My bike, blue and tall, with high handle bars, was made out of the remaindered bits of other bikes. My father bought it for twelve shillings at the Kuranui College gala day early in 1963, when I had just turned eleven, and it was the best gift I ever got. Even though it was an anthology of a bike, it was put together well and you could, for instance, ride no hands down any sealed road and it would stay true. The high handle bars meant you had to sit up straight but you could also turn them down and lean forward over the forks like a racer; I tried that a few times but in the end decided I preferred them the other way. That year this bike helped me to get my first job, as a paper boy, delivering the Wairarapa Times-Age.
I put my name down at the local news agency, just opposite the Town Hall in Main Street and not long after, as fate ordained, I was offered a paper run. The boy whose run I inherited, John Cole, had been caught selling papers and fired. John was a handsome dark-haired fellow a year younger than me, the son of the local taxi driver who, with his wife, ran a fleet of two pink Mark II Ford Zephyrs. He had an older brother, Kevin Cole, called Baldie, who had been knocked off his bike by a car outside the Scout Hall one night and lost all his hair as a result. It sounds improbable, but Kevin Cole had another bike accident in the same place about a year later and after that his hair began to grow back again—but only in strange tufts erupting here and there on the otherwise shiny dome of his skull.
They were an afflicted family. Mrs Cole was said on occasion to entertain male passengers in the back seat of her pink Zephyr and this, in turn, was alleged to have been a contributory factor to her husband’s hanging himself in the garage where the Mark IIs were kept; but that could be hearsay. John Cole’s selling of papers made no sense. We were strictly monitored as to how many papers we took—the precise number we were to deliver—so if you sold to a third party that meant you had to steal papers from the news agency itself or else from someone who already paid on account and would not therefore receive a delivery that afternoon. Either way you’d get caught; and the amounts of money involved were negligible. John Cole did not take kindly to losing his job and, although he taught me the run gracefully enough, there was a period afterwards when he’d follow me around town on his bike, threatening violence; but nothing ever happened.
I delivered eighty-four papers each afternoon, six days a week, and received fifteen shillings for it; that is, two and sixpence, or half a crown, for each run. On the other hand, in my first week, I earned more than my bike, the sine qua non, was worth. My run was on the western side of town: up Kuratawhiti Street, past the Soldiers Memorial Park, right into Udy Street and all the way to the end, back to Kuratawhiti Street and all the way to the end, back down to Mole Street and along that to the corner of Wood Street, east down Wood Street as far as Kempton Street, where Boss Hemi lived, half way along there then back to Wood Street where, when Wood Street joined West Street, it ended. After that I would ride free and easy, with my paper bag empty, up West Street, skid into the back of the alley beside the Chemist shop, go through the wooden gate into the yard and stow my bike in the garage.
It took me about an hour and a half and I had to do it in the rain, hail, sleet or snow. Even after football on Saturdays, when my body was bruised and sore; even when a westerly gale blew a freezing horizontal rain off the Tararuas and I could barely make my way into the icy headwind up Kuratawhiti Street. On the other hand Wood Street, where I had the wind at my back, was so easy I didn’t even have to pedal. Some of the run was on tar seal but most of it wasn’t, so I always had to take care that, on the unsealed roads, my loaded bike didn’t skid in the banked gravel at the side or in the middle and I’d come a cropper. There was nothing worse than spilling your bag, especially on a wet day.
The papers, having been carefully counted in the back room of the news agency, were split into two portions, folded en masse and stowed with their folds backward in the two halves of the canvas paper bag that was then slung over the bar of the bike; in the early part of the run I had to pedal with my legs splayed out either side of the bulging bags. As you came up to a house, you took a paper from the middle of the fold between thumb and forefinger, folded it again, and delivered it, one-handed, without getting off your bike. On fine days you were allowed to throw the paper and some of the boys were expert at that, skidding them along the grass like skipping stones across water; but I rarely did that because they sometimes got caught in the gravel or the concrete of a driveway and tore. On wet days each paper had to be placed carefully into its appropriate letter box.
Many of the people on my run were old women who lived alone and, because the arrival of the paper was a big event in their day, these tended to wait, sometimes in their front rooms looking out the window, sometimes beside the letter box itself, for me to sally up the street on my blue bike. Some of these women would have gifts for me—bits of cake or chocolates or lollies—and one old lady, who lived up the end of Udy Street, left something for me in her letter box every single day. At Christmas time, when it was traditional to tip the paper boy (it was called a Christmas box) she gave me a five pound note, the first one I’d ever had. I couldn’t believe how big it was. If I was late, as sometimes happened on a Saturday when we had an away game, one or other of these old biddies might ring home to inquire as to where I was? They were an obligation in themselves.
One of the things I liked about the job was that I could go down to the news agency early, straight after school, and join the other boys standing between the racks reading the brand new comics displayed there. This was tolerated by the fellow who ran the business, and a boon to me because, since they were considered common, if not actually disreputable, I wasn’t allowed comics at home. I could read Batman or Superman, Archie or Donald Duck, Hot Stuff or Spooky—anything I liked—until the truck with the papers arrived from Masterton about four o’clock. Sometimes I read War Comics, little A5 booklets of cheap newsprint with shiny coloured covers, detailing the adventures of intrepid Tommies fighting the Krauts in World War Two, and full of strange German imprecations which I loved to repeat to myself: Schnell, schnell! for instance. Or Donner und Blitzen! Or Die, Englander, die! although in fact it usually wasn’t the Englanders who died.
Another thing that I liked was that my run took me past an apple orchard and a berry farm, and in season I could stop, for instance on the corner of Mole and Wood Streets, lean my bike against the fence and climb over to pick a Cox’s Orange or five from one of the trees then ride on my way crunching a fresh apple with the others hidden in my paper bag. The strawberry farm further down Wood Street was a bit trickier to steal from, because the fruit grew in open fields, with an alarm, a kind of horn, in the middle that sounded periodically to scare the birds away. The first time I sneaked in there the horn went off and gave me the fright of my life. I knew about it, of course, but didn’t realise how loud it would sound when I was crouching right next to it. There was also a fine plum tree at the Smallwood’s place that I patronised on occasion: a little bit of fruit filching seemed to be tolerated but it was better not to be caught doing it.
A third pleasure was that, near the beginning of my run, on Kuratawhiti near the corner of West, lived Susan Moynihan. She was a girl in my class at school, with curly auburn hair, pale blue eyes, freckles and a pleasant friendly manner. The Moynihans were Catholic and didn’t get a paper but Susan would often be out the front of her place on her own bike when I came by and we would linger, side by side, chatting for a while. Apart from the fact that I liked her and she liked me, this gave me the opportunity to reconnoitre the way ahead to see if the vicious fox terrier that lived a few doors up was about. If so it would race out and try to bite my ankle as I rode past; while I would wobble on my bike, lashing out with my left leg, aiming for a direct hit to muzzle or throat or abdomen. After a chat with Susan I always felt readier for these confrontations, some of which resulted in wounds that caused actual blood to flow, though on other occasions I did land a good satisfying kick to the belly of the cur, lifting it in the air, so that when it hit terra firma again it ran yammering away.