Today I cycled along the canal, which is neither a cycle path nor a footpath but a Resentment Path: one where both types of traffic are permitted but each feels the other is rather overstepping its bounds. Pedestrians resent the bike’s speed, its hard metal frame, and act like making way for it is a much bigger imposition than yielding to a jogger of equal pace and width. Cyclists resent the habit of pedestrians to expand – like a gas – to fill whatever sized vessel they find themselves in. In this way two people can entirely block a four-person-wide path, and even when they grudgingly accept the need to compress to allow something to pass, will immediately re-expand thereafter, maximising the number of times this huffy dance is necessary.
Ahead of me were two cyclists: an old lady in pole position, and a young man between she and I. I was looking for a chance to overtake them both, but even at their glacial pace they would close the gap between us and some still-slower pedestrians before I could safely squeeze past. Instead they weaved slowly and silently between three different walkers in turn, each oblivious until they were passed, and got stuck behind the fourth. This man, of normal build, was somehow consuming the entire width of the path, and neither cyclist seemed willing to do anything to alert him to their presence.
This was a dilemma. At this distance I’d normally ding the inappropriately quaint bell on my otherwise rugged mountain bike, but doing so as the third unit in a barely-moving serpentine platoon of bikes seemed somehow impolite. If neither the leader of our mismatched pack nor her XO had elected to bell, belling without authorisation seemed to break the implied chain of command, to defy the rules of engagement established by our commanding officer: old lady.
Eventually General Old Lady entered Quiet Voice Range of the target and let rip: “Excuse me!”
The man’s reaction was immediate, extreme and entirely common in this predicament. His complete surprise that a bicycle – the single most hazardous, spike-bristled war juggernaut in a pedestrian’s fleshy world – could have crept so close without his knowledge translated into a sort of primal fight-or-flight response, and he leapt out of the way of this 2mph pensioner as if she were a freight train. Immediately embarrassed by his overreaction but determined to find an external blame-receptacle, he returned fire:
“You wanna get a bell!”
I think we all knew this could get ugly. “Excuse me” was already testing the boundaries of the fragile peace treaty privileged Britons tacitly sign by avoiding interacting with each other wherever possible. But this man’s suggestion shattered it utterly, by indirectly suggesting anyone else’s behaviour was less than perfect. It could go anywhere from here: knives, drowning, offish silence.
“Oh, I have a bell.” Holy shit. This was true, actually.
“You wanna use it then!” Oh my God. Direct behaviour critique. Is the fabric of our society even salvageable? Old Lady would have to come back with something extraordinary.
“I always think it’s rude to use it!” she said, brightly.
One by one we glode wordlessly by the stunned man, and on into the strange new world we had forged.