Around here you can always hear the sound of an engine, the background hum of any of the main arteries that go that way and this, the decelerate - gear change - accelerate of the car as it negotiates that corner through the village at your feet, the thrum of a light aircraft overhead, the deeper whoomph of a big jet losing height as it stacks above the airport. Always noise, no matter how far away you think you are from things, if you stop and listen a droning undercurrent permeates everything.
Today is the one day a year when it is quiet.
Top of the hill, bike, silence. Wait for breathing to subside. Still quiet. Something both wonderful and almost discomforting. No-one’s around, everybody’s indoors.
I’ve been doing the Christmas Morning Bike Ride for so long now that it’s become a tradition, my Christmas Tradition. I’m not sure how it started and it merely continued for long enough to stumble into a custom without any effort or forethought, and at some point it became important enough to stick to. People that have come into my life since this became A Thing have had to accept what it is, even if it doesn’t fit into their definition of the day, and there may have been resolute discussions and the odd moments of awkward shoehorning into proceedings where it has been barely tolerated at best. The unsatisfactory hurried half lap of the park in the snow and that quick loop up the hill and back in grey muffled cloud that next year, the ride that made me realise that I should have just kept going.
Aside from that it’s pretty much worked pretty well; the complications of particular family arrangements meaning that I didn’t need to turn up to attend festivities until the afternoon, or the simpler fact that I wasn’t even anywhere near family and could do what I wanted all day. Dormant indoors watching festive telly isn’t an attractive option, well there might be a good film worth watching but we could easily work the ride around that. It helps that I’m not necessarily a fan of Christmas, a hangover from too much Enforced Fun as a child; we must do this, and then this, then games, then cake even if you’re full, and now it’s time for… The ability to do nothing much by no particular time is still a relief, that and the boringly common misanthrope grumble that the day starts in October now so any potential residual magic is long lost. Cooped up in the house all day to go a little overheated, stir-crazy, bloated, cantankerous and itchy scalped from the paper hat has never been much of a celebration for me.
The ride itself is usually inconsequential, incident free and little to write home about, just a ride. It’s never a heavenly crisp fairy-sprinkled Christmas-card winter wonderland, it don’t snow here, it stays petty green, it is the act that is important. Getting out, breathing clean air on a day cloyed with the stench of food, smoggy perfume gift sets and sticky resentment. I go outside for those that can’t find quiet. It doesn’t have to be a long ride, just enough is enough.
There can be a muddle of emotions being out in the hills on this day. There is a certain pleasure in not being a part of it, well away, not involved, refusing to be sucked in to the all-consuming consuming, but there is also a lingering and unshakable gnawing of sadness at not being deeply wrapped it all, social pressure dictating that it’s a time for being together. I’m pretty good at ignoring society’s demands but today it always feels like swimming against an impossible tide, I can float to the top if I reason that I shall be together with the people I want to be with later because for right now I am on my lanes and paths, in my landscape. They are as important, they are also my friends and family and we have shared a lot, I need to spend time with them. Stop on the top somewhere for a hushed moment; reflect on the year’s riding and mouth gratitude for the gentle turning of the Earth and the slow tilt back to warmth. Offer up a small piece of energy bar to the land. Thank you.
The odd one or two people you may meet out and about are friendly and cheery today, they may be on the same page as you of silent escape, they may have other reasons. Impolite to ask. Sometimes nothing beyond a pleasant festive greeting needs to be said, although up here in the brief avoidance of the tinsel and tat it always sounds a little hollow. Once a while a passing yet cordial chat is had, there was that one year we shared a pocketed Piccolo of champagne, that sort of thing tends not to happen any other time of the year. Wending the way back home through parks and public spaces you meet smiles and greetings and you can wave at kids excited on their brand new bikes. My bike isn’t new but we share grins. Everyone is nice to cyclists today, tomorrow it will be back to The Hate, a moment of peace in the trenches.
Get back home, bathe, get dressed up in the nice shirt and enjoy the sunken ache in the stomach that needs filling. Hungry out of choice on Christmas Day, not the norm. I’m actually expected to be joyfully famished, there was that time when I had thirds, and then seconds of pudding and photos were taken. And cheese and biscuits later. Then conversely there was that one year I was ill, didn’t ride and didn’t really fancy anything, I did my best with the pigs-in-blankets but it caused a glut of leftovers and a barely suppressed anger from the cook.
Head out the door towards where my festivities are just as the light is dying and in time to miss Mrs Brown’s Boys Christmas Special, or something similarly missable. No cars on the roads, no planes in the sky, eerily silent, most everyone is at some level of comatose or argument indoors. There are the splatterings of men taking the dog for a shuffle as an excuse to break out of the incarceration of merrymaking for a short while. Christmas jumper stretched on, maybe a crown. Fag. Walk past silent vignettes through warmly lit front room windows that are almost nativity scenes, faces uplit from the glow of fires, I mean TVs and video games. Past empty boxes and full bin-bags on driveways and say hello to the black cat that I only ever see sat on his gravel path today in its own little piece of calm. A low purred hello and a scruffle.
It’s still quiet. It is a privilege to be allowed in the silence. To do this every year is the best present I could have.