spin... spin.. spin
When light through an aged pane of glass glances off shiny objects in just the right manner it can create a rainbow prism on a distant wall. I gently rotate a hand polished Endrick rim to make colours dance in this manner. A young couple clearly in love cross the cobbled street distracting me from my melancholy. They hold hands and through small dingy window their happiness is clear. They are perfect.
A bell rings gently as the slender man opens the door. His watch catches the light and makes tiny rainbows without effort on the walls and ceiling. His lady has waited just in the entrance as he speaks with a smile. “Do you have cycles for hire?”
Monsieur, my employer and dearest friend, does not look up from the hub he is polishing. After gently placing the rim to counter I nervously brush my hands on the small shop apron tied around my waist. It had previously been explained to me by the man working the polishing cloth that in keeping with traditions far older than myself it was best to wear an apron to allow customers know who is in proprietorship of the shop and whom can assist with the selling of goods. Each morning when arriving at work I had proudly tied the strings around my waist. The small blue apron with embroidered Campagnolo signature was a source of pride for me. Somehow the handsomeness of the stranger, his British accent, Swiss timepiece and brown eyes have made me embarrassed to be wearing it. As if his presence suggested mine no longer belonged.
“Lour vélo, hire out bicycle?” He says very slowly the first of the sentence in poor French then repeated in proper English.
Growing up with an American father and French family in a small château, both languages easily flow from my tongue in normal circumstances. On this day instead I nervously fidget my aprons front and my eyes try to look away. Out of fear he will ask a third time and with great embarrassment I answer the man. His clothes have captured my stare, trousers of muleskin much like my own father would wear and despite being taught better there is no way to force my eyes back to his own.
“Monsieur, is a master wheel-smith. I am his apprentice. We can repair your bicycle and have cycling parts and a few other bits for sale. We have no bicycles to hire nor sale you.” Words fading at the end to near mumbles. How hard it is to explain a repair shop does not need bicycles for sale. Nor do we have anyplace to put them if we had them.
His voice remains pleasant, “You speak remarkable English! Your sign states bicycles for hire, doesn’t it?”
Feeling smaller than before, as if some strange form of sorcery his compliment has made me feel less adequate. “Sir, no the sign tells of a vélo mechanic for hire….” then mumbled nearly inaudible. “Not a bicycle.”
“My apologies, my French is very poor. Can my wife and I ask for assistance finding where we can hire bicycles for the day? It is our honeymoon and we would love to enjoy the beautiful summer day.” The lady has stepped into the shop while he was speaking. She shows me the rings which have been freshly placed on her delicate finger. Nails flawless, remind me of the grease beneath my own.
“Aren’t you just adorable. Isn’t she honey?” The wife adds in a cheerful voice that leaves a want in anyone present to hear her speak again.
“Morzine just beyond the pass has many shops with bicycles for hire.” My voice is unsteady as most all my focus is on my dirty nails, hair brushed but in simple ponytail and having nothing fancy. She doesn’t mean to do it but the beautiful woman has spoken of me like I am a child. In her defence I am small for my age and not wearing makeup. My mannerisms are possibly immature. Being nearer fifteen than fourteen her words all the same have shattered the last of my fragile confidence. I want to cry or just beg them to leave. For the first time I am ashamed of my workplace. We have so few items for sale, so few wheels in the que to build. The flour is tidy and well swept but old and worn. We have no means to take payment by credit card. All that made the shop so very special was hitting me like a fist in the stomach. My worn brown cycling shoes, the sort road cyclists had worn before clipless or even I had entered the world, stare back at me. My Father had found them online and gotten them for my birthday nearly two years ago. Now suddenly it feels stupid wearing them. The lady has nice clean Adidas sports shoes, the man a mix between running shoes and a modern hiking style also looking new and very clean.
“You’ve been so helpful. Do you have a shirt with your shop name on it we could purchase as a souvenir?” Her voice gently places the words in the small room like honey on a warm biscuit
“We have spoke wrench key tags.” I force the words from my mouth. Only saying this in hopes they will leave.
“Two of those please!” Her husband says sounding excited. Tho I assume he’s being polite.
Pulling the small box that had once long ago held a Campag Record hub from under the counter, I ask, “We have blue and white. The wrenches are real do you have a size you need?”
“We wouldn’t know how to use them but they are nice and have your shop name on them. Give us one of each colour.” The man requests in a kind manner.
My shaking hands work waxed paper around one key tag then the other and finally wrapping the two together. The task takes me far longer than it should. Partially because of the unsteadiness and also my eyes have blurred with tears that only my will keeps from betraying me and landing on my cheeks.
A clear plastic card is slid on the counter. I don’t look up from it and just before my shaking voice can exit my mouth. The woman’s hand is in a small clutch her words relieve me. “Honey, don’t be silly give the girl and her Grandfather cash.”
She has placed two twenty notes beside my hands. “Madame, they are twenty for the two.” I mumble attempting to hand her the other note back. I don’t bother explaining Monsieur is not my Grandfather.
