I don’t think of myself as an envious person. And I wouldn’t say I was too proud, although I admit that I am sometimes greedy, but recent events have made me not so sure of this.
My local library had just reopened for browsing and I was very excited. This was something I used to do a lot before COVID-19 wrought havoc on our lives and closed all the libraries. It was time to go to the library again and it was time to ride my bike to get there. That was not something that I used to do a lot but if we’ve learnt anything from this pandemic, it’s that we need to grab opportunities when we can.
So, I got on my bike and began to peddle. I took the bike path that leads away from the ridge where I live and down into what used to be swamp and is now Green Square. As I pedalled, I felt the wind through my hair and a level of freedom that I hadn’t experienced in months. I should do this every day, I thought to myself, as I smelt spring in the air, heard the birds tweeting in the trees, and rode past cute puppies frolicking in the park.
At the library, I flashed the big green tick from my QR code check in at the friendly staff and breathed a huge sigh of satisfaction as, after almost eight months, I was in a library again. I was extra excited because usually at this branch of the library you can’t actually browse, and only occasionally is this due to a global pandemic endangering our lives. The library is configured so that people sitting at tables, or in comfy arm chairs with their lap tops, are also sitting in front of the books. It’s obviously a new design aesthetic where the books are just wall paper for the real business of a library, which happens online. But on this visit, there was no one there. Only browsers of books. That is, only people who want to read books. That is, only me. In ecstasy I browsed for my full thirty-minute allocation of time. That’s three minutes per book, I calculated as I borrowed my ten books. The maximum allowed.
I was very pleased with the variety of books I’d chosen, from intellectually taxing to light reading. One of these, Dante’s Divine Comedy, I had never had the courage to attempt. But if living through a pandemic teaches you anything it’s to face your fears, or at least admit them. This long narrative poem describes Dante’s travels through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise as his soul battles with divine justice. I was sure that it would make riveting reading through the long nights of the Pando that still lay ahead.
With a big smile for the staff and a big bag for the books, I exited the library and made my way back to my … bike. Ah yes. That’s when I remembered that I’d ridden a bike, not a lorry, to the library. Luckily my bike has a basket at the front and a cute little luggage carrier at the back. The luggage carrier comes complete with an oci strap. In the 70s and 80s octopus straps were very popular with fathers for loading car rooves. Today they are most often used by library nerds on bikes. After securing my books, some of which went into my back pack, which was secured onto my back which was secured onto the bike, I was off.
I rode smoothly around the pedestrians exiting from Green Square station. A few months ago, this would have been more difficult and involved dodging around about 500 people. Today it was easy to avoid the one person that straggled out of the station. As I said to myself earlier, when I could actually see the books in the library for a change, the pandemic takes and the pandemic gives. I then negotiated the traffic on O’Riordan Street, the hyper busy main arterial road south from the CBD to the airport. This was tricky. The pandemic has given us nothing here. I had to wait for someone to come along and push the traffic light pedestrian crossing button so that my lights would turn green. I wasn’t going to touch that button. After all we don’t have a vaccine yet. I utilised my time however, imagining cute accessories that I could strap onto my bike which could be used to push buttons at traffic lights.
Finally, someone came along and after waiting for a while, then giving me what could have been an exasperated look, pushed the button. I noted approvingly that they used their elbow. The light turned green and we were off. I was keen to get back onto the bike path and experience the wind through my hair and hear the birds again as I whizzed by, and glimpse cute puppies. The first kilometre was a breeze and I had just begun to ease into the experience and imagine myself riding to new and amazing places across Sydney, never walking again, when unexpectedly my bike began to slow down. I had to push twice as hard on the peddles to keep up the momentum, then three times as hard, then… Was my tire flat? Had I accidently upshifted the gears to high? I tried to check while maintaining forward momentum. No. All was as it should be. But looking up again, all I could see ahead of me now was a long steep slope and in the far distance, barely visible, a distant peak. My destination. How had the terrain changed so dramatically in the half hour I’d been in the library?
I noticed that the temperature had also changed. What had been a mild spring day was now a hot and sticky afternoon. What had been my forehead was now a waterfall of sweat and what had been a pretty dress was now a wet rag. With no other choice but to push on, each circle of the pedals roughly equivalent to one of Dante’s nine rings of hell, except my circles were infinite in number, I grunted and puffed my way up the hill. It dawned on me that perhaps this was my personal inferno, my punishment for vile sins committed. The sin of pride in myself and my bike as I’d swooped down the hill earlier. The sin of greed as I’d hogged the library aisles to myself, glad that the pandemic had disrupted its use for others. The sin of gluttony as I loaded book after book into the borrowing machine, and cake after cake into my stomach earlier on in the pandemic. And the sin of sloth that had kept me off my bike ever since I’d bought it.
Then suddenly these concentric circles of torment tightened again. I looked down upon hearing a snarl and feeling the vibration of slobbering jaws close to my ankle. One of the puppies that had been so cute on the way down the hill, now resembling a fully grown German Shepherd, was snapping at my heels with all the inbred hatred of anything on wheels that is built into the DNA of all dogs. Simultaneously several of the birds that had entertained me earlier with their sweet songs now took the opportunity to swoop past, beaks snapping, only centimetres from my right ear. It seemed as if all my extremities were under attack. But at least they weren’t the swarms of wasps and hornets that had apparently attacked Dante in the vestibule of hell. I considered offloading some of the books to lighten my load but that would not endear me to the divine powers that were obviously watching this all too human comedy. And besides, stopping would only advantage the beasts that were hell bent on chasing me. So, I pushed on, determined not to concede, and slowly climbed the mountain that I had earlier foolishly written off as merely a hill. Behind me, as if from the tomb of Lucifer himself I continued to hear the wild howls of the slavering hoards.
Finally, I arrived home. I remember little of the rest of the journey. Only relief. After unloading my two-wheel vehicle, incapable of coherent thought or movement, I simply lay on my bed. I was close to catatonic but also happy that I hadn’t stopped, or collapsed or worst still, fainted. Still riding on the wings of that victory, or perhaps unable to relax because of the adrenalin still pumping through my body, I decided to pursue my next challenge. I opened Dante’s Divine Comedy and began to read. I was so tired that rather than start at the beginning I opened a page randomly. After all, it was a poem, what difference could it make. It turns out a lot. Not because it didn’t make any sense but because I had randomly chosen a section that proved to me that I’d just bested a famous Italian poet. No, not in the literary stakes but where it counts, in the real world.
When Dante and his companion, Virgil, reach the River Acheron which they must cross by ferry to reach Hell proper, he doesn’t describe the ferry ride. That’s because by that stage he’d fainted. He may have written the Divine Comedy, the pre-eminent work in Italian literature and one of the greatest works of world literature but he couldn’t finish the ride. Feeling enormous pride in myself, I fell asleep, the Divine Comedy gently slipping from my fingers.
Images: All but the first, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.