The Biking Crowd
“Where do they get these people from?” says Lilly as we stroll arm-in-arm along the cobblestones of Covent Garden, sidling through the early evening mass of selfie-taking tourists whose indomitable resolve to travel as the crow flies forces us, on occasion, to split or raise our arms, forming a bridge under which they can pass and away go on their way.
We come to a thick semi-circle of observers shielding whatever they are viewing. This large presence piques our interest, and we stop, I the taller of us, stand on tiptoes like a ballerina giving me just enough vision to report back what is over this human-wall.
“What is it?” enquires Lilly.
“It’s a giant blue stool, on which a girl is being sawn in half whilst eating glass,” I say, feeling surreal disbelief in Lilly’s countenance to my report.
She pulls at my coat and says, “Come on.”
I clearly haven’t sold that particular attraction to her.
We pace on. Lilly lays her head on my shoulder, and I give her a little kiss, which she returns, a whiff of the garlic we had for lunch still bouncing on her breath. I offer to buy us coffee from a surly-looking man whose espresso machine is perched on the back of a tricycle, but Lilly balks at the prices, and we continue.
Just past the coffee-guy, we come to another crowd, less dense than the last, thereby allowing us both to slip to the front of this intriguing horseshoe-shaped gathering. A short, bald man in blue cycling shorts and string vest is unpacking various sized items from a holdall, indicating that this show is just beginning. With his back to us, we can’t quite see what he is unpacking, and the mystery is deepened as most of the items come out, and then go back in. He takes a breath and spins around to his audience whilst clicking a button on a headset to improve sonority.
“Good evening Covent Garden!” he shouts, to which the crowd mutedly cheers. “I said, good evening Covent Garden!” the repetition of his salutation only gaining slightly more reciprocal volume.
“Now, what you are going to see, you must not try at home! And if you do, make sure your mum is watching you!” The tourist crowd, whose first language is mainly not English, chuckles lightly out of only respect at this lame gag. “My mum isn’t here tonight. She fell into a barrel of glue and wood shavings… now she’s as stiff as a board!” Again, the laughter is muted except for a skinny guy wearing an England t-shirt who laughs so hard he is doubled-over, and spurting fizzy drink from the can he is holding all over a Japanese tourist who moves away whilst wiping his jacket down.
“No, seriously, folks. I will need help with my act, and because I can’t afford to pay anyone, I’m asking for a volunteer.” He scans the crowd with narrow eyes, before settling on a spot in the middle where two newlyweds stand and shouts, “Lady! I choose you!” We look at each other for a disbelieving moment before turning to the performer who is motioning Lilly over with a wiggly little finger, the presumption of her acceptance being applauded by the crowd. I push Lilly out of the mass and onto the smooth, gapped cobbles that pass for a stage here, and the performer greatly receives her with a hand on each shoulder.
“So, my love, what’s your name?”
“Erm… Lilly,” she says, her Cornish twang incongruent even in the melting pot of accents we have spent the last two days.
“And where are you from?”
“Big round of applause for Liz from Cardiff!”
I don’t know if he has kooky hearing or is just trying to be funny. It grates, and I feel a pang of jealousy that my new wife is having her shoulders held by another man. However, my jealousy is temporarily subdued as the man goes back to his holdall, and I’m overtaken by my latent desire to see what he has in there.
He unzips the bag and pulls out his wares; it takes a second for me to comprehend what his act will centre around: a unicycle. The long aluminum of stem cylinder glistens, even in the fading light, and is only sullied by a tiny speckle of gloopy, brown grease now and again. I can’t help wonder how this will pan out, and any worries I have about the safety of my wife are not resolved by the smooth tread on which the tiny wheel that rides. I have seen bigger, sturdier wheels on kids’ bikes.
However, time is money in this hubris of entertainment, and he already has one foot on a pedal. He is elevating himself onto the threadbare saddle he’s trying to mount, my wife’s shoulder used as leverage. He’s up and on, arms outstretched for balance, whilst pedalling backwards and forwards in short bursts. I can’t help but wonder how many bumps, scrapes, and grazes his scabby little knees had to undergo before achieving the perfect balance.
“This bit is easy, ladies and gentlemen, so I need to ramp it up. Liz?”
“Yes,” my wife replies.
“Be a darling and go into my bag and fetch out the four clubs, and oh, the lighter, too.”
Lilly complies, emerging from his bag with the requested items, which are then passed to him. Whilst still making his short, sharp backwards-forwards motions, he manages to multitask and light each club, which comes to life with a whoosh! of flame. All four clubs are breathing crimson red flames and being moved around between his two hands that know when to lift and drop each of the wooden clubs with perfect synchronicity. The fact he can do this whilst riding on one wheel is astonishing to somebody who didn’t learn to ride a bike ’till he was fifteen, and who, even now, is likely to topple off when faced with an undulating surface.
His cycling repertoire has depth; I will give him that. Once the unicycling and juggling of flames has been achieved, he tries to impress his audience further. With one deft action, he switches his backside to his belly on the saddle, operating a pedal with one arm and juggling with the other. Albeit, he has now lost a couple of clubs to the floor, his action is seamless, like a television picture cutting from shot to shot.
Now comes the piece de résistance, for which he will requisition Lilly once more.
“Darling?” he says, this affectionate noun triggering a primordial alarm of jealousy in me to protect Lilly. “In the bag is a blindfold. Pop it on me, dear.” Lilly, obliging, fetches a tatty-looking square of material imprinted with white skulls and wraps it around his head.
His now alleged blindness seemingly forces up the daring he will display since, in another seamless move, he wiggles and gyrates his body while trying to gain enough traction to flip himself upside down successfully. This position allows one hand to pedal, whilst his lean, fully erect body points towards the sky, and his well-trained feet juggle the fire-breathing clubs.
The show is over, and the now dismounted performer passes around an old cloth cap, into which a few members of the audience drop coins of all denominations, each contribution bookended by a ‘Thank you’ or ‘Cheers, you are so generous.’
Lilly, her role as his assistant now redundant, wraps her arms around my neck for warmth and places her head on my shoulder. She didn’t see a tall, skinny, middle-aged woman with shock-bright red hair in a waterproof jacket tap the performer on the shoulder as he uttered thanks to a young black girl who had donated a few pounds.
“I must say, that was the zaniest thing I have ever seen!” she tells the performer, stretching his attention between her and thanking his benefactors. “Now, the juggling with fire whilst doing a handstand I can understand. However, I want to know this: Why on earth don’t you just ride a bike with two wheels, like everybody else?”