Sunday Times 5 May 2013
My beautiful boy longed to cycle the world. I ride on for him
Thomas Harding and his 14-year-old son loved cycling, then tragedy struck. After the inquest last week, the writer movingly explains why he at last feels able to get back on a bike
It's a beautiful day today. Should I go for a bike ride? This seems like a normal question, but for me, this week, it feels like a hard one to answer.
On Wednesday, I sat in a courtroom in Salisbury, Wiltshire, and listened to the coroner, David Ridley, give his verdict as to how my 14-year-old son, Kadian, had died in a bicycle accident. Next to me sat my daughter Sam and my wife Debora.
Wearing a blue pin-striped suit and a tie dotted with tiny crowns, the coroner said that Kadian had died of brain trauma on July 25, 2012, after he had collided with a truck on the A4 near Marlborough, Wiltshire. He said there had been catastrophic failure of the front brake, and the back brake had not been working sufficiently to lock the wheels and make an emergency stop.
Kadian had taken his bike to a bike shop only a few hours before the accident to have the brakes repaired. The weather that day had been beautiful, too: clear blue sky, warm, no wind. A great time for a bicycle ride. There were six of us, including Kadian and me. As we crested the first hill, Kadian looked over the open fields of golden wheat, and said to me: "It's so beautiful here, it's so beautiful." We turned left onto a wide track, our wheels bobbling across the baked earth, taking our time, passing a farmyard with horses grazing in a paddock. Kadian in front, me close behind. He was calling back, laughing, making jokes. The path narrowed and became overgrown, we slowed down. He was an experienced and cautious rider. My head was down, avoiding rocks and roots. But when I looked up, Kadian was suddenly way ahead, the gradient had become steeper, the track rockier, and then, incredibly, I saw him struck by something moving left to right. One moment he was here, then he was gone.
I dropped my bike and ran onto the road. Somehow we had made it back to the A4. He was lying on the road. He looked like a young boy again. He wasn’t moving. And then I was howling. Crouched a few yards away, hands over my face. Wailing. Mad.
I had to ring his mother. She was in Washington DC. But how? I knew the consequences of what I had to say. Yet I knew I must. I called her. I said there had been an accident, she stayed with me on the line, she heard the ambulance and helicopter arrive. This was the first of what would be an endless stream of impossible tasks: telling our daughter, dealing with the police, organising the burial, speaking at his memorial service. Attending the inquest.
The day after Kadian died, my wife and I woke up in a terror. Is it true? Is he gone? How can it be possible? That our generous, kind, smart, quirky, assured, beautiful boy could be gone. The pain was massive, unbearable. How were we supposed to live in this world?
This young man showed so much promise. His head teacher called him a polymath. The manager of an Apple store said he was so technologically competent that it should be Kadian, a 14-year-old, who should install a network of 30 computers at City Bikes, in Washington, where his mother worked as chief executive. His YouTube tutorials were so well put together, so interesting, that they attracted thousands of followers.
He was a lover of the good things in life: swinging from a rope into a creek on a summer's day, rolling down a grassy hill, sitting at the top of a tree watching the world go by. He loved steak; he loved chocolate even more. He was as eager to spend time with a two-year-old as with a 92-year-old.
But what really gave him joy was making other people happy. Bringing his mother a cup of coffee in bed, helping his sister learn how to use a piece of software, running over to the neighbours because I needed a couple of eggs for a cake, or, best of all, taking his dog, Duke, for walk.
And he was a comic. Performing the entire Monty Python parrot sketch aged nine with a friend at school, thwacking a stuffed bird onto a desk, shouting, "This is an ex-parrot!"; leaving sticky notes around the house that said "you're so cheeky!"; or making videos with his friends that developed a cult following — you had no choice but to laugh.
Most of all, we just enjoyed spending time with him, in the quiet moments. He made us feel happy, safe, loved. Sitting at the breakfast table, eating a bowl of cereal with him. Swapping jokes. Making silly faces for the camera. Having a serious conversation. He was great company.
You could say that Kadian had been born from a bike. Debora and I met when we took part in a coast-to-coast trip across America in 1987. There were 30 of us in all, mostly students. It was an extraordinary way to get to know the country. The waterfalls dumping off the Oregonian Cascades; the craggy tips of the Grand Tetons. In Manhattan, the traffic was halted as the police escorted us down 5th Avenue.
Kadian developed a similar love for bikes. He liked to go on rides with friends, exploring the small lanes around our home in Hampshire. He would ride into town to pick up groceries, scolding us for suggesting we use the car. He told us that he wanted to tour the world on a bike before he went to university.
This was why he decided to build his own bike, using the earnings that he had made from working in his mother's bicycle store. After weeks of research, he selected one of the best touring bikes available, a Surly Long Haul Trucker. It was this that he had been riding on that final day. It was this bike's brakes that had failed so catastrophically.
Which is how we ended up in the courtroom in Salisbury, hearing the narrative verdict from the coroner. A visit to the bike shop to get his brakes repaired. A family bicycle ride on the Marlborough Downs. A turn down a wooded byway. His brakes failing. Kadian screaming, pumping his brakes as he careered down the hill. A crash. Death by brain trauma.
The coroner made it clear that it was not his job to apportion blame; he would leave that to the civil and criminal courts. It was frustrating not to have a clearer explanation for what happened on that awful day.
Which takes me back to my question. Should I go on a ride? I haven't been on a bicycle since Kadian's burial service eight months ago, when my wife, daughter and I formed a cortege and rode out to the cemetery. We were terrified, every jolt and bounce, every car that overtook, triggering post-traumatic stress reactions. But we had felt it appropriate then, necessary even, as a tribute to Kadian's love of cycling and love of bicycles.
So, as soon as I finish this article, I'm going to put on some shorts, pull my bike out, pump up the tyres, check the brakes, make sure that the wheels are firmly locked into place and, even if I go out only for a few minutes, I'm going to go for a ride. I think Kadian would be pleased.
Thomas Harding is author of Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz
He is on Twitter @thomasharding