Wheels are Hard to Come By
Wheels were hard to come by. So was everything, for the war was not long over. You'd think there'd be a wheel or two all the same, but he'd had no luck. Nothing. Even at the tip. He'd looked and looked, but he'd never found.
Days he'd wasted rummaging through the rubbish. There were lots of things, and a couple of weeks past he'd seen his first pram. Well, part of a pram. It was the only pram he had seen, but there were no wheels.
There were never any wheels, with or without a pram. The new year had started no better than the old one. He'd been puzzled about the lack of prams for a long time, at least for four or five weeks. It had been before Christmas when he'd started looking, but now he knew why there were no prams.
The man in the shop had laughed when he'd asked about wheels.
'Young un,' he said. 'Wheels are hard to come by nowadays. Nowt thee can do about it. They're hard to come by. That's it.'
'If you could get them, how much would they cost?' the boy asked. Not that he had any money, but if he knew how much they cost he could save up.
'Eh lad. Thee couldn't buy a wheel for a thousand pounds. Ah can't even get one for a mending job. And if thee could, thee'd have to have a pram attached, and there's a waiting list for them.' That seemed to please the man and he dragged his next words out. 'EIGHTEEN MONTHS.'
'Eighteen months for a pram? That can't be right,' the boy said.
It didn't make sense. Mary Askle had told him it was nine months to make a baby. Even that seemed too long. He knew it was nearly a year for a horse, and nine months for a cow. But, they were bigger than people and it would take a long time. Anyone could work that out.
Mary must have got it wrong. But, she'd just got a new baby, so you'd think she'd know. Nine months is almost a year. He thought of Mary's new baby. It didn't seem much for nine months work.
The man seemed puzzled by his response, and was watching him as if he'd said something he shouldn't have. In the end the man said, 'It's right enough, young un. Eighteen months, and then thee'd be lucky to get it on time. Next thing them'll be saying is, us'll need a letter from a doctor afore us can order.' The man laughed. 'But thee wouldn't know about that. At least, at thine age thee shouldn't.'
'Eighteen months. I'll be ten and a half,' the boy said. 'I'll be in the big boys' class. I can't wait that long.'
'Well, thee's out of luck, lad. But...' The man's face lit up.
'Yes?' the boy asked, his face eager.
'If Ah were thee, Ah'd order a pram now. At least thee'll be sure that by the time thee needs it, it'd be here.' The man burst out laughing again.
The boy's clogs clattered loud on the floorboards as he left the shop.
So, wheels are hard to come by. This just confirmed what he'd thought. He'd keep on looking though. You never know, he might strike lucky. He couldn't build his cart without wheels and he wanted a cart. How he wanted a cart. And not only to show Billy Rider.
Billy Rider had a cart. His father had bought it for him for his birthday, a couple of months back. He'd been able to get wheels, but then Billy Rider's father seemed able to get anything. It'd be on the black and expensive, but he'd plenty of money.
Billy Rider was spoilt rotten. He lived in a big house where the lane joined the main road. It used to belong to a doctor, so it was called, The Hospital. It was about a mile and a half from Cross Farm, where he lived with his Gran and Grandpa and two unmarried uncles. There used to be three uncles, but Uncle Tom died a couple of years back, so now there's only two.
Aunty Lily used to live at Cross Farm too, but she went off to live with Uncle Bert in the town. That was a long time ago. But, he never knew Aunty Lily when she lived at the farm. She'd gone off with Uncle Bert before he was born.
Billy Rider wasn't very bright, and his father had sent him off to that posh high school after he'd failed his eleven plus, but it was doing him no good. He was still as thick as two short planks. His father owned a chain of shops. All over the county they were, and he was rolling in it. So Grandpa said. Billy had only to ask for something and his father got it, somehow. Usually on the black. Grandpa wouldn't waste money like that, and the boy respected him for it, but he did want a cart. So he was going to build his own… If he could find some wheels.
Billy Rider, 'Huh,' he voiced his contempt. Two and a half years older than the boy, and bigger, but not as much as he used to be.
The boy had shot up this last year. He'd grown over three inches so he was four feet five now, and he'd got muscles. They came from helping on the farm. He was almost five and a half stone. Gran said he was taking after his Uncle Ben.
Uncle Ben was very big. Gran called him her Gentle Giant. He was six feet three and as solid as the shire stallion. He could pick up a sack of wheat under each arm. That's two hundredweight. She was right about him being gentle too. Uncle Ben was always gentle with him. He was gentle with the horses too. You could tell by the way they acted that they liked him. He was gentle with all the animals.
