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Frances, 1881



Things that come in threes, in Frances’s experience: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Wise men. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Cain, Abel and the other one. Faith, hope and charity. Liberté, égalité and fraternité. French hens. Little pigs. Leaves on a clover. Roads leading out of Pettigo.


Things that don’t come in threes: wheels on a bicycle.


Nevertheless, that’s what she sees right now, dark green and shiny, sitting on the path in front of her house. A bicycle with three wheels.


There’s one big wheel up behind and two smaller ones at the front. A little square seat in the middle and two handles to hold on to. The pedals are at the front.


Frances is familiar with bicycles, though she’s never ridden one. They’re not really for girls. But some of her big brothers’ friends in town have them, and she’s watched Tom and Eddie take their turn on them. Riding a bicycle looks excellent to her.


The house is quiet. Frances has come home from school early. Nobody knows she’s here.


She sets her books on the wall, tightens her hat-ribbon under her chin and looks carefully all around.


She pushes the three-cycle down the path, points it left down the Derrybrick Road and climbs into the seat.


There will only be a few minutes before somebody from her family steps out from wherever they’ve been working or visiting or making some arrangement and tells her to climb back down, so she doesn’t waste a second.


She grabs the handles, fits her heels into the stirrups at the backs of the pedals, and pulls her feet up. The three-cycle jerks back.


She pushes her feet in the opposite direction. The three-cycle groans and starts to move forwards. Frances laughs in astonished happiness.


She pedals harder, setting up a steady rhythm. The seat bounces up and down, making her laugh again. She turns the handles left and right and zig-zags down the road.


She’s almost at the crossroads with the Formil Road already. She quickly calculates the likely whereabouts of her family members and decides that turning left will provide the best chance of avoiding them and prolonging her ride. She executes the turn very slowly. It’s virtually perfect. The three-cycle is now facing down towards the bridge, and she’s still in place, flushed and thrilled.


She moves faster down the gentle slope, keeping a straighter path and gaining confidence. She kicks her feet up in celebration – and the pedals turn on their own, for a frightening moment, before she slams her feet back in place, the three-cycle judders and stumbles and tips and suddenly Frances is on the road in a jumble of woollen pinafore and squashed hat and skinned elbows.


Her heart thuds and pain gradually replaces shock in her outraged joints. She sits up and checks the damage. Her knees were protected by her layers of petticoat and skirt. They will still turn. She wipes her elbows, throws her ruined hat into the bushes and drags the three-cycle back upright. She can’t bear to let her adventure end in defeat.


She proceeds more carefully up from the little bridge, a place where she and Joe spend occasional half-hours dropping sticks in the river and watching them emerge at the other side. Raised up in her saddle now, she can see clearly into the fields as she passes. It’s like being in the trap on the way to town, but it’s better, because she is driving.


At the Montiaghroe Road junction, she hesitates for only the tiniest moment and turns boldly left again. Now she’s pedalling hard, up the long, steep hill, thinking about nothing but reaching the crest ahead of her. It takes all her energy. Her elbows smart.


But she makes it to the top. Ahead, a broad view opens up, bog and scrubby bushes, blue sky, and a huge swoop of empty road falling away into the distance. Now the three-cycle is gaining speed. She lifts her feet, slowly and deliberately. The pedals keep turning, twin crazy spinning tops. On she flies, heels in the air, hair streaming behind her, heart pounding, joy bursting through her in waves.


At the far side of the bog, Edward McCrea pauses in his work, a large piece of sandstone in each hand. He squints and blinks. The movement that caught his eye resolves into the distant form of his youngest and bravest daughter. She’s perched on the new Dublin tricycle he acquired in trade only this morning. She’s moving very fast.


His first reaction is to call out, but he holds back, afraid to distract her. His second is to admire the way she sits, head firmly into the wind. And his third is to set the sandstone down on the wall he’s been mending and simply watch, the start of a smile on his stern face.


Frances has reached the bottom of the long slope. Wiser now, she keeps her feet raised and lets the three-cycle continue up the base of the next hill. Once the pedals have slowed, she lets her feet fall. They connect. She leans further forward and cycles on, fast and hard.


The sharp turn back onto the Derrybrick Road comes into sight. She swings left again at speed. She has a good rhythm going, her feet on the pedals, her hands on the handles, moving with the bounce of the springs. The three-cycle runs smoothly on, ready to complete the loop of her journey as her own house approaches.


A final left turn up the path, and the three-cycle is back where it started. Frances climbs down and almost falls again, her legs suddenly uncertain and feeble. She steadies herself, making her steps quiet and careful, but sure that someone will hear the insistent drumming of her heart.


Behind the house, her father has Tom, Eddie, her mother and the two youngest boys gathered around him. They haven’t noticed her return. They’re all focused on the old white hen her father is holding.


Frances smooths down her pinafore and tucks her tangled hair under her collar. She goes to the wall to pick up her school books.


Her dented hat, abandoned by the bridge twenty minutes ago, is lying right beside them.


She looks down at the family members gathered in the field. Nobody looks back. But her father raises an eyebrow, very slightly, and keeps talking, the little hen cradled softly in his work-worn hands.



Author’s Note


The tricycle described here is the Dublin Tricycle, patented by William Bindon Blood in 1876, which became popular with the small number of Irish woman who started cycling in the 1870s and 80s. Cycling, on two or three wheels, had an increasingly profound impact on women’s lives in the late nineteenth century, challenging notions about their physical frailty and offering new experiences of freedom and enjoyment.


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