From Solo to TandemSecond Place: Winter 2019 Writing Contest
Grimacing, Daniel focused on shutting out the nearby voices.
His mother’s desperate, pleading words, “There must be SOMETHING you can do, Doctor? SOME form of treatment?”
The angry, confused comments from his father, “This doesn’t make ANY sense! The boy’s hardly been sick a day in his life!”
And the measured tone of the ophthalmologist, “I realize Daniel’s diagnosis of juvenile open-angle glaucoma must be a terrible shock. Understandably it will take you all time to come to terms with his condition. Blah, blah, blah, intraocular pressure, blah, blah, optic nerve damage, blah, blah, blah, unfortunate late detection, blah, blah, irreversible visual impairment.”
He wished these doctors would just say it like it is! “Your son is blind. Uselessly … pathetically … blind!” No amount of appointments with eye specialists sprouting fancy words was going to change the fact that the life he’d lead for fifteen years was over.
“I want to go home now,” Daniel said, turning his head in the direction of the voices. “Thank you for your time today, Doctor.” Funny how the manners his parents had taught their children still took precedence, even while his world crashed and splintered around him.
Having been parked in the scorching African sun, the truck was uncomfortably hot. Climbing quickly into the oven-like interior of the double-cab, Daniel shifted across to the more shaded side. The vehicle rocked a little as his parents settled themselves into the front seats before buckling up.
“Put your seat belt on, Daniel,” instructed his mother, no doubt peering back over her shoulder to check whether he had or not.
He obeyed more out of habit than anything else, and because he wasn’t in the mood for a lecture. Death by car accident seemed an attractive option right now!
Once they were homeward bound, his father and mother continued the conversation they’d been having ever since he’d received the first diagnosis of JOAG. Daniel had heard it all before; the denial, conjecture, recriminations, excuses. At least no one was mentioning seeing yet another doctor!
The harsh reality was that no one had paid enough attention. Not when he’d started complaining about the headaches. ‘Take some pain medication. You’ll feel better soon.’ Not when he’d begun bumping into things because his peripheral vision was deteriorating. ‘Don’t be so clumsy, Daniel!’ Not when he’d mentioned he could no longer see the writing on the board. ‘Move to a seat at the front of the class.’ ‘No point in taking him to see an eye doctor. There’s no money for glasses. Thanks to the drought, we’ll need to buy in feed for the stock this winter.’
It was only when he’d stopped cycling on his beloved bikes and began spending every day in his bedroom that his parents finally took notice.
By which time it was too late. The very last images had been sent to his brain. No more glorious, red-and-orange sunsets; or dazzling, bright-blue summer skies; or rainbow fields of spring flowers. His days of cycling dusty tracks carved through shaded woodlands and over rocky hills were over. No more wild, exhilarating bike races with his friends, and daring, crazy stunts over carefully constructed obstacles.
Dashing tears from his cheeks with one hand, Daniel used the other to open the window as low as it would go. At the speed they were driving, the warm, outside air rushed into the cab and ruffled his dark hair.
Closing his eyes against the buffeting wind, he imagined he was cycling as fast as he could down the steep hill nearest his house. Behind him, the rest of the gang whooped and shouted, egging him on to break the record Jason had set the week before. Crouching down over the handlebars, he pumped his legs with every ounce of energy left in his body. It was now or never!
Digging deep, he pushed through the exhaustion and flashed across the finish line. His friends’ jubilant yells told him he’d done it – set a new fastest time on the cycling course they’d spent weeks creating! Grinning broadly, he lifted his arms in a victory sign.
“Close the window, Daniel! The truck’s aircon is already working overtime without you letting in extra hot air,” commanded his father, speaking loudly over the whistling wind.
“Shh! Let the boy be! That’s the first time he’s smiled in almost a year,” reproached his mother.
But the moment was ruined. His triumph a mere memory, once again relegated to the past.
“Hey Daniel, the hostel master wants to see you in the mess hall,” called Kevin from the dormitory corridor. “There are some special visitors here.”
Great! NOT! No doubt more rah-rah motivational speakers or another bunch of do-gooders come to ‘assist’ the blind kids. Ever since his parents had dropped him off six months ago at this school for visually impaired children, there’d been no less than three such groups pay them a visit.
Sighing, Daniel swung his legs off the bed and stood up. As he entered the room where the hostel kids ate all their meals, a cheerful, male voice off to Daniel’s left said, “Hi there. I’m Alex.”
“Daniel,” he responded curtly.
“Ah, you’re the champion cyclist!”
“I think you’ve got the wrong person,” he replied, wondering what the dude was smoking.
“I certainly hope not. I’m in need of a stoker with cycling experience and a desire to win.”
“Would you mind coming over here with me? I’ve got something I’d like to show you.”
At Daniel’s reluctant nod, Alex placed the back of his hand on the back of Daniel’s hand. Daniel took hold of Alex’s arm just below the elbow and walked with him to the other end of the hall.
“This is a tandem bicycle, and I’m hoping you’ll agree to become my cycling partner. The Cape Town Cycle Tour is next March, and I plan to enter the race as a member of Team SPCA.” As Alex spoke, he placed Daniel’s hands on the bike. “We’ll be raising funds for rescued, ill-treated, stray, and unwanted animals while doing something we both love.”
The metallic feel of the bicycle frame beneath Daniel’s fingertips evoked a kaleidoscope of happy memories. Scared to believe that the best part of his former life was possible again, he hesitantly asked, “What’s a stoker?”
“It’s a term for ‘rear rider.’ Basically, you’re the motor, and from what your friends back home tell me, you’re the perfect guy for the job!”
“You’ve spoken to my friends?” he asked in surprise.
“I hope you don’t mind. But choosing a teammate for a 109km cycle race is an important decision.”
“Did they also tell you that I’m blind? As in, can’t see anything?”
“Well, I certainly hope so. Otherwise, you’re at this school under false pretenses!”
Daniel couldn’t help smiling. Maybe the guy wasn’t so bad after all.
“Lucky for you, I have 20/20 vision, even on an overcast day,” continued Alex. “This key fact makes me an ideal ‘pilot.’ So, while you’re doing all the hard work at the back, I’ll be sitting up front controlling the bike. You know, doing the important stuff like steering, shifting gears and braking.”
“Why don’t you just ride the race on a single bicycle?”
“Because tandems are super-fast, and I’m a speed freak who’s inherently lazy, of course!”
Daniel felt the smile on his face broadening into a grin. He could definitely get to like this dude!
A bundle of items was placed into Daniel’s hands. “I brought along some cycling gear for you so we could go for our first practice ride. March is only eight months away, and it’s going to take us time to become a fully-functioning tandem team.”
As they swept swiftly around the bend in the road, Daniel felt the full impact of the howling South Easter. For just two seconds, he lifted his face to experience the brute force of the headwind. Then he laughed out loud with sheer joy before tucking his head down again.
Most cyclists disliked the wind, but for him, it was a sign of being alive again! Anticipating that his pilot was about to shift gears so they could maintain their fast cadence, Daniel eased off on the power. His timing was perfect. YES!
After three frustrating months, countless rides, and five crashes, they were finally in sync! There’d been times when Daniel was convinced they’d never succeed. His difficulty in giving up control and putting his trust in Alex had seriously hindered their progress and caused him to doubt his worth as a tandem cyclist.
But Alex had persevered and stuck with Daniel, true to the promise he’d made during their first ride together:
‘Whatever happens today … and tomorrow … and every day after that, I’m in this for the long haul. Uphill and downhill; in the sunshine and rain; in cycling and life; teammates to the end.’