You feel sufficiently recovered by now from your first, epic cycle ride to climb back in the saddle and pay the countryside another visit. The act of movement rekindles your sense of the possibilities you have bought with an open-ended cross-Channel ticket. It is a hot, almost breathless day, which, were it not for the recent rain, would be dusty and punishing to anyone incautiously exerting themselves. But you set off with the morning still fresh, a slight chill in the air mixing with the coolness of the earth, which is not yet dried out and fully summer-baked. You speed along in the wake of a car, vainly attempting to stay with it, until the land rises against you. You reach the top of one of those crests, so common in Normandy, which tempt you into believing that the sea must be beyond the next, and higher, crest. Impelled to pedal furiously, and as if your life depended on it, to the full extent of your body’s strength, you have a palpable sense of eating up space. You have never been one to pace yourself – it’s flat-out or not at all. You look down, fascinated once again by the gnashing crank set and sun-silvered gears, by the revolutions of sprockets, chain, pedals and wheels. Your vision becomes fixed close-up on the section of the blue-barred frame that you can see. The blur of effortless speed that results from a slight downhill gradient gives you the intoxicating impression of riding a dream bike that denies the scratched, chipped and dirty reality.
Only the unexpected sight of a blue-mauve field of linseed, pale and coolly beautiful after the forceful colouring of huge tracts of oilseed rape, brings you to a standstill. You make your target by lunchtime, leaving the lazy stretches of the afternoon in which to return, able to stop more frequently to listen and to look, when earlier speed dictated you could not.
From above, at the point of suspension on the Pont de Brotonne, the Seine looks nothing like your river, and seems as alien as might the Nile. Not so much water as slow-moving mud, a twisted enormous mass of dough, or brains, inching along as though through the intestines of a horribly contorted sea-monster. The dirt and the smell of the Thames are homely in comparison. You remember a foggy November night sharing and swigging at a bottle of whisky with friends on the Hungerford Bridge, the cold air and the metallic rattle of departing and Charing Cross-bound trains adding to the whisky-thrill, the illuminated Thames-side buildings veiled and subdued to the level of smoky bar-gloom. Another time, with other friends, making what now seems an impossible exploration beneath the wooden jetties by London Bridge, beneath the high water level, careless of rats and Weil’s disease, never fearing that you should be quicksand-stuck in the mud, and snuffing the river as though it too were whisky.
Industrial barges and surprisingly large ships pass beneath the bridge, opposing the mud flow. You make your way down to the water’s edge by the broad sweep of the approach road. Here the deck of the bridge is fifty metres above you; it is hung from cables which have the look of giant harp strings. You pluck out a tune or two, then eat, and having eaten, write cryptic postcards home, gazing at the small town set among the trees on the opposite bank for inspiration. The pleasantness of the day and the abstract messages disguise the misery of yesterday, and of tomorrow.