The Hot Red Chop­per

Bicycling (South Africa) - - INSIDE - BY JONATHAN ANCER

A bike can over­come home­sick­ness, bul­ly­ing and fear of death. True story.

When I was nine, my par­ents went on hol­i­day for a few weeks by them­selves, and I was shipped off to the Seckie fam­ily. Mrs Seckie was one of my mother’s friends. Al­though I’m now re­flect­ing through a 30-some­thing-year time fog, I have vivid mem­o­ries of that time – pos­si­bly be­cause they were some of the bleak­est days of my life.

The first evening of my Seckie stay fell on Mr Seckie’s birth­day. Mark, one of the Seckie chil­dren and a few years older than me, had made his fa­ther a card, and signed it: “From Mark Seckie”.

“Oh,” said Mark’s sis­ter, “like Dad wouldn’t know which Mark this card was from?”

I roared with laugh­ter – but laugh­ing at Mark Seckie let loose the bully in him, and I would come to rue my spon­ta­neous guf­faw.

An­other telling mem­ory is the Seckie Sis­ter ask­ing me why I was so sad. “Are you home­sick?” she asked. “No,” I shot back smartly, “I’m Seckie sick.”

But I was ly­ing, and Sis­ter Seckie was right: I was des­per­ately home­sick. It was the first time I’d been away from my par­ents; and while this fam­ily I had been bil­leted with were good peo­ple – well, ex­cept for Mark, per­haps – they were un­de­ni­ably alien to me.

My home­sick­ness was prob­a­bly mag­ni­fied be­cause I was in the midst of an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis: a friend’s fa­ther had died sud­denly, and the idea of death and dy­ing had left me deeply trau­ma­tised. My nine-year- old brain couldn’t cope with the no­tion of not ex­ist­ing any­more. The thought that my fa­ther or mother could die at any mo­ment was a ter­ror that gripped me; and no mat­ter how much I tried, I just couldn’t shake it.

It wasn’t only my par­ents I was miss­ing. I had also been wrenched away from Zar­doz, my faith­ful dog. I was a shy


kid, an in­tro­vert; and Zar­doz, my galumphy Rot­tweiler, was my very own walk­ing, drool­ing com­fort blan­ket. And the feel­ing was mu­tual: he fol­lowed me wher­ever I went. He was my shadow. No love is more pure than a boy’s love for his dog, and a dog’s love for his boy.

So I was a wreck – home­sick, in­tensely fear­ful of death, teased mer­ci­lessly by the Seckie boy, and des­per­ately miss­ing Zar­doz. To my shame, I started wet­ting the bed.


Af­ter wak­ing from a rest­less sleep early one morn­ing – and find­ing my­self in a pud­dle of my own urine – I wan­dered down to the bot­tom of the Seck­ies’ mas­sive gar­den. And that’s when I saw Mark Seckie’s bike. It had a fireengine-red frame, wide bal­loon tyres, and a stretched- out ba­nana seat. The han­dle­bars, long and wide, re­sem­bled cow horns, and on its top tube was a stick gear lever. It had three gears.

The bike, a Raleigh Chop­per, was one of the coolest things ever to come out of the 1970s – maybe even cooler than Mag­num PI’s mous­tache. It cer­tainly had more swing than ‘Stayin’ Alive’, more bounce than The Jack­son Five, and more bite than Jaws.

For me, it was noth­ing short of a rev­e­la­tion. See, while boys and girls my age were bomb­ing about on their bikes, pop­ping wheel­ies, I didn’t even know how to ride. My mother had a cousin who was hit by a car and killed while rid­ing his bi­cy­cle, and my mom was ve­he­mently anti-bike.

To make it worse, we lived in Ob­ser­va­tory, Jo­han­nes­burg, at the bot­tom of a long street, which – for those in the know – was a traf­fic-free back­road route to the air­port. Mo­torists would floor the ac­cel­er­a­tor in a mad dash to not be late for a flight. ( Last year – about three decades too late for me – the au­thor­i­ties fi­nally de­cided to slow down the speed­sters, and erected huge speed humps. They’re so mas­sive, they would be clas­si­fied hors caté­gorie in the Tour de France.)

I’d al­ways wanted to ride a bike. I’d begged, pleaded, bar­gained and ca­joled; but my mom was adamant – she felt I couldn’t be trusted not to ride in the road. Es­pe­cially

that road.


