Bike shop (trip 5)
In my kids’ eyes the city of Bath doesn’t make sense. All these people scurrying round in the rain, before disappearing again, shopping bags in hand, like rabbits down a burrow. What, their eyes ask me, is it all for? Their disappointment is obvious. It’s clear to them that none of these people are going sailing. They aren’t going surfing, or even hiking. So, they silently wonder, what can their lives be about? And the fact that my husband and I seriously contemplated bringing them both up in this city is beyond them. What, their faces plead, can you have been thinking?
My husband, on the other hand, loves Bath nearly as much as our teenagers dislike it. Buoyed up by the architecture he has loved since boyhood, he is completely at one with the buildings and streets. More to the point, he is finally at work on the book that he found it impossible to write at home. Thankful and relieved, I am careful not to ask directly how it is going, knowing how touchy he is about it. But then, I tell myself, if I was trying to write philosophy, I too would keep it to myself.
My kids and I leave him alone as much as we can, knowing how guilty he feels to be absorbed with his work on what most people think is a family holiday. But there is another thing, too. My husband is not one for long walks. Nor is he particularly adventure loving. This means that the three of us know that we will probably have a better time without him – although we are careful not to say this out loud.
Besides, my son and daughter don’t do cities anymore. (And they definitely don’t do museums, even when it’s pouring with rain.) And so, on the third day of our stay, we leave the city behind and head to the coast, to a place called Breen Down, an old military fort at the end of a long headland.
With the headland in view, we drive past thousands of permanent caravans, berthed in grids, waiting patiently for summer crowds. Never have I seen so many caravans. How, I wonder out loud, can so many people think that this long pebbly soft beach is worth spending their summer holiday at? But then, as the caravan parks roll on and on, we grow thoughtful. It dawns on us how privileged we are to live alongside pristine, protected and classless beaches at the bottom of the world, with hardly a caravan park in sight of the beach.
We leave the car at a deserted fish and chip shop and climb the steep wooden steps on to the headland. As soon as we reach the top wind and rain, and then more wind, blast us. As usual, my son strides ahead. My daughter, in a mood, walks behind. I quietly regret my choice of destination. Again I have been fooled by a guide book.
Two thirds of the way down the spine of the headland, my son turns back. Saying nothing, the wind is way too loud for anything less than shouting, he grabs my hand. I am already holding my daughter’s. Even once we stumble down to the fort, the pelting rain and intermitten hail doesn’t let up. Although the setting of the fort is like something from a Jane Austen novel, even a quick read of the information boards makes it clear that real soldiers spent significant parts of their lives at this windswept outpost, waiting for the Germans, equipping guns, and doing night watches.
Hungry and wet, we return to Bath. I suggest lunch in a café I have read about, and they agree. As soon as we sit down and order, a bike shop across the road catches my son’s eye. I, meanwhile, have my eye on the hairdressers next door. But both my kids forbid me to ask for an appointment. ‘You look much better with your hair a bit longer’, my daughter insists, almost accusingly.
When we enter the bike shop, with its funky music, white painted floors, and carefully directed downlights, the manager is discussing the logistics and cost of shipping a bike back to Sydney for a friend. My son’s eyes light up. When eventually the discussion at the counter comes to an end, the manager picks out a frame for my son, reaching up to take it off a wall stand. My son’s diffidence melts away. His shoulders move back and he is clear-eyed. He looks totally convincing astride this handsome bike.
‘Can I’, he asks. ‘Can we?’ he repeats. I smile, suppressing my automatic, ‘Of course we can’t’. The manager chats on, making this purchase seem if not likely, not impossible. Good humouredly he shares snatches of his own life. The seven bikes in his garage, the unassembled bike he shipped back from Canada, his morning commute along country lanes, and the two further bikes he covets.
The half hour we spend dithering in the bike shop does more to convince my kids that there is more to life in Bath goes than commuting and shopping, than any other experience of our stay. How is it, I wonder, that bike shops are now so cool? During my childhood they were dingy smelly places, full of inner tubes and metal frames. Today they have good music, a nice aesthetic, and are run by men with a quietly philosophical outlook.
‘But’, I point out, exasperated, ‘we’ll be on the train to London in the morning’. My son looks at me, his fantasy punctured by his suitcase-pulling mother. ‘Of course’, he says, and his shoulders move forward. The manager smiles. He places the bike frame back on its stand, and I thank him warmly. Thinking he won’t forgive me, a few minutes later my son surprises me with a crooked smile. I return his smile, squeeze my daughter’s hand, and we wind our way back to our steep street in the dark.