THE CANNY CYCLIST
York was beautiful in the rain. So was Rose. She was smiling, that way she had. Those long eyelashes. She took Sean’s hand as they walked round the shops. They were at the start of things, still trying to get to know each other. He was pleased at the public display of affection. He bought her a gift – a toaster, a big red one. Family sized. She was having trouble settling into her flat. Too busy at school.
Her hand was in his overcoat pocket. He felt her squeeze his fingers.
‘Thanks for the present,’ she said. He loved her accent. Pure Geordie.
The rest of the afternoon lay ahead. He wanted to go to the Cathedral. She didn’t. She wanted to go to Betty’s.
‘Who’s Betty?’ he said.
‘It’s not a person,’ she said. ‘It’s a place. Betty’s Tea Room.’
She said she knew where it was, but she was struggling. Every other shop in the centre of town was a café – a tea room – and every one of them was full. They eventually found it. It was hard to miss. It took up the ground floor of a building. They went inside and a wave of lavender and chatter washed over them. Betty’s was the last bastion of the middle-aged lady. Tea was being sipped daintily out of china cups. And there were scones. Lots of scones.
There wasn’t an empty table in sight
‘Oh, well,’ said Sean. ‘The Cathedral it is.’
Rose pouted at the floor.
‘But it’s full,’ he said.
She looked up at him.
‘God’s sake,’ he said. ‘It’s not my fault.’
‘We could go somewhere else,’ she said.
A young couple were vacating a shop further along the street. Sean found the space they had just left. The table was in the corner, pressed up against a piano. The teacups were half full, the cakes defiled by bite marks. The pianist was playing a Phil Collins love song with more gusto than was appropriate.
They sat down. Sean made room with his elbows as a waitress dressed in black and white took care of things. Rose fingered a sheet of plastic covered in writing. She was still pouting.
‘Is the music too loud?’ said Sean. ‘I’ll tell him to take it easy on the sustain if you want.’
Her eyes were fixed on the menu, but she wasn’t reading anything. ‘It’s not Betty’s,’ she said.
It’s not the Cathedral, either, he thought.
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘What would you like?’
Earl Grey and chocolate eclairs. The service was prompt. He soon had her laughing. They listened to Against All Odds for as long as they could bear it. It was the only song the piano player knew.
He bought a loaf of freshly baked bread and made a plate of toast, real doorstoppers, when they got back to the flat.
‘I’d better not eat too much,’ said Rose, between mouthfuls. ‘Remember we’re going out for curry later.’
He hadn’t forgotten. He would have preferred to spend the evening with her, just the two of them, alone, but she had planned the night out with her friends months ago. It was someone’s birthday. He was trying to look forward to it.
The phone rang in the hallway. Rose answered it. After a moment she pulled the door closed. Sean flicked on the telly and turned it up.
She was gone a while. When she came back in, she sat in the armchair on the other side of the room. She had crumbs at the sides of her mouth. ‘Fancy a drive?’ she said.
‘Eh?’ said Sean. ‘Where?’
‘I need to go home,’ she said. ‘It’s been a while. I’ve been putting it off. You’re welcome to come with me if you want.’
This was a surprise. ‘Of course I’ll come with you,’ said Sean. ‘I’d like that.’
‘I’ll have to phone Sara to cancel,’ she said. ‘Back in a minute.’
He lifted the plate. ‘I’ll put on more toast,’ he said.
The left windscreen wiper packed up just as they reached Newcastle.
‘Oh, God, what are we going to do?’ said Rose. She was panicking.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Sean. ‘Can you still see out your side?’
She gripped the steering wheel more tightly and moved around in her seat. ‘Yes, it’s okay for now,’ she said. The rain was getting heavier. ‘What if this one goes?’
‘It’s alright,’ said Sean. ‘It won’t.’
Except it did, just as they entered the housing estate. She managed to park without crashing into anything.
‘Great driving,’ he said as he followed her up the path. The sun appeared from behind a cloud. The pavement was drying out already.
She pushed the key into the front door. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ she said.
Oh, for God’s sake. ‘I mean well done. I couldn’t have done it. I haven’t even got a licence.’
‘Haven’t you?’ she said.
The house was freezing cold. It felt empty. The whole place had recently been painted white. He could smell it as well as see it. A Dulux igloo. The electric coal effect screwed to the living room wall looked new. New and unused.
