I’m sitting in the curry house. I am staring at my shoes. I am totally broken. T-shirt and shorts tugged on top of dirty lycra for decorum. Exposed flesh is sweaty scratched dirt crusty baked smelly, stretched tight over hollow. I’ve had an all-day long day on the bike and only just paused by home to pick up a bike lock and head back up the road via the cash-point to get a take away. These perfunctory actions have been an all-out effort when all I’ve really wanted to do is just curl up by the side of the road in the foetal position and have a little cry, so you can forget having a bath and changing into civvies for the moment.
I order a pint of Cobra while I’m waiting, I taste nothing, it doesn’t touch the sides and yet somehow what nutrients exist are gleefully absorbed. Some of the painful edges are ever so slightly washed smooth. I glance five waiting chairs down from me where a man is also keen for his take-out curry. He is large. Several times the girth of me. Easy. His dirty crusty stained t-shirt is stretched tight over his impressive gut. We look at each other with equal measures of disgust. I wonder at which point you just don’t care about your body any more. He looks disdainfully at me and probably wonders what this ragged, hunched, sunken-cheeked shrink-wrapped sun-squinted freak is doing.
I go back to staring at my shoes. I am quite destroyed; empty of marrow tired, my legs hurt, my arms hurt, bits of me that have never hurt before hurt. I want to have a nap and soon I will fall asleep with my empty curry plate on my lap and struggle to make it up the stairs, brush my teeth for self-respect and remove my clothes. I won’t remember hitting the pillow. Ten hours later I will wake up and most everything will still hurt. I will still be hungry.
I love this.
While it’s been some time since I’ve felt this crushed, this so comprehensively depleted, it is not in any way abnormal behaviour. Whilst in these fatigued moments it is black pit horrible, and I might want to indulge in a little emotional episode (it has been known), and despite muttering “never again”, again, I never want to stop feeling like this. Ever. I consciously and actively strive to frequently reach breaking point and maybe nudge it a little bit further. I like feeling used. My body needs to feel used. This exhaustion becomes me. Often defines me.
I want every single bit of my body to be worked to its utmost ability at random intervals. Lungs torn and burnt by the ferocity and volume of air forced into them, muscles punch drunk and wrestled eventually to the floor, joints made sticky tight and twitchy painful with effort. Tendons and various other stringy bits violin taught. Everything about to either crumble, explode or snap.
It reminds me that I am alive. Cycling as a ritualized and acceptable form of self-harming maybe. Hurt to feel. Feel something. All well and good the external forces of pedaling a bike outside; the touch of weather on skin that stings and pricks and blows and rips, warms and chills a proud patina. All of the things we brag and boast about battling through despite being swaddled in all the modern fabrics money and image can buy. Better the internal bruise that is slower to appear and longer lasting, the thing that no amount of expensive cloth and labeling can save you from.
What do Normal People feel like day on day? Those that don’t take some time to push towards and explore the edges of effort? If I don’t take regular hard sweaty emptying exercise I feel sluggish, grumpy and just a little bit grimy all over; a greasy film of lethargy that no amount of Lady Macbethine washing will cure. Do normal people feel like that all the time? Relying instead on the variety of mass opiates to feel something? What does a body feel like to not be stretched, exhausted, aching? Face down on the mattress at the end of the day, the heavy gravity of a body sinking towards the centre of the earth. Do you just get used to the nothing and the Nothing is Normal because you know nothing else? Normal is fine, why bother? Who needs, wants to hurt? I certainly don’t need to do this, my life is comfortable, I could just sit back and enjoy the podgy privilege, get my pains by watching ‘Made In Chelsea’, why do I have to come home regularly concave and tattered?
What’s it like to eat a curry - or any food – out of habit rather than the deep gnawing absolute desperate need for energy and sustenance? Plug that aching chasm in your stomach. Essential maintenance rather than just because it’s suppertime on a Saturday night and you always have a curry on a Saturday night. What’s it like to never have been slumped on the floor still in dirty and wet clothes spooning peanut-butter straight out of the jar? Fuel that’s going to be drawn straight into the system and you might collapse if you don’t funnel it into your mouth in the next ten seconds, rather than mashing it into your mouth just because.
I don’t want the sticky fug of normal, I have drifted into it often enough to know this, I need this void of broken darkness, the counterpoint to that initial euphoria of speed, the plunging wave of sadness after the conquering strength, I almost enjoy tip-toeing up to the edge and tumbling off the cliff of weakness. The infinite ache of effort. I somehow need all of this to remind me that I am here and I really don’t have an answer why. My pub psychology brain thinks it might have something to do with a deep-down hard-wired programme to chase after things for food, but that could easily be bollocks. Or it’s a counterpoint to my easy life and the freedom of deciding how and when I can hurt myself because I don’t have to walk ten miles for a bucket of water every morning or just struggle day-to-day to simply survive. I don’t know. I’m not after parental or peer approval because much of the time they don’t see this and I don’t even say, and if you accuse me of trying to rack up Strava points I will summon up just enough energy for a pitiful glare and dry choked laugh. This isn’t about or for anyone else. Right now I’m too tired to think too hard or care too much, but it can’t be as simple as eating family platefuls of food without any remorse, guilt or payback?
I glance across to five chairs down. Maybe for now let’s just say it is.
Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.