Couriers are splendidly anachronistic figures – in an age where almost everything is mechanized and digitized, seeing actual human beings on bicycles darting among the traffic to deliver packages seems almost equivalent to spotting Roman chariots racing between the buses on the Euston Road. Part of the courier’s romance, I realized, came from this incongruity. He was, manifestly, a human body among machines – a heartening reminder that, despite the advances of technology, there will always be a place for, and a need for, flesh and bone and muscle. Couriers seemed to me at once to have sidestepped society, and yet to be ubiquitously visible within it, striding sweatily into reception with a package, pedalling alongside the bus for a moment before disappearing into the traffic jam ahead, sitting at the tables outside my habitual sandwich shop, radios blaring – a constant reminder to disillusioned wage slaves like me that there is another side to the desk, and a whole world outside the office.

Becoming a cycle courier seemed just as likely as becoming a surgeon or a firefighter – by no means impossible, but so far removed from my narrow rounds of temp jobs and postgrad applications that it might as well have been. Until a couple of years before I started couriering, I didn’t even know there was such an occupation, and planned to make my living using my mind rather than my legs. And when I first strapped the radio to my bag in 2008, I envisaged the job as a short adventure rather than a career – something I’d do for six months or so, and which would give me a good story to tell in years to come, when I’d rejoined the real world, and found a sensible, responsible way of earning my money. Six years on, it’s my most enduring love affair; the career that’s shaped my life, made me what I am, and entirely derailed any hope of a normal existence.

Six years on, it’s my most enduring love affair; the career that’s shaped my life, made me what I am, and entirely derailed any hope of a normal existence.

There was no test, and no interview. Derrick, the fleet manager at Pink Express, a steel-haired man with tattoos on his forearms and a paternal air, took down my bank details and national insurance number, and explained that the deposit for my radio and Xda would be deducted from my first payslip, and a weekly equipment hire charge from all subsequent ones.Then he told me to call in at eight the next morning, warned me to ‘take it easy for the first couple of days’, and dismissed me with a fatherly wink.

By far my strongest memory of those first few weeks on the road is the exhaustion, which flavours, obscures and crowds out most of the others.Thursday, I learned, is the real killer. You already have three days of hard riding in your legs, and your body’s crying out for a rest day. Friday is somehow never quite so bad, infused as it is with the adrenalin of everyone else’s last-minute deadlines, and the promise of a whole weekend’s rest in just a few hours’ time. My second Thursday on the road, I hauled myself up the slope that leads on to Waterloo Bridge, my legs sore and slow and aching, remembering how, when this was part of my seven-mile commute into Bloomsbury, I’d dart up on to the bridge with legs like springs, overtaking men on road bikes, and watching my speedometer climb to the 20 mph I’d set myself as a daily challenge to reach at that point.Today I had the same legs, and the same bicycle between them, and yet I could barely move. It was not a kind October: the sky was grey, and a cold wind whipped crisp packets and stray leaves in and out of the harsh concrete blocks of the South Bank Centre and the National Theatre. My exhaustion seemed similarly grey, weighing me down, and creeping through all my limbs, sapping my energy like a parasite. I tried to muster the vigour with which I’d sped up the bridge just a few weeks previously, but couldn’t – it was as if I were now a different person.

Surviving the winter became my first objective benchmark of courierhood.

Another courier told me, ‘You’re not a real courier till you’ve done your first winter, that’s what they say!’ he grinned, little realizing how much I’d take these words to heart. Surviving the winter became my first objective benchmark of courierhood – if I could meet this challenge (November, December, January and February, I decided), then I would have earned the title of courier. I would be one of them, rather than an outsider who could do a convincing impression.

fivedials_no39-6

You spend a lot of time alone as a courier, though the constant sound of your controller’s voice on the radio can sometimes make you forget this. Andy’s perpetual monologue, crackling out of the radio and into my left ear, quickly became such an essential part of cycling that if I ever rode my bike through central London at the weekend, without my radio, I’d have the sensation of having gone slightly deaf; of something missing, of the world being quieter and at more of a distance than usual, since the noise around me came from the pavements and the traffic, rather than a small black box strapped to my chest.The voice on the radio is the courier’s only means of sustained human contact, and after a few months she’ll become attuned to it as one does to the voice of a spouse or a childhood friend – able to pick up on the tiny tics and changes of cadence that show when the person is annoyed or upset or distracted or hasn’t understood you.

