'Wicken' -- a beer brewed in The Fens
Visitors to the village were surprised that it could sustain a specialist cycle shop, but being in the middle of the Fens, a notable flat landscape, everyone owned and rode some form of self-propelled machine. There were bicycles, tandems and one or two ’trikes’, of all types and makes. As there was no school in the village, a cycle was essential for every child of school age. The nearby town had a cycling club with a considerable membership and organised races and time trials. Many of the local people were not that well paid, that they could afford to discard bikes when they began to show signs of their age. There was therefore plenty of business for Ralph. He was always busy, and his workshop often full of machines, either awaiting repair, or collection.
Some small traders had machines which pulled carts, which carried their essential tools and the materials used in their trades. Eric James was one such worker. His trade was the sharpening of knives, scissors, shears and blades for lawn mowers. He could also re-tip drills and bits. Ralph had modified a cycle, and fashioned a wheeled bench containing the grinding discs which were required by Eric.
Eric was therefore, one of Ralph’s regular customers as well as being a friend. He called into the shop most days and also joined Ralph on one or two evenings each week in the Hockwold Arms for a glass of beer and occasionally, supper. They each lived on their own. Eric was alone because his wife had left him. Their children had grown up and moved away, and she desired further excitement in her life. Eric enjoyed a simple lifestyle, pedaling around the fens, earning a few pounds here and there, and spending most evenings in his cottage with a book. His idea of a night out was a game of darts and a pint at the local pub.
Ralph never explained why he was on his own. He was often teased and whoever did the teasing received the same reply. ‘I have a lady friend. Her name’s Louise. She will be coming to join me one of these fine days.’
‘What’s she like?’ Eric would often ask, but always got the same answer.
‘You will be the first to meet her when she comes, my friend. You’ll just have to be patient like me. But she’ll come, don’t you worry.’ Ralph pushed his spectacles up to the bridge of his nose and nodded, so that was an end to the matter.
The villagers would often discuss Ralph and his Louise. No-one had ever seen any woman visit Ralph, other than his female customers, and he rarely left the village. The postman didn’t live locally, so no-one had the nerve to ask him if Ralph ever received any love letters. There were all sorts of suppositions and rumours, but as time went by, people who knew Ralph came to the conclusion that Louise was a figment of his imagination, and he would forever be alone. It was even suggested that Ralph might be GAY, and he used Louise as a way of diverting attention from that possibility. Eventually, the villagers gave up expecting anyone to come, and Louise tended to be forgotten. But, given the opportunity Ralph would remind them that, ‘One of these days Louise will join me.’
Eric went into the cycle shop one afternoon and at first, couldn’t see Ralph. He found his friend on the floor behind the workbench. He had collapsed; a heart attack, Eric assumed. An ambulance was summoned and Ralph was rushed to the hospital in Cambridge. Sadly, he died during the following day.
As Ralph apparently had no relatives, Eric and the vicar arranged his funeral. It was held in the village church and as Ralph had never let it be known if he believed in cremation, they decided to bury him in the churchyard. The villagers were happy to contribute towards the cost of an appropriate stone, although it was likely that Ralph‘s estate would have sufficient funds to cover the costs involved.
On the afternoon of the funeral the shops in the village closed and all the residents attended. George, the landlord, closed the pub for an hour, so that his wife and he could be there. Cyclists came from all over the county and the CTC was officially represented. As the vicar got to the part, by the graveside, when he said ‘…ashes to ashes, dust to dust… Eric’s attention was attracted by a movement. He looked towards the lychgate and saw a young woman standing there.
He made his way over to speak to her. ‘Good afternoon,’ he said. ‘My name’s Eric James. I was a good friend of Ralph’s. If you’re a relative, I can tell you that he didn’t suffer. He never regained consciousness after he collapsed in the shop. We’ve given him a good send off. One I think he would have liked. All his friends are here. He was greatly respected and admired, and he will be much missed by us all.’
She was younger than Eric first thought. ‘No, I’m not a relative,’ she said. ‘In fact I never met him. I’ve come to represent my mother. She wanted to come herself but she is nursing my father. He is terminally ill. In fact he’s not expected to live much longer, so I shall soon be attending another funeral.’
‘What’s your mother’s name?’
‘Mary, Mary Louise Cochrane,’ she said.