“Don’t be silly love. Your time and help is worth something.”
Her kindness makes me feel smaller. Does the shop look that poor, me that desperate? Has she given me money out of pity? “Thank you and enjoy La France.” Are the only words I can offer.
The bell rings and I don’t bother watching them depart. I place the box under the counter and write the sales ticket placing it and the two twenties in the register. Just as I start to untie my apron that feels foolish to wear, Monsieur speaks to me. His words are French and gentle as if he knows things that only God Himself should.
“Rachel, fine clothes and pretty faces don’t make someone better than you. English words and money don’t matter either. The shop could have bicycles to hire and all the latest goods. It would still be just you and I. You could have her fancy clothes his credit card. Those things will never make anyone who they are. .”
He stops speaking. Allowing me time to process and for silence. I wipe down the counter with steady hands. There is a want in my heart to apologise for being embarrassed. I love Monsieur and my opportunity to learn and everything about my place of employment. Now, I’m embarrassed and ashamed for having been embarrassed.
“You need decide that who you are is more important than who someone may think you are. Well Rachel, would you look at that, we have a wheel.”
Laced and near tensioned a wheel is placed in my hands. I admire the lacing and swiftness in which it was done.
“That one needs tensioned and trued. Before you do it there is a box in the storage room you need gather.”
His words ringing in my head that I get to tension the newly built wheel, my shoes that seem less embarrassing carry me toward the storeroom. I’ve trued wheels and even tensioned a few but never one of this expense or quality. This wheel when finished will be paid for by bank transfer, boxed and sent to a custom frame builder in Italy. It’s a huge build for us one that no expense has been spared on.
A plain cardboard box with postage decal on it, declares it has come from the United States. Carried into the shop it is placed on the counter. Packing tape slices and my heart races. It’s the newest Park Tool wheel trueing stand with spoke tension gauge, wrenches and some other goodies. I’d been looking at it in catalogs and when at home on the internet for months.
“That came in about two weeks ago. Just was waiting for you to need it.” He says pointing at a place on the smaller work bench to place the new fancy tool. The wheel in his old stand from before the days of plastics is spun as he turns his attention to it. Leaving me with putting together the new stand.
As I place the first wheels hub between the clamp and spin a plastic handle that seems made for my own hand, locking the wheel safely in place.
A larger hand pats my shoulder. “Nothing wrong with the older stands but you need work with what’s best. If only so you will believe you are the best. The only thing you should ever be embarrassed of is if you ever let a wheel leave your stand and it isn’t perfect. That’s how you can show the world who you are. Show them by what you do.”
Shadows cast themselves long across a floor worn by the feet of people who have had the privilege to ride a perfect bicycle wheel. A neighbour leans a large forearm on the counter. Monsieur drinks an Espresso as the men discuss the upcoming Le Tour and how our village has again been chosen as a stage summit.
“I think I’ll finally given in and get some shirts printed. Rachel is good with customers and speaks so many languages.”
“Probably can make more selling shirts than building wheels.” The heavier man says.
“That’s what I’ve always been afraid of.” Monsieur says in a manner that causes me to not be sure if it’s a joke. “That’s what I’ve always feared.” He repeats assuring in my mind that it’s not completely a joke.
Coffee gives way to beer and the men make way to café across the street. Just before the last of the light let’s me shutter windows. In that moment as street lamps turn on, the bell on the door raises my head from the cycling magazine I’m staring at. It’s the honeymooner.
I offer a smile and perfect eye contact, as I hand him his forgotten credit card. “You forgot this.”
“Wow, thank you. We were panicked. If it wasn’t here I don’t know what we would have done.” He says as his wife steps into the shop behind him.
As they are just about out the door he turns back. “Could we bother you for one last thing; where is a good place to eat?”
Hands pull a bows tag end while behind my back and an apron is removed, then neatly folded and placed beside the best wheel trueing stand money can get. I flick a shutter closed with a broom handle as I’m too short to reach the latch. “Let me lock up and I’ll show you. If you aren’t French they won’t give you a table but I can get you two one.”
The couple strolls hand and hand beside me as I walk my bicycle toward the best food I know of. Glancing over my shoulder back toward the shop, two men wave at me from a tiny table of a café across the street that’s covered with more than a couple empty beer glasses.
I’m proud of the shop, my friends and to be French. I glance down, “suis navrée”
“Sorry my French is poor. What did you say?” The woman says looking past her husband at me.
“I was just apologising to my old shoes. I actually love them.”
The couple laughs because they don’t know what else to do. I smile allowing myself to just be.
The setting sun has disappeared and everything is a pink that’s cooling to purple. I’ve helped the new couple get a table. My shoes like handshakes between old friends, slip effortlessly under toe clips onto flat pedals of my commuter bicycle and then wind rushes against my skin. Wheels built by my own hands respond to my efforts on the pedals and they will always remind me to never be ashamed of who I am or where I am from.