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Even though some families were lucky enough to own cars in the early 60s, everybody had a bike. My mum had a sit-up-and-beg model with a metal child-seat still attached at the back. As a toddler, I would be crammed into this body-caliper, my feet resting on the metal stirrups which hung below. As lorries rumbled past, a smell of hot rubber was followed quickly by a shock-wave of warm diesel which buffeted legs, face and hair. I was always amazed at my mum’s strength as she wobbled into the stream of traffic, fascinated by her calf muscles which tightened and bunched with each fresh push of the pedal.

As for my dad, he had a standard-black, no frills, utilitarian version with a curved, metal gear lever and fully-encasing chain guard. The bike clicked reassuringly and, as it gained speed, developed a low, satisfied purr.

After a series of second-hand, repainted ones, I got my first brand-new bike when I passed the 11+, an achievement made the more exciting since it was so unexpected. The bike was metallic blue with white mud-guards. It was the first in a long line of new acquisitions: new uniform, new satchel, new geometry set. I even had a brand-new bicycle cape, still pristine in its plastic pouch.

Like a newly polished football cup, I fairly shone on my first morning rides to the Grammar School. Such initial gleamings, however, were soon to prove short-lived. The honeymoon period of September sun quickly dissolved in a deluge of drenching autumnal rain. I was alerted to the change in the weather by my mum.

‘Would you believe it? As soon as I get the last sheet on the line, it starts to rain.’

It was a Monday morning.

‘Looks like you’ll have to try out your cape, Keith.’

Quickly tearing at the plastic pouch, I unfolded the yellow plastic sheet. It perched on the floor like a pyramid. Pulling it over my head, I was engulfed by a smell of pungent chemicals. I rustled towards the door, twisting my body sideways so that I could drag the cape over my satchel. I thrust my hands through the wrist-straps as my mum tugged my cap onto my head.

‘There now. You’ll be ready for a blizzard in that.’

I looked down at the yellow expanse in front of me. My bare knees poked out at the bottom. It was as if I was wearing a brightly coloured ball-gown which had suffered drastic shrinkage. I was beginning to feel foolish.

Mounting my bike proved more of a problem than I had expected. I found myself incapable of kicking off and jumping on with my usual flourish. Having stubbed my toe on the invisible cross-bar a couple of times, I had to resort to an awkwardly exaggerated cocking motion like an athletic dog at a lamp-post.

Once on the road, however, I was reassured to find that I was not the only first year wearing such surreal garb. A whole host of yellow hunch-backs were streaming towards school. Minutes later, I would join them in the cloakroom, now awash with the spray from countless capes as they were dutifully shaken out before being hung out to dry on a peg.

In the ensuing weeks, we all became far more adept at handling a bicycle whilst impersonating a tent. Nevertheless, it soon became apparent that we had been gulled into wearing one of the most ridiculous items of outdoor clothing ever invented. It was universally agreed that the patent-holder was either an idiot or a misanthrope with a sick sense of humour.

Discovery No 1: The cape, in a downpour, acted like a rocky mountain slope. Rock pools overflowed into rivulets which rapidly swelled into raging torrents so that, within minutes, vast waterfalls were cascading onto knees, socks and shoes. In fact, it was like wearing a cheap visual aid for a Geography lesson.

Discovery No 2: Rain plus cape equalled chafing sores, owing to the starch-like edges at neck and knee. If untreated, these sores would begin to suppurate and quickly turn gangrenous.

Discovery No 3: In high winds, a cape would inflate, and could seriously impair visual contact with the road ahead. Normally, a ballooning cape could be wrestled into submission, but it had been known, in particularly fierce squalls, to cause the front wheel of a bike to lift from the ground unless of course the cyclist attempted to rectify this by releasing the hand-grips and thus continue to ride in a style more suited to the circus-ring.

Discovery No 4: A cape had a life expectancy of six weeks. First to go would be the plastic press-studs at the collar. Invariably, they imploded on contact, taking with them biscuit-sized bits of cape. Consequently, rain could now leak freely down the throat as well as the freshly exposed neck.

A week after the press-studs disappeared, the wrist-straps would gamely attempt to break free of their anchorage at the bottom of the cape. Great gashes would appear which would race each other towards the countless holes already torn out by brake-levers, saddles or spiked pump-mountings. Before the cape was finally ditched, it would resemble a bird-scarer or a modern-day mummers’ jacket.

