By Sam Paget
I had a three-mile journey to work. It took me through Oldbury, in the dark hours of the early morning. I used a bicycle to make the journey, to save money. On the way home, I enjoyed the fresh air on nice days, and the reasonable quiet of the roads at two o’clock. I would stick headphones into my ears, and listen to heavy metal, hardcore punk, or maybe smooth jazz, depending on my mood. If I had any shopping to do, I would do it in Oldbury High Street, so I could reach home without having to leave my front door again until work the next day.
It was an autumn afternoon, and I was heading back from work. I’d been sat in a forklift for eight hours, driving back and forth between the warehouse and the rain-soaked yard. The rain had stopped in time for my cycle home, but I was in a bad mood nonetheless. I was listening to Pink Floyd, as I cycled down the pavement. The road was pretty quiet on my right side. The canal was even quieter on my left. My bike wheels carved through piles of damp, fallen leaves.
My front wheel and handle bars bounced, all of a sudden. My wrists rattled. I stopped the bike, and placed my feet on the ground. A piece of glass was embedded in my front wheel, and the tire had punctured. I sighed. I would have to get a new tire and inner tube, as I didn’t have any at home. If I’d had a shed or garage, I would have stocked it with that kind of thing, but I had neither. Just a one bedroom flat.
I stood beside by bike with my hands on the handlebars, and started to walk home. I would have to go home on foot, and then get up earlier than usual so I could walk to work the next morning. I could get a new tire and inner tube in Oldbury on the way home, though it was a huge pain in the arse. Some twat had left broken glass on the pavement, hidden by the leaves, and severely inconvenienced me.
I was more or less in my own little world, listening to Pink Floyd like before, when I noticed a scruffy, dirty looking man waving at me. He stood at the top of a flight of steps that lead down to the canal from the pavement, a little way ahead of me. He had a long, ragged beard and equally long, ragged hair. He wore a smudged grey hat, and a smudged green coat. He was waving his hand in the air to get my attention. I wondered if he wanted money. He could have picked a better spot and time for begging. I was on a residential road, except for the canal side, which I was walking on, and it was only quarter past two. Surely he wasn’t there to beg. I had money, but I didn’t want to give it to him. I didn’t want to talk to him at all, but my way took me past him, and he seemed to want me for some reason or other. I sighed, consciously looked as annoyed as possible, and took out one headphone. I came up to the grubby looking chap, and stopped, still holding my bicycle by the handlebars.
“Got a flat tire I see,” said the man. “Twenty-nine inches?” He held up a small box made of cardboard, with a picture of a bike tire on it. I had seen similar boxes in cycle shops. It must have contained an inner tube. “I saw you from by the canal. I was walking down by the water. I have a whole lot of these things lying around, thought I might be able to help.”
“Well, yes, I road over some glass. But I’m afraid my actual tire is punctured as well. It’s been shredded.” I spun the tire around so that he could see the shard of glass embedded in the black rubber. “The glass went right through the tire and the inner-tube. It is twenty-nine inches, but I need a whole new tire and everything.”
“Oh, not to worry. I wanted to ask if you wanted to come over to my place to fix it up. I have tires as well. Not a problem. You would have needed to anyway if you didn’t have a pump or anything.”
“Oh no, it’s fine. I’ll just walk home. It’s not too far. I’ll fix it tomorrow, or something.”
“I have all different types of bike stuff. You might as well use it, since you need it. I could have your front wheel re-fitted and pumped up in less than five minutes. I guarantee it. Seriously, five minutes.”
I thought for a moment. He seemed a little bit sharper than I’d thought on first sight. I’d expected drugged up ravings from the bloke. He was obviously homeless, and hanging out by the canal. Normally I tried to avoid interacting with his sort. The thing was: if he really could fix my bike tire, in less than five minutes as he said, then it would save me a ball-ache. I didn’t want to walk to and from work. I would have had to get out of bed about fifteen minutes earlier, and I’d have arrived home fifteen minutes later. Less sleeping, and less movie watching.
“Yeah, go on then,” I said. “If you don’t mind. Why not?”
“Come on, follow me,” he said, and started walking down the steps. I followed him with my bike. We arrived at the bottom of the steps, and stood on the path that ran the length of the canal. On the other side of the path was a thick tangle of bushes and trees. The water was dark and covered in leaves and twigs and green algae. The homeless man walked a little way down the path. I followed him. He came to a gap in the bushes and trees, which he entered. I came up to the gap in the bushes, and saw a sheet of tarpaulin stretched between a set of trees overhead, to make a waterproof roof. Bike tires and other cycling stuff hung from the branches of trees. There were also bottles and tubs and tins of all sorts, like a kitchen and a tool shed in one. There were a lot of wooden boxes stacked up to make walls between the tree trunks, and a dirty carpet spread on the floor between the boxes and underneath the tarpaulin. The carpet had once been a beautiful Persian-type rug, but it was all smeared with soil now. The homeless man sat down on one of those fishing chairs that unfold. There was another one beside him. He gestured for me to sit. I leaned my bicycle against the wooden boxes, and sat down on the chair. I noticed a pile of sleeping bags bundled up beside his chair. I wouldn’t have fancied sleeping in the place myself, as it would have been fairly draughty. It was out of the way though, and less likely to get pestered by police or kids.
