"I have always been led to believe that children are the hands by which we take hold of heaven. As the eldest child of seven, my hands would grab hold of anything within their grasp, whoever the item belonged to. It would be an excuse to indicate poverty as having being the reason for such light-fingered behaviour of mine in my youth as opposed to that of mere opportunity.
My tendency to steal started around the age of seven years and lasted until my twelfth year of life. Between the ages of five and seven, few things within my reach rarely stayed on my mother's shelves or remained the possessions of others. Being Roman Catholic, I attended Catholic school and church and took the sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion when I was seven years old. Initially, fear of God's wrath and punishment combined with the weight of guilt that only Catholic parents and teachers are capable of heaping upon their children, kept my hands in my pockets and my eyes from temptation.
I had a photographic memory when it came to rote learning and I was one of the first children in my age group to be able to recite the Catechism from back to front. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is best thought of as the Pope's 'Little Red Book' and it essentially sums up the beliefs of the Catholic faithful. Every Catholic child was expected to know it inside out before they learned to write their own name or made their First Holy Communion. Chairman Mao himself would have been envious of our religious attention to the meaning and interpretation of every word contained therein. And, though it was never actually voiced by our Catholic teachers or parish priest, it was strongly implied that unless one could recite the Catechism word for word, one would never be granted entry into heaven, whatever good works one had done on earth. Naturally, every child who could recite their Catechism perfectly was definitely going there!
Armed with my guaranteed entry through the Pearly Gates, like all good conscientious Catholics, whether child or adult, I learned to bend the rules of the Catholic Church and circumvent the consequences to fit my prevailing mood and circumstances.
Around the age of ten years, the thing I most wanted was a bicycle of my own; one like most of the other boys on the estate had so that I could belong to their gang. Having been raised to believe in the power of prayer, every night before going to sleep I prayed to God for a new bicycle instead of having to make do with the second-hand runarounds I'd always been accustomed to. When one comes from a materially poor family, riding a rusty old bike alongside the other boys newer ones is little better than walking around the estate with a big patch on the seat of your pants or a hole in the sole of your shoe.
Around the age of ten, my father bought me my first two wheeler from a second hand stall in Cleckheaton Market Place for the princely sum of ten shillings. The bicycle had a rusty chain, no mudguards and only one brake which partly worked, but at least the wheels turned and it was my very own bicycle. Meanwhile, as I rode my old rusty bike around the estate alongside the newer ones of my mates, I continued to pray to God nightly for a brand new bicycle.
Then, one day it suddenly dawned on me that God doesn't work that way, so I decide to make the rules of the Catholic Church work for me instead of against me. I stopped praying for a new bicycle and I decided to steal one at the first opportunity instead! I determined that the next time I saw a newish bicycle parked outside a shop in town with the owner inside, I'd be off on it like a shot. I'd tell my parents that I'd found it abandoned in a field down Green Lane and had left it there for two weeks before claiming it as found property and making it my own.
My plan seemed eminently plausible and my religious rationale perfectly reasonable. I reckoned that there was no point being a Catholic unless it came with additional benefits. After all, there was always the confessional box and guaranteed forgiveness.This Catholic function of absolution had been going a few thousand years and I didn't wish to see it become obsolete. I ask you, seriously, who wouldn't consider getting one's slate wiped clean by simply telling some priest behind a screen, who was probably reading a comic instead of listening to you, what sin you'd committed and saying you'd try not to do it again? Every child with a brain that works knows that obtaining a new bicycle in exchange for five 'Our Fathers' and ten 'Hail Marys' penance is a pretty good deal!
Before I could steal my new bicycle however, a large wagon ran me down as I played football on Third Avenue, Windybank Estate. The accident left me fighting for my life with multiple injuries that included a damaged spine, lung puncture, two broken legs, two broken arms and all but two of my ribs broken, plus another chest injury.
For over three weeks I remained on the critical list. The first night that I was admitted to Batley Hospital, my parents were told that I would not make it through the night. That night, I drifted in and out of consciousness as my father kept vigil over me. As my father sat by my bedside in a side ward, he promised to buy me a brand new bicycle if I pulled through. God had seemingly answered my prayer in His own inimical way, and though my dad undoubtedly felt that he'd made a promise to a dying son that he'd never be called upon to keep, all I had to do to get a new bike was to live through the night, then another and another and another etc.
After my life was no longer in danger, the doctors started to work on my mangled legs which had been wrapped around the driving shaft of the wagon that had run me down and stopped on top of me. I was trapped beneath the wagon for almost an hour before I was pulled out from beneath. My damaged spine left me with no feeling below my waist and the doctors then told my parents that I'd never walk again.
For almost nine months I remained a patient of Batley Hospital and when I was discharged, though I was unable to walk, my father (always a man of his word), had kept the promise he made to me when I was dying and had bought me a brand new Raleigh bicycle with the Sturmey Archer three-speed shifter on the handlebars.
At long last I had my new bicycle and instantly fell in love with it. Every day I looked at it and cleaned it, even though I was told that I'd never be able to ride it. It cost my father £12.10 shillings, which was one full week's wage for a labourer in 1954. After buying it on the 'never never,' dad used half of his 10 shillings per week spending money that my mother allowed him to keep from his unopened wage packet each Friday night. From his own small amount of money, dad made weekly repayments of 5 shillings. It took him nearly three years to pay off the debt. My father always detested owing money and that hire purchase agreement was both the first and last debt he ever took on.
After three years of meditational work and lots of prayer, my spine started passing signals to my brain once more and I regained movement in my legs. As soon as I was able to stand and before I was able to walk properly again, I practiced riding my bicycle with my one leg that would part turn the pedal, as I allowed the other leg with a plaster cast to hang down the side. Having had dozens of corrective operations on my left leg, it was constantly in plaster of Paris for around two years after hospital discharge.
It took me many months of practice developing sufficient balance to stay on the bike. Whenever I came to a road crossing, I would slow down the bike and balance on it 'stopped' like a trick cyclist, until it was safe to proceed again. I fell off my bike many times, frequently requiring a cast replacement. Whenever I fell off my bike, I would simply have to wait for a stranger to come along, pick me up and put me back in the saddle again. Today, I would have been placed in care had my mother allowed me to do what I did then. I thank God that she loved me enough to let me try.
The whole point of this post is twofold: simply to remind myself that 'God does work in mysterious ways' as well as reminding my younger brothers Patrick and Peter in the photo, exactly what they did to the tricycles I handed down to them in pristine condition when they were aged four and three. Within weeks of handover, they'd rode them over so many potholes that they'd buckled the wheels!" William Forde:March 4th, 2016.