Spoke MusicFirst Place: Winter 2019 Writing Contest
You notice the man with his bike on the platform and hope he’s not planning to get on your train. It is crowded already. It’s morning. It’s rush-hour. He waits until last, but then get on, he does.
Hisfluorescentpink jacket could be a matador’s cape, for the effect that it has on the grey-suited cattle — yourself included — who are bracing themselves for the nine-to-five slog.
His helmet, the same color, just makes matters worse.
Though there should be a place for his bike in the rack, the crowd is denying a clear passage through; the three pull-down seats in that space have been taken, and he doesn’t seem eager to ask them to move. He must be aware, as you are, of the whole carriage glaring in pre-caffeinated judgment; the murmurs of mockery, frustration, complaint.
Or maybe he isn’t.
He certainly doesn’t look up to acknowledge them, simply stares at the bike, which he holds like a tango-partner, with the front wheel positioned right next to his face. Given that you haven’t been able to find a seat either, and are standing quite close, you find yourself absently watching it too.
As the train shudders forwards, that wheel begins spinning. If he set it off, with a flick of a finger, then you didn’t see. You can hear it, however. The whisper of air swept between spokes, every whir like a line to a prayer or a song. Though they seem to come from far off, they’re so quiet on top of the rattle of rails. Or maybe they just seem to come from far back.
Out of nowhere, you remember your first real bicycle — the first without stabilizers — on one of the days when a tire went down. You pushed it dejectedly onto the driveway, heading straight for your dad — sitting out in the yard with a beer and a book — and he stood up at once with an effortless fervor, and you led him to your BMX where it leaned against the wall.
“You’ve put it the wrong way up,” he said, and you didn’t understand what he meant right away, because it was on both its wheels. But then he lifted and flipped it in one fluid motion, like some mythical strongman, and set it down upon the drive again on its handlebars and seat. Then he poked both the tires to find out which was flat.
“Can you fix it?” you asked, and he nodded, “Yes.”
“Will it take long?” You glanced anxiously back at your friends on the street, who pretended their bikes were Formula 1 cars and yelled triumphant commentary as they attempted overtakes.
“Don’t worry,” your dad said, “we’ll sort this pit-stop in no time.” He stuck a patch on the tire at its puncture and went to work with the black plastic pump.
Aware of your ever-increasing impatience, he sought an effective way to distract you; gave the undamaged back wheel a hypnotic spin. And that was when you first heard it or became aware that you’d heard it: the splendor of spoke music, much louder than now, with the buzz of your friends as a chorus behind.
You moved away from that house and that town a year later when your dad changed his job, and you haven’t seen any of those old friends in years. You find yourself checking the cyclist’s face as if you might somehow know it, though you obviously don’t. He’s as unrecognizable as the rest in this carriage, despite sharing this trip with them five days a week. The commute is no place to be making connections; people just pretend they’re not here.
Fortunately, you boarded at the penultimate stop, so you won’t have to deal with this crowd-crush much longer. And getting on last means, the cyclist will be the first off and can escape the disapproval and accusatory glares. He can play his music in a suitable setting, rather than awkwardly busking it here.
Except it doesn’t quite work like that. At least, not as smoothly.
The driver can’t pass him to open the doors, and so the cyclist has to step back down the aisle. His helmet nearly catches you fully in the forehead, a hair’s breadth from scarring; you fight the urge to complain, as you know it will only make everything worse.
By the time he can exit the carriage, other trains have just pulled in at neighboring platforms, disgorging their office-bound cargoes at once. He can’t get away quickly, and neither can you.
To complicate matters further, the elevator is broken, so he has to carry his bike down the stairs and then walk it through the underpass. People bustle and speed-walk to try overtaking, though instead of Formula 1 commentary imitations, there are grunts of resentment and anger and stress. You are penned in, however, and cannot get through.
The first ticket barrier he tries isn’t working, but he can’t seem to maneuver his bike to another, so he has to wait for an assistant to come to help him out. You are five places behind him, and the grumbling of those around you runs from mild to intense.
“What the hell does he think he’s playing at, bringing his bike through the station?!”
“How dare he slows me down, on my journey to somewhere I don’t want to be?!”
But then the gate opens, and in no time at all, he has vanished outside.
A minute or so later, you likewise emerge into the chilly morning air. The sky is oppressive, an externalized migraine, and as if it was waiting for your very arrival, it is just at this moment beginning to rain. The weather app on your phone had not said that it would, so you lack your umbrella; you’ll have to make do with your coat-collar raised.
You stand beneath the awning a few seconds longer, seeking strength and motivation for your ten-minute trek. As you finally move in your normal direction, you catch sight ofthe cyclist in fluorescent pink. He holds in your eye-line for the length of a heartbeat before he glides around a corner as the rain gathers pace.
There has to be a better way, you think, as the rain finds a route down the back of your neck. You can see the same thought in your fellow commuters, staring towards where the cyclist has gone. Then you blink and keep walking. Your shoes drum morosely on dark, sodden asphalt, and theirs keep the beat as they fall in behind.
As of right now, though, you’d rather be solo.
You would rather play spoke music out on the road.