Learning to Ride a Bike
He skites across the tarmac, scattering grit. Trainers all scuffed, leather showing through the black polish. There is a tiny plume of dust as his foot hits the side of the road. It makes a noise like a sweetie bag. Running, Bob’s always running. He glances around. There’s a couple of people further up the hill, but they can’t see him because he’s Batman. Off over there they look little and stupid like broken dolls or puppets. Mummy and Daddy and some little kid. He’s put on a bike. Bob sees it all, coat over his shoulders like a cloak. He has to have his coat. His mum saying it was too sunny to wear a coat, but Bob wants to know what did she know? She didn’t fight crime. Batman wore a coat. What did she know? He slips out of the sunshine into the woods.
All about there’s old tree carcasses. Bob flits between their trunks, changing rapidly from Batman into to something else. A goblin perhaps. Something more suited to his sylvan surroundings. An elf. Crashing through the ferns and that, Bob gets through and across the wood. He reaches the perimeter.
Rust tones, wet wood. Bob pushes down the fence with his left hand. With the fingers of his left hand. The green fence-post leaves musted traces on his fingers. He looks down at his fingers. The fence creaks upward again. He pushes it back, his foot lifted up to the wire this time. Trainers in the spaces between the hooks. Green light through the trees. He steps across the lowered fences, keeping his feet safe from the metal twists. Crushed plants – a sound like popping beetles. The wire pushes at his heels. The rooks make cawing noises from the tops of trees. Like rusty wire.
Sunlight swells up before him. Trees seem to shrink the sky. It all balloons out above, replacing the canopy with blue and white. He feels the sunlight on his cheeks. On his hair. Already the summer has bleached his hair blonde. There was a line on his arm where he had lost his watch. The trees feel cold behind him, not cold – cool. There is a kind of clearing ahead of him, a separate acre. Tall grasses and circumscribed by trees. His horizon reasserts itself. The plants conspire about his feet. There is something in the clearing.
The pedals whirr – clicks and tocks –the sound of a giant millipede stalking. Robert feels the hand on his seat, keeping him safe. The sound of foot steps behind him. So much heavier than his. Robert feels safe. His feet turn with the pedals, like walking on air.
It sits there out in the grass and brush, looking like the bones of some metal giant, meshes of skin sticking to its glinting rib cage in the afternoon. Long half tubes of hooped steel lying across the clearing. Its brother lies wretched by it, tin ribs already collapsed in on themselves, in on flowery guts. A green mesh skin. How long since it served any purpose? How long since it died? Slumped, children gathered in the give of its chest. Lounging in the sag of it.
Bob waves over at them. Stick figures, they wave back in the shimmering summer distance.
Air ripples – his friend’s faces, far, distort within his eyes. Col, and Barry and the rest. There is a girl with them. His feet make noises within the vegetation. No breeze. He steps around a patch of brambles, looking ahead of him. This decrepit garden centre opens up ahead of him. The sounds of laughter carry in the warm air. The voices of his friends. Bob hurries toward them.
The bicycle makes a whizzing nose. He has his eyes closed. The wind pushes fingers through his hair. His father behind him. When he opens his eyes the greedy wind snatches tears.
Where you been?
What? Says Bob, walking up. He squints at Col, the sun behind him. What’re you dain?
Whit? Dain is it? Col looks down from on top of the netting. It shifts under him. Bob squints up.
Might be. Hand above his eyes now, shaded from the sun.
Naw, we’ve just… Ken. Nowt much.
Bob shifts himself about on the ground. Foot to foot. He’s not comfortable looking up at them like that. His feet scatter the broken remnants of plant pots.
So’s it comfy up there?
No much. No a problem. The net shifts beneath him, his hands gripped on the meshing.
Right. Aye. So can Ah come up then? says Bob.
Spose. If you can make it up.
Everybody giggles at this, Bob looks blankly at them.
Fuuuuck, he says.
