“Mum!” The tone of Jimmer’s voice suggested he wanted something. He had carefully timed his approach to coincide with his Mum’s mid-morning coffee and fag break, hard earned after getting Dad off to work, getting Jimmer’s sisters up and about, as well as coping with a new baby.
Jimmer habitually rose much earlier than the rest of the family, he usually had snares to check; neighbourhood dustbins to inspect for hoardable salvage, or an errand to run, so he was largely left to his own devices.
“Oh Jimmer, what is it now? Can’t you see I need a few minutes to myself ?”
“Mum, can I have a bike please? I really need one now!”
“Jimmer, we’ve been through this so many times before, there’s no money to buy bikes right now. So please stop asking.”
Jimmer went off in the huff, kicking an old tin can along the lane, angry that all his pals had a bike, some even had brand-new machines, but not him. He resented having to scrounge the use of a bike for his wanderings, and hated being obliged to others; they always demanded a pay-back in the end, even Tommy Coombs, his best mate.
“What’s up my Jimmer? You look a bit glum for such a grand morning.”
Jimmer’s main mentor, Teddy Willis, paused to get a breather from his exertions. Few could avoid the fascination gained from watching a one-armed man dig a garden so neatly.
“Teddy, I need a bike; everyone’s got one except me; I’m sick of walking everywhere. Mum says there’s no money for bikes, what can I do?”
“Get yourself inside and put the kettle on while I finish this row, and don’t forget to warm the pot!”
Over a brew and cake, Jimmer expanded on his dilemma. With a bike he could roam further, see more, do more and get more stuff, the latter referring to Jimmer’s magpie habits.
“Simple old son, you will have to make your own or go without. Look, I expect there won’t be many houses in this village without a few bits of bike lying around. In the war we had to make and mend, nothing got chucked out and it’s a habit most of us have kept up with ever since.”
“What can I do with a heap of bits? I need a bike, not scrap metal,” said Jimmer.
Teddy sighed deeply. “This is not like you Jimmer, you have a tongue in your head, so you go and get advice as well as bits of bike. Now is the time; you are on school holidays for five weeks, plenty of time to do a bike or two.”
With a trolley borrowed from Herbie Tait’s smallholding, Jimmer set off on his mission. To his delight he soon discovered Teddy was right and as the morning wore on the heap of frames, wheels and sundry parts began to mount up. When he returned home in the hope of some dinner, he was met by his Mum who was not a happy bunny.
“You are making us the laughing stock of the village, begging from door to door. It was all they would talk about at the shop this morning. Aunt Flo wants to know if you are setting up in opposition to old Trice the scrap man. And another thing, if you think you are going to have a big pile of scrap metal in our garden you can think again.”
This reverse in fortune was a blow to Jimmer. He had promised to return the trolley to Herbie by the end of the day and now he was stuck.
“Aw, never mind that lad, said Herbie, pile your stuff round at the back of the packing shed; there’s an old lean-to there, it might fall down on you but you are welcome to keep your stuff there, provided Trice gets what is left over once this splendid bike is finished. Just keep a few spares and dump the rest, OK?”
Over the next few days Jimmer amassed an incredible quantity of bike parts. To his surprise, given he was not the most popular lad in the village, most people were keen to help, offering what they no longer needed, advice and encouragement, even the odd mug of tea.
One notable exception was Miss Bassett, a reclusive spinster who lived in one half of a semi-detached house, while Sam, her equally-shy bachelor brother, lived in the other half. They did not speak and had not done so since the death of their parents in the great flu epidemic of 1918/19 nearly 40 years previously. Knocking on Miss Bassett’s door was not a good idea and the response was abrupt and to the point. “Do I look like somebody who hoards bicycles or the like? I think not.” The door closed with a thud, which said it all.
Teddy Willis stood back and gazed on the fruits of a few days’ bike begging.
“By gum, Jimmer, you have hit pay dirt here, no two ways about it; there must be a dozen bikes’ worth hidden in that lot.”
True, a great deal of the stuff was beyond further use, but Jimmer had taken it none the less.
“How do you make a bike then Teddy?”
“To be quite honest with you Jimmer, I don’t know the first thing about them, nor do I know anyone who might help. I expect much of this stuff is the result of folk taking bikes to pieces and not being able to put them back together again.”
At that moment an old Dennis dustcart came to a halt in the lane outside with a screech of brakes, heralding the approach of Bert Holman who had driven it for years.
“Oi heard you was looking for bits of bikes, Jimmer. I’ve got a few bits here, but since the war, Hubert Ralph over in Westborough has been getting first pick of anything to do with bikes anyone puts out with their dustbins. I’ll tell you what, anything you don’t need, I’ll take over to him, he’ll be glad of it. Hubert will be a bit rattled to know he has a bit of competition.”
A few days later as Jimmer busily picked over his treasure, a short slightly-built man swung into sight astride an immaculate Claude Butler racing cycle.
“Ah yes,” he said airily, “it seems I have found what I was looking for at last. I am Hubert Ralph, bachelor of this parish, cycle dealer extraordinary, and collector of rare velocipedes,” he paused briefly, “by which I mean bicycles lad, you must be Jimmer Larkin?”
Hubert ranged over the assembled pile, offering small cries of “oh yes, here be treasure, I wondered what happened to this one.” He turned to Jimmer and sat on an upturned pail.
“You look like a chap with whom I can do business, Jimmer. Of one thing you can be sure, before too long you will be the owner of a bicycle your friends will all envy every time their glance falls upon it, you mark my words my lad.”
