When I first met the girl with the white bicycle, it was early spring. The tulips were only just beginning to bloom. I had often seen her, riding that overly large bicycle which had been painted entirely white, from the frame to the tires.
Then one morning, as I sat alone in the garden, she rode up to the front gate, in a plain white summer dress, and dismounted. She came to stand in front of me and stuck out her hand.
"What's your name?" she asked, almost haughtily.
"Henry," I mumbled, tentatively shaking her outstretched hand.
"Well, Henry, your hands are extremely sweaty," she remarked matter-of-factly.
I blushed deeply and looked away. I was seven years old and had never spoken to a girl before, save for Susie Barns, when the school mistress had made me apologize to her for pulling her braids.
But the girl with the white bicycle was different. She had hair as golden as the morning sun and eyes like moons. She spoke to me and her laugh held such a carefree ring that I couldn't help but feel comfortable around her. And when she left, saying "Nice to meet you, Henry," I thought that perhaps we could be friends.
She came back everyday after that. We would talk and play in the garden. One day, she asked if I wanted to ride with her.
"But I haven't got a bicycle," I said.
"Don't be silly," she said, "you can walk, and I'll ride alongside you. I needn't go too fast, you'll see."
So I went with her. And I went with her again everyday after that.
One morning, she came unusually early and, finding me in the garden as usual, she eagerly pressed me to follow her.
"I have something to show you," she said, her moon eyes glittering with enthusiasm. "I think you will like it."
I followed her. She was so excited, she couldn't help but ride a little faster and I could hardly keep up with her.
She led me over the bridge straddling the wild river that runs through the middle of town and then beyond, into the woods. For a while, we went along — she riding and I walking — through the trees. Then, at last, we reached a vast clearing.
The thick, luscious, jade green grass was dotted with the early sprigs of heather and lavender.
"It's the Meadow," the girl with the white bicycle said: "Isn't it marvellous?"
She lay down in the turf with her hands behind her head and a strand of grass between her teeth. I lay down too, next to her.
"This is what Paradise must look like," she whispered.
And I thought: she is right. The girl with the white bicycle is right.
Many days went by. Everyday, the girl with the white bicycle and I would go to the Meadow and talk. And so I got to learn a good deal about her.
I learned that she lived on the far end of town with her father. She didn't have a mother, or a maid, or a pet dog, like I did, but she had a white bicycle. And so, for a few months, I was content.
Then, one evening, when the rain obscured the sky and the moon, there came a knock at the door. It was my mother who answered it, but she immediately called, saying that someone wanted to see me. I came to find the girl standing on the threshold, shivering in the rain. Her dripping white bicycle was propped up against the front gate.
"I had to come," she mumbled, her face grave, "because Father said we're leaving."
"We're moving to the City, Father said." I couldn't tell if the streaks on her face were from the rain, or from tears.
"I wanted to say 'goodbye'," she said, and she held out her hand. It was wet from the rain and quivering slightly, but I shook it anyway.
Then, she mounted her bicycle and rode off into the storm.
She was gone by June. The daisies were in bloom.
The next time I saw her, it was early summer, just as the strawberries and gooseberries were in season. It had been five years since she had moved away. I was twelve. She rode over to the house at noon, wearing a bright blue summer dress and a wide-brimmed straw hat. Her bicycle was still big, but it no longer looked disproportionately so.
She dismounted and came up to me, where I sat in the front garden. Once more, she stuck out her hand, smiling broadly. I shook it, returning her grin.
She had changed, but only subtly. Her hair was still golden, but not like the morning sun, more like the daffodils. Her eyes were still moons. She had grown, too. Her lips were painted red, her lashes, black. Tiny gold rings hung from her ears.
"Come," she said, "let's go to the Meadow."
We set out down the familiar town road — she riding and I walking — across the bridge, through the woods, and into the Meadow.
I had visited the Meadow several times during her absence. Each time, it had looked different. This time the emerald green grass was longer than I had ever seen it, and the lavender and heather were in full bloom, filling the air with their gentle perfume. Somewhere in the distance, birds were chirping merrily. We stood for a moment admiring it.
"So, what brings you here?" I asked at last.
