Five weeks ago, my man Wilma went into a coffee shop on Broadway Market for a cappuccino with extra chocolate sprinkles. When he came out two minutes later his trusty steed, the bike he’d left propped up by the bench outside, was nowhere to be seen.
Having semi-digested the awful sandwich of surging adrenaline and sinking-feeling that being on the receiving end of any theft serves up on a plate with one of those pointless ribboned-toothpick things, he put a call out on his instagram to the London bike scene.
Jensenparsonss‘s vow to ‘look carefully’ and reverblondon‘s promise to ‘keep an eye out for the c&nts’ were laudable but in the end fruitless, and no white Brother track frame ever did surface. Poor old Wilma was left to curse his luck and resort to busting around town on his old school vespa, which although less tiring, doesn’t come close to the daily dodgem-esque thrill of blazing around London on a push bike, as he ruefully imparted to me over languid sips on another cappuccino with extra chocolate sprinkles.
Like the apple falling from the tree and coming to rest by Newton’s side, or the permanent residence of Toni’s mountainous stash of bugle, legend tells that when all was thought lost, the solving of Columbo‘s greatest case emerged from right under his nose.
And so it came to pass, that almost a month after the tragic incident, fate found me on a lovely Friday evening of late summer, cycling down Mare Street with the extemporal nonplussedness of a man in sync with his surroundings, high-fiving the twilight, no doubt on his way to an outdoor screening of some genre-bending silent movie from the 20s. Which I was.
And looking to my left I see a tall man half-standing, perched in animated conversation with his homey who is seated on the bench pictured below. Perched I say, because he is rocking slowly back and forth, while resting his forearms on the handlebars of a white bike.
Ah cool, I think, as I always do when I clock the familiar branding of my friend’s bike company on the down tube. Another Brother bike spotted out on the streets of London town. I wonder how many there must be out there now. I feel pride in my mate and his endeavour and his achievement. And then, out of nowhere in true Columbo style, the double-take surges up from deep inside me and sledge-hammers me across the temple.
That looks a hell of a lot like Wilma’s bike.
I recalibrate, and focus once more on the bike’s custodian. He is a towering Afro-Caribbean man with dreadlocks, a beanpole two inches shy of 7ft. Lifting my bike onto the pavement about fifteen metres downwind, I focus every atom of my body and channel my best Jason Bourne. I instantly feel myself fading into the surroundings, fusing into the street furniture. When in a matter of seconds a troupe of schoolkids and an old biddy almost run me over, it becomes clear.
I am invisible.
I call Wilma, who picks up. Bro I think I’m looking at your bike. I describe the details of the bike and he corroborates. A pause on the line. Fuck, he says. And tells me by total serendipity he happens to be three hundred metres away, drinking a pint in the sunshine on Broadway Market. What the fuck do we do.
Just as he’s about to tell me he’d rather be left alone drinking his pint on Broadway, our man comes to the end of his conversation with his homey and starts moving off. Fuck he’s moving, I whisper… I’m gonna tail him. To gasps from onlookers who literally see me appear out of a brick wall, I unfuse myself from my surroundings and start following from a Bourne-esque distance of 20 metres.
Ellingford Road is quiet and narrow and lined with plane trees at its western end where it meets the brick arches of the Overground lines, commuter-veins taking blood back into the dark heart of the city. In its time as a tributary from the commotion of Mare Street to the oasis of London Fields, it must have witnessed much. The wail of sirens during blitz night-raids, many a love story, the odd broken dream, an almighty 1966 street party, and the whistling of endless kettles boiling water for cups of tea, milky remedies for the arrival of news of every sort.
All this of course becomes irrelevant when you’re tailing a 7ft assailant-in-waiting down it, with zero idea on a starter move. I follow at a shrewd distance with my balls now vying for space with my Adam’s apple.
The plane trees and embers of broken dreams fly by and before I know it I’m nearing the black brick of the railway arches. Passing under the Overground I find time to capture an artistic photo of my handlebars in a wild dance with their shadow, in silhouette against the sun-splashed tarmac.