Sometimes it’ll work the other way too – if you become friends with your controller, or are good enough or bad enough to stand out from the rest of the fleet, he might start to recognize your moods as well.The sense of intimacy the courier feels is mostly illusory, or at least one-sided, but it’s not always easy to remember this.When something’s gone wrong, or when you’re exhausted, frustrated, angry or in pain, often the most obvious person to vent this on is the one with whom you spend most of your time, whose voice is constantly in your ear. Occasionally, being former couriers themselves, controllers might sympathize when you tell them about the violence of a driver or the inhumanity of a security guard, but most of the time they’re just interested in getting the necessary information across as quickly as possible, because the phone’s ringing, and there are half a dozen riders waiting to call in with queries. Nor does he really need to know when your knees are hurting, when your brake pads are about to wear out or when you’re so hungry, cold or exhausted that having stayed on the road for nine hours feels more like a heroic achievement than a day’s work.You’re often tempted to inform him, though – partly to pre-empt and justify any errors or delays, partly to remind him that in between your clean and curt radio responses are miles and miles of pushing and panting and sweating, of dirt and noise, of shrieking ambulances and snarling taxis, of blazing sun or pouring rain or driving snow.

There is respect and solidarity in this job, of course there is. But it occurs against a backdrop of almost constant solitude, of private pain and private pleasures, of knowing that the world can afford you little sympathy when things go badly.

This, in fact, is probably the very reason for our solidarity. I stopped at the lights next to another courier once, during a sudden torrential rainstorm that had sent all other cyclists and pedestrians running for cover, so that the streets were curiously deserted, save for us, a few cars, and a million raindrops. I remember the squelch of my sodden gloves on the bars, and seeing the drops of water from his hood dripping past his smiling face. Until the lights changed we simply sat and grinned at each other, and it would take me more than a thousand words to explain exactly what was behind that grin. It acknowledged suffering and discomfort that was so obvious there really wasn’t any need to say anything about it. It said, ‘We’re crazy to be here, aren’t we, but we chose this.’ And it laughed at the absurdity of two couriers, sitting at the lights, soaked to the skin while everyone else waited inside. Most of all, it spoke of the relief of company and sympathy, because no one but another courier could know exactly what we were going through at that moment – no one, in fact, could have understood that grin without the need to resort to language.The lights changed and we pushed on into the rain, both of us feeling, I suspect, momentarily less alone.

One hot sunny day at the height of June I was riding north over London Bridge, that doleful conveyor belt shovelling commuters into the furnace of the city, and I swear that just for one elusive second the scent of roses drifted past me, blowing sweetly from some unseen garden or roof terrace or flower stall across the river.By the time I’d filled my lungs a second time, wanting to confirm and savour the fragrance, it was gone, and my airways were scorched once again with the sour taste of road fumes. I noticed smells more in my first summer. In winter they’re contained in layers of clothing and deadened by the cold air; in spring the streets are freshened by breezes and washed by rain. But in summer the air is thicker and the streets fuller.There is far less space to breathe, but breathe you must. Riding past a crowded pavement on a hot day, swallowing consecutive gusts of perfume, sunscreen, cigarette smoke, and sometimes even halitosis, you realize just how helplessly intimate we all are in this city, uncomfortably close, crowded together whether we like it or not (and mostly we don’t), sharing the same air, inhaling the vapour that rises from other people’s skin,along with the effluence of exhaust pipes and the dust whipped up by millions of feet treading through the same parks and streets, carried to and from distant corners of the city by the commuter trains, fanned through the streets by the traffic, settling and smudging in the sweat on all of our seething skin. No matter where the dust came from and what colour it started out, it inevitably ends up the same dark grey.

