Riding the flying bicycle

Riding the flying bicycle

A close friend is finishing uni at the moment. She’s 30 and has just submitted a PhD thesis that genuinely adds something to the sum of all human knowledge. I know she’d say it’s not much, that it’s a small thing, and maybe on the global scale she’s right. Nonetheless, I am so totally in awe of both the effort she put in and the fact that she has put her shoulder to the wheel and helped move her field along.

So I bought her a present. It’s this:

A white mug with people in gowns on flying bicycles

The mug design is by Quentin Blake, whose work I got to know and love as a child because he illustrated a lot of Roald Dahl books. As I’ve mentioned before, his artwork had a real impact on both my reading of Roald Dahl’s stories and the way I view the characters in them. I think it’s beautiful.

I really like this image, as a metaphor for graduation and moving on. I love the flocks of students taking off on their bicycles. University towns are full of bikes anyway, and there is a sense that students migrate, that they fly the coop in the summer, when the halls and colleges go quiet, and return, noisy as a flock of starlings in autumn.

Today, I’ve been thinking about riding that flying bicycle myself. When I bought the mug, it didn’t occur to me that there would be anything scary about the ride – but there is. Heading into the unknown is one of my favourite things. I love the moment of setting off. It’s exhilarating beyond belief. Being a planner, I’ll have made sure that my frame is sturdy and my tires are pumped (I take far better care of my metaphorical bikes than my actual ones). I’ll have comfortable shoes and probably a packed lunch. I try to have money in my pocket, in case I crash into a cloud and need to call a flying taxi.

But you can’t really prepare fully, can you? You can’t prepare for that moment when you look down, and the world is so far away that it seems like you could never get home again. Or that shaken feeling you get after a near miss, a lightning bolt or runaway dragon that bowls you over, leaving you counting your limbs and seriously anxious about the answer. And nothing can prepare you for the full-on hits, the ones where neither you nor your flying bike will ever be quite the same again.

Right now, I’m peddling along, waiting for take off in my own way. The best metaphor I’ve found for this late stage of a first pregnancy is (and bear with me, or go off and sympathize with K who thinks this is mad) sky diving.

I went sky diving at university. One of the fund raising clubs organized it, and you were supposed to get a certain amount of donations to cover your jump plus a bit over for charity. That didn’t seem entirely fair to me, on the basis that I was in it purely for the thrills, so I put up the jump bit and hit up friends for the genuinely-for-charity bits. It was still a really cheap way to go sky diving.

The dive site was somewhere outside Scunthorpe, and the day was typical of the Yorkshire weather with high grey cloud making everything seem drab. We had a whole series of safety lectures and demonstrations, then sat around in a tin hut waiting for the weather to either clear or get worse, so we’d know if the jumps could go ahead.

It eventually cleared enough for us beginners to jump. About half a dozen of us were loaded into a plane, each with our instructor. They chatted over the noise of the engine, just another day at the office. We tried not to throw up.

What I remember most is having no idea of what it would be like. I’m tall, and they prefer your instructor to match or outweigh you, so I had a big bear of a man whose name tag read ‘Baldrick’. When it was our turn, he clipped me onto him, shouted us through some safety checks, and then we slid up the bench (wooden benches! on an airplane!) and out the door.

For few terrifying moments, as we went from upright (stepping out the door) to face down (correct sky diving position) I really felt like I was falling. It is one of the physically scariest things I’ve ever known.

After that, when we were in position, the sensation of falling vanished. The earth was spread out, so far below us that we couldn’t (I decided) possibly hit it. How would we get there? And I relaxed.

Jolting out of free fall when Baldrick opened the parachute was another shock. Floating gently down, which took about 15 minutes, was an odd mix of thrilling (there is nothing under my feet!), awkward (what, exactly, do you say to the stranger whose chest you’re strapped to at a time like that?) and an odd high-intensity boredom (is that still Scunthorpe in the distance? Yep. Hmm. Grey skies. Eh. Are those green smudges trees? Couldn’t the world have laid on better scenery for this moment?).

Landing, again, was a bit scary. We’d been warned that it was the most dangerous part, as you’ve got momentum and it’s easy to twist an ankle. (Or get crushed, I thought, by the giant bear strapped to your back.) But even that was fine, and I stumbled back into the club house with shaky legs, a big grin and a feeling of relief: I’d done it. It was awesome.

At this stage, we’re in the plane. We’re circling higher and higher around the airfield. At some point soon, a professional will tell me: yep, this is it. It’s now, it’s really happening now. There will probably be some safety checks and a moment of pure terror.

And then, at some point after all that, we step out the door with our new baby. What happens next? I really have no idea. Somehow, I understand, you get back to earth where everything is normal and people make you cups of tea. And you get so blasé about the whole thing you may well do it again. But on the way down? Not a clue.

I guess we’ll find out.

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