September 2019, Col D’Izoard, France
Luc Barguil finishes polishing the wine glasses and walks once around the table, carefully checking that everything is in order. The lunch guests will soon be here. He knows how important this day is for them and is honoured that they have chosen his restaurant, halfway up the mountain, as their venue.
While his wife and daughter clatter in the kitchen, he steps outside into the late September sun and peers up the road. There’s no sight of them yet. A trio of cyclists, whippet-thin in brightly coloured clothes, nod a silent greeting as they climb slowly past. Otherwise, the road is empty.
Back inside, Luc scans the photographs that line the walls. The oldest is indistinct, in shades of brown and grey; the most recent, dated just a few months earlier, is a riot of colour in its digital clarity. His grandfather, Henri Barguil, took the first, leaning out of the window of their apartment above the restaurant almost a century before, when the Tour de France first crossed the mountain. A lone cyclist, spare tyre twisted across his shoulders, grinds his way up the dirt road, dust clouding up from his wheels. A few figures stand at the side, applauding his effort. In the distance, further down the mountain, another two riders are just about visible amidst their own dust clouds. The photograph is signed “Philippe Thys”, the man who led the race over the summit that day, trying - but failing - to claw back enough time on the race leader to win his fourth Tour victory.
Along the wall, other photographs mark each of the 34 times the Tour has chosen this mountain climb, the Col D’Izoard, as one of its battlegrounds. As the years pass and the sepia gives way, first to monochrome and then to colour, the roadside spectators grow from a small group politely acknowledging the cyclists’ effort to a heaving, riotous mass with banners, flags, cheering, jeering and even running alongside the riders in their attempts to encourage their favourites or distract their rivals. Each photograph is dated and autographed by Thys’s successors at the summit; Bartali, Coppi, Merckx - of course - Van Impe, Bobet and more than two dozen others.
Each photograph but one.
The black and white photograph just behind the table where today’s guests of honour will sit has no signature, only the date – 23 July 1977. Instead of the road outside, it shows the very top of the climb, Le Casse Deserte, some nine kilometres further up the mountain, where volcanic boulders are scattered around like the debris of a slingshot fight between ancient gods. Even the most hardened professionals know that to reach this barren terrain requires them to suffer. On a July afternoon, the heat reaches into their lungs and claws viciously at the last molecules of oxygen, while the tarmac crackles like the electricity in the power lines overhead and drags on the rubber tyres. After 180 kilometres, with two mountains already conquered, a rider’s legs feel as though his shoes are weighted with concrete.
The Izoard hurts.
Luc can see it in the faces of the riders in the photo, grim faced from the effort and grimy faced from the dust of the hot road. He sees their anticipation of the descent ahead, a thousand metres of altitude in eighteen hurtling kilometres of road to the centre of Briancon; a little over 15 minutes that will decide the winner of both the day’s race and the Tour de France itself.
Before then, gravity will conspire with the winding road to challenge them one final time. At high speed, the final fling downhill, with its 180-degree turns and rolling cambers, will be every bit as hard as the climb has been. Too much caution and rivals will escape. Too little and a squeeze of the brakes can cost 20 metres in a matter of seconds. Two riders’ wheels touching at 90 kilometres an hour could take both off the road and down the mountainside.
The front four riders look nervous as they reach to take newspapers, offered by spectators, to stuff down their sweat-soaked jerseys as insulation from the cold air that will fillet them on the way down. Yet, just behind them, the rider whose signature is absent from the photograph exudes complete serenity. His eyes are wide open, clear, focused, calm. He’s moving back slightly on the saddle, bringing his chest down over the crossbar, anticipating the need to make body and bike as aerodynamic as possible. His fingers are reaching to cradle the brake levers. On the way down he will caress them, like a thoughtful lover. He knows every turn ahead. He has already made this descent a hundred times in his head, testing the angles of each bend, working out where to give those strokes and where to lean the bike without braking. In a moment, to his rivals’ surprise, he will accelerate past, crossing the summit marker in first place, and begin his ride to glory.
Harry Chatham is twenty-six years old. He is at the peak of his career, feted by the French press as ‘Le Grand Descendu’ - ‘the Great Descender’ - and, if he can keeps his rivals at bay to the finish line, is about to become the first Englishman to win the Tour de France.
Luc pauses in front of the photograph, looks into Harry’s eyes and wonders what would have been going through his mind at that moment.
He would have known that no one on the road that day could guide a bike downhill as quickly as him.
He would have known he could easily shake off every other rider in the group.
He would have known that he could win the race.
