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A BIKE FOR CHRISTMAS

Philip Callow     

The first bike I ever owned had a glow around it, because it was my first, and because my father, who wasn't renowned for present-giving, made it happen. There it was one Christmas Day morning, propped against the kitchen wall in our backyard. This fabulous apparition was a reconditioned machine, the mudguards a glossy black decorated with twin gold lines that had been painted by hand. The imperfections were there to prove it. It was small, because I was. My father had bought it from a shop in Hillfields which specialized in the transformation of old cycles, in all shapes and sizes. The one brand new thing about mine was its bell. How it shone!

       First I had to learn to ride and my father took me out to those deserted side streets leading to Humber Avenue. For a man easily exasperated his patience as a teacher was extraordinary. His hand on the back of the saddle steadied me as I wobbled, until before long I was wobbling unaided. A troubled frown appeared on his brow when the bottom bearing began to emit a persistent knocking sound. "Only a cracked ball bearing," he muttered to himself. "See to it later." But he never did. Though he could turn his hand to most things, he was a clerk, not a mechanic.

       This was the Depression, and he kept us afloat by taking any work he could get, from canvassing for the Daily Express to working nights in a Ford Street bakelite factory. None of this meant anything to me. I was in permanent love with my bike. Even when it transported me from my cosy junior school brimful of happy memories to the fearsome big school on the other side of Coventry, I didn't feel betrayed. It was my only friend, my faithful steed. When each penitentiary day was over it would be there to carry me back home. It seemed to know the way without my steering it, that faulty bearing like consoling music with its familiar knock-knock.

       It was during this worst period of my childhood when I was driven in the end to playing truant for three desperate weeks, that I identified completely with my machine. I was reduced to talking to it, silent one-way conversations that must have been despairing, but who knows, they may have helped to sustain me. With my satchel bumping on my spine, off to school each morning as far as my mother was concerned, I rode everywhere to kill time, in the saddle all morning and on through the afternoon, from Gosford Green to Pool Meadow and up by a roundabout route to London Road Cemetery and on to Whitley Common, asking endless old men the time of day. "Can you tell me the right time, please?" Maybe my life as a runaway would have gone on even longer if they hadn't sent a boy round from school to ask after me. There I was at the kitchen table, hard at work pretending to do my homework.

       When war broke out I was at an even bigger school, the ultramodern technical college but happy at last and free from fear, near the top of the form instead of being branded as a dunce. It was when I started work as a toolmaker apprentice at Coventry Gauge and Tool -the Matrix factory - that I swopped my first bike with its pert little upturned handlebars for an altogether more sophisticated model, a stylish Raleigh was flat handlebars and a three-speed gear. I sat up proudly on this new machine, even though somehow it didn't inspire the same affection. I felt I was somebody, an adult, and that's all. Before I knew it we were bombed out of Coventry and living in Leamington, my father in hospital after a landmine had floated down near his ARP post. On my smart Raleigh, which I began to imagine as my double, I spun through the lanes towards Stoneleigh, Green Lane and Fletchampstead Highway. In those winter months dawn would be breaking as I pedalled through the factory gates.

       What is it about a bike that is so companionable, such an extension of yourself, your limbs and circulation and yes, your heart? You pump away at the pedals, gasp to a halt on hills, go twinkling down the other side, spokes in a delirium, tyres humming. I was never an oily rag, certainly not to the extent of making a fetish of the creature. It was far more to me than that; a companion in touch with most secret sorrows, my mooning up and down at weekends dreaming of girls I was too tongue-tied ever to confront, my joy at noon on Saturdays when I sped away from that factory servitude to the green fields and trees of my journey home. Soon it was carrying me away from searchlights raking the night sky and sirens starting to wail in the city behind me,as I trudged up Stoneleigh Hill in the spooky dark with those handlebars firmly gripped. Sometimes I would hear an owl, or there would be nothing, in that deep country silence, but the ticking of my free wheel.