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Juan Luis Zabala Artetxe > Extracts

Narrative (short story and novel)

2003 | Berria

His bike is his girlfriend

It was not like Eddy Merckx's. It was not a racing bike, had no gears and its frame was not triangular, but more in the shape of a "u". Despite gasping for breath on the final slopes I managed to get up to Urrategi without stopping on that bike, but I used to be all right and very happy, just like Eddy Merckx on his memorable Mont Ventoux stage.

The cousin of the people who live under us in one of the fourth floor flats was spending the summer holidays with them at the time. Her name was Aintzane, she was from Elgoibar and was nine years old, two years younger than me. She was thin, had long hair and a special mischievous but gentle laugh. I could not get Aintzane out of my head, yet I could not pluck up the courage to speak to her.

One day as I was going up and down outside the main door of our block of flats on my bike as usual, Aintzane stood in front of me and said: "Bet you can't catch me!" with that delightful laugh of hers. I made a move as if to go after her and then turned to one side so as not to catch her. Aintzane's provocation made a shiver go all the way down my spine, but then I did not know what else I could do to approach her. Embarrassed and nervous I carried on cycling down to the neighbourhood further down. I think she wanted to be my friend, too, but I did not know how to approach her, and I was terrified that I would not know what to say or do in front of her.

In my daydreams I imagined myself talking to Aintzane about going all the way up to Urrategi. I was keen to offer her all my sporting achievements, but I did not know how.

The climb up to Urrategi starts from the door of the house where I was born, but in Azkoitia there are many mountain villages like Urrategi located at the end of a steep road. I would ride up them just as I rode up to Urrategi without taking my feet off the pedals: Kukuerri and Xuxula are easier than Urrategi, whereas Madariaga, Elosu and Martitte are steeper. But my stubbornness triumphed on them, too.

Even though I made progress in my dreams and in my feats on my bicycle, I was not successful in my attempts to be Aintzane's friend. Moreover, a group of boys from the neighbourhood next to us started hanging around the door of our block with the excuse of playing on the piles of planks, but I think they were really drawn by Aintzane.

Those boys were more skilful than I was in getting to know girls. They did all kinds of things to take the mickey out of Aintzane and Arantxa -Aintzane's cousin who lived under us on the fourth floor: the boys would take stones up to the piles of planks and would sometimes begin throwing stones from there; other times they would hide in a corner and give the girls a fright by suddenly coming out shouting and waving their arms. I do not know what the goings on between girls and boys are like now, but in those days they used to be like that.

All I could do was grip the handlebars of my bicycle tightly, as if the best way I had of approaching Aintzane was by confronting the tough ascents on my bicycle. I knew that this was not the most direct and effective means, but in a vague, imprecise, naive way I believed I was getting closer to Aintzane as I pedalled and pedalled my way, or at least that was what I wanted to believe, and I steadfastly carried on breaking records on my bicycle rides.

Elgoibar, Aintzane's town, is over the Azkarate mountain pass and down the other side. I had gone up to all the neighbourhoods of Azkoitia several times and I thought the moment had come to go a step further. But I was afraid of cycling all the way to Elgoibar. Getting there would not be difficult, because I had mastered Azkarate, but after going down from Azkarate to Elgoibar, would I be able to cycle up to Azkarate again? Might it not be too much?

I set out one sunny afternoon. I experienced a great feeling of excitement when I began the descent down to Elgoibar after reaching Azkarate. At that time Elgoibar seemed a very distant town. On my cycling trips I had got as far as Azpeitia, Zestoa, Zumaia and Urretxu-Zumarraga, but Elgoibar, unlike these towns, was another country, on the other side of the mountains that surround Azkoitia. Elgoibar was another world. And it was Aintzane's town!

It is a hard climb from Elgoibar to the top of Azkarate and I found the last few kilometres very hard going, but I doggedly managed to cycle up without putting my feet on the ground. I cycled back down from Azkarate to Azkoitia full of joy that I had managed to get to Elgoibar on my own.

