Remembering a hero

My dad got bad press from me later but at one time he was a particular hero. Now and then he would take me to my Infant's school on his bike. "Get up, son," he says on this occasion. I clamber up onto the crossbar gleefully. My dad, who's been holding the bike steady, swings his leg over the saddle and with a mighty push sends the bike whizzing down the road. I'm holding onto the handlebars, gripping the hard chrome. I feel the wind tear into my face until tears sting my eyes. I can feel my dad's strength behind me, his massive body, his face straight ahead in a surge of speed.

We're off to school. My dad doesn't always take me. Usually I walk. It's not far. But when he offers me a ride I can't resist, even though the crossbar and the clips that hold the rear brake cable leave the tops of my legs marked for an hour or two in a red diagonal stripe that my shorts don't cover. The roads are quite busy. It's the main road to a big town, and at this time in the main road to a big town, and at this time in the morning it's full of cars, vans, bicycles and people on the way to work. Like my dad, he's on his way to work. He works in a bank. Cars pass us, driving fast, their exhaust wreathing blue smoke.

I can smell my dad as he pedals. It's a strong smell. It's mostly soap. But I can smell his body, too, beginning to warm with the exertion of pedalling with two up. As he pedals I can see his legs. I can feel their power as they move up and down, up and down, like the pistons on a beam engine. Each movement sure and slow and deliberate. And his hands on the handle bars, on the rubber grips at the ends of the handlebars, hist strong wrists and fingers holding the bike steady. My dad guides the bike. He controls it.

I am a prince being taken to school by the king. Suddenly, as we slow down at a zebra crossing, a policeman steps out into the road. My dad stops pedalling and extends his left foot onto the road. The bike leans over and I have to hang on. "Off you get, sonny," the policeman says. I jump down, stomach wrenching. "Don't you know it's against the law to carry a passenger on a bicycle?" the policeman says to my dad. I walked the rest of the way to school. I was angry with the policeman. He'd humiliated my hero. And I didn't get any rides to school after that.

Fifteen years later, when I was twenty-one, I wrote a poem about a bicycle I owned. I had swapped a really modern touring cycle with all the gadgets - three speed gears, cable brakes, dynamo lighting - for this ancient but solid one-speed, rod-braked, large diameter-wheeled contraption with battery lighting. I took particular pleasure in riding up steep hills on it, straining and puffing with the exertion, determined not to give in and walk. It reminds me now of my dad's bike. Made to last. Reliable. Wouldn't let you down. A bit like my dad really. Except that he did. He died when I was nine. But what a cyclist. And what a father.


First published in the magazine XY: Men, Sex, Politics, 6(2), Winter 1996. XY, PO Box 26, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. ©Reprinted with permission.