Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Fall

Even though it had rained on and off since morning, last Wednesday after lunch I set out  to run some errands: A trip to the bank, to the grocery market and to the local Tabak, one of the ubiquitous stalls that sell, along with sweets, newspapers, postcards, and tobacco, bus passes. But rolling along the narrow paved road that cuts through a field for a couple of kilometres before passing under a main thoroughfare, my wheels splashed through puddles, sending ripples of muddy water onto my clean trousers. Rain spotted my glasses and begun to soak into my trousers. The sheer unpleasantness of it made me want to turn back. But, no, this is what I signed up for. We were not going to get another car; I would have to get used to it.

I carried on as my imagination unreeled stories. It summoned the image of me flying off the bike onto the pavement, followed by the bleak scenario of someone calling Himself at the office as I lay motionless. Who would this stranger know to call?

I rounded a narrow bend and headed for the sharp steep footpath up the embankment to the thoroughfare. Preparing to make the ascent, I turned my wheel to mount a shallow kerb. My front tyre caught just at the edge of the kerb, slippery with the rain, and I was pitched off, landing prone on my left side, my face in the muddy grass, bike tossed to the right.

Stunned, frightened, a little angry, I gently pushed myself up. Everything seemed to work, and I stood. I shook with shock and cold and, yes, indignity. Mud coated my new black trousers and my favourite jacket. It beaded up and dripped from my thighs and knees. My jacket front was slick with it. I felt grit on my face, and my hands were brown. My hat . . . where was my hat, my lovely hat, where? . . . there, crown down in the mud.

I looked at the quiet dark apartment buildings across the road. No movement, no one raising a window to ask if I was okay. I was both relieved that apparently no one had seen my indignity and wounded that no one showed concern.

Lifting my bike out of the mud, I considered turning back. I couldn’t be seen like this, least of all in the calm neat interior of the bank. I hurt; my knee stung, my hip ached, my shoulder, the bad one, felt again twisted and wrenched. I wanted to slink home to safety, to comfort, dry clothes and a hot drink.

But I also wanted to go to yoga class that night, my first in Salzburg, and I needed money for the class fee. Our cash cards hadn’t arrived yet, so the only way to get it was from the teller. People must fall off their bikes all the time and carry on with their business. I would go on.

Shaking, I mounted the bike and peddled the few metres to the steep path up the embankment. I dismounted and pushed it up the hill to the busy thoroughfare and then peddled in the direction of the bank. This meant crossing a busy two-lane roundabout bringing traffic on and off a motorway that passes below. Soon the footpath had disappeared, and I was squeezing myself and the bike into the narrowest space possible between a weedy verge and the path of traffic. I dismounted again. Cars and trucks streamed along too fast for me see them coming around the curves.

The world seemed grey, hazy, out of focus. I hesitated, transfixed, at road’s edge, pushing the bike cautiously over the kerb, then pulling back as another car raced toward me. Finally the driver of a long-haul lorry paused, flashing his lights, and I hurried with the bike across the lanes and crossed the centre of the roundabout. On the far side, traffic was less thick, and I crossed again, then the last motor way exit, and I was at last on the footpath, safe on the other side, feeling relieved and very naïve.

I steadied my hat on my head and started pedalling down the footpath, which sloped away from the elevated roundabout. Seeing the bank ahead, I pedalled fast, wanting my stress to be over.

A gust of wind. My hat blew off. I pulled the brakes tight, dismounted and let the bike drop. My favourite hat, the motorway exit, the speeding cars. Don’t let it be blown onto the road. Don’t let it fly out of my reach.

I got the hat and, clutching it in my right hand as I held the handlebars, peddled along the footpath. Flying by a sign, I recognised among the string of words a single one, Fahrrader, and an arrow pointing to the street. So, I surmised, you’re not supposed to ride the bike on the sidewalk? People do it all the time.

I was still shaking. How do people manage, in this bicycle-friendly city, where everyone, including staid-looking women much older than myself and men bent and white haired, seems to pedal themselves routinely? There are bike racks everywhere. There are bike paths and signs pointing to mixed bicycle and pedestrian use. So how does one negotiate this stretch?

Entering the cool grey space of the bank, I brushed the hair from my face. It was bare.

‘My glasses. I’ve lost my glasses.’ In a panic, I spoke out loud.

Immediately in front of me was the bank manager, half turned saying goodbye to one of tellers, briefcase in hand, on his way out. He stared, mouth open. Mud-splattered, dazed, shaking and now babbling non sequiturs, I must have shocked him.

‘I fell off my bike.’

He recovered his equanimity before I did. Welcoming me, he asked if I were all right before introducing me to the teller and saying goodbye. The teller, a young man with very good English, got me some tissues and I swiped at the mud on my cheeks, forehead and hands. Black grit sifted over the counter in front of me as he handled my transaction and retrieved our new bank cards from the back. He asked me to sign the back of my card and some papers, which I did, unable to focus, the last letters of my name sprawling beyond the blanks.

His calm helped me recover my own. I began to relax, my breath slowed, and I felt once again the solidity of my body, its uprightness and strength. Self-consciously, I made small jokes, as if to demonstrate that, no, I’m not a crazy woman, and yes, I’m recovering my senses. He asked where I’d fallen, and I tried to picture the muddy patch of grass, near a tiny canal, thinking my glasses would most likely be there. They are my only pair other than reading glasses, and the thought of quickly replacing them was daunting.

Business finished, I was calmer now. I had at least made sense of my disorientation, that vague vertigo that comes of not seeing clearly. I mounted the bike and pedalled off. Ahead of me I spotted what I had missed before. There is a path that takes cyclists and pedestrians safely past the roundabout, as I should have known there would be. I followed it through a maze of tunnels under the interchanges above, eventually finding my way to where I had fallen. I retrieved my glasses, muddy but unbroken, and, before going home, went on to complete my other errands.

It was after nine that evening when I got off the bus after yoga and walked the six-and-a-half minutes back to the flat. My husband had dinner waiting, and he sat with me while I told him about the day. It had taken only 30 minutes to get to class, but the return trip meant waiting 15 minutes at each of two stops, stretching the trip home to an hour. The class was demanding physically. It had been a long time since I had practiced the sequence that moves from downward dog to plank and chaturanga to upward dog and back to downward dog. It takes great stamina to hold one’s upper weight on outstretched arms through the entire sequence, and the instructor had had us do it over and over without pause. My hands, arms and chest muscles burned with the effort, and my left shoulder and hip ached from the fall. I was exhausted.

As I ate, I described how the instructor had introduced me, explaining that I don’t speak German. She would, she told the rest of the class, try to give me brief instructions in English as she directed them in German. Naturally, I hadn’t understood what she was saying, but she had told me before class this was her intention. But the other class members suggested that she simply go forward in English alone. It would give them a chance to refresh their skills. So she did. Impromptu and for my benefit, she gave the entire class in English. She stopped a few minutes along to see if anyone had a problem with this, and not one in the group of about 40 objected.

‘So,’ asked Himself. ‘How did it feel to be the least educated person in the room?’

Stupid. It made me feel very stupid.

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