by Sue Michaels runner up in the Bee Local Magazine short story competition 2018
I made that bike from parts I had found. Quite the mechanic! I’ve always been handy with my hands. And I made hers. It was part of my plan to win her over, so I gathered bits over a few weeks and presented her with it on her birthday. She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. Kind too. Caring, smiling, she loved life and I was drawn to her like a moth to light. I had to win her hand, mind. She took some convincing, but I think the bike did it in the end. I had to do quite a few extra hours to pay for the saddle – the leather was amazing. Shiny and that beautiful chestnut colour she adored.
“It’s as handsome as you are, Geoff Browne” she said, and we never spent a day apart in our lives again.
Hours we spent, idling away the day: exploring the woods and fields, following streams until they petered out; finding that spot near the river with the perfect place for a picnic; parking up under the oak trees on the common to take in the view. I was king of the world!
The leaflet landed on the doorstep of our rented flat. Betty had picked it up and I’d watched her read through it, look into the distance in the way that she did when she was pondering an idea, and place it carefully, meticulously on the telephone table. I bided my time, waiting for her to get engrossed in her latest magazine before I had a good look myself. It was a charity challenge to raise money for the aged – a bike ride from London to Brighton. I had been born in Brighton: the squawk of the gulls, the endless sea and the swarms of people on a summers day suddenly filled my thoughts.
I memorised the details, replaced the leaflet, made my excuses and left, cycling to the town hall to make arrangements.
Three weeks later, we were off! Flying through the country lanes, a crowd of excited young things having the time of their lives, laughing and joking, racing and supporting, knowing that every mile would raise money for people who needed some company, some support, some love. Everywhere we went, people cheered us on and gave money in the specially made buckets that we were carrying on our handlebars. I’d attached ours so that they sat proudly on the front – his and hers, jingling with money for the old folk.
Every mile took us to a new experience, a new memory. Towns and villages came and went, punctuating the endless lanes burrowing through swaying fields. The occasional silence of the group was broken by amazing birdsong, the like we had grown to miss in London. The June sun heated up our clothes and tinged our faces with its welcome warmth and we were occasionally blessed with a breeze. It ruffled the hair of my love and she tossed her head high and smiled.
We were in a lovely pub in a small quaint village near Horsham sipping our drinks as the sun sunk behind the steeple of the ancient church. “I love our life,” she said, looking me straight in the eye. I thought my heart would burst! This life just got better and better. We were excited, vibrant, glorious young things – the world was our oyster. The next day, we rode with new vigour, knowing that our journey was nearly done. The streets widened as we approached Brighton with all its pomp and grandeur. The houses began to stretch upwards as they vied for space on the approach to the seafront. Scattered people became groups, then crowds, then droves as we jostled to the water’s edge – our destination. The elation as we hugged and congratulated each other stays with me to this day.
We settled in Brighton. A lot of it was due to that day and the anchor of such a fabulous feeling, a glorious day and the endless love that we had for each other. The bike ride became a thing – an annual event which grew into something far greater than we could ever have imagined. Now we just strolled home after the finish instead of making the weary train journey home.
Over time, children followed as we moved from the seafront, to the tiny house, to a family place in the suburbs with that all-important sliver of sea view. The children grew: three of them – two boys and a girl. And as they grew, they in turn brought their children to the seaside to visit. The noise filled the house as they filled the space with their laughter and vitality. Bikes, toys, love everywhere.
I can still hear it echoing around the rooms. But now it’s in my head – all memories. Betty’s smile has long left us, the kids all scattered around the world chasing their dreams. Even the nippers are at university, carving their own journeys through life.
Today is the day. I’ve packed up and polished for the last time. I’ve put on my best suit. I’ve said my goodbyes.
I heard the car pull up outside on the gravel and waited for the knock before I gathered my bag and made my way to the front door.
The young man on the doorstep barely looked old enough to drive. He took my arm and helped me to the passenger seat. “One last journey, eh?”.
I nodded cheerfully, but my heart was heavy. It was time.
The short trip was silent as my thoughts and feelings mingled and words rushed round my head. Before I was ready, the car pulled up and I was being helped out. I was nervous now for what was about to happen. The driver held open the door and hesitantly, we eased onto the marble floor.
The ripple of applause started with that first glimpse of chestnut and as we made it to the centre of the museum, to the final resting place, the whole room were on their feet. The plinth was ready and she was carefully wheeled into place.
A sudden feeling of pride filled me as I saw a photo of us and read the plaque.
‘Betty Browne’s Bike. May her legacy of kindness and generosity continue forever’.