Winner of the Biketober 2018 writing competition. This is a story about Catherine Byrne's love of biking, where it stemmed from and how it felt to ride while it was forbidden.
Being the middle child of five girls and three boys in 1940’s and 50’s in my native Ireland, I never had the chance to actually own a bicycle in my childhood days. A bike was however the sole means of transport for my carpenter father who carried his tools and planks of timber on the crossbar of his Raleigh.
In 1949 when I and my older sister May were seven and ten years old respectively and attending Balrothery National School, the bus fare was three pence each way. My father somehow acquired a second hand ladies bicycle for May in order to save money on bus fares. We both learned to ride it and so did most of the kids in the street. I could not reach the saddle so I bobbed up and down on the pedals. Sometimes May bobbed up and down on the pedals while I sat on the saddle with both legs spread eagled on each side.
At 17 years of age, I left my home town and my family to join an order of nuns in Central France, near Limoges. While in the novitiate we led a very strict and sober existence. Any transgressions such as speaking or laughing outside of allotted recreation had to be confessed and repented in public each Friday at Mea Culpa.
Myself and another novice were delegated to do some weeding in the nearby Mother House but first we had to collect some garden implements in the shed. Lo and behold we spied an old black rusty bike covered in cobwebs leaning against the shed wall.
She looked at me and I looked at her. No words were exchanged but there was no hesitation. It didn’t matter whether there was air in the tyres or not, off Sister Leatitia went; round and round the gravel paths between the trees. Then it was my turn. I hitched my long black habit into my stocking elastic and off I went.
The sheer joy and exhilaration left me breathless. I wobbled and before I could get my feet on the ground the bike and I fell sideways into a small pear tree laden with blossoms. Oh dear! I sustained no injury but the pear tree was a write off. We put back the bike and tried to finish our garden chores. The Dutch novice said in broken French and English, “Maybe the Superieur might think the wind wreaked havoc on the poirier. No such luck. Days passed and Friday’s Mea Culpa loomed. Fear and guilt tore at my guts. Mother Superior entered the room with her usual stern countenance.
“Mes Filles”, she entoned, “It has come to my notice that one of our fruit trees has been sabotaged. Hopefully the perpetrator will own up.”
I knelt down and stuttered out the two words which would ease my conscience: “It’s moi.”
Glancing up from the floor, I could see Mother Therese’s nostrils twitch. Her beady eyes narrowed and her lips parted to utter the required penance:
“Eat your soup on bended knees from the ground for the remainder of the week.”
I never saw or rode a bicycle until years later. After leaving the convent I never learned to drive, but I choose to use a bicycle as a mode of transport and it always gives me a feeling of freedom.
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