He'd been a soldier in the war, but he wouldn't talk about it. Uncle Ben never talked much about anything, but he said nothing at all about the war.
His thoughts came back to Billy Rider and his cart. Billy Rider was fat, and a coward. He smiled at the memory of the Christmas party early in December, when Billy Rider tried to bully him. He'd given him a black eye. That'll teach him, he thought. It might teach him, but Billy Rider had a cart and he hadn't. The boy shrugged. There was nothing he could do about a cart until he'd found some wheels.
For luck he struck the iron of a clog on the pavement and watched the sparks sprinkle along the flagstones. He repeated the action, but the sparks were a fleeting treasure and he knew Gran didn't like him doing it, so he stopped. Besides, he didn't want to wear out the irons of his new clogs too soon. That would earn him a clipped ear.
He'd only had them just over a week.
He stopped and looked down. The steel caps at the toes were bright, shiny as a new milk churn, and if it had been sunny they would have sparkled as he walked. There were no scratches on the leather of the uppers yet, so they looked good too, and the row of tacks that fixed them to the wooden soles were as shiny as the toe caps, like tiny stars all round the clogs.
He checked the gloomy sky. It was three miles to home and those clouds promised rain. I'll go across the fields, he thought, that'll save half a mile. And if I run, it'll be quicker still.
But, it wasn't quicker.
The pond was full of interest. It was full of sticklebacks too. Millions of them, tiny little things, flashing twinkles in the water. A fat perch grabbed one and ate it as he watched. Swallowed it straight down, spines and all.
He watched for a while longer, but now the sticklebacks had gone nothing else was happening and he was getting cold. It was always cold in January and it was beginning to rain. He jumped to his feet and set off, running the last mile.
'Hi, Gran,' the boy shouted as he slammed the door behind him. 'Can I have some bread and jam. I'm clammed.'
'No. Your tea will be ready soon,' Gran said, and ruffled his hair. 'Go and wash your hands.' He shook his head. She always did that, even though she knew he didn't like it, but she wouldn't be able to soon. He was nearly as tall as she was. He was up to her shoulder. In another year she wouldn't be able to reach. Still, she was his Gran, so if she wanted to do it, she could.
The boy washed in the kitchen sink. 'What we got for tea, Gran?'
'Bubble and squeak and sausages.'
'Ooh, goody. I like sausages.' As he wiped his hands he asked, 'How many?'
'Wait and see. Your Aunty Lily's here. Comb your hair and go and say hello to her.'
'Ugh.' Aunty Lily… She was always mussing him.
She lived in the town and was full of herself. Fancied her chances did Aunty Lily. Always combing her hair and fussing. She had enough of it, right down to the bottom of her shoulder blades, the colour of wheat at harvest time. She was fat too, and frumpy. Well, he thought she was frumpy. She always wore a cardigan, even in summer, and when she went out she put a scarf over her head.
She wasn't very tall. He'd asked her once and she'd said five feet five. That was only two inches taller than Gran. She always smelt funny too. And, she had a dirty neck. The boy grinned at that. He'd seen it. Her neck didn't look dirty, but it must have been filthy. The dirt had spread right up into her hair. You could see it at the front too, where she pulled her hair back from her forehead. The first inch was dark with dirt. The colour straw turns after the horses have piddled on it. At least an inch. Sometimes it was more. If it was him, Gran would have clipped his ear and made him wash his head, but Aunty Lily was a grown-up.
The rules were different for grown-ups.
He didn't like Aunty Lily. Not much anyway.
'Go on,' Gran said, urging him. 'And be nice to her. She's brought you a present.'
'What is it?' the boy asked.
'Go and say hello and you'll find out.' Gran pulled a saucepan from the cupboard. 'Go on. She's waiting in the parlour.'
He dawdled his way along the passage. I wonder what the present is. It'll be another pullover, I bet. He thought back to the last one. It had taken her so long to knit, it was three sizes too small by the time she'd finished. Just as well really. Red would have been all right, but — pink. Gran had unpicked it and made herself a couple of pairs of socks.
'Hello, Aunty Lily.' There was no enthusiasm in his voice. 'Hello, yourself. Come and give me a kiss.'
The boy cringed inside.
'I've brought you a present,' she said and leant forward, her arms stretched towards him. 'Aye. So Gran saed.' The boy slipped into the dialect of the others at school. He knew it annoyed her.
'Don't you want to know what it is?'
'Happen I'll find out when thee gi's it me.'
She wrinkled her nose. 'I'll give it to you when you speak properly.' But she relented and handed him a carrier bag. 'Happy New Year,' she said.
