The legacy by Graeme Lay

Sam Rutherford’s bicycle shop must have been even older than its owner. It stood at one end of Kaimara’s main street, between two empty sections: a narrow, yellow, weatherboard building with a corrugated iron-roofed verandah. Stepping from the footpath and into the shop was like going from day straight into night. Inside the door was a long windowless room with a sagging pinex ceiling and varnished wooden walls. All along the walls were framed photographs from the South African war. This was Mr Rutherford’s showroom. Standing diagonally in two long wooden racks were the new bikes which he had for sale: ladies' ones on the right, men’s on the left. But the showroom occupied only the front half of the building; through at the back was the small workshop where Mr Rutherford carried out bicycle repairs, the part of the business which took up most of his time.

Mr Rutherford seemed like a giant to me. He was an enormously tall man, with deep-set grey eyes, short white hair, bushy white eyebrows and a thin moustache. He had the habit of pushing out his mouth and frowning deeply, so that his eyebrows puckered and joined together, and he always seemed to wear the same clothes: heavy black trousers, boots and a grey cotton shirt open at the neck. And although Mr Rutherford was a bachelor, he looked after himself well. His boots were always shiny, his clothes were always neat, and he had lived in a room in the Criterion Hotel, across the street from his shop, for more than fifty years.

For my ninth birthday my parents bought me my first bike. It was a plain, black, second-hand model. My parents didn’t let on that it was second-hand, but I could tell by the paint that it wasn’t really new. Soon I was saving up my pocket-money for extras to improve its appearance - pennants, a carrier, a saddlebag - and soon too its chain needed tightening, or spokes needed replacing, and every extra or repair meant wheeling my bike through Mr Rutherford’s showroom and into his workshop.

There was something mysterious and exciting about that building. Perhaps it was the fact that it was very old, that it smelt strongly of leather and paint, or that when you came in the door of the shop you blinked once or twice and the two rows of gleaming new bikes appeared out of the darkness as if by magic. Or perhaps it was the photographs. You had to peer up and squint to see them properly, but it was worth it because there, in every one of them, was Mr Rutherford. But another Mr Rutherford: a tall, slim, handsome young man with a dark moustache and a uniform and a horse and riding boots and a hat with its brim turned up on one side. And the captions under the photographs added to their enchantment. S.J.Rutherford, 1st Mounted Rifles Contingent, Diamond Hill, 6 January 1900. Corporal S.J.Rutherford, 1st Mounted Rifles Contingent, Reimester Kop, 18 February 1900. I never once entered his shop without pausing and looking up at the photos. Then, after staring for a few moments and noting some new detail, I'd push my bike on through into the room where the old man worked.

'How old’s Mr Rutherford?' I asked my father one day. He looked up from his newspaper.

'Sam Rutherford? I’m not sure. He’s the only Boer War veteran left in Kaimara now though, so that'd make him… nearly eighty I suppose.'

'His heart’s not good poor man,' added my mother, who somehow seemed to know the condition of every elderly heart in the town. 'I think it’s time he retired.'

But if Mr Rutherford had any thoughts of retiring, he never acted upon them. He spent every weekday from eight o'clock till five in the little workroom at the rear of his shop, keeping the bicycles of Kaimara in good working order. Mr Rutherford’s workshop was the only untidy thing about him. It was filled with the bodies of dozens of bicycles, piled on the floor, hanging on nails on the walls, even suspended from the ceiling. There was a wide window in the back wall and a long narrow bench beneath it, littered with spanners, screwdrivers, nuts, bolts, screws, tyre tubes, oily rags and tins of paint. And in the middle of the muddle, sitting astride a stool with an upsidedown bike in front of him, would be Mr Rutherford, working very slowly and carefully, tightening, loosening, assembling, dismantling - one huge hand reaching out from time to time to hover above the bench, then dropping on to whatever tool or part he sought. But he never seemed too busy to stop and fix my bike, no matter how small the job was. And as he did so he'd explain everything he was doing, and when he'd finished he'd always say: 'There you are Stephen, now you’ll be able to fix it yourself.'

One day during the Easter holiday, not long after my ninth birthday, I read a story in a magazine. It was about a ten-year-old girl from New York who had befriended a lonely old woman - done her shopping for her, cleaned the bedsitter where she lived alone. Then one day the old lady died, and it turned out that in fact she'd been very rich and in her will had left her entire fortune - over five hundred thousand dollars - to the little girl. Alongside the story was a photograph of the smiling girl standing in the dismal room which had been the old lady’s home.

'Would Mr Rutherford make much money from his shop?' I asked my father at dinner that night, suspecting that he, as the manager of Kaimara’s only bank, would know most things about its citizens' financial affairs.

