Pauline Craig and Fiona Crawford
"Walk don't run!" bellowed the head teacher. Emma hardly even noticed the group of boys in front of her that Mrs Wilson was shouting at. She was thinking about her birthday the coming Saturday and the fantastic new bike she was getting. Now that she was going to be eleven, she was planning to get out and about plenty, although she would need to work on persuading her boring parents that she was perfectly capable of cycling safely without them in attendance all the time. It was ridiculous the way they carried on, worrying about the traffic or that some axe-murderer would jump out on her from behind a lamp post in broad daylight and drag her off. She decided she would speak to her best friend, Laura, to see if they could cycle to school together. It would be great to be able to arrive together looking cool on their bikes. And after all, she had been walking to school with her friends since Primary 5.
"You've got to be joking," said Laura when Emma broached her plan. "My mum and dad wouldn't let me cycle to school in a month of Sundays. They only let me walk when it's not raining and they're always fussing about me taking that shortcut through the park on the way home, even when I'm with Sally."
"Oh." Emma looked away, dejected, but brightened quickly. "I tell you what," she suggested. "We could just cycle on the pavements and down the back lanes and we would be crossing the main road at the lights anyway. After all, that health promotion woman who came to speak to us was saying how important it was to get more exercise and not to be couch potatoes."
"Yes," said Laura, "but the road safety man who came last month was telling us how easy it is to get knocked down crossing the road and that getting hit by a car is the main cause of death in our age group. He'd have a hairy canary if we thought we were cycling! And anyway, where would we put our bikes when we got there? That's if Darren's gran doesn't kill us first in her four-wheel-drive — you know what it's like around the school first thing."
"Well I'm going to suggest in our health promotion group that we get cycle racks for the playground," said Emma. "You know there used to be bike sheds at the back of the school and loads of kids used to cycle when my mum was here. Come on, at least it's something a bit different and it'll make a change from talking about blinking healthy eating all the time — I'm sick to death hearing about how many vitamins broccoli contains. Right, I'm going to ask my mum tonight."
After school, Emma took a break from the computer and sidled, in a friendly way, into the kitchen. "Mu—um? See when I get my new bike that I'm not supposed to know I'm getting? Can I get a lock for it too? Me and Laura are going to start cycling to school and we might be getting cycle racks," Emma said confidently as her mum stomped around the kitchen opening and closing cupboard doors.
"What? I don't think so. It's far too dangerous. I can easily take you and Laura out to the park and along the cycle path at the weekends. And we're going to get a rack for the car so that we can take the bikes on holiday. Have you done your homework?" Martha opened the fridge door now in a renewed effort to help her think about what to make for dinner and how to incorporate broccoli into it, painlessly this time.
"Aw mum, please?" We'll be careful. We've both got our cycling proficiency certificates?" Emma had picked up that annoying upward inflection since the start of Primary 7. Something to do with transitions, Martha supposed.
"No Emma, I'm not happy about it. Once they make this whole area into pedestrians- and bikes-only then I might think about it, but not the way the traffic is now. And Laura's dad wouldn't let her anyway, not since what happened to that girl on the way to school down south." Martha closed the fridge with a sigh and wondered exactly when her mother had taken over her powers of speech. She caught sight of that daft fridge magnet that a friend had given her: 'Mirror mirror on the wall, you are your mother after all'.
Emma tutted loudly and flounced off, and somehow Martha thought that she hadn't heard the last of that set of negotiations. A cup of tea and a wee think was what she needed to help her decide about dinner.
"Don't let me go, don't let me go, don't let me go!" Martha screamed at the top of her voice, as her dad thundered along beside her, holding her saddle and trying to keep her balanced. She really is too old for this, he thought, we should have persevered with her two years ago when she was seven and not so heavy to push.
Her dad sighed as best he could with what little breath he had left.
"I'm not going to let you go, just relax and don't panic. Let's do this one more time just to get the feel for it then we'll leave it 'til next week, OK?" At the end of the road Martha's dad nudged her off the bike to turn it round for her before setting off again.
"Hi Jim! That Martha learning to ride her bike at last, eh?" Eric, her dad's friend, appeared round the corner. "It's hard work, eh?"
"Alright Eric! Did you get home OK the other night?" As they sank into jovial gossip, Martha started playing around with the bike. First walking it up and down the pavement, then running along beside it, imagining herself sailing down the pavement, faster and faster, taking off into the air, over the hedges, swooping round and over her dad's and Eric's heads...
"Martha, be careful!" Jim shouted, before turning back to Eric's rather long story. Martha slowed down and considered her situation.
Suddenly, "Dad, dad, look at me!" Martha whooped as Jim and Eric looked round to see Martha cycling, yes, cycling along towards them. A bit wobbly perhaps, and not quite sure how to stop...
"Brake, Martha, brake!" Jim laughed despite himself as he and Eric caught her before she ploughed into them. "Cycling at last!"
