‘What do you think about as you dig the garden?’ I asked the stooping fork-in-hand figure of my then husband, a few years ago.
I thought ‘Boats, fast cars, women’ would be his reply.
Instead he straightened up, looked at me as though I was stupid and, after a pointed pause said ‘digging the garden of course’.
My question was not as silly as some might think for whenever I dug the garden, whenever the spade bit sharply into the soil, and I levered it back, lifting the clean sod up and over, the last thing on my mind was the process of what I was doing.
Instead I was a hundred miles away, diving into clear waters off some Caribbean beach, riding a horse bareback across the Mongolian plains, even figuring out how I could leave my husband (preferably without him noticing it).
Men can’t multi-task I read somewhere. For most, it’s a woman’s thing.
This morning I put my porridge on to cook whilst tackling a front wheel puncture the old fashioned basin of water way.
Initial all went well.
I filled the basin, removed the tyre partially, pulled out the tube and plunged it bit by bit into the water.
It didn’t take me long to find the hole.
I marked it with the tiny yellow crayon. Rubbed it with the sandpaper. Applied the glue. Waited the few minutes for the glue to nearly dry. Applied the patch and blew up the tyre.
I looked at the yellow bicycles innards snaking across the floor like a human bowel and then watched the tube shrivel before my eyes, accompanied by a faint hissing sound.
When I plunged the mended tube back into the water, a series of bubbles shot to the surface. I would have enjoyed their prettiness except that they came from the edge of my newly applied patch.
That’s when I smelt the burning porridge.
That’s also when I realised though a woman, I am not a multitasking one.
And I’ve also known for a while that there are also other behavioural differences separating me from my ‘sisters’.
The women in my family were brought up to be fiercely independent.
I use the word ‘fiercely’ because that’s how we react when offered help by the male of the species
It is a well known joke by any man who knows us.
‘Offer a Peppard women help? you must be kidding’!
‘Peppard women are fierce’!
‘Peppard women would eat you without salt if you even suggested that they couldn’t do it themselves’.
Recently while cycling across France, my partner flew over to join me for a weekend.
We rented a bicycle for him and headed together off down the canal.
The sun through the leaves of the plane tree’s dappled the tow path, the soft stone bridges reflected in the still water.
The bottle of wine,some goats cheese and baguette jostling in my basket. He carried the glasses wrapped carefully in a rug and tied with a bungee to his back carrier.
The stage was set for romance and a promise of love floated in the air.
Funny how I always get punctures in the presence of men and never when I am alone.
My partner offered to help but, with a flip of my wrist I had already turned my bicycle upside down, nearly knocking him into the canal in the process.
I frantically emptied out my repair kit into an untidy mess.
He opened his mouth to speak.
‘Its OK’ I snapped ‘I can do it myself’.
‘Its not that’ he replied leaping forward ‘Its just….oh too late’,
We both watched as my good spanner slid down the bank and sank into the canal.
A man and his wife both in Lycra and colour coordinated racing bicycles stopped .
‘Puis je vous aidez’? (can I help you) The man asked
My partner looked up from where he was lying flat on his stomach, right arm thrust deep in the brown water, ‘I think she is able to do it herself… but thank you’ He replied cheerfully, lifting his arm out dripping with weed and waving the spanner triumphantly.
The couple smiled and wished us ‘bon courage’ and remounting their bicycles cycled away, two brightly plumaged beings reflected in the still canal water.
Meanwhile I was busy stuffing the repaired tube back into the tyre and manhandling the lot on the wheel.
I flipped the yellow bicycle upright again and we cycled on in search of a suitable picnic place
I took his silence for admiration of my female capabilities and independence, thinking how he must be falling even more deeply in love with me .
‘But men LIKE to help women’ a female friend reprimanded me later ‘It makes them feel manly! In one fell swoop you took his manliness away AND in front of a chauvinistic French man too! A double blow to his ego’
She shook her head sadly.
‘You have to start letting him help you or he’ll be gone’ .
But I couldn’t. I was desperate to prove that I was an independent and practical person.
For practical women are also much favoured in our Family.
Growing up we spent all of our summers camping in the west of Ireland.
Beside the mackerel laden ocean. On shores of salmon swarming river banks. By lakes where the pink fleshed brown trout rose to the fly on the dot of four pm.
Any where there were fish to be caught our eccentric father brought us.
For weeks on end.
If it was a nightmare for my mother, she never complained, baking brown soda bread in her tiny oven as my father refused to eat shop bread.
‘It tastes like sawdust’ he said the first time he had to eat some (my mother once forgot to add flour to our camping supplies and we were miles away from a shop)
I remember the sight of his disgusted face, a face not unlike the one he made the first time he was forced to use a tea bag as opposed to his leaf tea.
