I cycle the length of Romford Road nearly every day, newsagent-lined, paan-spit splattered, multicoloured, aroumatic thoroughfare that it is. But I have to come from Ilford, just East of London, a suburb that looks something like a low-key Paterson, New Jersey, complete 60s/70s era low rise tower blocks of offices filling the place with upright oblong shapes, and a moderately sized mall (or shopping center/re).
The most efficient way to enter onto Romford Road from Ilford is to first careen down a road called Mill Hill into a tunnel so narrow that space only allows for one car at a time and so dark that you never know what will meet you on the other side: the light still red, sedans and smart cars waiting in readiness or the oncoming grill of a BMW with which you are about to have a close encounter. Once safely through the tunnel, you ride up to a traffic light, beyond which you can either join the traffic and turn left back into Ilford, or pass one lane and turn right into what looks like a labyrinthine mess of wide pot-hole speckled concrete paths, one of them being an entrance ramp onto the A12 motorway. The trick is to go right, past two busy roads that allow cars into Ilford from the A12 and continue right onto the exhaust-fume-fogged Romford Road, safe in the knowledge that you are out of any danger of being criss-crossed by two trucks and a hatchback. It is a bit of a daunting spot.
So it’s no surprise to me that in waiting at that light, I first witness a cycling accident in London.
I wait at the light between Mill Hill and Romford Road, keenly observing the traffic when I see a bright yellow blur zoom past from left to right heading in the same direction in which I am about to go. I see the blur slow down near the entrance ramp, enough to recognize that he is in fact a very professional looking cyclist who seems to have just taken a detour from the Tour de France, complete with spandex and sponsors on his top, but through the cacophony of horns and engines, and the interlacing of Cadillacs and Puegots, I can only just about make out that he starts to sway, like a circus man balancing on a unicycle. Balance is not in his favour and he topples to the ground, just near enough to the A12 to be in the way of oncoming vehicles.
This is it, I think. Time to prove what a good Samaritan I am, what a good paid-up member of the brotherhood of cyclists I am. Tragic and sudden though it seems, I’ve been waiting the whole two months that I’ve owned my little urban fold-up to prove my mettle to other two-wheeling travelers.
The light turns and I speed round to the right, slowing down as I near my bicyclist brother-in-wheels. Alas, he’s surrounded by the time I get there by a whole village of seeming Samaritans, and so I say breathlessly, even as I’m slowing my bike in readiness to spring to action, ‘Has anyone called 999?!’
A bulky Eastern European man with a shaved head, turns to me with vague interest and gestures towards his bleached blonde wife, also standing by the side of the road and says, ‘She’s on the phone to emergency services now.’ Right. Good. Glad I’ve established that. I look around to take in the rest of the scene now that I’ve gained a closer position on the concrete island between the entrance ramp and Romford Road.
Our cyclist is sat on his bottom on the road, legs spread, elbows and knees scraped and bloody, otherwise looking not generally harmed, but dazed, periodically shaking his head in an effort to clear any disorientation. Hovering over him is a middle-aged Spanish woman, offering him his water bottle. Beside her are her curious son and daughter, looking on with unashamed amazement. About three feet to the side of them stands the father, squat, proletariat and noble, every once in a while asking the man if he is all right. I seem to be the last Samaritan at the scene, but it’s okay. I’m sure I can act as a witness.
The cyclist seems to shake his head free of any remaining wisps of confusion enough to look up into the Spanish man who is currently crouching down furrowing his brow. With a veritable international community of concerned citizens looking at him with utter sympathy, the cyclist says to the Spanish man, ‘You caused this!’ It takes a minute for anyone to register what the up-until-a-minute-ago-victim of the situation has just said, perhaps because the accusatory tone, more than anything else, shocks the air itself, but we all stand rigidly still, the wind from passing cars gently whooshing by. Cyclist continues, ‘That’s right. You were in the wrong fucking lane, mate. You caused this.’ Possibly through sheer awkwardness and an inability to articulate what any of us are feeling, or not feeling, I think we all turn the other way, unable to face the accuser. I also think I can see our collective sympathy leave us and rise up like a haze of smoke in the smog-filled air.
‘You shouldn’t have been turning there. You un-der-stand?’ he shouts, clearly convinced that this foreigner doesn’t and has obviously passed his driving test in a country with poor road safety standards, with all the patronizing bigoted vitriol of the a card carrying member of the British National Party. ‘You fucking caused all this!’ All of us begin to recover our senses.
‘You still want us to call emergency services?’ asks Eastern European Man.
‘Yeah,’ says the cyclist, ‘the police, on him.’ Blonde Eastern European lady stays on the phone looking a bit confused and helpless. Yellow-shirted cyclist sits resignedly, arms crossed, awaiting the local constabulary so that he can have the satisfaction of testifying to a middle-aged Spanish man crossing his path on a busy road in Ilford, having lost all the sympathy in one breath that he could ever generate for himself in one accident. The Spanish man blinks uncomprehendingly at his wife. I’m sure he understands English perfectly, but can’t understand what’s going on. I begin to look for an out, worried that I may really be asked to be a witness when, in truth, I only saw it distantly and could hardly make anything out when it happened and certainly didn’t see any motorists cutting any cyclists off.
‘You know,’ I begin to say to Eastern European Guy, who is still looking frustrated and confused at having now to call and wait for emergency services for the most ungrateful cyclist on the planet, ‘I only saw things from pretty far back. To be honest, I’d make a pretty poor witness.’
He shrugs. ‘Go ahead.’
‘You sure?’ I ask.
‘Sure. No problem.’
I look back towards the cyclist, now shaking his head and swearing under his breath, and I shake my head myself, thinking I am late for work, and that perhaps Good Samaritanism is over-rated.