Before long, Martha and her bike were inseparable — after school, through the holidays, cycling everywhere. She often made a nuisance of herself with her friends because she always wanted to play on her bike and wanted them to do the same. Even when they had all started secondary school, she still played on her bike whenever she could until it was gradually, inevitably replaced by more teenage-like pursuits.
Martha couldn't remember when she started cycling again. Probably when she moved back to the city. One of her flatmates left an old bike for her when she moved out and it turned out to be cheaper and easier to use it to get to college rather than spending half her life standing at bus stops. There was a fantastic hill she used to cycle down every morning — it was steep and long and there was never much traffic about. From the brow she could see right over the rooftops, over the multi-storeys even, all the way to the hills beyond the city. On clear spring mornings flying down the hill was exhilarating, so fast and free and breathtaking...
"Mu—um? When will dinner be ready?" Emma put her arms round her mum's shoulders, nearly spilling Martha's tea.
"Oh, oh, right, em, it won't take long." Martha came back to the present, a bit startled. "Yes. I was just thinking that I should have a chat to the school to see what they're doing about the cycle racks, and about all that double parking at the school gates. Maybe there is something we could do to let kids get the use of their bikes."
Emma's face lit with excitement and pride. "Oh mum! That's great! I'm going to text Laura!"
"cycling on mum tkg acshon!" Laura peered at her mobile phone. "Mum taking action," she thought, "now what does that mean?" The last time she heard someone saying they were taking action was when Kenny, her older brother, was going to some big protest march near Perth. He went on and on about taking action on poverty. It was all you could get out of him for a while. Kenny didn't normally talk much since he turned fifteen, so she didn't expect to get any more from him than rolling eyes and a grunt, but he was worth a try. She carefully approached the hairy form in front of the computer.
"Kenny, if someone said they were taking action on cycling, what do you think they would be planning to do?" Laura asked.
Kenny flicked back his hair and turned slowly from the computer. "Cycling action? Hey! Me and my mates are planning a critical mass to show these fat capitalists a thing or two. Reclaim the streets! Death to SUVs! We're just waiting on some stuff to come from the internet — stickers. Parking tickets, you know? 'Poor vehicle choice', 'One less 4x4'! Ha!" Kenny slumped back to the computer, nodding.
"Oh right, I see." Laura looked bemused. Fat what? SUVs? What on earth was he on about? She didn't think he'd be much help. Maybe once he's older, she thought, he might be more useful.
The next day at school, Emma and Laura got together at playtime. They were pleased that Emma's mum seemed to want to help, but the school board didn't meet for ages and they wanted to start cycling right now. They would have to talk to some of their other classmates. Maybe someone would come up with something.
Friday came at last, and Mrs Wilson was preparing her weekly reports before the morning bell. As she worked through the registers, she started to notice a gradual crescendo of more than the usual noise from the front playground. The children were always more excitable than usual on Friday mornings, but this was a bit more than the normal melee. What was going on? Mrs Wilson dragged a chair over to the window. The Victorians dealt well with daydreaming in classrooms, she thought; you had to be seven feet tall if you wanted to gaze on the outside world in these old schools.
Mrs Wilson peered out onto total pandemonium. Cars were blocking the road from one end of the school to the other. The drivers were out shouting and waving their arms at one another and towards the school. She couldn't see as far down as the school gates. "Oh no!" cried Mrs Wilson, "I knew someone was going to be killed with all these cars coming and going in the morning! Why did it have to come to this!" She dashed out of her office and down the stairs to the playground, burst through the doors, and stopped in her tracks. There was no ambulance crew and no limp body strewn on the ground. But in their place there was a large group of children, lots of them on bikes, moving in a surprisingly orderly oval, taking up the whole of the side of the road that was usually taken up with cars dropping children off at school. She could just make out the sound of children's voices coming through the cacophony of car horns and angry drivers.
The line of cars and vans was gradually growing as far as she could see in both directions. But now what was happening? The drivers' shouts were starting to die down as the children's voices came through more clearly. They were laughing and chanting as they walked, ran and cycled in their loop. "Reclaim the streets!" they shouted. "What do we want? Freedom! Why do we want it? To go on our bikes!" they chanted, over and over, until the drivers eventually stopped shouting altogether. Some of them even started smiling and cheering. Apart from Darren's gran, of course, although she did redirect her shouts towards some of the other drivers, crying "Let me out of here! It's a madhouse!"
Mrs Wilson surveyed the scene. Who were all these children? She could tell most of them were in Primary 7, but there were younger ones too. And was that not Laura's brother Kenny watching grimly from the side gate? And who was that still on stabilisers? She realised she was starting to smile. She put her hand to her mouth and turned away, back into the school. "Yes!" she exclaimed, quietly, into her hand.
Text © Pauline Craig and Fiona Crawford (2006) and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Licence.