They all sit there looking at each other. Col tries to push Barry from the netting. Barry keeps his balance and spits.
Ah, you wee fucker.
Fuck you an all you fucker.
Bob says, So how come she’s here? He’s pointing at Susie, Kev’s little sister.
Oh, her? We’re gonnea shag her. Col speaks flatly.
Aye. Do you want a shot?
Bob doesn’t know what to say.
His foot misses the pedal and kicks at air. The hand behind him tightens. He suddenly misses his stabilisers. He’s not ever going to get the hang of this. His dad says something encouraging.
Up on the net now, Bob can feel it tighten as he shifts. Some breeze has sprung up. Some little thing in the air.
So are you gonnea kiss her an all?
Fuck no, she’s a girl. Just got they bits.
Oh, Bob nods. Kev starts to giggle and rock side to side. Col slaps him on the side of his head.
Quit it, he says, Fucksake. How come you iways huv tae act like a big kid?
Kev sulks. No a kid, he says, I’m ten.
No you’re no.
Am. Am so. I’m ten.
Naw, you’re no.
No, Ah am, ask him, he points at Bob. He wooz at my birthday party. All eyes turned to Bob.
Don’t look at me, he says. There’s a bit of silence, then the laughing starts up.
It dies down after a bit. Kev spits through the net with his head hung low, trying to hit one of the broken pots.
So, says Col, generally, Shall we?
All eyes turn again. Susie starts to blush.
Eyes wet with tears. The wind pushed the water back over his skin. Robert felt it cold on him. He wasn’t really crying. Not really. Not like crying. It was cold, not like his tears were, when he cried. Not that he ever cried. He sniffed. Not often.He could feel his dad’s hand at the back of him.
She struggles out of her knickers. White skin in the sun. There’s the cleft of her, the join. Bob can’t look away. Everyone’s looking at it. He starts to sweat near the base of his back. He feels hot. Everyone’s looking at it. Kev starts making silly panting noises. There’s a gradual ebb in the netting. White knickers. The dazzle, sun bright.
Col says, Right, me first.
Bob kind of watches them fit together. It looks funny. The netting tightens and contracts, the dead giant breaths. This was like learning to swear. When he knew things were wrong. This is when he looks embarrassed. Watching TV. His parents in the room. Skin on cathode time. 25 frames a second. Something he knows, but something that hasn’t quite come yet. He looks frantically. Eyes darting at everything.
What’s it like? Who says that?
Col’s like, Uh? Shut up. He is in but now just feels stupid just lying there, not quite sure of what to do. He’d heard someone say screw, shouldn’t he start to turn around? Clockwise? None of the others expect that he thinks this way. They don’t suspect.
Susie doesn’t look quite like the magazines they’d found in the woods, she was all limbs and rib angles and belly. She didn’t have that triangle of fanny that the magazine ladies had. She doesn’t look as glossy. Bob can’t look away. Col rubs himself against her. Everyone’s like queuing up.
Susie starts to giggle.
What’s funny? What’s funny? Col gets wild-eyed all of a sudden. Susie does a odd little half giggle near the back of her throat. Somewhere like a belly laugh. She reaches down and pats her belly. Col has got up. Barry was tapping him on his shoulder.
All right, all right, says Col. Barry is already getting his pants off.
My turn, he’s saying. His jeans around his ankles. When his pants drop even Kev starts to laugh. The gleam of Barry’s flab.
You’re so fat.
Hey Kev he’s squashing your sister.
Shut fucking up.
Do you think that he sizzles when he gets sunburn, like streaky bacon, says Bob. A little light up in his eye now. Everybody groans.
Spew, Kev says.
Underneath Barry, even Susie makes a face.
Tears in his hair his eyes the light is full of sparkle. It catches his eye. In his eyes. The highlights. The colours in the green. The scene looks Technicolor. There is a wind in his hair. There is a wetness by his ear. It feels cold. His tears are never cold. He doesn’t cry. He grips onto the handlebars. Robert can hear the sound of pounding feet. The trees start to streak at his periphery. His legs pump.