Jimmer sat on an upturned wheelbarrow, his eyes like saucers. He had never heard anyone speak like Hubert Ralph, not even on The Archers, but one thing was for sure, Hubert Ralph knew bikes better than anyone else in a wide district; he also enjoyed having an audience and the sound of his own voice.
In a long and rambling oration, Jimmer learned that Horace Ralph, Hubert’s father, had been a famous cycling champion in the years after the First World War; he had passed his passion for bicycles to his only son, who in time succeeded his father in the small cycle dealership attached to his house.
It was not the wealthiest business in the district, but it enabled Hubert to indulge his mania for collecting bicycles of all kinds. It was rumoured that in another large outhouse at the back of his home Hubert had the equivalent of several hundred cycles in one form or another. The inter-war years had been a time when all forms of cycling had achieved huge popularity; enthusiasts toured, raced, grass tracked, or just rode to and from work.
Opening a small toolbox strapped to the carrier of his bike, Hubert set to work. Within two hours the components for a bike lay on the ground laid out in a rough shape of the intended machine. Hubert departed, leaving Jimmer with instructions to clean just one piece at a time, and put it back where he found it.
The following afternoon Hubert reappeared with two tyres slung like bandoliers across his chest. Tubes and rim tapes emerged from his pockets and after a session with a spoke key to true up a couple of suitable wheels, they were added to the job. By tea-time the bike was on its wheels and Hubert was building up the brakes using a complex system of rods, pivots and stirrups. His hands flew over the bike like the fingers of a concert pianist, with a small multi-spanner making adjustments here, a tweak there, oiling a chain, rubbing a dressing oil into the leather saddle and all with a confidence confirming that this was a labour of love for him.
At the end, anyone familiar with the Johnny Cash song, One Bit At A Time, would have been impressed. A Hercules frame, Brooks saddle; the wheels came from a Raleigh roadster, with a Sturmey Archer three-speed gear at the rear, John Bull tyres and tubes, Blumel mudguards, Reynolds chain, Terrys pedals, the machine was a genuine mongerel of a bike and only Hubert could have put it together.
The test run was brief, with the bike needing only a few minor adjustments to be right, after which, it rode like a dream.
With the tyres humming along the tarmac and wind in his hair, Jimmer was in his seventh heaven. His arrival home with the bike was to a mixed reception. His green-eyed sisters made their usual catty remarks, but Jimmer cared not a jot. Mum gave Jimmer a grin, standing with the new baby on her hip. “Just remember, no taking yourself off a long way away Jimmer, I want you to promise me not to go any further than”……. She reeled off a list of neighbouring villages in a rough square, a territory Jimmer stuck to for slightly more than a week before straying where he pleased.
But Jimmer made a small but terrible omission in his calculations. He had failed to consider ways of securing his bike and after a month or so, at the end of the school holidays, the precious bike vanished from outside Aunt Flo’s shop where Jimmer had been sent on an errand.
It was a low trick and when news of it got round the village there was genuine concern at all Jimmer’s hard work amounting to nothing. The bike was never recovered, even though Hubert Ralph declared it would be easy to spot as there was no other like it in the world.
Bert Holman had been as good as his word, using the dustcart to transport the surplus bike parts to Hubert Ralph or Trice the scrappie as they were sorted out. The village was picked bare of bike parts, so to Jimmer it looked as if the bike project had truly bitten the dust.
A week later, Jimmer was in Aunt Flo’s shop, having been sent on foot to buy yet another packet of smokes for Mum who seemed to get through an awful lot of them.
As he waited for Aunt Flo to add the price to the Larkin’s modest account, the shop bell jingled to announce the arrival of another customer. Jimmer cringed inwardly, it was Miss Bassett. Was she still annoyed it him for disturbing her peace and quiet that afternoon? Would Jimmer be on the receiving end of another acerbic lecture on finding useful things to do to be kept out of mischief? He did not have long to wait.
“Ah, Jimmer Larkin.” The gaze from those steely-blue eyes drilled holes in his brain.
“I heard all about your strange bicycle from my dear friend Mr Ralph who speaks well of you. It may surprise you to learn he and I were once fellow members of a cycling club long before you were born.
“I am most disturbed to learn it has been stolen after all the work you and Mr Ralph did to make it roadworthy. As you will know, my dear brother Samuel passed to his reward a month or so ago. We have been clearing his house for rent to a new tenant. There is a bicycle in the washhouse you might find a use for. Hubert, err, Mr Ralph, tells me it is of a size for you.
Jimmer carried Miss Bassett`s basket of groceries to her home, his excitement growing with every step. When the bereaved Miss Bassett unlocked the door of her late brother’s washhouse he found himself staring at what appeared to be a virtually new Pashley sporting roadster bike, the paintwork gleaming dully under a layer of dust. It was a cracker of a bike.
“I feel Mr Bassett would have appreciated the notion of you having this machine Jimmer, he was a great cyclist in his day and had only just bought this one when his doctor told him he should give up riding his bicycle due his failing eyesight.
“Take it away and this time take better care of it than you did with your previous machine. That is all.”
And with a swish of her coat, Miss Bassett relocked the door, but almost skipped along the brick path between the adjoining houses.
Did this elegant old bird once have the hots for Hubert Ralph? Who knows, but Jimmer did hear her humming a small tune as she went on her way. Maybe it was just his joy getting the better of him? We will never know.