He couldn’t have known that in a little over two minutes he would be dead.
Clitheroe, Lancashire, June 2007
Can you keep a secret?
I don’t mean something innocuous, like knowing what you’re getting for your birthday but pretending to be surprised when you open it or that you saw your mate getting frisky at a party with someone else’s girlfriend, but a real secret, a big one that means you are going to have to lie, repeatedly and consciously, for the rest of your life?
I discovered my mother’s big secret just about a week after her funeral. It wasn’t a huge affair and I knew most of the mourners: my dad and sister, Jen, of course; friends; neighbours; Mum’s former work colleagues; a couple of ladies from her fitness classes; a smattering of Dad’s relatives and Mum’s own father, whom I had always called Grandad Bill.
Less familiar was a group of ten or eleven middle-aged men, who didn’t mingle with the other mourners but seemed to congregate in a couple of tight circles. I recognised only one, Mike Harrison, who had taken over Grandad’s bike shop when he had retired, almost 10 years ago. I recalled Grandad telling me that Mike had once been a professional cyclist and had even been in the Tour de France, although that didn’t mean much to me at the time. He was probably in his late fifties but had obviously kept himself trim. His black hair was starting to turn grey but he still gave the impression of being tightly coiled, ready to spring into action at any moment.
When I first noticed him, at the pub where we gathered after the service, he was deep in conversation with a man of about the same age, who had a long scar, in a series of small slashes, across one cheek. Every now and again one or two of the others would briefly join them, seemingly saying little themselves but listening attentively to whatever the scarred man was saying. One, a tall grey-haired whippet of a man, came over and introduced himself as Martin Kirkbride. He remembered Mum as a teenager, helping out in the shop at weekends.
“She was a lovely lass, even then. Always found something to laugh about with everyone. I think quite a few of the lads in the cycling club had an eye on her – if your dad hadn’t got there first.”
I realised that the men must all have been from the local cycling club, Grandad’s old customers from when he still ran the shop. Seeing us talking, Grandad quickly came over to join us.
“Let me guess, Martin. You’re reminding Jim that you were in the shop the day Lizzie brought him in for his first bicycle.”
He winked at me. “I think you must have been about five at the time and Martin was already sizing you up as a future member of Clitheroe Wheelers.”
“Well, you know we’re just like the Jesuits,” said Martin. “We like to catch them young, like we did with Harry.”
I saw Grandad glance across the room to where Mike Harrison was still deep in conversation with Scarface, as I had mentally dubbed him, while Martin continued.
“I hear you’re a sports teacher, Jim. Maybe you could come and give us some coaching.”
I was beginning to explain that physical education was only my ‘other’ subject, when I wasn’t teaching music, when Grandad placed his hand on Martin’s shoulder, and began, gently, to steer him back towards the other cyclists.
“Thanks for coming today, Martin. It means a lot to me to have you all here. But we should let Jim circulate.”
I was still feeling the aftershocks of watching Mum’s coffin being silently shielded from view and so distracted by the realisation that I’d never see her again that this didn’t strike me as an odd thing to do. It was only later that I found myself wondering why Grandad had been so keen to break up our conversation.
By around four, almost everyone had gone so I went out to the car park to wait for the taxi back to Dad’s house. Over the far side, I caught sight of Mike Harrison again, standing next to a black Range Rover and still talking with Scarface. I hadn’t spoken to either and contemplated going over but something about their demeanour suggested that I would be interrupting. Both seemed more agitated than they had been in the pub. I could hear that their voices were raised and Scarface was hammering one fist into his other palm.
I watched for maybe a minute or so, feeling as though I were intruding. Whatever its cause, their apparent disagreement didn’t seem to be resolved. Scarface got in the car while Harrison turned his back and walked off, presumably to his own car.
Jen’s voice, from the pub entrance, called me back inside and I thought no more of either of them as we collected up the various sympathy cards that people had brought and settled the bill. Both were gone by the time our taxi arrived.
The next day passed in a daze. It was a Friday, which usually meant that a few of us would stay until six to see the last of the pupils off the school premises and then call into the nearby pub for a couple of drinks before starting our weekends, but everyone seemed to understand that I wasn’t in the mood and no one tried to dissuade me from going straight home.
I put a pizza in the oven, then rang Dad to see how he was. We spent 15 minutes or so agreeing with each other that the funeral had gone well. I’d always enjoyed our inconsequential chats. Even before Mum became ill, he and I talked on the phone every couple of days and we would often meet for a couple of pints on a Saturday lunchtime, after I had finished my refereeing duties at school. We were heading into the exam season now, so the forthcoming fixtures list was sparse, but I was sure we would return to the habit after the summer holidays.
