The rhythmic hum of wings beating as birds fly overhead fills my ears. I can hear the sea breeze blowing up the valley, playing with the leaves on the trees. I can hear the pounding of the waves beneath me slowly eating away at the rock formations. I can hear the terrified screams of my friends echoing around the mountainside and I can see their tear-stained faces peering over the thirty foot vertical cliff.
I’m at the bottom of the cliff, I can’t speak and I can’t feel my body.
Thirty seconds ago I had been cycling with friends in the Cote d'Azur in France, climbing from turquoise blue sea to snow capped peak repeatedly to train my legs and lungs to be able to cope with the pain during race season. My cleanly shaven, white, freckled legs were becoming honed machines, pistons that fired without the slightest effort. My lungs were able to suck in and process liters of the thin mountain air with each gasp. I was feeling strong, pushing harder with thoughts of glory in the back of my mind.
Suddenly my super light carbon wheel clipped a rider in front, my best friend and arch enemy on the bike, Stephen Bell. If ever there was a man built for cycling it was Steve. Arched back, narrow piercing eyes, thighs like tree trunks and a competitive edge that could slice diamond. We had been rivals since my introduction to cycling with the dominance switching from one to the other as the years passed by. We had crossed the finish line with exactly the same time in our previous race and I was starting to feel the balance tipping in my favour again.
The contact flipped my bike throwing it to the right, towards the cliff edge. Catapulting me and the bike clear off the road, down the vertical face of the abyss.
I remember the fall in slow motion. The first moment as I left the road; the faintest smell or burning rubber; the floating sensation; making to grab a lone, straggly weed growing between the cracks in the limestone rocks, the sight of it coming free in my hand with only the tiniest amount of force; the sensation of falling forever. And then nothing.
There are more eyes looking down on me now, some I recognize some I don’t. The screams are still ringing in my ears. A single tear falls through the air, the sun reflects off the shimmering surface as it falls to earth like a tear from heaven. It lands on my left shoe which triggers a tingle in my big toe. Initially it just sits there in my toe as if wondering what to do next, contemplating it’s options, then the sensation spreads up my right leg and down the left. I can move my legs. It rushes up my spine, splits and zips down both my arms. My fingers are wiggling. With an almighty bang this sensation explodes in my brain and voice box. My mouth opens and I shout back at the onlookers.
“I THINK I’M ALIVE”
This is a story about love. It is also a true story. Our main character is a boy born in the Peak District amongst the bubbling Buxton springs. Nestled in a green and thriving valley he was born into a simple household where his cot lies. Two pairs of eyes look on him from above, one set blue the other hazel brown.
The eyes belong to his parents, two people who formed a bond and gave their genetic structure to our boy and then their lives. They struggled to afford to furnish their flat but lavished him with undivided love, attention and care. Albino blonde, spattered with freckles, ears that his head will eventually grow into, with his mothers blue eyes, and a strong jaw line adorned with a cheeky grin he lies quietly, like a bomb waiting to detonate.
Placing him in a backpack his Dad, an international athlete, would take him orienteering before he could walk. Running from point to point, through rivers, over fells, climbing rocks, how could our boy not pick up a bit of this adventurous spirit along the way? An attitude that no experience was a bad experience was shaped. His Mum found him drinking from the toilet bowl at the age of one, rather than tell him off she asked what it tasted like, whilst reassuring him that the water from the taps was nicer.
As soon as he could walk he would climb tables, leap off sofas, clamber into streams, chase frogs. He’d run up and down the almost vertical steps outside their house. When he was two years old his family finally had the money to see what was outside our tiny island, and they all went camping in France. On a ferry crossing a wise man in a dark overcoat with a fashionable moustache watched him run around, overexcited and without a care in the world and stated, “He’s like an accident waiting to happen.”
