The Bike and Other Stories
Cycling adventures around London, New York City, and Berlin.
Geoffrey Armes
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Geoffrey Armes - 2020-07-17 23:17:11+02:00

11/11 is the appropriate day to visit the Commonwealth War Graves Berlin 1939-45 War Cemetery. Rain, wind, darkness, an occasional shaft of sunlight. Sadness at the stupidity of young lives eliminated before they'd even really started the journey. Just long enough to make mistakes, probably not long enough to start putting them right. Anger that there are still plenty who'd willingly send them out again. Afterwards, I turned the bike towards Grunewald, pedalled furiously down the Havelchaussee, destroyed the hill. Deeply grateful to be able to ride these roads. To live. Bike needs cleaning.

Rain soon scudded across my back, or was it clouds, between sharp slashes of watery sun. The weather angels had mixed messages. The intention though vague, was strong enough within: I was going to the Friedhof for Britischer Soldaten. I hardened myself but also weighed in that I could turn in a couple of blocks and create a circle home and be fine with that the weather held me back. Somehow it felt light enough for that moment to pass, and I consoled myself with the idea that if it was still shitty the S Bahnhof would suffice as a goal. By the time I was closer I was tougher: the Friedhof had to come first, whatever else. I could turn directly for home from there if needed, no need to get on the HavelChaussee and all that stuff. I turned north instead of south on the Krone, passing the quiet houses, no other cyclists until Heerstr when a chap surprised me from behind. Somehow he stayed around until the road that leads to Olympia Stadion. There he turned, and I wondered why he'd go up by the site of the 1933 Olympics today of all days. Maybe a short cut to home I had no idea of. Alone then I warmed to the task, legs rhythmic, mouth lolled open, thoughts stayed, waiting for arrival, travelling on alert instincts.

I'd first thought only to stand near the gate, astride the bike, maybe remove my helm and stay quiet for a while in respectful memory. As I'd done before. But the green slope in pulled and the light metal latch was easy under my gloved hand and I walked up, guiding the bike from the rear as one does, slowly entering the silence and the watching trees. Slowly something still entered me, even as I wandered and took pictures and wondered about those men and boys who lay there, some four thousand of them, lives cut short, obliterated seemingly in service to a great cause, but also in thrall to the endless stupidity of humanity. For I was angry as I teared up in that aching loss, angry at the lost chances. It didn't matter if they would have turned as a bad lot or a good egg, either way, the issue was that they never had the chance to make that choice. Who was the executioner, who has the right to remove this life and this opportunity from us? Surely war is murder is suicide? Who are we to send anyone into the unknown like this?

I put the camera away, signed the visitors book, picked up the bike and heavily, furious through my tears retraced my steps to the road. I thrust the left pedal down, and a surge of energy shivered my body. I crashed the second stroke and the bike sprang as I sprinted to the Havelchaussee. Unexpected sunshine cut the trees and tarmac that still glistened as I sped down the descent into the forest roads and the hill we all call “Willy”, owing to the phallic tower that is a legacy of Imperial Prussia's days of Empire and celebration of Emperor Wilhelm first or second or third – it barely matters in the overall arc of history, and history's wars. Does it? The hill sank beneath me, slunk into the valleys and gullies either side, the ponds shivering as I passed. I calmed at the summit, panting a little, then pushed on for near another couple of hours, steady, vigorous, stable, at peace with myself and the road, deeply grateful for the privilege of being able to do so.