I still haven’t stopped smiling. The two days of work I was promised this week turned into four, and when anyone asks me how it’s going, all I can do is grin.
I can’t really explain why couriering makes me so happy, any more than I could tell you why I want to cycle round the world (my current response to this question is ‘I don’t know either – I’m doing it in order to find out!’). It’s actually a terrible job in most ways. On Friday afternoon, within the space of a few minutes in Soho, I spoke to three different couriers about how little money they’re making, how far behind they are on their rent, how much they owe all their friends, how they can’t afford to fix their bikes, and how exploited they feel by the industry and the system. Then we all set off towards Mayfair and Knightsbridge, to deliver bags of designer shoes, cosmetics and jewellery, each cargo probably worth more than we’d earn that day, passing people in business suits downing £3 cups of coffee like it’s nothing. One of the couriers I spoke to commented on how hard it is to keep yourself to a weekly budget of £10, or whatever it is, when you spend 50 hours a week in central London, surrounded by shops and cafes and food stalls and special offers, and constantly struggling with hunger, boredom and the need for caffeine.
I used to marvel somewhat idly at all the differences and discrepancies I witnessed as I rode through the city. Now they make me angry.
I’ve also lost some of the tolerance I’d built up for the bad habits of drivers and pedestrians. Most of the time, when someone’s deliberately cut you up with an inch to spare, or stepped out into your path without even bothering to look, then shouted at you for riding too fast, the only thing to do is to let go of it, and plough your annoyance back into your cycling – otherwise you’d spend the entire day seething with road rage. But, after the occasionally reckless but generally courteous drivers of most of Asia, I’m now continually aghast by the frequency with which Londoners jump lights, left-turn or U-turn without indicating, speed, ignore one-way systems, and willfully bully and intimidate vulnerable cyclists and pedestrians. But continual aghastment is not a comfortably tenable state, so I’ll build up my tolerance again – much as you’ll build up the rough skin on your palms or heels, with perhaps a few blisters and open sores along the way.
Another unsettling thing about this job is my sudden ubiquity. When you’re out in the streets all day you meet a great number of people. On my first day on the road I ran into three different (non-cycling) friends, who just happened to be going about their daily business as I rode past. I’d braced myself to be patronized by the more recent additions to the courier circuit, who’d assume I was the new one, but instead several of them have pulled up next to me at the traffic lights, asked whether I’m (that) Emily Chappell and admitted to reading one or other of my blogs. Stuff like this is surreal, but also rather wonderful.
What’s less wonderful is all the people I’d rather didn’t see me. An Addison Lee driver chatted me up on Vigo Street on Thursday, and said he’d spotted me in three separate locations just that day. It reminded me of the cabbie who verbally attacked me on Charlotte Street back in 2011, and then happened to walk past me on Montagu Place the very next day, and took the opportunity to continue the attack. It wasn’t so much his aggression that disturbed me, as the fact that he’d run into me by chance less than 24 hours later. The following day a different driver threatened me with a weapon in Cavendish Square, and rather than shaking it off, as I normally would, I rode as fast as I could to the nearest police station, and spent the next half hour sobbing uncontrollably while a very kind policewoman handed me tissues, and sympathized expertly with the challenges of toughing it out in a man’s world. I never saw that van driver again, but for my remaining months on the road I was haunted by the possibility – in fact, the likelihood – that I might run into him, that he might recognize me, or even hunt me down. I finally spotted him last Friday. He’s still on the road, still in the same van, and had only (apparently) managed to get as far as New Oxford Street in two years. The traffic was terrible, and I slipped past him easily and invisibly, and was probably in Hoxton before he’d even crossed Holborn.
I’m not afraid any more. It would be excessively paranoid to assume people are out to get me, and the several years I’ve already spent on the road have shown me that I am generally most at risk from my own stupidity. (Did I tell you about the time I fell off on my last day in Tokyo, and broke my nose? Hilarious.) I doubt very much that driver remembers me, and even if he does, what’s he going to do?
Rather than fear, this is a more nebulous sense of unease – of being constantly, helplessly visible; noticed, noted, remembered, observed, watched. When I was cycling through Iran I was obliged (by the freezing cold weather as well as the laws of the land) to keep everything covered except my hands and my face. Most of the male travellers I encountered objected frequently and vocally to this dress code, either because of the appalling oppression it was supposed to represent or because they felt entitled to see more of women and their bodies than was currently on display. I, on the other hand, found it unexpectedly restful to have so much of myself covered, not necessarily through any sense of prudishness or modesty, but because, despite the male curiosity that followed me wherever I went, I felt safe, hidden, and private. Their curiosity (along with their other, more corporeal impulses) remained mostly unsatisfied. My body – the contours of my skin; the colour of my hair – remained exclusively my own, and couldn’t be co-opted into someone else’s fantasy or narrative. (Or, even if it still was, they had very little to go on, so would be largely making it up.) I enjoyed being inscrutable; being none of their business.
One afternoon last week, at the junction of Goswell and Clerkenwell, I spotted a young man taking a photo of me. When I told him he should have asked my permission, he just looked at me blankly, and then the lights changed and we both rode off. Goodness knows what he’ll use the photo for. Probably nothing, but still. If someone sees me in the street and wants to take my image into his camera or his imagination, and then use it for whatever creative, scurrilous or prurient purpose he sees fit, there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it.
My visibility cuts both ways though. I remember a gaggle of teenage girls staring at me as they crossed the road in front of me, initially feeling intimidated (because I have found teenage girls intimidating ever since I was one), and then realizing that, rather than sneering at the loser on the bike, some of them might well have been thinking ‘wow – I wish I could be like that!’, just as I did when I saw my first cycle courier. Now that’s a narrative I wouldn’t mind being co-opted into. A nice young man introduced himself at some traffic lights recently and told me that my blog was the reason he became a cycle courier. This was flattering, but also vindicating. By doing what I truly love, and by rambling self-indulgently about it for several years, I’ve influenced the course of someone else’s life (hopefully for the better, though as I mentioned above, it is mostly a terrible job and he should definitely keep his options open). I don’t want to become a hero (how boring), but I wouldn’t mind becoming part of a conversation about how the world works and how it might be changed.
But I’ll never completely get over my squeamishness about displaying myself and my lifestyle, both in the streets and on the internet. Which is why I’m so grateful for the other side of the job – along with the constant exposure comes the permanent escape route it offers. If I need to, I can ride away so fast that only other cycle couriers could catch me, and I have corners of London to hide in that I’ve never told anyone about; where you’d never think to look for me. And in a few months’ time I’ll once again be on the road (and I use the definite article deliberately here, because no matter which road I happen to be on, it feels like the same place – that is to say, home), with the sky above me and the horizon all around, and no one will know where I am, not even myself, and all will be right with the world.