“Let go,” Will said. “Let me go.”
His strangled voice was pushing at the edges of its limited range, threatening to break if its volume increased further. Stuart held on with both hands. It was an uncomfortable position, and his back was beginning to ache from having to bend.
“Let go, let go,” the boy said again. He was pleading now, starting to kick out with his feet in desperation.
The car park was almost empty. There were only three other cars, and none of them were parked close to Stuart’s. It was getting gloomy, evening approaching. The lights hadn’t come on yet, although even once they did, it would still be gloomy. There weren’t enough of them, and the bulbs were a pathetic, low-watt type, which it took the council ages to replace once they’d burned out.
“Let me go. Please!”
Will was almost in tears now, tears of fury.
Just like your bloody mother, Stuart thought.
“Look, Will,” he said, “how about this? I’ll let go with this hand, and then you can work the handlebars.”
Stuart released his right hand, so the boy was in complete control of the steering. He wobbled instantly, and the bike swung from left to right to left to right until he gathered some measure of equilibrium. Stuart thanked himself silently for not letting go with both hands, for keeping his left one securely on the stem of the seat, just below the saddle. The bike and the boy would never have remained upright if he hadn’t, although it did mean he had to continue stooping.
Will was only placated for a moment.
“No, daddy,” he said. “Let go properly. Please. Let go.”
“Will,” Stuart said, “you don’t have your helmet on.” He was starting to get out of breath, though he couldn’t see why.
They’d now negotiated their way to the end of the path leading down from the front steps of the community centre. Stuart put his hand back on the handlebar for a second, to guide the bicycle through the ninety degree turn it needed to take to enter the car park.
“Daddy, let go!” Will snapped again, grabbing at Stuart’s fingers to try and prise them off.
“OK,” Stuart said, peeling his hand away. They were already safely within the car park, facing the far corner, where the silver hatchback waited for them.
From behind, a dark shape appeared low in the sky, moving slowly, even clumsily, almost not dynamic enough to be airborne. As it moved past and gave a dinosaur screech, Stuart realised it was a heron, returning through the twilight to roost somewhere in the trees ringing the old quarry ponds. There were often herons there, though you rarely saw them flying; it was easy to forget that they could, and to forget how ungainly they were. Stuart watched it move beyond the field of tarmac, with its rows of identical straight lines marked out in white paint, and disappear between two poplars, gaunt now their leaves had fallen to earth.
He did a hurried calculation in his mind. What was it – thirty yards? Perhaps forty? Less. It might take Will no more than twenty seconds to cross the barely noticeable slope. What could seriously go wrong? The numbers collided in Stuart’s exhausted brain, in a part of it where the inevitable unknowns in the equation could be easily overlooked, or fall through the gaps; unknowns that would seem obvious later. But he’d seen the scene before, the one he was picturing, in dozens of movies. He was sure of it: unaware that he’s no longer being held, the boy carries on pedalling as before, made confident by the imagined security of the adult hand, the one he resents, the one that represents restraint, unfairness. Before he realises the hand isn’t there, and he’s free, he’s already far away, beyond the threshold, becoming a man.
Stuart’s hand released its grip on the bike, and he watched as Will sailed off and away from him down the slope. Somewhere over by the ponds, in the descending darkness, there was a commotion, another screech, a sudden shaking of branches, the briefest view of something taking flight.