It was one of those summers in the eighties where the dust sweltered into liquid rays. The Destructor, our name for the council tip, murmured quietly to itself, humming with flies and the putrescence of summer refuse. I held my breath when I could and tried not to use my nose.
We were there to acquire scrap metal. Wasn’t stealing. We were helping the council workers cut down on labour hours. Giving them time for fag, tea and Daily Sport breaks. Same with the skips: saving folks money on having to rent another for the next load. And the Old Man was the Skipper: Captain of the Skips.
I’d brag about it in school: The Old Man could make a bike out of spare parts, un-crush a crumpled sax and re-align the keys, shellac new pads into place in the space of a few hours and use that same bike to ride to a gig that very night. I made him a few customers that way. Some, more satisfied than others.
The Old Man’s workshop was a bizarre mesh of spare parts, spread out on newspapers between half-eaten bowls of cat food. Slug slime glimmered over cracked ceramic and away over unknown, putty-like blackness which suffused the kitchen’s lino tiles. Bike chains soaked in petrol with rusty ball-bearings. Stacks of gears in various styles and qualities partnered chainsets, cantilevers, brake cables, forks; piles of nuts and long, sometimes bent, bolts with dints in the thread like a badly-ploughed field.
I’d sit, cross-legged, for hours, pulling steel snakes from black-oil pools and rub them rust-free with tattered J Cloths. I wanted them as bracelets, but I always had to hand them over to be sprayed with WD40 and fixed onto finished frames.
I wasn’t allowed to spray-paint the frames.
‘It ain’t a job for kids. You’d make it drip’
So, guzzling shandy from a pint on a trayfull The Old Man had brought from the pub, I’d watch as colour flecked onto sanded steel, or aluminium on a good day. Pixels of paint splattered newspaper in reds, blues, greens. Never pink; never metallic. He’d mask pressed-alloy badges with tape, satisfyingly peeling them to reveal his liberated trophy brand names: Raleigh; Claude Butler; Brompton; Reynolds.
The only money he spent on renovation was on transfers from suppliers, puncture repair kits and, if and when all else failed, spare tyres and inner tubes. It didn’t look too hard to transfer manufactureship and up the price. Alloy rims, steel rims: all cleaned up, spokes straightened and re-set, then spannered or quick-release fixed into place and spun, spun, spun, the Old Man’s nose nearly skimming metal, as he checked for alignment.
And he tested each one. The kids’ bikes, I’d be sent to ride with my pal JoJo chuddy, named for his chronic chewing-gum habit. According to legend, the stuff would ‘wrap round his heart’ when swallowed.
JoJo Chud had a chopper. It had a springy wire attached with some sort of animal tail attached to the end.
‘It’s a raccoon tail’
‘No it’s not.’
And then, one summer, between trips to the school lab where JoJo’s Old Man worked as a technician, The Old Man discovered the Moulton. This wasn’t any old iron to him; wasn’t any old bike. Its tiny wheels, smaller than a miniature child’s racer, squatted beneath long, erect poles, finished off with handlebars and a proud, leather saddle. It was a folding bike, light and practical. It wouldn’t just fit in a car boot when it was all screwed down: it would fit on your lap in the back-seat of a mini, or even in a large handbag if it was stretchy enough. Light enough for a kid to sling over the shoulder and run away with. And the old Man looked a proper tit on a Moulton.
The Moulton became an obsession: suddenly, steel ‘tanks’ were being cashed in down the scrap yard to make space and time for this new habit which was to take on an increasingly comic role in the Old Man’s bike-building career. The Moulton became King of the Road, as Any Old Iron became Any Old Moulton and the Old Man began travelling miles just to pick up a cheap Moulton from the Why Magazine.
In those days, e-bay didn’t exist. The Why (what have you?) equalled a constant supply of visitors to the crumbling shell of a house, in the form of customers. They’d come to buy anything from tables and desks, to fridges and French horns, metal clarinets and fire surrounds. What hadn’t been skip-fished or rescued from the Destructor, had been bought up dirt cheap from less skilled Why vendors, rubbed down, lacquered, plated, varnished, smoothed, de-rusted, sanded or straightened out, depending on necessity. From a dented, seized up, ten pound trumpet and a few hours’ labour, a shiny, springed-up, nearly-new number would emerge, unrecognisable and ready to market as my handmedown or unwanted gift.
‘Bought her a new one for passing grade five,’ he’d say, if the question arose regarding the reason for the sale. Or
‘Present from the Auntie. She wouldn’t take it back. Shame, really, but it’s time for a clear out. It’s got to go.’
And as the focus on the Moultons became a thorn in the Old Lady’s ever-decreasing arse, they increased in number, lined up with bags and shit-ridden trays of dusty, grey, cat litter along the coat-hung wall of the old back-corridor.
I think it was the embarrassment more than anything else which made her hate the things; though I felt a grown man on a fold-up shopper, in cycling tights and a beer-stained sweater should have pleased her in some ways: it certainly made me and my friends laugh. I’d invite them round just so they could laugh at the bizarre spectacle. But as the rain fell on the once-hopeful coupledom, so the Moultons were relegated to the Yard, amongst lead and copper pipes, filing cabinets, stacks of bricks and other ‘unmissable gems’ some of which were to fester in situ for the next twenty years, strangled in dandelions, buddleia, thistles, ivy and seeded grass, which grew from gaps between the crazy paving.
And as the lead was weighed in for cash, so the screaming rows reverberated through un-plastered gypsum board and up the uncarpeted, paint-flecked stairs, where I sat, sleepless, waiting for nothing.