“My name is Dave, by the way,” said the man, taking a deeply treaded twenty-nine inch tire from the branch of a tree next to him, and inspecting it.
“Carl,” I said. “You cycle as well?”
“I used to. I gave my bike to someone the other day. They needed it more than me. It’s a good way of getting around, but I don’t have much of anywhere to go. I just move from one of my little sites to another, and they’re all within walking distance.”
“What’s in these boxes?”
“Canned food mostly.” Dave stood up, and went over to my bike. He flipped it upside down, so that it stood on the seat and handle bars. He detached the front wheel, and brought it over to his seat. He sat down, and started taking off the damaged tire. “You coming home from work are you?” he asked.
“Yes. I finish at two every day.
“What do you do?”
“I drive a forklift at a furniture factory. We make chairs and tables.”
“Nice, nice. I drove a forklift once. I worked at a car plant. That was a good twenty-five years ago now though.” He had now removed the damaged tire and inner tube, and had positioned new ones over my wheel. He grabbed a portable bike pump, and started inflating it.
“Thank you very much for doing this,” I said.
“I bet you thought I wanted money or to waste your time somehow when I waved at you.”
“No, no, no,” I lied.
“I don’t bother begging, purely because I don’t have much use for money. I’m not on drugs, and I don’t drink. Food is easy enough to come by. I go through bins behind shops. I get soup and a hot drink from the charity folks. There’s a pizza place that lets me have their leftovers at closing time. I guess it’s stuff that’s fallen on the floor or whatever, but I’m still alive, so what the heck. Food is food. I needn’t, because I don’t have expenses, you see. I just keep my eye out for things. You’d be amazed what you can get for free, if you just keep a sharp eye out.” He stood up, and put the wheel back onto my bike. He clipped it back into place. He needed to rearrange my brake blocks, which he did with a multi-tool from his pocket.
“That was quick,” I said. “I would have taken longer. I don’t really know much about bikes. I just ride it. I would have had to buy new stuff to fix it. Thank you, very much.”
“No problem. Fancy a brew?”
“Hot chocolate, tea, coffee…take your pick. I should have offered you one earlier, but I’m not much of a multi-tasker.”
“Can I have a coffee please?”
Dave stood up and collected bits and bobs from the items hanging all around us. He picked up a small blue camping stove, a plastic water bottle, and some grey, metal kitchenware. I remembered my dad had used a camping stove just like it. My dad would have gotten on well with Dave, I think. Dave set the stove on the ground, away form the Persian rug. He put a metal coffee pot on top of it, and then filled the pot with water from the bottle. He turned on the stove, and it started to roar with a blue flame. He took two metal cups, and spooned coffee into them from a circular tub.
“I don’t have milk or sugar I’m afraid,” said Dave. “I’m not as well prepared for guests as I should be. Apologies.”
“Not to worry,” I said.
“I try and have everything I need, but you can never really have everything. You’d think I’d learn, but no. I used to have a house. Or I used to live in a council house at least, but I got kicked out of it for hoarding too much stuff inside it. They said it was a fire hazard. It was, in all fairness, but I didn’t see it myself. I just couldn’t bear to throw anything away. Nowadays, I still keep everything I get my hands on, but I just stash it somewhere around. I’ve got lots of little spots like this, you know. Lot’s of sites where I keep my stuff. You’re lucky you’re cycling route goes by here. This is where I keep my bike stuff. I have another little spot a mile or so down the canal, where I have a bunch of gardening stuff. Shears, rakes, shovels, hoes, hoses, plant pots, seed packets, all sorts. Maybe someday someone will walk by there, in need of gardening know-how. I have a little bit of that as well, you see.”
“That’s pretty cool,” I said. “I only have a crappy little flat. No room for anything. And it’d cold, but that’s because I can’t bare to pay the money to turn the heating on.”
“Yeah, that’s how it is. You work your balls off and you can never pay for anything. You keep it up though lad. If you give up, you might end up like me, ha-ha.”
“You don’t seem too badly off.”
