Life in the raw

The small Pyrenean town’s devout were filing from the church to the bar, parading in their finest clothes. The sound level increased exponentially as the bar filled. Spanish is a noisy language, wielded with enthusiasm and verve, the fast rhythm punching the words through the all-enveloping babble of friends and neighbours well-met.

In the distance, the scree- and grass-covered mountain slopes bathed calmly in the Sabbath sunshine, while lower down the young spring foliage of the forest caught the light breeze in a never-ceasing flutter of dark and lighter greens. Sipping my cafe con leche, I enjoyed the ambience of the bar and looked forward to a warm sping afternoon.

To my left a small group of men, apart from the locals, created their own ambience. Middle-aged but not embracing any sense of mediocracy, they were bikers, of the hairy variety, character stamped through their exotic dress. Denim and leather, the dirtier and scruffier the better, tattoos, mottos, the badges of chapter loyalty. Neckerchiefs and bandanas. The row of bikes parked nearby were so obviously theirs: choppers with handlebars impossibly high, black Harleys with chromework gleaming, fringed handlebars, fringed saddles, the whole works. It was theatre, they the players, we the audience. And you just knew that despite all their efforts to appear sinister and frightening, they would be the very first to help an old lady across the road. I had once met such a bunch arriving at a tavern high in the Alps. Most had sidecars, their passengers obviously patients on a very special outing from a day-centre for the mentally-disabled. They were loving every precious minute, bikers and patients alike. The mountain roads must have been a thrill in the sidecars, even if the bikes never went very fast.

Over to my right, the other side of the two-wheeled coin, another group of bikers, also apart from the locals pressing around them. Young, dressed in Kevlar and carbon fibre, protective suits each the price of a decent car. Serious men, they were racers, and their machines, parked in a line right outside the bar, should have been on a race track and not in a mountain village. Not theatre, this time, but hard sport, the mountain road their racetrack. Living a few miles away, I hear these racers every weekend, screaming along, hurtling past the locals and tourists in their cars, seemingly careless of the cyclists and walkers. Sometimes, passing through the quiet villages, they would rev their engines fiercely, their declaration of potency. I’d seen them do it in the middle of displays of folk-dancing, such were the demands of their egos.

I’m no saint, and neither is my husband. We own a sports car, or more accurately, a Grand Tourer, a fifty-year old 2-seater classic with a lusty V8 whose roar sends shivers through the hearts of real men. We charge around the mountains, but when we have friends with us, I often follow in our Dacia Duster so our friends can each in turn enjoy the thrills of the Stag. The humble Duster with its 1.5 litre diesel engine keeps up easily, making those adventures of the hairpins in the Stag staid. It’s impossible to hear the exhaust note of that V8 either, unless I get close and wind the windows down. Unlike the race bikes, it cannot be heard five miles away by every inhabitant of the mountain valley but instead gets friendly waves as we pass cottages and farms.

I wished, as I sat there with my coffee, that the eccentrics would continue to entertain us with their theatre, with their passion, as we do with our snippet of mobile history. But it was also my wish that should the boys who would be racers crash, that they would do so all on their own, by coming off the road and taking the violence of their racing to the unforgiving mountain, rather than to another road user.

It was but an hour later, after I had cycled back home down that road, that the mountain rescue helicopter landed close by to pick up the remains of a racer who had failed to make the turn I had cycled through a little earlier. He’d gone over the edge, and it took the volunteer firemen three hours to pick him up. 

A wish fulfilled, then, but it brought no joy whatsoever.

I have a friend, a pen-friend, I suppose he could be called, someone I met professionally when we were both coaches, long ago. Our friendship endured in the form of regular emails, and we would both recount to the other scenes we had experienced, like the one above. Observations of life, painted in words. It was by that means I became interested in writing, he my mentor, and now my historical researcher, too, deep history being his passion.

This, then, is my principal writing prompt: seeing life in the raw, and painting it to show a friend. As I move into creating rather than simply recounting stories, I imagine the story in scenes, how it would feel to be in the middle of each, and then paint that imagined experience in words for an audience of would-be friends. It’s not, perhaps, the easiest way of writing as it requires both passion and deep immersion in the story, but I think this is perhaps no bad thing.

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