The Schoolmaster’s bicycle trip

Issue 2/2005 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from the collection Heta Rahko korkeassa iässä (‘Heta Rahko at a great age’, Otava, 1947). Introduction by Vesa Karonen

He was an old teacher, retired, mostly known as ‘the Schoolmaster’ in this small town. It was common knowledge that he’d always been a keen gymnast and sportsman, and after retirement he began pursuing his favourite pastimes in earnest. Evidently he revelled in moving about, like a baby on the crawl, or a feisty youth. He was a man with no personal ties, with no one to patronise or distract him.

‘You grow no wiser, even with age,’ the small-town folk kept sighing. In response to one of these groans, Porki the factory owner said what they thought was almost blasphemy:

‘When did old age ever produce any wisdom? It’s always demolished any little there was….’

And meanwhile, covertly envious, he watched the youthful-looking Schoolmaster striding along his path, lean, sinewy, stern-faced, his tuft of beard only reluctantly thinning and greying. Well, there was a person who’d realised life was motion – and believed it! But Porki and the other bigwigs in the town grew bloated and obese, huffed and puffed, and yawned.

The Schoolmaster was always fascinated by any novelty in his own field. And for him there was now only one field. Those were the days when the bicycle was making its appearance in the world even in the small town where the pensioned-off Schoolmaster lived. And, of course, the Schoolmaster bought a bicycle, even though it was an expensive machine that badly stretched his finances. But for him the mystery and thrill of speeding along, saddled on this modern contraption, outstripped the value of any money.

It was spring, the snow was melting, and the ground was showing through. Usually at this time of the year the Schoolmaster’s delight in motion was at its peak. And now he was the owner of a bicycle, not even a year old yet. For several days he’d been carefully inspecting the wet road, as it became exposed from snow. And one morning he decided the moment had come. The road was dry enough. He took his bicycle out and straddled onto the saddle. The old grannies in the market place watched him off. He towered above the ground, distinguished from the folk toddling below. The wheels turned at breakneck speed, and yet the bicycle stayed upright! To the onlookers his busy knees suggested a grasshopper’s, almost flying above his head at times. They stared in wonder and burst into applause:

‘Now he’s off!’

But the Schoolmaster’s coat tails were flapping far out of town already. He certainly was off, leaving olden times behind him at a dizzy speed. He pedalled and pedalled, and may well have been inwardly blessing fortune, which had allowed him to encounter magic like this. His velocipede was quite a novelty on those roads, and the people at the roadside gaped as he streaked by.

Before he realised, he’d travelled about twenty kilometres. Perhaps he wouldn’t have stopped even then, but roadmakers had been at work and had not cleared away some rough stones that made the going difficult. He got down from his bicycle and found his knees had got stiff with the long-drawn out pedalling. He took his bicycle into the forest and started to have a little trot in order to restore his legs. After the monotonous pedalling, a run felt excellent. So the Schoolmaster went hoofing along the road, tall and thin, with the greyish tuft of beard jutting forwards on his chin. He raced on and even kept branching off into the forest, like a dog, feeling the heather, lichen and moss grateful to his feet. Pursuing one of these dog-detours he spotted an old gravel pit and decided to jump down into it. It had smooth stones of all sizes, and the Schoolmaster started picking them up and hurling them round the forest, very fast, striking the reddish columns of the pine trees. After all, his upper limbs had to have their share of exercise too. And besides, throwing stones was one of the Schoolmaster’s old enthusiasms. He’d always been besotted by pitching all sizes of stones, and letting fly in all directions.

Stone-throwing made him feel really good, and there was no end of ammunition at the bottom of the pit.

But there was another pit, not far away, where a gang of old villagers were shovelling lazily and filling carts with gravel. The rowdy arrival of the Schoolmaster in the neighbouring pit, and, in particular, the rain of stones and the cracking against the tree trunks, made the roadmakers start up from their monotonous job. They got worked up, began swearing under their breath. No wonder, for even the horses were frightened and had started skittering and shaking their heads. The stones kept grazing them, and their heads were in danger.