She shook the kettle and switched it on. There was an alcove on one side of the kitchen with a piano in it, a small upright. Even that was white. He sat down and lifted the lid.
‘Remember this one?’ he said.
‘Oh, God, don’t play that,’ she said. ‘I’ve had enough Phil Collins for one day.’
‘Some people make money at it,’ he said. ‘I should go back down to York and ask for a job. I know loads of songs.’ He started One More Night, but got stuck at the end of the introduction.
The kettle was boiling. It clicked itself off.
‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Let’s get you sorted out.’
The house was small. She showed him to a room – the spare room, she called it – at the top of the stairs. He laid his bag on the bed and took out his shirt and new Chinos. He had been going to wear them to the meal. There was no space in the wardrobe to hang them up. It was full of women’s clothes, some of them in dry-cleaners’ cellophane. They obviously weren’t Rose’s, the style wasn’t something she would have worn. They must have been her mum’s, but in the spare room? A woman with too many clothes. He hung the shirt on the top corner of the door and unfolded the Chinos next to the bag. The pressure was off. He wouldn’t have to impress her friends with his appearance. He was nervous about meeting her parents, though.
A cup of tea was waiting for him on the kitchen table.
‘Nice one, Rose, thanks,’ he said.
‘Aye,’ she said. ‘Finish that then you can go to the chippy for us. I’ll give you directions.’
The service in the chip shop was slow, even though he was the only customer. No steak pies in the range. He ordered two sausage suppers. The girl looked at him. Sausage and chips twice? Salt and vinegar, yes, lovely. He’d met Rose at a party in Edinburgh. They’d spent the night together. He wrote to her a few months later. He could have got in touch sooner, but there was something he had to get out of in Scotland before he could do that. She was so pleased to hear from him. He was on the first train down to York. This was the second time he’d seen her – the third if you counted Edinburgh. And here he was in Newcastle, in a chip shop, buying food to take back to the family home. It was strange how things worked out.
‘What’s this?’ she said. ‘I told you I wanted a steak pie.’
‘They didn’t have any,’ he said. ‘I thought you would want what I got.’
‘But I told you I don’t like sausage,’ she said.
‘Did you?’ he said.
‘Yes!’ she said. She pushed the sausage to the side and stabbed a chip with her fork.
‘Sorry,’ he said.
The doorbell. Sean sat up straight in the chair. Her parents? But surely they would have keys?
Whispering in the hallway and a thin young man appeared in the kitchen. He was dressed like something out of the Tour de France, the zipper T-shirt, the lycra shorts, the whole bit. He was a skinny guy, but his thighs were like balloons.
‘I hope you’ve got a bicycle outside,’ said Sean.
‘Aye,’ said the young man. ‘A Peugeot Super Sport.’
Sean was getting stared at as if he’d committed a crime. Perhaps the whispering had been Rose giving the short version of the chip shop debacle. He knew it wasn’t that. He wasn’t stupid. ‘Wow,’ he said. ‘A ten-speed racer. I had one of those when I was a paperboy. You’re not a paperboy, are you?’
‘Sean,’ said Rose, ‘this is Kevin. Kevin, Sean.’
‘Fancy a sausage?’ said Sean. ‘There’s plenty.’
Kevin looked at Rose, who looked at the floor. ‘I’m not hungry,’ he said. ‘I’m on a diet, anyway. A few mo’ moonths trainin’ an’ ah’ll be a champion cyclist.’ His accent couldn’t have been any thicker. He was hamming it up to emphasise his local credentials. There was no need. It was obvious who the foreigner in the room was.
‘You’re right,’ said Sean. ‘It’s the kind of thing budding medallists should avoid.’
‘Aye,’ said Kevin.
‘Although I’m quite partial to it,’ said Sean. ‘Not just sausage, you underst…’
‘Can I see you for a minute?’ said Kevin. He shuffled out into the hallway. Thighs like balloons and a fat arse. He didn’t say goodbye. Rose was right behind him. She closed the door. They didn’t try to keep it quiet. Sean couldn’t make out the conversation, but he could hear the words thudding. Staccato with pauses. Something about Eleanor, whoever she was. Maybe it was the boy’s pet name for his bike.
Then a longer silence.
He would wring the bastard’s neck.
