The Bicycle Thieves
I remember going to a shop with rabbits and a wall of fish tanks in the back room.
Tiny sunken castles in lurid pinks and greens and surrounded by pebbles at the bottom of tanks inhabited by fish that had no business being coloured so outrageously, brighter inside their tanks than anything outside them. A massive interconnected warren with room for different shades of rabbit to scurry around on fake grass, strategically clipped on water bottles and ramps up to the sleeping quarters.
I used to wonder what the fish food, scooped from the top of neon pebbles or else plucked from the midst of the water before it had time to settle, wonder what it might taste like.
The reason for whiling away hours in the back of a pet-shop where we never bought anything has been eroded by time, maybe there never was one, but that is what I did. I used to try and tell from the rabbits’ coal pellet eyes whether the clawing, grasping affections of hordes of children who had yet to learn to treat anything delicately bothered them. And as I grew older, at the same time more quickly and more slowly that I needed to, I felt like both the rabbits and the fish. Wandering aimlessly around sunken and ruined artefacts that I had no context for, or else being randomly inspected by strangers much larger than me, and indelicate.
The issue in trying to work out what a life is and what it might be, and what that might mean, is that it happens to you whether you have the answers worked out or not. It might mean nothing to remember the rabbits and the fish, they might be entirely redundant, but I remember them anyway, and other things as well.
I remember my first guitar, a cherry red Les Paul. A copy of a copy of a copy imported from some soulless Japanese factory in the 1960’s. Nothing even vaguely connected to the original. My brother had it originally, one of his friends had given it to him in lieu of payment for something or other. Probably some hash, that would seem about right. Trading in goods and services is big where I’m from, we’re old fashioned like that. No-one has any cash, rather, any cash there is, is pushed over greasy oak-topped bars in exchange for yellowy, yeasty beer. Cheap whisky, splash of Coke, no ice. Cash is for Friday night in the pool hall, Saturday in the Raven watching the Bhoys put six past Dunfermline. But everyone has a bike in storage and a guitar they don’t know how to play and all you need to get by is a bit of something. Everyone needs out of their heads eventually round here.
My brother learned young the peculiar ways in which the local economy could be used to his advantage and did very well based on two things; he had two jobs, both of which he was adept at after a smoke; and an oddly undefined face which helped on the occasions that someone tried to describe him to the authorities.
‘Well, officer, you see he had blue eyes. I think.
Average height sir, yes.
Pale skin, light brown hair. Maybe a little short actually, 5’8”. I’m sorry I’m not good with measurements.
Defining characteristics? I couldn’t say.’
Very good at being transparent, my brother. Although he did have an affection for a pair of bright red trainers. It wasn’t until you got to know him that you noticed his eyes changed colour with his mood. Icy grey when he was hungry, royal blue when he was angry. It also wasn’t until you got to know him that you realized that he spent most of his life either hungry or angry, some human sized scavenger mammal knocking over bins and rustling bushes and consuming things with very little regard for what they were. I once saw him eat treacle with a spoon, could see his eyes glaze over, almost hear his organs groaning as he forced a week’s worth of sugar into his veins.
At some point, as almost everything did between me and my brother, the guitar changed hands. There was no ritual unveiling, it wasn’t a gift, it just happened to find its way into my room one day and announce, silently, that it now belonged to me and no longer to him. I greeted it with indifference, it was beautiful and I had lusted after it for months, but having plugged it in to an amp and turned everything up I realised that I had no notion of what to do with it. There was some strange language here and I had no way to speak it. Life in that place favours instant gratification, there is very little time for learning.
The world outside my window turned to grey as the nights shortened and I found another two hundred thousand complete strangers to fall in love with. My heart was so full of love for people I didn’t know that I never really worked out what to do with it. Would pour it into shit poetry that included thoughts about moonlight and allusions to people bleeding, all very terrible. Would imagine that my blend of shyness and diffused, generalized rage at being born in a time and place I couldn’t relate to would be a winning combination in conversation with, say, that one girl that could play the piano and had a tattoo or three and some kind of pixie haircut.
