The following is based on a true story. Names were changed to protect the innocent and guilty alike.
Gavin and Stephen were browsing the sweets selection at the newspaper agent. I didn’t do any browsing of my own. I didn’t have any money. Not that I was poor. I just didn’t have any money.
I felt uncomfortable waiting for them to make a decision. Last time I ‘browsed’, the proprietor asked me if I was going to buy anything. My English at the time was rudimentary at best. I struggled for the words, “I’m just having a look.” But the most sophisticated reply I could muster was a simple, “No.” If you don’t speak a language very well, you tend to be too honest for your own good. His reply came in a similarly unambiguous manner. Even my English was good enough to understand it. I left.
It seemed that he had already forgotten my face. Still, uncomfortable and bored observing the spending of others, I wandered outside. I figured it would be a less anxious location to wait for my friends. Once outside, I noticed that two boys who were sitting on a nearby wall when we walked in to the shop were gone. Also gone were Gavin and Stephen’s bikes that they had dropped next to that very same wall.
Stephen just had gotten a new bike. One of those big wheel ones. 26 inch tires. Nearly a grown up bike. Gavin was still cycling around on an 18 or 20 inch one. The bike thieves were running down a foot path, each matched to a bike like romantic partners in a Disney money: Tiny guy had tiny bike, tall guy had tall bike, and if there were an ugly bike, you’d know who would have chased them on the third one.
The bike thieves hadn’t gotten far. One of them was my age, maybe eight or nine years old. The other was significantly taller and older. I recall thinking that he may be as old as sixteen. An age that seemed so far away, it may have existed in a different reality. In my reality however, I saw them both running away. They were in fact running, despite their recently acquired modes of transportation. They probably judged the acceleration of their own feet faster than what pedaling would have gotten them in those first few precious seconds. Either that, or they were dumb.
There isn’t a great deal of deliberation going on in the mind of a grade school kid. I ran after them. I ran as fast as I could. In theory, you can’t catch up with someone riding a bike downhill by just running behind them. In practice, as I found out, if you’re not quite yet on the bike and there’s a kid screaming like a banshee running after you, you kind of panic. It might have been his first bike theft or maybe tiny bike thief wasn’t a terribly confident rider. Whatever the reason was, it made him drop the bike and run after his big buddy.
He missed out on a decent bike. Tall thief stopped, let him jump on the back, and they took off before I reached them. Spacial awareness isn’t retained very well in the memories of an eight year old. However, considering the time this must have taken, he probably could have gotten away with his own tiny-matching bike. Thinking back now, if you’re not that familiar with the laws of physics, you probably shouldn’t be stealing things that rely on them for propulsion.
I walked back, picked up Gavin’s bike and made my way back to the newspaper agent. Gavin and Stephen were still inside. In my broken English, I informed them that two kids tried to steal their bikes. Their partial success was matched by my own, trying to recount the tale. It did get them both to rush outside though. Gavin breathed a sigh of relief. Stephen’s breathing, on the other hand, mingled wailing with a very profound, “My bike!”
Gavin was happy. He might have even been thankful. It’s hard to tell. Not because I didn’t perceive it, but because it’s hard to remember this, more than 25 years after it happened. I didn’t grow up next to a newspaper agent. In fact, in Germany, where I grew up, no one knew what a newspaper agent was. This happened on a visit to my grandparents’ house, who lived next to a main road in the not exactly glamorous city of Sunderland in Northern England. A major, multi-lane road separated my grandparents’ place from the pub opposite of it. And to the right of that pub was said newspaper agent.
It’s said you change a memory every time you access it. I’ve recalled this one a lot. Not because of the stolen bikes. Not because of chasing the bike thieves or my partial success in the endeavor. I recall it because what followed turned out to be more memorable.
It was a few days later. I had crossed the main road again, heading in the direction of the pub with the newspaper agent next to it. This time though, I went into the supermarket that was on the left of the pub. I had some money this time around. And come hell or high water, I was going to spend it on sweets. In this, I succeeded.
When I left the supermarket and looked over in the direction of the pub and the newspaper agent, I saw them. The same two kids. Sitting on the same wall. They hadn’t seen or recognized me yet, and I quickly ducked back into the supermarket.
I was home alone that day. I was alone at the supermarket. Most of all, I was scared. I had a feeling that without the incentive of a free bicycle, they wouldn’t be running away from me this time.
The nice thing about being a kid is that you believe adults can solve your problem if they choose to do so. They frequently will. Little kids are adorable. That is, if they don’t sound like little immigrant kids who barely speak the language. And what they say sounds unbelievable. And it interferes with whatever retail duties life has burdened you with that day.
I tried to tell them there were bike thieves. No, no one was stealing bikes right now. I told them I wanted to go home. Yes, I knew where my home was. I tried to ask them if someone could walk me a few hundred meters until we were out of sight of the bikes thieves. No, they had more important things to take care of.
I was starting to wonder if I was going to be stuck in this supermarket for the next few hours. I decided to try my luck with a customer. He was an older gentleman. The nice kind. The one that’s maybe lonely or has grandkids. Or maybe no one expected him to restock the shelves with canned vegetables at that very moment. Whatever the reason was and whatever language barrier there was, he seemed agreeable to spare a few moments to walk with me.
We left the supermarket, turning right. Away from the pub and the newspaper agent. The bicycle thieves at my back. I didn’t think they saw me. Our walk along the main road and across the street was rather uneventful. We chatted. We reached a crosswalk. At this point, I only had to cross the main road and get back to my house.
I said my thanks and raced across the crosswalk. Instead of heading home though, I decided to press my advantage. I headed for Stephen’s house. It wasn’t too far from that of my grandparents. However, as it turned out, no one was home. Stephen’s family was a bit more well off. Probably the reason they weren’t home. Also the reason he had a new bike. Used to have a new bike was probably more accurate.
My next step was Gavin’s house, just down the street. Only his dad was home. As an eight year old kid, it’s really hard to sound believable when telling the story of a wannabe and an actual bike thief being spotted at the newspaper agent. Or maybe my English wasn’t just up to the task. Gavin’s dad closed the door on me with a remark that he didn’t have time for this. He probably mentally added ‘whatever this is’.
The only people who would understand me, my parents, weren’t going to be home for a few more hours. The people who really cared, Stephen and his family, weren’t home at all. And anyone with less of a stake in the matter decided that information provided by a little migrant kid wasn’t worth interrupting Afternoon
Tea Beer. Having no other options I could think of, I plodded home. When my parents got back, the bike thieves were long gone.
Not too long after, I went home to Germany. I don’t remember seeing Stephen again. However, I did run into Gavin once more. He and I got in a fight, and I ended up pushing him off his bike. His dad heard about it. He stormed out of the house and chased me away. I think he always considered me a trouble maker. He told me he didn’t want to see me around there anymore. He didn’t.
And that’s the story of how Stephen had his bike stolen and Gavin got to keep his.
There is a tidbit of a nice memory in all of this. An older gentleman approached me while I was returning Gavin’s bike. He saw what happened. He told me he was impressed with the speed at which I tried to chased after the bike thieves. I remember brushing off the comment. It didn’t feel any faster than my usual, rather mediocre running at school competitions. If I had actually been fast, maybe I would have made the tall thief drop his bike as well. It was a nice comment though. Still brings a smile to my face to this day.