'Well,' replied my father, 'there’s just the one bike shop in the town, and there are plenty of bikes. I'd say Sam’s got a tidy little business.'

This puzzled me a bit: my father obviously hadn’t seen Mr Rutherford’s workshop, because that was anything but tidy, but I saw what he meant about it being the only one of its kind. After dinner I went to my room and began doing a few sums, a bit like the ones our teachers were always setting us. If a man sold two bikes a week for fifty years, and charged ten pounds for each bike, and if he mended four punctures a day and charged two shillings and sixpence for each puncture, how much money would he have altogether?

I put my pencil down. It would be nearly all profit. Mr Rutherford didn’t have a wife or children or a house or car or even a bike of his own - all he had to pay for was his hotel room. So that meant that Mr Rutherford was worth at least… twenty thousand pounds!

'Hello Mr Rutherford.'

'Oh hello there Stephen, what can we do for you today? Those brakes of your playing up again?'

'No, it’s good thanks. I was just wondering if you had…any jobs that needed doing?'

'Jobs? What kind of jobs?'

'Oh any jobs.'

'Got a bit time on your hands eh?'

'Yes, there isn’t much to do.'

'Well, I'll tell you what. Got your bike with you?'

'Yes.'

'Okay. How would you like to go down to the station and collect a parcel for me? Some spare parts have arrived on this morning’s train and I need them. Could you do that? Tell Frank Thompson at the station that I sent you.'

'Okay Mr Rutherford.'

And I had those parts in his workshop in less than ten minutes.

From then on, twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays, I was Mr Rutherford’s right-hand boy. I collected his parcels and burnt his rubbish. I dusted his bikes and washed his windows. He even let me tidy up one end of his workshop, and I half expected to come across his fortune, buried among the old tyres and inner tubes. But I didn't. I didn’t accept any payment from him, either, my mother said I mustn't. And anyway, that would come later.

But Mr Rutherford serviced my bike for nothing, and gave me extras for it: a pair of mud-flaps, a set of gears, a shiny new dynamo. And as we worked he talked, in his deep, slow voice, about his boyhood, and the hardships he had when he was growing up, and the first car that came to Kaimara; about South Africa and the Boers, and how he'd seen a Zulu kill a lion with a knife. Sometimes I enjoyed listening to his stories so much I almost forgot about the money, and his will, and how I'd inherit his fortune and become world famous. And I noticed something else about him, too. Even though he was so big and strong his breathing was very slow and deliberate and so loud that his nostrils made whistling noises as he worked. Sometimes too, when he was tightening a wheel, he'd stop for a while and stare into space until his chest stopped heaving. Then he would go back to the job and seem as good as ever.

It was a Friday night about six months after I first started working for him that it happened. I'd gone straight to his shop from school, and left my bike outside as usual, and I heard the coughing even as I walked through the showroom. At the door of the workshop I stopped, and stared.

In the middle of the room, on his knees, was Mr Rutherford, coughing and gasping, the top half of his body leaning forward and heaving with every cough. He turned and looked up at me, and his face had gone all grey and his eyes were a funny dull colour, and suddenly I was very frightened because I could see that he had hardly any time between coughs to get any air. He pointed to the cracked hand-basin at the end of the workshop. I ran over and got him some water. He took little sips from the cup as I held it, and gradually the gasps between the coughs got longer, but his breath was still making a horrible rasping noise in his throat and frothy dribble was coming from one corner of his mouth, and he still couldn’t speak. And when the cup was empty I ran back through the shop and over the street to the hotel and told Mrs Harrop and as I gasped the story out the pounding in my own chest was so strong I thought I would have a heart attack too and all I could think of was please God don’t let Mr Rutherford die because I want him to go on being my friend…

They took him to the hospital but he died in the ambulance on the way. After my mother told me and said, 'try not to be upset dear, you did the right thing,' I went away to my bedroom and buried my face in my pillow and cried and tried to shut out the picture of him kneeling there like a stricken animal, coughing his life away. Mr Rutherford, who had been a Mounted Rifleman and fought the Boers and seen a Zulu kill a lion with a knife.

The RSA gave him a funeral, and they cleared out his shop and closed it, and it became just another of Kaimara’s empty buildings. Mr Watson, who had a sports goods shop in a modern block at the other end of the town, took over the bicycle trade. But I hardly ever went there, I did my own repairs now. As for his money, well I never knew for certain what happened to it, though someone said he left what he had to a widowed sister in Australia. But anyway the funny thing was that I didn’t care any more about the money. Because I knew that what Mr Rutherford had left me was worth much more than that.

© Graeme Lay

Read our interview with Graeme Lay.

The Legacy was originally published in The School Journal and in Graeme Lay’s first collection of short stories Dear Mr Cairney.

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