“I get cold and wet pretty often. You wouldn’t like that. I only barely put up with it, mainly because I don’t have the energy to rebuild. And I couldn’t have a house without filling it up with junk again. I would hoard everything all over again, I know I would. Some things are just too hard to learn. Heck, you should have seen the old place! I had garden ornaments up to the ceiling, bikes on top of bikes, a dozen televisions, magazines from the sixties, a whole damn library…it was all great stuff, I still say it was, but just too much. The council folk, they tried to talk me into getting rid of some stuff, and they were even fairly reasonable about it, looking back. But I just couldn’t. I needed it. I needed every last bit of it.”
The water started to bubble. Dave tipped it into the two metal cups, and stirred them both. He handed one to me. We both sat in our fishing chairs, waiting for the coffee to cool, looking out at the canal. There was a family of ducks drifting around on the water. On the opposite bank, a man walked past with a dog on a lead.
“Do you sit here and watch the world go by?” I asked. “It’s nice to do that. I wish I had a better view from my windows.”
“Yeah, it’s not bad here,” said Dave. “I sleep here most nights. A while ago, I had in my head that I was going to change country. I was going to jet off to somewhere warmer, but I doubt I ever will now. Looks like I’ll be spending my retirement locally, ha-ha.”
“Let me know if you ever need a hand, in return for fixing my bike. Food, anything like that…”
“I’ll always be sorted, as far as the necessities. Food, bed, coffee, woman…”
“You have a missus?”
“Oh yes. I’m going to ask her to marry me soon I think.”
“Nice. How long have you been seeing her?”
“Three, four years, something like that. Sometimes she sleeps rough with me; sometimes she sleeps in a hostel or a shelter. Vera, her name is. You got a missus?”
“No, not at the moment.” I was still sore from my last ex. We’d not long broken up. I found Dave’s plan intriguing, the idea of a homeless fella proposing to a woman that he liked. “Are you going to propose properly, like with a ring and everything, the whole nine yards?”
“Yes, I think I will. Not sure where to do it, that’s the only thing. Somewhere special would be nice, but we don’t have many special places. Comes with having the whole world as your home, I suppose. Nowhere springs to mind, that’s the problem.”
“Hmm. Maybe a beach or something. Maybe take her to Weston.”
“Yeah, you’re right. We could go down to Weston on the train. That could be good. If we got together some money, we could go spend some it in the arcade, then walk on the beach, and I’ll propose there.” Dave sipped his coffee, and stroked his chin thoughtfully.
I remembered that I was tired from work, even though the coffee had infused me with a little extra energy.
“I’d best be getting off,” I said. “Thank you for sorting my bike out.”
“No worries kid,” said Dave, finishing his coffee and standing up. “I’m going to go and meet Vera now. She’ll be wondering where I’ve got to. I wonder how I ever had a job. I have a watch, but I couldn’t keep a hold of time if my life depended on it.”
We walked back to the steps, and back up to the road. We walked together until we came up beside a small green park. I pushed my bike the whole way. We talked about how crappy the government was, and things like that.
“Well, I’ll see you again soon Carl,” said Dave, shaking my hand. I followed his eyes across the park, and saw a slender, middle-aged woman in a coat, sitting on a bench on the other side of the park. “There’s my Vera.” She was smoking a cigarette. The faint wind was snatching the smoke away from her mouth as she blew it out. She hadn’t noticed us. Her eyes were staring into the distance, looking dreamy.
“Okay, thank you again. You take care.” I mounted my bike, and cycled away a little bit. I came to where the park ended, and a row of houses started. I stopped, and looked back over the park. Dave had walked over to Vera, and they were hugging. Vera was missing most of her teeth, and had a long scar on the side of her head, probably from a bottle getting smashed over her face some time. She looked skinny, the way drug-addicts do. The two of them kissed, and then set off down a path hand-in-hand. I finally remounted my bike, and pedaled on home. When I got inside, it felt warmer than normal, because I was still imagining the cold and wet outside. I decided I wouldn’t want to be Dave during the winter.
I saw Dave again, a bunch of times, around Olbury. He was always out and about, it seemed. Sometimes he was alone, sometimes he was with Vera. We’d always say hello. One time I chatted with him outside a betting shop. He’d been picking up food from the bins behind a chippie, and I’d been stepping out for a fag after putting some accumulators on the football.
“You proposed to Vera yet?” I asked.
“No,” said Dave, looking down at his feet for a moment. “No…”
After that I stopped seeing him, and Vera. I wonder whereabouts he is. That time he fixed my bike for me; I probably should have offered him a little money, for the tire and inner tube. He probably would have turned the money down, but I still should have offered. People don’t normally do something for nothing. I struggle to think of any other time when someone did something for me, for nothing. Nice chap, Dave. I hope he’s keeping well.