It’s week three of state, national, and global COVID-19 restrictions and my son, Oscar, is at the age where he’s switching from his standard gait to the madcap pedal-frenzy of a pushbike life. At least, a bike seems designed to usher in that freedom, and that fevered spirit in most.
Instead we wake each Saturday morning to a mutually shared dread on account of my wife and his mother’s urgings to ‘go for a ride.’ If we were actually ‘going for a ride,’ that might be enjoyable. Until now, the weather’s been miserable and we’ve been teaching him at the local shopping centre undercover car park.
Today we try something a little different and find a spot outside an empty leisure centre on a sunny, warmish day. It’s as though we’re willing the perfect lesson into being. As if we’ve now stopped teaching and have begun to pray.
It doesn’t go well on those first few runs. My son still can’t ride his bike, and I can’t bend over all that well to guide him, or I do it, and my back begins to hurt, or I nearly tangle myself up in his back wheel. Just as he says, ‘I can’t do it!’, I again think neither can I, even as my wife and our younger child rattle past as they push his three-wheeler.
Oscar and I take a break and sit on the kerb.
‘You’ll get it,’ I say.
‘Tell me about the time you were learning to ride a bike,’ says Oscar. ‘Tell me about the time you fell off.’
I tell him the whole sad debacle, from the moment I’ve got it until my hands shake, and the front wheel begins to wobble. He laughs hysterically, says ‘do it again’ and so I do it again. It’s pretty funny, I’ll admit, for there is always something ridiculous about trying to have things in your control, only to stuff it up.
Such things have often caused me such anxiety. These thoughts of a hundred times I slipped up, stuffed up, or said the wrong thing. Even now, as a writer, they continue to create fear, the thought that I might put a word or comma wrong in a sentence. Which would be fine if writing were the creation of a single sentence, but there are tens, hundreds, thousands of sentences in most of the things I write.
And yet, in all that counting up of the flaws and failures, I’ve missed the times it worked, or it was fine, or I wobbled and corrected myself. And, when counting, you very much need to include every number for fair representation.
‘Shall we go again?’
He nods, and we lift his bike; a couple of small, tentative steps, and then feet up on the pedals, my hands on his shoulders. And then we start, almost unconsciously.
‘One… two… three… four…’
My hands still held tight, from weeks of ‘Don’t let go of me.’
‘Five… six… seven… eight…’
Then I let go because he’s starting to drift. His feet in motion, his body, looser, and I walk along beside him. Counting to ten, fifteen, and then twenty. Thirty, forty, fifty, and we stop.
He nods, and we turn the bike.
‘Baby!’ I yell to my wife. ‘Let’s film this one!’
She raises her phone at arm’s length, begins to record, and we look down together, not keen to be so acutely aware of being the centre of attention.
I keep going because I know every number is another pin on the ‘OK’ side of the board, and one less on the side of ‘not enough’. I’m walking even faster, up to a jog know, as we hit sixty, and then seventy. We’re measured now. We hit a speedbump, and the bike slows but doesn’t stop.
Eighty, just another number, and I would like to say he’s flying along, and that I am flying alongside him, but in truth, we are going marginally faster than a dog on its daily walk.
His mum yells ‘You’re doing it, Oscar!’ and it’s like hearing a director’s commentary on your life because we are so busy counting we’ve forgotten he’s riding. We’re so busy counting because the collation of numbers is like a drip, drip from a tap, only soundless, infinitely better, and more delightfully predictable than the wobbling of a wheel or rise on the road surface.
By the time we’re at ninety, we’re past Mum and the younger boy, intent on hitting triple figures, and we make it, and he brakes it, and we slow to a halt.
‘Can I see the video?’ Oscar says to his mum.
They watch it, two, three times, and then I pick up the bike with one hand and carry it to the boot of the car.
‘That was such a good idea with the counting,’ says my wife. ‘Where did you come up with that?’
And I could tell her every mistake that’s filed away in this photographic memory of mine. I could mention that sensory images are stored not according to a timestamp but according to the emotional intensity of the memory. That to remember the good, or even adequate, is harder than to remember the catastrophic. That it is when we count them up that they so clearly outweigh the negative moments when we were small, silly, at fault, or embarrassing.
But I don’t tell her this. I just say, ‘It worked well, didn’t it?’ counting upward in my mind, another pinprick on the side of OK.
Laurie Steed is the author of the 2018 WA Premier’s Book Awards shortlisted novel You Belong Here and the editor of Shibboleth and other stories. He is the recipient of writing fellowships from the University of Iowa, the Baltic Writing Residency, the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, the Katherine Susannah Prichard Foundation and the Fellowship of Australian Writers (Western Australia). He won the Patricia Hackett Prize for Fiction in 2012, and in 2014 was selected as the first Australian Fellow in the history of the Sozopol Fiction Seminars.He lives in Perth, Western Australia, with his wife and two young sons.