‘Excuse me?’ I asked with stress in my voice.
The mechanic stopped drilling and looked up. He stamped out his cigarette and babbled. I looked at my friends, none of us spoke a word of French and we were all tense. We needed the mechanic to help us but we had no ability to ask. I picked up the bike and pointed. The mechanic scratched his beard, grumbled something and walked into his workshop.
We were in Normandy, just north of Carentan. We’d had the bullish idea to organise a fundraising bike ride from our home in Somerset to the D-day beaches and back. It would have been a good idea were it not for our complete inexperience at distance cycling, our lack of French speaking skills and the dubious decision to stage the event in December. We woke on the third day having camped in an empty field near Utah Beach. The whipping wind had spent the night teasing our attempts to sleep, flicking against the tent as the winter frost rose through the ground sheets. The mood in the morning was downbeat. We were unprepared and exhausted, and the harsh French winter was at its bleakest at dawn. At least we could rely on the bikes, we thought, shortly before the bearings on my pedal came loose. I tried coaxing the mechanism back into place with an assortment of allen keys, but so weak was my knowledge of fixing bikes that I may as well have tried to mend it by singing to it.
The mechanic was shouting in his workshop. There were only fields around, their crops leaning under the strain of the gale. When the mechanic appeared carrying a toolbox he said something and laughed animatedly. We laughed with him out of nervousness and he looked at us suspiciously. He jostled with the bike and his tools before finally knocking the pedal back into place. We all smiled in relief, realising then just how much power the unknown mechanic wielded over our journey. It was no ordinary meeting; we were completely reliant on him. The mechanic stood up, brushed his bulbous hands against his dirty overalls and as we saddled up he put his hand out and whistled. Instinctively I shook his hand and we rode on.
‘Did he want money?’ A friend asked.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘I didn’t understand any of it.’