At four years old he undertook his first adventure on his bicycle. Having just removed his stabilizers he decided this was it; no more help. Having opened the front door he sat on the stairs that lead from the hallway. Mounted his bike; wobbling at first but then cheering wildly as he managed to stay on; gripping the handle bars so that his knuckles were as white as his legs were shaky. He passed the dressing table, the chest of drawers containing all the muddy shoes and maps, the coat stand whizzed by as he picked up speed, passing through the front door he didn’t want to stop and proceeded to cycle down the steep steps that ran up to it before flying over the handlebars.
The 'poorlies' on his knees and the lump on his head did nothing to deaden his adventurous spirit which was nurtured and allowed to grow with time. The scars that remained were treasured - he was the first boy in his class to ride a bike without stabilizes. He was back on in no time and he was fast. The fastest kid in the street. But he couldn’t turn corners and wasn’t much good at stopping.
When the family moved to a house just up the road from their flat a cycle workshop was created in the cellar where his Dad would use parts of wrecked old bicycles to fix his wrecked new bicycles.
When he was eleven during a junior school leavers assembly in front of all the Mums and Dads his headmistress asked his classmates what they wanted to do when they left school. Footballer, doctor, film star, politician they replied one by one. His answer was no surprise to the audience who had grown used to his quirky optimism and spirit, "I want to cycle round the world and raise money for charity". A big 'Ahhhhh' resounded around the school hall. “So sweet.”
Before he could start realizing dreams he had a few more lessons to learn.
He graduated and left Southampton University with the highest honours in tomfoolery, indulgent buffoonery and mathematics. Educational establishments having rapped him in cotton wool for the past fifteen years, protecting him from growing up, armed him with a solitary piece of paper rolled and tied with a ribbon, a degree certificate, and told him to get out there in the real world; find a job; build a life; start a pension; acquire life insurance; marriage; a family.
“What?” he remembers thinking, “I didn’t sign up for this.”
He was lost in the big ‘grownup’ world. Friend’s values and opinions changed over night, “about turns” were made but he didn’t hear the sergeant make the order. No one wanted to be silly any more. Trips to Toys R Us to check out the cool toys Geoffrey had released this month seemed to be over, cycling to work in the same clothes you went out in the previous night was deemed a no no, protesting against the violation of human rights was out the window, trying to outdo each other with bad taste outfits from the local Oxfam shop didn’t add to your street credentials anymore. It was all designer frocks, Chelsea tractors, mobiles, 2.4 children, second house in the country. Under friends arms he saw briefcases not surf boards, suits were the new shorts, consumerism was the new Marxism.
Lost, and disorientated, he was like a child ripped from its mother’s bosom and left in the heat of the savannah. Out there he was easy prey for the predators. Those that stop at nothing until you are between their jaws wringing the life from you. Financial institution after financial institution snapped, gulped and dived - he had to leap high to keep out of their reach. He did his best but was no match for their craftiness, their cunning. In the end his world became part of their world: the trading floor. He was told to ‘get up to speed fast’ so that they could start ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’. Moving at speed and singing were things he enjoyed; working in an office was not.
Without the slightest interest in what he was doing and without a single care for the money that was mounting up in his bank account he was promoted to supervisor and then manager. With his tie slung low, shirt untucked and blonde shaggy hair resting on his shoulders he would fly all over Europe telling people how they should perform, what his firm expected, the results which were fundamental to the business when it was clear to see that he wasn’t following his own advice.
Walking like a Zombie from bed to train to work and then back again. He was miserable, unhappy, his energy lost. His one release was his bike – taking it away on holiday and flying up and down mountains without a care in the world.
The boy in question is me, Daniel Bent. Not exceptional but not quintessentially normal either.
At that exact moment, as I was falling to what should have been certain death in the Alps, I was more alive than I’d been the past five years.
Instead of closing them for eternity, it opened my eyes. How could I have been given so much and not give something back? I didn't need to think of me - enough people were doing that already. I wanted to think of someone else, something else
Back in the office one week after my fall I packed my things into a small box, told my boss I wouldn’t be coming back and within another 24hrs was sitting in a classroom surrounded by happy smiling faces. I was taking my next pedal rotation on my journey through life….