Words: Rigo Zimmerman | Date:
As we sat amongst the buoys and the nets in the freezing wooden boat shed, and looked out into the harbour at the lumps of freezing rain pounding the boats that were huddled together like frightened animals, jostling to stay warm, the ancient fishermen in their battered chairs looked over at us, and spoke quietly to one another.
The three of them looked as old and ravaged as the coastline; they were an age I couldn’t imagine and had the look of men who’d spent their lives clinging to the surface of the earth, their forms bent and twisted, each into a unique shape of toil and time.
They were nervous because we were making them so. They had welcomed us in when we had seen the light and knocked but in that foreign land we could not speak their language and they could not speak ours. They didn’t know what we were doing there and they seemed pained by our presence somehow.
As we tried to thaw our hands enough to be able to change the punctured tube in the shelter that their old shed had offered us, they looked over with what I took for mistrust. No matter, I thought, and listened as the rain hammered hard on the roof of the shelter.
The men shared more words and one of them stood up. He slowly dressed himself in his thick yellow oilskins, and pulling a woollen hat down hard on his head, he left the shed as snow started to fall on the sea.
I knew something about fishermen. My father had been one. He had told me many stories of his days in the North Sea, of the weather and the hardships, and how his hands would freeze and become like claws because he couldn’t work in gloves, so he worked without feeling. I remembered how the wool of his jumper would scratch his neck and my face when he would leave, and how he laughed and told me that the wool would only harden with the salt from the sea. I remembered, too, his deadpan manner the day he told me that the jumper was thick, “so that if I go overboard its weight will drag me down quickly,” and how, “the patterns are there so they know where to send me when I wash up ashore.” The fisherman that looked at me now wore the same ancient clothes as my father, and I thought to myself that they, too, probably never learned to swim.
The door blew open, the fisherman returned with a younger woman, who must have been from the houses that were behind the boatsheds. It occurred to me then that we’d not thought to knock on the door of a house. The pair of them looked like they had come to us to ask for some of the days of the old man’s life back. Timidly, the woman spoke: “My father, he thinks that it’s better you don’t cycle in this weather.”
The penny dropped; the fishermen weren’t annoyed by us, they were scared for us. Fishermen knew to respect the sea, they knew how to work, and they took bigger risks than I could imagine, and yet they now worried about three men going cycling. But I had no fear of the outside, of the cold, nor of the terrain.
I thought about those winters days I’d been trapped in many times before, and how each one had taught me what I had to do to survive. How I’d been caught in snowdrifts at the top of mountains, all but drowned in deluges, and been abandoned far from home with nothing but the little energy that was left in my legs, and trucks that weighed tonnes thundering past me in the murk.
As we stood there I knew what the fishermen did not, I knew that we had prepared well: I knew no fear of the winter.
I had arranged the essential spares and tools I needed in the small bag under my seat; a tube, coins and tyre levers, for the times when my hands were so frozen that I could no longer pull the tyre from the rim. I had stuffed that little bag full so the space in the pockets of my jacket would be free, because I already knew not to trust the weather.
I knew that the good days in winter are the ones when the very worst weather was falling before I’d left the house. At least on those days I reasoned that things couldn’t get worse. The days that worried me were the days when the weather looked fine, because winter is cruel and fickle and will change its mind on a whim.
Thinking of this, I had stuffed my empty pockets with as many extra clothes as I could; jackets for rain, gloves, and thick hats and thin hats. I remembered the words of my father again when I did this: “It is better to have a gun and not need it than to need a gun and not have it.”
I knew how important it had been to trust myself and not look to others to know what to wear. I remembered how, once, I had nearly frozen in a race in Belgium wearing everything I had, while a Dutchman had ridden past in nothing but shorts and arm warmers and simply shrugged, saying, “I just don’t feel the cold”. I knew that watching the ‘professionals’ was foolish, because a dose of Viagra before racing kept you warm and on other days it was necessary to sweat before the cortisone would work. And I knew how it used to anger me that others couldn’t make up their own minds and would always ask me, and how I would lie to them without remorse until they would learn their lesson.
I knew to look out of the window and study the skies, and to read the papers and talk about the weather to the oldest people I could find in the bar the night before. I knew to plan my route and to know the roads, and that on some days the high ground was not worth taking and that someone who was not me should know where I was.
I knew that I would have to leave the house and feel cold for ten minutes, because if I didn’t then once I started to ride hard, I would be sweating like a pig, and cursing too many layers of clothes. My clothes were bright and well coloured because I wanted to be seen and not just found. I knew, too, that I had to keep my hands and feet warm. Unlike my father, I couldn’t work with frozen hands and I knew that doubt could creep in from my extremities, if I let it.
I looked back at the fisherman before me in his patterned jumper, and it looked to me as effective as a resigned shrug of the shoulders. His only protection I thought, like my father, was to accept his fate. I realized then that in all my days riding a bicycle through winters as cold and as dark as the depths of the ocean itself, I was never the fisherman, I was the lighthouse; I wasn’t going down, I wasn’t getting lost, and I was getting home.
I turned to the lady and smiled: “Tell your father not to worry. We have prepared well for this.”