Photo: Untitled, Michael Howarth
There is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labour. The gods had condemned Albus to ceaselessly ride his bike to the top of the hill. Opinions will differ as to the futility of his labour. Some will view it as an opportunity rather than a misfortune, others will disagree that riding one’s bike even amounts to labour. “Albus is a happy mobile app user,” they’ll say. Imagination always breathes life into myths.
You may have already grasped that Albus is an absurd hero. He brings burgers and fries to people, he rides everywhere — which surely displays a true ecological consciousness — and his passion for life has won him the unspeakable penalty by which his existence is exerted towards accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for living on this earth.
As for this myth, one sees merely the whole effort of a body straining to raise the bike, to roll it and push it up a slope a hundred times over, one sees the face, red and covered in sweat, the shoulders pushing on the handlebar of the metallic mass, the foot wedging the pedals, the fresh start with arms stretched out, the wholly human security of two black grip-covered hands.
At the very end of his long effort, the purpose is achieved. Mr Harrison is in possession of his Chinese take-way. Albus then rides down the hill in a moment, back to the underworld — before starting his gruelling ascent to the summit all over again.
Fuck. I got up for another day of it. I grabbed a Red Bull from the fridge and shoved my bike out the front door. It always leaves a black stain on the wall as I try to push it through. But the bike has to sleep inside. I can’t afford losing it again.
I get out on the main street and carefully place the bike between my legs. I start pushing the pedals, one after the other. Left, push, right, push, left push, right push. I adjust the gears to the maximum. I prefer getting used to pushing harder to fooling myself into thinking it’s easy.
My body is aching, but I know the pain wears off after a while. Or, maybe other things start hurting and I stop focusing on the soreness of my calves.
I see that man going back with a heavy yet measured rhythm toward the torment of which he will never know the end.
I work six evenings a week, 6pm till 1am. I earn 9.50 an hour, which ain’t bad. I manage about three deliveries an hour, except when those dickheads up the hill order food. I don’t get it. It’s like they don’t give a shit. Or, they think I have an electric bike or a scooter. But I don’t.
To deliver hot meals to people’s homes, I’d initially invested in my very own racing bike. It was a second-hand one. It cost me seventy quid. I wanted to be good on the job, you know. I wanted to impress my bosses even though I wasn’t really sure who they were. I wanted to get a bonus for being the fastest rider in town. I had drive and ambition.
But to connect to the app for riders and navigate the streets, I had to get a smartphone. I got a package including a decent internet connection — allegedly. That thing slows me down. It takes a while to accept orders and I haven’t had very good stats because of the crap internet. I always get connection problems.
Albus has outwitted death on multiple occasions.
I recently had an accident. A lorry turned left without looking. The back wheel of my bike got caught by his big-ass front wheel. I fell over onto the pavement and the lorry rolled over my bike. It drove off. Maybe he didn’t have insurance, I don’t know. It’s kinda the wild-west on the streets.
I had to get a shittier bike. I couldn’t afford a racing one anymore. And for sure, I didn’t have any insurance. I didn’t have any for my bike, not even for my order. I had no insurance covering my injuries from the fall.
In fact, I remember finishing my order on foot before checking the state of myself. My boss told me I was too late. I didn’t get paid for that order. It was a salad so it didn’t really matter, the food wasn’t going to get cold. It wasn’t pizza or anything. I don’t get people. They’ll complain about anything to get stuff for free. Except someone else has to pick up the bill at the end of the day. Nothing comes for free.
Albus is no longer bound by the hope of a better future or eternity and he has gained freedom in a very concrete sense.
I ride everywhere.
But the fear that haunts me most as a rider isn’t the accidents, the death. Nah, it’s the idea that, at the end of the day, some asshole will ask me to deliver his fries and burger up the hill.
There’s a perfectly good Italian up the hill, but no, Mr Lewis wants fucking McDonald’s from the underworld. Asshole.
See, I don’t want to ride back up that mountain. I earn my cash for each delivery, not per hour. My time isn’t valued in this line of work. And who’s gonna pay for all that wasted energy, for the strain of pushing that bike up the hill?
The bike feels like a heavy stone, a big bolder that Albus has to push up the hill, again and again and again.
Those techno-lizards of silicon valley thought it was a good idea. The customer needs sashimi — now. Ms Hawk needs a cappuccino — now. Never-mind that it fucking leaks in my bag. Mr Fraser can’t fucking eat his leftovers from the fridge. People in the towns think it’s okay to crave ice-cream in the middle of the night and get me, their personal delivery dude, to deliver some Ben and Jerry’s. It’s 1am, dickhead. You don’t need more sugar. Go to sleep.
I’ll push the pedals with my two feet, putting emphasis on one and then the other, one and then the other, one and then the other. My legs are aching from the last ride up that fucking mountain. You’d think my body gets used to it. But it’s not training or anything. My limbs are drained each time a little more. Until one day there’ll be nothing left of me. I’ll probably die riding, or die trying — something like that.
If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.
I fucking hate going up the hill. Once I get up there, Gina Thomas opens the door and smiles. She can see I’m fucking exhausted. She doesn’t care. I don’t even have a minute to catch my breath. I’m trying to bolster those stats of mine. Though Gina will always find a way to complain.“Review: two stars. He got there sweaty . . .”
“Two chicken tacos?” Gina nods. She’s wearing pink velvet sweatpants. I take my bright orange bag off my back and get the paper bag out. “Here you go, madam.” She grabs it with her beautifully manicured hands.
What I really mean to say is: Fuck you, Gina. Fuck you and all the people like you. If you want tacos, you should have thought about it earlier. Or driven down the hill yourself, with that Range Rover in your driveway. You don’t fucking need me to do this, not for two fucking tacos.
Albus, proletarian of the gods, powerless, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition. If the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy.
Even though I’m always pissed off when I ride back down, I know I’m free. I’ll rest my two feet on the pedals. I’ll stop pushing. I’ll lift my hands from the handlebar. The wind will blow in my hair. That’s right, I’m not even wearing a helmet. I’ve cheated death too many times. The sun has long set and it is dark. Only the street lamps light the long and winding road. At this stage, I don’t really give a shit if I hit one of those potholes.
This short story was originally published in Lit. 202 magazine (online+print) on 9 September 2022.