The Birthday Wish

Back in England, much to everyone’s surprise, she persisted with her crazy notion, and within a month she had bought a 125cc bike with lots of shiny chrome and wire wheels. Having never even ridden a bicycle, her first experience on the little motorbike, in a DIY store car park late one evening, dismantled her already shaky confidence. But having bought the bike, she was committed. She couldn’t back out. That was one of the reasons she insisted on buying the bike, rather than learning on a hired one. She knew she had to make herself do this, even though every rational cell in her brain, and every corpuscle in her fear-transfused blood was screaming at her that she couldn’t. The next February, after an initial weekend of failure-coloured embarrassment – an anxious forty-year-old woman, surrounded by the youthful competence of teenage boys who already knew everything there was to know about riding bikes – she passed her compulsory basic training. She started riding her bike to work. She hated and loved it in equal measure. The horror of her constant awareness of possible death around every corner was mitigated by the pleasure she took in her image of herself as an interesting woman on a motorbike; a woman that could hold her own in bar room conversations with men about V-twins, after-market exhausts and power-to-weight ratios. She failed her first two tests, and battled incessantly against the siren call of giving up. A call that didn’t stop when she passed her test on the third attempt. She still had so much to prove – to herself, as much as to anyone else. She had to prove that she could reinvent herself. She had to believe that she could live whatever life she chose. She had to do whatever it took to avoid settling for the easiness of the commonplace; for a life less than it could be.

They rode on slowly through the rain. Just as Peter had predicted, it didn’t last very long. The sudden downpour had filled the gutters with mountain run-off, and every now and then they swished through a sheet of water unrolling across the road, swirling oily rainbows into weed-filled ditches on the lower side. The air smelt of wet dust and pungent vegetation. The road sweated in the patchy afternoon sun, and parked cars and galvanised roofs steamed like washing drying in front of a fire. Just after they had passed through St Girons, Peter pulled into a lay-by, to look at the map again. He flicked down the side-stand, but remained astride the bike, balancing the half-open map the tank-bag, while Emma dismounted to stretch her legs and straighten her back. “Would you rather stay on the N roads, or go on the motorway?” Peter asked.

Emma looked at the uncertain sky, trying to work out whether it was likely to rain again. She knew that motorway was probably the safer option. She thought it would also be quicker. But she would find the ride more tiring and even less enjoyable. “Hmmm….dunno. What d’you think?” she replied, unable, as usual, to make a decision.