Bob’s thinking that he deserves a shot. It’s his turn next. Kev can’t want to. The net beneath them stretches and heaves.
Come on, he says. Give me a shot.
Nut, says Barry. Nut, gaun shag Kev. Bacon bastard. Col starts laughing.
Kev, laughing too, comes up behind Bob and start to pant like a dog again. He grabs Bob by the leg and starts humping away, so that they lose their balance and roll off of the netting an into the long grass. Col and Barry laugh at them. Kev still humping Bob’s leg. Bob kicks him away and swears. Looking up he sees the red marks of netting on Susie’s bouncing bum. Barry’s fingers gripped through the net. The sun blinds him and he moves so that they block it. Flesh eclipse. He regrets it when he sees Barry’s sweaty rolls of fat.
Col slaps Barry’s arse and it vibrates.
Up, up, my turn, he says. Fucking Jelly bum.
Bob’s up on his feet, What about me? He says, looking up from the ground again..
You shagged Kev, says Col and laughs, going at his belt.
Yeah, says Barry, Yeah.
Yeah, says Barry again, his belt clinking this time, ice in a glass. Kev, he says, We saw you do it. Bob stands among the broken polystyrene plant pots. Broken in bits, they look like tiny teeth.
Susie tries to sit up on her elbows, moving her legs together. She doesn’t get a chance to say anything. Col’s there again, lying himself down on top of her, pink bum gleaming in the golden sunlight. Nobody has thought to take their shoes off. Kev scrambles back up the netting, quick up the sheer side like a slater on old wood. He doesn’t look at his sister or what she is doing, but keeps trying to get everybody’s attention. Laughing to himself and doing pratfalls, stupid voices. Barry, still having trouble with his belt, tells him to fuck off.
The world streaks. Speed stretching out new shapes. Houses made castle. He peddles, he grips, he squeezes his eyes shut. The tears vaporise. There is a wind. There were never tears. Not hot. Not cold. No tears. He opens his eyes again and sees the landscape rapid. He can hear the rapid tick of the wheels beneath him. Eyes set front, he can hear the wind. As he looks the bike turns. He can’t feel his father’s hand. He is riding the bike himself.
The voice comes out of nowhere, the recesses of the trees. The black between branches. The children pick up and scatter. Clothes and instinct gathered. There are primary colours as the children split up, T-shirts in sunshine. Suzie, frantically hopping into her shorts as she runs, Barry’s white skin gleaming in the summer light. They don’t know where the voice is coming from. Bob’s running first. Over the fence that springs at him, aiming for the spaces between the barbs, but slipping, and a catch and a tear. Then he’s out and through the ferns, branches, a neat square new carved into his jeans, a bright point of blood on the skin beneath, and something left behind. Back past the fence, the netting is left sagging and distended over the great steel hoops, like a giant gone hungry. Bob runs as fast as he can. Colours streaming in the greenery. Foliage catches at him. No one seems to chase him. Sprinting he reaches the other side of the wood. Light glimmers up ahead.
Crashing out of the trees and onto the tarmac Bob goes straight into little Robert Dougal on a bike, going very slow. Mrs Carter standing by her house sees it all and starts shouting at him, eyes all lit up and old. Mr Dougal comes running up, stomach jogging under an Adidas T-shirt. His wife takes a few steps behind him. Bob stands there blinking in the yellow sunlight, Robert looks up at him with a skinned knee, blinking too. Slowly.
There are three adults there suddenly all clustered round the two boys, who stare at each other, into each other’s eyes, only half-listening to what the adults are shouting. Bob holds out his hand to Robert and pulls him to his feet. The two boys don’t say a word, just stand there, looking. The adults lapse into an angry silence, only punctuated by Mrs Carter’s abrupt Well?
There are no tears there are no tears there are no tears there are