He never came. Never woke in the night crying, never ran down the garden to the shed. I never taught him how to ride, to trackstand, to bunny hop, to feel the world rush by, to escape the roads for secret adventures in the wild. I won’t ever get to see him on his first bike or ride with his sister and mum. He just wasn’t equipped with the right genes to function in the world. He was alive, though. We knew him, as he wriggled and squirmed, kicking around in there. I pull the bike from the shed. It needs attention, even a single speed needs attention. I have no heart for it. I ride and I’m full of rage, disgust and grief. I push every atom at it, I try to crush, break and fold the frame into the floor. I wrench the bars.
My shoulders and legs ache for days after these rides. I’d scream all the way if I wasn’t so out of breath. My heart drums a march in my ears. Theres blood in my mouth. Escape has become impossible. I’d lose myself on the familiar routes, riding by numbers, on autopilot. Some days, in vain attempts to break out of this slump, I would search out new trails, trying to find something that may never return, buried deep in contours, Roman roads, tumuli, old paths, lost ways — looking for a signpost out of this numbness.
I will never forget the call. It seemed that it would be OK at the start but the odds collapsed. Like when you commit to a corner and the bike drifts, and you relish the rush and perfect focus of the moment yet simultaneously know that it’s going to end ina world of hurt. You hit down hard. A day in the capital, on the tube, in unfamiliar places. A large hospital, tests, odds given, numbers taken down. Any hope of him being saved was lost. Powerlessly watching him slide away. Chances, emotions, hope gone. We returned home, beaten.
He was still with us, but could go at any day. We discussed all the options, Googled, ignored Google, ignored everything else. We just sat there. He was alive and with us for that evening. The next week he was delivered into the world — still, calm, our lost son.
I stood on a white chalk hillside, the smell of sea mist rising up the scarp, the sky swelling, fat raindrops in the air. The far hills were a distant ridge, like a geographical swell rising across the view. The lump in my throat grew until I sickeningly coughed up months of grief. Folded over my handlebars, tears blurring my wheel, I shuddered, and goose bumps rose. A peace enveloped me. The rain paused. There was no wind. I turned over my pedal, clipped in and rode.
I imagined that he was there next to me. He was in the wind, the rain, the chalk and the soil, the winding track, the far hill. In all the places I lost myself, he found me and was with me. The days and months passed, as they do, busy with our daughter, up and down – the phrase ‘highs and lows’ does it little justice. You could be on top of the situation, and then the slightest thing kicks from leftfield and bruises the heart. And you curl inwards, introspective, ill with loss.
I picked up my tools, and I fixed the single speed and the geared bike, and by part and piece, by acceptance and acknowledgment, I began to discover a stillness again, to shoulder the load and find the steady groove. The markings on the maps and the old trails became friends once more. I stopped punishing the bike all the time, and it became my faithful steed again, not the punchbag. The darkness slipped away, chased by shining a bright light on the raw scars of loss.
By getting back out there. By cutting back trails, grabbing the bars and braving it. By not ignoring the boy gone, but instead trying to celebrate, to be glad to have had the tiny light shine briefly, to have known him only the shortest of time. To nurture a happy memory, and to find comfort in the fact that he’d always be around. He’d be the whisper in the ear, the power when I’m empty, a new motivation and a reason to be.
Originally published in The Ride Journal #8
Jim Clarkson, Groombridge, UK. Father, cyclist, designer. Build, repair, believe. Oh, bread and coffee.
Illustration by marklazenby.co.uk