I’ve known regular Scaryduck reader Balders since I was about ten years old. We’ve been through thick, thin and large quanities of alcohol together, and we’re still talking. But as far as I remember, he has always blamed me for the destruction of his bicycle, with my pleas for forgiveness falling on deaf ears. Even living at the opposite ends of the country some twenty-five years later, I fear that his life has been blighted by an unsated need for revenge, a compulsion to see me suffer for my crimes. Indeed, he is stalking me now, on this site, watching, waiting.
Our school was built to serve the villages of Twyford, Wargrave and Charvil, and was set down in the countryside between the three. This meant that the average journey to school for most pupils was at least one mile, and in those far-off days of the late 1970s, there were only two ways to get there. Either you walked, or you went by bike. Still, there was a very small minority who got a lift in their parents’ car, but it just wasn’t the done thing, and those who did were seen as a bit of a wimp and were rounded up and put in the fat kids’ group for PE.
Just as bad were those who came on the school bus, a cop-out if ever there was one. It was almost as if they’d come by chauffeur-driven limo, and they’d run the gauntlet of jeering crowds at the school gate, as they arrived on site like a bunch of scab workers crossing a picket line. It is, of course, the complete opposite these days. There’s about three bikes in the school bike park, with their owners marked down as dangerous mentallists who should be avoided at all costs while the rest of the kids arrive in the back of mummy’s off-roader...
You could walk to school, but that would actually mean having to leave home at eight o’clock and having to do something dangerous on the footbridge to make up for the lack of peril. Nope, cycling was the thing, and for those of us coming over from Twyford, that meant braving the Bath Road.
Andy Kelly was one of us. He came from the other side of Twyford, and was entitled to a free ride on the bus, such was the distance he had to travel. But no, he eschewed the slackers with their Dungeons and Dragons dice on school bus and made a point of riding his bike into school whatever the weather. Almost. I remember him appearing one morning, after his epic in sheeting rain where we’d all made the exception and accepted parental lifts. To receive this rare offer, it was actually hammering down with biblical ferocity, and you could barely see the road in front of the car, and the water ran in rivers down the middle of the road.
Still, Andy and braved the weather, struggling in on his bike where the rest of us had failed, and triumphantly arrived in school, just about the only child to have managed the feat that day. Then, soaked to the bone, he turned round and went straight home again.
The Bath Road was, before they built the motorway, the main route from London to Bristol, the West and Wales. Every car, bus and lorry heading west used to rumble past our school. And we had to cross it twice a day. Our local council, mindful of the fact that dead schoolkids do not make for good publicity, kindly gave us a footbridge to take us safely away from this motorised menace. And did we use it? Did we arse! The only thing the school footbridge was used for, much to the consternation of the headmaster, was to climb up and over the road on the outside of the railings in a bonkers rite-of-passage that marked you out from the crowd. The girls were remarkably good at this feat, and we lads would stand under the bridge cheering them on. That’s right, cheering them on, and not, repeat NOT, looking up their skirts. At all.
So, the long and the short of it was that twice a day, a swarm of four hundred eleven to sixteen year olds would attempt to cross the busiest road in the south of England by bike. All at once.
At a quarter to four on any given day, we’d all burst out of our classrooms, saddle up and head for home. It was a short pull along the Henley Road, and within minutes, we’d be at the roundabout with the Bath Road. There, with an ever growing crowd of cyclists, we’d wait for a gap in the traffic. Then it was go, go, go, and we would swarm across the road and head for home.
Now, this is the tricky bit. We’d usually cycle in gangs, groups of friends yakking away as we made our way to our respective parts of the village, peeling off from the pack as we reached our roads. On this particular day, I was with the usual crowd as I reached the junction on my shining blue Raleigh Olympus. I swear on my dog’s life that I didn’t know that Balders was riding behind me. He was in the year above me, and was probably heading towards Twyford with his own comtemporaries - possibly one of the Pepall twins, and obviously not paying the slightest heed to the road ahead.
Being an ace road user, I was only too aware of the road in front of me. And jolly good thing too. Girls! There were girls in front of me, riding slow and clunky Raleigh Shoppers without a care in the world. All of a sudden, and paying not a jot of attention to her fellow road users, one of these girls who shall remain nameless (*cough* Trudy *cough*) swerved her bike in front of mine.
It was all I could do to stop myself colliding with her. I jammed on my brakes and thanked my lucky stars that if I hadn’t have been watching her arse, there might been a terrible, terrible accident.
From here on in, things get a little hazy. I innocently cycled home, did my homework, hung about with Matty and John, watched TV, avoided violin practice, all that jazz. However, I arrived at school the next day to be confronted by a seething Balders. Balders I had known for years. Balders who went to the same scout troops as me. Balders, whose mum was great friends with my mum. You get the message. He wasn’t best pleased. He had had to walk to school.
“You bastard!” he started, “You wrecked my bike!”
“No I didn’t!” I protested.
Oh but I had, and he produced witnesses - mostly from his class and twice my size - to prove it. Apparantly, in trying to escape Trudy’s sudden swerve, there had been a bit of a domino effect behind me, resulting in Balders, who had obviously not been paying the slightest bit of attention to the road in front of him, coming to grief.
OK, so "grief" is just a little bit mild. Complete and utter destruction is a bit more like it. Balders, caught in a wave of swerving bikes which was, let me make this 100% clear, not my fault, slammed on his brakes, causing about 200 bikes to run into the back of him. He jumped for his life, just in time to see his bike crushed under the the wheels of the following hoardes. And when they’d done their worst, along came the school bus with all the lazy kids...
What was left of Balders’ bike was posted home to him in a very small package.
There was only one thing for it. I protested my innocence, long, hard and loud, and do so to this day. Balders, on the other hand, has succumbed to a lifetime of bitterness, and as we speak is plotting his evil, twisted two-wheeled revenge on your innocent narrator. But I think you’ll find that instant karma has already sorted me out.
The next day, I was on my bright, shiny, totally unscathed bike on the way to school. I heaved my machine to the top of the hill, went along the top, and headed down Amberley Drive towards the dreaded Bath Road junction. About halfway down, there’s a bit of a tricky bend, and if you’re not paying attention, you’re liable to come a cropper.
I looked at girls and completely forgot about the tricky bend. My front wheel clipped the kerb, and in the time-honoured words of Blue Peter, “Suddenly, disaster struck”.
Weeeeeeeeee!!!!!! I was airborne, straight over the handlebars.
Aaaaaaaarrrgh!!!!! Gravity caught up with me in a mess of mud, school books, blood, ripped clothing and pieces of bike.
The girls looked at me. They giggled, and clutching their bags to their chests, walked away.
Putting a brave face on it, I picked myself up, brushed myself down and carried on to school, buckled front wheel wobbling like a clown’s car.
“Didn’t hurt a bit”, I lied through the pain.
I still maintain that I am an innocent man, but someone up there didn’t appear to believe me. It’s not as if I killed anybody. Much.
But for what it's worth: Balders *cough* ....sorry.... *cough*.