I have ridden through countries where the soil was red and brown and golden; stuck to my sweaty skin, it was always dark grey. London contains people of a thousand different colours, what each of them puts into and on to their body is unique, yet we all cast off the same dark-grey dust.

Riding past a crowded pavement on a hot day, swallowing consecutive gusts of perfume, sunscreen, cigarette smoke, and sometimes even halitosis, you realize just how helplessly intimate we all are in this city.

It’s a memento mori, a miniature death that is – or should be – a continual reminder that, no matter what our differences, we’ll all go the same way in the end. Dust to dust. It’s not only the people. There are days when the Albert Embankment smells puzzlingly of toast.

The cluster of Japanese restaurants at the western end of Brewer Street, where Soho begins to fray into Piccadilly, gives you two warm, nutty breaths of cooking rice as you ride between Regent Street and Glasshouse Street, and the waffle stall at the southern end of Wells Street wafts a deceptive cloud of sweetness (deceptive because waffles and crêpes never taste as good as they smell, and you might as well not waste your money) at you as you leave Fitzrovia. There was one afternoon back in 2009 when Great Eastern Street smelt of decomposing flesh (I actually checked the news that evening, to see if some builders had stumbled across a mass grave or charnel house), and one morning in 2011 when Parliament Square smelt exactly like an old man’s breath before breakfast. It’s a subtler filth than the open sewers and unsealed roads of two centuries ago, but it’s filth nonetheless.

Arriving home after a hot summer’s day on the road, pouring with sweat, I’ll find myself covered with dark-grey smears – the patches on my bare forearms where I slid down the sides of buses in order to balance myself through some of the tighter gaps; the rock-chick shadows under my eyes that makes it look as though I’m ill-advisedly wearing make-up to work; the tide marks on my ankles that merge with my tan lines, so that I’m never quite sure when to stop scrubbing them. No matter how often I wash my hands during the day, they are always black with dirt – it collects under my nails, settles into the folds of my knuckles and ingrains itself in tiny mosaics in the cracks of my calluses.

fivedials_no39-7

Ten minutes after I send a whirlpool of grey water down the sink of someone’s office bathroom, my hands are as grimy as if I hadn’t washed them all day. From time to time, if a pair of worn-out gloves or unfamiliar handlebars has given me a new callus, or worked the dirt into my skin a little harder than usual, the black lines and shadows on my palms don’t even disappear when I stop cycling at the weekend, and I wonder if they’re now a permanent feature that I’ll one day show to my grandchildren, like the small blue-grey line on my left elbow, which looks like an amateur tattoo, but is actually a memento of that long-ago day, the summer before I started couriering when I wrote off my bike outside Richmond Park, grazing myself in various uncomfortable places, and absorbing more grit than the nurses were able to tweezer and scrub out of me. I don’t really mind things like this. I like the fact that the road has left its mark on me, that I’ve absorbed some of the molecules of London (which, in all likelihood, have passed through many other bodies before mine), and kept them, and made them part of me.That in this great heaving transitory city, there is at least some permanence.

There are days when the Albert Embankment smells puzzlingly of toast.

Cycling itself is, as far as I’m concerned, probably the purest form of auto-eroticism.There is no exchange or intervention or conquest or surrender; no doubt and no climax – this jouissance is perfectly contained and sustained within my own body, which sings and surges as it flies through the streets, consumed in an ecstasy of motion and sensation. My thighs hum with energy as they pump and flex, pushing the bike forward, and my hips roll warmly from side to side, steering it with countless minute adjustments.To turn left I’ll jut my right hip out, press myself into the saddle, and feel my left sit bone pivot cleanly against its firm leather. I notice the individual muscles of my waist flexing as I balance, and every inch of my flesh, from my chest down to my knees, tightening and resettling with every movement, every pedal stroke, every twist and turn.The pores of my skin and the fibres of my muscles are wide, wide awake, voluptuously drinking in the sensation of the air flowing around me, and responding to the texture of the road beneath me.

