Rebecca Tyrrel: Days Like Those

'Matthew is neurotic about the safety of his only son, so the Campaign for the Right to Cycle has been tiresome'
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The Independent Online

In the past I have gone to tremendous lengths to hide from Matthew the motoring fines I incur while going about my daily life. This is because the knowledge of them gives him such a glow of smug satisfaction – gemutlichkeit is what the Germans call it, according to Radio 4's James Naughtie, and he should know.

These days though, I do the opposite. I exaggerate my contraventions, I boast about them; show off about them, all in the name of convincing Matthew that cycling, not motoring, is now the way forward for both Louis and me.

I am dealing, however, with a man who is so neurotic about the safety of his only son and heir he would have had every last copy of The Dangerous Book for Boys burned on a symbolic pyre, and so the Campaign for the Right to Cycle without harassment from him has been long and tiresome. No amount of telling Matthew that our ride takes us through the quiet, friendly, relatively car-free streets of what the estate agents hereabouts refer to as Brackenbury Village, followed by a quiet pedal along a leafy towpath via Hammersmith Bridge, has convinced him that we will return each day in one piece.

Of course we have been ignoring him as, each morning he stands by the front door with his head in his hanky-filled hands, muttering: "I am not a happy father. With this I am not happy. Not happy at all." And consequently we now have the nightly bike row, which while new in comparison to its seasonal brethren; the garden row in spring, the garden furniture row in summer and the chilling, wintry, "why do we have to have all the windows open in the middle of January?" row, is much more vicious.

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And then, this week, disaster struck when I was fined £30 for cycling in the pedestrian walkway over Hammersmith Bridge. I became aware of the young police constable hiding in the towpath undergrowth with his notebook out the moment we crested the brow of the bridge and too late I shouted to Louis to dismount. He had spotted us, we had spotted him. We were sitting ducks. I immediately began working on the damage limitation; bribing Louis. "Whatever happens next," I said, "there are two packs of Pokemon cards in it for you if you promise not to say a word to Dad."

Louis looked at me blankly in what I well knew to be mock incomprehension.

"OK," I said, "four packs. But that is my final offer."

"Six packs and the new Doctor Who DVD," said Louis who has been watching far more of The Sopranos than is good for him.

"Deal," I say. "But not a word to your father."

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"Madam," said the police constable, "do you know why I am stopping you and what your offence is?" Now, I know it's a cliché that policemen are getting younger, but honestly, this one was barely older than Louis. And so it was with difficulty that I managed to interact with him in a non-patronising, "why-don't-you-run-along-now-sonny?" manner. In fact it could be said that I failed.

I told him that I had a fair idea why he was wasting valuable police time stopping a well-meaning, environmentally-aware parent, and that he knew as well as I did that there was plenty of room on the pedestrian walkway for not just pedestrians but also the courteous, safety-conscious cyclist.

I was rewarded with a patronising lecture, to the effect that pedestrians have been getting injured by cyclists as well as having their bags snatched.

"Do you honestly think I look like a bag snatcher?" I yelped in a middle-class way in response. The police constable gave no reply, but did tell me that he would be issuing a fine after explaining to me the full nature of the offence. I explained that we were late for school, and please could he skip any further lecturing and just give me the ticket. He nodded benignly and began the paperwork, starting with my name, address and date of birth. Then he looked me right in the eyes and said, "Working on the principle that I am white and British, how would you describe your ethnicity?" It was because I was thinking how proud Matthew would have been that I said, with a smirk in my voice, "Sioux, with overtones of Apache."

"That'll be white and British then," said the Pc, and suddenly I felt, in the presence of this boy who was young enough to be my grandson, rather childish.

"My next question," he continued, is: what colour is your bike?"

I didn't respond immediately. The spirit of Matthew hovering over us wouldn't let me. Instead I looked at my very obviously purple bike, and then I looked at Louis, and Louis looked at my obviously purple bike and then at me and finally I said, "Green".

"Thank you madam," said the policeman writing down the word "purple," and handing me a copy of the charge notice. "Please don't do it again."

I put the slip of paper in my bike basket and I moved off in silence, thinking it was big of me that I let the policeman have the last word.

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I didn't actually lie to Matthew about the cycling fine, but neither did I tell him. Still, sensed that I was withholding important information and he asked me six times how our cycle ride to school that day had been. Finally, I cracked and waited anxiously for the fallout.

And when he waved us off the following morning, cheerily shouting after us: "See if you can't get done for jumping the lights!" there was a discernible amount of gemutlichkeit (thank-you, James Naughtie) in his voice. Just the one good fine, it seems, is all that was needed.

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