The following day, egged on by my achievement, I plucked up the courage to stop in front of Aintzane and speak to her because, unlike on the other occasions, I thought I had something to tell her.

-Do you know how far I got on my bike yesterday?

-On your bike? How far?

-All the way to your town, Elgoibar.

-Who told you that? -she replied with her usual, delightful laughter-. I'm from Markina and anyway I don't like Elgoibar one bit. I only go to school there.

I did not know what to say, but I did not need to say anything, because the boys from the neighbourhood next to mine put a stop to the conversation.

-Well, well, Aintzane's got a boyfriend -said one of the boys laughing.

-A racing boyfriend! -added another.

I went away upset. When I looked back, I saw the boys from the neighbourhood nearby talking to Aintzane and Arantxa. Through the stones and frights, they seemed to have arrived at a more peaceful friendship.

I had been to Elgoibar with my parents, but I had no idea even where Markina was. I bought a map. The map showed me that to get from Elgoibar to Markina you had to cross another mountain pass: San Migel; and the round trip from Azkoitia to Markina was about 48 km, so it was like going from Azkoitia to Elgoibar and back twice.

I was afraid as I started going up to San Migel, but luckily the slopes were easier than I had expected. Moreover, when I got to the top there was a large green road sign telling me that I was entering Bizkaia. Even though seeing the sky getting blacker and blacker sowed doubts in my mind, I thought I could not give up when I was so close to Aintzane's town, and so I cycled on. Very worried but filled with excitement I cycled down to Markina. Everything was new, everything was a mystery, I had no idea what I would come across after the next bend. When I got to Markina I was 24 km from home, very tired by that time and worried about the increasingly threatening clouds. Since then I have been in Paris, Berlin, Xauen, Lima and many other places, but I do not think I have ever felt so far from home as that day when I arrived in Markina, nor will I ever feel so far away again, no matter where I may go.

It began to rain before I got to San Migel. I worked the pedals with no other dream but that of getting home as the drips of rain running down my cheeks mixed with my tears. I cycled down from San Migel to Elgoibar afraid I might skid, and then the road up from Elgoibar to Azkarate was so tiring it seemed unending. I was exhausted and frozen by the time I got home shaking. My mother gave me a severe telling-off ("You must be mad!"), but I did not tell her how far I had gone.

The next day I had no opportunity to tell Aintzane about my achievement, because she had gone back to Markina with her family, according to Arantxa. The boys from the next neighbourhood did not hang around the door to our block any more. Arantxa did not have long hair like Aintzane; and, apart from anything else, Arantxa was not from another town.

One day that same week in much better weather I did the trip to Markina again encouraged by the naive hope that I might see Aintzane.

As I cycled up to San Migel from Elgoibar, I remembered a story we had read the previous year at school. In the story the devil promises a farmer that if he starts running from the place he is standing, all the lands he walks on will be for him. The farmer runs and runs and after crossing huge swathes of land he returns to where he started out, exhausted, ready to drop and close to death. Before he dies, the devil shows him a little hole dug in the ground and says: "This is all the land you need".

Like the farmer in the story, I, too, felt I was taking full possession of all the places I passed on my bike: bits of road, junctions, milestones and signs, farms beside the roads and further away, vegetable gardens, pine forests, apple orchards, cherry trees, meadows, river valleys and hills. But unlike the farmer in the story, I was able to control my body and managed to get home safe and sound with the help of my faithful bicycle.

I did not see Aintzane in Markina then, nor the days after that, either. Stuck to the saddle of my bicycle, I continued to cycle to towns close by and not so close by: I took possession of Eibar, Deba, Zarautz, Andoain, Tolosa, Beasain and Arrasate and all the villages large and small close to them, mountain passes and river valleys, forests and meadows, roads and everywhere, which even today, I feel I truly own, just as I did Markina.

I did not see Aintzane again, neither that summer nor afterwards.

Once when a group of friends and I were talking about girls, a friend asked me whether I had a girlfriend. Embarrassed, I was at a loss for words, but I did not need to say anything.

-That guy's bike is his girlfriend -piped up another friend.
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