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THE BICYCLE
a short story by Keith Harris

“You'll never look at another lighthouse quite the same again after reading this story.”
James Mason

It was one of those utterly idiotic situations that you know you are relentlessly compelled to remain in and pursue even though you know full well that you should not be there at all.

I knew my bicycle was in the lighthouse and that I had to get it back. The bicycle had become as much a part of my existence as the clothes I wore to go out. I say to go out, because when I stay in I try not to wear any clothes at all, except for shorts or perhaps socks when I feel the need.

Id nurtured the bicycle like a baby, replacing all the worn cables, carefully oiling all the necessary parts, aligning the brakes. Every now and then Id strip it down to basics and reassemble it to ensure it was in pristine working condition. Id even manually replaced all of the ball bearings once, a task that almost drove me insane and one that is infinitely more unbearable than replacing a soiled diaper. Afterwards the bike rode like a dream and became more a part of my life than mostly anything, including the many cars Id previously owned.

It was my window to the world, the canopy from which I watched life go by, observing the smallest yet all important passing details. It was my sanctuary in the storm and even when it took a flat tyre it was still my best friend.

I happily regained my passion for cycling after a cycle collector in Southend loaned me a vintage 1929 Singer bicycle for a London-Southend Marie Curie Cancer Fund cycle ride in 1989. It was a cumbersome, heavy machine with two gears and a gear change lever more like an old BSA motorbike shift on the crossbar but it rode smoothly, even if it was hell to ride uphill. Going down it became a formidable unstoppable object and Id throw lopsided airborne Snoopy grins at the hapless cyclists I sped past.

I say I regained my passion because Id ridden cycles since I was five but the madness of the years intervened and the 60-mile charity ride was the first long ride Id attempted in over 20 years. I thought Id be as stiff as a plank afterwards but no, the next day I returned to work at my newspaper with not even a sore butt.

My team raised the most sponsorship of the 10,000 riders taking part and as a result we were invited to the Houses of Parliament for ‘tea on the terrace’. Some people commit hari kari over less exorbitant matters and people shake their heads and go tut tut and say what a shame but they dont care very much. Not really.

Then my partner bought me a featherweight 10-speed racing bike for my birthday that was a good machine but a bit wobbly due to a slight misalignment but still a good buy for the 40 she paid for it after I picked it out in a second hand Hampshire cycle shop. The country lanes of Hampshire are ideal for bicycle exploration and we covered many miles together. Wed actually met on a blind date and Id invited her to join me on the charity ride. We ended up spending some six years together before lifes madness again intervened in the indeterminable and unstoppable way in which it always seems to take over.

Then I met my dream machine. It had been abandoned in a basement by two girls who were moving from their house in the Boston street opposite where I lived at the time, Harris Street, funny enough. Id spotted the girls packing their stuff from my window and went over to help. They said I was welcome to take and keep anything I found in the basement and there it was, a Peugeot road bike with an offset cam and 18 gears.

Although they said I could have it, I still had to sneak it out past the workmen whod come in to clean up the house for the next tenants they seemed to consider anything in it was somehow rightfully theirs.

One bracket of the bicycles rear fork was broken and I consigned the machine to my own basement and forgot about it until there was a problem with the power and I had to venture into the dark basement and stumbled over the bike, rediscovering it along with my puzzlement as to how I could have forgotten about it at all.

From then on there was no stopping me. Out came the bike into the sunshine and I dedicated myself to its restoration. It was a superb bicycle. A local garage mechanic welded the broken fork for a modest $10 charge and did a perfect job, the bike rode straight and true after the repair.

With my guitar strapped to my back, my street amplifier tied to the rear carrier and my microphone stand tied to the crossbar, I became a familiar sight in Bostons streets with my white, Mountie-style hat. Id play on subways, outside Faneuil Hall, at Harvard Square and wherever the fancy took me. Four years later a friend visited Boston from Ireland and asked one of the subway buskers if he remembered me.

“Oh yeah, the English guy with the white hat,” said the musician.

Then there was Henry, the black flute player and one time a teacher at the Berklee College of Music until, for whatever reason, hed taken up playing on the subway. Henry had taken me to a storage depot out beyond Charlestown early one morning where he had enough property to fill a small house, just nowhere to fill with it. He dug out a small collapsible luggage trolley that he sold to me for five bucks to carry my equipment around on in the subways. I have it to this day, with the made in the usa sticker still attached to its frame.

When I was not playing music or working at one of my several jobs as fundraiser in Massachusetts Avenue, removals worker, limousine driver or general hand at the Greek owner owned restaurant bar bang opposite the Wang Centre, Id be riding around Boston, sometimes as much as 150 miles a day, just for the love of it.

I never once rode the bike to work at the restaurant. Dont ask me why, there was no particular reason. Id simply take the T. I would ride the bike from Revere to my job in Massachusetts Avenue and to my job driving the limo, but not to the restaurant. It just never crossed my mind to.

The lighthouse bothered me. I knew the bike was in there but not why. It was just one of those inexplicables in life, you know the things. You know they are there and you know everything about them except the explanation. Like the pretty girl with the wart behind her knee. Everything fits but the wart. You know it doesnt belong, is quite out of place, yet it has its loudly unspoken meaning, like the early morning slug trails on the garden path when there are no slugs anywhere to be seen.

Looking up at the lighthouse, I remembered how by the age of ten I had examined and dismissed all of lifes popular philosophies for the pretenceful escapisms they were. Such musings would come easy after riding the bike I owned at the time the several miles to the local fishing pool, where I would set up my rod rests and umbrella and throw out the keep net before sinking into a somnambulant dream state, lulled by the lazy bobbings of the fresh water floats. I never caught very much. That wasnt the objective. The objective was just to be there.

The light was fading when I finally plucked up courage to approach the lighthouse. Repeated banging on the doorknocker brought no response so I pushed the unlocked door open and ventured inside. The interior was typical as lighthouses go the half-smoked pipe on the table, the unfinished cup of coffee, the four-day old scuffed and discarded newspaper, but no sign of the bike. Scratchy static could be heard from some invisible radio somewhere.

Dust and dried mouse droppings adorned the corners of the stairs and there was a crooked Constable reproduction about to fall from its hook above the opening to the stairway. I edged past it, fearful of disturbing it from its precarious rest and began the climb up the stairs.

When I judged I was probably half way up, I stopped to look out of a window. It had grown dark and I could see the slow sweep of the beam from the lighthouse rake out across the ocean. There was a faint trace of a whirring sound from above, broken by a repetitive clicking sound that I judged had something to do with the mechanics of the lighthouse. I continued on up, passing the bunk room with its one mattress half dislodged from the upper bunk and scatterings of pyjama bottoms hanging from the bunk posts.

The next room was the lighthouse heads and the dirt-encrusted sink was blocked with beard trimmings, as all good lighthouse heads sinks should be. Finally I was there, at the top, at the lamp platform.

In the centre of the platform the lamp had been dismantled and was in dozens of bits. The lighthouse keeper was riding my bicycle around the clear walkway surrounding the lamp fixture and had fastened the lamps magnifier and reflector to the front of my bikes headlamp.

“Hello”, he said, a little short of breath. After all, we were at the top of a lighthouse.

“I hope you dont mind. I borrowed your bike. The lamp broke and they cant get anyone out here to fix it for two days. Im glad you came up, youre a fit looking young fellow and Im a little too old for this. We can take it in turns, if you dont mind.”

Two days later I rode the bike home, none the worse for its wear.

THE END

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