‘We’ll just get on the Darebin Creek Bike path,’ I tell Archie and Lewis. ‘And let the Gods decide our destination.’
The sun is at its searing best as we take our usual entrance through the KP Hardiman Reserve to the Darebin creek and we’re over fifteen minutes into it, taking in the scenery and challenging each other up the steeper hills and pointing out the distinctive landmarks – the rolling graffiti that leaps from tree to bridge work to factory walls like psychedelic moss and the shopping trolleys (where there once were rabbits) cluster-fucking on either side of the track – and as the minutes and meters continue to pass by I’m surprised to find that I’m enjoying this, riding just behind the boys, legs pumping round and round and up and down like I’m some kind of circus clown, because I haven’t ridden a bike this far since I was a ten-year-old BMX racer and that’s only because I’m usually running just behind Tyson or Maki to prevent a head-shattering, skin-grazing triple-0 call. With the younger boys out with Reservoir Mum it’s time for me and Archie and Lewis to tear this track up!
When we cruise under a bridge and come out the other side facing our steepest incline yet I pull out some sound advice. ‘You need to stand up and pedal… like this,’ I say to the boys, as I give a demonstration. ‘You can generate more power that way… and build more muscle… let’s race!’
When I get to the top I see that Archie and Lewis have dismounted and as I wait for them to catch up my mind drifts back thirty years and for some reason I remember how I used to distract my mind from nightly panic attacks about a nuclear war by swooning over Nicole Kidman from my favourite film at the time, BMX Bandits. I’d fall asleep to variations on a particular fantasy that involved me falling off my bike and hurting my thighs so that Nicole had to treat my wounds and see me in my undies
Another steep incline follows and about a kilometre later an even steeper incline looms and that’s when Archie, who’s just started experimenting with the gears on his bike, and knowing that his Mum’s bike – the bike I’m riding – is a ten speed, says, ‘Dad, are you changing the gears on your bike to go up hills? It’s easier.’
‘Easier doesn’t turn your legs into muscular pistons,’ I say, before hammering it up the hill locked in the hardest gear.
There is a burn deep in my thighs that I’m familiar with from my only regular form of exercise – weightlifting – and it whispers its challenge through my sinews and tendons saying, ‘I’m going to make you lay down and cry, paper tiger,’ and so I grit my teeth and ride like hell’s on my tail, not even entertaining the idea that this new movement will soon turn me into a cramping spasming, hiccupping, hee-hawing-excuse-mule with about as much chance of riding the return journey home as a contestant from the biggest loser, who has been anesthetised from the hips down, has of climbing a hill made of custard tarts.
Two hours later the boys are doing circle work around me as I pull up outside a Café for a snack and some drinks and that’s when it occurs to me that the boys have drank the entire contents of the one bottle of water I bought for the trip.
When I swing my right leg over the bike to dismount, I am struck by a metal-bar-to-the-thigh-type cramp and scream just enough to get the boys attention.
‘Just singing…’ I say when they ask me what’s wrong, smiling like a man suffering the g-force of a supersonic jet as I shift my weight back to the right leg for a moment’s recovery before heading into the store – aware now of an abrasive bruisey feeling where the pointier part of the bike seat has been pressing – and adjusting my duck waddle to imitate the manly stride of John Wayne.
The boys are keen for Dim Sims and so I buy half a dozen for them to share and a bottle of Gatorade each. I devour a battered sav and scull a Coke Zero and then force Lewis to risk whiplash in his neck when the simple act of shifting in my chair triggers another cramp and causes me to impersonate Chewbacca crying through a mouthful of pig. If I was on my own I would call a Taxi or text Reservoir-Mother-In-Law to come and get me but the boys haven’t stopped smiling and are loving the experience and above all else I have to be the Dad that digs deep and stays the course for Archie, for Lewis, for all y’all.
Five hundred meters, two cramps and a radiant ache just south of my anus and I call to the boys to wait up. If my assumption is correct – that the return trip is the same distance it took us to get here – then I will need to rely on my legs, which are about as functional as two fish on a football oval, to take me another five kilometres up some pretty steep hills. I need to factor in many, many, rests without letting the boys know about my current state and so come up with an ingenious idea.
‘I’m writing a story about our bike ride,’ I say, holding my iPhone at arms length and snapping a pic. ‘So we’re going to need to stop to take some photos. Keep your eyes open for seats, benches and anything that’s just as interesting.’
When I look at the selfie I notice the drawn cheeks and hollow eyes – sure signs of dehydration – and wish I had bought myself a Gatorade or a bottle of water or a few more minutes back at the Cafe.