Discovery No 5: A cape was parental short-hand for lack of funds.

Discovery No 6: Only first years and plonkers wore capes.

During that year, my cape was not the only symbol of fresh-faced innocence to join the casualty list. After the first term, short trousers were replaced by long, my cap spent most of its life in my satchel, and my geometry set rattled with bits of broken plastic, a leaky fountain pen and a set of dividers which had lost their connecting screw. Similarly, at weekends and during the holidays, I felt a strong urge to chip away at the boundaries of adult approval. In short, I wanted to take some risks.

That summer, Jack’s idea of a bike ride into the Wolds provided the kind of project I had been looking for. It would be a round trip of twenty-five miles and take all day. This would far exceed any previous journeys I had undertaken. Freiston Shore and Frampton were the furthest I had ventured so far. My mum took some convincing.

‘I don’t know, it seems a bit far to me. I mean, what if you get lost?’

‘Jack’s got some maps.’

‘Then there’s the weather. You could get soaked, out in the middle of nowhere.’

‘I’ve got my windcheater. We’ll be able to find shelter if it gets too bad.’

‘I’m not so sure.’

‘Look, Jack’s done it before.’

‘Yes, with an older brother.’

‘Oh, go on. Please!’

‘We’ll have to see what your dad says when he gets in from work.’

My dad proved less of a problem. I could go, he agreed, if my bike was properly serviced which included the purchase of a puncture-repair kit and spanners for the journey. I instantly concurred. I couldn’t wait for the next Saturday morning. It was going to be an early start, giving us enough time, Jack had declared, to enjoy some fiendishly steep hills before burying our time-capsules at Bag Enderby.

Although we were the same age, Jack was a year above me at school. He had passed the 11+ the first time round. Like his drop handled racing bike, Jack’s brain was finely tuned, his thinking exact and his reactions acute. Even everyday chores, like unwrapping a block of butter, were tackled with the precision of a watch-maker. Whereas I would impatiently rip away at the wax paper, Jack would unfold it with deft flicks of a knife, careful to avoid tears, before flattening a perfect rectangle onto the bread-board.

It had been the same at primary school. In lessons, Jack was a sharp as a ferret: I was as naïve and happy as a young spaniel. Our poetic outpourings admirably demonstrated this huge gulf in intellect. In my homage, ‘To Jimmy’, I was more than satisfied to find a rhyme for ‘cosy’ in ‘rosy’, even though my teddy bear’s nose was black. Jack’s ‘Requiem for a Dead Donkey’, on the other hand, sparkled with the kind of diction which would have been home to Cowper and Gray two centuries before.

‘Alas! Thou hast brayed thy final breath

And found thine sanctuary in Death!

Long years seven thou hast spent on Earth.

Adieu to smiles, ‘tis no time for Mirth!’

I couldn’t believe anyone could be so clever. Even though I had no idea of what it meant, I felt sure that Jack’s poem was the work of a genius.

Despite our intellectual differences, it was the physical world of the running track, marshland creeks and the river bank where we met on common ground. We were speed-merchants and intrepid explorers addicted to a regular fix of freshly cut grass, salt air and thick, sucking mud.

Time, then, for a new challenge. A twenty-five-mile trip into the Wolds would be a proper test of strength and endurance. Familiar as I was with the places on our route, I would no longer be dependent upon others to get me there. I didn’t need a free lift on a bus to Old Bolingbroke, where my uncle owned a garage. Or a back-seat ride in Jack’s mum’s Wolsey Hornet to a picnic at Langton. No, this time it would be pure pedal power that would get us there.

Jack arrived promptly at eight o’clock on the Saturday morning. I could hear him talking to my mum in the kitchen.

‘Is he about ready then?’

‘He’ll only be a minute, ducky. You know what he’s like.’

I was slumped over my Weetabix in the back room.

‘I hope it stays like this. Wally’s up his ladder painting the guttering. Keith, Jack’s here.’

I mumbled a greeting.

‘Well, you look raring to go. What time were you up this morning?’

‘Six thirty. The cat needed feeding. Then I had to make my sandwiches.’

