My PromiseFirst Place: Spring 2020 Writing Contest
I was cycling along the old Shoreham footbridge in the pissing rain when it must’ve happened. Gravel cracked under my wheels and shot me in the face. I didn’t know it then, but Fishface was already dead.
The lights were out when I got home. I put on some rice. I could still smell her perfume. God knows why she insisted on smelling like potpourri every time she went out with him.
I picked up a bill scattered across the table with her handwriting on it.
Away for the weekend, it said. No kiss.
Trust her not to open the bloody bill, just use it as scribbling material.
I imagined them sat at a table, swishing wine around their glasses in his London apartment. Hers would hover around her unbuttoned blouse, swirling red like a beckoning motion.
“Why don’t you leave him?” he’d say.
“I guess I’m the kind of woman who stays on a sinking ship,” she’d sigh.
Well, let me enlighten you, Dick. There is one word for why she doesn’t leave: Money.
The doorbell went—a shrill version of Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t worry, be happy. We bought it in the nineties at Ford market. She thought it would be funny. Over the years, it sounded more discordant. Tragic.
Two men in uniform asked if they could come in.
“Do you want some coffee?” I said, “A cigarette? A beer?”
There is no etiquette for guests that come over and tell you someone is dead. After refusing my offers of stimulants, we just sat on the edge of the sofa with the information hanging between us, waiting for the appropriate time for them to leave.
The rice had boiled itself black at the bottom of the pan. I chucked it in the bin, chain-smoked for dinner until it grew dark around me. She never liked smoking in the house.
Rain slammed against the patio doors. I thought about my bike out there getting soaked. Tomorrow I’d massage the saddle with eucalyptus oil.
I thought about how she must look now. They were probably still picking the broken windshield out of her, scrubbing the clotted blood from her hair.
Well, it was typical Fishface. Everything was drama with her.
I woke to the phone ringing and the sun streaming through the slits in our cheap blinds.
It was Jen. She sounded cheery. Shit. She didn’t know.
I wished there was some automated service that informed everyone, like when a library book is overdue.
“Fishface is dead,” I said. Short. Sweet. Done.
She was silent.
“I’m coming over.”
Jen’s fork poked at her breakfast.
“So, how did it happen?”
I’d eaten mine, so all I could do was watch impatiently. There’s nothing worse than cold scrambled eggs.
“I don’t know the details, Jen. Only that she was in the car with Dick. They crashed. She’s dead.”
“Derek? Is he ok?” She set the fork down, looked up with red eyes.
“They said his condition is critical. It’s Dick, isn’t it?”
“Well. He doesn’t act like a Derek.”
“—Jesus Dad. Really? Now?”
I remember when Fishface told me about him.
“We’ve started going for coffee,” she’d said. “He says I make him laugh. It’s nice to hear sometimes.”
I poured more sugar into my tea.
“Aren’t you gonna say something?” she said.
“Whatever rocks your boat,” is what I said, before reading my paper.
The truth was, I knew it was over between us, but it was always equally over. Now I was the only one actually unhappy in our marriage. She’d deserted me, stared out the kitchen window starry-eyed while she washed dishes. She looked younger.
Jen said she’d help with the funeral arrangements. I hadn’t even thought about it. My head was jumbled. After she left, all I wanted was to get out on that bike.
Behind the cinema, bikes were chained against each other like tangled paperclips. I scanned the green railings where I usually locked mine. But it was gone.
At the back of Beppi’s, Tammy leaned against a stack of cardboard boxes, smoking.
“Alright, John?” she said.
“You haven’t seen my bike, have you?”
She took in the whole carpark with a nod of the head.
“Usually over there innit?”
She pointed to where it wasn’t with her cigarette.
“Yeah,” I breathed.
She raised her eyebrows, stumped out her cigarette on the brick, and waddled back inside.
“Hope you find it,” she said.
Everything tightened in my stomach.
Pushing my way through the families, prams, and charity fundraiser’s cluttering the high street, I scanned for that reassuring glint of blue, the butterfly handlebars, or the misshapen brown saddle.
Fishface left her bike to rot years ago. We’d cycled thousands of miles together across France, Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. Up mountains, in snow, rain, and heat; through cornfields, forests, A-roads, and tiny villages. We followed the Eurovelo cycle route that runs from Dieppe all the way to Istanbul, loaded with tent, sleeping bags, camping stove, repair kits, even a foldable kitchen sink.
I shakily slid out a cigarette. I would need more than tar and nicotine to get rid of that taste in my mouth.
Someone had stolen it. My bike, my saddle, my wheels. Gone.
Every night leading to Fishface’s funeral, I dreamed about the bike. My legs stretched and curled behind me as I pedaled down the undercliff pass towards Rottingdean. I tasted the rain, a fresh metallic blue.
In other dreams, it was propped against a shop window, waiting. Then everything faded: the sharpness of buildings, road, and sky. I wanted to scream.
When I woke, my T-shirt was wet with sweat. I had this choking feeling of not being able to breathe, of loss.
On the day of her funeral, a priest talked about Fishface as if she was a superhero. He didn’t mention Dick.
As they lowered her coffin, my heart stopped. A flash of blue in my periphery was heading for the trees. I squinted and saw a curly-haired teenager standing upright on the pedals. I recognized my leather saddle inches beneath him.
I wiped the sweat from my forehead with my sleeve. This can’t be happening, I thought. I tried to make eye contact with Jen, but she was crying into her coat.
I bolted, barely touching the wet leaves and twigs underfoot.
It hurt my chest to run this fast, to breathe this hard. My muscles woke up. I was alive.
“Oi,” I shouted.
He twisted around, and his hands wavered on the bars. I pulled him off the bike, dragging him to the mud. I raised my fist. He cupped his head with both hands. Something pulled me back.
“What are you doing?” she said. “Dad!”
I turned from Jen to the terrified boy. He couldn’t’ve been more than seventeen.
“My bike,” was all I could manage.
The boy brushed leaves and dirt from his tracksuit and edged towards it.
The bike was rusty around the joins, an inferior brand name plastered across the frame. Chunky wheels were clumped with mud in the cracks. It wasn’t my bike at all. Not even close.
“Sorry, … I …”
He clumsily found his feet on the pedals and cycled away.
“We need to get you home,” Jen said.
My suit was soaking wet.
“I’m sorry, Jen,” I said.
I took her hand. Didn’t look at anyone as we passed the grave straight to the car.
Jen switched on the lights and ran me a bath. From the sofa, I examined the random collected things on our mantelpiece while the boiler hissed. In the last few days, everything had gathered dust: foreign coins, dry flowers limp over a vase, a black and white photograph of us. Me sticking my tongue out, Fishface stifling a giggle in oversized sunglasses. France, most likely.
“I’m worried about you, Dad,” said Jen on her way out.
I said I was fine, you know me, I’m fine, but I could tell she didn’t believe me.
In my dream that night, Pink Floyd blared from tinny speakers taped to the front of my bike.
We were on the Eurovelo cycle path. Wish you were here. The river to our left shimmered, and the reflection made Fishface’s bike look like it was melting.
Glancing at the speedometer, I announced, “Two Thousand!” as the song came to an end. We slowed to a stop, wiping sweat from our necks.
After the first wife, Fishface was refreshing. She said yes. She got on a bike. She cycled to Switzerland with an older man.
The bike thumped to the grass as I pulled her close.
“We did it, babe!”
She smelled of sun-drenched cornfields, wild forests, the musky mesh of a tent.
“What is it?” I said.
She gazed at me with that look of hers.
“Promise we’ll always be like this?”
I laughed into her hair.
“Of course we will, Elsie,” I said. “I promise.”