About a hundred meters further along, just after I shout, ‘Hey Arch, I’m going to try the lightest gear to see what it’s like,’ Lewis stops and says, ‘Dad, I thought I saw something over there.’
‘Why don’t you get off your bike and go have a look,’ I say. ‘Take your time.’
Whack… whack… whack every time I press down on either of the pedals the teardrop muscles on the inside of my knees contract and arch like the backs of two warring, horny, tom cats and there are moments where I have no choice but to let both feet hang beside the pedals so that my entire bodyweight is being supported by the sensitive under-patch part of me that rides the seat. I almost collapse with relief when Archie screams out, from somewhere up ahead, ‘Dad we found a bench.’
‘That’s so great,’ I say, when I catch up. ‘You should take a photo of me sitting on it… for the story.’
When RM finally accepted an epidural during her first experience of childbirth, after 29 hours of labor, a strange aura of muffled relief overwhelmed us both. There was the breath out for me when four minutes passed without feeling guilty while watching her suffer the blinding pain of a contraction and there was the strange pleasure in absence for her that only the sudden removal of intense pain can bring.
Little did I know that my guilt back then was wasted, that the children she suffered so much to bring in to the world would deliver a similar pain unto me less than ten years later. I would have accepted an epidural three hours ago.
They’re drinking right in front of me! And when I say, ‘Can I have some?’ they form their well-practiced ‘disappointment faces’ and force me to say, ‘Nah, that’s okay. I’m alright.’
‘That’s a great idea,’ I say, hobbling to the edge of the creek to take a pic of the motorbike the boys have spotted under the water.
‘Do you think you can use it in your story?’ Archie asks.
‘Of course,’ I say as I hold up the iPhone and feign surprise. ‘Bummer, look’s like my phone’s… um… run out of… film. Wait here. I’ll just head back to the bikes. I think I’ve got some in my bag.’
Inside my braincase I see bombs exploding and fire consuming everything and as Archie and Lewis get further and further away from me old habits return to comfort me. I am ten years old, cowering under the doona, waiting for the whistling doom-sound of the first nuclear warhead until I close my eyes and find Nicole Kidman. She’s tilting her head, smiling in a kind way, and she can see my undies.
Their semi-formed, underdeveloped limbs have cycled away from me effortlessly, again. My fully formed muscular legs are now synchronising their spasms with the audible beats of my heart. I feel closer to death right now than I ever have.
I’m almost certain I can see desert birds lining the winding track, smiling over its rising heat, waiting to eat the eyeballs from my writhing, hard, muscular body (which even has traces of those little side muscles that run towards the groin that women love so much) but because I can’t trust anything I’m seeing right now I take a photo and, after confirming it free of scavengers, cycle on with the vigour of a centurion grandmother on a rusty walking frame who is burdened by a full incontinence pad.
I am buoyed, just as I am about to give up hope, by this comforting sight. Reservoir beckons!
Even at it’s easiest gear RM’s bike is still an un-tamable beast and so I dismount and lean against her, but there is no relief because the cramps come even with my feet on the ground, even when I disengage the muscles as much as possible by using my legs like a pair of joint-less stilts and I suddenly understand why Lance Armstrong took drugs – because bike riding, like cock-fighting, is a brutal sport – and I forgive him.
Tears fall almost as fast as my muscles cramp and I hold one hand up to the sky in acknowledgment not just because this cluster-fucking is the sign that we are home in Reservoir, but because this particular arrangement, which makes it possible to link the chains of irregular shaped trolleys so that they will release the dollar coins trapped within, is a sign of my people.
‘You look like you’re coming out of the void!’ Archie says, after he climbs a chair to take a picture of me, twenty minute after we arrive home, thirty minutes after I realise that the only way for me to get off the bike and enter the house is to fall off and slither along until I’m safe from the glare of the bastard sun.
‘Hey Dad,’ Lewis says.
‘Yes,’ I say.
‘Can we play the Wii?’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘After you bring me a two litre bottle of water, a pillow, and a new perineum.’
I’m so thoroughly parched that the water tastes like a creamy Chai Late and all of a sudden I’m sob-giggling – possibly because I was only a few minutes away from dehydration generated brain damage – and just as I’m forming the thought I will never get on a bike again there are flashes of the boys disappearing ahead of me, but then coming back to me, riding around me, smiling at me.
There is the realisation inside my helmeted head that I’ll be at the centre of their lives for only a certain period of time.
Despite the stupidity in my lack of preparation and the ball-bursting pain of the return trip I will get back on the bike – often – and get much much better at it, and ride even further, because they loved it, and that’s about as simple as it gets.