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A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe … Part 42

The first man in Halfords doesn’t see much of a problem. The second man knows his bicycles and sees the problem straight away.

“Jeez, you need to be Samson to get that wheel on.”

He looks at me quizzically. “You mean to say, you got that wheel on on your own?…Twice?” He pauses and re-appraises the slightly wheezy fifty something standing before him. “Sure, I’ll not be picking any fight with yourself.”

There would have been no contest. I may have been an inch taller but he was of an altogether stronger build. Amiable and skilful with a knowledge of bicycles that was gained following his father into the family shop before places like Halfords undermined them all and put them out of business.

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His first reaction is the same as mine. To want to lay the fault at the people who had put me back on the road in Omagh. He rings them up. “Can I speak to the lads in bike hut…yesterday…new wheel.” He nods sagely as my hero of yesterday gives his side of the story. I wasn’t looking for blame. Really, there wasn’t any blame to be given out. The explanation on the other end of the phone continued a goodly while, and as it did, the firm set features of the Sligo man began to relax and were replaced with a well practiced smile. “So what you’re telling me is that that was the only wheel you had and you put it on so as to get him out of the clarts and on his way again. Sure enough…we’ll sort it. Thank you for your time.”

The Omagh boys had been the outriders. I was now under the protection of the real cavalry. The problems that had beset the bicycle from day one were about to be fully addressed. This was the fifth mechanic to have a look, and this fellow knew his biscuits.

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In goes a new axel. It needs cutting down to size. No fancy tools here, just someone who can respect the thousandths on a tape measure and use a hack saw with control. The operation gets repeated on the other side. All the time he is friendly and charming and demonstrating a highly developed sense of humour. If you are looking for genuine craic, look no further. Witty, original and amiable. The work takes two hours and he never shows the slightest impatience with it. He adds a new quick release and checks his work and checks it again. It’s only fifty miles from Omagh to Sligo. It’s a good deal further to the next branch and he isn’t going to have me stuck in a ditch. What I see is simple. A skilled and determined man giving the sort of dedicated service that I wish we had in all shops. The bicycle has done over 8,000 miles since he repaired it and the wheel has not caused a single problem since.. It is one of the real pleasures in life to see someone who really knows how to do their job.

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He insists I try it out around the car park. He watches me in exactly the same way as my father watched me make my first stabiliser free pedals in 1964. He appears to exhude the same element of pride in a job well done. He doesn’t charge me a penny. Merely shakes me by the hand and wishes me good luck with the rest of my journey.

It had been a bit frustrating, yes. But that was all. Some people had helped me in Omagh when I was on the verge of giving up. Their help needed a little adjustment in Sligo and that gave me the opportunity to meet one of the kindest and most skilful men in the west. Problems, indeed, can be seen as opportunities once we have had a good old swear.

The road back into town was fair and wide. The same road two hours earlier had been long and ugly. I went past the racetrack and thought that a day at the Irish races would be a day worth having. I’d missed a meeting the week before. Maybe they’d have racing at Galway. And, once again my mind is drawn and torn between making sure I get home healthy and still in credit, and seeing all the things I wanted to see.

All Irish petrol stations have a supermarket attached. This one had a Mace which used to have branches in the UK. I buy milk and cheese and yet more of the oatcake biscuits that were becoming a private passion when eaten with apples. In town everything is closing. A chemist stays open long enough for me to grab some bubble bath and the bookshop closes its doors for the night after selling me a copy of Inishowen.

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I’d had my share of frustrations in the day but they were all forgotten as I listen to the bells of Sligo ring out six chimes while I slide under a thick blanket of bubbles in a restoring bath. I’d chosen the Joseph O’Connor book because his novel, Star of the Sea, had told the story of the famine so well. This novel tells of an altogether different Ireland but I seem to have hit gold in deciding to explore the country by bicycle in the daytime and through literature at night.

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Anthony Easthope enjoyed the Irish element among us students in Manchester. He told us that making a list of all the great comic writers in the canon of English literature is to conclude that they were all Irish. It was a passing whimsey at the time, one of his few comments not designed to be controversial. (I liked him for his willingness to upset. Not everybody did. We had plenty of lecturers who never upset anyone, but I can’t remember if I learnt anything much  from them). Easthope listed Swift, Congreve, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Shaw, Wilde and Joyce. He could easily have continued with Beckett and Behan, Stoker, Cary and O’Faolain. We could drift beyond writers who made you laugh while pointing out something bigger and include William Trevor, Frank McCourt, Mary Lavin, Seamus Heaney, CS Lewis, Louis MacNeice, Laurence Stern and Robert Tressell. We could have contemporary writers like Roddy Doyle, Dermot Bolger, Colm Tóibín, John Boyne and John Banville.

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It was a remark made in whimsey but it was a remark that planted a seed. When he said it I may have read three or four of these writers. Almost as a direct result of this off the cuffness, I have gone on to read all of the others and many more. A veritable horn of plenty. Anthony Easthope died before he should have done and before he’d been able to mix it with the big hitters. He would have given them some time on the ropes and they would have been all the better for the tussle.

For now, my muscles were relaxing and I was letting Joseph O’Connor take me down some delightful wrong turnings. The summer evening stretched out before me and I still had the real Sligo to discover.

* Anthony Easthope lectured in English and Lingusitics at Manchester Polytechnic in the 80s.

** The photograph of the Dawes bicycle is what my bicycle thought it looked like after being repaired.