"Father wanted to rest in the country."
"Will you be here long?"
"I can't say."
"How are you liking the City?"
She twirled and laughed, her eyes lighting up like lanterns.
"Oh, it is the most wondrous place! Did you know, I am learning to be a dancer?"
She laughed again.
"Someday, I shall dance with the Royal Ballet!"
She executed a pirouette and a curtsy and then dropped down to lie in the turf, her hands behind her head and a sprig of grass between her teeth.
"This really is what Paradise must look like," she whispered.
And I thought: she is right. The girl with the white bicycle is right.
We saw each other then for a full month before her father whisked her back to the City. By the time she left, the apples were in season.
I saw her again three years later, at fifteen, just as the trees came alight with the autumnal flame and ruby red leaves drifted on the cool wind.
It was already late afternoon when she rode up to the house, dressed in a flaming crimson garment that mimicked the colours of the season. She found me sitting in the front garden, studying a massive book on biology. In the years since she had been gone, my schooling had become much more demanding and I had taken to spending a fair amount of time studying.
I only looked up from my book when she came to stand in front of me. With the faintest of smiles playing on her painted red lips, she held out her hand. I shook it as I had thrice before. I noticed that she wore a ring now with a delicate flower design and that her fingernails had been tinted deep scarlet. I stood up to get a proper look at her.
Once again, she had changed since I last saw her. Her hair was still gold, but no longer like the morning sun or the daffodils. Instead, it was like ripening straw. Her eyes were still moons.
She wore even more makeup than before and had added several more rings to her ears. On the crook of her wrist, I noticed a small black tattoo, shaped like a lily.
But the changes were deeper this time. She didn't laugh as quickly as she had previously.
Even her white bicycle seemed to have aged, its white paint pealing and scaly in certain spots.
"Shall we go to the Meadow?" she asked.
I agreed, and we took the road, traveling as we had so often, across the bridge and through the woods. As she rode next to me, I saw that her bicycle no longer seemed too big at all; in fact, it seemed almost too small for the girl who rode it.
I had not been to the Meadow in a long time. The grass was yellowing and littered with leaves of red and gold, which the last of the lavender and heather still poked through.
We stood for a long time, simply taking in the scenery. We had seen it so often, yet it still took our breaths away as though we were seeing it for the first time. We feasted our eyes on the colours, which somehow seemed brighter than ever before.
"How have you been?" I asked then, breaking the silence.
"Fine. And how are you liking the City?"
She sighed. "It's lovely," she said, but there was little enthusiasm in her voice, and she sounded almost bored of the words, as though she no longer quite believed their meaning.
"And dancing? Are you still dancing?"
She nodded and sighed again.
"Yes," she said, "I still dance, at least I try. But there is so little time; learning and life take up all the energy and time I have. But don't go thinking I've given up. I will yet dance in the Royal Ballet, mark my words. I shall be a dancer, you will see."
Once, I had admired her passion, but now, her words no longer held the same fervency. She seemed to be trying to convince herself, more than anyone, of their truth.
She lay down in the turf with her hands behind her head, and even put a strand of grass between her teeth for old times' sake. I lay down next to her and finally, finally, she smiled.
"Truly," she said, "truly, this must be what Paradise looks like."
And I thought: she is right. The girl with the white bicycle is right.
She was gone again within the week, just as the last of the autumnal colours were fading to brown.
When she returned again, winter was dawning. I was one week away from my eighteenth birthday. And though it had hardly been two years since our last meeting, it seemed that so much had changed in this short time.
I had completed my schooling and begun working in a car mechanics shop down the street. I planned to save up to study Engineering in the City, if ever I could afford it.
She didn't ride up to the house as she had so many times in the past. Instead, I met her at the front gate of the garden, on my way home from the car repair shop. It was evening. The first snow of the year was falling lightly on the cold ground.
When I saw her, I almost failed to recognize her. She was wearing a short black sleeveless dress with ripped black tights and heavy black army boots.
And she wasn't riding her bicycle; she was walking alongside it.
When she met me, she greeted me, but did not hold out her hand for me to shake, as she always had. So, I gave her my hand. For a moment, she simply stared at it, like an unbreakable barrier between us, but eventually, she gave in and shook it, unsmiling.