‘Did you hear that in there? Six thirty and he made his own sandwiches.’

‘Yes, I heard.’

‘Well, come on, then. You’re missing the best part of the day.’

I slipped into a pair of old school shoes and stumbled into the kitchen. Jack nodded, his eyes widely alert in his face full of freckles.

‘Here’s your duffle-bag. Two lots of sandwiches: corned-beef in one, ham and tomato in the other. Now, come on, off you go, and be careful on the main road past the hospital. I know what you’re like at this time in the morning.’

I gradually became aware of the world around me as we left Boston on the A16 in the direction of Sibsey. We were in single file, Jack in the lead. He shouted over his shoulder.

‘Heckington Show next weekend. They always have good prizes.’

‘Got to be better than the tie-clip I won at Sleaford.’

I had come second in the 100 yards handicap and couldn’t believe that anyone, in their right minds, would deem a tie-clip an appropriate prize for a twelve-year old.

Ten miles of flat, straight road lay ahead of us. We pedalled into a balmy head wind. Occasionally dust swirled up into our eyes as cars and lorries flew past. We stopped for a breather just beyond Stickney. As I took a slug of orange-squash, Jack motioned me to be quiet.

‘There, do you hear? A Skylark.’

A continuous stream of liquid notes filled the air, crystal clear, like a high-pitched flute. It was a celebration. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I couldn’t have felt happier. We journeyed onwards and for the next half hour I was completely silent, eagerly awaiting any further discoveries from the tour-guide in front of me.

‘Ox-eye Daisies and Red Campion to the left and, over there, Bush-Vetch in the taller grass and Birdsfoot-Trefoil nearer the road.’

It was like following an encyclopaedia.

‘We’re chasing a Yellow-hammer along the hedge. Lapwing in the field, Spotted Flycatcher on the telegraph wire and Wheatear on the fence. See it? Black flash across the eyes.’

Before Stickford, we turned off towards East Kirkby.

‘Common Redstart!’

‘Got it,’ I lied.

We were beginning to climb now. Turning right at the crossroads in the village, we headed for the famous signpost.

‘To Old Bolingbroke and Mavis Enderby.’

‘The gift of a son,’ we both blurted out as we passed it, pretending the joke was ours. We stopped and dismounted, looking behind us at the vast panorama of flatness towards Boston. The Stump was clearly visible rising above the white tower of the new hospital.

‘There, over there; if I’m not much mistaken, Tormentil.’

I followed Jack’s index finger to a small, insignificant, yellow flower.

‘A cure for diarrhoea and it’ll harden your gums.’

‘What’s that then? Looks like a small Pansy.’

‘Heartsease. Viola Tricolor. You’re right. It’s the Wild Pansy.’

I suddenly felt intelligent.

‘Right, come on. It’ll be uphill, a long plateau, and then we can bomb down into Old Bolingbroke. I tell you, you’ll love this.’

Jack had spotted Herb Robert, Common Storksbill and Lady’s Mantle before we could see the tower of the church in Old Bolingbroke below us.

‘Whitethroat in the nettles.’

I no longer cared. Readying myself for a swift descent, I shrugged my duffel-bag into the small of my back and lowered myself over the handle-bars.

‘A long steady hill. Definitely no brakes.’

I gripped harder.

‘Chocks away.’

Jack surged past me.

‘See you at the village shop.’

I scooted off and could feel the wind whip into my face as I plummeted down the hill. The bike trembled and shook beneath me. The front mud-guard vibrated into a blur. As we veered round a corner into a high banked valley of deep green, I could hear the tyres rip across the tarmac like a sticking plaster peeling from a wound. The bike juddered against a pot hole then skidded through the dust at the side of the road. My ears began to sting with the cold. I gulped for air. Trees flashed by. I lowered my body further into my bike. The whistling wind began to scream as the road growled louder and louder. My face was a frozen mask as I shot into the village.

Slower now, as the slope gradually shallowed into houses and gardens. I began to relax. I could feel my body sink back into itself. Turning the corner at the crossroads, I could see Jack in front of the shop. I came to an abrupt stop.

‘No brakes?’

‘No brakes.’

I couldn’t move. I was straddling my bike, both feet on the road. I gripped my handle-bars tighter, trying to steady the trembling in my knees and calf muscles. I lowered myself onto the cross-bar.