Never before has my body felt so alive, so supple, so liquid. I have no idea whether this exhilaration might be shared by someone watching me. I sometimes catch a glimpse of it when I watch other cyclists in flight, and know from experience what it is they might be feeling, but for all I know, to the outside observer I am merely a slightly ungainly woman pedalling a battered bicycle slowly along the street. I’d almost prefer it if that were the case, because then the pleasure would be mine and mine alone. It is a beauty without pride, without vanity, without any need for the eye of a beholder. And it was a beauty so all-consuming that, as long as I was on the bike, my periodic qualms about where my life was going were easily disregarded.

Of all my many maps of London, the emotional one is the most elusive,but also the most powerful.The unlikeliest street corners will have some tattered threads of memory fluttering from them like a flag, because of something I did there once, or someone I spoke to, or simply because of something I happened to be thinking as I rode past one day, which then popped back into my mind as I rode past again a few hours later, and after that was forever lying in wait for me on that particular corner, like a swarm of insects, or the gust of hot fragrant air that I savour every time I ride past the bakery on Brockley Road.

It’s almost as if the memories have overflowed from my head and scattered themselves about the city – or as if London itself has become an extension of my consciousness. Some parts of my life I can recall simply by thinking of them; others I think I’d remember better if I went back to a certain part of London and plucked them from the tree I’d hung them from, or retraced them from the park bench I’d scratched them on, or snatched them up as they blew around in circles in an alleyway like a discarded carrier bag. I once spontaneously burst into tears as I bumped up on to the pavement on Albany Road and wiggled in between the bollards at the entrance to Burgess Park. It was a few months since an awful heartbreak, and the ensuing weeks when I’d ride home each evening in helpless tears, always by this same route. The grief abated eventually, as I knew it would, but a few strands of it were still strung across the entrance to the park like cobwebs on an autumn morning, and that evening I forgot to duck, and rode straight into them.

But by the time I’d reached the other side of the park I was smiling. Here on the right were the bushes where I’d once stopped for a wee, late one Friday night in the middle of that glorious summer of 2010, on my way home after a riotous post-work party outside the Foundry.Someone had turned up with speakers mounted on a bicycle trailer, and we’d all danced, exuberantly and goofily, grinning at each other, through the long summer evening and into the night. It was a couple of months after I’d abandoned my PhD plans, a week or two before I realized I wanted to cycle around the world, and I was embracing the heady sensation of leaping off into a completely open future, with nothing to my name but the present moment. I know I was frightened at times, but what lingers from that summer is the roaring sense of freedom, of having no plans and therefore few obligations, of being aware that wonderful things were going to happen, but not yet knowing what they might be.

I remember squatting there in the darkness, in the corner of Burgess Park, listening to the hot hiss of my urine and watching the insects floating in the beam my front light was casting over the long grass around it, my sweaty skin caressed by the fresh warm air, and feeling an immense surge of love for all that I was part of (the dancing couriers, the pretty girl I’d met who hadn’t been able to take her eyes off me, the delicious sensation of cycling home along quiet roads with the night all around me), and for all the wonders that lay in the wings.When I cycle through Burgess Park (rarely these days), I revisit that moment as I would the grave of a loved one, simultaneously rejoicing in the past and grieving for it. The girl came and went, as did all my other moments of grief and elation, as did the delicious sensation of not knowing where I was going, and illuminating the future only as I stepped into it.

This excerpt is taken from What Goes Around:A London Cycle Courier’s Story, published by Guardian Faber Books.