Inspired by a quote from Charles Schultz of Peanuts fame: “Life is like a ten-speed bike. Most of us have gears we never use.” It’s 2000 words and I hope you enjoy it.
The Ten-speed Bike
Adam rubbed the condensation off the shop window and peered in. It was still there. Red and white frame, black snazzy lettering inspiring the almost impossible speed with which Adam imagined himself racing down the alleyways, across the bridge, and on into the woods, haring up the hills, and performing hair-raising stunts weaving in and out of trees and knolls as they descended the other side. The scene shifted from a simple dashing freedom to a course with spectators yelling, cheering as he swept through the line as the announcer said: “The Winner!”
Mrs Perkins bumped her walking frame into his legs.
“Stop gawking, boy. Get out of my way!”
He glared at her, but moved away, rubbing his grey shorts-clad legs and pulling up the grey woollen socks that refused to stay up. He took one last look through the murky window, already steaming up again, and headed off to the bus stop.
“I’m home, Mum!” He threw his cap onto the peg, struggled out of his gaberdine mac, and clomped up the stairs to change.
“Your tea’s ready when you are.”
Transformed into a gangly teenager by holey jeans and brightly patterned sweater, Adam took his seat at the table, the other side from the gas fire so he didn’t get chilblains while he ate. Sausage beans and mash arrived on a plate in front of him, and he tucked in. Must be Thursday.
“How was school today?” His mother sat at the side of the table, a cup of tea in front of her. It used to be part of the best tea set, but they were down to three cups and four saucers, so new set was bought at the local auction. Adam strongly suspected the new best tea set was why his birthday present had been a bag of apples and a new school shirt.
He mumbled something about school, then added, “bike’s still there.”
His mother sighed.
Adam cleared his plate and started on the bread and butter.
“I could pay half.”
“Do odd jobs. Get a paper-round.”
“Mr Thomason’s already got enough paperboys. And they need bikes already. We’re not buying on tick. You know that, Adam. Never buy anything on tick.”
Adam nodded, warding off the reminder of what happened to the Braithwaites.
“Remember what happened to the Braithwaites?”
Oh no, she was going to make him tell again.
“What happened?” she prompted.
“They bought things they couldn’t afford, and the bailiffs came and took it away.”
“Exactly. That’s not going to happen to us, Adam, is it?”
He shook his head while stuffing another piece of bread in. It was his best defence against conversation, since talking with your mouth full would call down retribution.
His mother watched him chew, counting to make sure he didn’t get indigestion. She remembered her own childhood, peering in shop windows for dolls she would never be able to get. With her husband’s promotion, there was slightly more chance, but the grammar school took up so much more money than the local school, just for extra kit and stationery.
“Homework, now,” she said, clearing away his tea things so he had space for his books.
Adam finished working on his congruent triangles and started his Newton’s Laws. Thinking about momentum took him back to the bike. How much momentum would a bike have, rolling downhill. How did its potential energy transform into kinetic energy? Did the gears affect the amount of energy it had? If you optimised the gear-changes did that also optimise the energy it used? He puzzled over that for a while and decided to ask his teacher. Or maybe the sports master would be better, even if he wasn’t so clever, he’d understand the reason for the question. He packed up his books just as his brother Antony came in the back door and banged it shut.
“Hey up, Adam, what’s the brains of the family doing tonight then?”
“Physics,” Adam mumbled. Then he brightened up. “Know of anyone needing some jobs done, Tone?”
“Jobs? Nah. Unless you want to work with the Firecracker. He wants a Saturday lad. Thanks, Mum.”
Having stripped off his dungarees, and washed his head and hands, Antony sat next to Adam and received his plate of sausage beans and mash. “Hands off!” he warned as Adam stretched for a slice of bread and butter.
Adam put his books in the hall, underneath his mac, and stomped upstairs to retrieve his games kit for the morning.
“Is Mr Baker really needing a Saturday boy, Antony?”
“Yes, Mum. Do you think—”
“It would help. And he’s still dreaming of it.”
Antony smiled. They all knew what Adam wanted for Christmas. ‘Good things come to those who work for it’ was the family saying, and while everyone was saving up hard, it would be better if Adam made an effort too.
“Can you nip in tomorrow, just to say he’s keen.”
Despite his scrawny appearance, Adam proved well up to hauling sacks of potatoes around and getting them into customers’ cars. He was agile and good at sweeping up, and even shinned up the pillars to clean the cobwebs in the rafters at the end of the day. Four weeks on, Mr Baker, Firecracker to all the children of the town, due to his fiery head of hair and temper to go with it, gave Adam an extra sixpence with his week’s pay.
“You’ve over-paid me, sir. Here.” Adam held out the sixpence.
“That’s your bonus for the month. You’ve done a good job. Use your sixpence wisely.”