So I re­mem­ber get­ting onto the Seckie boy’s bike as if in a dream… and fall­ing off. I got onto it again. And for the next hour, out of sight at the bot­tom of the gar­den, I tot­tered, wob­bled, and crashed as my co- or­di­na­tion and bal­ance failed me. I had bruised shins, skinned knees and grazed el­bows, but I was de­ter­mined to mas­ter it. I couldn’t un­der­stand how peo­ple could ride with­out fall­ing off – it just didn’t make sense (frankly, I still have ab­so­lutely no idea how peo­ple stay upright on two wheels; I’m pretty damn sure it de­fies the laws of physics, al­though I can’t prove it).

Later that day, I came back af­ter school and tried again. I got up early the next morn­ing, and tried some more. And though I had no idea why it worked, I re­alised that when I ped­alled fast enough and kept the bike straight, I didn’t fall over quite as of­ten.

Slowly but surely, I was get­ting the hang of rid­ing. And af­ter just a few days, I had achieved a life- chang­ing rite of pas­sage: I had be­come a cy­clist. I made a cir­cuit around the gar­den and rode around it ad nau­seam, es­cap­ing into my own world; a world with­out the Seckie boy.

There were still bike calami­ties. I dis­cov­ered that if I sat too far back on the ba­nana sad­dle, the front wheel would lift – the first time that hap­pened I per­formed an ac­ci­den­tal wheelie, land­ing jaw-first in Mrs Seckie’s chrysan­the­mums. I also suf­fered speed wob­bles; and in the course of one crash, I nearly cas­trated my­self (for some rea­son, the de­sign­ers of the Chop­per had de­cided that putting the gear lever at crotch level was a good idea).

But my con­fi­dence grew; and I got faster, and more dar­ing. I still wet the bed ( but not ev­ery night), and Mark Seckie still teased me, but I no longer let him get to me. And while I still missed my par­ents, I knew they were okay, and that they would prob­a­bly come home safely.

How­ever, my heart still ached for Zar­doz.


One Satur­day Mark’s par­ents took him out for the day, and the Seckie Sis­ter was left in charge. But her friend came over, and they be­gan a long con­ver­sa­tion about im­por­tant teen stuff, like ‘Can-yoube­lieve-Ruth- called-Michel­lethe-B-word?’, and I was left to en­ter­tain my­self.

I re­treated to my sanc­tu­ary at the bot­tom of the gar­den, and hopped onto the fireengine-red Chop­per. But af­ter a few loops of my cir­cuit, I knew what I had to do next. I wheeled the Chop­per out of the Seckie gar­den and onto the street. And with my heart pound­ing in my throat, I rode it home.

Which is to say I rode it a bit, but pushed it most of the way. The Chop­per was many things, but light wasn’t one of them – that big-rear-wheel/small-fron­twheel combo wasn’t its only re­sem­blance to a steam­roller. The jour­ney seemed to take a gazil­lion years, and all up­hill. (I mea­sured it re­cently: the round trip is just shy of four kilo­me­tres, and en­tirely flat.)


What made it even longer was that ev­ery time I heard a car ap­proach­ing, I would leap off the bike and wait on the pave­ment for it to pass. But even­tu­ally, I ar­rived home – the gate was locked, but Zar­doz came bound­ing up to me. I shoved my face be­tween the bars, and my galumphy Rot­tweiler licked the salty tears stream­ing down my cheeks. Af­ter a while, with a heavy heart – which had stopped pound­ing by then, and re­turned to its right­ful place in my chest – I made my way back to the House of Seckie.

A few days af­ter my joyride, my par­ents re­turned from their hol­i­day, safe and sound. And Zar­doz re­sumed his place by my side, never let­ting me out of his sight.


No- one ever found out about my marathon ride home – well, un­til now – and with this con­fes­sion, I need to make some apolo­gies: sorry, Mom. As it turns out, you were right: I couldn’t be trusted not to ride in the road – es­pe­cially that road; sorry, Mrs Seckie, for mas­sacring your chrysan­the­mums; and sorry, Mark Seckie, for bike-nap­ping your Chop­per.

The Chop­per wasn’t my bike, but it’s the bike that’s had the most im­pact on my life. It gave a trou­bled nineyear- old boy an op­por­tu­nity to es­cape – both fig­u­ra­tively and in re­al­ity. And it gave me a glimpse of how, time and again in later years, a bike would be my key to free­dom.

Oh – and af­ter that, I never wet the bed again.

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