written as a “Fearie Tale” for Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s Winter Words Festival 2013
(where it was admirably read by Dougal Lee on 2 February (an auspicious date -James Joyce’s birthday))
– Looks as if it was fished out of a canal, I say.
He doesn’t like that, the man behind the counter, a big fellow with a beard and a shaggy black mane, gloomy as his shop; probably thinks I’m trying to lower the price, but really it was just an observation – it does look as if it has spent some time under water, and you always think of canals when you imagine people pitching old bicycles into water (along with supermarket trolleys and bedsteads, for some reason)
– There’s no canals near here, he says.
Apart from the Caledonian, I think, but say nothing, fearing to give offence – after all, he is a native, by his accent: I have only lived here twenty years, which round here means you’re scarcely in the door. And he looks the touchy sort who might on a whim decide to sell me nothing at any price – how else to explain a shop that does so little to accommodate the buyer? Nothing priced, everything piled up in no sort of order, enamel basins, umbrella stands, coal-scuttles, standard lamps, stuffed birds in glass cases, a zinc bath full of clocks – and my object of interest, a very big, very old bicycle frame.
– There’s a box of bits goes with it, says the man, after we have agreed a price.
I shake my head. I do not want a box of bits. I already have enough bits at home – all I need is a frame. What I want to make is a straightforward bitsabike – bitsa this, bitsa that – a mongrel concoction I can have up and running right away. I am not interested in assembling a period piece, for the simple reason that I can see myself in two years’ time, the bike still incomplete and unused, while I scour the country for those last few original components that will add the finishing touch, without which it simply won’t be complete. I have been here before, you see, and know all about the siren lure of authenticity. But the bearded fellow is stubborn.
– It belongs with the bike, he insists. Included in the price.
Then let me have the frame for less, I think, but say
– Too awkward to carry: I haven’t a car.
– I’ll bring it round. Are you far?
Far enough, as it happens, but that doesn’t bother him. He seems anxious for me to have it.
– It all goes together, he insists.
There is an edge to his tone that suggests further refusal would be unwise. For a moment, I am stubborn enough to resist – why is he so eager? but the shop is remote and the man is bigger than me, of an uncertain temperament, and I do want the frame – so what if I have to take the bits as well? It’s not as if he can make me use them!
Once I’m on my way – I insist on taking the frame with me, in case he has second thoughts – I realise that all he was anxious about was clearing a bit of space – he could certainly do with some!
Yes, that’s all it was, I’m sure – why should there be any sinister motive?
Well, the bike is a great success. I’ve rigged it as a fixed gear – no freewheel, so if you back-pedal, it goes backwards – in theory; in practice it serves instead of a rear brake. The sensation is quite different from a normal bike: you work with it, rather than controlling it – it’s more like a living thing. You really need to concentrate when you ride it – no bad thing – which has a peculiarly liberating effect: on my other bike I always set out to go somewhere; on the fixed I’m content to let it take me where it will.
If only I could persuade my publisher to take a book on fixed-wheel cycling rather than Highland folklore!
– It’s just not the right book for me, I moan to my agent. I’m a rational man, a member of the Humanist Society: how can you expect me to write about kelpies?
– Any book your publisher actually wants is the right book, says she. What’s a kelpie?
– A malignant spirit that haunts lochs and streams in the guise of a horse. If you climb on his back, he carries you off to his watery lair and tears you to pieces.
– O good, you’ve begun your research. Keep at it, she says, and puts down the phone.
But keeping at it is not so easy, now that I have the fixed gear bike. I go where it takes me, cycling for the sake of it. Today I noticed an inviting gap in a wall and nipped through it, on impulse. I found myself in a wood with lots of little tracks twisting in and out among the trees and in a moment I had the sensation of being completely (and agreeably) lost. It’s remarkable how even well-spaced trees (silver birch for the most part) still cut down your view in any direction, and then of course there are the bushes which crowd in on you, more than head-high. I must have been in there for a good half-hour or more, yet I do not think I ever used the same path twice. I was surprised to find just now, looking at the map, how small a patch of ground it occupies; roughly triangular, bounded on all sides by houses. I wonder why it was never developed?
