Months, again, again, since I’d been on the bike. But maybe today.
Today was fine, still, a late winter’s afternoon with the light pale on the hills. I said to Bartali when we were in the car, I’d like to bike to the cemetery, I think I could do that. The minute I opened the door and stood in the cold fresh air, I retracted. I’d just got over the flu. It was too cold, too far. I can’t do it, I said.
I weeded instead, kneeling on the damp lawn in my dress and tights to pull rye grass from around the climbing rose and lavenders. At least I was taking some action outside. Bartali walked around the corner of the house.
“What about we ride up the road to the corner and back, just that. You could do that,” he said.
“Ok. But I’m biking in my dress.” That way, it wouldn’t be too big a deal.
I found my helmet and gloves and sunglasses, put a cycling jacket on over my dress and wheeled my bike out to the road.
“We could take Hills Creek Road and stay off the main road,” I said, and that way we biked over the bridge and could see the Ida Burn running high after days of rain. Not flooded though.
We biked uphill along the gravel road, the paddocks each side of us blanched of colour, the grass frost-wilted and tawny. Not tawny like the summer drought, which is more golden, but as if the gold is poured over with grey.
There didn’t seem to be any animals as far as the eye could see, all the way to the Ida Burn Hills at the foot of the Hawkduns. Around a bend the smell of turnips in the air, and then there was a field with young black steers. They ran back from us then turned and stared, their faces all pointed one way, and the air smelling like soup.
Beyond them, a paddock of sheep, merinos, heavy and grey with their wool.
“They could be last year’s lambs,’ I said.
“Or are they hoggets?” Bartali wondered.
“Two tooths?” I realized how little I knew. But they were not the breeding ewes further up the valley, shorn and white and thick bellied. These had the leap of the young about them still.
My legs felt fine. We biked to the corner of the foothills road, and kept biking. Now that we’ve come this far, I wanted to bike all the way to the cemetery. I remembered the last time I came this way; I was on my own and it was snowing. I’d biked in the flattened track of a car tyre. The streams in the paddock were frozen. I’d stopped my bike to take a photo of the snow. Now, the gravel road is damp, the flinty stones pressed down into the soft surface, the ditches running with water.
The gate is shut at the cemetery, the lawns newly mowed, and it looks like the graves have been sprayed, that empty they are of rampant growth and flowers. But that was summer when we weeded here, and hollyhocks towered over headstones.
My friend Polly’s grave is a receptacle for all that her visitors bring -figurines, clay roses, a pebbled heart with a pencil sticking out like a mast. Hawthorn berries scattered scarlet on the dirt. I walked over to the Hawthorn hedge and plucked purple-red berries too and brought them back to sprinkle over the dirt while I talked to Polly, asked her help. Bartali in his bright red jacket walked the aisles, reading names.
It’s four pm, and the air chilling when we get back on our bikes.
“How far to get home?” I asked.
“Twenty-five minutes,” he said.
We took the main road from the corner but even then, there was no traffic. It was just the hills and the mountains covered lightly in snow, the wide fields of grass opening away from us. A late winter palette of grey and white and fawn.
At the corner of Nelson Road, a sileage pit was open. For metres afterwards the air smelt of rich fruitiness, and then we were onto the home straight, Ida Valley Road, downhill. I remember this is where we always raced, and dig in, so that briefly there is that exhilaration of speed, of joy in the workings of the body, legs pumping, heart thudding, dress flying.