Stammering updates down the phone to Wilma, we hang a left onto Martello Street and ride up past the Pub on the Park. Crowds in the garden are in full cheer enjoying the sunshine of their youth. But this is no time for a pint. As I follow it dawns on me that our man might be heading directly back to Broadway in some macabre revisiting of the scene of the crime maybe, the exact place where Wilma is sat drinking his beer.
Just as my hopes pick up speed, turning languidly right into London Fields he ignores the thoroughfare going left to Broadway, and continues straight, bisecting the park westwards towards Dalston. Fuck.
Our man has settled on an average speed unlikely to set any velodrome on fire. Which makes tailing him even more difficult, for in my excitement I keep catching up with him, suddenly remembering to keep my voice down unless he starts getting suspicious of some dude doing a loud running commentary of each one of his pedal strokes.
Back in Jason Bourne mode, I refocus and keep my distance while whispering coordinates down the phone to Wilma. In this fashion, we edge westwards across the park, in the direction of the council estates that line its western edge and whose alleyways and stairwells form an impenetrable web running deep into their heart.
With no idea where he is heading, I know at the same time alone I stand little chance of getting anything from him, other than a personalised gift requiring a few stitches. My word against his is nothing. You can’t just accuse someone of stealing a bike in broad daylight. Not when he could have a vested interest in testing out a kitchen knife on your upper leg.
I press on, and hear Wilma on the other end of the line, mumbling what sounds like someone reading a pint of beer its last rites. Then his voice changes. Right where the fuck are you. Keep tailing him, I’m legging it to my vespa right now. In the knowledge we have just doubled in number, my fear subsides. I explain to him as best I can the direction in which I think we’re headed. The line is shitty, I can just make out the sound of an engine spluttering into life, and as I strain to tell him we’re still moving westwards… he cuts out. Fuck.
I’m on my own.
The immortal line from Shawshank echoes around the haunted attic of my mind.
Fear can hold you prisoner.
I can hardly move. I calculate I’m about another 25 metres from urinating powerfully down both trouser legs, and try to remember the the rest of the line.
Hope can set you free.
Hope might have worked for Andy Dufresne and his rock-hammer, but hope holds no sway in this situation. Hope isn’t getting my mate’s bike back.
With no way of knowing if Wilma has clocked where I am, we start moving back in the direction of Broadway. Then out of nowhere, our man takes a right on a path I didn’t even know existed, doubling back on himself, and it dawns on me he is taking me into the mouth of the Lion’s Den. His own.
He edges out onto the road, me behind.
As I’m about to faint my terror is pierced by a noise some way off to my left, it is the sound of 150cc’s careering towards me at just under the speed-limit. Wilma appears on the horizon, rounding the corner in a cloud of burning rubber. He full-throttles towards us. His jaw is clenched in granite-like determination. He looks at me and nods.
I wave my arm in the direction of our oppressor, whose back is turned, moving incredibly slowly up the road. The spine-tingling moment when time seems to slow in moments of high-tension floods over me, draining the blood from my face. Out of the corner of my eye I see two old ladies motoring up the other side of the pavement, and realise time has not slowed at all, not even remotely. Just the unfathomably slow progress of our man down the road has duped me into thinking the space-time continuum is out of sync.
But does the gazelle being tracked though the high-grass by the cheetah see any cause for concern. Suddenly the motives for his slowing become clear. He is stopping. The thief, and by now we both seem clear on the fact he is responsible for the cruel theft mere weeks before of the white Brother bike he is astride, comes to a languid halt by 142 Landsdown Drive. Lazily skipping the bike up off the pavement he walks towards the bright red door on the left.
Wilma and I move forward together in unison.
The man about-turns at the door of Number 142 exhaling a plume of sensimilla.
that’s my bike!
what jah talkin bout?
you’re holding my bike mate it was stolen from a coffee shop on Broadway Market three weeks ago. I’m calling the police
jah madman mi buy dis fi 20 pound from man pon Brick Lane
i’m calling the police
nuh call di police bredda
give me my bike back or I’m calling the fucking police
We move in perfect pincer-movement towards him, me a whisker away from tripping over a paving stone and face-planting into a shrub. Feeling our advance the man recoils into a cat-like position, ready to spring. In the blinking of an eye, his face morphs into an expression of such unabated fury that both Wilma and I do a huge double-take. The intensity of his glare seems to explode every capillary in his face and a river of blood washes over the whites of both his eyes, turning them crimson.