‘And a pound of rahajabarri tea’ my mother would request in her gentle voice on the phone, ordering her weekly basics from the grocer’s
It sounded so exotic and, well…. loose leaved!
‘Tea bags’ My father would preach scornfully ‘are made from the sweepings of the left over tea from the warehouse floor’.
On these camping trips we, the children, each had a chore
Just one! and once it was completed we were as free as birds.
Our readiness to be as free as birds of course depended on the nature of the chore and the nature of the chore depended on the nature of the child (as judged in the eye’s of my parents)
And once labelled, this chore remained unchanged year in year out.
My eldest sisters job was finding a water supply.
Filling the two plastic buckets and hauling them back to the camp seemed an easy job to me,
In those days few houses in the west had running water and there was always a roadside pump or a frequented well nearby so, other than the heavy weight of the buckets, it was a simple affair.
But she was always gone a long time and I suspected she filled the two buckets quickly and then spent the rest of the time lying in the summer grasses looking dreamily at the sky.
My second eldest sister had to help set up camp , another task I envied and being a practical sort she completed it with ease and was free.
The third eldest (me) was given the chore of ‘minding the little ones and Oh how I hated it!
‘Stephanie? she’s so good with children’ I would hear my mother telling everyone.
How did she get it so wrong.
Not only did I hate minding children but it was a never ending job with no sign of imminent freedom and I watched my two older sisters skipping off happily down to the shore with envy.
Then one day I sat on the beach with my brood playing around me.I made some half hearted sandcastles with them and then pulled out my book.
unnoticed by me, my unattended little brother followed a crowd of teenagers who were jumping off a rock into deep water.
He was about five and undeterred by the fact he couldn’t swim he proceeded to impressed the group with his perfect dive.
He rose to the surface to applause but only when he began to sink for the third time did one of the teenagers have the gumption to realise he was drowning and haul him to safety.
I received a ‘clip in the ear’ and was sent to the tent for the afternoon where I happily finished my book
It seemed that being the near cause of your brothers drowning was not the worst thing you could do.
My eldest sister it seems had been cheating us of fresh well water for quite some time, filling the buckets from the nearby lake, instead of the far off well.
I returned to my unwilling post the next morning whilst She was suspended from water collecting duties for a week and not given any alternate chore to do instead, which to my mind seemed unjust but in those day’s to argue with one’s parents was an act of supreme bravery.
Fortunately none of us suffered tummy-wise from her laziness, though ironically getting sick was something we strived for as it was a way of getting a bit of motherly attention.
A luxury when you are one of eight children.
We were a healthy bunch.
But I have drifted far from my shrivelled tube and leaking puncture which lay looking sadly up at me from the floor.
There is nothing for it but to bite the bullet and remove the wheel.
And, though in the above story I have made my self appear very practical and independent sounding, I have a major issue with wheel removal.
Removing a wheel is definitely a man’s thing.
(no problem for a man, but to me removing the back wheel of a bicycle is what nightmares are made of)
For a start it is usually a man who has assembled the bike in the first place, a man with a lot of strength.
Secondly men seem to know automatically which direction the nut should turn to loosen it.
Do you see where I am going?
When the nut doesn’t give you any hint as to whether you are loosening it or tightening it and is on so tight that you have no idea are you worsening or bettering the situation, it becomes a dilemma.
Luckily I guessed correctly and persevering, was rewarded with the sudden ease of the spanner’s motion(the one my beloved retrieved that day from the canal).
Of course when I went around to loosen the nut on the opposite side I couldn’t remember which way to turn it but eventually the wheel is fully off and I take the purple bicycle and the old tube(they ask such silly questions in the bike shop about size and width when all I know is that its black and its made of rubber so I have learned to take the old tube with me) and we head to the village bike shop.
Funnily there is no one in the shop when I arrive.
I hear a rustling down behind the counter and look over.
The two brothers who own the shop are squatting down out of sight.
The younger one stands up nervously when he see’s me peering.
‘Where’s that yellow bicycle’, he asks wiping the sweat from his brow and looking around.
I now see the second brother looking anxiously out the door and watch while his shoulders visibly relax as he spots the purple bicycle outside.
‘Its all right’ I sigh ‘I just want to buy a new tube’
There is a mad scramble to get me what I need and I’m ushered back out the door to sigh’s of relief from the pair.
They even give me a second tube for free.
How kind, though maybe Its because I give them so much custom getting the yellow bicycle with its rusty nut’s and bolt’s fixed there often.
Back home I reassemble the yellow bicycle like a pro.
Then I throw the porridge saucepan in the bin and open the windows to let out the smell of burning.
( I have just removed the front wheel and am in desperate need of a large drink to settle my nerves)