|Riding tandem in Wales - many years ago now.
Last week, while walking in the mountains of the Haute Savoie, I received a call from Jane. An old friend needed to speak to me urgently, she said; there'd been an accident in which 'Pat' had been killed while riding her bike.
It took a moment to register the volley of information... a collision with a car... on holiday in Scotland... riding her 'solo'... Pat...?
And then it hit me.
For in the milliseconds it takes to compute, all becomes clear and irreversible — the future forever altered by something so swiftly related: a person gone, a chainlink lost; memories tinged with sorrow now...
In truth, I hadn't seen Pat or her husband Reg for perhaps two decades. And yet I'd rank them high among the seminal people in my life, inhabiting that curious space of persons whose impact extends far beyond their physical presence.
It's a time and place thing — the fatalistic collision of personality and circumstance that makes some encounters pivotal while consigning others (for all they may be closer, deeper and longer lasting) to a more marginal role in the trajectory of our lives.
The phrase that struck me most, when I spoke to my friend who relayed the detail, was 'riding her solo'. It's a term that tandem riders use to distinguish between standard bikes and their two-up cousins. Pat and Reg were made for the latter; a strong couple in every sense, and leading lights in a gang of enthusiasts who've stayed loosely connected for almost forty years.
I always think that the bonds of shared experience are the hardest to break. In this case, forged by the tens of thousands of pedal revolutions we shared in Northumberland, the Dales and later Wales... And by those nights of laughter in hostels, the attempts at time trials, the coming to our wedding in Betws y Coed... the sheer delight of cocking a leg over a crossbar.
We used to call them 'Peg and Rat', they even adopted the moniker on their email address. For all I know it may still be the same.
Except it can't be, can it? Not ever again.
And all because of time and circumstance and the fatalistic collision of iron on skin and the breaking of bones that we could so easily allow to go round and round... and round again, by thinking if only this or what if that ... and how there, but for the grace of an effing God, go any of us...
I have no faith — or at least none of the religious sort — but I know this much: that unless we embrace life and live it to the fullest that we can, then it is nothing; that joy and meaning are as interconnected as the steersman and stoker of a tandem; that risk and reward are two sides of a coin that's weighted in favour of the latter, but just occasionally flips the way we didn't foresee.
Pat lived like that when I knew her well. It's how I'll recall her and perhaps how we might conjure a radiance in her memory.
Today —with some dark irony — I'm writing this tribute of a sorts from a hotel patio in Mallorca, an island that's a magnet for cyclists. All around me is sunshine and life; mountains and sea; youth and the future... She would have loved it here.
Of that I have no doubt... so too, that the wheels and gears of our lives will continue to turn, and, in time, just as smoothly as ever.
Just as it should be.