The traumatic events that followed have been papered over by selective memory and much therapy, but as far as I can recall what happened went roughly as follows.
Wilma launches himself at the man and the bike, and together they fall to the ground. Mid-fall I see him remove something from his jacket pocket which catches the reflection of the late-afternoon sun. It is metallic. I fear for my friend’s life and do the only thing a man faced with such a predicament can. I get out my phone to lense the viral video of the decade.
Realising the pixel-power of my nokia 301 is never going to set YouTube on fire, I consider switching to my Canon G5X, mulling over if I even have any space on my memory card. All the while the two writhe on the ground outside number 142 like a pair of sketchy breakdancers trying to do a freeze.
As I stand there gawping, Wilma pulls some beginner jiu-jitsu out of nowhere and arm-bars his adversary, forcing the metallic object out of his hand. It drops to the floor, letting out a tinkle on impact with the paving slab. Time stops. The three of stare at it.
It is a bike-key.
man fi try get mi lock fram bike fi give it back mon!
(wincing in pain holding his arm)
take ya pussio bike
Err… yeah nice one man. Umm… sorry about the arm buddy.
They smile, and inexplicably hug it out. My last impression is that of Wilma and the man, arm-in-arm, laughing loudly as they disappear through the door in a thick cloud of weed smoke. But by now I am motoring down the street as far as my limp can carry me, aware of a warm liquid working its way down the inside of my trouser leg.
So yes in the end we got the bike back. Nothing quite so dramatic happened. No shanking took place. No blood was spilt. No jujitsu arm-bars were administered. Did we confront the perpetrator. Yes. Did he seem completely surprised and turn aggressive. Yes. Did he ask how the hell we had followed him there. Yes. Did I at that moment feel incredibly like Jason Bourne. Correct. Did he reluctantly hand the bike over after repeated threats that we’d call the po-po. Yup. Did Wilma and the man shake hands at the end of this transaction. Strangely enough, they did.
Did I piss my pants. Maybe.
Much more importantly, was the clenched-fist of justice administered to the glass-chin of wrongdoing, in the face of all adversity and against all odds.
The world was the winner that day.
There is a strange sub–plot to this story.
Following the incident, Wilma and I fell out and didn’t speak to each other for a month.
Upon retrieval of the bike we hugged it out and whooped and hollered and went our separate ways. I was still in time to catch my silent art house movie from the 20s. He of course had his pint to finish. That night as I got into bed, my phone bleeped with a short text:
The next day, we met on the canal by Victoria Park in the midday sunshine. And he didn’t even bring it up. It was like the whole thing had never happened. There was no mention of the heroic reconquest, the fight to the death, the faith in the universe restored. Nothing. I couldn’t believe it. I began questioning whether I’d made the whole thing up. And yet there he was, in clear possession of his white Brother bike that three weeks ago he’d mourned the death of and said goodbye to forever.
And it surprised and saddened me. And for some reason I took a step back from our friendship. I mean I’m not completely irrational, there were other reasons, but the aftermath of the bike story had left me a bit cold. So I shut-up shop on our daily banter for a bit.
Stumbling through Lao Tzu a while later I saw the short passage:
Fill you bowl to the brim and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife and it will be blunt.
Care about people’s approval and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, and then step back.
The only path to serenity.
This stuff is 2,600 years old. My wrath lasted less than a month, and subsided. It wasn’t that I thought Wilma had acted normally. But my reaction was dumb. Maybe he had some shit on his mind he was bad at expressing. Maybe the bike thing had meant less to him than it had to me. No brains are the same, nor is the beef going on inside them at any one time. Why don’t I write about it, I thought. Immortalise it on the page. Pour my feeling into words and let them bubble. Or step back.
So I did both I suppose.
Do your work, and then step back.
The only path to serenity.