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Bicycle

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A bicycle horn sounded loudly as Laurie stepped off the No 2 bus on his way to work. He watched, enviously, as the young woman riding it wove in and out of traffic. There had been a time when he could have done the same; the daily commute through busy central London to the Ministry of Food offices would have undoubtedly been faster if he could cycle. He had tried; but he had found himself unable to manage (and the one attempt had so exacerbated the pain in his knee, he had not tried again). He had rather resented his mother’s suggestion to give his bicycle to Mr Straike, but, unable to come up with an excuse why not that sounding anything but begrudging, in the end he had bowed to the inevitable and made a present of it to his stepfather. On return from that trip, he had vowed it would be his last (and had said so, repeatedly, to Ralph, as he massaged the sore leg that night).

* * * * * * *

Luncheon over, Mrs Timmings turned her attention to the preparations for afternoon tea. It wasn’t long before a small cake tin was popped into the oven. The wartime recipes were a marvel, but a one egg sponge made with dried egg powder simply could not compare with a Victoria sponge made with four eggs. As to what she was to use for filling…. As the little cake baked, she sliced bread thinly, gave it the merest scraping of butter, and sandwiched the slices together with beetroot. She sighed at the sight: crusts still on (one could not waste them) and a decidedly odd filling. Oh, for the lovely egg and cress sandwiches she would have made for Laurie and his mother before the war! It was a relief to have the meagre fare decently hidden under cover of a damp cloth. An assortment of pickles went into a dish to accompany the rest of the meal.

Mrs Timmings gazed through the kitchen window as she washed up. The Straikes had been sitting in the garden, Mr Straike with the newspaper and Mrs Straike with her mending. She observed Mr Straike consult his watch. hen he kissed his wife, and crossed to the garden shed to get the bicycle. He propped it against the elm tree while he went back to the house, emerging a few minutes later, hat on head and prayer book in hand. A few moments later he was wheeling out of the garden, perched a bit precariously on the bicycle. Mrs Timmings shook her head in wonderment. Who would have thought to see a man of Mr Straike’s years on transportation more suitable for a young curate! But the sight took her back: how many times had she seen young Laurie set off on that same bicycle in exactly that direction all those years ago? Of course he had whizzed down the street at top speed, Gyp bounding at his side; Mr Straike rode at a sober (one might even say tentative) pace.

* * * * * * *

Not for the first time, Gareth regretted the privations of war. Of course one must do one’s part; but making the round of visits to elderly or shut in parishioners had been considerably simpler when petrol had been available. Not that this bumpy farm track would have been that easy to travel in his old Morris; but it was diabolical on a bicycle. One particularly deep rut led him toward the side of the road and a gnarled old oak; he stopped before he ran into it, and took a moment to survey the way ahead. The recent heavy rains had flooded part of the path and another part looked covered in mud. Sighing Gareth resigned himself to walking the rest of the way. Better to use shank’s pony than fall off the bicycle and arrive covered in dirt. The cycle would be safe here, he thought, as he wedged it between hedgerow and tree before taking his bible and prayer book from the basket, and setting off for the farmhouse he could see in the distance. He supposed the doctor had petrol; doctors were always higher up the priority list for petrol than a man of the cloth. Mrs Alderson was undoubtedly very ill; he expected Dr Russell would be in attendance too (maybe he could get a lift back).

* * * * * * *

Lucy hummed to herself as she put away her mending and brought out the square of fine white cotton she had neatly hemmed for Laurie’s new handkerchiefs. He had been so good about giving Gareth his old bicycle. Of course, he couldn’t use it ever again, so it was no real sacrifice; but she knew he loved that bicycle very dearly, always conscious it had been his dear dead Uncle Raymond’s when he was a lad. Lucy selected a strand of her precious small stock of white embroidery thread, and began to stitch very carefully around a penny-farthing pattern she had drawn in pencil on one corner of the handkerchief. Her dear boy would appreciate the sentiment. Giving the bicycle to Gareth was so much better than selling it. This way it remained in the family: a bit dented, but nonetheless holding lots of memories. Every time she saw it, she had a flashback to that summer when she and Raymond and Olive had together cycled along the River Aire.

* * * * * * *

“There, you are, Miss Olive,” said Mr Winter, as he handed her two small brown paper parcels. “Three of my finest sausages and a quarter pound of minced beef – and here is your coupon book back.” He watched from the doorway, as she tucked them into the somewhat battered wicker basket on the front of her old bicycle, and then mounted the dilapidated old machine, and headed off. At least she used the bell, thought the butcher, as he watched Miss Olive wobble away, unsteady, as always, in the twilight of dusk (her eyes weren’t what they used to be; and even when they had been keen, her cycling had always been an accident waiting to happen). And at least she only ever rode in the village (where everyone knew to watch out for her haphazard steering). He watched as a lazy old tom cat nonchalantly crossed the road several yards in front of her; she swerved to avoid him and nearly knocked into old Mrs Wilson who was weeding the flower beds in her front garden – typical! Still, Aldenthorpe had always had Lethbridges and this, the last somewhat eccentric representative of what had once been a large and prominent local family, was one of the constants of village life. He wondered if she would actually eat any of the meat he had sold her, or would it all go to her beloved cats? Fortunately, she had turned her little garden into a vegetable patch and seemed happy enough eating what it produced. Of course, she looked a bit thinner these days (but then so did quite a lot of people). She still seemed healthy enough to visit all the unhealthy people, reading to them and passing on gossip. She’ll probably outlive us all, thought the butcher, as he turned back into his shop to tidy things away for the day.

