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On leaving the sanctuary of eternal neatness.
There was once a good man who had come to the end of the highway of life. He pulled into a lay-by, stilled the engine, and turned off the satnav. With a backward glance he walked away from what had been his cradle, his certain companion, his chariot of good works, his sanctuary of eternal neatness. He walked through mists and woods, ahead of him a silvery doorway. Vehicle access could have been better.
The foyer was vast. Light flashed like sunbursts from an immense candelabra, bouncing off the bald heads of a hundred black-suited clerks. The entire space, from reception desk to lift doors, teemed with travellers.
Here, indeed, was uncertainty and confusion. From a balcony a lady megaphoned travellers' names, directing each to a clerk at a table. Here and there a traveller jumped to his feet, waving his driving licence, complaining that he'd been waiting for weeks. Cyclists argued amongst themselves, before a noisy contingent complained at reception about the lack of cycle parking facilities. Scores of other travellers sat quietly to think, their patience well practised by years of waiting for buses and trains.
Our tired friend listened, anxiously, to conversations between clerks and travellers. Each clerk examined a ring binder lying open on the table, next to his cycle clips. Each page consisted of a list, and in the margins were calculations of gothic complexity. Questions were being asked.
"...Well, Mrs Reid, you have pointed out that you used your vehicle for your thirty years of community work in the inner city. The standard of your work was excellent. But before we can process your claim we would like to know why you continued to drive an enormous people mover causing twice the Co2 emissions of smaller cars available at the time. Our calculations show that we can allocate to you responsibility for an extra 2.67 needless asthma cases in your city..."
"...Let us summarise, Mr. Schitzler. Our monitoring shows that your youthful fascination for fast driving caused no accidents. We come, however, to the matter of the 19th November 1974, when you gave no more than five inches of passing space to a Mrs Rita Brown, aged 24, as she cycled down Barton High Street to pick her little one up from school. You don't recall the incident? Well, our records tell us that that was the last cycle ride of her long life, and that her child was never to be allowed to cycle to school. Mrs Brown was so alarmed that she bought a motor car for herself the following day, and her happiness was never to return..."
"...No, no Mrs Thomas. We understand. It was not your fault they closed the railway line through your village. You bought the least damaging car possible to keep in touch with your family and visit your sick mother. And we understand it was the only way you could keep your job. We know these things. I can tell you in confidence that the gentleman responsible for closing your rail link should be coming our way in a month or so. We currently have a special task force working on his case…"
"...I must say, Mr Chalmers, that yours is a very interesting case. On the face of it your impact on the environment was extremely low. You took the train to work each day, and cycled at weekends. You bought a house away from busy roads because you cared for the health and safety of your children. But you worked in an advertising agency, did you not? You may recall your work on a motor car advert in 1992 - the one in which the masterful motorist steers clear of the helpless, unpredictable cyclist. Shall I read to you what it said? No, please, Mr Chalmers, this is not an appropriate moment for tears..."
"...According to our calculations, Ms Grunfeld, your work as an international cycle campaigner caused an extra fifty-seven million kilometres to be travelled by bicycle. The environmental figures for the corresponding decrease in motor traffic have not yet been calculated. However, it seems that your campaign work took you on thirty-two transatlantic air flights: each being, in pollution terms, the equivalent of five years of average motoring..."
"...Sidney! How are you, old friend? Look, you can park your bike over there for now. Great suggestion about the bike parking, thanks. We'll get some security racks put in immediately. Listen, I've been experimenting with some new gear ratios, and wondered what you might think..."
The tired traveller felt a sudden dizziness, as the myriad of mirrors reflected infinity where-ever he looked, and the more he looked the more he understood: that the whole of life resided in that strange room. The traveller sat down for a while, by an open window. Then he rose to his feet, walked quietly back out through the door, and tasted the freshest air since childhood.
Through the silvery trees he could see that his car was no longer there. In its place a bicycle, shining white in the gathering dawn.
The Invisibility Machine