If this wasn’t the Devil himself, then it must, at the very least, be some madman on the run….

Gradually it dawned on them that a creature in the shape of a man was carrying on in the next pit. The stones kept raining down heavily, but at last the pluckiest of the men managed to find his voice, swore coarsely and said:

‘Oy there, what do you think you’re doing?’

The Schoolmaster gave a start, stopped his hefty throwing and looked a little ashamed.

‘Oh, I didn’t realise others were here as well? Sorry, I was just taking a little exercise….’

But this didn’t stop the gravel-diggers muttering to each other and saying he was definitely round the bend, or he wouldn’t be carrying on like this. An old man too, making all that row! He’d obviously done a bunk from somewhere….

When the Schoolmaster stopped his stone-throwing they came right up to the edge of the pit. But they were still very cautious. How could you be sure he’d not start picking up stones again and chucking them….

‘We could get a crack on the bonk!’ the bravest one said.

‘I’m sorry,’ apologised the Schoolmaster. ‘I’d no idea there were people here. I can just as easily throw them the other way….’

‘Don’t you try it!’ threatened the brave old man. ‘No way! What sort of a bum are you behaving like this?’

The Schoolmaster introduced himself. He’d come all the way from town. He was a teacher by profession, on a bicycle trip, and all he’d been doing was throwing stones for a bit of fun and exercise….

But the gravel-diggers could see no sense in fun and exercise of that ilk. Nor did they know the Schoolmaster. True, there was an educated look about him, but there were all sorts of nutcases – nine kinds, according to the proverb. They felt suspicious, and it made them grumpy to hang around scared.

‘Come clean. You’re on the loose, aren’t you, because they’d run out of rope!’ the brave one asserted.

The Schoolmaster was beginning to feel resentful. Clearly these dim-witted old fogeys had decided he was some sort of nutcase, or rogue. What a to-do! With his neatly laced shoes he kicked at the stones that had got him into this mess, and then a new thought flashed through his head.

‘Never in my life,’ he stormed, ‘have I been tied up with ropes! And as for you lot, my brains are as sound as any of yours. Look here, just try this. Can you tell me why these stones are so smooth? No, you can’t. Well, I’ll tell you. Water smoothed them – waves. Once upon a time there was a shore here….’

But this adventure into the remote past was counter-productive. Clearly, he was completely off his chump rambling in his mind as well the dangerous nonsense he’d been up to. Why… the seashore was hundreds of kilometres away….

The brave gravel-digger was an intransigent, practically inclined man. The Schoolmaster, he announced, would have to accompany them to the village, where they were going to feed their horses. In the village there was a constable, and he’d get to the bottom of this, and this vagrant….

But the Schoolmaster too was a man of action. It would be a bit of a set down if he let these simple-minded old geezers arrest him as a lunatic – and even tie him up with horse-reins, as this stroppy old codger was threatening. The Schoolmaster tensed his muscles and unexpectedly sprang out of the gravel pit like a rabbit from its hole. He was off, and the men were after him, bellowing and cursing, but pretty soon, completely out of breath, they had to give up. It was no small asset that the Schoolmaster was a long-time athlete and an aficionado of motion.

Luckily he found his bicycle and started quickly pedalling off to town. And now his coat tails were really flapping, as he thought he could hear the rattle of a cart behind him. Those stupid, obstinate old geezers could be driving a horse after him. But let them just try….

Not till he was nearing the town did he slow down. He was tired and hot and still slightly upset. What a scene! Of course this would get round the town as well, and the ones who were in the habit of smiling and sneering at the old Schoolmaster and his pastimes would be at it again.

Well, that was their idea of fun. He had his own kind. His fitness routines had proved their worth now, anyway. If he’d not been so quick on his legs, he’d have been grabbed, tied up and made a laughing-stock.

But he’d bypassed all that through sheer leg-power. The thought was a great comfort, and the old Schoolmaster came back from his bicycle trip in pretty high spirits.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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