The Bicycle Man

Herbert O’Driscoll

All Saints. 2016

There is an old hymn, rather out of fashion now, that tells a great truth. It tells us that saints do not merely live in stained glass windows, and that you can meet a saint anywhere and at any time. You just need to have an eye for one when you meet him or her.

The first time I met him he was stooped over a child’s bicycle expressing extreme frustration in a broad North Country accent because whatever he was trying to fix simply refused to be fixed. Because we had just moved into the neighbourhood and because I had never met him, I immediately formed the impression that he was cantankerous and impatient, and judging by the look of his shop, untidy and inefficient. Over the years we lived there, the years of our children’s early growing years, I would find that I was utterly mistaken. In fact I would learn that the truth about him was exactly the opposite.

His hands were always oily, and no matter how assiduously he wiped them on an endless succession of grubby cloths, they stayed so. Meanwhile the cloths would turn up on counters, on the floor, or hanging out of his pockets.

He always looked as if he was far behind in the work he had taken in. Bicycles of every size and condition and vintage seemed to accumulate endlessly. In time I would find that this was mainly because he found it impossible to say no to small people who wanted their bicycles repaired and returned as soon as possible.

I learned that he had started this small business almost thirty years ago when he had returned from overseas and a war. He had seen bicycles, once the enthusiasm of only the very young in Canada, just beginning to become an adult hobby. He was a blunt man and he could indeed express impatience, but because he had become a kind of father figure in the community and was trusted as such, and – as I would learn first hand – because he was a genius at what he did, his impatience, even the odd grumble, was expected and understood and allowed. After all, some of the younger parents who brought their children had stood in the shop themselves as children.

Time passed and there came a day when he and I stood in the shop, just the two of us. It was an empty shell. All the stock was gone, the tools gathered up and in boxes, the benches against the wall. The building was coming down the following week. The block was being developed, so, rather than try to set up somewhere else, he had decided to retire. There wouldn’t be any more Saturdays with broken chains, flat tires, seized gear shifts. No more glittering new bicycles would come ticking and gliding out of the downstairs stockroom to thrill a child. We talked for a while about the past, every moment of which he had enjoyed, and the future that he hoped would allow him some good years, and then we said goodbye.

A few years later I found myself conducting his funeral. It turned out that he had, as they say, a “heart”. I know that medical tomes give little credence to the phrase “a broken heart”, but I think there is such a thing.  I recall that he used old-fashioned terms for boys and girls. He would call them sonny and girlie. I am very glad our children and I knew him.

The last verse of that old hymn I mentioned says of saints that…

They lived not only in ages past

There are hundreds of thousands still.

The world is bright with the joyous saints

Who love to do Jesus will.

You can meet them in school,

on the street, in a store,

in church, by the sea,

in the house next door.

They are saints of God

whether rich or poor,

And I mean to be one too.

I’ve been trying for a long time myself to be a bit saintly without ever quite making it. But I’m glad I met one in a store.

Herbert O’Driscoll

All Saints. 2016

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