I had never ridden a bicycle before my thirtieth birthday. I had tried once as a child but fell off and broke my arm the second my dad let go of the seat. I remember him hunched over the handlebars as he wheeled that shiny red machine back to the shop. My life as a passenger was cemented there and then.
This all changed three decades later, however, when I found myself whizzing through the Parisian summer nights on a rickety old two-wheeler.
My next door neighbour had often told me of the great things that could be achieved by travelling on wheels. I told him I was happy enough using taxis, trains and buses but he always dismissed this as an excuse.
So on the morning of my thirtieth birthday I plucked up the courage to ask Mr. Court — ‘Call me Arnold’ — if he could teach me to ride one of the darn things. He obliged by leading me through his house into his back yard where he wheeled out an ancient-looking bike from his shed.
“Just make sparks fly, son,” he said, rolling the thing into my hands. “And the rest will take care of itself.”
How do you make sparks fly, though, on a bicycle of all things? I nodded politely and sat on the saddle. I must admit I was worried the thing would fall apart beneath me.
“Only rust, lad, it’ll hold your weight,” he said as if able to read my mind. “That chipped red paint will soon turn to gold.” Mr. Court — I never did get to call him Arnold — was certainly an optimist. “Now go on, make sparks fly.”
I pedalled a little as squeaking and creaking metal shed flakes of dust beneath me. I fell off more than once but brushed myself down and tried again, the picture of my father’s defeated posture flickering in my mind.
I was soon wobbling my way down the uneven streets of Dover, winding my way between cars and lorries that raced toward the Channel. Then I realised I’d forgotten to ask Mr. Court about the use of brakes, or indeed if the machine actually possessed any.
It was no good. I tried pulling every strange lever on the handlebars before sticking my foot onto the fast-moving ground beneath me. The rust flew away from the top of the old-fashioned bell to reveal the word EMERGENCY written in large red letters. I pulled back the trigger, terrified to release it for a few moments. Eventually I closed my eyes and let it go.
The ringing was as loud as the bells of Big Ben and shook the bike almost out of control. I was sure the not-so-white cliffs of Dover would be upon me soon and I’d be sinking in the sea.
“Let sparks fly.”
It was Mr. Court’s voice inside my head. His low voice quickly soothed my frayed nerves. When I finally found the courage to open my eyes I couldn’t believe what they were showing me. I could see a pair of white gulls gliding on either side of me. You may choose not to believe such a thing but I tell you it is true; I was flying over the English Channel high above the ferries and fishing boats heading towards the coast of France.
It wasn’t long before I had to squint my eyes, though not away from the blazing sun, but the glimmer of the golden machine. All the rust and chipped paint had been replaced by gold and sparks. Yes, sparks flying from both the front and rear wheels.
I closed my eyes fully and pictured the Eiffel Tower. I saw the left bank of the Seine crowded with street artists painting tourists and visualised the setting sun reflecting from wine glasses on tables outside of busy bistros.
I opened my eyes to see it all underneath me. My thoughts had transported me to where I longed to be. I felt the warm Parisian air brush against my cheeks as I whizzed above the city in a streak of gold and sparks.
“Happy birthday, son.” I looked toward the tower to see Arnold there at the top holding a champagne glass in a toast to my thirty years. I circled the bike around him a couple of times before saluting him. Then I rode off above Paris and all the way through Europe and beyond. Way beyond.
I’m an old man now and don’t get out much. I have no need to really because I’ve seen all there is to see on this Earth. I’ve travelled through every continent, landing the bike when I found a place that intrigued me. I’ve lived in the shadows of the Great Pyramids, had love affairs in jungles and villages unseen by man. I’ve spoken languages unheard by most.
I’d like to tell you of the fishing I have done in all the seven seas and the food that exploded in flavours and textures in my mouth. I’d love to take the time to tell you of the people, both good and bad, that I have met. Recall the wisdom of elders and share the fun of the young people I’ve met across the globe. I’ve enjoyed it all but I would need another lifetime to recount it all to you.
Those memories are my hidden treasures and are all I have left of this life, them and the rickety old bike that is rusting away in my shed.
I wonder if that young man who lives next door would like to borrow it one day. I think he has a birthday coming up soon too. I’m sure I overheard him say it would be his thirtieth as he was waiting for a bus in the rain the other day. I’m sure a ride on the old thing could bring a little sunshine to his life.
Anthony Cowin is working on his debut novel while studying towards his Creative Writing BA. He has had stories and articles published in print and on the web.