I know this is not poetry. I have joined a memoir writing group, and the wonderful phrase “uncommon harmony” comes from Faye Benedict who is a really gifted writer in that group. It was that phrase that made me decide to write differently, it seemed to make sense of what writing memoir might be. Though, it is likely to be me, me. [See the sidebar for poems.]
The day before my fifth birthday I went with my father to someone else’s house and the man there took a child’s bicycle from his shed. He called it a “fairy cycle”. It was quite obviously “previously loved” as the silver frame and mudguards were well scratched. I had never seen anything so lovely. The man lifted me to the saddle, and checked how my feet would reach the ground and pedals. Then I was told to turn the pedals while the man ran behind, holding the back of the saddle to keep my fairy cycle upright, as I took my first ever bike ride. Then I had to get off, while the men conferred. I wonder now when training wheels were invented, I never had any. I must have had fairy stars in my eyes as my father and the man were looking at me and smiling as I stood beside my bike with my arm stretched across to hold the handlebars. I knew my father was very pleased, I assumed it was with me. The men spat in their palms and shook hands. My father gave me a coin to give the man, so I did. He thanked me for the “luck-penny” and wished me good riding.
Back at Gortnaskea, a square house with an asphalt turning space in front and concrete paths on both sides running to the expanse of the back yard, there was quite a bit of saddle holding to come, and even more crashes into the brick walls that bounded the paths. These walls were about saddle height, just right for getting on and then using to push against to start off before wobbling a few yards and crashing into the wall further along. Although I remember this very well, I also feel certain that I have been riding a bike all my life, bicycles are part of who I am. Gortnaskea House faced the drive to the brickyard across the road, running downhill a few hundred yards to the dip where a stream was bridged, then up again to the canteen and the office. On weekends we were allowed to play there, not to go further than the lorry park beyond the office. Without my father there was no exploring of the kilns and fires or the loading yards by the railway line. All our playing was bounded by rules we knew to keep. At other times, in the fields behind the house, we got lost until the call for lunch, but never went near the mine nor the sand pit.
I must have learned to ride soon, as I remember a sunny day flying down the brickyard drive on my cycle, wind in hair, and of course in 1948, no hat or helmet of any kind. I saw a brick in the road just before I hit it. The next memory is of my mother lifting me and carrying me to the house. Now, I know that my sister had to run home, tell my mother, then my mother ran to where I lay. I must have been out, unconscious, at least five minutes. I still have a tiny scar under my chin, apparently the cycle stood on its front wheel and I went over the handlebar. I seemed to have taken no hurt, but of course my mother did not know what hut might be unseen, so that afternoon remains as very special. My mother was a golfer and a foursome, part of a competition, had been arranged. She took me with her and played her match while I walked alongside being fussed over and petted by all the women, allowed some ‘turns’ to play if I kept quiet while they had their turns. How I loved the attention that day, not knowing how my mother felt as she kept me beside her, watching and hoping that all would be well.
In fact, I think this was the second time I had been knocked unconscious. The first was a few months earlier, when I had just started at that awful school, and a bigger boy, Herbie Thomson, ran slap into me in the playground, so that I cracked my head on the concrete. When school was over I wasn’t hurting any more but I had a large lump on the back of my head. My mother arrived to collect me and my sister and she and were talking very seriously together for quite a long time. The talking was scary. The teacher was apologising, and apologizing again, so many “sorrys”. My mother was very displeased, even angry. Years later, recalling Herbie’s name for some reason, I learned that my mother had been deeply upset that Herbie had been punished for an accident, almost certainly caused by a nearly five year-old girl not watching where she was going.
My poor mother. I was a source of anxiety from the day I was born, as my father knew well. Maybe it was why he paid so much attention to me, and I know now that it was why he was angry when he heard about my pregnancy. However, giving anxiety at my birth was not my fault, and when I was only five it would be a long time before I would hear that part of my story, and begin to understand what it meant. But I already knew I was not like Veronica, that I climbed trees, tore clothes, scrambled in rock-pools at Portrush, and was regularly told to Please, be more careful.
What happened to the fairy cycle? It must have survived the crash, as a few years later, after a holiday in Blackpool had introduced me and my sisters to superior circus performances, it was the chief prop for the trick cyclist. I spent hours practicing how to push the bike to its fastest in time to get a foot on the saddle while my other leg performed its graceful arabesque, and then I would remove hands from the bars just in time to throw my arms wide before the bike hit the wall and I jumped safely to the grass. My sisters and I did circus displays for parents and aunts and uncles. I remember great daring, but not anxiety from the grown-ups. I don’t think any of those little girl bicycles survived to pass to other children, and I have to suppose there was not really anything dangerous happening. My early memories often split like this, feeling the self-as-a-child, and at the same time seeing the adults who loved me from my own adult understanding. I love both their amusement and their giving me applause and confidence with inexpressible gratitude.
The first full size bicycle arrived at Christmas 1955, the year I was 12, just moved up to class 3A. It was a dark red three speed Balmoral. Veronica’s was the same, but black. Irene had a slightly different model, probably smaller, blue. My new classmates in 3A rode bicycles. I rode the five miles from Coalisland to Dungannon, and met Olive about halfway where she came in from the Carland Road, and then Moyra met us both just out of town, and we reached school on the far side of town together.
