13 September 2017

New life from old things

  A fierce wind was whipping the shrubs around, but only an occasional half-hearted gust swirled into the shelter of Greg's small, glassed-in porch. Each time, the nylon cape he’d fastened around my neck to keep the hair clippings off my clothes floated up, and I had to hold it down. The inconvenience was minor, but the glare from the sun on the white weatherboards dazzled me, forcing me to squint, and my eyes began to hurt. Greg had put on his dark wrap-arounds. He stood in front of me, scissors in hand, not cutting my hair, while he explained how he’d fix the cables on my mountain bike.
   ‘When it’s in a low gear, y’can slip the cover out of its …’
   He paused, not knowing the name for the little nubbin that held the cable sheath in place.
   ‘Then y’can slide the cover along and get some sandpaper and sandpaper the crud ‘n’ shit off it’, he said.  He looked determined that no crud or shit would survive his sandpapering.
   ‘I’ve got some special stuff y’can squirt down it to lubricate it. Y’can’t use oil, ‘cos that makes the inside go all gummy’.
   I thought of the many types of lubricant I’d squirted into the cables over the years and kept quiet, guessing sandpapering and special stuff wouldn’t be enough and the whole set-up would need replacing. I didn’t mind paying for new cables, but Greg liked restoring things, particularly bikes, and buying new parts was a last resort.

   When I’d arrived, he’d been tightening the nuts on the front wheel of a little BMX bike. The spanner slipped off the nut he was tightening and fell on the ground, and he’d left it there while he shook my hand, and then we’d gone out to my car to retrieve my bike.
   ‘Ah, that’s what I like to see’, he’d said when I’d lifted the hatch. ‘A bike that’s seen some use’.
   It had certainly seen that, and even though I’d known Greg wouldn’t worry about seeing a filthy, rust-scaled, beaten-up bike, I felt mildly embarrassed about its ruinous state.
   He asked me what I wanted fixed. I hadn’t thought much about it, other than wanting new brake pads and some work on the chain and gears. I just wanted it safe and running smoothly and had assumed he’d figure out what needed to be done.


   We propped the bike against the wall of the house and got on with the haircut. He’d snip away briefly then stop to yarn about something, then snip some more. I always allowed over an hour for a haircut with Greg and made sure I didn’t have to be anywhere important anytime soon afterwards, just in case the cut took longer than usual. It usually did. The haircut was mostly incidental, though; time yarning with Greg was the real reason I went to him. That, and his aptitude for restoring old things.

   His campervan sat on the small rectangle of front lawn, taking up most of it, and his ancient caravan sat in front of the van, taking up the rest. He told me how they’d been to Raglan recently in the campervan and had got there and back with a hundred additional kilometres of exploring, all for just a hundred dollars’ worth of petrol. He pronounced Raglan as ‘Ragland’. I didn’t know if the pronunciation was deliberate or a Greg joke — ‘Rag-land’ — but I didn’t want to embarrass him if it wasn’t, so I took care to avoid saying ‘Raglan’. If his pronunciation was unintentional, though, he’d have laughed and turned it into a joke anyway.
   He stood with the sun shining on his bald head, with his greying stubble and dark glasses, with an impish half-smile, not cutting my hair, and he told me how he’d been slowly working on the campervan, lining it with plywood and smearing sealant around the windows to stop the leaks. He’d fitted the sink with a gold tap, too, he said, and he pointed at it through the grimy window. It was a standard chrome tap, and I laughed with him.

   ‘Y’know, I’d rather live in that than this house, Pete’, he said then, and he was serious. ‘It was pissing down and I was thinking, yeah, I don’t know about driving all the way back from Ragland in the rain. Not too safe, y’know. So we parked up at a campground. Plugged it in and, y’know, I LOVE the sound of rain on the campervan. Even better than listening to it on the roof of a house’.
   He was remembering the night they’d spent snug and dry with the rain coming down somewhere near Ragland.
   ‘You’re all cosy, and, it’s like you’re in your cocoon’, he said.

   The sun was glaring on the white house and the shrubs were thrashing in the wind, and Greg was somewhere else, behind his dark sunglasses with the rain pelting down on his little campervan in the Ragland night.
   Then he came back and resumed snipping at my hair, gradually tidying up another old thing.

Photo: The bike, in much better nick after Greg had worked on it.

Photos and original text © 2017 Pete McGregor