One Small Step

A very long time ago, in the early 1990s, when I was younger and less frightened by vehicle emissions, I owned a bike. This is not the story of my adventures on the local roads, or of my one collision (with a hedge), or of my constant attempts to find better decorations for the bike frame. This is the story of what happened when the bike’s front tire burst the day after I bought it.

Normally, my parents would provide the basis of childhood, like food and accommodation and birthday presents and bikes. But, they did not have much money and the past year had been unkind so I had saved to purchase the bike myself — I worked for a family down the street, cutting their lawn, and after twelve weeks I had sixty pounds. I bought the bike and kept cutting lawns for the next six months.

The bike was old, already on its third owner, but proven reliable and also, importantly, red. My favourite colour. At sixty pounds, it was expensive, but as far as used bikes go it was in good condition and so was probably worth the price. Its owner, a boy two years older than me who I barely knew, wanted more for it but his parents had encouraged him to be “diplomatic”, and had offered to take him to Disneyland in Florida if he kept the price low. He was a “good kid”, his dad said, and I agreed except in terms of his constant boasting about “going to meet Mickey Mouse”. Those boasts weren’t good; they were rude, and showy, and took everyone’s attention away from my new bike.

I learned to ride when I was five so I was, in most ways, already a pro by this point in my life — I was just past ten, and just setting out into an independent lifestyle which, as I saw it, would definitely be well-supported by the addition of a smart red bicycle.

On the first day, the bike sat in the shed. I was at school. On the second day, the bike burst its front tire. I still don’t know how — we spoke to the Mickey Mouse boy, who swore that he had not been near the bike, had not tried to sabotage it in a sudden fit of jealously, had not tried to steal it back, and so on. Dad theorised that, perhaps, a bee had stung the bike’s tire and had punctured it with what dad called “a very strong stinging part”. I didn’t but into this theory, and settled instead of simple bad luck. At least the bike went in a straight line. I waited a week for a knew tire; it came from Germany.

I never fell off that bike, expect once, when I slid by accident through mud on a local footpath and was thrown head-first into a hedge. Dad was there — “baby steps”, he told me as he put me back on the bike and made me keep riding. I wasn’t concussed, which was good enough for him. My knee was bleeding. After a few minutes, I stopped noticing.

When I was twenty, I gave the bike away to a local charity store. I hadn’t ridden it for years, hadn’t needed it. I don’t like to rush: I give things away slowly, and nowadays I collect new things slowly too. I still have the guitar I’ve owned since I was fifteen, and the walking boots I bought for myself when I was twenty-one. I don’t miss the bike, for the same reason I don’t miss my old clothes or my school textbooks — they’re gone, I don’t need them, I keep the memories of them in mind in any case. I try to travel light.

After my encounter with the hedge, dad used to say, “one small step at a time is best” and I always agreed with him until it occurred to me one Sunday morning in the late 1990s that I was going to spend my whole life learning how to do almost nothing unless I redefined “small”. That’s when I decided to stop cycling, and go walking instead, and spend more time with friends, and write more, and eat healthier food, and slow down, and listen to more music, and all the other things that a person nowadays puts on this kind of list. I realised: if I want to make steady, small-steps progress I need to reduce my life to the essentials. It worked.

I felt then as though I’d learned something profound, something meaningful, something that might over time built itself into the kind of dad-wisdom I was used to. I told dad. He looked at me and grinned, and said, “don’t forget to keep mowing lawns”.

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