When my future husband and I were living in our first flat together, we did not have a car. We caught the bus to work and traveled everywhere else by pushbike.
That might be a normal situation for people who live in European cities but it was not usual for people living in Australia, then. Most people drove cars.
I had an old bike with 26 inch wheels, similar to the one shown in the picture, here. My parents had given it to me soon after I became a teenager and I’d spent many enjoyable moments cycling all over our residential estate, traveling up to the forbidden sandy back blocks with my sister and talking with the group of rebel kids who hung out there, going to visit my school friends, and especially taking it up the biggest hills so I could go down at speed with the wind in my hair.
It took me a long time to get my bike because my mother had given up on thinking I wanted one. When I was little, she got me one for Christmas one year. It had long streamers on the handles and its very own grocery basket on the front. It had a shiny metal bell, and was so beautiful. I was excited when I saw it leaning up against the Christmas tree, but despite my mother and uncle trying to teach me how to ride it I just didn’t have the knack. I couldn’t maintain my balance and kept falling off. Having taught me all they could, they left me to it and I ended up doing other things because I was too afraid to get on it. I came home from school one day and the bike was gone. My mother had given it to charity. That was my first experience of the limitations that can be imposed in life. Because I postponed learning to ride that bike effectively, I lost it.
When I moved out of home to live with my future husband, I took my bike with me. No one was going to give it away behind my back this time.
My future husband had a smaller bike. It was a bit rusty and only had 20 inch wheels. He would pile all our dirty washing into a plastic garbage bag and balance that on the handlebars of his little bike and set off to ride the couple of miles to the laundromat on Saturday mornings to do our washing while I cleaned the flat. It was funny to see him ride his little bike. His knees went too high and it looked awkward but he got around on it okay. He never complained. It was also a bike he had been given by his parents, that had obviously never been upgraded when his legs got longer.
On weekends, too, we went traveling together on our bikes. We’d travel for miles out into the countryside with my future sister-in-law on her own bike, which had larger wheels like mine. We felt like adventurers, taking in things we hadn’t seen before. Looking back on those times, it makes me realize how sheltered our lives had been, that riding a bike on the outskirts of town made us feel like we were experiencing something new. Everyone starts off that way, though, at some point. Some just start earlier than others. My future husband and I had been very controlled by our tight-knit families until we met each other. Together, we began to explore the world and life more fully. One thing leads to another until you finally look back on a life more completely lived, but it always starts out with simple steps and small moments.
Because we only had bikes for transport, we often relied on relatives to take us places for large family events. If my parents didn’t pick us up and take us to see my grandmother and other relatives at Christmas time, we were unlikely to be there. While we could take trains and trams to get there from where we lived, it was a difficult journey on weekends and holidays in those days, with rare services and a lot of time spent traveling. My future husband was an apprentice television technician then and I was a checkout chick in a supermarket (having put aside my education to live with him) so we also didn’t have much income to spare for more than the essentials.
It was even harder to get to see my future husband’s parents at Christmas time, where all his siblings gathered at Venus Bay. It was a two hour drive from where we lived and there were no train services. If none of his family took us out there, we couldn’t go. We relied on their help. So we were grateful when his sister and cousin said they would pick us up on Christmas Eve one year. We looked forward to camping out at the house. Unlike my Nanna’s small place, where everyone went home at the end of the day, at Venus Bay we all slept on the floor. Their house was small, too, but things were just done differently.
We waited and waited for hours for his sister and cousin to arrive but they never did. It became quite clear that they had either forgotten or decided not to bother. My future husband was despondent. I felt flat. Suddenly, I said, let’s ride!
Now, you may think we were bonkers and that such a thing was foolish. You may be right. It was a two hour drive to Venus Bay. We had never ridden our bikes further than the outskirts of town. While we were young and fit, that was still a hell of a long way to go – but we didn’t think about that. We just decided it was worth a try. By golly, were we just going to stay at home and sulk and feel left out, or were we going to put our best effort in to get there? So we stuffed what little presents we had into our back packs and set off pedaling.
It was already pretty late when we set off. By the time we had got far out of town we were already feeling it. Each pedal became a serious push, but we kept on going. We had bike lights run by dynamos, that helped us see the road ahead but it was a bit frightening when cars passed us and we felt their wind push us sideways.
A van pulled over in front of us and the driver hopped out. He and his wife were on their way home to Phillip Island, a half way point between our home and Venus Bay. They asked us why we were out riding so late. Let’s face it, we were two young kids still at 20 and 17, on two old bikes, and certainly didn’t look like athletes. Actually, athletes didn’t go out riding around midnight or even often on the roads in those days. They used to train in velodromes, then. I suppose it was obvious something unusual was happening.
We decided to go with them. Every bit closer to Venus Bay was a help. We were tired from working all day. Christmas Eve that year had been a Friday. We were already tired from cycling and there was still a long way to go (or a long way to go back). They offered us a mattress in their caravan annexe for the night and we gladly took it, but early next morning we were up at dawn and snuck away on our bikes. I left a thank you note and a small box of chocolates I had packed in my bag. We really wanted to try to get to Venus Bay by lunch time, if we could. We didn’t have time to wait until our benefactors woke up.
By noon, we were finally on the outskirts of Venus Bay. I was losing whatever energy I had by then (and I actually had been an athlete before I met my future husband, just not on bikes). The sun was hot and every push on the pedal was making my legs ache. You’d think my future husband should have been having a much harder time on his little bike, but he was so perky and energetic, it wasn’t funny. Maybe the idea that we would show them, or that we had met this challenge, gave him energy that I was having trouble finding but the bugger rode circles around my pushbike as I chugged along, as if to show me how easy it was…
We arrived at the house by one o’clock. I walked the bike up the last hill to the door. The family were only just sitting down to the table. Their jaws dropped when we walked in. Those who were supposed to pick us up but didn’t, didn’t say much. They were stunned.
It was a good visit and the next day other relatives with a panel van offered to take us home. We were happy to give up the exercise and roll around in the back with our bikes. After that, our story of the marathon ride to Venus Bay was told for years, and especially by the sister-in-law who was supposed to pick us up. She later became a psychologist and used our story to help her patients, telling them about endurance and decisiveness, and god knows what else. When we were much older, we were discussing those events with her one night and I told her the truth, that we had broken our journey in Phillip Island with a lift from our friendly benefactors.
I was stunned at how she took that news. She wasn’t happy at all. It was like we had pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes with a porky (white lie). It was like she had been led on and that her reputation was at stake because we had not told the truth. We had told the truth. We just didn’t let on about the Phillip Island break when we told it.
I’ll never understand how people do that. Our story was still one of courage and determination. We still gave it our very best shot. We still traveled a very long way until we had been picked up and after we kept going from the place we stayed the night. It was still a marathon effort and still an endeavor against impossible odds. For her, though, it was no longer a worthy story because we had not done the complete distance all by ourselves.
Life is often like that. You don’t have to do everything completely by yourself to earn the kudos for the parts you have done. Efforts and endeavors are often start and stop things. It’s the end results that count. The end results in this case were that we actually made it. We didn’t turn around and give up. Even when we were faced with the choice of going back home or getting a lift in the direction we aspired to, we chose to keep going toward the place we’d aimed at, knowing we would need to put in further effort to actually reach it, later.
In my mind, whether the story was told to her patients with all the details or not, it must have helped them or she wouldn’t have kept on using it. That’s the part that matters.
For ourselves, we know what we did and how hard it was. We were so happy we met that challenge and didn’t let anything hold us back. I think it was a good grounding for the rest of our life.