by Jackie Morrissey
It wasn’t that he liked exercise, but he knew he needed a hobby. The Interview required one. The school prepared them well for Oxbridge, nothing less was expected from its brightest and best. It was an expensive school, and people paid for results. They were given excellent guidance to lead them towards success. Good contacts, good jobs. If the Careers teacher said a hobby was required, only the foolish would fail to acquire one.
He had chosen downhill cycling from the list of activities organised by the school in order to ensure its students a suitably well-rounded profile at interview. How hard could it be? He knew how to cycle. No long uphill slog to hurt the muscles and tear the lungs, just an exhilarating downhill rush. Finding time was difficult though. His schedule didn’t leave much room. Final year, a bad time to have to acquire an interest. Really, he resented it. Surely these people could see that his education came first? He shouldn’t have to spend time on trivia when he could be swotting for the exams, but he supposed it was some sort of test in itself, a way of trimming down the prospective entrants by making them jump through a few more hoops. With any luck he need only do it a few times, enough to be able to sound knowledgeable and offer some convincing reminiscences, if required. Downhill cycling. Finding enough to say about it would be the only real problem. Get on bike, cycle downhill. Morons.
On Saturday morning he turned out with the group, all huddling protectively from the blade-like winter air, all decked out in the requisite gear. There was quite a fashion thing about it, any old stuff wouldn’t do. A knowledgeable shop assistant had guided him through the protocols – the protective gloves; but in the right make, the cycling shorts; similarly appropriate to his peer group aspirations, the jersey, the rain gear… It had cost a fortune, but it was always worth ensuring that one wore the correct things. He had learned to his cost in first year that his mother’s thrifty chain store instincts spelled social disaster. He would not risk exclusion. That was how the game worked. You went by the rules and did what was required. And now he was required to develop a hobby. If that was what it took, that was what he would do, no matter how much it worried him to break his study pattern.
It did worry him.
He had got into a good routine over the year. School, eight-thirty am, half an hour to revise before class. Classes until four o’clock, except for a half hour lunch. Officially, he had an hour, but he usually went to the computer room for the second half – it was so hard to get a computer at other times, and his course work needed a better machine than his home pc. Walk home – exercise stimulates the brain. Home, 4:45, upstairs, study until dinner at 6:30. Back upstairs at 7, study until 10:30pm, then sleep. At weekends he permitted himself a lie-in until 9 am, then went back on schedule. His family thought it a little excessive and urged him to take more breaks, so he had arranged to go out with a group from school once a fortnight. They met in a pub, he stayed two hours, drank one beer, then went home. He accepted that it might be necessary; anyway, he did not want to be thought odd. Personally, though, he would have preferred to miss out on the pub night. It interfered with his study routine. He found it unsettling, and spent his time there shifting uneasily as he remembered things left unfinished and course work not yet tackled. People expected too much; they wanted results, but then they expected hobbies and interests and a social life too. Something had to give, and it wasn’t fair to make him feel odd just because he took his future seriously. Thinking about it made him scratch his arm angrily, a nervous habit he had developed, but was trying to stop as his arm often bled and looked disgusting. He always wore long sleeves.
And so to downhill cycling. Not as easy as it sounds. To cycle downhill, one must first get to the top of an appropriate slope. He hadn’t thought of that, he had assumed they would be driven to their starting point. That first morning they pushed their bikes up a soul-breaking hill, tasting the diesel fumes that hung low around their faces as they reluctantly opened their mouths to gasp for air. Hardly a healthy pursuit, he thought, scratching his arm as they stopped for a rest just short of the summit. A gentle start, the organiser had said. It looked like the abyss to him. That pollution might give him asthma. He didn’t have asthma, but his cousin did. It was probably genetic. They would have to rush him to hospital, ambulance blaring, and that would teach them for demanding hobbies in exam year. He could feel his chest constrict with every breath; then he thought of the work awaiting him at home. So much work. His lungs laboured like broken bagpipes, but he kept with the group and positioned himself at the top, ready to cycle downhill.
It looked more daunting now that he was about to do it. The hill was steep, with one side of the road cordoned off with orange plastic cones, just for their downhill rush. What if his brakes went? He could be shattered against a wall, or under a truck, and all his work would mean nothing. He could be like Stephen Hawking, the genius in the wheelchair, speaking through a weird mechanical gadget that made him sound like a robot. He certainly had asthma, he could feel his lungs wheezing. He felt light headed. Maths to revise, calculus – wasn’t that a kidney stone? No that was biology, keep the mind straight, list the formulae in your head twenty times, that was how to do it, memory is everything, don’t panic, keep thinking. How to get the gradient of a slope? This slope. Must go down it. Don’t want a hobby, want exams, Cambridge. What to do there? Choose Maths. No confusion with Maths; nice and certain. Learn the formulae, logical thinking, right answer, wrong answer. Was quite good at maths. Not brilliant his teacher said, but solid, very solid. Must keep working, can’t waste time. Arm bleeding on to new jersey. Dark colour, won’t show. Doesn’t matter.
Downhill cycling. Wheels rolling, head spinning, houses blurring, straight lines, must concentrate. Concentration needs routine, study schedule, don’t mess up, don’t miss out, here’s your chance, your future, fun and games later, don’t mess up. School days, best days, best times, come on school! You can win, you can win, best days, all downhill, downhill… Watch stone, swerve left, swerve right, straight on, can’t do it, can’t do it, can’t do it. Truck ahead, must watch, big truck, stay left, don’t go under, go under. Might fail, no future, no Cambridge, can’t do it, can’t study, can’t cycle, downhill, veer right, truck ahead, close eyes…
‘It was a dreadful accident,’ said his mother. ‘But now you’re home, you can get back to studying. No more dangerous sport. Your father says there’s a chess club starting up locally. That would be much more suitable for a hobby. It’s just lucky the plaster cast is on your leg, not your writing hand. You have to concentrate on getting back into routine now; back to normal.’
‘Normal,’ echoed the boy, scratching at his arm. ‘Yes. I need to get back to study.’
His mother smiled as she left the room. He shut the door behind her slowly, then straightened a few books before sitting to survey the shelf. His busy fingernails felt the dampness seeping through his sleeve. Carefully, he pulled a fold of material over the stain.
Jackie Morrissey has had several short stories published. Her work has been included in The Turning Tide (ed.Thomas McCarthy) and The Best of CafeLit 2012 (ed. Gill James). In 2004 she won the Molly Keane Short Story Award. She has been a regular contributor to RTE (Ireland) Radio’s Sunday Miscellany.