I would sometimes imagine that my brother and myself formed some integrated and perfect whole, his unchecked strength and my imagined intelligence. His unflinching ability to do things such as write strongly worded letters to local drug dealers or reverse dents in his van with a wood screw and a pair of pliers, and my unparalleled ability to make coffee the way he liked it.
Black. Two Sugars. Splash of milk unless he was, as he did occasionally, paying attention to his lactose intolerance instead of manfully ignoring it and producing heroic amounts of phlegm, setting his will to the task of pretending that indigestion was a rumour invented by people raised softer than we. I played my part by completely over-reacting to every smell that wafted over. Some men take a peculiar pride in being flatulent, and it is not my role in this life to question them.
Memoirs are of course for toffs and for footballers and for crooks and for Cockney broadcasters who are keen to tell everyone that their Catholic guilt is that much more pronounced than everyone else’s, because they once wondered just what made their angry fathers quite so angry.
Even so, I remember my first guitar.
Imagine a town of forty thousand people, vast and sprawling Celtic matriarchies busy fanning the flames of tribal neglect and slights both real and imagined, heinous centuries old crimes committed on behalf of a now-irrelevant crown. Picture them appearing in the middle of an English field over a few short years. Digging greedily into the ground and turning what they found there into steel, making tubes and rods and rigid things and losing parts of themselves in the heat and the dark and returning to the surface via three pints of Ex and two whisky chasers, deaf and blind and pissed and angry. Imagine a town of mothers, raising small boned and dirty faced children whose fathers turned first to steel and then to dust. Imagine those mothers deciding that somewhere, amongst the pain and dirt, there was something that smelled like money and tasted like pride and looked like class. There are no soft edges in a place like that.
It has been suggested to me, more than once, that it may well have been interesting, to find your life there. If I were a sociologist, or an academic, or some romantic troubadour that could play the harmonica in the corner and make people think twice before they threw a glass at someone, then it may well have been. The weight of human experience in a town that had found themselves out of work and knee deep in cheap ale would probably be enough to keep some angry young man with ink-stained fingers fuelled for years. Me, I missed the human stuff, the slow relinquishing of pride and shedding of skin, the sudden and salty dawn of existential dread which fell on the shoulders of men that had left school as children and defined themselves resolutely through work until there was suddenly no work left to do. Me, I got their violent sons and unfulfilled daughters. I got to see the dust settle on an entire community as coughs turned into tumours and blood pressure turned into heart failure and the severance packages turned into drink problems.
A few years older than me, my brother. Old enough that, when it became an inescapable truth that something appeared to have gone seriously wrong that we, sons of singers and painters and dancers, had found ourselves adrift on some strange and spiteful tide, he knew what had happened. No better than the rest of course, not for a second more grand or beautiful that anyone, it was worse than that. We were worse. We didn’t have heroically deceased and fondly remembered fathers, they were just elsewhere. We had no sporadically Christian and indefatigable Mother. Nothing, in fact, remotely in common with anyone except each other.
Young enough to be gullible, I never really understood why we had so many bikes. I only knew that occasionally, with flashing eyes, he’d summon me to the garden and instruct me, in that practised way that young boys in that place all had, to hold the bike upright, clamping the frame between my knees and holding the handlebars firm, as he attacked various parts of it with a rusted adjustable spanner. Away came the handlebars, the seat, the tyres, the whole thing surrendering to a brief frenzy and lying like some Da Vinci cross section on the grass as I sprayed the whole frame black and he rolled himself a cigarette, rationing tobacco like a hoarder, recycling filters even on payday. On afternoons like these we would find ourselves with four or five such dismantled bikes, surrounding us, each with a spray-paint outline as though they had been found murdered in the gutter. It was not until we began the work of rearranging that I ever felt uneasy.
