It sounded like a good idea. No, it sounded like a great idea.
The flyer that came through the door said ‘Giving Back’ and featured the picture of a happy, smiling person on a bike. From a casual glance it was hard to tell what it was all about. It could have been anything from personal training to cosmetic dentistry, or the details of a charity bike ride, or even, I guess, an announcement about the opening of a new McDonalds, if the McDonalds PR people had had really good imaginations. Whatever it was, they had my attention.
Turns out that it was something I actually wanted. In fact, it was seven somethings I wanted. I was being given the chance to buy back, at a very reasonable price, one of the seven (yes, seven) bicycles that we as a family have collectively had stolen over the past three years.
In an act of genius, the local prison had gotten hold of the, no-doubt vast, reserve of bicycles that have turned up ownerless around the borough, bicycles that had been taken from their rightful homes and, for whatever reason, never returned. Until now, that is. Perhaps.
The Wandsworth prisoners were going to dust them off, spruce them up and sell them on, thereby learning a trade, raising money for charity and getting the local community back on their bikes. Anyone who had reported a bicycle missing within the past 12 months, which was pretty much everyone who has owned a bike in the past 12 months, was invited along to either find it or replace it with someone else’s missing bike.
I thought it was a brilliant idea, especially since the bit about the money going to charity made you slightly less annoyed about the fact that you were being invited to potentially buy back your own bike. Of course, it would have been even better if they had had some of the prisoners there giving masterclasses in how not to have your bike stolen in the first place, but perhaps that’s something for the future. I tried not to think about the fact that the whole plan was based on the idea that people in prison were providing people not in prison with the means for getting out and about on sunny days, commuting to work, enjoying time with the family. It seemed a little bit, well, a little bit mean. But I kept that thought to myself. I was probably the only one thinking along those lines. I usually am.
Anyway, the date for the big bike sale was a month away. I left myself messages all over the house – on the calendar, on the fridge, on the breadmachine (thereby making myself feel better about how much space on the counter it takes up despite the fact that it is never used) and on everyone’s mobile phone, complete with a warning alarm set to go off an hour before the start. There was no way I was going to miss this.
I spent the month wondering which of our bikes might turn up. I was really hoping it was the one I had ridden to Paris. Not only had we had a foreign adventure, but we had done all that training together. There were times when Gary (named after it’s maker, Gary Fisher) seemed like my best friend. He was certainly my most constant companion, until that vile day when I left him outside the shop, locked, on the main road, at mid-day, for just a moment. When I came back, all that was left was the little Eiffel Tower charm that I had kept on the handlebars all through our training and ride, as a symbol of our goal. Yet there it was, lying on the pavement. Alone.
Or, perhaps it was the bike that Kimberly had had stolen, in parts. The first part, the seat, went sometime between her locking it up at the train station to go to school, and her coming back several hours later to ride it home. Granted it was a nice seat, it had a little hole in the middle of it for some unfathomable reason, but who would want to steal a bicycle seat? We didn’t have long to wonder. Kimberly rode home, standing up of course, locked the vast majority of the bike up to the 20 ft ladder that we had lying against the side of the house, and went inside to sit at her computer, by the window, overlooking the bike/ladder. An hour later, I came home and she told me what had happened. Luckily, we had a spare seat, although not one with a designer hole in the middle, which I thought might fit. So, we get some tools from the toolbox and head out front. Strangely enough, her bike was no longer there. We looked around, we looked at each other, we suddenly noticed that neither was the 20 ft ladder. Someone had carried them off, while she had been sitting in the window. A bicycle locked to a 20 ft ladder. Unbelievable, although it was actually pretty easy to see the funny side of it, even at the time. We had a serious discussion about whether it was worse to have your bike stolen by two separate people within an hour, or to have had the original thief follow you home to finish the job, while walking into the house, to call the insurance company. Again.
Or, it could have been the one that someone climbed over the 15 ft back fence, unchained from an iron gate and then carried back over the fence, leaving only a scrap of material on a nail to show they had been there. Oh, and the blank space where the bike used to be, of course. Or, the one that went missing despite the fact that it was the innermost of several bikes, much nicer but not ours, chained to a fence, all of which were left behind, still chained together but no longer to the fence. Or either of the two that were chained through a bolt, screwed into a wall, inside a locked bike shed.
Is that seven? If not, I have no idea what the others were. It’s something you try not to think about.
Anyway, the day dawned. I was excited. I had a good feeling about this. It didn’t last long. An hour or so before the event was due to start, my neighbour phoned to say that I had better get down there because there seemed to be a lot of people riding bicycles away from the prison carpark. Either she was witnessing a very novel prison break, or the sale had already begun. I ran down there. Ok, I walked down there, but very fast. I figured I had to go on foot so I could ride my new/old bike home.
Once I arrived, I suddenly realised something that I hadn’t thought about before, that there had to be a lot more people with bikes stolen than there were bikes recovered. I realised it when I noticed that there were about 20 bikes, and 200 people. On the bright side, it meant that it didn’t take long to discover that none of the bikes were Gary and so, after a last mental farewell to him, I was able to dive in and find his replacement. I knew the odds weren’t good, but I come from New York and I have survived the Harrods sale – twice. How hard could it be?
The answer is – unbelievably hard. Who knew those polite English people would have such sharp elbows. A plan of action was required. Sadly, I came up with the same plan that everyone else did, which was basically to run for the nearest unattached bicycle and hold on for dear life. Some got lucky right away but most of us, after a few minutes of standing with our prizes, realised that we actually weren’t looking for a child’s bike, or a mountain bike, or a road bike or whatever and had to let go in order to find something more suitable. And so, the scramble began again. It was like musical chairs, without the music, or the chairs. I knew things were getting out of hand when I came within seconds of having a major argument with a middle-aged woman in a flowery dress, and pearls, over a bicycle, in the shadow of a prison. I let her have the bike, not graciously mind you, but I did. I still think about it though, obviously.
Anyway, displaying skills last seen in a younger Jonny Wilkinson, I eventually found what I was looking for. Well, I would have if I had been looking for a men’s mountain bike instead of a hybrid commuter one, but it was close enough. It had two wheels, and a seat, which is important in our family. I handed over my money, I looked smug as I rolled past the still empty-handed people, and I headed home.
I went half a block before the front brakes broke, and another half before the gears started clashing. By the top of our road, the chain had come off completely, and the seat had started slipping. But, it’s a bike. And it’s mine. At least for now.
Still, thinking about it, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps those prisoners haven’t had the last laugh after all.
Not Leo Tolstoy
(aka Eileeen Riley)