My research proceeds in a desultory fashion. One kelpie story (I’m a bit stuck on them, for some reason) gave me an idea – in it, the rider saves his life at the expense of his hand, which he has to cut off because it won’t let go of the kelpie’s mane. That put me in mind of the old punishment for thieves, and made me wonder if the whole kelpie thing wasn’t perhaps intended as a discouragement to horse-thieving. The Kelpie, of course, is a shape-changer, able to assume whatever form he thinks will tempt the unwary traveller – how might he appear nowadays? Maybe I could sell my publisher on the idea of rational explanations of Highland folklore? Worth a try!
Well, good news and bad news: I fear I have succumbed to the temptation of the “box of bits”. I can plead necessity in my defence, but only partly. When I went to take the fixed out this morning, I found that the front wheel was badly out of true, and indeed closer inspection showed that several spokes were broken. How could I have failed to notice that yesterday? The machine is virtually unrideable. So there was nothing for it but to raid the famous box, which I had stowed in the cellar as soon as the bearded one brought it – out of sight, out of mind, or so I thought – but it got to me in the end! The good news? I found a pair of wheels that, for all their age, were remarkably straight and true – and with wooden rims, would you believe! I was only going to use the front, but then I saw the rear was rigged with a fixed gear too – in fact, it probably predates freewheels – and they do sort of go together. It means I’ve had to discard the front brake, which I meant to do anyway – makes me more at one with the bike (or more at its mercy, if you prefer). And it rides beautifully.
Back to my wood again! It really is extraordinary how quickly you lose all sense of direction there – even when you must be close to the perimeter, you never seem to see the outside world: when you stop (I try not to) you could be in the heart of a forest. (I suppose it could be the remnant of an ancient forest – just one of those left-over bits of ground that never got built on, for some reason)
Something else that contributes to the illusion of expansiveness, I’ve realised, is the variation in level within the wood – though the land around is pretty flat, among the trees are unexpected dips and hollows. That’s something you notice on a fixed-gear without brakes: a sudden descent can be, well, exhilarating – excitement mingled with just a touch of fear. On one occasion I was hanging on for dear life, twisting and turning among the trees, bumping over exposed roots, skidding on fallen leaves, when at last (though it can only have been a matter of seconds, really) the ground levelled out and I found myself at the bottom of a deep dell, with some sort of pool just visible through a grove of trees. It was so unexpected that I wish now I had stopped to take a look around, but I was a bit high after my crazy descent and didn’t want to cool down.
When I got home, I felt so exhilarated with my ride – the new, or should I say old wheels have made such a difference to the ride – so responsive, almost as if it was alive – that I decided to restore the rest of the components. I’d no sooner made my mind up to do this than I was suddenly fearful that none of it would be usable – the cellar felt so damp (something I’ve never noticed before) that I was sure it would be all rusted; but to my surprise, though it felt wet to the touch – a protective layer of oil, perhaps? – it was all in remarkably good condition: all the metal parts are finished in some sort of dark coating of a kind I haven’t seen before, so I suppose that’s kept them good. I have to confess that I put it all together in a sort of frenzy, as if it was the one important thing I had to do – not an opinion my publisher or agent would share, I’m sure! Anyway, it’s completely authentic now, apart from the saddle – there was none in the box. I’ll have to keep an eye out for something suitable.
On the book front, I find that (according to some authorities) the kelpie is strictly speaking a river spirit: its counterpart that haunts lochs and pools is called in Gaelic an Each Uisge (the water horse) and is by all accounts a much more dangerous creature, far surpassing it in cunning and malignancy.
An odd experience this morning: I was out on my other bike and decided to try it in the wood. For some reason I could not find any of the entrances I normally use (there are several, all a bit hidden away – gaps in walls, or up lanes between houses) and had to go in by the main route, a tarmac path. Before I knew it, I was through to the other side, with no opportunity to turn off having presented itself. Yet in the afternoon I went back on the fixed, through the usual hole in the wall (which I found with no bother). I ended up in the dell again, but I must have been mistaken about the water – there was no sign of any (unless, of course, there is more than one dell?).