I had developed that English faith in the way things were. Not a blind agreement as such, just a recognizing of the social contract, which part was mine to play whether I liked it or not. It is reasons like this that hearing Irish immigrants that can’t play the guitar say things about the Queen has always been so much fun. Rebellion is a silly word, but there was something about recklessly smashing disparate bikes back together in whichever way we felt like it that came close I think. We were lunatic inventors in that garden, glowing and content in the knowledge that, in a town that ran on a toxic breed of pride and anger, there was nothing lower than a bicycle thief. There was some kind of forbidden fruit in taking inelegant and badly maintained parts of a machine and forcing them to collaborate with things they had never seen before. In flagrantly cycling past someone whom you have recently stolen from on the shattered and bastardized remains of their most prized possession. In peddling away from someone, really fucking quickly, that saw you hanging around on their street the night their bike went missing and knowing that there was a sudden tacit understanding between you and this bike, which you had treated so very poorly, that if the chain were to slip, or the handlebars come loose, or the wheel to buckle or the brakes to snap that you would very shortly be kicked, more than once, in the teeth. It may be said convincingly that freedom is the illusion of choice, but only by people who never rounded a sweeping bend only just in front of a malnourished American pit bull terrier, with both eyes fixed on the horizon and knees, fuelled by terror and exhilaration, working much harder and for much longer than you ever thought possible, before taking a garden fence in one leap and destroying the achievements of half a year of someone’s life by reducing a flowerbed to mulch and sweat and vomit and hoping that you won’t still be lying there when they find the damage.
No freedom is not an illusion at times like that, when that survival instinct, that callback to something more primal, abates for just long enough for you to say something smarmy to someone who would already quite like to throttle you.
Escape, in my experience, is very rarely a straight line, but eventually my road lead away from that place, lead to lecture halls and cramped kitchens full of cigarette smoke. Lead to talking loudly about books I hadn’t read and hoping that no-one showed enough interest to find out I was lying. Lead to wearing novelty jackets in sweaty clubs listening to music I didn’t like and wondering if I looked as desperately out of place as I felt. And then, occasionally, it lead me home again bearing strange tales of the big city that no-one wanted particularly to hear. My brother’s road lead him into himself, where there is no room for someone like me, and yet there were moments.
The boot of my brother’s car is always full. Where someone might expect to find a spare tyre or a set of jump leads, there is a skateboard. Instead of a thick and well worn jacket or a pair of filth encrusted boots to deal with the spiteful English summertimes, a football. As though at anytime he might be called on to entertain roving gangs of adolescents. A two litre bottle of water because there is very little more that annoys him more than a dirty windscreen. Some stereo equipment, for no distinguishable reason.
One day found us at the top of a half pipe situated precisely in the middle of nowhere, presumably because some well mannered borough councillor had heard how quickly unoccupied teenagers turn into drug dependent knife wielding lunatics and didn’t want the same fate to play out on his doorstep. We had decided to take advantage of some of the many wheeled things in the back of his car, one of our trusty bikes, a very poorly made skateboard and had begun to run the numbers. In the slow manner of men with a reasonable buzz on we considered the problem and quickly discovered that to go over the edge of a structure like this is impossible, at least without more provocation than we were able to muster by making fun of each other. We have run the numbers. We are intelligent enough to know that we have exposed a lie. Activities like these are very obviously impossible. We understand parallel lines, but this is a new dynamic. We have spent our time moving forwards along the precipice. Gravity has no scope for sudden impact in a logic such as ours, we do not relinquish control. We have spent most of our lives trying to avoid the fall, become in our own small ways quite adept at it.
A phone call is made, to a friend of mine who has spent his short life embracing moments such as this. Sharp peaks and sharper falls. His shins are made of leather. He instructs me, in the way of a fish explaining water to a bird, in what needs to be done. I relay the information to my brother. We both examine the facts at hand once more, conclude that for all that his informed opinion is well earned he is very obviously insane. But then if this is madness that others are capable of, then why not us?
It is tempting now, to look back on those moments and to try to understand them, and ourselves, a little better, hoping that the years and the heat and the pressure have turned the vegetable waste of our youths into something more precious.
But sometimes there is nothing more to a story than the story.
Sometimes a twat on a bike is just a twat on a bike.