It was heavy, so when he took it from her he almost dropped it. He pulled the top open and peered in.
'Wheels! Gorblimey… Thank you.' He gave her the kiss she wanted and dropped to the floor to take the wheels out of the bag. 'Only three?' His voice was thick with disappointment.
'We only had three,' she said.
'What happened to the other one?'
'It broke,' Aunty Lily said. 'We tried to get another one, but none of the shops had any.'
'I could've mended the broken one.'
'It broke a long time ago.' Aunty Lily sniffed then pulled out her handkerchief to wipe her nose.
'How long ago?' the boy demanded.
'Years back. When Annie was still a baby.'
'When Annie was a baby, but she's older than me. She's at grammar school now.' The boy sat back and looked up. Aunty Lilly was proper glum.
'We should have thrown the pram out then, but we kept it. We always hoped, but it was no use.' The boy watched her, puzzled at the sadness in her voice. For a moment he thought she was going to cry, but she straightened her back, took a deep breath, and pushed herself upright in the chair. 'We've given up hoping, so we threw the pram out two weeks back. We knew you wanted some wheels so we kept them.'
'Did you keep the axles too? I'll need the axles,' he said.
Aunty Lily beamed down at him. 'Here they are. I'm sorry there are only three wheels.'
'Oh, that doesn't matter. I'll build a three wheeler.'
'I've never seen a three wheeler cart,' Aunty Lily said. 'Do you know how to do it?'
'Oh yes. Mr Jones at the stone cottage has a three-wheeler. I'll do it like that.'
'What? His Reliant van?' Aunty Lily cupped her hand to her mouth, trying to hide her smile.
'Why not?' The boy asked. It was a good van. Two wheels at the back and one at the front in like... sort of motorcycle forks.
The stone cottage was half a mile down the lane towards the main road. Mr Jones and his wife lived in one half and the Askles lived in the other. Mr Jones and his wife were new. They'd only been in the cottage for four years and they didn't speak to people often. They'd had a motorcycle and sidecar when they'd first moved in. That was really flash, but now they had this three-wheeler van. That was like a box and not flash at all.
'A three-wheeler. Well, I must admit, I have to give it to you, my lad. You're full of ideas. Just wait until I tell your Uncle Bert. He'll have fits,' Aunty Lily said and broke his train of thought.
He was about to ask her why, when Gran shouted down the passage, 'Tea's ready.'
Sausages were much more important than knowing why Uncle Bert would have fits, so he didn't ask.
He didn't finish the cart until the next day, and he had to wait until he'd eaten his dinner before he could try it out.
'How many times do I have to tell you? Chew your food before you swallow it,' Gran said.
'The dogs don't chew theirs.' It was just him and Gran. If Grandpa had been there he wouldn't have dared any cheek. But Grandpa was out in the fields with his uncles and Gran wouldn't tell.
'You're not a dog, young man. So do as you're told.' Gran was smiling when he looked at her.
'But I want to try my cart, Gran.'
'I know what you want. Your cart will still be there after you've had your dinner, so there's no need to gobble your food as if you haven't eaten for a week. You've all afternoon to play with your cart.'
It wasn't far to the hill at the back of the farm and he pulled the cart at a run. It was just like Mr Jones's van. One wheel at the front and two at the back. The wheel at the front was in a slot he'd cut in the end of a plank. That was fixed under a longer plank by a big bolt so it could turn. At the back he'd nailed on a box and folded a sack at the bottom to make a cushion.
Bubbling with excitement and confidence, he clambered in, bursting to take his first ride, but something seemed wrong. The front plank tipped upwards at an angle and it was harder to pull the wheel round than he'd expected.
It'll loosen up, he thought.
He pushed off, gaining speed. The cart was going well and he was beginning to relax when the bend came up. He pulled on the steering rope, but the plank wouldn't turn. He pulled harder and used all his strength, but the plank had jammed and the cart ran straight on. He was going to crash and he couldn't do anything to stop it. As the cart dug into the bank he was catapulted forward to end up in the nettles and water at the bottom of the ditch.
The boy shivered in the water until his knees began to sting. His hands started stinging too. So did his face. He climbed from the ditch and searched for a dock leaf to rub the stings. His knees and hands were green when he'd finished, but he was still rubbing at his face when someone said, 'Hello. Had an accident?'
It was Billy Rider and he was full of glee. 'Your front wheel's broke.'
He looked down at his cart to see the broken spokes. And Billy rider had seen him crash. 'Yes,' he said and felt sick.
'I haven't had an accident in my cart. That's because I've got four wheels.'
'Well, I only had three. I couldn't get any more,' the boy said.
