Of Solitude

When the time comes to lose them . . .
MONTAIGNE, “OF SOLITUDE”

When I was growing up in Northern Ireland, speedometers were regarded as unnecessary and dangerous accessories on a bike. I was forbidden to have one and envied boys who did. But even though it rankled, I could see the sense of this parental prohibition. Cycling down the road pell-mell, eyes glued to the dial, willing that red indicator needle to edge ever further up the scale, legs pounding the pedals furiously, crouching close to the handlebars to minimize wind resistance—such rapt attention to speed meant a perilous disregard for traffic and pedestrians. In such circumstances, accidents were inevitable. Fortunately, none of my contemporaries suffered anything more than minor mishaps, despite a few close shaves. They were unrepentant, reckoning, in the foolhardy arithmetic of boys, that some trophy cuts and bruises were a small price to pay for being able to boast—improbably—that they’d reached thirty miles per hour.

Mileometers, by comparison, were considered safe, so my parents raised no objections when I got one. Mine was called a “cyclometer” (we never used the more technical-sounding “odometer”). It consisted of two parts: a little spur designed to register each turn of the wheel, and the counter, a gray metal barrel about an inch and a half long containing four rings of numerals set side by side, visible through a rectangular window. The counter was mounted on a bracket on the front wheel-shaft, and the spur was affixed to one of the spokes. Each time the wheel went round, the spur clicked against the counter’s mechanism, turning the numbers. I don’t know what portion of a mile is represented by one full revolution of a bicycle’s wheel, but these were the increments by which, click by click, this slowly burgeoning measurement swelled.

The accumulating evidence of distance covered was a compelling novelty at first. But apart from this brief initial phase, when I glanced down frequently to see how far I’d gone, I soon forgot the mileometer was there. The only other times it called attention to itself, in the distracting manner of a speedometer, were on those odd occasions when I happened to notice transitions between readings that seemed epochal in their own small way (from 99 to 100, for example), or if for some reason I wanted an exact measure of the distance between a journey’s start and end.

I can still remember the pleasure of taking the virgin cyclometer out of its box, its four unsullied zeros lined up behind the pristine glass of the counter’s tiny pane. I had a sense of achievement in gradually notching up those first few miles, and then a sporadic feeling of surprise mixed with satisfaction whenever I noticed how far I’d traveled. All those little bike rides that were so much a part of daily life back then—to friends’ houses, to the shops, a race across the fields, going bird-watching, cycling from home to school and back—seemed to amount to something when they were put together and considered as a single measurement.

I can’t remember now what my final tally amounted to, or what happened to the cyclometer, but I’m sure that all four rings of numbers were in use before I dismissed such a gadget as too childish an accessory to warrant transfer to the racing bike I bought when I was sixteen.

We all start with the corporeal equivalent of the cyclometer’s virgin zeros. Then time ratchets up the hours and days, inexorably turning the wheel of our passage. Whether we look at it or not, the numbers on our life-counter are always turning, always moving toward that moment when they’ll stop….

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