The fridge yielded a can of bitter, which served to take away the taste of the pizza, and I sprawled on the sofa, flicking through the TV channels. I didn’t care what I watched; I wanted some noise to distract me from thinking about Mum. Even though I had known this time would come from the moment she had told us about her diagnosis, seeing the curtains close around the coffin had brought home the reality that she was gone. I had kept everything under control at the funeral and afterwards but now I had to try to imagine a world without Mum in it. I had once been a part of her and now it felt as though a part of me had been ripped away. I needed to restart my normal life, with a Mum-shaped hole that, I knew, would very gradually shrink, but never completely close.
I didn’t call Jen that evening, guessing that she would be out. As the most organised of the three of us, she had handled most of the funeral arrangements and had been looking after all the paperwork for Dad since Mum had become ill. I wouldn’t have blamed her for wanting a night out with her friends to relieve the stress of it all. We didn’t speak again until Sunday evening.
“I’ve sorted out most of the filing,” she said. “Next time you go over to see Dad, there’s a bunch of stuff that you should probably pick up and keep yourself now - your exam certificates and so on.
“They’re all in a box file labelled “certificates”, in the bottom drawer of the right-hand cabinet in my old bedroom. I’ve kept everything together, so you just need to fish out the ones you need.”
A few days later, after school, I popped around to the house. Dad wasn’t yet home but I still had my own key. It must have been two or three years since I’d last been upstairs in my childhood home. I couldn’t resist peeking into my old bedroom, which had been turned into a guest room. The single bed had been replaced by a small double and my old flat-pack wardrobe, desk and bedside cabinet supplanted by mock antique furniture. My parents had repainted in neutral colours, the paint concealing the legacy of pin holes and smudges from the succession of football posters that the teenage me had stuck to the wall. It had an anonymous, clinical feel to it. There was no trace of my having spent most of the first eighteen years of my life here. The room reminded me that this was no longer my home. Now it was simply Dad’s house and I had a curious sense that I no longer belonged.
Jen’s room had become an office-cum-storeroom. A small desk and chair sat by the window, flanked by two chest height filing cabinets. I could imagine Mum there, meticulously working her way through letters, bills and whatever other paperwork had to be dealt with to keep the Buckingham home and family functioning. Her “guff”, she called it. Nothing ever fell through the cracks; all was carefully filed.
I found the box file and spread the contents out across the desk. Top of the pile, folded, was Mum’s death certificate. Jen had handled that part of things and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to look but unfolded it anyway. Seeing all the details, laid out so calmly, started me sobbing, in a way that I hadn’t felt able to do at the funeral, with everybody there to see.
Name: Elizabeth Jane Buckingham
Previous name(s): Elizabeth Jane Moorhouse
Date of birth: May 28th 1955
Date of death: June 2nd 2007
Cause of death: Carcinoma
I sat down and started to look through the other documents. They were all folded, so each had to be opened to identify it. As Jenny had said, all of the family documents were together. There was a bunch of Dad’s professional certificates – his original degree in Biology, his various post-graduate qualifications and his practitioner’s licence. There were even his piano certificates, showing that he had attained the lofty heights of Grade 2. I owe my career to that. The only reason he had submitted to taking piano lessons in the first place, at the age of 31, was to encourage me to do the same when I would have much preferred to outside with a football.
Beneath that was Jenny’s birth certificate, then some documents relating to damp courses and other things to do with the house. The evidence of my educational achievements was collected in a plastic folder, along with one confirming me as the runner-up in a general knowledge quiz at Scouts when I was twelve.
Finally, I found a sealed envelope, right at the bottom, with “J birth cert.” written on it in Mum’s handwriting. I opened it carefully and took out the sheet inside. It was yellowed at the edges and the ink was slightly faded. I guessed that it must be the original but why was it in an envelope when every other document was loose?
It suddenly struck me that I had never seen my full birth certificate. Still, I knew what it would say. As I read across the columns, the spidery handwritten details were at first familiar.
Name: James Harold Buckingham
Date of Birth: January 29th 1978
Place of Birth: Clitheroe, Lancashire
Mother’s name: Elizabeth Jane Buckingham
The final two lines were anything but.
Father’s name: Harold William Chatham
Father’s occupation: Deceased.
My heartbeat accelerated and my hands started to shake as I read the entries again. This had to be wrong.
Who the Hell was Harold William Chatham?