Friday, 23 March 2018

The Bicycle

A short story
© Matthew Slater 2018

He belonged in the shed - the large wooden shed that he had built four years ago whilst he could still move freely. With just a small kitchen, toilet and a joint living-bedroom area it was his home. Nearby stood the old brick barn that once served as his workshop and the derelict caravan he had lived in before it became too damp for his health. Both of which were now unused and full of dust, cobwebs and nostalgia.

His bike leant against the outside of the shed. Both tyres were flat with nettles growing through the rusty spokes and the saddle was disintegrating - worn through years of use and weathering. For over thirty years it had been in daily use. Now it lay rusting, its wheels hadn’t turned since the summer before last.

The wingback chair, with its tall straight back, had well worn upholstery and the arm rests were covered with curtain fragments to keep fraying at bay. It’s occupant, Old Jim, as he was known locally, sat watching the glow from the logs burning in the stove. With an effort he reached to a mug of tea perched precariously on a pile of books on the small table beside him. He held it in his rough wrinkled hands and took slow sips whilst looking out though the open doorway at the overgrown flower borders outside. The once well kept, productive small holding and orchard, about an acre in size, was now very unkept. A small patch of ground was still roughly cultivated with a few vegetables but most of the garden features had succumbed to nettles, brambles and bindweed. Jim picked up his faithful pipe and drew in a small mouthful of a very aromatic smoke from his own ‘tobacco’, made from a few of his ‘special’ plants. He took to it whenever he wanted to reflect on certain things, it was the special treat he allowed himself.

Among the piles of books around him on gardening, farming, and natural history were many notebooks and diaries. Jim picked one up: a small, black, well used, leather bound notebook, opening with ease at one particular page. Here a photograph of a face of a young woman was used as a bookmark. The page was covered with tight lines of handwritten notes.

Jim took another puff of the pipe and read whatever was written there for half an hour or so, frequently looking up and out to the garden as if there as something on the old worn pages that required much thought. He looked at the photograph and a tear welled in one eye.

With a grunt that revealed a body full of aches and pains, the result of many years of hard outdoor work, he pushed himself up from his chair. He grabbed the hazel walking stick he had made a few months ago and walked slowly to the door. He held onto the door frame for support as he stepped out into the September sunshine. Jim stood for few minutes looking around at the forever growing wilderness in front of him, paying particular attention to his old faithful bike.

Yes. It had to be done. He could do it.

Jim turned to step back inside the shed and reached up to a hook behind the door from where he retrieved a key. Then, with a sense of determination that had long since been absent, he walked to the barn and unlocked the padlock securing the door. He pushed open the wooden door which offered a little resistance as it scuffed the floor and he went inside to clear an area of space. A few minutes later he reappeared and walked back to the shed. He made for the bike. He had never expected to ride it again which was why it wasn’t stored in the barn. With a firm grasp, he lifted it out from the tangle of weeds and pushed it back to the barn. He was returning to his workshop for the first time since the events of last autumn.

Sunday morning, a few days later, and a light dew covered the grass, glinting in the early sunshine. Jim walked slowly between the trees he had planted sixty years ago with the help of his father. Most of them were apple trees but there were several plums and pear trees too. He touched a few of their branches as if reaching out to close friends and gathered a few choice apples which he placed in a paper bag before walking back to the barn. The shed and barn were locked up and the bike, which by now had been completely repaired, was leaning against the barn door. A pair of collared doves cooed from the roof and a robin watched with curiosity from a nearby rose bush. Jim nodded his head to them and smiling as if he knew them well, then placed the bag of apples in a basket on the back of the bike. With a pained effort he pushed it up the rough path through the orchard to the gate. He opened it, pushed the bike through and closed it carefully behind him. Now, on the road, with a bit of effort he swung his right leg over the gleaming frame, pushed off with a foot, wobbled, found his balance and was off.

By late afternoon, when the sun had moved so that the shed was in shadow, Jim would usually have lit the stove and the smell of woodsmoke would be drifting above the trees. Today though, things had changed. There was no smoke from the stove and no cup of tea waiting to be made; and nor would there be tomorrow or ever again.

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