A Cycle Courier’s Guide to Folding London: The Twitchells (Part One)

This is a guest post, of sorts. A written version of an interview with a good friend of PoL’s, presented with a narrative element, but in her voice as much as possible. She wishes to remain anonymous, so we will refer to her as H. H describes herself as a quasi cycle courier. New to the gig, she rides for a company that collects business visas in passports. It’s a job that mixes speeding through the city with a lot of hanging around waiting for embassies and consulates to process the visas. H is Czech born, zero-houred and of newly uncertain residential status. We’re grateful she found the time to talk to us about this fascinating candidate for the catalogue.

No-one’s going to tell you exactly how to find them. There’s an etiquette to follow. Besides, even if I laid it all out, doesn’t mean you would find them the same way. All I can do is tell you one way it might go.

It doesn’t have to start on a bike. Maybe it starts in a cafe. Let’s say Clerkenwell Road, 5pm on a Friday. Rush hour, but you’re not rushing because your last job of the day is a pickup from a company in the building next door and it won’t be ready til 5.30. Your dropsheet’s complete so you have won yourself a little sit down with a cup of tea, your phone nice and quiet in its strap pocket. From a stool in the window, you watch the peloton. London’s two-wheeled commuters are heading east and north. Young creatives on too-clean single speeds mix with overly lycra-d managers and the grey-suited Brompton guys. A few couriers weave in and out of the pack, dashing to make their final drops and get to the pub.

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You spot one, balancing on his self-build at the traffic lights. Something about the way his eyes are checking the other cyclists makes you keep watching him. He seems nervy, as if he’s expecting something to happen. Is he just sizing up the competition, eager for the rush-hour race? But instead of burning for the front when the lights turn green, he hangs back a little. Not until the pack gets ahead of him does he really put his feet to the pedals.

So that’s it. He wants a challenge. You watch him close down the peloton quickly. Then something happens which will come to change your world entirely. The courier is about a metre behind the last of the group – and right across the road from where you are sitting – when he vanishes. Completely. Like he was a sticker that someone removed from the world.

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Let’s say you sleep on that and in the morning put it down to a long week and too much caffeine.

But a month later you are heading south on Edgware road, nostrils full of shisha smoke and car fumes, when it happens again. This time you’ve been trailing a courier from Paddington, half-competitively, half because something about the way he’s navigating the city – cruising complex junctions, finding little cuts you didn’t know about – tells you you might learn something from him. You guess he’s heading for Marble Arch and you’re right. You’re watching him closely to see how he tackles it. But he never gets that far. He’s about half a block ahead of you when you see a movement, a wobble, an intentional shift towards the kerb. What is he thinking? He’ll be thrown from his bike. There’s a small tree on the pavement, he’ll buckle his wheel on that, or worse. A split second later the tree is there, but the courier is not.

You get off your bike, and stare at the empty space for a long time.

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The next couple of months are like a wonderful waking up. You start to see them everywhere. Couriers not just vanishing, but appearing out of nowhere on the street ahead of you. You see them so often you wonder how you never noticed it before. You ask other couriers about it, coming to recognise a certain response when you do. A little movement of the head. A smile, or it’s opposite, the worried look. The shutting down of conversation. You raise the subject with more and more couriers just to test this reaction.

Something is dawning on you. Certain things start to make sense, in hindsight. People crossing London faster than you reckon anyone should be able to. Guys returning to the office almost dry when you’re still dripping from the rainy ride back. The time you overheard your co-ordinator on a call to a rider: “Deliver this one by road please. Time is less important than making sure it 100% doesn’t get lost”.

It’s like when scientists know that something they can’t see is there because it’s the only way to account for the things they can see. All of a sudden the last few months only make sense if – your spine tingles at the thought of it – if there is some kind of hidden route through London, some network of shortcuts that doesn’t adhere to the same physical laws that the streets and alleyways do.

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But talking to couriers is still getting you nowhere. Until, one day, in the basement at the Nigerian embassy, you make a breakthrough. A courier you’ve pestered many times before suddenly drops his defences. Sighs and says, “Look, I can’t spell it out to you, that’s just the rules. But you know where one or two are already, you just have to… Okay, hooking into a twitchell is a personal thing …”. [‘Twitchell!’ He says ‘twitchell’, these things have a name!] He goes quiet. Say’s he’s said enough already. Then he grins and says, “But you’re gonna love it”. You grin back. And when you finally emerge from Nigeria into the darkening London streets, they have changed forever.

So you go back to that spot on Edgware Road. You fling yourself down that stretch, turn into the pavement, and… nearly kill yourself on the tree. Clerkenwell Road goes almost as badly.

But it isn’t just the London streets that have changed – it’s you. Edgware and Clerkenwell don’t seem to matter. You feel – you know – that it’s not a question of if you find a twitchell, but when. And where.

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When it does finally happen, your mind is elsewhere. You’re cycling along in that blissful way, being carried along the winding streets by pedal-memory, thinking about who knows what – dinner, shopping, your home town, your parents, your lovelife. Apart from the movement of legs, pedals and wheels, your bike could be standing still. It is the streets which are flying past you.

Then something makes you look at your surroundings. You have been so faraway you forget where you are, forget the time of day. How did I get here, where am I going? Which blackened Georgian office block is that? Which crouching church down that alley? It is the smell that brings it back to you – the cold tang of raw meat: You are wheeling around the edge of Smithfield market, and it is dawn. But suddenly there’s another smell: sweet coffee, belgian waffles. It is unexpected, out of place. You are knocked off course.

Something makes you jerk towards the kerb. A pothole? That heart-in-mouth moment, you’re coming off your bike and it’s too late to stop it. You hit something, or something hits you. Your body braces for a pain that doesn’t come. Somehow you are still on your bike. The street still rushes by, but it is not the street you were on a second ago. It is not even the same part of London. It is Queensway, and a waffle house is just opening up. You slam on your brakes, throw your bike to the kerb and vomit into the gutter.

Straightening up, you smile.

You’re in.

Part Two

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