No, he wouldn’t. He knew he wouldn’t. It wasn’t in him.
The front door banged shut.
Rose looked worried.
‘One of your old boyfriends?’ said Sean. He’d played scenes like this before, more often than he wanted to think about.
‘He’s an old friend,’ said Rose. ‘We were at school together. He’s a bit clingy.’ She examined her nails. ‘But he’s been…never mind. He’s not important.’ She smiled, but he could see it was forced. ‘You’re not jealous, are you?’
Words. All you could do was listen to them. ‘Should I be?’ he said.
‘Come on,’ she said. ‘I’ll try some of that sausage. If I don’t like it, there’s bread in the fridge.’
She was stunning in jeans and a puffy anorak. No make-up. She didn’t need it. They stopped under a streetlight. He tried to kiss her. She pushed him away, laughing.
‘Come here,’ he said. He put an arm round her shoulders and looked into her eyes. ‘I really fancy you,’ he said.
‘I hope so,’ she said. ‘I don’t bring all my lovers back here, you know.’
It was an adventure. He didn’t know where he was. Pubs with names he’d never heard of. Doors opening and closing, light, beer fumes and smoke spilling out onto the pavement. Laughter and shouting. A raucous Saturday night in a strange place.
Rose caught her breath. Her hand was in his pocket. She squeezed his fingers. ‘Oh,’ she said.
Kevin was resting his weight against a pub exterior. He was dressed in normal clothes. No bicycle. He flicked the butt of a cigarette into the gutter.
‘That’ll put your training back a few days,’ said Sean.
Kevin pushed himself off the wall. ‘Rose,’ he said. ‘I think you should come in for a drink.’
Sean leaned back and looked for the name. The Riggers. The sign was hanging squint on a rusty chain. ‘Aye, we’re going somewhere,’ he said. ‘Thanks, anyway.’
Rose was hesitating.
‘Come on,’ said Kevin.
‘Maybe later,’ said Rose. She squeezed Sean’s hand. All of it. I’m with you.
‘Aye, but your…’
‘Listen,’ said Sean. ‘You’re a lovely guy, Kevin, and you’ve got a healthy hobby, apart from the smoking, but don’t be a pest. All right?’ He squeezed Rose’s hand, but there was no response.
She knew a place down a sidestreet. The 12-Bar Basement. It was packed. They managed to wedge themselves into a corner. Fast Fingers Freddy was doing his blues thing on a battered Telecaster. He wasn’t anything compared to the boy who played the Preservation Hall in Edinburgh. It might have been worth a mention, but Sean didn’t want to contribute to the lack of enjoyment. Rose was staring into her beer. Kevin was standing next to her. His eyes moved from the remains of his orange juice. He looked at Rose and shook his head slowly. He looked at his watch. Then he was gone.
The spare room. They were drunk. But not too drunk. She was on top. The hairs around her nipples were still novel. Novel and erotic. Sean’s hands moved over her. She gripped him hard.
‘You’ll have to treat me better if you want the best of me,’ she said.
He moved a finger to her lower lip, curling it. ‘You’re all surprises,’ he said.
She found the place. The heat as he slid inside, sliding home; submerged in her warmth. He touched her breasts. She held his hands there. She rode him, her eyes shut tight as if she was trying to remember something, as if she wasn’t here, she was somewhere else, or concentrating on getting there.
Her eyelashes sprang tears like honeysuckle beads.
‘Oh, God,’ she said. ‘Oh, God…’
Sean had been around, but he’d never felt anything like this. It was…the feeling, as if he was dreaming, there was music in his ears, psychedelic guitars, voices…
He sat up immediately. There was music, all right. It was coming from the living room and it was as loud as hell. ‘Rose,’ he said. ‘What’s going on?’
She laid a hand on his chest and pushed him back where she wanted him. ‘It’s my dad,’ she said. ‘It’s what he does. Don’t worry, he won’t come up here.’
He tried to get back into it, but the music was too loud. ‘Rose,’ he said. ‘Hang on.’
‘Ignore it,’ she said. She ground herself down on him. ‘Please.’
The music stopped. He moved slightly. God, he was close.
The song started again.
‘Sorry, Rose,’ he said. ‘I can’t.’
