I took a long, hard bike ride at the weekend, hoping to learn something about my dead father. In the end, I found out something unexpected about me and my own children.
MY DAD committed suicide almost a quarter of a century ago, and yet I am still in a relationship with him.
He still makes me angry, because – before he asphyxiated himself with his car exhaust – he left my brother a loving note and chose not to write to me.
He still makes me insecure, because he obviously didn’t like me much.
And this rage and self-doubt he left me with combine – still – to put me in preposterous competition with a man who has been in the ground almost 25 years.
I want to beat him by living longer (tick); by being a better Dad (tick?) and by beating my own depression (tick, sort of).
And at the weekend, I was going to be better than him on the bike.
Shortly after he died, my Granny gave me the surprising information that Dad used to ride as a teenager – often to a village called Stokenchurch, about 40 miles north of London.
Maybe it was because I was grieving, but something about this fact lodged in my brain like a barb in a fish’s mouth.
I found myself thinking about Stokenchurch often over the years – much more than the place deserved. According to Wikipedia, it was a commuter village with a couple of pubs and a part 13th-century church, so there didn’t any pressing reason to go there.
But being in The lumpy Chilterns, it was high. About 750 feet above sea level; a decent challenge for my youthful Dad. And as soon as I knew he had once climbed a big hill, I wanted to do it too.
But, of course, I wanted to do it better than him.
So I started from my home instead of his, just to put an extra 25 miles on top of his journey. Because I was harder and stronger than the old bastard.
As soon as I set out, on a bright but chilly Sunday morning, I felt the simple joy of being in the saddle again, sweating out my demons.
I zipped along at a faster-than-average place, spinning a bigger gear, and breezed through places where we – Dad, Mum, my brother and I – had lived so unhappily.
On the bike, the nice tree-lined avenues I had slowly dragged my suitcase along after every heartbreaking family row flashed by in seconds. The pricey house we had bought seemed tiny compared to the one I live in now.
No wonder we argued, I thought, Squashed in together like that.
High now on endorphins and sugary Fruit Pastilles, I began to realise that I may have made the trip for a kinder reason: to experience a place where Dad had been happy once: riding with his mates, feeling the same elation that I was.
I had become fixated on Stokenchurch because it was a puzzle: the carefree image my Granny had evoked was so at odds with the sad man I knew, I had to go there to make sense of it.
Which meant that I didn’t want to be angry with him any more. I wanted to know that he had been to good places, too.
By the time I made it to the top of the nine-mile hill that leads up to unremarkable-as-I-thought Stokenchurch, I felt a bit more at ease with myself and my past.
But the trip wasn’t finished with me. Throughout the day, it carried on weaving its strange magic and the past continued to whisper – profitably – in my shell-like.
That morning, on my way out, I had passed the site of the hotel where a girlfriend and I had once spent a secret night together – both of us lying to our parents about where we were staying and booking in under false names.
And, on the unfamiliar train line back to London, I passed a golf course where we had once sneaked onto the 12th green and fucked on its soft darkness. Then a car park where we had done it – bendy and determined – in the front seat of her Mini.
I thought about this with a mixture of shock and delight: I had lied, taken risks, probably broken trespass and indecency laws, and yet somehow formed the later impression that I was a mostly blameless adolescent.
Suddenly, my parents didn’t seem so bad, putting up with me.
And my son, whose own risk-taking has weighed heavily on me lately, all at once seemed much more like his old man.
By the time I finally got home again, I had ridden for 75 miles and my knees felt like someone had driven small nails into them.
But I had the conquest of Stokenchurch Hill to add to my athletic palmares and – finally – a bit of fellow-feeling with my Old Man.