Simon’s Cycle Shorts are now available to buy in both paperback (£8.39) and Kindle (£2.99) editions from Amazon. HERE
We have been waiting for Charles to come home. Four years I have stood against these stairs; the occasional waft of Ariel’s duster my only physical contact with anyone. Charles, respectful of every bicycle he met, would never have left me, especially me, outdoors. I live in the hallway. Since he went away everything has changed. The staff have either been let go or they died in France. The War changed everything. Mrs Stone has spent most days sat in the bay window looking wistfully across the Channel from our house high above the harbour.
As a vélo français, I consider myself a beautiful creation, which is a little ironic since the company that manufactured me was founded in Germany. But at least I was made by a Frenchman, in France, in the Cote d’Or; the place where vin extraordinaire is produced. Well, that is what my Charles always said. As well as being a wine connoisseur and an appreciator of things most beautiful, Charles is also the ‘Terrotiste’ of Kent – I’m a Terrot Racing bicycle and the pedaleurs of our marque were given their own special name; we are well known for our beautiful lines and our extraordinary speed. As for Charles Douglas Stone, well, he wasn’t quite so famous, but he was a cycliste extraordinaire and was distantly related to the 2nd Baron of Cobham (of Kent). More importantly, though, the H Company peloton of the territorial Kent Cyclist Battalion wouldn’t have been the same without his imperious leadership.
Charles had always ridden bicycles and I was undoubtedly his favourite.
Things might have been so very different had he gone to India with the rest of the Kent Cyclist Battalion in 1916. Typical Charles. He didn’t want to just protect the Kent coastal defences with the rest of his riding chums before their India call up. No, Captain Charles Stone volunteered for Imperial Service instead and so went to the Front in northern France. I knew why he felt he had to go, but I didn’t agree with him; officers didn’t ride bicycle at the Front.
I have been very patient, standing here, against the stairs in our Folkestone house. I always knew that he had gone away to do something important for his country; he said England expected it. But I never thought that it would take this long. The muffled quiet of the house has been interrupted only by the distant sound of the ‘guns’; I don’t know whose guns they were, I just knew that people were being hurt by them. The noise of guns came from across the Channel, but even here, next to the stairs, they sounded like they were just down the road in Sandgate or maybe Hythe. Mrs Stone closes her eyes and winces when they were really bad. The relentless barrage of noise and the flashes in the distant night sky to the south fill the air with fear and foreboding for hours and light up the hallway like an electrical storm; before falling silent, muzzled, again. The house told me that she hated the quiet as much as the noise, because neither ever brought good news; we’ll never forget the noiseless day we learned that Claude, the butler, had perished at Verdun; blown to smithereens by the Hun; his demise widowed his wife and damaged his daughter.
We heard stories that Charles was back in England and that he was staying firstly in a place called Roehampton, and then, closer to us, at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton; Charles would have liked the Royal connection, but I still didn’t understand why he couldn’t come home.
The other day, after reading a long letter in the hallway, Mrs Stone stood and looked at me; she usually just walked past slightly disdainfully; I’m not sure that she liked the amount of time that Charles and I had spent together away from the house before the war. Our jaunts, as he called them, had taken us all over Kent and we’d spent many a night at small Inns in the pretty fielded villages of the High Weald; the Vineyard in Lamberhurst and the Star and Eagle in Goudhurst were regular memorable stops for his weary legs. The ever-bombastic Charles had no problem meeting new people, and many a night was spent drinking hoppy beer with local pickers into the small hours, before climbing up winding wooden stairs to meagre rooms over the bar. But the other day Mrs Stone didn’t just look at me – she put her hand on my saddle and sighed. She seemed very sad about something.
It was clear that the War to end all wars had ended. But Charles still didn’t come home. His family came and spoke with Mrs Stone in the drawing room in hushed whispers – as if not wanting me to hear what was being said. But House told me that they just talked about how things would change when Charles did eventually come home. They all seemed so sad and brought long-stemmed flowers for Mrs Stone. They were acting like Charles had died, although I knew he hadn’t. I just wanted to be taken for a ride in the fresh Kentish air; I wanted to be out of the house.
That Tuesday morning I could see there was someone outside. The front door’s frosted glass panels obscured most things, but not on a sunny day when people were stood, framed, at the step on the other side. Mrs Stone came quickly after the bell appealed for the door to be opened. She’d been getting ready all morning. I’d known that there was an excitement brewing for something, but I also knew that Mrs Stone had been crying a lot. She hadn’t sat and looked out at the Channel for a while.
The door opened and there he was. It was my beautiful Charles. Sat, in a funny-looking chair with wheels, and a blanket over his lap, he smiled, thinly, wanly, and a tall man pushed him into the hall. Mrs Stone burst into loud tears and hugged him hard. I didn’t know where to look. Thankfully, the tall man took him into the lounge with Mrs Stone before leaving them there together and retreating; carefully releasing the latch bolt in the door so as to close it silently behind him. I could hear Charles comforting Mrs Stone. He didn’t sound the same as before he left; he spoke slowly and deliberately; I detected a tremor. Charles had always been so ebullient and positive before.
“It’s alright Vera, dearest – I’m home now. It’s such a relief to be here – there were times when I thought I would never see you again. I promise, now, that it’s all going to be fine.” His assurances didn’t seem to stop Mrs Stone crying and I’m sure I heard a slight gasp of either pain or resignation from Charles.
Shortly afterwards Mrs Stone made them a pot of Earl Grey tea and she seemed to brighten up a bit.
As the sun reached it highest point of the day and the hallway floor glared white with the light, I heard his hard rubber wheels moving across the boards to the doorway of the lounge. Charles, looking as gaunt as Lincoln’s memorial statue, came out, silhouetted against the sunlight; the wheels of his chair turned gently in his hands. He stopped next to me.
“I’m going to miss you,” he murmured. He put his hand on my front wheel and lowered his head. Tears dropped silently onto the blanket and melted into the wool. “Oh God, why did this have to happen to us.”
The blanket, its corner caught slightly under the single front wheel of his chair, slipped down to the floor. Charles no longer had his legs.
Simon’s Cycle Shorts are now available to buy in both paperback (£8.39) and Kindle (£2.99) versions from Amazon. HERE
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