The Birthday Wish

They hit the rain twenty minutes later. The noise on the single-carriage road became loud with the splatter of water dropping onto metal, and tyre hiss on wet tarmac. The black surface shone white, reflecting the glare of headlights, and Emma’s visor misted up with clammy breath, so she had to crack it open to see. It felt as if the air had closed in around them and was pressing them into a small, deaf bubble, rumbling lonesomely along a winding road to nowhere. Peter slowed down, and when he caught up with an even slower car in front, he sat behind it, following its tail lights, rather than overtaking at the first opportunity, as he would normally have done. Emma remembered the first trip she made on her new bike, a week after passing her test. It was a cold November weekend, and they had travelled to South Wales to visit friends. On the way home, the wind was really strong, and just as it was getting dark, it had poured with rain. She had been terrified, and her hands in her wet gloves had become totally numb with cold. The colder she got, the slower she went, so that it took them two hours longer than it should have to get home.

Emma reflected that she really wasn’t cut out for bike riding. She had made herself learn to ride out of contempt for the fearful, dull, middle-aged woman she felt she had become. The idea came to her on a family holiday, when she and Peter had taken her two and his three children for a motor-caravan trip around France. After two weeks of caretaking and humouring five argumentative and frequently bored children within the confines of the ever-shrinking motor-caravan, Emma felt her inner self seething and bubbling, on the verge of exploding with some sort of ‘What about me?’ gesture. She went on strike for an afternoon, refusing to do any cooking or washing or sorting-out of childish disputes, and steadfastly just sat and did nothing at all. But as she sat, she realised that the anger she was feeling was not about the children, or this holiday. It was about the fact that she was letting her life slip away, drifting into tedious mediocrity, where everything was safe, and normal and relentlessly ordinary.

A few days later, at a different campsite on their route home, as they were yet again setting up their copious camping paraphernalia and preparing to make dinner for seven, the soporific hum of distant children’s voices and the muffled clunking of plastic crockery on picnic tables was ruffled by the sonorous rumble of flock of motorcycles. Within half an hour, the bikers had unpacked their rucksacks, erected their small tents, and were sitting on the ground in a circle of good humour, swigging bottled beer and reminiscing about the best moments of their day’s journey. The following day, when they had stopped the motor-caravan for a hurried bit of lunch in a lay-by, another group of gleaming motorbikes came gliding along the smooth tarmac, swooping majestically around the bend in a pack, as if they owned the road. And that was when Emma, captivated by the glamour of the machines, and beguiled by the possibilities for a different life that they suggested, declared that she was going to have a motorbike.