Her father was crouched over the coffee table, staring at a photograph in a frame. He had a little white card, like a business card, in his fingers. A cigarette was burning in the ashtray, the smoke drifting over the top of a tumbler full of something golden. A bottle of Grouse. And a pair of spectacles, snapped in half. He reached clumsily for the remote and managed to turn down the volume, but the music was still audible. ‘Hello,’ he said. ‘I thought you went up the road?’ He was Scottish. East coast, like Sean. Dundee, it sounded like. Rose hadn’t mentioned it.
‘Hello, Mr Pell,’ said Sean. ‘I’m…’
‘You’re a good lad,’ said Mr Pell. He found his drink and lifted it. His hand was shaking. ‘Heh, that Riggers has gone downhill, eh?’ How his glasses had got broken was probably a story. The skin over his left cheekbone was grazed. It looked fresh. But he wasn’t feeling any pain. He was well gone. The song finished then started again. He pushed the bottle across the table. ‘Sit doon and have a drink. There’s something…’
There was an empty glass next to the ashtray.
‘…she’s a good girl, you know. I love her. I love her more than Elea…no, it’s a different…’
He placed the little card on the table. Sean could just make out what was on it – the outline of an elongated hexagon. He leaned forwards. He touched the card and wished he hadn’t. Numbers round the edge of the shape. And writing at the bottom. Please take cord 1.
‘Thanks for being around,’ said Mr Pell, ‘…and…and the painting and that, you know. I appreciate that. And the fireplace. A grand job.’
Sean looked at the fire. The coal effect wasn’t glowing. It made the room colder than it actually was.
‘But you have to understand. She’s…I was with her mam for half my life, I was the same age as you when I met her. She was young when she…forty five is young…you know that.’ He moved his head slightly. The music. ‘I’m not all right where I am,’ he said. He turned his eyes to Sean, but he wasn’t seeing much. ‘It won’t last forever. That’s the way it goes. She hasn’t been back to see me, not since…I don’t know why. She’s a teacher, did I tell you that? Eh? Did I tell you that, Kevin?’
Sean’s fingers were still on the card. He pushed it away from him. ‘Yeah, I bet she’s a good one,’ he said. He was guessing. He didn’t know anything about her. He didn’t know anything. He was learning, though.
‘She said I should get rid of her mam’s things,’ said Mr Pell. ‘But they’re…they’re Eleanor’s, you know? You can’t just…are you cold, Kevin? Here…’ He tried to get up, to get to the fire, but only managed to lurch against the wall. His legs gave way.
‘It’s okay, Mr Pell,’ said Sean. He got a grip of him just before his head slumped against the fireplace. The poor guy had pissed himself. ‘No problem,’ said Sean. ‘Come on.’
Rose was standing at the door.
‘Eleanor?’ said Mr Pell. The song. The singer repeated the name, like an echo; the harmony would have broken the hardest heart. It broke Sean’s easily.
‘It’s me, dad,’ said Rose.
‘He’s had a wee accident,’ said Sean. He put his arms round Mr Pell’s shoulders and moved him towards the sofa.
‘Bring him upstairs,’ said Rose. ‘I’ll take care of him.’
‘I don’t need you,’ said Mr Pell. ‘Kevin’s got me. Right, Kevin?’
‘He’s not Kevin,’ said Rose.
‘Come on, Mr Pell,’ said Sean. He led him slowly to the door, almost carrying him.
‘Aye, you’re a good boy,’ said Mr Pell. ‘A good boy.’
They got him up to his room and tried to sit him on the bed, but he collapsed onto it. His breathing was laboured. Rasping.
‘I should roll him on his side,’ said Sean. ‘Do you want me to help you undress him?’
‘Just leave us,’ said Rose. ‘Leave me with him for a minute.’
Sean went downstairs to turn off the stereo and the lights. The cigarette had burned itself out. He heard footsteps through the ceiling. Rose was in her room. He was careful to be quiet on the stairs. He knocked gently on her door. ‘Rose,’ he said. ‘Rose.’ There was no answer. He went inside. She was in bed, under the covers. He could hear her crying. He sat next to her.
‘Go to bed,’ she said.
‘Rose,’ he said. ‘Talk to me. I’ll listen.’
‘Just go,’ she said. ‘It’s something…you would never understand.’
