The beloved bicycle - 1
By Parson Thru
Shipped the mother out to day club and struck out on the beloved bicycle for the first time since the paranoiac crash disaster of five weeks ago. The wrecked shoulder seems to have repaired with rest and held up ok. Knee, scabbed, gone, fixed. I finally came clean about the mishap with those who care.
I’d had a few minutes around lunchtime to check the bike over. I pumped the tyres up to 65 psi, which is a bit of a faff as the air escapes when unscrewing the hose. I noticed a guide had come away on the rear derailleur, but it went back into place with some judicious tapping. I oiled the gears and checked the mechanism whilst the bike was upside down. Lights, brakes, everything working. I tightened the axle bolts for good measure. No further damage, amazingly.
I rode to the local retail park, needing coffee, toast and a roll of bin-liners. The road at the back of my mother’s is the route my dad pedalled for thirty years to and from his job at Armstrong Patents Co. Ltd., manufacturers of shock absorbers and car suspension units. Now it’s just another residential labyrinth. The Costa was full - a victim of its own success - so I cut out to the farthest phase of the complex and locked the bike to a railing outside a shuttered unit. Next to it sits a well-known household goods and haberdashery chain. As well as bin-liners, its furthest recesses contain a café.
I unhooked the pannier bag and stepped back, having a little smile to myself. The bike had been a good buy. It wasn’t expensive. I found it on Gumtree within days of arriving back from Madrid. A woman with a keen interest in bikes was selling it to buy an electric one of the same make – German. There were a number of good bikes in the garage, all well looked after. This one had only been serviced in the spring. It rides very well. She’d fitted puncture resistant touring tyres and inner-tubes. The only thing I’ve had to do is fit a new rear light. Is it wrong to pat the saddle?
On the way to the retail park, I’d been thinking about spring and into summer. I don’t know how long this situation will continue, so I should maybe do a few things while I’m here. Like take the touring bike touring. Many years ago, I used to go for short rides along the narrow lanes just east of York and to the south of the A64 Scarborough road. I had a route that took me through tiny hamlets and along gated roads that finally dropped into the Derwent valley at Kirkham. On a decent day, I’d sprawl in the grass among the sparse ruins of Kirkham Abbey, just above the river. The monks knew how to live.
I must have gone at springtime, because I remember dense verges of daffodils at certain points, on the road out of Buttercrambe, maybe. I’m sure it’ll have changed. Sand Hutton is now a Government centre for highly-paid jobs in science. The quiet hamlets are probably rocked by the roar of Porsches and hundred-thousand-pound sports Range Rovers. Cyclists are probably fair game for aggressive self-made-men and women. Back then, you’d be lucky if you saw another cyclist or maybe two. Times have changed.
Inside the store, I stop at the haberdashery (I love teaching that word in Spain) and take a quick look at fabric dyes. Well, there’s one make, really. I can’t be bothered to dig my glasses out just now, but at least I’ve found them. The café is in a niche at the deepest point, like a resting place a mile from the colliery shaft. There are always tables here, but no natural light. No matter. I can buy a coffee, and it isn’t bad. A toasted sandwich and a cake will see me breakfasted. There are few people in here under retirement age. A number have trouble walking. There’s an electric scooter parked in the entrance. I sit next to two women discussing family. Poor family. I pour sugar in the coffee and wait for the toasted sandwich to come.
Whilst I’m waiting, I dig into the mobile library and pull out a two week old TLS, followed by “The Complete Collection of Poems of Hart Crane” priced at 95 cents, Baudelaire’s “Les fleurs du mal” and my Kindle with an English translation. The two books were picked up yesterday in charity bookshops in town. The Hart Crane stimulated a conversation resulting in an invite to a poetry appreciation group that meets every first Tuesday of the month. I have an entire month to wait. This also happens with evening buses, which run every half hour. I decide to read “Proem: [sic] To Brooklyn Bridge”.
Straight away, I’m getting flavours of Ginsberg (“Sunflower Sutra” for example) and Kerouac and his spiritual visualisation of the land between the US East and West Coasts. Both mention Crane in their work. The toasted sandwich comes. It has a side salad. This is the first salad I’ve eaten since July. I leave the tomato and drop drenched leaves of lettuce (and later pieces of stewed apple) onto the bag between my feet. More tables have become occupied since I’ve been engrossed. Apart from the staff, no one is under fifty-five. COVID-19 is going to have a field-day.
On the way out, I pick up the bin-bags, then the dye. There are two assistants unrolling and rolling fabric on the table. There are no customers. I imagine they are idling, like the engine of a train in an empty platform. I approach the one with the tape measure around her neck and ask if the dye will cover the bleach spots in my black trousers. I helpfully roll-up a leg of my waterproofs to illustrate the problem. A wonderful and complex conversation ensues about the vagaries of using fabric dye. Whether to strip out all the old dye first; whether to use a permanent marker to reduce the risk of the patches showing through – I tell them I’m not too worried about that, I just want rid of the livid orange spots. I walk away with a wonderful sense of camaraderie and a plan to dye two pairs and come back for a second pack if needed.
The bike’s still there. It’s the only one. Most cyclists don’t seem to make it this far across the retail park. I unlock it and push off. It feels nice and smooth. There’s the threat of rain in the air, but I’m only riding to the local library a mile or so away. I wave to the key cutting man in his kiosk as I pass. He helped me out with a spare car key back in August. My God, where has the time gone? It must be the school run. The whole of the street leading to the library has parked cars on both pavements. Only the few metres either side of the crossing are free, and that’s become a passing place for anxious kid couriers.
I reach the local library. It’s an oasis of peace. There’s a railing round the back for bicycles. I lock mine next to three others and pull off the pannier. Hardly anyone inside. I ask what time it closes. I barely use this one. Seven. I’ll leave at five. My mother should be back from day club by then. There’s a desk by the window. I pull Baudelaire and the Kindle from the bag, and an unfinished bag of mini eggs. Messages from N on the phone. She’s in Hampshire. I text back and start reading “Au Lecteur”. The English version says “To the Reader”. I haven’t done French for years, but my latest project is to pick up enough to read the original of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Apollinaire and T. S. Eliot’s French poems. None of this is remotely relevant to the course I’m enrolled on.
After a while, I look behind to see a man sitting at a low table right behind me, of all places in the deserted library. A similar-looking man is in the next alcove. A woman is choosing books for two small children in the far corner. The librarian is returning books to shelves. I turn my chair side-on so I can see the first man. He’s doing something with two mobile phones, one in each hand - he doesn't have a book. Paranoia, I’m sure. All the same, the light’s beginning to fail outside. First time out on the bike for five weeks – I’ll make a move. Get through the traffic in daylight. I’ve read through all the stanzas of “Au Lecteur”. As ever, the English translator has used a fair amount of license.
As I cycle around the outside of the building, the interior is brightly lit, giving each window the impression of a TV screen or aquarium. The two men are still sitting where they’ve been for the last hour and a half. They don’t look up. Paranoia.