Christopher fidgeted in his chair. His father eyed him from the sofa, then switched his focus to Dorothy, his son’s wife, then back to Christopher. Albert was old and not as bright as he once had been, but he knew an intervention when he saw one — although he wouldn’t have known the word for it.
“What is it, son?”
Dorothy coughed and studied the living room carpet. Christopher glanced at her and realised he’d be getting minimal support from there. His shoulders sagged.
It was as if the two younger people in the room were under a spell that stopped words.
“Come on son, spit it out. I want to be out on the bike before it gets dark.”
Christopher sat up straight and clapped his hands together.
“That’s exactly what we wanted to talk to you about!”
Dorothy was paying attention now. Christopher proceeded.
“We know you love your bike, and we think it’s great that you still want to be cycling at 90.”
“Almost 90. But we’re worried, dad.”
Albert let out a surprised but defiant laugh.
“No need, son. I’m fine. Never felt better.”
“We know you think you’re fine. We’ve had a word with Doctor Williams, though … or rather, she’s had a word with us.”
The old man’s laughter became a loud scoff.
“That interfering … Didn’t she tell you that I’m in tip-top shape? That’s what she said last time I saw her. ‘You’re in tip-top shape, Mr Fuller’ — her exact words.”
“For your age, dad. For your age.”
“What’s your point?”
“You don’t usually find people of 90 out on the road, putting themselves and others in danger.”
Albert crossed his legs and folded his arms.
“I’m not your usual people of 90.”
Dorothy placed a tag-teaming hand on Christopher’s arm.
“Bert. We admire you an awful lot, we really do. I hope I’m as good on my pins when I’m your age — if I get that far!”
“But we worry, dad,” Christopher took over again. “So we’ve got you something. Come on.”
He stood and took Albert by the hand, pulling him up from the sofa.
“What do you mean you’ve got me something?”
The son led the father out of the living room, with the daughter-in-law close behind, along the hall to the back of the house, through the kitchen, to a side door and the garage.
Christopher indicated the present with a sweep of his arm.
“So, what do you think?”
Albert seemed not to have heard the question.
“I don’t get it. Where’s my bike?”
Christopher touched Albert’s shoulder enough to make him turn. There, hanging on the wall behind them was a racing bike, bright red and green, with drop handlebars.
“Yes, and it’s staying there from now on. This is what you’ll be riding.” Christopher turned his father back to the fixed exercise bike hugging the far wall.
“I don’t get it,” said Albert, though he did.
Dorothy put an arm around her father-in-law.
“When you get the urge for a ride, Bert, just hop on that and you can pedal away to your heart’s content. You’ll get all the exercise you need. And what’s more important, for you and for our peace of mind, you’ll be as safe as houses.”
“But I don’t want—”
“It’s not a question of what you want, dad,” said Christopher firmly. “Really … if we can’t work this out, we might have to think of another solution.”
Albert blanched; he knew what the other solution was, and he much preferred to be living with his son.
“Come on Bert, give it a go,” said Dorothy, nudging Albert with her elbow.
The two gently guided the old man across the concrete garage floor to the grey machine.
He stood beside the bike, looking at his son and daughter-in-law in turn. They nodded reassuringly and kept nodding until he sighed and got on.
Christopher briefly explained the control panel on the handlebars, touched a couple of buttons and showed him the screen protruding from the front of the bike.
“You see, you can choose the type of road — hill, lane, straight, curvy, whatever — and a film of it will show up here. It’ll be like you’re actually out there, riding the road. And this …” he pointed to the corner of the screen “… will tell you your speed and how many miles you’ve done.”
Albert started pedalling. Christopher had chosen a country road for him, and on the screen pale green fields lined with trees came and went as Albert cycled past them.
“So, what do you think, dad?” Christopher put as much enthusiasm as he could into the question.
“Not bad … I suppose,” said Albert between breaths.
“Great!” exclaimed Christopher and Dorothy in unison. As they leaned over to view the screen, Albert glanced past them at the bicycle on the opposite wall, its static wheels suspended above the floor.
“I’m so glad we convinced him,” Christopher whispered to Dorothy. She turned her head on the pillow to face her husband in the dark.
“Me too. Do you really think he’s okay with it, though?”
“I do. At least I hope so. We’ll see.” Christopher leaned over and kissed his wife. “Night, love.”
Day was edging its way into the house. Albert moved through the hall in his bare feet. He was wearing black cycling shorts and a fluorescent top that glowed ghostly pale in the half-light. And he was carrying a pair of cycling shoes.
In the kitchen he stopped and listened. The only sounds were of the fridge humming softly and the tap dripping in the sink. He padded over to the side door, unlocked it carefully and stepped through into the garage.
The strip light crackled and flickered into life, revealing the cold machine standing alongside the opposite wall. Albert curled his lip and turned to where his old bike hung. He grabbed hold of the frame, lifted it an inch or so off the brackets screwed into the wall, then pulled it towards him.
It was light and he was able to lower it effortlessly to the floor. He leaned it against the wall while he sat on a box to don his shoes. Then he flicked a switch on the wall and the garage door groaned open. Cool morning air flowed in, making him shiver. He stood by the side door, listening intently: only the kitchen sounds he’d heard earlier, nothing beyond.
Satisfied, he took the handlebars of the bike and wheeled it out through the now-open garage door. His shoes click-clacked on the concrete drive; at the gate he turned to look up at the bedroom windows. The lights were still off, the curtains didn’t stir.
He put one foot on a pedal of the bike, gave a couple of scoots then swung his other leg over, free-wheeling for a few metres before he began to pedal, full of intent, towards the rising sun.
The early-morning fields and hedgerows, laden with sparkling dew, whisked past Albert as he sped along the empty country roads, his legs and heart pumping in perfect harmony. Blackbirds trilled their happy song somewhere close by. He sat up in the saddle, took in the beauty around him, blinked with the sun and savoured the wind on his face.
The road dipped and straightened; he let go of the handlebars, holding his arms outstretched like he was a teenager again. He threw his head back and laughed long and loud.
Jenny pointed up ahead at something bright red and green, sticking out of the ditch. Frank dropped down the gears and brought the car to a halt.
“A bike,” said Frank.
The two got out. Frank grabbed the frame and began pulling it from the ditch.
“Look!” Jenny yelped.
Frank followed Jenny’s finger, pointing at the form sprawled a few metres beyond the bike. He slid down into the ditch.
“Call an ambulance, Jen!”
While Jenny rushed back to the car, Frank reached the man, lying face down. He grabbed a shoulder and turned him over.
By the eyes staring back at him he knew straight away that the old man was quite dead, but he saw, too, that he was smiling.
Not a twist of the mouth but an actual smile. Jubilant. Glorious.