One summer day many of us, including Veronica and Jean from 3B, went on a twenty-mile cycling history trip. We went towards Armagh, to visit Moy and the old walls of Charlemont Fort and learn some Irish history on-site. Charlemont was a significant military post at various times, sometimes held by the Irish army and at other times by the English, such as the brutal Parliamentarian forces who held it for Cromwell in the 1660s. More recently, in the 1970s the Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist paramilitary group, attacked and killed civilians in the village, repeating brutality. On the cycle ride I didn’t pay any attention to the history, not realizing that this was the only time we would be offered any Irish or Ulster history during our schooldays. What I know of Ireland’s story has been learnt since from newspapers and novels, and many rather good visitors’ centres in places like Ranfurly, Dungannon and Belfast. It is appalling to realize that our history curriculum was the history of England, its kings and queens, and the building of its Empire. Our school, and I suppose all in Northern Ireland, followed the curriculum set by the Northern Ireland government education department, and since partition many years before, that government had been staunchly Unionist. “Staunch” is still the word this group give to their own mindset, they know what they believe, and one belief is that they should not give way to change. When the Troubles began in 1968, what happened first was a peacefully organised Civil Rights march. We know now how wrong that went. The local culture had no understanding of civil rights, it was more imbued with ignorance of the kind that caned Herbie Thomson or thought that education meant memorising the history of a colonising country.
Thinking back, I cannot imagine how even then a history teacher was able or allowed to take a dozen girls on a bicycle ride. Our history teacher, like my father, seems to have tried to bring something wider into our lives. I regret now that all that I remember of that day is that we all wore our sky-blue summer school uniforms that were made from local Moygashel cloth. We cycled in the sun, we were tired with the happy exhaustion that comes when a healthy body has been stretched. I have an unexplainable strong feeling of pride, feeling good. Veronica may have listened, she always says Miss Hanson, the history teacher, was genuine and kind. Veronica, often vilified as “unrealistic”, spent a great part of her own professional life as a primary school teacher campaigning for STOPP, the Society for Teachers opposed to Physical Punishment. The law forbidding such punishment in schools passed through the British Parliament in 1987 by one single vote, on an occasion when not one Ulster Unionist member happened to be present to vote against it, as they were at that time in the middle of one of their boycotts of parliamentary engagement. Boycotts occurred throughout the times of the troubles when the British government tried to broker peace talks, or address some aspect of rights within Northern Ireland. What I remember is that Veronica and I enjoyed our talk together by phone that evening, with pride, and also triumph.
I have to own now that I must have been an unthinking careless teenager in many ways. My life was about me my friends and school and more about me than anyone else. Rides to school meeting Moyra and Olive gave way to the ride that met up with Ronnie. Another day of riding was spent with Margaret as we took our bicycles and panniers and baskets on a daffodil collection hunt. Obviously it must have been springtime, as in all the outlying villages and farms daffodils were the flowers blooming on the driveways. We went to the houses and asked if we could pick them. What for? It was something to do with school, an occasion when bringing armfuls of flowers for decoration was a big success. It cannot have been “Speech Day” as that happened late in May with girls on parade in blue dresses. It must have been for a dance, when once a year we older girls were allowed to organize and invite the boys to the School Dance. Margaret and I would both have thought that was worth a lot of effort.
Bicycles disappeared for a while after I went to Belfast, though there was a temporary flirtation with a motor-bicycle, and its rider Allen. I didn’t tell my mother about the accident. I was riding pillion, of course no helmet, wearing a pink gingham checked dress, when approaching a side road Allen accelerated the bike to pass a white van in front. I saw the van indicator lights switch on, he was going to turn into our path. Did my body remember the brick on the brickyard drive? I think it might have remembered the trampoline that I had lately taken up as a new sport. I went up in the air, turned a somersault over the top of the van and landed on my feet at the base of a huge tree on the other side of the road. At least so the bystanders told me when I stood up again, with a scrape on my ankle from the tree root. Allen had fallen into the road, he and the van driver were unhurt, though his bike was not. The next year, no Allen, I was offered a ride to a party by Des, a friend of a friend, and found myself looking at a white van with a long rusted gash along its side. I said something like “what happened to the van?” and got the reply: “an idiot on a motorbike tried to pass when I was turning, the girl on the pillion should have been killed, but some miracle saved her”. It was a good party, I liked Des, but have not seen him since. That was the end of liking motor bikes though I did have one of my own briefly in London, in the year I began my PhD study. It seemed the quickest way to get around in that huge sprawling city, but I didn’t like it, and on the next trip to Ireland I rescued the red Balmoral from the garage at my parents’ house. It had migrated from Gortnaskea to The Grange, further along the road beyond the coalmine and the brickyard, when my father retired.
Bicycle love returned, and even though the Balmoral was soon to be the first of many that were stolen, I have had a bike ever since. I do not know if a luck-penny gift makes a wish real, but I do know I have had good riding.