10. Tears for Wojtek

So, this is a rather sad entry, and it is less about cycling and more about the loss of my friend, but its an entry that I would like to put down in words.

This was also my last big(ish) ride for a while. I did this ride in May of last year (2018), so I am one year (save for a day) overdue in writing it up. London-Wales-London took a toll on me, but I think I am just about ready to start riding seriously again, so this needs documenting first.

It’s difficult to know where to start: to explain my loss; the loss to many; the loss to the world, of such a talented, clever, articulate, interesting, empathetic and entertaining person? I suppose I could try.

I met Wojtek when I worked for a well known London University, he was doing a PhD there and I can’t remember why he ever came to see me, but see me he did. We got on immediately, he was gregarious, funny, and full of life. I had never really met anybody like him. He was one of those people that observed others, in detail, and often with hilarious results. “Look at him, over there, with his sensible Millet’s jacket – I bet he’s a good laugh to go for a drink with”, he once said while we were sat outside one of the Uni’s bars, drinking. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Wojtek was a bit cruel, but you’d have to had known him really – he was such a kind man, but he definitely had a bit of a mischevious side, and it was this side of him where we found many, many laughs.

Wojtek was a great impressionist, he used to take off his academic supervisor to a tee. When I first saw this impersonation, I couldn’t believe how Wojtek had captured mannerisms that I had only noticed because he had highlighted them himself; “That’s just what he does!”, I exclaimed, holding my belly and laughing hard.

He was fun, but he also had a serious side, as we all do. A long time passed since we met in the late 1990’s, Wojtek completed his PhD, went to work in America and witnessed first-hand the World Trade Centre attack, returned home a different man and never spoke of the event save for a very short synopsis when we were together and drinking one night. I didn’t press him; we knew each other very well, and I knew him well enough not to press him on most matters that were personal to him. That said, I also knew when I could press him on something personal, when he wanted me to make him open up a little, but the WTC attack was not one of those things.

Wojtek came along to my wedding, and he danced with a girl that he never forgot and never saw again, though we both often reminisced about the event. There was always a glint in his eye and a certain smile when we talked about it. “Yeah, Mandy, he’d say emphasising her name and rolling his eyes in a sort of “what an experience that was”, kind of way. I was delighted to have him at my wedding day, I wanted him to share that day.

Life moved on, I had kids, my life grew more complicated than I could ever have imagined, and for reasons that I will not go into here. But Wojtek was always there, he also experienced loss, and hard emotional times before and after that loss, again, not something that I will go into here, but he never lost his sense of humour and neither did I. It’s important to keep your sense of humour, you know?

As these complications and difficulties affected us both, we leaned on each other, I leant on him and he leant on me, but I think that I leant on him more. We supported each other, and we still laughed whenever we spoke. He moved farther away from me, so we would phone each other; sometimes infrequently, sometimes a lot – there was nothing to prove for two good friends, no games to play – we got in touch when we could. Topics most under discussion were: problems, cycling, motorcycling, and he would often chat about his headwind-cursed rides around the fens of Cambridgeshire.

Now and then he would visit, my daughter loved it when he came to visit, she’d sit on his lap sometimes and he always had her laughing along like the rest of us. I was proud that he was my friend, to see him with my daughter, to see how he cared, to see the love he had for her, it was in his eyes and it was in her eyes too; written in every expression. It really is something when two things that you love very much, also love each other.

She’d have her face upturned to his, hanging on his every word, invariably waiting for that moment, for the punchline, when she’d almost fall off his lap laughing. They were good friends, too, I suppose.

On my last phone call with Wojtek, he told me he was going away on business for a month. Five weeks passed and I phoned him but there was no reply, so I thought I’d phone back. To cut a long story short, subsequent messages were not replied to: voicemail, email, text messages. It was not like Wojtek; something was wrong.

In the end, I phoned the police, which, had my friend been okay, he would have hated me doing, he’d have hated the fuss – I was sure there was something wrong though. So I made the decision. It wasn’t pleasant, the advice I was given was to “… go and check on him yourself, he’s your friend…” or “… where is he from? Maybe he’s just gone home…” “He’s a bloody Londoner”, I said, losing patience – but I eventually got transferred to somebody with a bit of empathy. She took my details, the story, and reassured me. I waited for a call.

