I’m biking and I’m biking and this could be anywhere: Audrey Hepburn’s Rome on a mint-bodied Bianchi, or mid-80s Minneapolis on a hot pink BMX, or the Capetown M48 on a drop-bar Momsen. I’m pedalling and I’m pedalling, working my legs to the limits and when I finally catch the truck, I carabiner on, kur-klunk!
‘If you’ve brought ice cream, I think I can make it through another day!’ her voice comes from inside the back of the truck. Although she can’t be seen, I know who she is. She is the novelist. She must be hungry. Novelists are always hungry.
‘Okay!’ I shout, banging the side of the truck. ‘Okay, yep! Ice cream! Keep writing!’
‘I’m on the last chapter but I’m going to have to rewrite Anton out of it completely!’
‘I never liked Anton anyway!’
‘Anton can go to hell, and Clarry. I’m cutting them both!’
‘You’ve got to do what feels right! Follow your instinct!’ I shout, because it’s something I’ve heard people say about writing, and I drum on the side of the truck for emphasis because all this cutting seems like a definite mistake. Her typewriter starts up, a syncopated shower that soon turns determined. Tiny things falling into place, perhaps. Good, she needs to get that word count up.
Today the petrol cap has not popped open and when I peer towards the front of the truck there’s only the sun getting lazy, oozing butter all over the road. ‘Hey!’ I shout, thumping the side of the truck, ‘Pop the cap!’ Nothing, so I unhitch my bike, stand up on the pedals, and pump my way towards the cab.
Between the melting sun and the tinted windows, I can’t see the driver at all; she’s just a suggestion of profile and a torso padded thick with clothes. She’s got some kind of head-covering on, and some kind of high cheekbones or is that just the determination on her face? One hundred percent she is there though. Driving this show. Sticking that stick-shift, going easy on the gas, knowing where to go and going there without stopping. She’s driving and she’s driving and she could have left anything behind for this: two kids and a guy with a good head on his shoulders, or a career with Médecins Sans Frontières, or a wad of friends as close as knitting who have looped into each other for absolute years.
Geez, I think, all this just to write a novel. Sweat slicks down my forehead.
The cab’s window rolls down, letting the dark quiet of the driver fly out. ‘The petrol cap’s not popped,’ I tell her, as if she didn’t know. Why did she break our routine? Maybe she was hungry, maybe she was faint with it, maybe she just couldn’t wait until after I’d poured in the petrol.
‘Kid,’ the driver holds up a disposable lighter and flicks it a couple of times. It sounds like an insect in the night.
‘Oh right,’ and from my basket I hand her a packet of smokes. ‘More driving today, eh,’ but the driver does not reply, only keeps eyeing the road ahead as she unwraps the cigarettes one-handed. She leaves the window down, in a friendly way, so I bike alongside, eyes watering in the smoke. Maybe sometimes she just feels forgotten.
‘Kid,’ she says again because it’s time to hand her the food. A plastic container, hot, which by its juices seems to involve meat. Then the window goes up and the sun is a ruined puddle at the bottom of the sky.
I take two seconds off pedalling and the back of the truck slides up beside me. The petrol cap pops open and after securing my bike, I start the smelly business of feeding the machine from the canister I have strapped to my back, glug-glug, glug-glug and the sound of the alphabet hitting the paper still comes from inside the truck, rat-pat, rat-pat rat-pat-pat. She’s typing and she’s typing and this could be anything: this could be the next Nigerian knock-out, or an Antipodean answer to Margaret Atwood, or a Latin American novella in verse.
Through the cat-flap that squeaks near the floor of the truck I push a flask of espresso, my load lightening, a tub of ice cream soft as flesh, and a copy of Vogue, which the novelist reads but only for the articles. The typing stops. A dull scrambling and through the cat-flap, ‘Thank you,’ she says, her face a moonrise from the depths.
I lean forward, the better to see her. ‘You need some sun,’ I say, ‘and some fresh air.’ My hair blows back from my sticky forehead.
‘Can’t,’ she explains around a mouthful of ice cream. ‘That’s the beauty of it. If I open the back of the truck, I’ll lose all my work.’
I imagine them, a flock of A4 sheets caught up and sailing out the back of the truck. They could get picked off by kids or wild animals, or they could be left to the road itself, which would only keep running them further and further away.
‘Sun’s overrated anyway,’ I suggest, watching it fail all over the road ahead.
‘Exactly,’ she says, craning her neck lower to study me through the cat-flap. ‘The sun can go to hell.’
I unhook my bike and the truck pulls away. The writer is gone behind the fluttering Vogue and the cat-flap complaining. On the back of the truck is the same old bumper sticker: This truck doesn’t stop until a novel pops out.
I ride behind for a minute, swooping and darting, a kite flying, a nylon bird on the loose. From deep inside the truck, the novelist starts up again.
‘It’s going to be an excellent book!’ I shout, and I’m puffing and I’m puffing. My legs are on fire.