‘I’m here if you need me,’ he said. He went to the spare room. He left the door open slightly. The wardrobe. All those clothes. He understood, or at least thought he did. He turned out the light and stood at the window. Someone was sitting on the bonnet of Rose’s car, smoking. He couldn’t make out who it was, there wasn’t a streetlight, but he had a fair idea. The cigarette glowed orange then yellow then arced out into the road leaving a trail of sparks on the tarmac.
He lay on the bed and stared at the curtains. He waited. He waited a long time, but she didn’t come to him. Sex. It was on his mind, but it wasn’t going to happen. He didn’t want it to. How could it? It wasn’t sex, though. He wanted something more than that. That wasn’t going to happen, either.
He was woken by the sound of shouting. He pulled on his clothes. Mr Pell was snoring in his room.
Rose was in the kitchen. Just as Sean walked in, she laid a steaming mug of tea on the table. It was for Kevin, who was munching a slice of toast like Eddy Merckx.
‘All right, there?’ said Sean. There was no sign of a big red toaster, of course; the grill groaned as it cooled down. ‘Sundays, too?’
‘Aye,’ said Kevin. ‘Racking up the miles, like.’
‘That’s the stuff,’ said Sean. He shook the kettle. It was empty. He filled it slowly, making sure it didn’t rattle.
‘Training’s good. You’ve got to work at it. Hey, have you ever been in that Tour de France?’
‘No, maybe one day,’ said Kevin. ‘I’ve been in the Milk Race, though.’ He smiled at Rose. ‘I’m good at endurance events.’
‘Yes, it’s like playing the piano,’ said Sean. ‘You’ve got to put the hours in, eh?’
Rose slammed the door behind her.
‘Looks like it’s just me and you, mate,’ said Sean.
‘Aye,’ said Kevin. He sipped his tea. ‘Alone at last.’
‘I’ve been hearing stories about you,’ said Sean.
‘Is that right?’
‘That’s right. I hear you’re quite a handyman.’
‘Oh, I’m good with my hands,’ said Kevin.
Sean leaned against the sink. He had forgotten to switch on the kettle. What am I doing? he thought. I’m bigger than this.
‘When did…how long’s her dad been…’
‘Didn’t she tell you?’ said Kevin.
‘No,’ said Sean.
‘No,’ said Kevin. ‘See, she’s like me. She’s canny. Come to think of it, she’s better than me. She knows not to talk to strangers.’
‘Okay,’ said Sean. ‘You broke it. Are you happy?’
‘Broke what?’ said Kevin. He bit into a crust and wiped crumbs from the corners of his mouth.
‘Don’t come it,’ said Sean. ‘You know what I’m talking about. I’ll be gone soon enough, don’t worry.’
‘That’s fine,’ said Kevin. ‘Champion.’ He got up and opened the door.
‘No, it’s not,’ said Sean. ‘It’s just the way it is.’ He heard him go into the living room, then their voices. He heard everything, but he was past caring.
The threat of rain. He put his bag in the back of the car. ‘We’ll have to take a look at the windscreen wipers before we leave,’ he said.
‘No need,’ said Rose. ‘Kevin fixed them this morning. You were sleeping.’
They drove in silence to the city centre.
‘You didn’t have to be so rude to him,’ said Rose, eventually.
‘Yes, you’re right,’ said Sean. ‘He’s a real fucking saint.’
The roads were like a maze amongst the high rise buildings. She was lost, panicking slightly, he could tell from the way she was gripping the steering wheel. A view of the river, and the sun came out. He observed, aloud, that the Tyne bridge was green. He tried not to laugh. It was banality time. Strange how it had come so suddenly. Then they were there. She pulled over, but she wasn’t for staying long. He kissed the side of her forehead, which was all that was on offer. ‘It was good meeting your dad,’ he said, which was true. ‘Sorry about your mum. You should have told me.’
‘Look after yourself,’ she said.
‘You, too,’ he said.
He didn’t hang around. He went into the station. He was going to ask about his ticket, about splitting his return, but decided to chance it on the next available train. Anything going north would do.
ANDREW MCCALLUM CRAWFORD grew up in Grangemouth, Scotland. His work has appeared in many literary journals, including Interlitq, Gutter and Spilling Ink Review. His first novel, Drive!, was published in 2010. A collection of short fiction, The Next Stop Is Croy and other stories, was released in 2011. Another collection, A Man’s Hands was published in 2012. He lives in Greece.