After some time his cousin phoned me, out of the blue and via information passed onto her by the police, to tell me the bad news. I cried a bit on the phone, my daughter heard me, we were the only ones in the house. We hugged, she cried and I wanted to break down, I wanted to sob but I also wanted to stay strong for my daughter. I would shed my tears another time. I suppose numbness set in for a while and my tears were not ready, or there were people about, but I knew my time would come, my time to tell him I missed him, my time to say goodbye.

And soon after came a bike ride that would take me close to Ely, Cambridgeshire, where Wojtek had lived. A cyclist himself, he would often share tales of the flat and blustery fens around which he had cycled many times. I plotted my route and added a reminder to flash up on the ELEMNT when I drew level with his house, just 2 km east of where I was planning my route.

So, the journey was planned from Essex to Norfolk, but I got up late and decided to knock 50km or so off by driving to Cambridge and starting from there, so it would be looking like around the 100km mark. I was off to see my Dad, who I hadn’t seen for around sixteen years, but that’s another story, perhaps for another day – there’s been enough emotion already for one blog entry, no?

I would spend some time at my Dad’s and the do the return trip and then jump in the car for the last 50km or so. Who knows what he was to make of me turning up at his house after all those years, dressed in lycra and with 100km in the bag… So, I parked up in Ickleton, about 18 km south of Cambridge, faffed about, got on the bike and headed north. This was my first reasonable distance ride since LWL18 and I was still being very careful with my feet after ruining them with about 80km out of the saddle at the end of that ride. But I had been off the bike long enough and I was longing for adventure – even a little one.

50 odd km later and just after passing the sign for Ely, the ELEMNT flagged up my reminder that I was east of my friend’s house. Simultaneously, a recording of my daughter singing “Wings”, by Birdy, cued itself up as the next song through my headphones, and there it was, my moment to grieve, and then came the blubbering and the tears and the apologies for all the ways I might have failed my friend, with the dull thudding feeling that I had never even got to say goodbye at his funeral.

All this at a time when I was on my bike, in the sunshine, in the fens, where I had promised us both we would one day ride together. There is a moral to that story for all of you; make sure you water the plant while its alive.

The wind took all of my tears and atomised my love for my friend across the fens. I had a long chat with Wojtek, telling him all of the things that most men should tell each other, but rarely do. That said, I think Wojtek always knew how important he was to me.

He was never far from my thoughts as I carried on the journey north to see my Dad, another emotional rollercoaster to come, I thought, as I made my way alongside The Ouse for another 15km or so, parting company on the A10, just south of Southery – that’s right, I was south of Southery 😉

At Denver, I turned north east to complete the final 30 odd km of the journey, passing through Narborough and skirting south of West Acre and on to my final destination.

Not to go into too much detail but the reunion was a bit awkward to start with, as was to be expected after so many years estranged and then one day some spandexed weirdo turns up on your doorstep after cycling a distance that most people would complain about driving. But things soon turned around and tensions eased. My Dad’s partner had put on a good spread of food and there was plenty of bottled beer that I could choose from. I stayed too long and didn’t set off back to Ickleton until about 8.30pm, the time had flown by.

The wind had dropped on the way back and I enjoyed the ride into the night. There’s something special about night riding, the coolness, the quietness, the lack of motor vehicles, and the fens took on a magic all of their own in the eerie darkness.

At one point I reached a tunnel, and as I stopped for a quick photo, I was dead certain that I could make out a figure at the end, stood quietly, observing me. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up but I knew that this figure must have seen me, so backing down was not an option. It was gone midnight, I was alone, but I had to move on, so I did.

Not so easy to see in the picture, but it was there. As I neared the end of the tunnel, the mysterious figure morphed into a harmless bollard, no doubt put there to slow down speeding cyclists. Tonight, it had worked very well! I breathed a sigh of relief on seeing my diminutive, inanimate adversary though!

The rest of the journey went on without issue as I closed in on Ickleton and then, after loading the bike up, fell asleep in my car. I woke some time later and headed home, the night fading as daylight began to creep in.

Good night and sleep peacefully, my friend. Never forgotten. x

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