On a warm, still afternoon in May of millennium year, a bike rider - his name is Jeremy - pedals the road that keeps close to the west bank of the River Wharfe in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. He is nineteen. He is nearing the end of his first year at University. He has biked this road times lost count of, and not always as alone as he is today. In the previous August when he last biked here, he was not alone.
“Listen!” A girl – eighteen, his age at the time – is calling over her shoulder from the front of a tandem bike. Her name is Shirley. She pilots the tandem like a pro. He’s content sitting in back – it’s his turn to anchor the bike. The bike is a thoroughbred. They love it, love riding it. The rhythm connects them. On their solos they can test each other, race each other. On the tandem they must work with and for each other.
“What?” he shouts back. “Listen to what?”
“The names, Oaf! Burnsall. Grassington. Kilnsey. Kettlewell.” He’s “Oaf” except when she’s upset. Then he’s Jeremy. And when he’s Jeremy he knows she’s cross. Or crying. Or moved by something in the beauty of the world.
“So? You know where we are. That’s a relief.”
“It proves it!”
“Proves what?” Shirley can exasperate.
“What Ma Perigo says.” She can exasperate alright. Perigo – Old Ma Perigo - is Head of English at the Sixth Form College they attend.
From the front of the tandem Shirley imitates Ma Perigo’s fluting tones.
“English falls naturally into pentameters, girls. Listen! Gargrave. Giggleswick. Stainforth. Long Preston. The lowing herd wades slowly o’er the Wharfe.”
“Lost! Lost, after all!” he wails. “They’re all the other side of the county.”
He loves her sharp, inventive mind. He loves the way her short fair hair peeps through the slots in her helmet. He loves the summer smell of her, Blue Grass and sweat coming at him when he leans close to her back. He lets go the rear handlebar and puts his hands either side of her neck and draws them across her blue lycra top to her shoulders.
“No fondling on voyage!” she yells without turning her head. “Get back on the treadmill. I can’t hump this bike along all on my own.”
Up ahead now they see Kilnsey Crag, called the Lion Rock, looking out across Wharfedale. “Lovely beyond any singing of it,” she once said. They had stopped, straddling the bike. Stopped just to look, at the green and gold land, the white stone walls going pink as the sun set, white dots of sheep on the fells across the dale, while from the other side of the river – campfire singing or a choir practicing, clear on the quiet evening.
“Listen Jeremy. That lovely, or what?” She reaches round from the front of the bike, presses her hand on his where it rests on the handlebar.
He remembers these things as he leaves Kilnsey behind and follows the grass road called Mastiles Lane that rises and falls between dry-stone walls, heading west.
He is looking for a spot not easily seen by walkers or mountain bikers making for Gordale Scar and Malham Cove along these unmade roads. And today he is riding a solo which is not his own. The bike is a bit small for him. In fact it is Shirley’s bike. He does not ride the tandem with Shirley now, because Shirley is dead, and before she died she said he was to have her bike. He has not ridden her bike before today and after today he will not ride it again and perhaps no one will, though he cannot be sure of this.
On the first day of their last year at the College she was made Head Girl, which everyone had been expecting. At First Break on that first day she signed to him to stay behind when the other students went for their coffees.
In the empty classroom she commanded - “Kneel, Oaf!” He played along, knelt. You never knew with Shirley. She laid her hands flat on his head. “I appoint you Head Churl to the Head Girl. Henceforth you are to defend me from my enemies. Now hear this.” She knelt in front of him and put her arms round him and said “Jeremy Stopes, I think I love you.” She held his face between her hands then, and when they drew apart from this first experimental kiss, said “But maybe stand closer to your razor tomorrow, eh? Or maybe I mean next week?”
To classmates they were now an item. They both came to College on bikes, and one morning early in December as they stowed their helmets in their lockers she said, “You’ll never believe this. Tell it not in Gath etcetera but I’ve come into a pile of cash. My Gran gave me a ten pound Ernie bond on my first birthday. It just won me five K.”