The changes operated on her were greater than they had been during all of her previous absences.
Her hair was no longer golden like the morning sun or the daffodils or the ripening straw. Rather, it was a dusty grey-brown.
Her eyes were not moons; they were puddles.
All the makeup in the world could not mask the dark circles around her eyes, nor the bleak hollowness of her cheeks. Her lips were cracked and dry.
The small rings in her ears had been replaced by large, dangling hoops and the tattoos had crept up along her forearms, forming vines of intertwined flowers. She even had a small bird etched at the base of her neck.
"How have you been?" she asked. Her voice was hoarse, as though she had been smoking.
She dismissed the question. "How is your family? Your mother, is she well?"
"And your father?"
"He is well also." Her questions troubled me. She had never shown an interest in my life before. I had always been the one with the queries.
"And your father?" I asked, "is he quite well? Has he come here with you?"
"He took ill last autumn," she replied, "he has been frail and his health has been fragile ever since. He hardly leaves the flat."
"I'm sorry to hear."
"It is alright. I don't mind caring for him. Even if he never does quite recover."
"And how are you liking the City?"
She gave a harsh, mirthless laugh. "It is dreadful."
"And dancing? Did you ever become a dancer?"
She laughed again, though without humor. "In a way. I suppose you could say I did."
"And you," she went on, "you have a job now?"
"As a mechanic, yes."
The silence which settled between us seemed a kind of natural sequel to our jagged conversation. We knew so little of each other now; we were almost like strangers.
"Why did you come back?" I asked, finally voicing the question which had haunted my mind from the moment I had laid eyes on her.
"I don't know," she whispered, her voice breaking slightly as she spoke.
There was silence once more for a long time. It was a heavy kind of quiet which weighed on me like a blanket of fog. When she spoke again, it was with a new-found timidity, her eyes fixed on the toes of her boots like every school girl I ever knew besides herself.
"Do you still go there sometimes?"
"The Meadow." A word spoken so softly, I almost did not catch it. But I didn't need to hear it to understand it.
"I haven't been since I last went with you."
The realization came as a shock to me. Throughout all of my childhood, I had gone to the Meadow at least once a year. Even when I had had time for nothing else, I had always managed to visit the mystic and enchanting clearing at least once over the course of the year, usually in the summer. Yet it had been two years since my last visit, almost three.
"Do you think ... Could we, maybe — "
"You want to go to the Meadow now?"
She nodded, shyly, with that same school girl manner which I had seen so often in others, but never in her.
"Yes," I said, "yes, let's."
We walked once more down the far too familiar winding village road, across the bridge and through the woods.
But this time, she didn't ride alongside me as she had in the past. Instead, she walked her white bicycle.
Time had treated that bicycle almost as badly as it had treated its owner. In many places, the paint had peeled away revealing scaly rust patches beneath, and it was no longer quite white, as it had been. Rather, time and dust had turned it almost grey.
At last, after a long silent walk in the cold wintry air, we reached the Meadow. I had never seen it in winter, nor had I ever visited it after dark. It seemed a cold, silent place, almost eerie. It was very different from the bright, luscious field that it was in the summer.
Now, the grass was dark yellow and covered in crystals of frost which glistened in the moonlight. A light layer of snow covered the last frozen sprigs of wilted lavender and heather.
There was a strange stillness to the place.
The two of us stood for a long time, staring at it. We did not lie down in the turf; it was too cold to do so. Instead, we watched the shadows of the trees shiver in the wind and the thin clouds of our breaths as they dispersed into the night air.
"You know, I don't think there is a Paradise," she whispered quietly, "but if there were such a place, I believe it would look like this."
And I thought: she is wrong. The girl with the white bicycle is wrong.
She was gone by the morning. And I knew, without her having to tell me, that I would never see her again.
Only, here is something curious. That spring, as I was crossing the bridge which straddled the wide river that ran through the middle of the town, I saw something faint and familiar at the bottom of the water.
Its shape was blurred by the rippling of the river, but I recognized it anyway.
I would have recognized it anywhere.
It was a white bicycle.