* * * * * * *

“Look out below!” Sandy called as he whizzed down the hill on his bicycle. He laughed at the horrified look on Mrs Trump’s face as he sped past her. She would be bound to complain - no doubt he would receive another lecture from grizzled old Dr Pearson later today, about the need to be respectful to longstanding patients of the practice, and not scare them out of their wits and bring on a heart attack. But it was worth it to see the old grump jump! It wasn’t as if she was really ill; she was just a hypochondriac who liked ringing up the practice and calling out a doctor for her ‘palpitations’ (which really meant when she felt a bit lonely). It wasn’t as if it was Mrs Sinden; he’d never have buzzed her. She was an old sweetie who never rang unnecessarily and always had a nice cup of tea and a biscuit waiting when he visited. But she was genuinely unwell, and never stepped far from her cottage, unlike Mrs Busybody Trump, always poking her nose in where it wasn't wanted. He had recognised that purple feather on Mrs Trump’s hat from the top of the hill, and just couldn’t resist. He could always say the bicycle just ran away with him….

* * * * * * *

The silly young fool had undoubtedly been riding far too fast to stop in time. It had, Andrew realised, been a completely avoidable accident. But remembering his own joy in cycling round the lanes where he had lived as a boy, he found it impossible to be too stern with the lad as he helped the Staff Nurse to clean and bandage the youngster’s scrapes. Undoubtedly he’d learned his lesson. His front bicycle wheel was bent beyond repair and heaven only knew where he would find a replacement in wartime. The boy lamented his bad luck loudly throughout treatment, only to fall silent and look cowed when taken back to the entrance to casualty where his father had arrived. It seemed the lad had borrowed his older brother’s bicycle without permission, and earned himself a cuff round the ears. Andrew would have intervened, but Dave pulled him back with a quick shake of the head.

* * * * * * *

Quite how this duty always fell to him Ralph never quite understood; but he it was who was always deputed to shepherd casualties to the local infirmary. Perhaps it was his first aid experience from his old days in trawlers? Perhaps the C.O. thought his old injury made him the expert at hospitals? There were not, after all, that many men on active duty with visible old injuries. The navy – merchant or regular – was no longer the service of Nelson’s time. Men who had lost limbs were invalided out these days; as a general rule, it was the fit and healthy who manned the stations dockside as well as at sea. Whatever the reason, once again Ralph found himself providing a supporting arm to the latest injured recruit. Someone had tied a bandage round his left foot; young Wainwright hopped on his right foot up three steps and into the hospital. He laughed and flirted with the triage nurse, until one clumsy move left him white with pain. It seemed the fall off his bicycle had broken his ankle not just in one but two places.

“Whatever were you trying, to do this much damage?” asked the doctor on call.

“Loop the loop,” came the sheepish reply.

“You’re supposed to be Navy, not Air Force you silly fool,” the doctor retorted caustically.

* * * * * * *

It stood, abandoned at the southwest corner of the pilots’ hut: one old bicycle, carefully chained so no one would make off with it while its owner was otherwise occupied. Now both bicycle and chains were in poor condition, having sat out in all weathers for the past two years. The overhang had protected a little, but rust had begun to win the battle over paint. The Staff Sergeant remembered whose bicycle it had been. That he was the only one should surprise no one, given the high turnover of pilots. Too many dead – others transferred to a different posting after being wounded. It was the new mechanic, just posted to Bridstow Air Base last week, who spotted the old bicycle, and (determined to save it) used bolt cutters to free it from the chain that had bound it so long to the post. Lovingly, he scraped and sanded away the rust. How he scrounged the red paint he refurbished it with…well he wasn’t telling. It all took a while. The base wasn’t anything like as busy as it had been in previous times (the tiny number of ground staff still around who remembered the worst days of the blitz told stories of going 36 hours without sleep as they repaired and refuelled aircraft non-stop) but he still had to be careful only to use his off-hours to work on what was fast becoming his pride and joy. The first time he was given 24 hours leave, he rode it into town to show his older brother (who had been posted to the docks). By his second leave he had better things to do with his time than hang round his brother. He had made friends with the girl who delivered supplies; he was head over heels by the time he had to return to base. When, unexpectedly, he found himself at liberty a third time, he decided to surprise her. Only, he was the one who got the surprise. He shouted at them, and knocked the bloke down, but then scarpered on the bicycle. He arrived back just in time for a scramble and barely had time to chain up the bicycle in its old place behind the pilot’s shed before he was ordered to help. He was refuelling an aircraft, when a returning Hurricane landed on its belly that bit too close and blew up. And so the bicycle waited…again.

Bloody jinx that bicycle, the Staff Sergeant thought, when he spotted it a fortnight later. First that young whippersnapper Prewitt, all laughter and high jinks thinking the war great fun (with dreams of becoming an Ace); he had lasted all five days before he bought it. Then Pilot Officer Taylor: now he really had been a high flyer, but nice with it, always with a kind word for the cook. Most of those fly-boys forgot the people who kept the base running while they were off hunting Gerry. The Sergeant remembered his last sight of him, all togged up for some party or other he was off to in Bridstow, racing away on his bicycle around the roundabout and on the road into town, not an hour after landing from patrol. Times had been bad then; and it had not surprised the Staff Sergeant when he was posted missing a couple of days later. Now Private Benson. It was bad enough when front-line fighters bought it; but ground staff at base in England was supposed to be a safe posting!

So he borrowed the bolt cutters, freed the machine, and put it quietly on the scrapheap.