“Mint!” he said. “Lucky you.” He heard envy in his congratulation. “What’ll you blow it on? I’d like a flat screen telly, please. Like, window size.”
“Got a wicked idea,” she said.
They christened the tandem Ernestine. “Ernie” she said, “would be appropriate but bikes are always female. Well known fact.”
She sighed. “Dear Oaf, one day the penny will drop.”
Ernestine became their bike of choice, the Dales their velodrome. Weekdays they studied for the year-end exams that would get them into University. This was serious business. Weekends they biked on the tandem, “Growing closer”, Shirley said, “by talking to the back of each other’s necks. You can’t really have a row with the back end of a bike helmet.”
She won the Physics prize. As she left the dais she high-fived their physics teacher to cheers. In July she heard she had won a scholarship to Cambridge. She would go up in September.
“I’ll lose you,” he said. They had stopped in Kettlewell, in a late summer heat wave. They sat outside the Blue Bell, helmets laid aside, legs stretched out, leaning against the bench back, comfortable in each other’s company. They had booked into the Youth Hostel in the village for the night.
“I’ll lose you to some physics genius from Ghana or Birmingham or somewhere.”
“Stop moping! Too hot for moping. Just stay there a sec.,” she said and got up and went into the hotel to return minutes later with lager glasses and two bottles.
“We’re in luck,” she said. “They’ve a room.”
“But – the Youth Hostel?”
“Close your mouth, Jeremy! You’ve got to stop being a virgin sometime. And I think I’ll be an old soul going about on a mobility scooter if I wait for you to do something about it.”
The weather broke, turned blustery and wet. She went up to Cambridge and he took his place at Leeds to study control engineering. He would live at home. He envied her freedom, living in a shared room, in Hall. They phoned, swapped emails. They looked forward to Christmas and each other. On a mid-October evening she called him at home. His mother picked up, listened but said nothing, handed him the phone.
“That Shirley. Again,” she said and left the room.
Shirley’s voice, sounding edgy. “There’s no easy way to say this, Jeremy.” This was it then. The physics genius had displaced him after all. Or – he dropped the handset, snatched it up again – he’d got her pregnant! Not that not that not that! He waited. But it was neither.
“I’m diagnosed with leukemia.”
He couldn’t help himself. “That’s ridiculous, Shirl!”
“Sadly not.” He could hear her fighting tears. “I didn’t want to tell anyone till they were sure.” She went through the symptoms; sudden weight loss, fatigue, nose bleeds. The visits to the Student Health Centre, then the University Hospital, the oncology lab, blood tests, bone marrow tests. He hardly heard. How could this be happening to Shirley, to such a young woman – to this, this athlete?
She was saying there was no match in her family close enough.
“Bone marrow transplant . .”
“Hold on, Shirl. I’m coming to Cambridge.”
He was not a match. Six of their classmates volunteered when they heard the news. None were close enough. “Told you I was a one-off,” she said. To the end he could not believe she was dying.
She was brought home. Her parents, as much in denial as he, asked him if they had talked about - “You know, Jeremy. What she wanted. At the end?”
She wanted him to have her bike. She wanted him to look after Ernestine. She wanted one more run at the unforgiving climb out of Kettlewell over to Aysgarth. He did not know what she wanted because who talks about the end of life at the beginning? She wanted just to live. In the haze of their grief her parents opted for cremation.
Most of the students and teachers attended. Ma Perigo dreadful in black. Their physics teacher, Ozzy Hampton, looking drained of his usual bonhomie. The Head of College gave a brief eulogy. Irreplaceable loss. Talented young woman. Bright future shorn away. The Head Boy - her final year oppo - got half way with his memories of her, broke down. He wasn’t alone among her former classmates to cry.
Jeremy fell in beside Ozzy Hampton as they left the chapel.
“My dear boy. My poor, dear boy.” Ozzy’s big hand on his shoulder. Ozzy, too wise to say that he didn’t know what to say. Old enough to know that grief is the price we pay for love, that his student, too young for this, was in an abyss there seemed no climbing out of.