'My dad got the wheels. My dad can get anything.'
He could see Billy Rider was enjoying himself and that made his broken cart worse. 'We know all about your dad.'
'I've got to go,' Billy Rider said, and set off at a run towards his home.
The boy watched him. The smarting of the nettle stings forgotten. It was the smarting of his humiliation that bothered him now.
He picked up the cart by the front plank and set off dragging it to the farm. He needed two wheels now, and… Well, as he'd found out, wheels were hard to come by and he'd gone and wrecked one after he'd had it only a day. He knew it would be a while before he found any more.
He sighed. There was more to building a three-wheeler than he'd thought, but he'd had enough of wheels for a while. The cart could stay in the barn while read his Beano. The comic had come with the morning's paper, but he'd only glanced through it in his eagerness to finish his cart.
A few yards short of the top gate to the yard he stopped by a solitary elder growing on a patch of rough ground. The trunk of the tree was straight, and as near a perfect circle as he could wish. It was at least ten inches across so it matched the back wheels for size. The drawings in the Beano of the Ancient Brits and their chariots came back to him. Their wheels had been made from solid wood. The boy's face lit up. His new wheels were growing in front of him.
He was back at the hill the first thing the next morning. A pair of solid wooden wheels on the front axle. They looked clumsy, but they ran well enough and the cart steered perfectly.
It had taken the rest of the afternoon to cut the elder down and saw a couple of slices from the trunk. Pushing the pith from the centre had been easy enough, but the hole had still been too small for the axle. He was trying to enlarge it with a red-hot poker when Grandpa and his uncles came in from the fields.
His uncles had a good laugh when he told them what had happened. But after they'd had their tea, they took him back out to the workshop and helped him finish the wheels. They'd drilled out the centres on the big drill he wasn't allowed to use. Well, Uncle Ben did. Uncle Willie just talked. Uncle Ben drilled the holes, turning the handle at the side so the drill-bit went round fast. The holes looked too big when he'd finished, but he put in some bits of iron pipe and they made the axle fit properly. Then Uncle Ben had shown him how to fix the front axle so it turned easily.
Now he had a fine cart that worked as well as any.
He'd been up and down the hill for an hour and had just reached the bottom again when he heard someone shout, 'Got it mended then.' It was Billy Rider.
The boy looked back up the hill. 'Yes,' he said. Billy Rider was sitting in the varnished box of his cart. It was all shiny. Real flash.
'Doesn't go very fast, does it?' Billy Rider called down in a louder voice than was necessary.
The boy said nothing.
'I'll show you how fast mine goes,' Billy Rider called. 'Let's have a race.'
The boy knew his cart wasn't fast, but he hadn't cared. Just having a cart had been enough, but now… He knew he'd lose, but he couldn't refuse the challenge.
'All right,' he said, as if it wasn't important. 'We'll have a race.'
They took a running start and the boy was in his box first. He was still in the lead as they reached the bend, but he went wide so Billy Rider had room to come up on the inside. Billy Rider was the faster now and moved ahead, but he cut across too soon so that a back wheel caught on one of the boy's front wheels.
The spokes sounded like the piano in the parlour as they smashed into the solid wooden wheel. Billy Rider's wheel collapsed, his cart dropped and lost speed. The boy's cart had no brakes so he couldn't stop, and he rammed into the varnished box, turning the cart over, twisting the remaining back wheel and tipping Billy Rider into the nettle-filled ditch, where the boy had been the day before.
He ran on to the bottom of the hill. By the time he'd returned, Billy Rider was out of the ditch and back on the lane.
'These stings hurt,' Billy Rider said. He was beginning to blubber.
'Here.' The boy thrust a dock leaf into his hand and Billy Rider began to rub at the welts that had risen on his bare flesh.
The boy examined the damaged cart. The two rear wheels were past mending, and the varnished box was shattered. It would have to be replaced. He looked at his own cart, but he could see no damage. He knelt down so he could check the front wheel, but all he could find were a few scratches on the elder.
He was pleased. These wheels hadn't been hard to come by. All you had to do was look in the right place. They hadn't cost a thousand pounds either, and he had a lot more left in the trunk. They might not be fancy, but they were strong.
'Your cart doesn't look too flash now,' he said and grinned with delight. 'Look at it. It's in pieces.'
Billy Rider stared down at the splintered box. He reached out and tried to turn one of the ruined wheels, his bottom lip quivering. 'My dad'll kill me. It took him ages to get these wheels. They cost a fortune too.'
'Not surprised,' the boy said. 'Wheels are hard to come by.'
© Jim Ditchfield 2001