At the foot of Highgate Hill, Barnes waited, crouched down on his Accornero-Watson.
The Accornero-Watson was a bike – one of a range of “elite roadsters” named after a cyclist of Anglo-Italian lineage. Accornero-Watson had gone down in history as one of the relatively few honourable men to have taken part in the Tour de France, during one running of which he’d been pushed off his bike (the original Accornero-Watson machine) on some summit or other directly adjacent to a waterfall, down which he’d fatally tumbled.
Barnes had bought the bike five hours ago from a small but superior shop in Camden, where the bikes were illuminated like artworks alongside notices saying you weren’t allowed to photograph them. There was no trace of oil anywhere, but then oil was “lube” these days, just as cycle clips (in so far as they still existed, since everyone, including Barnes, cycled in Lycra shorts) were “trouser bands”. Barnes had said to the proprietor, who had the air of a young, sardonic philosophy don, “I want the most expensive bike you’ve got.”
“Why?” he’d asked, much to Barnes’s irritation.
“Because I want to go fast up Highgate Hill – or at least faster than…” Barnes had trailed off, which leading QCs very rarely do.
“Than what?” said the proprietor.
It wasn’t a question of what but whom and the whom was the Kid. The problem with the Kid had arisen after Barnes had endured a suboptimal suit fitting.
When he’d been measured for his latest black pinstripe, his tailor had failed to say his customary “The greyhound breed!”, instead silently noting down a new waist measurement: 34. Furious that he’d allowed things come to this, Barnes had vowed to eschew alcohol (nothing drastic, just until, you know, he was back in trim) and taken to cycling between his house in Highgate and the Temple.
At first, he’d used the bike he kept at his country place. He hadn’t thought much about the purchase – the thing had only cost a grand – but after bringing it to town it became clear that a steel frame wouldn’t cut it if he wanted to stay ahead of the pack. Instead, he needed something made of feather-light carbon – a need that became an absolute necessity when the Kid overtook him on the Hill.
The first time it happened – and on every subsequent occasion – the Kid had said a cheery “Evening!” and it was the tone of that “Evening!” that had propelled Barnes to the Camden shop and the Accornero-Watson. It had set him back eight grand, but then again he could pick it up with his little finger.
And here came the Kid again.
Barnes waited until he went by on his green bike. Barnes had Googled the make and it did have a steel frame, but the Kid was about 25, whereas Barnes was 50, so Barnes was entitled to spend to compete.
And he was already right behind the Kid! Highgate Hill seemed to be flattening out, thanks to the lightness of the Accornero and the smoothness with which Barnes could shift down through its 22 electronically controlled gears. At the halfway point, he was almost alongside the Kid, who wore no helmet but an annoyingly pert Norman Wisdom-style cycling cap.
But now Barnes was viewing him from the rear again and he was having difficulty breathing. The Kid was pulling away. The sweat was running into Barnes’s eyes, blinding him, but he had not quite exhausted the Accornero’s resources. He engaged the very lowest gear and the resulting boost took him back almost level with the Kid. And now – yes! – he was beginning to inch past.
“Evening!” he gasped as he completed the manoeuvre. The triumph was exquisite even though he felt like death was upon him.
Ten minutes later he was recovering in a corner of The Flask pub in Highgate, taking a first sip from a celebratory pint when he caught sight of the Kid at the bar, pint also in hand, speaking to another Kid in a Norman Wisdom cap. If they looked over, Barnes would give them a friendly wave. But then he heard the other Kid say, “So in the end you let the guy win?”
“Obviously,” said the Kid. “You should have seen the colour he’d gone. That old geezer is a heart attack waiting to happen. No one wants that on their conscience…”