The father parked up beside the promenade, and sitting still, his large body floated on the black driver’s seat. Through the fogged-up windscreen, he glanced at the sea then turned his head to look over across the Mersey. The air, he imagined, lined by fine grey dampness as he struggled to make out the building on the waterfront where his wife had worked.
He hadn’t been to the city since, but its sight stalked him. It was hard to escape it, living where he did, with all its hills and tall streets, but most people found the unavoidable views comforting. He had thought this even as a boy, loving the city and sea in equal measure, but now the city’s architecture was merely a memory to him, and the river between made intimacy impossible. His thoughts had always followed his eyes and so he quickly leaned sideways to help his son with the seatbelt. After closing their doors, they both walked to the back of car and opened the boot in order to get the bike out.
It had been a gift from the boy’s grandmother, though it was not his birthday for another seven months. It came without stabilizers and appeared smaller each time they passed it in the hallway. The boy had ridden only his friends’ bikes before, and so this was to be an entirely new experience for the family. That morning, at breakfast, the boy’s boasts fought with his father’s teasing of innocence and naivety.
In was nearer to lunch now. He leaned against the seawall after handing his son the bicycle. Despite a fumbling start, the boy began to ride more prudently and eventually came back to face his father. He jumped off beaming.
“Oh go on, Dad!” he insisted, presenting his father with the small bicycle, “you promised you would.”
He hadn’t expected his son to have learnt so quickly without his help, but even so, he had promised - albeit half-jokingly. He fretted, trying to recollect the last time he had done it himself. It must have been his later teenage years; he recalled thick black tyres rolling over the baked tarmac, riding topless in the heat of sepia summer eves.
He snatched the bike, stuck one leg over the delicate frame and felt the brakes on the pads of his inner-fingers. The boy watched in bewilderment as his father, pulling a jumper and a shirt over a scalp dotted with greying hairs, proceeded to bare a plump, pale torso. Tossing the clothes aside, the father caught a reflection in an adjacent car window.
A fat gentleman, clad only in black trousers, stared back at him. Mortified, he realized, for the first time, just how big he had become. Lost now were the lean ridges - the bones that once buttoned up his back as a boy. Yet he managed to tear away his gaze, concentrating instead on the path ahead: the nutty leaves sitting brazenly, spiting the breath of the wind. He sank into the seat and began to pedal slowly. The cold air brushed against his portly chest, and his knees rose rhythmically to squash his hanging stomach.
Past oblivious pedestrians, he sailed down the promenade. And when he pressed his palm harder on the handlebars, his wedding ring chafed. He couldn’t help but laugh at himself. Soon, though, he noticed the silent frowns and funny looks, his son turn away, and he felt an impalpable chill upon his skin. Nonetheless, overcome by a sudden rush of feeling, he bore down upon this feeling of happy sadness.
Slowing down now, almost in tears, he gazed up at the city and saw his wife once more. How bittersweet, he thought, to both sink and smile, like enormous men on tiny bikes.
A letter from the zest team:
2020 was difficult. Do what you can, Do what you love in 2021. Remember what made you happy as a child, lean into it.
We hope the story above, by the wonderfully imaginative friend of Cherry, Matty Lear, reminds you to smile even when you feel like sinking.
Illustrations by the incredible Karolina Piotrowska takes us back to that child-like state of laughing through an uphill battle.
Happy New Year and welcome love.
Words by Matty Lear
Edited by Amira Umar