I think I must be working too hard. I realised today that over the past week or so I have been conducting a series of experiments without ever admitting to myself what I was doing. In the mornings, I try to reach the wood on my other bicycle, yet rarely seem to make it – on one occasion, a man I didn’t like the look of went in just ahead of me, so I made that an excuse to turn aside; another time, there was a formidable black dog lurking in among the trees, apparently without its master. If I do get in, I never seem to stay long – there doesn’t seem anywhere to go, apart from the main paths which just carry you straight through. Yet returning on the fixed-gear in the afternoon I can happily lose an hour just roaming – and I never seem to meet anyone.
There is something a bit edgy about being in the wood, now that Autumn has set in – the low angle of the sun makes you think how soon it will be dark, and there are scarves of mist lying on the damp ground. I have established that there must be two dells, because this afternoon I saw the water again, beyond the grove of trees. I would have stopped to investigate but the light was going and I was troubled by the absurd notion that I might get lost – I say “absurd” because I know perfectly well that the wood occupies only a small area and any determined attempt to leave it would succeed; and yet there is a strange reluctance to do anything like that – you feel you have to stick to the paths, like some sort of game, so you always spend much more time in there than you intend. It takes a real effort of will to come away.
Reflecting on these things in the comfort of my armchair, I realise that in all this there is an element of complicity on my part – I allow myself to be deflected when I am on the other bike – it is almost as if I am searching for an excuse not to go in – just as I play at being lost on the fixed wheel, when all the time I know I could find my way out if I wanted to. I’m sure there’s a rational psychological explanation for it all, and that it’s bound up with this blasted book I am managing not to write.
The only progress I’ve made is the discovery that, according to some sources, the Each Uisge sometimes had a human accomplice – this would be someone who had struck a bargain with it to save his own life. In return, he had to promise to keep the Each Uisge supplied with victims. I wonder if that could be rationalised as some hard-case employed by local horse-owners to protect their beasts? I suppose such a one would be paid by results, and wouldn’t be above a bit of entrapment to line his own pockets, luring likely lads into temptation by pretending to collude with them, only to turn on them? It would be easy to see how countryfolk would come to regard such a one as a sort of devil’s accomplice –
But who’s that at the door at this time of night?
Well, that is a turn up for the books! The man from the junk shop! He hovers outside on the step, holding something in his hands that I can’t make out. I invite him in. He crosses the threshold and thrusts a package at me, done up in brown paper and string.
– Thought you’d be wanting this, he says. I came across it in the shop – it belongs with the rest.
– Thank you, I say, somewhat taken aback.
His gaze lingers a moment at some point behind me, where I know the bike is leaning against the wall. There is an odd glint in his eye that reminds me of our first encounter in the shop and makes me eager to see the back of him. Only when he’s out the door do I turn my attention to the parcel. What can it be? It’s certainly heavy enough.
Well, how about that? It’s a saddle! It certainly looks authentic, though I can’t say I’ve ever come across a cover like that – it isn’t smooth, like leather, it has a sort of fell to it, like some sort of animal skin.
Funny how these things always take longer than you think – a whole morning just to fit a saddle! But I have to admit it looks well – and so inviting! Once you were on that, you feel you’d never want to get off! I was all ready to go – make the most of the daylight – when I saw the other package on the floor – just a small thing, in a twist of the same brown paper the saddle was in – I must have dropped it there last night. Bit of a mystery – seems to be caked in black wax, but these two projections look familiar – of course, they line up with the holes in the head-tube – it must be a badge of some sort! There now, it’s slipped into place, must be some sort of spring fitting, it seems quite secure – but I’ll need to get that wax off to see what it is.
Mm, no maker’s name – that’s a bit unusual – but the badge design is certainly distinctive – someone should be able to identify that for me. Must send a picture to the Boneshaker, the VCC magazine. How would I describe it? A sort of hybrid creature: the rear half is a fish, its scaly body twisted round in an improbable but artistic loop; the forequarters are those of a horse.
How it gleams!
That is it finished, now.
Pity there isn’t a lamp-bracket: I really ought to rig a lamp before I go. The light fails insidiously on these November afternoons; the colour seeps out of everything, and before you know it, all is dark.