It was already dark when he prepared to set off for the hairpin bridge. His mum didn’t want him to go in case he got run over but he argued and argued until she gave in.
“Don’t blame me if you get yourself killed,” she muttered as she tucked his scarf into his coat.
He laughed. Nighttime was exciting, magical. He felt safe at night, like a shadow nobody could catch. He had no fear when he darted in and out of the traffic to cross the road. He ran like a Plains Indian in the wild west, never getting tired, floating across the ground. Nighttime was his favourite part of the day. He loved it when the neon street lamps cast their strange yellow glow over everything and there were lots of dark corners to hide in and the wind was cool on your face as you ran along not daring to look behind you in case there was something there.
All the same he didn’t take the short cut through the bombed-out building site because that was too dark without the street lamps shining in. You never knew what was in there and even in daytime it was scary. Someone said a tramp lived there. Somebody else said it was a witch.
The staircase up to the top of the hairpin bridge was made of railway sleepers and smelled of creosote. You didn’t want to meet anybody else on the staircase at night either. When you got to the top you could lean over the parapet and stare down on the railway lines thirty feet below. Him and his friends used to spit on the trains as they went underneath, trying to gob down the funnels. The steam came up and made them damp. He loved the smell of the steam and the smoke and the screeching noise the train made as it braked on the bend and the way the bridge shook as the train went underneath.
His dad was working overtime like he did every night. You had to work overtime to make ends meet, his dad said.
At seven o’clock the hooter sounded down in the docks and a few minutes later the first cars appeared, racing over the bridge. A few more minutes after that a big crowd of men on bicycles rode into view. He jumped up and down anxiously scanning the crowd. It was easy to miss his dad in all the excitement.
Some of the men shouted cheerily at him as they rode past, standing up on their pedals as they struggled up the incline.
“All right, son, your old man will be along soon!”
“Don’t worry, nipper, your pa’s right behind us, he can’t keep up with us young ‘uns!”
They knew who he was because he often went down to meet his dad.
At last he caught sight of his dad, his bicycle rolling from side to side with the effort to pedal up the bridge, a long way behind everyone else, almost as far back as the stragglers who were walking home. He didn’t mind that his dad wasn’t as fast as the rest of them. His dad was older than them. It didn’t matter to him. He loved his dad. “Dad! Dad! It’s me!”
Mr Fillary looked up and smiled. He dismounted and pushed his bike across to the pavement. He was out of breath and he leaned on the handlebars, resting. “I wasn’t expecting you tonight, son. It’s a bit cold for you to be out, isn’t it? I wonder your mother let you come.”
“I talked her into it, dad. She didn’t want me to come.”
“Well, you’re here now. Jump on.” He hoisted Christopher onto the crossbar of the big green bike and pushed it slowly up to the top of the bridge. At the top he paused to get his breath back again. After a few minutes he mounted up and they wobbled uncertainly as they set off but as soon as they crossed the flat part of the bridge where it went over the railway line and started on the downslope they picked up speed rapidly. Soon the wind was pulling at his hair. He could smell the diesel and the sweat from his dad’s coat as he sheltered in his arms. He felt safe and happy wrapped in his dad’s coat, like he was wearing a suit of armour. He loved his dad more than anything in the whole world. Riding on a bike with him was the best thing ever even though his bum ached on the crossbar. He laughed out loud with delight when his dad rang the bell even though there was no-one in front of them.
When they got to the bottom of the incline he stayed on the crossbar for a bit until his dad got tired then he climbed down and ran alongside. His dad wasn’t quite right because of the war or something and got tired easily, especially after he’d been working all day. That’s what his mum said. It was harder at night too because you had to put on the dynamo to power the lights and that rubbed on the back wheel like a brake.
Christopher had a three wheeler of his own but at Christmas he hoped his dad would buy him a proper bike with a dynamo so that he could ride alongside his dad at night.
That evening, after tea when he’d gone to bed, his dad came up and read him a chapter from Children of the New Forest and Christopher was just falling asleep when his dad gave him a gentle kiss on the forehead and he felt his bristly unshaven skin and smelled the diesel oil again.
He fell asleep with a big smile on his face and dreamed of the new bicycle he hoped to get, the red one with straight handlebars and plastic mudguards and ten gears.
And a dynamo to see at night.