Life & Culture

Why I will never get back on my bike again…


When I was 21, I was cycling down the street in Cambridge when I got my skirt tangled up in my bicycle.

I'd never really bonded with the whole bicycle idea, being a profoundly uncoordinated person. But riding a bike in Cambridge was definitely the thing to do, so I'd reluctantly bought myself an antiquated model with a wicker basket on the front and three gears.

You wouldn't really say I dressed as a professional cyclist to ride it. On this particular day, like many a 1990s student, I was wearing Dr Martens, a floaty top, and a floor-length skirt with little mirrors sewn into it.

I gave my skirt a few good tugs, hoping I wasn't going to tear it in the process of extricating it. But it very quickly became apparent that the material was so thoroughly wound up in the spokes that it may as well have been part of the actual bike. I was completely stuck.

Two women were walking by and I called them over to explain my dilemma. We worked out that it was possible for me to get off the bicycle while still attached to it. By a stroke of luck, we were still in the street where I lived - albeit at the opposite end. So the three of us proceeded to walk back to my house, the women carrying the bicycle between them and me staggering alongside.

My street bordered Jesus Green, a picturesque area of grassland where, it being a beautiful spring afternoon, scores of students were sitting picnicking. Obviously, this was the best thing they'd seen all term.

I knew the news would be all round my college before the day was out. Luckily, I had completely thrown off my Jewish identity while at university; otherwise it would have been all round JSoc as well.

I tried to maintain an expression that conveyed the idea that, OK, I recognised that this was quite an amusing situation, but fundamentally I was an entirely cool and together person who was just having a bad day.

I don't think I succeeded.

After what seemed like approximately three months, we reached my house and the blessed privacy of my hallway. I thanked the women profusely, and waited for them to go so that I could remove myself from the bike, leaving the skirt behind.

"You're completely welcome," they said. "In fact, we'd been planning to call at your house later anyway. We're Jehovah's Witnesses…"

My Jewish identity came magically flooding back to me. I explained apologetically that although I'd love to chat, my active practice of Judaism meant that I wasn't really the ideal person for them to talk to.

Immediately, their eyes lit up. Here was a real challenge. Not merely a lapsed Christian, but a Jew! And one already beholden to them!

It was quite some time before they finally left, and my bike and I were able to part company.

I've lived my whole life again since that day. Now, aged 42, I'm definitely less hapless. After all, I have a career (in publishing) which I haven't been sacked from yet; I help lead services in my shul (Assif at NNLS), and I have three kids whom I manage to clothe and feed and even talk to now and again. On more days than not, I travel from morning till night without notable catastrophe.

I always feel, however, that if I'm not currently tangled up in my bicycle (so to speak), I probably will be at any moment.

A friend commented the other day that she'd ripped a hole in the back of her jeans and had to spend the rest of the hot day with her coat on. "I wish I could be like one of those effortless women," she said.

I suspect that the reality is, though, that there are no effortless women - or men, either. It's just that some people are better than others at pretending.

In this column, I'm going to be writing about Jewish life and secular life, childhood and parenthood, with all their associated mishaps and triumphs.

In the meantime, what was the fall-out from the bicycle incident?

I've refused ever to get on a bike since leaving university. In fact, I tried to simplify matters soon after I met my husband by telling him I didn't know how to ride one - on the grounds that he then wouldn't try to make me go on bike rides. Unfortunately, I'd forgotten that I'd already told him the story I've just relayed above. He was annoyingly smug about catching me out.

And one other repercussion: from that day onwards, I've always been extremely polite to Jehovah's Witnesses.


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