There was to be a wake in the college Assembly Hall. On the way, in Ozzy’s car, he said, “I can’t get my head round burning her, sir. Her parents . . why did they burn her?”
“Is a burial any less final, Jeremy?”
He could not tell the older man that he imagined the process, the consuming heat, her compact, mobile body oozing, shriveling and cracking. It sickened and frightened him. Would a burial have been less final? He thought about this, and knew what one day he would do.
Afterwards, at home he told his parents as little of the service and the wake as he could get away with. Even so, his mother had plenty to say.
“All that money she won! I don’t know. Spending so much on that tandem when you both had bicycles anyway. I don’t know what her parents thought. That money would have paid for the funeral.”
He heard himself yelling. “The College paid. They had a collection. And the Governors have some sort of Trust Fund. The school paid because everybody loved her. Except you. You didn’t love her because I did.”
As he slammed out of the house he heard his father, fury in his voice, arguing with his mother and his mother, plaintive, wondering what she had said now.
Ozzy Hampton persuaded him to stick with his University course, without saying he would adjust, would get over it, would come to forget in time.
Shirley’s parents made no objection when he wanted to sell the tandem. He gave the money to the College. Ozzy and the Governors would look after the use of it; a memorial plaque perhaps, or a carrel in the Library.
Her bike hung in the back of the garage. He could scarcely bear to look at it and when he did he saw Shirley, sitting upright, freewheeling down to the river, or maybe stretched out, low, her forearms on the tri-bars, her face shining with exertion, or again, standing on the pedals, her body rocking side to side as she punched the bike along dale lanes where steep, short climbs seemed suddenly to stand the road on end.
On a warm May afternoon he feels ready. He lifts her bike down, wheels it out of the garage. He raises the narrow seat and the handlebar a couple or three inches to suit his height. He straddles the bike, settles into his riding position. But these are surely Shirley’s hands on the brake hoods, not his? Shirley’s feet twisting to lock her shoe cleats to the pedals and Shirley’s voice as he settles onto the seat and pushes off, saying, “Tell you what I think, Oaf, – there’s only one thing in this world better than the feeling of riding a bike.”
He makes Kilnsey in two hours where he leaves the tarmac road and follows the grass road called Mastiles Lane that rises and falls between dry stone walls, west into the National Park. It is a weekday, and quiet, and he meets no one. He follows the lane for five miles. The way is mainly across sheep pasture but as he gets further from the dale it skirts the edges of limestone slabs known locally as pavements. In places these are cut by deep fissures – pitfalls for the unwary walker. The lane fords one beck, then another. The becks are full after winter rains. He comes to a third ford where the lane crosses Gordale Beck, a bigger stream that meanders before plunging into the steep sided valley of Gordale Scar. Here he dismounts. Now he must wheel her bike cautiously, following the beck till he comes to the gloomy cleft, loud with the roar of water. In places he has to shoulder the bike and carry it, scrambling over limestone scree, loose stuff dislodged from the crags by frost and thaw. There are stretches where the scarps to his right cast shadow, cutting out the sun. A hundred yards or so into the gorge he finds what he needs – two limestone slabs separated by a fissure a little wider than the handlebars, and deep enough. He lowers Shirley’s bike into it. The bike stands upright, very nearly, wedged between the slabs. He collects chunks of limestone and drops them into the gap, carefully, to avoid damage to the machine, first on one side then the other until the fissure is full and nothing of her bike shows. It is the best a Head Girl’s churl can do, the nearest he can give her to a burial. This done, he finds the biggest pieces of stone he can manage and heaves them onto the grave that will need no tending and will have only his memories for flowers.
He does not linger. He has brought trainers and a track suit in a back-pack. He puts these on, stows his cycling shoes, and heads back to the grass lane. He will walk back to Kilnsey, get the bus to Skipton, the train to Leeds.
In the May evening with shadows lengthening, the bus passes by Conistone, Grassington, Threshfield and Linton and Cracoe. These small, lovely places are the road-map of his times with Shirley and he will never see them again, never come here again and knows he will not want to.