Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Rider

In his tent the man woke early. The sound of the breeze through scrub had entered his sleep. When he emerged the first thing he saw were low salt bushes. At this hour the air was pure and cool, though a spill of red against the morning sky warned of the day's heat. Beneath it, the desert stretched out: between bushes, a salty ochre soil which had been so pink at yesterday’s dusk. The world eased itself onto the man's senses. His motorcycle was still standing as he left it, and no park ranger had come to move him on. He stretched his muscles and felt the dawn, cool against his bare skin. The world felt like a place of promise.

Promise was not the word to describe how this man had about life until now. He had tried to go steady with a girl, and took it that she had left him because, like those around him, he had so little. They asked him every time: What's your job? He would mumble something embarrassed about his unemployment. And what job would he find beyond more drudgery and more secret despair?  He feared that the terrible feeling would only stop when something precious in him died. The others didn't seem to mind. Or if they did mind, they seemed to have successfully made themselves hard, as if to match the world's hardness. Of course it slowly won, it slowly wore them down, but beer, sex and cars seemed enough to console them - or so they boasted. He would lie half asleep and imagine he was an artist. It wasn't the fantasy of being seen and applauded. Rather, he dreamed of immersing himself in rhythm and colour. In words. In emotion.

“You've missed that tram” he would tell himself in the daylight, during those despondent afternoons when the bored sunlight drained him of feeling. Then he would search about in his mind for what might be within reach, for that existence he dreamed of when half-conscious on the mattress. He had reached manhood, but he was still very young: he was at that age when you feel angry at what little others have become, but the anger is really fear for yourself.  Fear that you, too, will inevitably become the same. He was young and uncommitted enough to feel, somehow instinctively, that with enough anger and kicking he might stop himself being swallowed up. He found some cash-in-hand work. He bought himself a motorcycle.

The BSA Spitfire was not very old – 1966 – but it had been crashed more than once and rebuilt in back yards. The chrome twin exhausts were scratched and rusty. Someone had removed the 'street racer' carburettors, no doubt for their own bike, replacing them with a mild pair. At least it was now easier to start. And the bike still burbled beautifully.  At hard revs it made him think of its name-sake - a WW2 Spitfire.  And it was claimed to produce 54hp, which earned respect in anybody's book. Over that gloomy unemployed winter the young man had learned to service and tune the eight-year-old motorcycle. The friend of a friend who sold it to him invited him over a few times - he was only one suburb away in Altona – and had tutored him in this. He learned to repair the bike's inevitable faults, which mostly consisted of electrical failures and flooding petrol. Then chance had made him do these things by the roadside on his own, sometimes at night. He came to know the machine and became vaguely proficient at keeping it on the road.

Riding the motorcycle aroused feelings which reminded him of his half-conscious yearnings at night. Here too he was immersed: in beauty, sound, colour, rhythm, as well as chill and warmth and so many other sensations. He was set free. Fears and depressions fell away as some animal side of him was liberated, as though to teach him what it knew of existence. Riding one night on the opposite side of town, he crested the hill on Punt Road and in motion he looked out over the clock and the M.C.G. Balmy air flowed in waves across his skin. From that crest the road suddenly descended and curved to the left. He felt air-born for a moment, and continued to feel in flight during the descent, still looking across the Yarra at the city lights. He did not want that momentum ever to end. Somewhere inside a decision was made that it never would.

With some money he had saved after buying the bike, with a tent and old army bag of possessions tied down on the rear part of the bike's seat, the young man left Melbourne one morning and rode north-west. He was led by whatever shape looked interesting on the map. He did not know where he was going or what he would do, trusting only in his youth and in the fact that, while behind him there was nothing for him, yet he could not be sure what lay ahead

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