Monday, 30 May 2016

The Biking Man

A few years ago, I wrote a story called "The Biking Man" for a popular podcast. Every month, in between the interviews and other segments, they'd have a short story, performed by a voice actor. Unfortunately, the parent company cut the funding before it got to my piece so it never got performed. I'm not really sure where that leaves the publishing rights - whether it could ever be submitted to anyone else again - but I can definitely put it up here for people to read. Happy Bank Holiday!

The Biking Man

Once upon a time, there was a man with a bike. This was no ordinary bike. This bike had no corporate logos, carbon-fibre suspension or tungsten brake blocks. It was simple, plain and utilitarian - uncomfortable undoubtedly, but superbly designed for the function of eventually transporting a man from point A to point B.
I first became aware of the Biking Man in January at around the same time as the global media did: when he began crossing the Sahara desert. At first, the news cameras boggled at the sight. The heavy frame of the bike had sunk into the loose sand, leaving the bottom curve of each wheel entirely concealed. Each turn of the pedals must have been a tremendous effort in such cloying terrain, although this never showed on the face of the cyclist. Each turn of the pedals slithered the bike a little further forwards into countless sand dunes and produced a distressing grinding noise as silicon crystals ground to dust in the primitive gears.
The man wouldn't talk to the cameras. When any questions were shouted at him, he would smile a little and continue exactly as before, grind after agonisingly slow grind. This vexed the reporters no end.
They showed his picture on the front of most of the world’s newspapers, especially after he continued cycling through the shifting sands for an entire week without stopping for sleep or rest. He was troublingly difficult to describe. He was dark-skinned, that was obvious, but everything else was less easy to define. He was oldishly young and beautifully ugly. His face bore both the simplicity of the idiot and the serene majesty of genius. His clothes, a t-shirt and shorts, were both slobbishly simple and the height of elegant simplicity. Cycling through the sand clearly required substantial effort, but little of that showed on his face. He was kind and stern and everything to all men.
No-one knew who he was.
This annoyed the media outlets intensely.
Enquiry having proved a dead end, they now switched to ridicule. Look at this man, they would say, what a pointless waste of time and effort cycling through the sand. What a fool this man must be. Let us all laugh at the foolish man.
Under the withering blaze of media attention, he was eventually recognised. A postman in Athens had ridden beside him some weeks before. She’d tried to engage this mysterious man in conversation, but he had remained politely taciturn. Eventually, they’d parted ways and he’d headed towards the port, obviously with the intention of securing a berth on a ship across the Mediterranean Sea.
The bombshell dropped when someone came forwards who recognised him from a cycling lane in Berlin. The media became frenzied. This man had cycled from Berlin to the Sahara desert. Why? He wasn't a celebrity, so it wasn't an effort to rekindle a dying career. No charity laid claim to his considerable efforts. Why else would someone attempt such a feat? Life changing rewards were available for anyone who provided information about his identity or his intentions.
The real global hysteria started when a rather hesitant report came from the Polar One research base at the North Pole. One of the researchers there had seen a man dressed in a t-shirt and shorts cycling past the base early one morning, but had never reported it for fear of ridicule by his colleagues. Appearing from the northern wastes in the middle of a snowstorm, the Biking Man had patiently cycled his bike, one pedal turn at a time, through deep drifts of snow without pause until he vanished into the white blankness to the south.
I think that might’ve been the month that someone started the Church of the Biking Man. His tireless exertions and his tolerance of suffering began to convince some that this was the second coming of Christ. When he serenely cycled out of a lethal sandstorm and into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Church of the Biking Man got another hundred thousand converts and became a loud voice in the international press.
One day, one of the hundreds strong band of reporters snapped and tried to confront him when he approached the suburbs of Cape Town in South Africa. The world held its breath as it watched on the television. To my shame, I thought that the Man would cycle straight through the reporter, turning him to dust.
Who are you? What are you doing? the reporter had screamed at him, inches from his face.
For the first time ever, the Biking Man stopped. He laid a weather-beaten hand on the reporter’s shoulder, smiled gently and looked into his eyes. The reporter’s shoulders slowly sank and he stepped to one side, gaze lowered. According to rumour, the reporter immediately quit his job and quickly returned home to tell his wife that he loved her and to spent time with his son, sailing toy boats on the local duck pond. The media suppressed that story as heavily as they could, but no-one ever stood in the Man’s way again.
I watched every television program about him, even the interview with the Church of the Biking Man's “Grand Axle” which revealed him as a total nutcase. The “Grand Axle” had tried to use the opportunity to attract more donations to his Church to “support his Holy Progress,” but a few eviscerating questions revealed the man as a total charlatan. Despite the deafening roar that his actions were producing around the world, the Man continued on regardless.
After Cape Town, some bright spark with a computer worked out that the Biking Man was heading, almost directly, for the South Pole. The world went completely crazy at that point. The internet, the radio, the newspapers and the television channels were totally consumed with speculation about the Man, the purpose for his journey and what would happen when he reached there. There was an unequal split of opinion: two-thirds of the Earth believed that his arrival at the South Pole would be the beginning of a time of enlightenment, a time where the greedy and evil would repent and all would join together in the Brotherhood of Man. The remaining third were convinced that the Biking Man was the embodiment of evil and that his arrival at his Polar destination would herald the End of All Time, but it is worth noting that no-one actually tried to stop him.
No-one saw him vanish from South Africa. A suspicious series of coincidences and mishaps happened to every news team tracking him. This team took the night off and that team decided to recharge all of their camera batteries at the same time. No-one was fooled by the unlikely coincidences, but no-one could convincingly explain why they’d followed the courses of action that they did.
Eventually, NATO retasked one of its surveillance satellites under considerable media criticism, spotted him in Antarctica, pedalling slowly across the ice and through the snow. Round and round the pedals squeaked. His progress was inexorable, like the slowly ticking heart of the universe. I knew people who left the live feed active overnight to comfort them as they slept. I knew others, who would watch the live feed of the Biking Man serenely cycling through Antarctica blizzards and confess their sins, asking for forgiveness and advice on how to be a better person.
As he neared his destination, the millennial mood at the Scott-Amundsen base became overwhelming. At unbelievable cost, hundreds of observers had been flown in to watch the Biking Man reach the exact South Pole. Some believed that his arrival there would signal the ultimate redemption of Man; some believed that the very Earth would split underfoot and hordes of demonic beasts would surge force and scourge the planet of unbelievers. One December morning, hundreds of observers sat in hastily constructed shelters waiting for his arrival. They were not disappointed. The simple bike and the simply dressed man squeaked into view across the ice, inching nearer and nearer to the Pole.
The tension as he approached was absolutely unbearable. Every television station in the world was showing a live feed of the hazy silhouette pedalling nearer and nearer.
In the strange distortion of time that happens when any event is keenly anticipated, he reached the Pole sooner than anyone expected and stopped suddenly on the exact spot. The world held its collective breath.
The Biking Man alighted from his simple bike and stepped onto the snow, controlling its slow descent on to the ice with a confident, strong arm. He took a little time stretching his arms. He took a little time stretching his legs. He smiled benevolently at the assembled hundreds and the viewing billions.
With a thoughtful look on his face, the Man turned to the assembled horde of cameras and raised his right arm to the heavens. With a warm grin, the Biking Man gave the viewing Earth a sincere thumbs-up.
The Biking Man picked up his bike, turned it around to aim it into the thin snowy valley he had carved on his journey to the Pole and rode off into the distance once more.

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