking of those muddy, wartime souls laden with a torment greater than you are ever likely to experience. You slow to a stop in the wind-spat rain. Pause. Resume.
After coaxing your body and bike into crossing the canal, you decide that St. Valery-sur-Somme is your staging post for the night. You arrive alongside the estuary promenade at the same time as two coach-loads of young generation English. Officially they are on a school holiday, but are actually embarking on sex and alcohol adventures. You never had the pleasure of a teacher-escorted holiday, but instead, a privately arranged exchange, which unsuitably matched you with a girl named Legrand. A fortnight wasted on a fifteen year old, courageous only in his timid refusal to be plunged defenceless and comradeless into a school full of young French lions.