Tennis ball yellow and post office red, the bicycle sped down St John’s Street, scattering pedestrians. Freewheeling Bobby in his pirate hat and spotted scarf, laughing as he vanquished the seven seas of Greenwich. Eleven and already garnering celebrity status. Mostly for the fact that he was invariably mentioned by the tired lady that fronted Tourist Information on the odd occasion that footfall fell there.
‘He’s our resident pirate, so watch where you step’ she would shout after the weekenders she had bored out of the door.
I was in love with Bobby in the Eighties. The kind of crush that coloured cheeks cerise and left a scattering of petals around the park bench where Alice and I used the most scientific of methods to second guess whether he crushed on me too. Though I moved on, Bobby never changed.
In 1992, fourteen and more worldly wise, I re-categorised Bobby into a different folder in my head. Troubled. The playground had often been a battlefield at Kidbrooke but the day he showed up at school in full pirate regalia, bereft of a parrot (the nearest zoo was well over twenty miles away and even Bobby couldn’t cycle that far), was the day that my love for him withered.
I tried my best, but I could not avert my cringing eyes as he strode towards Thomas Parker and had at him with a plastic cutlass. It bent double as he poked him first in the chest, then the thigh. Though it might have done some damage had it reached its third target. But tank-like Thomas grabbed the flimsy weapon well before it reached his eyes and hurled it to the ground. Bobby followed shortly after, also bent double as the wind left his sails. Bobby-Pants-Down, the other kids called him following this casual humiliation.
There were whispers that the short-lived scuffle was a result of despicable shenanigans earlier that day. A spineless bully had unscrewed both pedals from Bobby’s precious bicycle. Whatever the truth, the incident sent Bobby into freefall. A piece of him was taken too. Henceforth, he took up the mantle of school weirdo. Pandered to it in many ways. Some days he wore the pirate garb, others a highwayman mask and long black leather gloves. He lurked in musty corridors and accosted lone students with paranoid and fanciful tales about stolen treasure and robbery.
I’d forgotten all about Bobby until the day I saw a skinny man with a fat beard freewheeling down St. John’s Street, legs spread wide and high; make-shift sails or brakes. The bike was rusty, grey and pedal-less. The man was in much the same state. As he sped past my daughter and I, he caught my eye and smiled dangerously. Then shifted his weight and leant round the bend almost upending Mr Yankov as he unloaded vegetables from the back of his mud-spattered van.
‘That fool’ he grumbled as we stopped to check he was alright, ‘every Friday without fail he nearly hits me. Idiot.’
His cheeks were throbbing redder that the tomatoes he was picking off the pavement so we hurried on. Bobby had gone by this time, of course. On the journey back to our tiny terraced home I started telling Martha about the strange little boy I remembered from my own schooldays. She stopped me short and said she already knew the pirate man. She said that she had often seen him reading stories at the library. He smelt funny but he was friendly enough. He made a point of telling all the children that apart from his one gold tooth he lived his life in the pursuit of memories and not materiality.
Sure enough, the following Tuesday, in the corner of the Children’s section, I found him. Sitting on the floor, cross-legged like a small boy, nose in a battered copy of Treasure Island. His stripy red and white t-shirt had seen better days and his black jeans were mostly mud and stains but he didn’t smell too crusty. From the look in his eyes he was somewhere distant. Lost in a jungle inside the book, not hidden away in a dusty library. I would have backed off and left him there, but though his eyes remained glued to the page he raised one hand and gestured that he wanted me to grasp it.
As my fingers clasped his, the hardbacks and shelving melted away to shell-strewn sand whilst the salty tang of tropical sea sharpened the warm breeze. Three distant pirates were digging for treasure in silhouette and much nearer a slim man with a waxed moustache and a fat beard stood with his back to the setting sun. In one hand a blunderbuss, in the other my own.
‘Evie White,’ he proclaimed. I corrected him; it was Algernon these days. ‘Do you remember who I am? I’ve been the Captain of the Blood and Bones crew for so very long, sailing the Pacific, fighting duels, adventuring, looting and shooting my gun that I’ve entirely forgotten how my story began. There’s a gold tooth in it for you. For I treasure that memory far more than any booty, jewellery or material gain.’
I racked my brains trying to remember his full name but he had only ever been Bobby Pedals to me. Defined by what he did rather than who he was. I could have called him Bobby Fantastic. My First Crush. Courageous Dresser. Incredibly Brave. Unforgettable. As he pedalled those streets living inside a fantasy that no one could possibly have imagined. What a wonderful individual to look at the world in such an unusual way. So I shook my head and he sadly pulled his hand away.
Our worlds unmeshed, he didn’t look up, just turned the page and tuned back into his reality. I left, marking the path to my home with a trail of petals hoping that one day Bobby might remember his way back too.