It all started with my son. He got into bicycles from a very early age. In fact he was only a little over four years old when he got his first bike, which was a hand-me-down from one of his older sisters. I took it all to pieces (for it was pink, and no use like that to a small boy) and sprayed it British Racing Green. He was proud of that – and so was I. That I paid more for the spray paint than I did for the bike is neither here nor there.
But then one day it broke. With an old bicycle of such low value, quite often a fault can develop that costs more to fix than the bicycle is worth. So it proved in this case. Without any real difficulty I bought another second-hand bicycle. When I got it home, I discovered that the bolt for holding on one of the stabilizers – included in the sale in a plastic carrier bag – was missing. I soon discovered it, snapped off in the frame. It would have cost me more than I had paid for the bicycle to go out and buy the stud extractor needed to remove that bolt. So I told my son – you learn to ride that bicycle without stabilizers, and I’ll buy you a bell.
Less than one week later, I had to take him to a bicycle shop, to make the promised purchase of a bell, and both he and I were pleased as punch. That was some achievement for a boy of his age. And so started our rides together. Perhaps one of the funniest occasions that has come out of my son’s cycling was recounted to me by a friend. My wife and I were out of town and left the children in the charge of my mother. One day, our friend and neighbour was strolling along near the local park, when up and over the hill comes my son, pedaling furiously, his little legs going nineteen to the dozen. Quite a time later, recounts my neighbour, a respectable lady of a certain age – clearly the boy’s grandma, my mother, came running and panting past, struggling to keep up with my son’s newfound enthusiasm.
As the boy grew older I found myself doing a lot of running to keep up. It became clear that I too needed a bicycle. Not long after that my older daughters got them too, and pretty soon I found myself with quite literally a shed-load of bicycles. When my wife bought one too I knew then that the boy had started something special. Sometimes we get them all out and load them on the back of the car, and drive off for a ride somewhere. But not too often – mostly my son and I go riding. As he grew older we moved up the scale of bicycles, eventually deigning to buy him a super-duper all singing and all dancing mountain bike with “gel filled tyres” (about which he never tires of telling me) and many gears. He had a digital speedometer from his uncle , and of course a bell. Cycling is a big thing for us two.
One day I thought we would go to see my father. On this occasion, I deemed it too far for him to ride – when we did finally make that journey entirely by bicycle, some months later, he was conspicuously quiet at the journeys end, after a ride of seven miles along canal towpaths and along the banks of the river. We went to see my father by putting our bicycles on the car and driving over. Then, we would greet his wife, my step-mother, and cycle off to see my dad at the Allotments, a more modest mile or so from the house. It was a hot summers day.
I remember the occasion because it was around that time that I made my father a gift of an enormous pouch of pipe tobacco, cherry vanilla, which I had managed to buy for a very low price whilst at work in Louisiana. The smell of such tobacco is very fragrant indeed, and entirely pleasant. So then, we cycled to the Allotment and in we went, along the rutted path between the scare-crows and little huts made of old front doors and plastic sheets, past the inevitable rows of Runner Beans and reflective older men wearing flat caps. The sun blazed down – but there was thunder in the air.
I like the Allotments because there are good, dry, garden smells – old twine, onions, dust and soil, creosote. My father has a little hut to sit in, though there is room for only one. A visitor might perch on an upturned bucket or rest himself on a tussock of grass, whilst contemplating the farmer’s domain with an appraising eye. We’ve had good stuff from that Allotment. All kinds of potatoes and onions. Lettuce and radishes, carrots. Even Sweetcorn. One year the raspberry bushes growing wild around the perimeter of each plot were laden to bursting. This time though, the only things laden to bursting where ominous thunderstorm clouds amassing overhead.
We did some weeding, and talked some, and found the boy something to do appropriate to his age – this generation of children, exposed as they are every day to technology, computers and other wizardry, have a short span of attention. When my father was his age he might have happily spent all afternoon on such an Allotment, and I likewise when I was a small boy. Though if truth be known, we only like to think that that was the case. Really, when you’re a seven year old small boy, whatever the generation of your upbringing, fidgeting and impatience is inevitable.
Perhaps the electricity in the air was making us all edgy. We decided to pack up and retreat – my father and I judged that a downpour was now imminent, and we would do well to retreat home before it engulfed us. So we set off, back along the rutted and bumpy unmade road, to the gate and onto the main road. The sun had gone now, and the atmosphere was decidedly gloomy. Too gloomy – we had not ridden more than a few hundred yards when the first tell tale spatters of a summer storm began. That smell of rain on hot dry tarmac, characteristic of the first minute or so of a thunder shower in hot weather, filled the air. And the heavens opened.
My father was in shirt-sleeves, my son and I hardly better dressed. We were soon soaked to the skin as we battled along through the gusts and the rain. Yet, it was warm rain. My son was a little distressed, but he toughed it out – I think he will remember this storm for many years. I will – it was actually quite a sight, quite a significant thing, for three generations of one family to cycle along a road in a drenching downpour of summer rain.
We gained the shelter of my fathers house, where his wife could not quite decide if she should berate us for our foolishness or cluck with sympathy. Once toweled dry, we grinned at one another – really it had been quite fun, to make such a journey in such weather. We had more fun in ten short minutes than we’d had in years, almost, as riders in the storm.