To celebrate the beginning of August, I’m going to tell you about a minor trauma from last Christmas.
I was back in Belfast for the holidays, and I met up with some old school friends on Boxing Day. It’s an annual event — the only time we’re all back — and generally it takes the form of a long walk in the Northern Irish rain, followed by a meal at the house of the only one of us who still lives there.
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Bryony, the friend in question, is distinctly high-culture. She plays the oboe. She reads Latin for fun. So do most of the others, and at school we were that kind of teenager.
I’m the black sheep, who cast aside my collected Shakespeare and my tuba, and took to riding bits of carbon-fibre up hills. Bryony finds the fact she now has a friend who races bikes both improbable and hilarious.
Throughout the walk: “Do you shave your legs? Can I see? What do you mean you only shave them in summer, a proper lady shaves all year round.”
Later: “Sorry about all this walking, I’m sure you’d rather be on your lovely bicycle.” Followed by: “Is it true that racing cyclists just pee in their shorts?”
When we got to her house, Bryony casually mentioned that the gears on her bicycle weren’t working properly. I ate my delicious sausage roll.
She mentioned it again. I drank deep of the fine mulled wine. She brought it up a third time, and another friend, Thomas, said, “I’m sure Michael could fix it.” Michael was also sure he could fix it, but Michael was eyeing up another sausage roll, so was dead certain that he didn’t want to.
But of course I was escorted from the fireside and the Christmas tree, out to the gloom and cold of a garage on a December night. Bryony’s bike was not a premium model.
I was amazed that the gears worked as well as they did.
But I set to work, armed with the trademark tools of the mechanic under duress: a borrowed Swiss Army knife, some pliers that didn’t work, and a rock. I managed to loosen the cable clamp — no mean feat since the nut was about as hard as marzipan — with the rock and the knife’s fish-scaling blade.
I could just about hear the others laughing and talking round the tree. I dropped the nut, which bounced under Bryony’s car, and I had to wriggle under it to get the nut back. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to cut her brakes while I was under there.
I was holding the gear cable in my teeth to try to tension it while I rethreaded the nut onto the bolt and after about 15 minutes of this, when Bryony appeared.
“I bet you’re really enjoying yourself!” she said. “Funny that you get so much pleasure out of fixing a bike.”
“Mmmmgf?” I said.
“I hate things like that myself, I’d rather be inside by the fire, but the way you like working with your hands is adorable.”
“Mmmgf, mmmmmmgf ….,” I was trying to say, “Hang on! I’m doing a favour for you! Not you for me! And… and… ‘adorable’?” But she’d gone, back to the warmth, and I was left kneeling on the concrete floor. I lost my grip on the cable, and I dropped the nut again.
I was out there an hour. All I managed was to put it all back together without making things worse. “Never mind. At least it gave you something to do,” said Bryony.
“Any sausage rolls left?” I said.
“Oh dear, I think Thomas got the last one,” she said.
“Last two, actually,” said Thomas. “They were delicious.”