‘Fancy a Mars Bar?’

I nodded, glad that Jack wouldn’t be a witness to my pathetic attempts at dismounting. As the shop bell tinkled, I gave in and collapsed sideways into the road. Freed from my paralysis, I could feel the first tingles of pain creep up my leg. Jack came dashing out of the shop.

‘Jeez, you allright? Here, let me give you a hand.’

I crawled away from the bike then sat up in the middle of the road.

‘It’s only my knee. I’ve torn my jeans though. And I think I might’ve squashed my sandwiches.’

Jack pulled me to my feet.

‘What were you doing?’

I hobbled and stamped my foot on the road.

‘I’m not sure really. Where we off to next?’

Chewing on our Mars Bars, we cruised through the village, coming to rest opposite my auntie’s house at the Churchyard gate.

‘You going in to say hello?’

‘Not likely. She’ll keep us there for hours.’

‘Fair enough. Next stop, Lusby.’

‘After you, then. What’s keeping you?’

Jack was looking at the wall.

‘Funny, I hadn’t noticed it before. There’s Ivy-leaved Toadflax this side of the gate and Yellow Fumitory on the other. I wonder why that is.’

I smiled blankly, quickly becoming absorbed in an inspection of my palm for gravel cuts.

‘Not to worry. Once more into the breach.’

We passed a sign which announced the village’s Plantagenet connections, then started on a slow ascent towards Asgarby. After the first corner, the hill rose steeply, forcing us out of our saddles. Wobbling wildly across the road, I tried one last push. No good. I would have to dismount. I continued the long, hot slog on foot, leaning into the bike and shoving with all of my might. Jack was waiting for me fifty yards ahead. By the time I had reached him I was exhausted.

‘Not far now. Worth it for that, though.’

I turned round. In the valley below, the village was spread out before us. The castle ruins undulated in a meadow to the right and just behind the pub the church tower rose above its surrounding trees. We could trace our route along the roads we had taken by following the rows of white and orange cottages. Everywhere vegetable plots and outbuildings jostled for position. Smoke from bonfires rose in a spiral then fanned out against a background of fields. To the left, beyond my uncle’s garage, the manor house with its formal gardens restored a sense of order and a breathing space.

It didn’t take long to get to Lusby.

‘We’ll be able to stop for lunch soon. Before that we’ve got Hagworthingham ford.’

It was straight ahead at the crossroads. The high-banked road narrowed immediately as we free-wheeled past the church on our right.

‘Famous battle in the Civil War was fought over there.’

Jack gestured towards the fields on his left.

‘Make sure you take your feet off the pedals when we go through the ford.’

We were gathering speed.

‘No brakes.’

As we raced through the shallow stream, our feet pulled up to rest on our cross-bars, water sprayed in low arcs either side of us.

‘I want to do that again.’

‘No time. I’ve got a surprise for you at the garage.’

After another long trek on foot, we finally wheeled our bikes into the lay-by on the main Skegness road.

‘Fancy some chips with your sandwiches?’

‘Why, got some in your bag?’

‘No need.’

Jack walked his bike to a vending machine outside the garage.

‘For a tanner, yer can get a tray of chips.’

‘Yeah, right.’

Jack took a coin from his pocket and slotted it into the machine.

‘Takes a bit of time.’

Within seconds, I could smell frying fat. After a couple of minutes, a polystyrene tray dropped behind the plastic door quickly followed by a string of golden-brown chips which tumbled to fill it.

‘All yours.’

I couldn’t believe it. In Hagworthingham? 1967? Had the world gone mad? It was like discovering a Tardis on your back lawn.

‘This is brilliant.’

‘I know. Don’t ask me how.’

As edible as the chips proved, I was doubly thankful for the technological wizardry which had created them owing to the discovery that more than half of my sandwiches had succumbed to a dousing of orange squash from the plastic bottle which had split at the bottom of my duffel bag.

‘That’s where polythene bags and elastic bands come in handy.’

Hardly sympathetic, but Jack had a point.

‘Here, you can munch your way through my reserve pack of cheese and pickle.’

I faked appreciation and spent the next ten minutes chewing miserably through a brittle smile.

‘Onwards. Time to meet the great poet.’


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