“Oh, I will, sir, thank you.”
He met Antony on the way home and told him of his luck.
“That’s because you put yourself out to do all the extras.” Antony nodded approvingly. “He may be strict, but he’s kind as well. What’ll you do with it?”
“I can add it to my bottle. It’ll have sixteen shillings and sixpence in it. By Christmas I’ll have over two pounds!”
“Why don’t you have sixpence worth of chips on the way home instead?”
Adam thought about that. Chips would be good, but they had chips on Saturday anyway. “No, but maybe I’ll give it to Mum for extra chips.”
Every Thursday on the way home from school, Adam peered in the shop window, checking on the bike. He knew everything about it, from gear ratio to braking capacity, to frame weight, even how to adjust the saddle. And the price. By the end of the week, his eighth working Saturdays, he’d have enough to buy the front wheel. He usually thought on the way to school whether he should measure his earning in simple mathematical terms, like one-fifth, or percentage, or ratio of progress to the ultimate goal. He divided the bike up into parts, and decided that one fifth would be one wheel, or the frame, or the pedal unit, or the gearing system.
This Thursday would be the last before school broke up for the Christmas holidays. He scraped the frost off the shop window and peered in. A huge round face with chubby cheeks stared back at him. He got up, rubbed his backside, and looked in again. It was a Father Christmas model, with a sack of toys and gadgets at his feet. He peered around, and moved to the next window to see if he could see the bike. He hung around the door to see if anyone might come out, so he could look in.
“Out of the way, young man, haven’t you got a home to go to?”
Mr Halford opened the door and shooed him away. Adam took a couple of steps back, and then screwed up his courage.
“Please sir. Is the bike still for sale? I’ve saved up ten percent of the price now, sir.”
“Ten percent, eh? How long has that taken?”
“Um, since October, sir.”
“So how long will it take to get the rest?”
Adam rocked from one foot to the other, wondering if Mr Baker would still need a Saturday boy in January. And all the way till the summer. And whether his parents would let him carry on when he had extra work for exams coming up. His determination ramped up a gear. “Probably till August, sir.”
“Well, then, you don’t have to worry about the bike now, then, do you? Off with you, and keep saving up. You never know what you can do till you try.”
“But, is it sold?”
“Maybe. Christmas is coming, you know. It’s there to be sold.”
Adam’s face took on such a despondent look that Mr Halford took pity.
“It’s reserved, son. But if you’ve got the money in the summer, I’ll order another for you.”
Reality took hold as Adam went home, sat at the front of the upstairs of the bus. The summer would be gone before he got enough money for the bike. Was it worth the saving up, and the hard work at the greengrocer’s?
He swung his satchel over his shoulder as he got off the bus, and whistled as he walked down the street, past the huddled houses with the lights peering from the split in the curtains. He’d save up to buy the bike, then he’d ride it through the hills and win races the following year. He’d reach his dream. It would just take more effort.
A couple of days before Christmas, his mother said she could only give him a pound for buying Christmas presents this year, and he should use some of his earnings towards them.
“Get something nice for Antony. He’s such a great big brother to you.”
Adam looked at his bottle bank. Antony was a great brother. And Mum was a great Mum and deserved something nice. And dad was a great dad, even if he hardly saw him except Sundays these days. He hoped that maybe they’d go to the park and kick a football around at Christmas, since they didn’t play football on Sundays. Adam poured the money out of his bottle bank onto his bedspread, counted it like he did every week, then took twenty percent out and put the rest back. September would have to be good enough.
On Christmas Day he enjoyed the delight his mother had when she pinned the pretty brooch on her dress, a whole seven shillings from Woolworths, but it looked just as good as gold. Dad seemed delighted with the new wool scarf he’d got on the market. Antony winked as he unwrapped the large square object that could only be an LP record, saying ‘dunno what this is, I’m not much of one for books.”
His own presents consisted of some socks, a set of multi-coloured pens, a book on Einstein and other great physicists, and a card. He opened the card, hoping beyond hope that it might say ‘look in the yard,’ or something like that, which it would in books. But it was a gift card for Halfords, with the words: ‘your present will be available for collection on 2nd January.’
He looked at his dad, who was watching him. “That racing bike had already been sold. But Mr Halford knows all about you, and Mr Baker chipped in too, since he says you can do Saturday deliveries with a bike. So go in on the second, and see which of the new stock they’ve got in you can have. Here’s the brochure.”
The brochure had more bikes in it than he could imagine. He spent the rest of the holidays comparing gears and prices, and checking the bike magazines in the library for reports on their performance. When second of January came, he took his bottle bank money with him, and chose the bike of his dreams, with the full support of his family and friends.
Then he had to step up another gear and learn to ride it.
© J M Pett 2016
Bicycle picture from publicbikes.com